As the 2013 NFL Draft looms less than four weeks away, first-year New York Jets general manager John Idzik likely feels the heat of the spotlight on him as much or more so than any club executive in the league. As a rookie GM in the NFL's biggest media market, with the tenuous and tricky Darrelle Revis trade talks to navigate amid the backdrop of a franchise approaching what appears to be a crossroads season for its head coach and starting quarterback, Idzik can ill afford any glaring missteps when it comes to New York's precious draft picks.
But as little known as he might have been to the Jets fan base when he was selected to replace the fired Mike Tannenbaum in January, Idzik's 20-year NFL career leaves him quite familiar with the experience and pressure of working for a franchise desperate for a turnaround. He did, after all, get his start in the league as part of the remarkable collection of front office talent that Tampa Bay amassed in the mid-90s, even as the long-downtrodden Bucs were striving to overcome the throes of an NFL record 12 consecutive double-digit loss seasons (1983-94) and 14 consecutive losing seasons (1983-96).
The Bucs of those days were the graveyard of NFL aspirations, "where careers went to die,'' in the words of one longtime and successful agent who dealt with them frequently.
Talk about the Tampa 2 all you want, as the Bucs' ultra-successful defensive formation came to be known in the early days of the Tony Dungy coaching era. But what to make of the Tampa 7, the seven members of the 1995-96 Bucs organization who have gone on to head up the front offices of seven different NFL franchises, with all of them rising to level of general manager or beyond? Never will there be a more unlikely springboard or breeding ground for success than those Tampa Bay teams that went 7-9 and 6-10, but wound up seeding the rest of the league's front offices with executives who still dot the NFL landscape, despite working in a cramped, outdated team facility that was easily the worst in the league and made the recruitment of free agents nigh impossible. Far from the model franchise, the Bucs of those days were the laughingstock of the league, but who's laughing now?
Incredibly, Idzik is the seventh member of those mid-90s Bucs to come to power in an NFL front office, tabbed to lead Woody Johnson's Jets after 11-plus years spent in Tampa Bay's front office, three more in Arizona, and the past six seasons in Seattle's well-respected personnel operation. He joins an impressive list that includes:
-- Current Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, the former Bucs general manager from 1993-2003 who hired Dungy as coach in 1996, setting the stage for the franchise's resurgence and eventual 2002 Super Bowl championship.
-- Current Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, entering his fifth season as the team's GM, has been in the Bucs' front office since being hired in 1995 as a fresh-faced 24-year-old pro personnel assistant.
-- Current Tennessee Titans executive vice president-general manager Ruston Webster, now in his fourth season with the Titans after spending four years in Seattle's front office and 18 years in a variety of roles in Tampa Bay's (1988-2005).
-- Current Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew was a starting cornerback for the 1995-96 Bucs, the final two seasons of his eight-year NFL playing career. Mayhew was elevated to Lions GM in December 2008, replacing Matt Millen, and under his leadership Detroit broke its 11-season playoff drought, making the postseason in 2011.
Plenty has been written or said about the NFL coaching "trees'' of Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren, Dungy, or Bill Belichick. And to be sure, the front office trees that have sprouted from longtime Green Bay GM Ron Wolf, Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff and former Colts GM Bill Polian are growing more impressive by the year. But for sheer volume, and accomplishment, no team can match the front office roster that Tampa Bay once had working under the same roof, even as the Bucs were for years synonymous with defeat and NFL failure.
It's an astounding legacy for a franchise whose front office and coaching staffs were once considered so inept that 1986 No. 1 overall draft pick Bo Jackson famously refused to sign with Tampa Bay and instead opted for a career in baseball.
"That really was an exceptional group, and it was fun,'' said Dungy, who led the Bucs to four playoff trips in his six seasons (1996-2001) in Tampa Bay, his first NFL head coaching job. "Looking back, there's no mystery now why we had success. We had so many guys who were great at finding players, and we all had the same philosophy of how to win. We put together solid teams, with quality guys, we worked hard, and we were patient. It wasn't a quick-fix formula or an overnight type of success. We did it the right way.''
I was a first-time beat writer covering those Bucs for the St. Petersburg Times in the '90s, and in 1995, my last full year on the beat, Tampa Bay started 5-2 before swooning to a 7-9 finish, in head coach Sam Wyche's fourth and final season on the job. But that set the stage for the Dungy hiring, and the resurgence of the franchise. All seven of the future and current NFL general managers were already on hand by '95, but absolutely no one suspected there was a front office pipeline of sorts in the making in Tampa Bay. Trust me when I say there were few clues that untapped greatness was present.
"The talent there, in that Bucs personnel department back then, was all invisible in plain sight,'' said longtime agent Don Yee, who represents Tom Brady and whose dealings with Tampa Bay extend as far back as 1991, when the Bucs drafted one of his clients, offensive tackle Charles McRae, in the first round. "I do know that once Rich McKay came in as GM (in 1994), you could feel there was a greater sense of stability than there had been. There was at least a plan in place. And then they brought (Dungy) in and things took off.
"I've never seen anything like their front office track record in my 25 years in the business. That is where careers once went to die, in Tampa Bay. Dungy being hired was important, but you have to give some credit to Rich McKay. He was the son of a famous head coach (USC and Tampa Bay head coach John McKay), so he knew you had to preach patience in developing a program. He was preaching patience also about Tony developing as a head coach. I give Rich credit there in kind of infusing the organization with a sense of poise and composure, as opposed to panic, which had been their mode of operation in the past.''
After a brief spurt of success early on in Tampa Bay's franchise history (three playoff trips in a four-year span from 1979-82), the Bucs descended into the depths of the NFL and stayed there. Seemingly forever. Tampa Bay had something of a reverse Midas Touch on the personnel front, and its front office was known for a litany of disasters and epic misses that ranged from failing to re-sign quarterback Doug Williams in 1983 to getting nothing in return for the drafting of Jackson, to a string of first-round flops that included linebackers Broderick Thomas and Keith McCants, McRae, and defensive end Eric Curry.
But the 1994 draft brought productive players like quarterback Trent Dilfer and running back Errict Rhett in the first two rounds, and when the Bucs hit the grand slam of taking both Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the first round of 1995, a foundation for Tampa Bay's turnaround to come was being put into place. In Dungy's first two years on the job, cogs like Mike Alstott, Donnie Abraham, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber were added via the draft.
"We worked hand in hand, together, and everybody had a say,'' said Angelo, the former Cowboys and Giants scout who headed the Bucs personnel department. "Everybody dug in and you saw the best of everybody. We really grew together. We made a lot of mistakes, but we learned from those mistakes and did a lot of good things, too. And then Tony came in, and it all started to come together. Now we were ready to make the move. I just think you'll never see something like that again.
"When I look back, I probably take as much satisfaction about being a part of that group as I do anything in my career. Just tremendous satisfaction. It is a really neat story, and I think it is going to be really, really tough for that to ever be duplicated.''
While Angelo had some NFL experience by the time he reached Tampa Bay, even winning a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 1986 New York Giants personnel staff, so many of those who made up the Bucs' front office were novices in the league. Webster was hired away from the University of Alabama after serving as a graduate assistant under then-Tide head coach Ray Perkins, who brought him to the Bucs in 1988, one year after filling Tampa Bay's head coaching opening. Idzik was a GA at Duke before joining the Bucs in 1993. Dominik had just a year and a half in the league, spent working in the college and pro personnel departments under Terry Bradway in Kansas City. And Ruskell came to Tampa Bay after scouting in the CFL and USFL.
McKay himself, though from a famous football family, had served as the Bucs team counsel under former owner Hugh Culverhouse, with no NFL management experience until he headed the team's football operations starting in 1992.
"One of the things we had going for us it was my first job, as a GM, and I had zero credibility in the job, because I really had only worked in the league for three years when I got the job,'' McKay said. "It was Tony's first head coaching job. The way I look at it is, I think we were the beneficiaries of low expectations from the outside, which were deserved, given the history of the franchise.
"And then, the team was being sold (in 1994-95, from the Culverhouse family to the Malcolm Glazer family), and we had a little window of time there. We all just decided I think as a group that we were going to be all-in. We were going to either sink or swim together. We tried to look back on what had gone wrong in the franchise and we kind of re-invented how we were going to do things on a go-forward basis. We changed a lot. Like the types of people we were going to draft, and the fact we were going to look for guys who had played well, and not players who had potential.''
The Bucs personnel department of that era was truly a collaborative effort. There was no rigid hierarchy or chain of command. McKay and Angelo headed a group of guys who knew they had significant obstacles to overcome, like the franchise's history of losing, the embarrassingly minor-league team facility known as One Buc Place, and even those oft-ridiculed creamsicle orange jerseys.
"It's a testament to the people, because it wasn't the facility, it wasn't money, and it wasn't any tradition,'' Angelo said. "What it was was a team that grew into something. We didn't have the buildings, the salaries or the history that a lot of teams have, because with the environment we were in, those factors weren't in our favor. But it really was a total team effort. That's what really kind of makes it unique. Usually stories like this come out of the Redskins, the Cowboys or the Packers. The traditional franchises.''
Beside the Tampa 7, Angelo likes to count another former Bucs personnel man among those who succeeded and went elsewhere. Former Tampa Bay scout and ex-Rams starting quarterback James "Shack'' Harris spent 1987-92 with the Bucs, and later went on to become vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the franchise's top personnel executive. Harris now works under Mayhew in Detroit as a senior personnel executive.
Said McKay: "You wouldn't have seen it coming, given where we started and the fact that the only thought you had once you entered our building, One Buc Place, was How quickly can I get out? The atmosphere of that building was just one of the challenges we faced.''
McKay is not exaggerating. One Buc was a joke, a rat-trap facility that looked unsuitable for any good high school program in Texas. But winning did cure most of Tampa Bay's ills.
Dungy credits McKay with fostering a setting where listening to everyone and taking in as much information as possible before a decision was made became the Bucs' way. Dominik was among the low men on the totem pole, but his voice and opinions were heard in personnel meetings, and the communication and dialogue between the coaching staff and personnel department was constant and productive.
"It was a great environment to grow in, and I tried to do the same thing on my coaching staff,'' said Dungy, whose Bucs staffs included future head coaches like Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Rod Marinelli, Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell. "But I think it all started with Rich, and his philosophy of being a good listener who valued people's opinions.''
Even though the tenacious and intelligent Mayhew was in the Bucs' locker room, not the front office, he too absorbed some of the lessons of Tampa Bay's mindset when it came to personnel decisions in the mid-90s. Though he only coached Mayhew in 1996, his final season as an NFL player, Dungy recalls thinking something significant was in his future.
"I thought maybe he'd be president of the United States. I don't know about being a GM,'' Dungy said. "The second conversation I ever had with Martin, he told me he wanted to go to law school, during the year, and that he needed to be ready for life after football. And he was a great leader for us that first year, while he was going to law school. You knew then he was going to be destined for something big, something great.''
Webster is a great example of how Tampa Bay's front office allowed for growth and upward mobility. He worked his way up in the NFL from scout, to college scouting director, to personnel director, and finally to general manager. The traditional long climb is not often made in today's league.
"It's all pretty amazing, given where we came from,'' Webster said at last week's NFL annual meeting in Phoenix. "We had a lot of good people, a lot of hard-working people in Tampa, but it was a lot of years toiling and not winning. Once Rich was given the reins, and Tony came in, things just turned around.
"Somehow, really, we survived. And maybe it's more about survival than anything else. I never would have thunk it. There were so many times we used to sit back in that office and say 'If we could just get to 8-8. Just get there and see what happens.' We worked long and hard, even when things looked terrible.''
With apologies to Sinatra, Dominik said he chose to take the job in Tampa Bay in 1995, knowing that if he could make it there, he'd make it anywhere. There was nowhere to go but up.
"My personal thought was if you could turn it around in Tampa Bay, that'd be good for your long-term career,'' Dominik said, from Phoenix and the owners meeting. "I think that's what a lot of us thought back then. That we can get this thing turned around. Some of us, we were sitting around and joking about it the other night, going, 'Isn't this something?' All of us being here, to see where everybody has gotten their opportunities and gone now? It was a special time in Tampa, and it was a special team. Thankfully, we finally won.''