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Offseason adjustments throughout organization key to improvement

It was a play that coach Bill Walsh talked about all week before a 1986 playoff game. Catch a quick slant, make New York Giants defensive back Herbie Welch miss the tackle and the end zone is wide open.

I watched in amazement from the press box as the graceful Jerry Rice was heading toward the end zone. As he crossed the Giants 20 with no one in his path, something strange happened. While attempting to move the ball from his right hand to his left, Rice's knee rose up and hit the ball, causing it to fall forward and out of the end zone. The 49ers went from a potentially quick 7-0 lead to a moment of shock and despair, and before halftime our Super Bowl aspirations were gone. The offseason started that night on the long flight back to San Francisco.

This year's offseason is very different from those in the '80s -- for both the players and the front office executives. Back in '86 there was one minicamp, no extensive offseason weight program and, of course, no free agency. The college draft in late April was the only way of improving a team.

Today there is unrestricted free agency, 14 offseason practices, up to three minicamps and the weight program starts in late March and runs until the end of June.

There said, there are three areas that can cause a team to fail to achieve its intended goal of improving from one season to the next. The first is a breakdown in coaching, the second involves the schemes on offense, defense and the kicking game, and the last and most important area is talent level.

The consistent winners in the NFL have outstanding coaching, excellent schemes and their success is based largely on the talent they have assembled. That is the perfect paradigm to achieve maximum success. As an executive, if you're not sure in which area your team is malfunctioning, then your ability to turn your team's fortunes around will be difficult. You may wrongly blame the coach or the scheme, when the malfunction is actually the talent level. Making the correct determination is the most critical factor in offseason planning.

No matter which team l worked for during my 22-year NFL career, when the season was completed, my focus was first on self-evaluation in all three critical areas of the team. This examination requires complete honesty in your evaluations, a complete understanding of the NFL teams and coaching methods. Coaches will come back from a little break after the season and write reports on each player in their group. The personnel staff independently will write comprehensive reports on every player on the roster. Once these reports are finalized from coaches and personnel, a staff meeting will follow to go over each player on the roster.

Once both staffs have met, then you can formulate your team needs list. Bill Parcells, for example, will always have two working lists. One list he calls his Must List, meaning for his team to improve, he must get these needs fixed -- right now. His other list is his Need List, meaning he needs some improvement in these areas, but not as urgent. Parcells knows his schemes and coaching methods are top shelf, thus allowing him to center on the improvement of his talent base.

Here is an example of my Raiders team needs chart well before the start of free agency in 1999:

The results from these lists will ultimately separate the good teams from the bad in the NFL. The quality teams have quality evaluators able to determine which players have the starting potential, which players can be counted on to contribute as valuable backups and which players are not going to help a team win.

Counting on a player to help from within is critical. As you can see from the above chart, we counted on Mike Husted to be a solid kicker, but we misjudged his talent and he failed to succeed in his job -- which, in turn, cost us games in '99. However, we did solve a huge need in signing quarterback Rich Gannon to replace Jeff George. Gannon went on to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl and became the MVP of the league in 2002.

It is also vital to know which player matches up well in the division and which player fails to play well against certain competition. For example, if you're a team in the AFC South and have to face Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and Tennessee quarterback Vince Young twice a year, you have to have the right style of players on your defense and the right scheme that allows you to match up correctly -- with each one. You must always ask yourself the question -- as you're working your plan in the offseason -- does his player match up well in our division? If you can't win games in your division, you can't make the playoffs.

Before heading to the combine, the personnel staff must grade every player on every NFL team. Focusing on just the restricted and unrestricted players will leave too many gaps in your knowledge of the players in the league. Meetings will take place to determine if any players in free agency can improve the team and how free agency relates to the depth of the upcoming college draft. If the draft is not fruitful in an area of need, then teams may have to find alternative ways during the free agency period to satisfy their needs.

Cleveland did a wonderful job this year of using its knowledge of the college draft and free agency to rebuild its defensive line. The Browns traded away second-, third- and fifth-round picks to acquire defensive tackles Corey Williams from Green Bay and Shaun Rogers from Detroit. Cleveland clearly made the determination in its free agency and pre-college draft meetings that there were not enough quality defensive linemen in the draft and it would have to solve its problems in other ways. In football today, you must link the college draft to your free agency plan.

One of the biggest offseason events, of course, is the combine, which has become a major gathering place for agents and NFL executives. There is much more going on behind the scenes in Indy -- whether at Shula's Steakhouse, Hooters or St Elmo's -- than the fans will ever see on the field. With the draft being so far away at that point, the focus for many executives is to get their team salary cap in shape and to listen to all the information coming from the agents of potential free agents.

Agents have an obligation to their client to create interest in the player. They are always looking for the perfect storm -- getting two or more teams bidding for the same player. Therefore there can be many deceptions about which teams are interested and which teams may be willing to pay big money. As an executive you have to know what the other teams are thinking and who may be your competition on each and every free agent you pursue. It's really a game of poker, and each team has only so many chips to acquire players.

Free agency allows an executive to solve some problems and cross off a few items from their Team Needs List. You may add one or two high-priced free agents, but the real success comes in finding the diamonds in the rough, the down the line mid-priced players who will make vital contributions to your team, thus allowing you to enter the draft without a sense of desperation.

Back in '86 with the 49ers, when there was no free agency, we entered the draft with many Team Needs. However, on April 29 -- draft day -- we crossed off many from our list and set the franchise in a Super Bowl direction for years to come.

We held the 18th pick in the first round that year. We desperately needed a pass rusher and wanted to add a new dimension to our running back group. At the 12th pick in the draft, Walsh instructed me to go to the blackboard (remember, this is '86, all there were were blackboards) and write down these three names in the following order.

Gerald Robinson, Defensive End, Auburn

John L. Williams, Running Back, Florida

Ronnie Harmon, Running Back, Iowa.

The Vikings, picking 14th, snared Robinson, and I erased his name from he board. The Seahawks, picking 15th, grabbed Williams, and another one went off the board, and then the last bomb hit at 16 when the Bills grabbed Harmon. The blackboard was empty. Walsh, being a creative genius, had to determine what we would do next.

As we waited, we had offers from Buffalo to move to the 29th pick, which we accepted, and then had another offer to move all the way down to the 39th pick from Detroit -- which also seem to fit our new trade down plans. Before we finally selected a player, we had collected three third-round picks, three fourth-round picks and a first round pick for the '87 draft. (We traded one of the second-round picks we collected to Washington for its first-round pick in the next year).

It was like Walsh conducted a draft day clinic moving around the draft, but the real success came in the players we finally selected. At 39 we selected a very good defensive tackle, Larry Roberts, from Alabama. At the 56th pick to start the third round we selected fullback Tom Rathman from Nebraska; at 64 we selected defensive back Tim McKyer from Texas Arlington, and we closed out the third round selecting a wide receiver from Delaware State named John Taylor at 76. So with the third round completed, we had added three starters and crossed three needs off our list.

We started off the fourth round with the 96th pick and selected defensive end Charles Haley from James Madison, then offensive tackle Steve Wallace from Auburn at 101, and finally at 102 we closed out the fourth round by selecting an injured but soon-to-be-healthy defensive end from Miami named KevinFagan. Another round completed and another three starters added to our team.

In the fifth round we were running out of quality players to select and someone in the room was pushing for linebacker Pat Miller from Florida. Walsh was reluctant to select Miller because of some off-the-field information, but nevertheless, Miller became a 49er. But as the sixth-round began, Walsh was disgusted and determined to not have someone force a player upon him. He walked over to the defensive backs board for his own review. "Michael, what about this kid Don Griffin from Middle Tennessee State," he asked.

"Coach, I replied, he is the Ohio Valley defensive player of the year and we have some excellent grades on his play." Walsh then told me he is the next pick and to get him on the phone. Another round passes -- another need solved and yet another starter for the 49ers championship teams.

Today when teams enter the minicamps with their rookie and most of their offseason planning completed, I am often reminded of a line in a Bruce Springsteen song: "I can't tell the difference between my courage from my desperation".

You have to enter the offseason with a sense of courage and commitment to achieve your goals. And yet some teams act with a sense of desperation, hoping they can make the one or two moves that will save their season and their jobs.

Not all drafts solve all your needs like the '86 draft did for the 49ers, but when you understand exactly what your team needs are and constantly work toward solving those needs, your offseason can be a success. How many teams in this year's draft solved their needs? That question will be answered in the coming weeks.

Mike Lombardi has 22 years of NFL experience, working in player personnel with the Broncos, Raiders, Browns, Eagles and 49ers. Email comments to siwriters@simail.com.

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