Your team is finally coming together and is poised to make its first playoff run under your tenure as GM, but will your tight end derail it?
What is 2014’s Writer’s Project?
This year’s RSPWP is a different take on team building. I will have 15-20 written scenarios based on true NFL stories provided to me from current and former NFL employees (scouts, players, and consultants). In each scenario, the participating writer is the general manager of an NFL team has a decision to make. Each scenario will have at least two different writers. I will post the writers’ responses and the actual outcome of the case study (if applicable).
GM Scenario No.1: To Cut or Not to Cut? (If you’ve read this before, skip to “Arif Hasan’s Response”)
It’s Monday afternoon after Week 13 in the NFL. You’re a general manager of a team that is fresh off a victory where it rallied from 28 back to win by 7 and go 7-5 on the year. The squad has won four in a row and is now second in a division where the leader is two games ahead. However, your team is in a better position than it appears.
You play your 9-3 division-leading rival twice during the season’s final four weeks. If you sweep or split these games your team could win the division title. The overriding factor for your teaming having an advantage despite trailing the division leader is that your competition is in a vulnerable position:
- The rival team has played a softer schedule and faces two difficult teams in December.
- All three of its losses are division games and your team has a better division record.
- The rival team lost a starting wide receiver and safety—both Pro Bowl talents.
While these factors are favorable, it’s likely that you won’t make the playoffs if you don’t win the division because of the records of the rest of the teams in the conference.
Your team is playing well, but this morning you had yet another off-field issue with your starting tight end. This player is the second-leading receiver on the team and the offense’s leader converting targets on third down and the red zone.
Today he missed his second team meeting in six weeks and there have been multiple incidents involving a “civilian” at the team facility. It’s important to note that missing a team meeting is a huge deal for this squad and everyone knows that when it comes to this head coach a player better not miss more than one meeting during his career with the team if they want to live to tell the tale. No player has ever missed two meetings during this coach’s career and remained with the team.
One of the issues for this player is his ex-girlfriend—the mother of their three year-old daughter. The tight end has a new girlfriend who he also got pregnant—before he moved the ex-girlfriend out of his house. The ex-girlfriend has come to the facility four times this year—twice this month alone.
Three times the ex and then player have had heated arguments in the parking lot. One of those instances required security to separate the two after the ex took a swing at the player and the player grabbed the ex from behind and held her tight to protect himself while attempting to calm her.
Another time the ex tried to enter the facility and she was verbally abusive to a team employee when she didn’t get her way. Her behavior generated enough disruption that the organization could have gotten the police involved. However, the head of the facility’s security team was able to calm her (again) and talk her into leaving.
The player missed his second team meeting because when he woke this morning after an argument with his ex he found someone slashed his tires. The player believes the ex or a friend of the ex was responsible and it stemmed from last night’s argument about finances to assist with his child.
In addition to the domestic issues, the player has invested in a restaurant with a cousin and uncle that are running the operation. The start-up phase of the business has been an added distraction. These two issues are beginning to hurt the tight end’s performance.
The player has made mistakes in practice that he hasn’t made in the past. The tight end has played well overall in recent weeks, including a game-winning touchdown this weekend and a 100-yard effort two weeks ago. However, he also misdiagnosed an option route in the first quarter of last week’s contest that resulted in a pick-six and put the team in the hole early.
A more significant concern is the player’s performance with strength and conditioning maintenance. Trainers aren’t seeing him work at the same level of intensity in the weight room. Worse yet, he’s not addressing his recovery needs well after games. He’s skipping physical therapy sessions, not icing down sore spots, and not using the cold tub.
Even so, the pro scouts and coaches believe this player will be a huge factor in the match-ups with your division rival. The reason is a season-ending injury to the rival’s Pro Bowl safety. The replacement lacks coverage discipline and he misses tackles because is too apt to deliver hits without wrapping his opponents.
Although your tight end isn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber player and he’s weak as a run blocker, he and the quarterback have excellent rapport and his skills as a receiver and runner are a good match for the opposition. The problem is that the distractions have the staff split about his ability to avoid more mental mistakes and the domestic issues in particular are escalating to the point that the police could be involved next. This divided house among the coaches was before the tight end missed his second meeting.
The player has another year on his contract and his potential is maximized at this point. He’ll never be a star, but he’s a good fit for your passing offense.
The coaches aren’t completely sold that they can weather the loss if you cut him. The veteran backup at the position may not be as good of a receiver, but he’s a much better run blocker. They staff is also optimistic it can do more with its athletic young slot receiver who has been showing more in practice. However, the match-up between the slot receiver and reserve tight end against this rival’s defense isn’t nearly as juicy.
A third option is to acquire a free agent tight end—a former Pro Bowl player with excellent hands and questionable knees. The team recently worked out this veteran, but the coaches are skeptical that he has the stamina (he hasn’t been on a team in 14 months) or long-term health to hold up against your rival’s defense.
With the trade deadline over so you can’t deal this player in question, either.
If you cut your starting tight end the team may suffer on the field, but the issues with the ex-girlfriend will go away. However, there could be a media maelstrom about ditching a key part of the offense when he’s needed most.
If you keep him, you could win the division and make a run in the playoffs. However, he could wind up arrested if this behavior keeps up or his play continues to deteriorate and he hurts the team on the field and costs you the division title.
It’s your third year as GM and this team has gone 9-7 and 8-8 the past two seasons—missing the postseason twice. You have a good, but not great player with deteriorating focus and mounting off-field concerns. He has now missed two meetings and if you keep him, he’ll be setting a precedent with this coaching staff as the first player to remain with the team.
Do you cut him or keep him? Do you consult with anyone? What about this scenario influenced you most to make your decision—the performance, the mounting off-field issues, or both?
Arif Hasan’s Response
Never a simple task when dealing with a key player who suddenly finds himself in trouble, this issue is a relatively mild one as crises go. There are a couple of goals and incentives that work at cross-purposes here, as well as a few stakeholders.
- Like any team, ours has an incentive to win. In the short-term, it is likely that keeping the troubling tight end on the roster will produce more wins than cutting him.
- Our team doesn’t just have a short-term incentive to win, however; it has a long-term incentive to continue producing wins. There’s a risk that the locker-room effect of being “lax on rules” could give rise to accusations of favoritism and diminish authority, both of which have an effect on winning.
- I have an incentive to keep my job, perhaps above all else. Usually, that pairs well with “winning,” but in some cases, they can work at cross-purposes. Sacrificing short-term wins for long-term wins doesn’t always work out for the general manager.
- There’s an element of morality at play—is it moral to provide deferential treatment of players—a unique exception to an otherwise hard-line rule? Is it moral to cut a player for what is ultimately a reasonably stressful situation that is marginally his fault?
Addressing the third incentive before the others is easiest because it is the simplest. I doubt my job is in a lot of jeopardy and I will have at least one or two more seasons with what looks to be a promising team. Making the playoffs will help secure that bid and missing the playoffs will reduce my margin for error in the future, but not fatally.
If I’m very concerned about my job security and I choose to cut the troubled tight end, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to leak blame for a late-season collapse on cutting a player that I had to cut because he violated team rules (hopefully I would leak this through third-party sources). Lobbying in the media aside, the owner who writes my checks will more likely than not understand the short-term issues at stake.
I don’t think there’s a greater moral issue at play, either. Ultimately, it’s a gray enough situation that I may actually be fulfilling my greater moral obligation to the players by putting them in the best position to win; winners get better contracts. I also have a moral obligation to the fans.
The situation at hand has thin margins. A two-game deficit is a lot to be behind at any point in the season, but especially with four games to go. While lucky that my division rival is on our schedule so that I have more control over things, beating them twice only gives me the tie (and tiebreaker) in the divisional race. If they win their other two games while I win only one, I’m out of the race—and I’m not guaranteed to win two games against them.
Given their injuries and difficult strength-of-schedule, it’s easy to project them as only a slightly above average team (Going 9-3 on a weak schedule still makes one a good team… similar to Kansas City’s 9-0 run against teams like Jacksonville, Dallas, Oakland, Houston and so on last year). Presumably, a slightly above average team has better odds of winning one of two tough games than of losing both or winning both.
Setting their expected wins at 10-4 outside of my games seems reasonable, which means I have to find a way to secure two wins and get marginal advantages on a third. If my team goes 10-6, I’ll have done my job. After all, if we split the series I have the divisional tiebreaker.
With that as the goal in mind, I need to assess whether or not cutting the player actually sacrifices wins. If it doesn’t, the solution is simple: cut him to preserve long-term locker room integrity and reinforce the coach’s rules.
The baseline number of wins I can expect out of a focused player of his caliber in my nondivisional games is likely just above .500 (say a theoretical win-loss of 1.1-0.9 over those two games) because my 7-5 team is, last win notwithstanding (or four), just slightly better than an average team (with a generic win probability at something like 55%—teams with more than that are typically already strong playoff teams).
As a fan of a wildly inconsistent team (in my untested opinion) and an ardent advocate of more analytics in sports (if you couldn’t already tell), I’m not a big believer in game-to-game momentum and there’s ample evidence that streaks of good play are less likely to tell the story of how well a team does than their overall record.
I’ll buy that my team may be better than their record, but not by much.
My chances of generally beating a slightly better than average team like my divisional rival is closer to 50 percent until we take into account that the specific matchup against the missing safety, all other things being equal, should boost my ability to get the first downs and touchdowns my tight end is well-known for.
But those were with the chances that my second-leading receiver would perform as he has been performing, and there’s already a few leading indicators that he may not do so, and for multiple reasons. Not only is he an injury risk because of his frequent inability to take care of his body after games and practices, as well as inconsistent work in the weight room—he has clear focus issues.
Even if he’s played well in the previous two games, two-game streaks happen all the time without continuing. Paying attention in practices, which are likely more indicative of how he will play in the future, gives me a lot of worry. That his focus issues have already shown up on field in the form of the interception he created is already evidence of that.
He may have caught the game-winning touchdown in the 28-point comeback, but it may have only needed to be a 21-point comeback if his issues didn’t crop up in play. Perhaps even less—that could have been a scoring drive he ruined.
There is a good chance that though his mistakes aren’t showing up on a stat sheet, he may be zeroing out his contribution to the team instead of adding a lot to it, especially in these coming weeks.
Were the distractions entirely due to his ex, this might not be as big a problem as it sounds (the operative word being “might”)—hooking the player up with a consultation with a lawyer or financial consultant to discuss his obligations to his ex-girlfriend, along with using my police liaison to assist in keeping the peace, may clear up these issues.
But he’s further involved in a different (ill-advised) financial issue involving a restaurant that could also be impacting his play. These two signs together may mean that the player simply does not have the finances to pay his ex-girlfriend. If that’s the issue, instead of a very poorly handled misunderstanding of the magnitude of his obligations, then it won’t resolve any time soon even if the police get involved.
In addition, resolving one issue does not resolve the other, and the likelihood that I have the time and ability to effectively resolve both issues as it relates to his performance is low—especially with a game next week that he may be a big part of.
Immediate resolution of these problems may mean he returns to full form, but they won’t be resolved immediately; they will be resolved over time—during which my team will play games. He may refocus himself in time for a good effort in the final game, but that doesn’t mean much for the other three games he’s ostensibly a big part of.
In all honesty, a player dipping in performance like that may be enough to drag my team back down to merely “average” anyway.
2-2 over those games (finishing with a record of 9-7) won’t cut it. It would take some unexpected events even without these problems to finish ahead of my injured rivals.
My team isn’t an underdog in the classic sense, but it should approach the games like underdogs should: high-risk, high-reward gambles. Getting blown out might mean something in terms of my job prospects, but a close loss shows up the same as a big loss in the win-loss column, so marginally improving my odds of winning while also increasing the odds of a blowout in either direction is a good idea—the tiebreaker won’t come down to point differential anyway.
I might make that gamble in the form of starting a little-known slot receiver for potentially a huge payoff.
The downside to starting that slot receiver may not be that large. The second missed meeting only brought the tight end’s issues to a boiling point, and the fact that the coaches were split on him beforehand bodes poorly for his future performance after these issues have escalated.
The first thing to do is consult with a lawyer familiar with these kinds of issues, the player’s agent and the local police while suspending the player a game for missing a team meeting. If, after the suspension, the player has not improved markedly in several areas—body maintenance, attendance and practice performance (admittedly harder to assess if he’s playing the role of the scout team or second-string) among other things, he’s cut and I’ll let his agent know this.
I would not let the agent know that I’d held a small meeting with the coaching staff and proposed to them that they be particularly picky with this player when reviewing his performance in team meetings, perhaps surprising him at random times (maybe after a workout or after a particularly tough set of run routes) with difficult questions about the game plan or his responsibilities.
I’d also have asked the coaching staff to have the tight end assist in tight end coaching, educating the other tight ends on the rosters on their responsibilities or on technique issues. This by itself may serve as a refocusing mechanism both because teaching aids learning and because it impresses upon him the importance of the team as a whole and his role as a leader.
If, in consultation with the lawyer and police liaison, I learn that this issue will take longer than a week to resolve, I would cut the player even if he did the right things. It is a habit among people to improve performance in the short-term after a “rude awakening” of sorts (like a stern performance review), but not sustain that improvement. I am not comfortable gambling my team on the off-chance this player returns to his previous level of play (which, while great, helped us become a 7-5 team, not a 9-3 team).
In the meantime, I’ll work out that veteran tight end early in the week again to keep my files up-to-date while consulting with my team athletic training staff on this player’s viability. If he impresses in his workout, I’ll ask my athletic training staff to put together a plan specific to this player on how to minimize his injury risk and give the coaches a target snap count in the case where I cut my problem player and sign the veteran.
I wouldn’t intervene in my coach’s game planning after suspending the player, but I’d imagine he’d implement a run-heavy set to see how the team’s perform with the other tight end more heavily rotated in the script (the rival’s replacement safety is bad at tackling anyway—running at him seems like fun) while giving the promising slot receiver more time.
A one-game look at how a heavier rotation of how those two players perform will certainly be illuminating and would guide their game planning with the veteran street agent—increasing or decreasing his snap count from the trainer’s recommendation as needed.
As it is, his low wear-and-tear may make him less of an injury concern than a player who isn’t explicitly taking care of his body. Between a marginally improved running game, a rising slot receiver and this veteran tight end, the team has the tools to make first downs at a rate that may exceed a distracted tight end.
Speaking of which, personal distractions are almost always more hurtful than media distractions. If my players could focus enough to go on a four-game winning streak and come back from 28-points down (which should have been 21), then they should be fine—there was already pressure and added media attention from the streak. That kind of distraction can be managed and it may be better to deal with this now to prepare them for when they sustain success.
Added questions about how to cope without a “key” player don’t really distract from the team when compared to the distractions of the pressure of “controlling your own destiny,” a winning streak, the fact that one of your teammates is showing serious signs of being a liability and worries about inconsistency in how players are treated.
Besides, more than anything else, players respond to consistency from coaches. “Player’s coaches” don’t earn any more respect than “disciplinarians” except insofar as they treat players fairly. This is why coaches like Bill Parcells and Mike Zimmer can command so much respect from their players.
Should the police, lawyers and agent agree that the issue(s) at hand can be resolved quickly and he improves in practice while acing the tests the coaches will give him, he will continue to play out the season with a reduced rotation.
And then he’s getting traded in the offseason.
Even a delayed response to violating a team rule is better than no response at all.
This scenario (and its many variations on the theme) isn’t an annual occurrence for every team, but it does happen frequently enough. There was a team last year that released a player due to off-field distractions and the player was one of the better performers at his position on the squad. In this real-life case, the GM had an easier decision because the team was not in contention for a playoff spot. However, there have been teams that kept players without doling out punishment because the needs of the season overruled other considerations.
I thought Hasan did an excellent job addressing his thought process. I enjoyed all of the angles he considered before arriving at a decision to suspend the player. This is an unusual approach based on what I’ve been told about this scenario. It doesn’t mean it won’t work, but there are some things to note.
I have been told by players that missing a team meeting is a cardinal sin in the NFL. Players are genuinely afraid of missing a meeting. Based on its actions, teams are more tolerant of a player getting arrested for DUI or violent crimes than they are of a player missing a scheduled event at the facility.
I think Hasan’s suspension idea is a pragmatic take, but a risky decision. He states that consistency matters most with leadership. If he alters the consistency of the coach’s boundaries then he’s undermining his staff. Even if he fires his staff at the end of the year, he could still have an environment where players believe that the coaches won’t always be able to enforce their rules. New coaches might have a healthy distrust of the GM.
Not that this distrust will hurt Hasan’s chances of hiring most coaches–the exception being a great coach that doesn’t want to put up with a GM who will override him in the locker room–because the opportunity to lead an NFL team is rare.
Even with this criticism of the decision, I like how Hasan structured his recourse. His consideration of providing outside help to work with the player is well-intentioned and a sign of good leadership in many instances.
Personally, I’d talk with the coach and make sure he didn’t have any past history of giving players leeway in this kind of situation. If the coach maintains a firm boundary, then I’m cutting the player if I believe in the coach. Not that it would be an easy decision–or one that buys me additional time in my role.