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.12: With The Flow or Against The Grain?
It’s early January and you’re a week away from beginning the second year of your job as the GM of a 7-9 team. It’s a squad with talent, but injuries, suspensions, and strife between the veterans and the combative head coach derailed your season. The coach was already on thin ice because of an acrimonious relationship with the owner.
The owner is an alumnus of a prominent football program on the west coast that is winning big thanks to a coach with a high-octane system built on generating space for players with quickness, agility, and speed. The team scores at will and it has earned five BCS Bowl appearances and two national championships in seven years. Needless to say, your owner is hot and heavy for the coach, who has hinted that he’s interested in making the jump to the NFL.
The owner brought you aboard as the GM because of your work with two different teams as an assistant GM. You’re a proven communicator and developer of processes and your ability to align coaches, scouts, and front office has helped your past two teams become better at the draft, free agency, and pro scouting.
You show good judgment with when to go with the flow and when to push back. You also have found ways to marry differing viewpoints that at first appeared to clash.
Scouts around the league respect you because you were one of them—and a good one. The word among coaches is that you’ll fight hard for what you believe in, but if they can sell you on their views you’ll be a fierce advocate for them. You work hard to understand their strategy and they see you’re no “yes man.”
Despite it being the end of your first full season with the team, you agreed with the owner that the incumbent coach lost the team and had no chance of getting them back. You fired him at season’s end.
It didn’t go unnoticed to the front office and scouts that two of the undrafted free agents that were your pet projects upon joining the team became contributors with starter upside. You also gave the director of scouting and a regional scout a chance to shine with critical assessments of potential picks that went against the desires of the owner and head coach.
You convinced the owner and coach to listen to the scouting department and those players turned out to be landmines that blew up in the faces of the teams that selected them. You also made some changes to the pro scouting department’s process that helped the scouts spot and communicate vital information to the coaches that was integral to a 4-1 start before the team went off the rails.
You earned a bit of equity with these three decisions early in your tenure despite a lost season. The specific issues that killed the team included the left tackle breaking his ankle; the center suffering a high-ankle sprain; the star receiver breaking his leg; and an in-house conflict between the coach and offensive coordinator and your starting quarterback and strong safety.
The quarterback and safety lobbied the coach to get a young receiver on the field, but the staff continued to use a player it was enamored with that was prone to making mistakes. The QB, angry with the stubborn refusal to make the switch, fired the ball into the back of the underachieving receiver during a third down play where the receiver ran the wrong route while the team was losing by 28 late in the game. The coaches and quarterback got into a heated argument and the safety backed up the quarterback, resulting in dissension between the players and coaches.
With the search on for a new coach, you’re not sold on the hotshot college guy that your boss is courting. You’ve studied the coach’s system and personnel style and it is not an ideal fit for your current personnel.
Your squad has road graders along the line of scrimmage and three capable running backs—including two who could handle 300-carry workloads. The oldest back (turns 29 next October) will be a free agent after the 2014 season. He’s an all-purpose player with excellent third-down skills, but he’s among the best 10 backs in the leagues when it comes to yards after contact.
Despite the older back beating the younger runner for the starting job and performing well, the young gun has the athleticism to become a special player and multiple teams have inquired about his availability. You could probably get a second round pick. The third back is a big, one-cut runner with patience who can earn 1200 yards behind your line.
Your 31-year-old quarterback has been to three Pro Bowls, but he’s strictly a pocket passer after tearing his ACL three years ago. Force him outside the pocket and the play is successful if he can throw the ball away. Fortunately, he’s tough, understands defenses, and he still has an accurate, live arm when given time. A quarterback-needy team would snatch him up if you waived him, but he probably wouldn’t garner more than a fifth-round pick.
Based on your review of the personnel, you believe the best match for his team is a hard-nosed, run-first offense that complements your defense. If the owner hires his favorite candidate, the new coach will want to reshape the offense and air it out, but the effort to match the personnel with the scheme will mean an overhaul on the offense and tremendous stress on the defense.
You also have concerns about this coach’s commitment for the NFL. A former star running back and NFL starter, he has never coached in the professional ranks. His leadership at the college level has been excellent, but he is not known as a grinder. You have a feeling that the talented staff working under him was the true source of success for this team and both the offensive and defensive coordinators are taking head coaching jobs.
At the same time, there is personnel in the draft that could help the offensive transition to this head coach’s scheme, which is more of a quick-strike, high-tempo style that doesn’t pound the ball as much as use the pass to set up the run. There are three athletic tackles, two mobile quarterbacks with big arms, and five big-play threats at receiver with YAC skills. It’s possible that you could land two players from this list in the opening two rounds. However, you’re effectively starting over with this offense and your defense is savvy, but collectively in win-now mode due to its lack of youthful starters and depth.
Not only will the offense change if the owner hires his college’s coach, but because your boss will want to pull out all the stops to give this hot commodity everything he wants you’ll probably lose some pull with the owner. Compounding this situation is your preferred candidate that is a perfect fit for your current personnel is a former two-time NFL Coach of The Year who is considered a dinosaur.
The highlights include a 12-6 record in the playoffs and a career .615 winning percentage, but he is 0-4 in conference championship games and his offensive mentality runs counter to what’s trendy in the NFL. He’s also set in his ways. One potential selling point is that Seattle and San Francisco are ground and pound units that have appeared in the past two Super Bowls, but your owner seems enamored with everything that’s the latest and greatest.
It’s clear that your owner trusts you, but you sense it will be a hard sell to get the owner to go against his desires. Even if you get your way you’re handing your boss your neck in a short leash. Yet you wonder if the college coach that your boss wants is making the jump to the NFL for the wrong reasons. Without the team of coaches that were a major reason for his success, you fear this could be a Steve Spurrier-Lou Holtz-Lane Kiffin dynamic in the making.
Do you try to sell your boss on the merits of your preferred candidate? If so, how do you do it and what approach will you take during the interview process to help your boss see potential concerns with his candidate? If you lay back in the cut without voicing your concerns about the boss’ candidate then based on the personnel above what will be your plan to make this coach successful as soon as possible?
Michael Schuttke’s Decision
Matt’s scenario that he assigned me, much like Sigmund Bloom mentioned in his recent response for his scenario, forced me inside of my own processes. The version of my response that you’re viewing is actually my fourth writing of a response. The first version went inexplicably in the direction of hiring the “hotshot” head coach.
In this version, I explained how many labels such as “not a grinder” or “leaned on his assistants” can easily be applied to coaches who are actually excellent administrators and believe that efficient practices are not centered around cramming “all” the concepts within a five-inch thick playbook into their players heads, but instead discipline themselves by installing less concepts and becoming the masters of what is being implemented. I often wonder if the famed three-day install plans of many of the coaches of the Air Raid system would lead them to be viewed as “not grinders” about twenty years ago.
A little bit of sustained success by multiple disciples though is all it has taken for a “less is more” revolution to begin that is still sweeping across the football landscape. Regarding the potential misnomer that could perhaps center around being an excellent administrator, albeit a quiet one, many of my biggest coaching influences were known as excellent teachers of the teachers. Bill Walsh was an innovator in many regards, but perhaps none more than his ahead-of-his-time organizational capabilities. Every minute of practice was scripted months in advance of the season after having meetings with his assistants to decide:
a.) What were the skills needed to be mastered at each position
b.) What were the different drills that could be implemented with X-amount of time that would develop said skills.
Tony Dungy could perhaps have had both labels, “not a grinder” and “leaned on his assistants” applied to him as well. Known for a more humane approach that was the diametric opposite of the forceful, visceral sideline coaching image archetype, he also believed in getting his assistants home at a reasonable hour.
Again, Dungy ran relatively simple schemes on both sides of the ball and focused more on perfecting a few things rather than being mediocre at a multitude of concepts, blitz packages, coverage adjustments, etc. On a side note, there is a not often discussed, dark-side effect of much of the needless late-hour scheming of many coaches: high divorce rates at both the NCAA Division I level and the NFL is one of them. Perhaps this candidate may have a reputation that is not commensurate with the reality of my first rendering.
The more I thought about this situation though, the more I saw that there is something to be said for intuition. Combined with a rigorous, objective (at least as objective as one can be once they have a “hunch”) interview process, intuition has its place.
As such, I want to build an organization that continues to excel at communication at all levels. I want to focus on the long-term, time-honored process of team-building that is centered on finding value as well as continually collecting cost-effective tokens that we call “draft picks.” I want us positioned in advance to replace aging players with in-house replacements rather than being reactive and coming from a place of desperation.
This approach, the more I thought about it, would be more likely if we go with the second candidate.
With where this team is positioned right now, the college coaching candidate would require both a systematic and a personnel revamping that could easily set the team back further—and land me out of a job in the process—all on what amounts to a gamble. It is a gamble because of the personnel fit being sub-optimal. It is a gamble because of how the style of football contrasts with the type of offense that would complement our defense. And it is a gamble because the rookies we would be bringing in with our top picks to help the transition process, however talented, are projections.
In the meantime, we have a team that can win now (and in the future) by sustaining the best of what we do while adding a few parts in select places. We are developing a proven process with the current scouting department by identifying talent that fits what we do. We have developed explicit and objective criteria used by all members that is not euphemism-driven but skill-oriented in its assessments of athletes.
We’re using language that is universal, allowing for meaningful communication and exchanges of dialogue around prospects, and generates less strife due to the criteria being universal. This legwork is limiting the “my guy versus your guy” disagreements that often have grown men shouting at each other on draft day.
What I foresee as the most pertinent danger to both the long-term and short-term health of this organization if the college coach is hired is in how (if he is in fact an ineffective administrator who was more the product of good fortune and the talents of the staff around him) this coach might have no idea how to iterate the personnel requirements he needs to have his system flourish at the NFL level. One could argue this Chip Kelly-styled offense and its personnel requirements could be learned by looking at the Philadelphia Eagles and Oregon Ducks scheme and personnel.
However, a mark of a good organization is clear communication and expectations across all departments. If I am the one inferring what we have to find then there will be a lag time with the efficiency and productivity of our personnel when it comes to what we need to be seeking from players. But if we must, we can re-train our scouts on what to look for and perhaps tweak our current scouting language and criterion to aid in the transition. Then the lag time might be lessened.
The practical issue in this hiring process is to make it look impartial and objective to my boss who has an affinity and an attachment to this college “hotshot”. This would not be a challenge for me as I am aware that a bias in this scenario could easily lead me to pass over what could be a great candidate. It is my job to be impartial and objective in this hire.
As such, I would give the college candidate a chance to prove himself in the interview process. Likewise, the “old dinosaur” candidate would not be treated any differently in his interview; riding in on the coattails of the past does not mean much to me. Based on the details Matt gave though, I think it is clear that the college candidate will come across looking flustered and stymied in front of our owner while the older candidate will look more polished and prepared.
During the interviews, I would focus on asking questions centered on getting the candidates to describe their philosophy of coaching, from scheme, to personnel requirements to their previous administrative tasks; no stone would be left unturned.
With the college candidate, I would expressly ask him what he did to develop the system he used to great success at the aforementioned college program. I would want him to go into detail and describe how he instructed recruiters to recruit, what to look for when scouting a high school player, were the qualities he looked for measured in some sort of objective criteria and if so, how was that constructed? This all relates to what we would be doing as a franchise as, due to the current state of the team, he would need to be able to communicate his vision to me and therein I can train the scouting department, both college and professional, on what kinds of players we are looking for that would be good scheme fits to allow for a full transition to his system. This portion tells me further what he values; a clearly defined, criteria based process of evaluation or one that is vague and euphemism driven.
The next set of questions would focus on his administration skills at the collegiate level, namely how off-season planning meetings were conducted with his coaching staff. I would encourage him to explain to me how he gave instruction to his coaches on planning for practices down to the types of drills he wanted run. I’d want to see how he would account for the transition to working on a professional level and timetable.
If in this portion he comes across as a “leaned on his assistants”/“not a grinder” it would tell me his reported perception does not match up with the reality of his leadership. An example of a response that might indicate a such would be him telling me that he did something to the effect of asking his assistants to list all of the key skills and techniques needed for implementation within a game by his players and then come up with multiple drills for each of those techniques and skills.
Addressing tactical issues, I would ask him how game day communication was handled? How often was he giving input to the talented coordinators? Were they the sole play callers (not per se a bad thing) and was he giving input based on his unique “field view” and ability to interact with players and get their input on the sideline? A
gain, this also reveals what he values. Is he willing to allow his coaches to coach and give them input and help manage personnel groups from the sideline (i.e. an “active” role that, to the naked eye, appears inactive, especially if his manner of presentation is more cerebral and less vocal/demonstrative) or is he truly willing to be a passive observer, amounting to not much more than a figurehead?
If he in any way stymies in these questions, I would then ask how he has, in the past, tailored his scheme to match his personnel. Frankly, I put a greater emphasis on the organizational components to the head coaching position than per se the scheme anyway. As such, if he can convince me, after proving he has the ability to communicate expectations throughout all key departments of a football organization, that his scheme can be tailored to work with a more power-based personnel, all the more power to him.
The old dinosaur would be put through a similar process as well with all of the same questions. Again, I want it to be made apparent to the owner that I am focused on hiring the best candidate regardless of their past our public perception.
The last point I would address with the owner after the interview process would be our current state of the team with the upcoming draft. Regardless of which candidate would be made to appear more competent in the interview process, I would push to trade the talented second running back for the second-round selection we could garner for him.
With three selections then in the top 64 of the draft, I would discuss my desire for a mixed strategy of short-term and long-term asset management with the owner. It sounds like much of the issue with the skill-personnel last season came down to a coach who was unwilling to play the more assignment sound player at receiver and the loss of our star receiver. We are getting our number one receiver back, could finally promote this promising younger player and still have two backs who can be bell-cow runners for us. It sounds like we are fairly set at the skill positions.
The bigger personnel shortcoming that affected the offense last year with this squad was the injuries along the offensive line. This is to be expected as the drop-off in talent from starting skill position player to a backup player, sans at quarterback, is not that steep of a drop most of the time. As Matt has mentioned on this site, there are numerous street free-agent running backs and receivers who could shine in the right circumstances.
At best, all we “need” is one to maybe two receivers. In what sounds like a deep receiver draft, I believe we could acquire one with either a third or fourth-round selection and/or bring in a talented veteran on a 1-year “prove it” deal a la Kenny Britt or Jeremy Maclin to shore up depth further.
If we lacked a tight end, I see so many “year-after” prospects in the NFL that have been basically forgotten about for a variety of reasons that could help us. However, losing lineman is difficult to overcome. The drop-off in talent along the offensive line from starter to back-up can be vast.
Offensive lines function best on continuity and not having an obvious weak link; it is better to have “five B-grade players” than two A’s but three C’s. As such, I would actually like to double down with our first two picks and take lineman both in the first and second-round. Studies show that rookie lineman drafted early tend to be a “net zero” their first year; offensive line performance tends not to go up or down. However, year two sees a jump in performance and, often times, these highly drafted players are Pro-Bowl caliber performers by year three and four.
As such, I would like to bypass the year one lag altogether and have quality depth in place, insuring us against injury while also developing low-cost, effective replacements a year in advance. If you look at consistent winning organizations like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and San Francisco, these organizations are typically willing to let an older player go a year early rather than a year late with an in-house replacement sliding into his spot. So to we will be with our focus.
Last, I would want to use the additional second-round selection as a bargaining chip to land a first-round pick the following draft in preparation for either having the draft capital to acquire an elite-QB prospect to replace our aging starter or begin a youth movement with our aging defense . There has been a lot of discussion on the value of trading current picks for future picks by writers such as Chase Stuart, Brian Burke and professor Cade Massey. I would actually try to make it a general policy every year to make at least one draft day trade where we are acquiring at least one pick the following year.
The “discount rate” on future picks is ridiculously huge (173% if one uses the old draft value chart). Again, we only need to make a few tweaks to help in the present to potentially push our team into being a playoff team. Long-term though, we need an elite skills quarterback. The aging starter has performed well and sounds like a good game manager, classic pocket quarterback who occasionally flashes some elite skills (think Carson Palmer), particularly when given good pass protection (further reinforcing picking some lineman to insure he has a “Hot Tub Time Machine” experience) but it is clear that long-term winners have elite quarterbacks. Selection bias perhaps at work or not, those kinds of guys get picked in the top five to ten picks usually; I am not banking on finding Tom Brady in the next draft.
All of these “meat and potatoes”/long-term excellence focused personnel strategies would go out the window with the hotshot coach. I would be forced to acquire at least two skill-position players, probably not address the long-term quarterback issue with an elite prospect and not develop quality, young offensive line depth.
If after this rigorous, objective and logic-driven interview process and dual-lens, short-term/long-term player acquisition strategy isn’t seen as sound and able to implemented more easily with the more sound candidate and the owner pulls an end-around, go-over-my-helmet, power play by forcing me to hire the Steve Spurrier/Lane Kiffin-styled hotshot…well…I can always send my resume over to New England; Belichick can’t run the show forever…right?
Michael Schuttke can be reached at email@example.com.