Author: George Fotopoulos
An ownership change in the NFL is usually followed by a press conference where the new owner promises a team that will be competing for Super Bowls. Perhaps realizing the emptiness of that promise -as long as a team is taking part in the championship, it competing for the Super Bowl– some new owners go even further and speak of Super Bowl wins. “We will bring a Super Bowl to the great fans of << insert city here >>” is a popular phrase to get the fans excited.. In fact, those very words should get the fans worried.
The teams that usually end up being sold tend to have a long track record of losing. Cases like the Panthers this year are very uncommon. So usually a new owner is walking into a culture of losing. And sometimes a culture of resignation, where key staffmembers are so used to losing that they’ve shifted their focus to making themselves look as good as possible for their next job. For a new owner walking into such a situation the priority should be organizational transformation, not Super Bowl dreams.
Yet owners feel they need to make a splashy move, so they appoint some kind of football czar (the actual title varies between GM, VP of Football Operations, Team President and others) who revamps the entire staff, including the players. Players of the previous regimes are treated like sunk costs and are offloaded with little or no regard to value. And since the draft is not enough to turn a team around quickly, the new czar usually spends liberally in free agency, resulting in team commitments that for perennially rebuilding teams like the Jets, Browns and Bills usually extend into the tenure of the next football czar and thus the vicious cycle continues. Numerous examples show that such an approach simply does not work, so perhaps it’s time to rethink it.
First of all, expectations should be clearly defined, and probably toned down. No grandiose Super Bowl proclamations. For a team like the Browns, contending for a playoff spot regularly would be massive progress compared to where they usually find themselves at each season’s end. But to define achievable and actionable goals, a team needs to have a target identity. And once a franchise has identified what identity it wants to have and the milestone goals to get there, it should pursue them without wavering. Case in point, the Jacksonville Jaguars. After years of losing they hired Tom Coughlin as a football czar and Doug Marrone as their head coach and focused on the running game and defense. In the preseason, when asked about the ideal number of passes in a game for the 2017 Jags, Marrone replied “zero”, and everyone laughed. Fast forward 16 weeks, his team just clinched a playoff spot playing the style of football Coughlin and Marrone envisioned, and they are the ones laughing now.
Furthermore, a team aiming for long term success should stick to its identity even through the personnel changes that are bound to happen in the NFL. A great example are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Throughout the long tenure of Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, the Steelers played an aggressive 3-4 zone scheme, with a lot of blitzing (especially by SS Troy Polamalu). When they decided to hire Mike Tomlin as their head coach, they did not change their style on defense, despite the fact that Tomlin is a defensive coach from the Monte Kiffin/Tony Dungy Tampa 2 coaching tree. Contrast that to the Bills. Right after their defense had one of its best years in team history playing a Wide 9 4-3 defense, under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, they hired Rex Ryan, who fired Schwartz and changed the defense to his beloved 3-4, with disastrous results. And that despite the fact that Rex’s 3-4 is much closer conceptually to the Wide 9 4-3 than a Tampa 2 defense is to a 3-4 Zone Blitz. Successful organizations recognize that having an identity brings continuity and allows investment in players to pay off, yet some teams seem completely unable to grasp that seemingly obvious fact.
For example, soon after GM Doug Whaley was fired, the Bills traded away DL Marcel Dareus, a former No.3 overall pick they had signed to a massive contract extension, and WR Sammy Watkins, who was acquired for two very high 1st round picks. While a case can be made for the Dareus trade due to off the field issues between him and the team, Watkins, though definitely not worth the price he came at, is a serviceable No.1 receiver and certainly much better than any player at his position currently on the Bills roster. Yet he was discarded because he was a “Whaley pick” which according to commonly accepted management principles makes no sense whatsoever. The criterion for retaining or terminating an employee in any business is performance, not who hired the employee, except in a few high level roles where CEOs are allowed to bring in their own team. And that because a good relationship with the CEO is considered a key requirement for those roles. A CEO firing people hired by the previous regime en masse would be considered insecure and unprofessional, and would create doubts about his own competence, yet NFL GMs and coaches do just that all the time and no one bats an eye.
It is interesting that in the one case where a team was run in an analytical, less “football culture” way, the Cleveland Browns, the owner lost patience after two years, despite the fact that the plan was achieving its stated objectives. Sashi Brown was fired because the team wasn’t winning, despite the fact that winning was not part of the plan, accumulating draft capital was. The Browns were targeting the 2018 draft from the beginning, due to the fact it was expected to be a marquee class. Nevertheless, they’ve managed to make 24 selections in the previous two years (that’s 10 over their allotment of 14 picks), including last year’s No.1, Myles Garrett -who so far looks like a future star- and have positioned themselves to control this year’s draft, having the No.1 overall pick, and a total of 5 picks in the first two rounds. One can disagree with the plan, and personally I felt they should have gone after Deshaun Watson in last years draft.. But since the owner signed off on it, the Browns’ front office perrmance should be judged based on how well they executed that plan. And within that framework Sashi Brown did a great job. His reward was to lose his job.
And that illustrates the real problem with franchises that struggle: the owner. An NFL owner is the final decision maker and therefore needs to operate professionally. Yet we often see owners acting like fans, making impulsive decisions, ignoring sound information gathered with great effort by professionals, losing patience, and generally being a source of chaos rather than a steadying presence for the whole organization. That, more than anything is what tends to derail rebuilding efforts. And I think it’s very interesting that one of the most capricious owners, Jed York of the 49ers, agreed to give his new GM and head coach 6 year contracts, effectively making the cost of firing them earlier than halfway into their tenure prohibitive. Perhaps that was a way to protect himself from himself.
Perhaps more owners should take heed of that. Even if they’re not ready or willing to create an organizational identity themselves, maybe they should at least make sure the people they hire to do that for them have enough job security and time to accomplish the task.
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