Are You Running a Losing NFL Franchise? Here’s How to Fix It

The dos and don’ts of setting a downtrodden football team back on the right path.
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Welcome, everyone, to our seminar entitled “Offseason Instruction for Losing Franchises.” Please make your way through the breakfast buffet and help yourself to some complementary coffee and tea before we get started. No, Texans, you cannot trade all the danishes for a rumpled packet of Sweet N’ Low. You should hold on to the danish. Let that be a lesson to you moving forward.

If you are new to this space, welcome. This might be an unexpected down year brought on by a rash of injuries or an aging roster that you simply held on to for too long. For the rest of you, it’s good to see so many familiar faces. Perhaps this is the year you finally listen to our presentation instead of just paying $300,000 for a search firm.

Yes, it is weird that the Browns aren’t here but 2020 was different for everyone.

Today, we’ll cover some of the building blocks of the coming offseason and how you can avoid coming back here next year and the year after that. Let’s start with the next head coach and general manager of your franchise…

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Of the 17 teams who are currently either in first or second place in the division (ties included) there are only two franchises where the general manager inherited a head coach already in place (Seattle and Buffalo). GM John Schneider, who left the Packers to join Seattle, would later admit in some interviews that the situation gave him pause. In Buffalo, Doug Whaley was the general manager paired with Sean McDermott for four months before the club hired Brandon Beane, a long-time co-worker of McDermott’s in Carolina.

Rams: Incumbent GM Les Snead was part of a three-person committee that hired Sean McVay.

Cardinals: Incumbent GM Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury developed a relationship while the Cardinals and soon-to-be-retired head coach Bruce Arians worked out Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech.

Eagles: Philadelphia hired Doug Pederson, a sturdy connection to the Andy Reid era in which Eagles G.M. Howie Roseman came up in. Roseman was restored to his place atop the organization after the Chip Kelly ouster. He, Pederson and Andy Weidl form a troika atop the Eagles’ decision-making chart, with Pederson “speaking for the coaches.”

Saints: General manager Mickey Loomis was “a key figure” in the hiring of Sean Payton and predated Payton’s arrival in New Orleans by several years. Pro personnel director Terry Fontenot also pre-dated Payton’s arrival and rose within the organization while Jeff Ireland, the team’s collegiate personnel head, overlapped with Payton at previous jobs and was acquired after he was let go as general manager of the Miami Dolphins.

Buccaneers: General manager Jason Licht’s relationship with Bruce Arians pre-dated their time in Tampa Bay as both worked in Arizona together. Upon hiring Arians in Tampa, the pair received matching five-year deals.

Packers: General manager Brian Gutekunst, along with team president Mark Murphy, manned the hiring process of Matt LaFleur.

Bears: Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy and led the Bears’ interview process for the head coaching vacancy.

Bills: Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were brought to Buffalo in the same offseason, from the Carolina Panthers, where the pair had worked together since 2011.

Dolphins: General manager Chris Grier had a relationship with Brian Flores dating back to 2004. After owner Stephen Ross took the advice of his search firm with the Joe Philbin hire and took a personal lead in the Adam Gase hiring, he empowered his GM to make the call on Flores.

Colts: GM Chris Ballard ran point on the hiring of Frank Reich.

Titans: Jon Robinson spearheaded the hiring of Mike Vrabel. The two had worked together while Robinson was an administrator and Vrabel was a player in New England in the early 2000s.

Steelers: Kevin Colbert was officially named general manager after the hiring of Mike Tomlin in 2007 but had been with the Steelers’ organization since 2000 and was viewed as the team’s chief personnel decision maker.

Ravens: Eric DeCosta, the longtime lieutenant of Ozzie Newsome, had been viewed as Newsome’s successor for a long time and pre-dated John Harbaugh’s arrival with the organization.

Browns: Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta spearheaded the hiring process, which focused tightly on the analytically aligned Kevin Stefanski as head coach and Andrew Berry as general manager.

Chiefs: Andy Reid and Brett Veach had been working together since 2008, when Veach was a coaching intern under Reid in Philadelphia. Veach replaced John Dorsey, who had been hired alongside Reid in 2013. Dorsey and Reid had also worked together in a prior capacity (Green Bay).

Raiders: After Jon Gruden took over as head coach he began the process of gutting the organization, which included installing the hand-picked Mike Mayock as general manager.

The point is that you don’t see a lot of pairings here in which there is an immediate potential for discomfort. The 49ers, who were left off this list because they’re having a down year but were within a few plays of winning the Super Bowl in 2019, were probably the most deliberate team in creating organizational alignment at the top of late. Long-term matching extensions. Like-minded coaches and general managers. Personnel executives who are willing to bend their personal philosophies to fit schematic specifications. This has become less a trend and more of an expectation. As owners, installing this kind of system pares down your responsibilities to an incredibly simple bottom line: Your job is to ensure that the strong relationship remains strong. That’s it. Your lack of football knowledge cannot hurt you. Only your inability to care/inability to read people can.

Most unsuccessful franchises were done in because of some kind of misalignment or meaningless managerial rift that was left ignored.

As a side note, I agree that the list above can also be interpreted as the kind of “buddy system” that dried up the NFL’s diverse coaching and executive pipeline, the hope is that recently added minority development incentives will help populate hiring positions and, thus, generate new faces on the scene. A few industry experts I spoke with before the season expected there to be an uptick in minority hires after a disastrous past few seasons, which they predicted would be especially true if coaches like Brian Flores were able to deftly handle a season like this one, which started with a heightened focus on issues like social justice and racial inequality—things that are becoming increasingly important for coaches to be well-versed in, but also things that they have, traditionally, handled quite poorly.

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With the exception of Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, whose inability to land a head coaching job to this point is one of the great mysteries of the modern hiring cycle, the best move might be to put the work in and contextualize the coaching candidates. Reframe the situation.

Too often the knee-jerk reaction is to hire the hot coordinator devoid of that context (how much of it was the roster, the surrounding staff, the culture that the assistant had little hand in creating?). On that same path, the wrong re-tread head coaches continue to get hired simply because they are good at talking their way into head coaching jobs. Don't worry, this is a phenomenon that has plagued business and politics for centuries.

This year, there are a glut of candidates who have had head coaching jobs before but are worth a closer examination. Todd Bowles, for example. Look at his work as a coordinator outside of his run as the head coach of the New York Jets…

2020 Bucs: 2nd in total defense
2019 Bucs: 6th
2014 Cardinals: 7th
2013 Cardinals: 2nd

Now, look at the circumstances from which Bowles came to Florham Park. The roster had been turned over from John Idzik to Mike Maccagnan, which would prove to be one of the more devastating transitions of personnel power in recent organizational memory. A roster trending toward threadbare was handed over to a general manager who did little to replenish the pipeline. Counting Rex Ryan, the talent void in New York will likely claim its third head coach of the last six years at season’s end. Bowles still managed to get one of those teams on the cusp of the playoffs.

I would count Leslie Frazier, the Bills’ defensive coordinator and defensive play caller, in similar company. Frazier went 21-32-1 over three-plus seasons as head coach of the Vikings. In that time, his starting quarterbacks were Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. Frazier’s offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, had one top-10 finish in points scored over 10 seasons as a team’s primary play-caller.

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One of the better hires of this past coaching cycle was the Giants’ acquisition of Joe Judge, who has transformed the culture of the previously adrift organization. For the first time since Tom Coughlin’s arrival in 2004, the team has an idea of who they are and what they would like to be.

While the Giants did technically have competition for Judge (Mississippi State wanted to offer him their opening as well), the Giants plucked Judge before he was traditionally considered a “ripe” candidate. There was not a ton of competition on the professional level for Judge’s services.

This is not a bad thing. Oftentimes, nabbing the “ripe” coordinator who is wanted by everyone else causes an uncomfortable expediting of a process that is already uncomfortably expedited. Worried that another team might strike, you leave yourself vulnerable on multiple fronts and sacrifice any leverage.

Getting in a year early, however, helps you avoid that situation.

This means paying attention to marginal growth. Perhaps the Giants were able to see the improvements Judge made to the wide receiver corps after expanding his role as a special teams coordinator. I argued last year, for example, that Josh Allen’s progress in Buffalo merited a thorough look for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He received one head coaching interview (the Browns). Now that the Bills are one of the top offenses in football, that line will be longer.

This year, my buy-early candidate is Joe Brady, the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Brady transformed LSU’s passing game, which produced 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. Burrow went from a 58 percent completion rate and a 90.6 passer rating to a 76.0 percent completion rate and a 143.7 passer rating. His on-target passing percentage went up six percent. His catchable ball rate went up 10 percent. His Expected Points Added per dropback went from a neutral 0.0 to a positive 0.39. Burrow got markedly better against the blitz and against man and zone defenses.

Now, you’re seeing a similar progression from Teddy Bridgewater in Carolina, this despite the fact that the Panthers are missing their best offensive player. A few weeks back, Carolina had the top receiver tandem in the league. One could argue that Bridgewater is having a top-10 season at the position.

Brady is reminiscent of Sean McVay, though not a part of the Sean McVay coaching tree, which has been aggressively shaken and harvested over the past few years. I’m often reminded of Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, who tells the story about waiting a year too long to pluck McVay out of relative obscurity in Washington. While all is well now in Arizona, there was a rocky path to Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray.

In 2020-21, teams may not be as quick to pounce given that the Panthers have a losing record and Brady is 32. None of that should matter, but so often it does when owners are running a search that is predicated on metrics like wins and losses. The focus should be on tangible, evidence-based growth.

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I see some eyes beginning to droop. *Snaps fingers* everyone still with me? Lightning round time. Let’s say all of these together…

• If I am keeping my embattled general manager I promise I will not let him or her sacrifice our salary cap trove on a horrendous free agent class with little upside in a short-sighted effort to save their jobs.

• If I am undecided on keeping an embattled general manager, I will not let him or her run the draft and make a critical high selection that will ultimately not fit within the parameters of the new coaching staff.

• If we don’t have a quarterback, we should reset the market in an effort to acquire Dak Prescott via free agency if he is not tagged in Dallas.

• If I am hiring a head coaching candidate who promises he spent the season hanging out with the “analytics guys” I will verify these claims with a trusted third party.

Well, thank you all very much for coming. Remember that this doesn’t have to be so hard! All it takes is like, maybe, a few hours of your attention every week and a commitment to understanding your organization as a…hey…hey…please stop texting that search firm.