For NFL GMs, the margin for error is smaller than ever
Remember when Bill Polian was a genius? The six-time NFL Executive of the Year turned the Buffalo Bills of the 1980s and early 1990s into a team good enough to appear in four straight Super Bowls. He then went on to turn the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team good enough to appear in the NFC Championship Game two years after its NFL debut. Then, he turned the Indianapolis Colts into one of the perennial powers of the first decade of the new millennium.
But as time went on in his Indy tenure, Polian started to lose his fastball. He clung to old methodologies, and his drafts from 2007 through 2011 were woefully bereft of starting talent. When Peyton Manning lost the entire 2011 season to neck and shoulder injuries, the Colts that Polian had once created with such precision fell apart like a Rolex knock-off, slipping to 2-14 and leading to a sea change in the franchise from owner Jim Irsay. That change included Polian's ouster, and he's not been a personnel guy since -- he's been talking about other teams for ESPN.
Judging from the ways in which roster vagaries can jump up and bite the current wave of NFL general managers, Polian may have gotten out just in time. These days, the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill, to quote John Updike, can upend a team and the man responsible for assembling that team's roster more quickly than ever.
Consider the case of Ryan Grigson, Polian's replacement in Indianapolis. In 2012, Grigson had a brilliant first draft in which five different players -- quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, running back Vick Ballard, and receiver T.Y. Hilton -- had major roles in a remarkable team turnaround. Grigson's Colts won 11 games despite head coach Chuck Pagano's leukemia battle and a negative point differential, and made it to the playoffs just one year after it was assumed that Polian had left them with a multi-year rebuild.
One year after that, Grigson is a man very much in question. There are things he can't control, such as injuries and the fact that his team has a tougher schedule this season. But the things he can control have gone away from him. Not one of the Colts' 2013 draft picks has made a major impact in their rookie season, and the first-round selection of defensive end Bjoern Werner was particularly puzzling. Werner was more of a strong-side end in the Chris Long mold when he was at Florida State, but he didn't generally exhibit Long's explosion off the snap. He didn't start a game until the Colts' Nov. 25 contest against the Arizona Cardinals, and that only happened because Erik Walden had been suspended for a game after head-butting Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker.
Grigson will not have a first-round pick in 2014, because he traded it to the Cleveland Browns in-season for the services of running back Trent Richardson, who has gained 431 yards on 145 carries -- an average of 3.0 yards per carry. Even if the team is correct and Richardson will be more productive when he grasps the nuances of the Colts' offense, the trade itself will limit a team that still needs building blocks. And if Richardson doesn't work out, the trade handcuffs the Colts at two positions -- the one Richardson holds down, and the one that could have been improved by the player selected with that pick. The Colts are currently 8-5, and they will win a weak AFC South division, but they still have problems ... and they still have a negative point differential.
Meanwhile, the Browns go into the 2014 preseason knowing that they are a quarterback and a few other pieces away from legitimate contention, and the 2014 draft will be far richer at the game's most important position than the 2013 version was. By staying patient and stockpiling picks -- the game's most valuable currency by far -- the Browns are in a catbird seat, and the Colts could be on the outside looking in sooner rather than later.
You don't need to tell the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams how valuable draft picks are. In March of 2012, Washington swapped its 14th-overall pick for St. Louis' second-overall selection, adding a 2012 second-round pick and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 for the right to move up and take Baylor's Robert Griffin III. As a short sell, it was a brilliant move for Washington -- Griffin was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he helped the Redskins to an unlikely NFC East championship and playoff appearance.
However, because the Rams were patient, they won in the long term. They took LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers with the 14th pick after more moves, and Brockers has become one of the NFL's best young interior linemen. Then they turned around and got North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins with the second-rounder they got in that trade, and Jenkins has helped to redefine a formerly moribund secondary. He's mistake-prone at times, but he has the athleticism and aggressiveness that head coach Jeff Fisher requires in all his defensive players. In 2013, the Rams added another key cog in troubled but talented Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, who they selected with the 30th overall pick after a flurry of trades that also allowed them to acquire West Virginia speed receiver Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick.
Things have not been so great on the other end of that trade. Griffin missed the entire 2013 offseason recovering from knee surgery, his second season was a disappointment (head coach Mike Shanahan announced this week that he was de-activating Griffin for the rest of the season), and because the Redskins have played so poorly this season, the Rams will likely grab a top-five draft pick in 2014 out of the trade. Out of one transaction, it could be argued, the Rams (with Fisher and general manager Les Snead) have rebuilt a great deal of their franchise, while the Redskins put all their money on one number. If that number doesn't pay off, Redskins GM Brice Allen could be swept out in the same kind of rebuild the Colts had a couple years ago.
And there's no guarantee that the new guy will succeed over the long term, no matter how brilliant he is.
Consider the case of Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers' general manager since Jan., 2005. He firmly established himself as one of the NFL's better executives in terms of acquiring talent. When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at the end of the 2010 season, 49 of the 53 players on the team's roster had been acquired by Thompson and his staff. Thompson stuck to his guns when everyone was blasting him for playing "chicken" with Brett Favre, and wound up with an even more effective and efficient quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. The Packers couldn't follow up their Super Bowl season in 2011, but their 15-1 regular-season record was an even greater testament to Thompson's personnel acumen in some ways.
Thompson still hits on draft picks these days, but not with the same frequency, and the cracks are starting to show. Since Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, the Packers are 1-4-1 and barely hanging on for playoff contention, reflecting the travails of other teams built too high on the platform of one superstar.
The Atlanta Falcons put all their eggs in one basket, in part, after Thompson's Packers shredded them in the divisional round of the 2010 playoffs. That 48-21 score convinced general manager Thomas Dimitroff that his team needed a more dominant offensive weapon, and he went all-out to get one by trading five overall picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up to the sixth overall slot in the 2011 draft so that the Falcons could select Alabama receiver Julio Jones. Jones has developed into a dominant player when healthy, but he's been out since early October with a fractured foot -- and between his absence and the absences of the players the Falcons could have selected with those picks, Atlanta has plummeted to 3-10 on the season.
“We feel very good about our decision from the standpoint of Julio on the field and off the field, and the leadership he has brought to this team in three years,” Dimitroff told the Boston Globe in September. “We are encouraged by his evolution as one of the top receivers in this league. He had no diva-like qualities for a position that can sometimes bring that element to your team.”
The good news is that Dimitroff will have a high first round pick as a result of this lost season. The bad news is that despite his talent, Dimitroff hasn't always nailed those high picks in the recent past. No player from his 2012 draft has made a major impact, and Dimitroff has struggled to re-stock talent on both sides of the line.
Now that the Houston Texans have fired head coach Gary Kubiak, the spotlight is on general manager Rick Smith. The Texans are sitting at 2-11 and an unexpected dead season. Smith has made some great picks, but he's also missed on key positions, and despite the common perception that the team is one good quarterback away from a Kansas City Chiefs-style turnaround, it might not be that simple -- no matter what team owner Bob McNair thinks.
“We don’t have to do a lot to get us back on track,” McNair said in an obvious vote of confidence for Smith during the Dec. 6 press conference announcing Kubiak's departure. “We’re going to do everything we can to do that, and we expect to be right back in playoff contention next year. This is not a long-term rebuilding process. I want to make that clear. We’ve got core players who are outstanding players, and we still need to fill a few holes. We had some injuries that hurt us in key positions, in terms of leadership on the field. We have some things that we need to do, but we’ve still got a good core group of players that can make for an outstanding team.”
But like the Falcons, the Texans have had trouble finding dominant edge rushers, and strange selections have affected the overall quality of their offensive line. Such issues can take years to correct, and this is not an era for patience. It's not that Grigson, Allen, Thompson, Dimitroff and Smith aren't able personnel men -- they've all proven that they know what they're doing to an impressive degree. But the ramifications of that one questionable transaction, unfortunate injury or bad draft can hit a team sooner rather than later -- and these days, it seems to happen sooner than ever.