Sigmund Bloom’s RSPWP Decision: The Star or The Coach?

Sigmund Bloom’s RSPWP Decision: The Star or The Coach?

Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded, players' coach. But can it work long-term? Photo by Nathan Rupert.
Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded, players’ coach. But can it work long-term? Photo by Nathan Rupert.

Does Sigmund Bloom 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).

Find out more about RSPWP3.

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?

Bloom’s Decision

The light of the star will guide us.
Perhaps Mighty Mite was out of line speaking his mind about the offense, but the middle linebacker did the same thing earlier in the season. That makes the condition of the offense being held back more likely a systemic issue that the team will not overcome without a decisive change in philosophy. When both sides of the ball are thinking about the offensive approach holding them back, then it’s probably holding them back.
I also don’t like that the coach thinks he is bigger than the front office and will foment discord or otherwise undermine the front office’s mission when it serves his goals. I think we’ve seen how far our team will get if the coach is calling ALL of the shots. We’ve collected the dividends that his offensive philosophy can pay and we’re still broke at the end of the year. He can’t get us any farther with just his judgment. His reactionary style of coaching – changing the offense drastically because of a small, albeit crucial set of games shows me the kind of shortsightedness that will not get us to the championship, or maybe even back to the playoffs.
I’m not afraid of losing him because his players have absorbed his DNA at this point. We can promote one of his assistants. We have the personnel to set it and forget it as long as a competent manager is minding the store.
I think the head coach is definitely presiding over a situation that has inherent unbalance that will remain unstable without adjustment. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if he stubbornly stuck with the running game in the event of a slow start just to prove he’s right. The problem is that since he has this personality type, I’m not sure that he’ll comply with a direct order to have the offensive game plan buck stop at our desk, not his.
Offensive coordinator did achieve success with the offense last year, but I wonder if head coach have extra friction with him after I tell him that he has to let the coordinator do exactly what he wants to.
I’m firing head coach and wooing one of the innovative offensive minds in college or an NFL staff who show CEO-like qualities to take over our team. With the defense we have built and Mighty Mite in our long-term plans, we should be able to get a top shelf coaching talent. Before taking this action, we’ll have a closed door meeting with Mighty Mite and middle linebacker (and/or the defensive leader(s)) telling them the plan. I want to secure buy-in from the players with a new regime coming, and also want them to know that this was in part vindication for them after they spoke out about this. They will, however, be asked to bring any and all grievances to the new coaches first, then us, and keep them in-house. Our commitment to a championship will cited as the reason for this action, and they will be reminded that if we judge that they, like the coach, had turned into an obstacle, then we would take the appropriate actions – but with a reminder that we believe in their ability to get us there, or else they wouldn’t be in our office right now talking about him instead of vice versa.
Some coaches are just better as coordinators. They master a mentality and strategy on one side of the ball, but that doesn’t grant them the ability to have the wider encompassing skills necessary to run the day to day of an entire team. Part of being a great head coach is trusting your coordinators and players, and head coach clearly doesn’t trust our quarterback or our playcallers. This is a malignant situation that will only return to some sort of resentment from any number of parties involved as soon as there is any adversity.
I’m not trading Mighty Mite for draft picks. We already have the talent we need just about everywhere except maybe QB, but getting that QB in the draft is a pipe dream without a team that will finish bottom five. I’m not trading him for players. Again, a lack of talent doesn’t seem like the thing holding this team back. Our front office has nailed some recent picks, and they can continue to keep us on schedule with our regular allotment of picks and the considerable talent they have already amassed.
Sometimes an organization has to pull the ripcord on a head coach who is good, but flawed in a way that will keep them from becoming great. I was against the Bears firing Lovie Smith after it happened, but after answering this question, it is clear to me that I would have probably done exactly what Phil Emery did  – that is of course assuming that Smith was actively a hindrance to the offense in the way that head coach is in this scenario, which might not be fair. I still found working this through to be fascinating when I reflected on my answer.
I often lament front office sticking with head coaches and quarterbacks after they have shown the full range of what they are capable of. If I had the chance to preside over a situation like this, I would bet on the defense being self-sufficient and the offense needing the wheel to get my team over the hump, so it’s curtains for the head coach.

Matt’s Notes

Bloom and I had a discussion about his response after I posted it. He noted that at one point he thought about hiring an offensive coordinator and cutting the head coach out of the offense, but keeping him in power. Kind of like what Jerry Jones did in Dallas with Jason Garrett as a coordinator at one point. However, Bloom realized as he read through the scenario and saw that I said “chose the star or the coach,” that all he would be doing is publicly castrating the head coach and engaging in similar behavior as the coach engaged last season.

This is an excellent point of managerial leadership. I would much prefer to have a boss tell me it’s not working out rather than work around me in some dysfunctional way that lessens my authority over my team. It only exacerbates the situation, saps the morale of the players, and the players are more prone to losing focus and making mistakes — key mistakes late in games. Although the coach sounds like Rex Ryan to some and the player sounds like Steve Smith, the management scenario Bloom considered, but opted against sounds a little like Dallas, doesn’t it?

Another point we discussed was Bloom’s decision to speak with the receiver and linebacker on the team before he fired the coach. Bloom did a good job delivering this message to his players: “You’re here meeting with me not because I want to meet with you like this ever again, but the coach created a poor environment that we’re not going to tolerate. We’re getting rid of him and valuing you guys, but don’t get it twisted — we’re hiring a coach that will not create this situation and if you cause the problems the coach did, you’ll be gone.”

There’s a third part of this that was a worthwhile subject: Talent isn’t everything. It’s obvious that this defensive coordinator-turned-coach is a major talent with one side of the ball. However, it takes more than X’s and O’s and motivation of one part of a team to become a quality head coach. Whether it’s a coach, a player, or an administrator, there has to be a good fit with team culture, good communication, and support that creates a quality team environment. Otherwise, those individuals will not help the team long-term.

We often see debates about this when we see massively talented players or coaches embroiled in feuds or dysfunctional situations on or off the field. I’m more inclined to side with parting company with these players if the team has provided the right level of expectations and support and this behavior persists.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

4 responses to “Sigmund Bloom’s RSPWP Decision: The Star or The Coach?”

  1. How do we rate our ability to find a new coach? Once in awhile, are we not trading in the devil we know for the devil we don’t?
    Phil Emery’s choices in Chicago (like Ted Thompson’s coach choice of Mike McCarthy), worked out well within their organizations. New coaches do not always perform so well. Formerly successful college and NFL coaches are not always home runs. Or even strong coaching candidates. Further, it often takes a year or two to assess coach fit and organization and constant acquisition of new coaches often creates long term organizational instability and short term worse records.

    Getting old coaches to change at the margins can be a winning strategy (if you trust the media report, its what happened in NYG with Coughlin before the first super-bowl year).

    What percentage chance does a good GM have a blowing a coaching hire? What is the chance that a GM can take what might seem a mediocre hire and work with them into a strong hire? Norv Turner might be the right coach for this year, but is he who you want as your long term solution? College hires are not perfectly safe either (see Schiano, Greg).

    How much is a GMs job his ability to manage and develop a head coach into a winner?

  2. This coach somewhat reminds me of Rex Ryan, although I think Ryan is a lot more willing to let the OCs control the O. His problem is he doesn’t have a QB or much talent on the offensive side

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