The Chiefs are in first place, and the Panthers have won 10 games. Both are a good bet to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, and yet the general managers who were hired at the start of that stretch spent much of this calendar year unemployed. And there’s no doubt John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman put good players on those rosters.
So where was the problem? It was the rest of the job.
Dorsey’s issue in Kansas City was co-workers felt he freelanced with some calls (paying Eric Fisher; drafting Kevin Hogan) and dragged his feet on others (Eric Berry, Justin Houston contracts), which led to festering office politics. Meanwhile, Gettleman’s blunt, hard-nosed manner with long-time Panther employees and in contract talks created friction for his boss, and ran counter to the organization’s well-established culture.
The lesson? Simple. What’s demanded out of the guy occupying the GM’s chair goes well beyond what he can control with the clicker in a dark room.
“It can’t just be the meathead football guy,” said an NFC GM. “That doesn’t fly with ownership, it doesn’t fly with community relations, and that’s not how a lot of the younger scouts think. You have to be able to lead in a different way. … We’re doing our draft meetings now, we have ‘kids’ in there, 26, 27, 28 years old, and they’re all very different in how they think.”
Says an AFC GM of the job: “You’re really touching everything that has to do with the football team. It’s the field, video, trainers, doctors, the players, coaches; you’re involved in football ops, travel, logistics. And yeah, you have other people who are in charge of that stuff, but they look to you for the final stamp on it. … Why is the footing on the field bad? Stuff like that, being on the road, that you’d never think of.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to check on Nick Foles’ first outing as the Eagles starter, and why it worked; examine the Colts’ rebuild and the Patriots’ new problem; and also look at the Bills’ resurgence, and the Panthers’ present and future.
But we’re starting with the column I started at the Boston Globe, carried with me over to NFL Network, and have continued here the past couple years at The MMQB.
This is the ninth installment of my annual future GM list, and every year we try to pluck out a trend to kick things off. This year has been a weird one in that particular job market. Eight GMs (or de facto GMs) have been fired since the last weekend of last season—in San Francisco, Indianapolis, Washington, Buffalo, Kansas City, Carolina, Cleveland and New York. Only one went down at the traditional time of immediately following Week 17.
The others: Jan. 21, March 9, April 30, June 23, July 17, Dec. 3, Dec. 7. In each case, there was some level of dysfunction in the building. In a few, it came despite the fact the team was winning and the roster was stocked. And so hiring teams will be seeking a personnel boss with this question in mind: Can the guy lead and manage people?
“This job, you can’t just watch tape all day,” said another NFC GM. “You have the equipment guy reporting to you, the video guy reporting to you, you’re managing the roster, working with the cap guy, handling the owner. There’s a difference between being a personnel director and being a GM. They’re different jobs. … And I think with Gettleman and Dorsey, it was more, ‘I just wanna watch tape.’”
So in assessing the Giants’ search, and others that pop up—there probably won’t be a ton in this cycle because there’s already been so many changes this year—remember that while picking players is important, running the show is too. Let’s jump in, beginning with the top 10, in alphabetical order...
Patriots VP of player personnel Nick Caserio:The belief is he’d be elevated whenever Bill Belichick retires. But Caserio will have opportunity again this year, and I think he’ll at least listen.
Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta: He has long run the draft for Ozzie Newsome and has contractual incentives to stay. It’d take a lot to pull DeCosta away, and few believe he’d leave.
Eagles VP of player personnel Joe Douglas:Hidden in Baltimore for years, Douglas’ work is no secret anymore. And I’d bet Philly will do something to make it worth his while to stay.
Bills VP of player personnel Brian Gaine: He’s interviewed for a handful of jobs over the past couple of years, and now has his fingerprints on another rising team. And Gaine has always earned the trust of coaches.
Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst: The Niners were impressed with Gutekunst last year, before he pulled his name out, and word has gotten out that he’s ready for the next step.
Seahawks co-director of player personnel Trent Kirchner:A pro-side guy, he’s worked day-to-day in a successful office, and GM John Schneider put him on the road this fall to round out his résumé.
Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay: He’s another one who is perceived to be staying no matter what—he’s trusted and treated well by the Joneses—but is well worth making a run.
Cardinals VP of player personnel Terry McDonough:He’s got very strong and loyal advocates, helped turn around Arizona, and was a finalist for the Niner job, along with George Paton, last January.
Vikings assistant GM George Paton: Probably the premier name on this year’s list. He’s been interviewed for jobs the past few years, and a well-rounded Viking roster is crushing it on the field.
Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf:The pedigree is there, and there have even been murmurs he could be packaged with Dave Gettleman as a GM-in-waiting in New York.
Mike Borgonzi, Kansas City; Trey Brown, Philadelphia; Joey Clinkscales, Oakland; Ryan Cowden, Tennessee; Ed Dodds, Indianapolis; Scott Fitterer, Seattle; Brian Gaine, Buffalo; Brian Heimerdinger, Jets; Alonzo Highsmith, Green Bay; Joe Hortiz, Baltimore; Brandon Hunt, Pittsburgh; Dwayne Joseph, Philadelphia; Monti Ossenfort, New England; Matt Russell, Denver; Jamaal Stephenson, Minnesota; Duke Tobin, Cincinnati; Andy Weidl, Philadelphia.
Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland: New Orleans’ young talent is his resume, as he’s run the draft there, and you won’t find many classes better than the Saints’ current one.
Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli: Has been a big part of building one of the NFL’s best rosters, and has spent a lot of this fall on the road doing college scouting.
OTHERS WHO MERIT MENTION: Ryan Grigson, Cleveland; Chris Polian, Jacksonville.
ONE WILD CARD
National Invitation Camp president Jeff Foster. This is a good place to wrap up this week’s list. Why? Because someone brought up Foster’s name in my reporting, pointing out that he’s basically been running for years a business that’s centered on player evaluation—having to manage a staff, run logistics and deal with competing agendas. It seems to be the perfect way to prepare someone to be an NFL GM.
1. Eagles know they’re not coaching Carson Wentz anymore. The best coaches in the NFL adapt to their talent, rather than shoehorning the talent into a system. The Eagles offensive coaches—head man Doug Pederson, coordinator Frank Reich and QB coach John DeFilippo—showed that in their first Carson Wentz-less game. And it went well beyond the numbers posted by Nick Foles, even though those (24-38, 237 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) were plenty good.
The plan, as I understand it, was to keep things simple on Foles, and create easy completions for him to get him going. So the Eagles threw out of the kind of option look Foles excelled in playing for Chip Kelly on their first offense snap, and he hit a 12-yard strike to Alshon Jeffrey, the first of four completions (on five throws) on that possession. And a benefit to that, as the coaches saw it, was in speeding up Foles, who operates a little slower than Wentz. Foles found his rhythm and rallied the Eagles in admirable fashion. One staffer said, “We’re proud of him.”
Others in the organization had reason to feel good about it, too, because going and getting Foles this offseason took some gumption in March. The Eagles’ 2016 backup, Chase Daniel, had $5 million of his 2017 salary with the team fully guaranteed and carrying offset language, and Philly is now paying $4.1 million of that, since Daniel is making just $900,000 in New Orleans. So there’s that on the books, plus the two-year, $11 million deal they gave Foles to replace him. Foles gets $4 million in cash this year, meaning Philly’s paying $8.1 million for their No. 2 quarterback spot in 2017, and $7 million next year. Is it a lot? Sure. But Wentz’s rookie deal gives the Eagles flexibility, and the organizational philosophy holds that the No. 2 QB spot is vital.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie said to me last week, “We prioritized that position and we always have. We’ve always wanted to invest a lot of money in it, and have had a real potential upside quarterback.” Thanks to the investment, and the plan set by the guys in charge, we saw that upside at the Meadowlands.
2. The Patriots’ drama. The rumor-mill on the discord between Tom Brady’s body coach, Alex Guerrero, and the Patriots has been spinning for a week now, and all that culminated in Tuesday’s Boston Globe report that Guerrero had been banned from the team’s facility. So let’s start with what we know. As I understand it, the team (read: Bill Belichick) has set boundaries for where Guerrero can and can’t go after previously giving him the run of Gillette Stadium. He doesn’t fly with the team anymore, nor is he permitted to work the sidelines. But he still does have a presence around the team, and he has been spotted at the team hotel during the Patriots’ past few trips, having traveled there on his own dime.
The rift here has nothing to do with what Guerrero does with Brady, which is obviously working. The guy is the easy pick for MVP at 40. It’s more a result of the recruitment of players to work with Guerrero as he and Brady spread the gospel of the TB12 Method, and how that’s caused friction with the team’s training staff.
I don’t think it will end there. You won’t find many people at Gillette Stadium who are surprised with what Jimmy Garoppolo has already accomplished in San Francisco, or skeptical that it’ll keep going. The Patriots knew what they had, and more than a few staffers were stunned when the trade went down Oct. 30. There’s always been a sense that Belichick wanted, before he retires, to usher the team into the post-Brady Era, and he had the guy to accomplish that. And then, suddenly, Garoppolo was gone, and the idea that Belichick could feasibly pull off that torch-passing became a lot less probable.
The bottom line is that the team has a 65-year-old head coach and 40-year-old quarterback. While all of this probably won’t affect its bid for a sixth championship, my sense is there’s a certain unease with what the future holds for the organization. The Guerrero problem doesn’t help.
3. The Colts’ plan moving forward. So this is an item on the Colts, and by law any item on the Colts has to start with an Andrew Luck update. And I can give you one: I’m told Luck will be back in the building next week, and the internal hope is for him to start a throwing program in early January. After all the setbacks of 2017, getting 2018 off to that kind of start would be huge.
By then, chances are there will be a new coaching staff in place, as it seems inevitable that these are the final days of Chuck Pagano’s six-year reign in Indy. Still, Pagano’s staff has kept the team locked in and competitive most weeks, and a pretty good percentage of the guys in Chris Ballard’s first rookie class are contributing, even with first-rounder Malik Hooker on the shelf. Eight dressed for the loss to Denver, and six played plenty on offense or defense. Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore started at corner, and both played the entire game, with Wilson doing competitive work against Demaryius Thomas; Marlon Mack platooned with Frank Gore at tailback; and Anthony Walker, Tarrell Basham and Grover Stewart got time in the front seven.
This is obviously just a start, and much of what’s ahead will hinge on Luck getting healthy. But there’s certainly reason for hope that Luck will come back into a better situation in 2018 than the one he left behind when he took his last snap in 2016.
4. The Bills’ next step.I’m on record as saying that Buffalo’s new regime, led by Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, has it right in how they’ve handled it in Year 1. Buffalo is heading into a game in Foxboro that’ll define much of how this season is viewed. There are two turning points in their season that have served as indicators to those in the organization.
The first was the team’s 34-14 blowout of Oakland on Oct. 29, two days after Beane traded perhaps the most talented player on the roster, Marcell Dareus, to Jacksonville. The second was a 16-10 Thanksgiving weekend win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead, which came the week after the Nathan Peterman disaster. The program was tested in both cases. After the Dareus trade, it was because they’d just made a move that very clearly was about 2018 and beyond. After Peterman’s five-interception debacle, it was, again, about the future and a miscalculation by the coaching staff. Each time, the team came roaring back.
“That comes from (McDermott),” said one Bills source. “He keeps guys focused and motivated and it’s all about us. He talks about (these things) and keeps it open, and there is no hiding it, no sweeping things under the rug. We address it and move on.” In that quarterback decision, McDermott clearly explained the switch to Peterman to the players before the Charger game, then owned the misstep immediately afterwards, and that was it. And then they beat Kansas City in one of the league’s most hostile environments.
It’s still Year 1 for these guys, but now they’ll have two chances to lock up their third winning season since the turn of the century, and a shot at their first playoff berth in that time. Should be interesting to see how it holds up with so much on the line against the Patriots on Sunday.
First and 10
1. It’s seeming less and less likely that the Texans’ football hierarchy will return intact in 2018. That’s the final year of coach Bill O’Brien’s deal, and it’s hard to imagine the team would go into it with that unresolved and the relationship between coaching and scouting what it is now. If he’s available, there’s little question that O’Brien would vault to the top of many teams’ lists.
2. Both Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril face uncertain futures with neck injuries, 2018 is a contract year for both Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, and Michael Bennett is 32. It all adds up to some decisions needing to be made after this year by Seattle GM John Schneider, who is nothing if not aggressive.
3. Reworking the roster will be more difficult for Seattle this year because win-now trades for Sheldon Richardson and Duane Brown left the team without second-round picks the next two years, and without a third-round pick in April. Again, the Seahawks figure to have big decisions to make.
4. With changes coming in Cincinnati, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is in a nice position. His deal is up, which means he’ll either find a way to win the head coaching spot, or be a hot commodity as a coordinator candidate elsewhere. To that end, his close relationship with Redskins coach Jay Gruden is worth noting.
5. One interesting GM name I didn’t mention in the lead: Jacksonville’s Dave Caldwell. Yes, he’s already a GM, but because he no longer has final-say there (Tom Coughlin does), it’s possible that teams put in requests for him. And given that he built a good chunk of that roster, calls certainly could come.
6. Speaking of the Jags, with Blake Bortles’ improvement, some credit should go to offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, who has overseen a dramatic jump from his unit after being promoted from his quarterbacks coach spot late last season. Jacksonville is first in the league in rush offense, which has allowed the team to control the pace of games and highlighted one of the NFL’s best defenses.
7. Both the Titans and Lions are in the strange situation of either making the playoffs or, potentially, enduring a coaching change. The Lions are in Cincinnati on Sunday, while the Titans host the Rams. If there are changes in either place, or both places, expect to hear the names of Patriots coordinators JoshMcDaniels and Matt Patricia.
8. The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt trails Le’Veon Bell by 21 yards in the chase for the rushing title. Hunt has a chance to be the second straight rookie to capture that crown. In case you’re wondering, another bumper crop of backs is expected in next year’s draft.
9. Staff changes could be in the offing in Oakland, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not offensive line coach and polarizing presence Mike Tice, a close friend of Jack Del Rio, is part of them. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could, potentially, be an interesting addition.
10. Favorable pictures aside, Ezekiel Elliott did report back to the Cowboys in fighting shape, something that he hasn’t always done. It’s a good sign that he spent his time off the right way, and reason to believe he’ll be an impact guy right away. The problem? Given the NFC’s crowded picture, it may not be enough to get Dallas in.
Lesson of the Week
There’s plenty to digest going forward with the Panthers, and our lesson of the week will focus on their ability to do just that. Because if not for Jerry Richardson’s swift decision to sell the team, there’s very little question that the SI story explaining the workplace culture in Charlotte could well have swallowed whole the Panthers’ season and weighed down the franchise for years to come.
On the field, Carolina is 10-4, and can clinch a playoff spot Sunday with a win in Tampa. Their 31-24 win last week over the Packers came after the announcement that there’d be an investigation but before the full story from Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein went up on our site, and they found out quickly afterward what was in there.
Before the players retreated to the locker room, though, Thomas Davis addressed the players on the field, knowing a stormy few days likely laid ahead of the team. “Speak on what you know,” Davis told them, “and focus on the task at hand.”
In talking to coaches this week, it seems like the team has handled that part of the larger situation fine. Most of the chatter in the locker room, according to those in there, on Wednesday centered on Davis’ suspension (for a hit on Davante Adams) being reduced from two games to one, and Cam Newton’s charity Christmas party the night before.
That’s not to say that the Richardson situation isn’t an issue for the team. It is. They’ve just been able to effectively compartmentalize it.
Now, the macro issue here is what happens next to the franchise itself. The question I have is whether or not an NFL franchise is actually still a good investment. And so I asked. The one caveat I’d offer here is that most of the people I’d talk to about this have ties to the league, but what I found was that few believe buying a team’s become a bad bet, even with the threat you’d be buying high.
“The answer is yes, NFL teams are still excellent investments,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of SportsCorp, which has been involved in team purchases. “The financial future of the NFL is still very bright. Its public relations situation is challenging, but its core economics and core fan interest are still quite strong. We’re in an odd time environmentally in our country.
“It’s like a road-grader is out there crushing everything in its way. And the NFL’s a big boulder, but the road-grader will find it. But everyone is dealing with that. And the NFL has dealt with its existential issue—concussions.”
Now, clearly there won’t be the kind of return that, say, Robert Kraft got on the Patriots or Jerry Jones brought home on the Cowboys. But Ganis mentioned that those weren’t considered rock-solid investments at the time either.
“When we were talking $160 million or $165 million in New England, people thought that was stratospheric,” Ganis said. “Now, that’s a rounding error for the Patriots.”
The Panthers are valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion, and Ganis’ guess is they’ll go for somewhere north of $2 billion. There should be a few bidders too.
Software developer James Goodnight is a Cary, N.C., native and is worth $8.9 billion. The Levine family is a limited partner in the Panthers now, and could make a run at primary ownership, while Steelers minority owner Dave Tepper has show interest in the idea in the past.
There are the mega-wealthy too, guys like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who have the capital but have not shown much of a desire to pursue an NFL team. And the idea that private equity guys benefiting from the uptick in the stock market isn’t crazy.
So there will be someone, and it’s pretty likely that Richardson will want an assurance from that someone that the team will stay put in Charlotte, given that he’d likely have little interest in doing further damage to his legacy at home.
And as for where the growth potential for the league is to further bulge the bottom line, there are the obvious places to look (international, digital media, etc.) But there’s also the elephant in the room: the potential that sports gambling could be legalized.
“That’s a potential source of new revenue,” Ganis said, “in the multi-billions per year.”
Bottom line, for all the league’s problems, people still like football. There may be even more ways to make money off it soon, which means the Panthers will be fine, both as a result of how they’re playing, and where the league should be going.
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