Do you keep the superstar receiver or the defensive-minded head coach with a championship-caliber unit?
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.7: The Star or The Coach?
You’re the general manager of an underachieving team that has gone 10-6, 9-7, and 8-8 the past three seasons. Three years ago, the squad earned a wild card berth, beat two playoff teams on the road, and lost a squeaker in the conference championship game. The past two years, the team failed to qualify for the postseason.
The head coach earned his stripes overhauling defenses into league leaders for three organizations during a 15-year NFL career as a coordinator before your predecessor (during his final season as GM) hired the coach four years ago. The coach has done a great job with the defense, installing a scheme that maximizes the personnel’s strengths with the back-seven while minimizing its weaknesses upfront until your collective efforts successfully addressed the front three.
Now the coach has the personnel to switch between 4-3/3-4 looks, stop the run, and get pressure with fewer blitzes. Six different defenders from the team have represented in the conference in the Pro Bowl during the past three years and half of them have been to Hawaii multiple times. The unit is arguably the best in the league and it’s among the top five in points allowed, opponents’ time of possession, turnovers, and sacks.
The defense has embraced the coach, who has gotten the unit to trust him and his scheme. There’s also depth to account for a few starters that you will allow to hit the open market.
The problem is the offense, which has regressed over the past two seasons. While the defense made key plays during that 10-6 playoff season, thanks to some excellent scouting and scheming, it was the team’s veteran quarterback and star receiver that put the squad on its back and carried it to the conference championship.
The quarterback is an undrafted journeyman that toiled as a backup for six years. He earned a shot to start after the anointed franchise QB suffered a career-ending shoulder injury and he looked promising enough during your predecessor’s final season that when you took over you bypassed taking a quarterback in the first two rounds of your initial draft.
The first pick was a gift for your head coach, a stud defensive tackle that has been a two-time All-Pro during his first four years. You didn’t have a second-round pick, but at the top of the third round you took a mighty-mite, receiver-return specialist: a 5-9, 190-lb. Big-12 stud with a 42-inch vertical, 4.3 speed, ankle-breaking moves, and deceptive strength, but a brash attitude and a concern about a knee injury from his junior year.
Mighty Mite earned the NFL Rookie of the Year during your 10-6 season, catching 75 passes for 1150 yards and 14 touchdowns–including 6 of 40 yards or greater and 5 from red zone. He also earned 280 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns in the divisional playoff game, which was the highest total to come close to Keith Lincoln’s 329-yard day nearly 50 years ago.
Since that blazing start to his career, Mighty Mite has also been a two-time All-Pro, the picture of good health, a vocal leader, and a solid professional on and off the field. He’s had nearly 400 targets during the past three years and he has only dropped 3 passes.
However, Mighty Mite could have had closer to 450 targets if not for the head coach and offensive coordinator shifting to a heavier run offense. The 9-7 season was the catalyst for this switch because the team lost two of its final three games and the quarterback threw 5 interceptions during that span, including a pick-six that was the back breaker in Week 17.
The quarterback forced three of these targets to Mighty Mite in bracket coverage. While the receiver had a shot at all three targets, the head coach didn’t like the aggressive decisions. In that back-breaking final game, the team was within four points of the lead in this low-scoring affair and the defense had shut down the opposing offense in the second half when the QB delivered the pick-six.
That offseason the coaching staff changed its base formations, went to a more run-heavy offense, and pushed for additional help on the defense. To the staff’s credit, there was agreement that the team needed to second receiver or receiving tight end capable of taking pressure off Mighty Mite, who was earning triple coverage in some instances.
Unfortunately, the big receiver you picked in the second round tore his Achilles in training camp and hasn’t been the same since. The combination of the more conservative play calling and offensive sets, and the lack of quality complements in the aerial game put the offensive–and team–in a tailspin for the first six weeks of the season.
After a 1-5 start and an injury to the starting right guard and running back, the head coach begrudgingly ok’d the staff to open the offense and lean on the passing game. The team responded and went 7-3 down the stretch, beating 3 playoff teams–and the eventual Super Bowl Champion–to win 5 in a row.
At this point, Mighty Mite, who kept his vocal complaints in-house, was asked on national television about the team’s finish, the resuscitation of the passing offense, and the possibility of the staff maintaining the old offense in the coming season:
Your guess is as good as mine. Everyone knows that we have a defensive-minded head coach that has done great work on that side of the ball. But if you ask me, our team was night-and-day different against some of the better teams in the league when coach took the cuffs off our offense. I know what I would like to see, but it’s not up to me.
The head coach did not take these comments well. Privately, he accused the Mighty Mite of lobbying the media and making the team look bad. It could be the case, but Mighty Mite’s comments were far tamer in public than the frustration he expressed behind closed doors.
The head coach also has a reputation for overreacting to small matters–sometimes to generate an us-against-the-world camaraderie to rally the corps. However, you have seen the defense do its share of finger-pointing in the locker room earlier this year and your middle linebacker had this to say in the media after the team’s fourth consecutive loss in October:
We’re playing our heart out, but it’s hard to stand there helpless on the sideline and watch [the offense] give it away. We’re sick of it.
Although this had to chafe that offense, there were no complaints from the unit. However, you have heard grumbling from some players in the recent past that the head coach favors the defense and the private complaints came before your linebacker’s statement to the media.
The fact that the head coach had no reaction about this quote supports this notion. You had to tell the MLB and the head coach that the defender needed to make a statement to the media about his earlier comments and the initial discussion with the e head coach wasn’t a pleasant conversation.
Mighty Mite enters the final year of his deal and there have been inquiries about him from various teams–all of them playoff teams offering a multiple picks, including a first-rounder. Although Mighty Mite hasn’t asked for a trade, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his agent hasn’t contacted teams around the league to get the conversations started.
You also wouldn’t be surprised if your head coach has pulled an end around and leaked word around the league that Mighty Mite could be had for the taking. The head coach has been known to manipulate situations and his us-against-the-world ploys are often about him creating good cop-bad cop scenarios where the front office is also the enemy.
What do you do? Was Mighty Mite out of line to the media? Do you believe the head coach has done enough with the defense that a little more patience with his offensive philosophy will pay dividends? Or do you think the head coach is on the verge of tearing about the locker room?
Do you trade Mighty Mite at the top of his game and acquire players that fit your head coach’s program? Do you keep your receiver and part company with your head coach? Or, do you demand the head coach to keep the passing offense when past history indicates he’ll either use that demand to further split the organization or respond with some way to undermine your edict?
Essentially, do you pick the player or the coach?