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GMs are the NFL's real power brokers
GMs are the NFL's real power brokers
Updated: August 28, 2008, 6:39 PM EST 2 comments
Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown remembers when NFL general managers weren't wielding so much power.
His earliest recollection of someone being hired for the position dates to 1953. Brown said NFL owners at the time didn't see the wisdom of the Baltimore Colts adding Don "Red" Kellett to their front office.
"Everyone laughed," said the 71-year-old Brown, then a teenager learning the NFL ropes under his legendary father Paul in Cleveland. "Prior to that, the owners ran the business and the coaches did the player negotiations."
In today's NFL, the biggest personnel decisions usually aren't made by the head coach or orchestrated by hands-on team owners. Those responsibilities fall to the general manager, a position that has come a long way since first being introduced to professional football in the 1930s.
Entering the 2008 season, 18 of the NFL's 32 teams have given clear-cut authority over roster moves to their GM or an executive with a corporate title who performs the same functions.
In comparison, just six franchises -- New England (Bill Belichick), Philadelphia (Andy Reid), Carolina (John Fox), Jacksonville (Jack Del Rio), Tennessee (Jeff Fisher) and Denver (Mike Shanahan) -- have definitively given their head coaches final say on personnel decisions. Cincinnati, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Dallas are the only remaining clubs where owners or immediate family members play a large role in daily football operations. There also are teams like Minnesota, Buffalo and the New York Giants where decisions are made collectively with input from the owner, head coach and front-office executives.
"There are no two situations where the ground is the same," Brown said. "Every team seems to do it a little differently."
The NFL had trended toward the omnipotent Shula-esque coach in the late 1990s after Shanahan's Broncos won two consecutive Super Bowl titles. Besides the increased pay that comes with holding two positions, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith points out that those head coaches "no longer have to worry about the other end of the hall. They've got it all."
But the pendulum has swung back after the failings of those given such juice. Seattle's Mike Holmgren and San Francisco's Mike Nolan are examples of head coaches stripped of GM power earlier this decade. Each of the four new head coaches hired this off-season defers to a GM or team executive.
Some head coaches in the dual role have struggled with non-personnel issues or delegating authority to their support staff. There also is a tendency for coaches on the hot seat to make short-sighted decisions rather than those in the best interest of the team's long-term future.
"In the coaching profession, you have to have a short-term thought process because of the volatility of the job," Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "From my standpoint, I've always got to be looking downstream. You've got to be able to mix the two when you have both titles."
Although never officially listed as GM, former Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson essentially meshed the two roles when building the Cowboys into a three-time Super Bowl winner during the 1990s. Johnson, though, didn't experience the same success during his four years (1996 to 1999) with Miami. He described the experience as being a "more difficult task" in an era of salary caps and unrestricted free agency.
"With the movement of players and the injury situation, you're really turning over your roster not only yearly but almost weekly," said Johnson, now a FOX Sports NFL television analyst. "It's a full-time job not only for one person but a team of people."
Johnson said whoever handles a team's personnel decisions "is the most important person in the organization. Obviously, you've got to have a good coach. But the very good teams have very good talent evaluators."
They also might not have someone with the general manager title per se.
Even the exact definition of a GM is nebulous. The NFL categorizes the position as having "authority over all personnel decisions related to the signing of free agents, the selection of players in the college draft, trades, terminations, and related decisions." Yet former general managers like Denver's Ted Sundquist and Miami's Randy Mueller didn't have such influence when working under Shanahan and Nick Saban respectively in recent seasons.
"There are subgroups of general managers," Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage said. "You've got the ones that really manage everything. There are others that still do some scouting. And there are others that are more on the business side. It depends on the organization."
GMs generally oversee pro and college scouting departments while working hand-in-hand with a "cap-ologist" who crunches numbers on player salaries. Daily interaction with the head coach and usually the team owner is a must, not to mention a slew of other tasks ranging from media interaction to business-side responsibilities.
Savage said his first year with the Browns in 2005 was like trying to fill a "52-inch sports coat."
"You're dealing with things you know about but really don't," said Savage, whose background was in college scouting before coming to Cleveland. "The medical staff, the trainer, dealing with personnel issues off the field, coaching and scouting contracts, policies ... It takes some time to get used to that."
As this decade of Super Bowl champions has proven, there isn't a front-office structure that guarantees victory. The past two winners (the New York Giants and Indianapolis) have a well-defined split between general manager and head coach. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher had significant personnel pull during the team's 2005 title run but there was still a line keeping his front-office power in check.
Belichick and Pioli masterminded New England's three Super Bowl crowns. They also are the NFL's longest-running head coach/personnel director pairing at eight seasons.
Belichick signs off on personnel moves but relies heavily on Pioli for advice. The two keep a very tight inner circle when making talent evaluations. This has kept curious rivals and the media guessing about New England's plans in free agency and the draft.
"The communication is so good and nothing falls through the cracks," Johnson said.
Conversely, Buffalo expanded its front-office nucleus following general manager Marv Levy's off-season retirement. Levy's position was never filled, so John Guy (pro) and Tom Modrak (college) now run the personnel departments. They both report to Russ Brandon, who oversees the team's football and business operations.
Other members of what Brandon describes as the Bills' "full cabinet" include team owner Ralph Wilson, head coach Dick Jauron and salary-cap chief Jim Overdorf. Brandon, a former Florida Marlins marketing executive, will make the final call if a consensus among the football executives can't be reached. Brandon claims he hasn't needed to exercise that option so far.
"We have a lot of debate but we walk out unified on the decision we make as a group," Brandon said. "The way we looked at it was everything we do was in the team concept ... That's how we've distributed the responsibilities."
The bigger the player acquisition, the more people the general manager needs to involve. Washington Redskins executive Vinny Cerrato provided an example involving last month's trade with Miami for defensive end Jason Taylor.
Cerrato and Snyder were at a training camp practice when end Phillip Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury. Because he had interest in Taylor during the offseason, Cerrato already was familiar with the scouting reports written by his personnel department.
Shortly after Phillips was hurt, Cerrato and Snyder ate lunch with head coach Jim Zorn and defensive coordinator Greg Blache for feedback on a potential trade. Cerrato consulted with fellow executive Eric Schaffer about the impact Taylor's contract would make on the salary cap. Cerrato met with veteran players like Chris Samuels and London Fletcher to see how they think Taylor would fit in the locker room. Cerrato then pulled the trigger on the deal by day's end.
"We want to hear a lot of opinions and make everybody feel part of the say-so," Cerrato said.
Still, someone has to ultimately make the final call -- and that can lead to major friction.
Smith learned that first-hand when he bumped heads repeatedly with then-Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. Smith ultimately prevailed when Chargers president Dean Spanos, whose family owns the team, fired Schottenheimer after the 2007 season.
"It's imperative your GM and coach get on the same page, have the same philosophies and believe in each other," Smith said. "You have to find that or it's going to be an obstacle not to short-term success but long-term ... You have to run things by each other."
Smith now does that frequently with both Spanos and Norv Turner, who was hired as Schottenheimer's replacement. Smith said there are clear lines of delineation. Smith makes the personnel decisions (with Spanos' approval) and Turner decides which players stick on the 53-man roster.
"It's, 'Here are everyone's responsibilities and how we're going to operate. Let's understand that, work together and do the best we can,'" Turner said. "It's pretty easy when it's that well-defined."
And when it isn't?
"You end up being a hit-or-miss group," said Turner, who worked in that type of environment during previous head-coaching stints in Washington and Oakland.
"You don't have a real focus in terms of the direction you want to go. As you try and get better over an extended period of time, you struggle trying to figure out what you want to be."
Ironically, the teams where the ownership gets heavily involved in football decisions are among the league's most dysfunctional.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who has given himself the general manager's title, is on his fifth different head coach since 1997. That number could rise to six if Wade Phillips doesn't lead Dallas to Super Bowl XLIII.
Oakland coach Lane Kiffin recently expressed dissatisfaction with the inactivity of a Raiders front office led by owner Al Davis. And there was ugliness this week in Cincinnati when Bengals coach Marvin Lewis admitted he was forced by Brown to re-sign troubled wide receiver Chris Henry.
"Mike makes the decisions with my input all the time," Lewis said. "But every decision in this building is ultimately his decision."
Brown, though, views his role differently.
"Generally, I just act as a mediator and try to get everyone to a consensus and then we go forward," Brown said. "I rarely assert my authority in that area. I have on occasion, but I can name those occasions on one hand.
"We talk over this stuff with Marvin and almost always see eye to eye, but there have been a few occasions when we didn't."
The value of NFL franchises has risen so greatly that today's owners generally focus on the outside businesses that made them billionaires. Brown said the NFL would be much different if those owners were instead involved in their teams' day-to-day operations.
"They isolate themselves and stand free-and-clear," Brown said. "I personally preferred the days when every franchise was run by the guy with the final authority. It brought them into contact with the reality of the business that sometimes you don't see when you're standing to the side.
"When you're in that position, you're more (fiscally) responsible with your operations and less likely to do some kind of contract where everyone throws their hands up in the air because you understand enough to know that it isn't good not only for you but for the league. If you're at a distance, I'm not sure you would recognize that."
Brown, though, recognizes this: General managers are likely to remain entrenched as the NFL's powerbrokers.