Jason Licht doesn’t remember how much time Brett Veach spent in his office back then, nor did either guy think much of it at the time. Licht was a top lieutenant for then Eagles GM Tom Heckert. Veach was working as Eagles boss Andy Reid’s personal assistant and hadn’t even begun to think he’d wind up on a scouting track—he was just there to get his start in coaching, trying to soak up as much football as he could.
Back then, Veach spent as much time around Reid as anyone in the building. And his pattern was, when he’d get a minute from the head coach, to retreat to Licht’s space.
“Brett came in. He’d have 1,000 questions a day,” Licht said, on a Zoom call with his old friend Veach on Wednesday afternoon. “What do you think of this guy? What do think of this guy? What do you think of this guy? At that point, Andy was grooming him, unintentionally maybe, to [rise to] the position that he’s at right now. He was always a very good evaluator. We had a lot of arguments too, over players. He loved to argue. He wasn’t somebody where I could say, ‘No, I think you’re wrong. I like this guy.’
“Why? Why do you like him? Did you watch the UTEP game? Why?”
“I was always in Jason’s office,” Veach said. “It would’ve been so easy for Jason to be like, Dude, you're annoying. Jason’s always had his door open for me. He was so influential in my career. Just learning the game in all different aspects. I knew nothing about scouting. I mean, watching tape is a very small part of it. Roster composition, broad-term thinking, my first exposure to the actual scouting process was in Licht’s office.
“Where I used to sit, he was right down the hall,” Veach said. “I would stop down there all the time. And I was just trying to accumulate as much knowledge as I could.”
A little more than a decade later, Licht is the GM of one Super Bowl team and Veach is the GM of the other. The former’s Buccaneers will take on the latter’s defending champion Chiefs in Licht’s new home city Sunday.
Yes, this is a story about the two of them. But it’s also another story about Reid and the impact he’s had on people across the NFL. You know about Ron Rivera, John Harbaugh, Doug Pederson, Sean McDermott and Reid’s coaching tree. You may not know that, just the same, he has grown an impressive family of rising young executives in the sport, too.
Super Bowl LV, in fact, is shining proof of it.
We’re four days away from Super Bowl LV, and that means it’s time for the final GamePlan of the 2020 NFL season. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• Tom Brady’s motives for playing at 43, from those who’d know.
• The coming salary cap crunch.
• Super Bowl MVP power rankings!
But we’re starting with the story that ties the big game’s team builders together.
Eagles GM Howie Roseman remembers sitting on the patio at the Marriott Sawgrass with his then fiancé, Mindy, and looking around at the people there, knowing that those times weren’t going to last forever. Philly was about to play New England in Super Bowl XXXIX, and it wouldn’t be long before the NFL would start picking the personnel staff clean.
“I’ve never worked in any other industry, but I’d imagine it was like Google,” Roseman said Wednesday. “You had all these people who were energetic and enthusiastic and determined and aggressive, and all hanging out with each other.”
Roseman was right. A year later, Reid would relinquish the GM title to VP of player personnel Tom Heckert, after offensive coordinator Brad Childress went to Minnesota and tried to take Heckert with him. Licht and Roseman were promoted to vice president roles, and Ryan Grigson to college scouting director. That year Veach came on full-time after a couple of summer training-camp internships, as did fellow intern John Spytek. And Matt Russell was hired away from New England.
Heckert would eventually go to Cleveland to be GM there. Roseman would replace him. Jon Sandusky and Scott Cohen departed for top roles with the Browns and Jets, respectively. Then Grigson went to Indy as GM. Russell went with Josh McDaniels to Denver and was eventually joined there by Heckert, where the two won a Super Bowl together as John Elway’s top two scouts. A second wave of scouts was hired, bringing on Daniel Jeremiah, Lou Riddick, Mike Bradway and Phil Savage.
You get the picture.
As productive as Reid’s coaching charges have been, there’s been almost equal success in scouting. And while he may be more hands-on with assistant coaches, by virtue of the time spent with them, there’s no question the mark he left on all the guys named above.
His mentoring of scouts, typically, was just a little more casual. He might pop in their office to watch tape or ask about a player, doing it in a way where they guys knew their opinions carried weight. Moreover, it didn’t matter if you were someone in Licht’s spot or Veach’s—Reid wound up listening to Veach’s pleas, as his coaching assistant, on a slight-but-speedy receiver from Cal. (Drafting DeSean Jackson wound up being a good idea.)
The cool thing was that with everyone feeling their voices were being heard by the boss, the result was a sort of think tank, where everyone had to listen to everyone else.
“It would be very easy for him to operate with the mindset of I have everything figured out,” Veach said. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this a long time. So for him to operate always wanting to see what other people can bring to the organization, always looking for ways to get the thought process stimulated, doesn’t matter if you've been doing it for 20 years or two years—if you’re smart, you work hard and have some ideas, I want to hear them—there’s a trickle-down effect. That’s why Jason put up with me, I think.
“You understand that if Coach is going to listen, a Hall of Fame coach is going to listen, or wants to give an intern the time of day or pick his brain a little, and he's had that kind of success, then why wouldn’t I operate like that?”
Of course, this doesn’t work if the guy in charge is insecure in any way and, when it came to scouting players, Reid didn’t have any reason to be—he was fantastic at it. “It’s almost like Ozzie [Newsome] being a Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame GM; Andy, Hall of Fame coach, Hall of Fame GM, he’s that good,” Roseman said.
“We would not have been as good as we were if Andy wasn’t a really good evaluator,” said former Eagles president Joe Banner. “And he would talk as he evaluated, when people were watching film together—what was he looking for, what was he prioritizing, why did he think what he thought, how much was influenced by character and intelligence versus just tape. Very good and thorough about all that stuff.
“Anybody watching that and learning from that would be better than not.”
Licht and Veach, most certainly, were beneficiaries.
They got to see how Reid’s vision for the game went well beyond just evaluating players. During those years, it became clear in how early he identified a young Houston quarterback named Kevin Kolb as a fit for his offense. During Kolb’s last two years in college, Reid would watch him play from the team hotel on Saturdays and wound up drafting him in the second round in 2007. Similarly, he looked at Arizona’s Nick Foles not just as a good quarterback prospect, but one who could throw the routes his offense demanded.
And just as he’d listen to scouts about guys they liked, he’d solicit their opinions on guys that he liked. “He was very encouraging of that. He made it feel very safe,” Banner said. “You weren’t worried about, Well, what if I get this wrong, is he ever gonna listen to me again? That just wasn’t how he operated.”
That leads to the organizational culture that the guys from those Eagles days describe—when they’d have a 9 p.m. personnel meeting with Reid during training camp at Lehigh, and Heckert would convince everyone to go out for “just one” at Tally Ho Tavern, a bar nearby in Bethlehem, to keep the conversation going. Reid’s love and passion for the job rubbed off on them, as did his willingness to hear everyone and everything, all of which has carried on.
“You can just see the way they play, the way they draft, the way they sign players, their decision-making,” Licht says. “It all stems from just the culture, and he's one of the best at instilling that culture.”
Heckert died of amyloidosis in August 2018, so a bunch of these guys established a new tradition at the combine a couple of years back, where they all meet at the Whistle Stop, an Indy dive bar that Heckert loved, to toast him.
And that, in a way, is a reflection of what they learned from Reid, too—where the coach would know when a guy might need a little extra. Roseman fondly remembers a call from Reid at 5 p.m. on draft day in 2015. That was Roseman’s year of exile from personnel, and the first in nearly two decades when he wasn’t involved in the draft, and said, “Alright, Roseman, like old times, me and you, what are you thinking?”
“He’s freaking Papa Bear,” Roseman says now.
Licht can remember a moment for him that went in the other direction, when Reid asked him to come to dinner. He told Reid’s security man, Hector, aka Butch, who’d worked for the Eagles for years. Butch asked where. Licht responded they were going to an Italian place on Front Street.
You’re in, Hector responded. You’re in.
And once you were in, you were in—which is something that served Licht well over his first six years in charge in Tampa, through more than a few rocky times that he had to ride out.
“There's one thing that I always remember Andy saying, and it stays with me to this day,” Licht said. “In this business, there's peaks and valleys. And over the last few years, we've had a lot more valleys than peaks. Every day, there could be something difficult, some challenges or a bad day. Something bad happened, whether it's injury or whatnot. And Andy used to always say, when things were bad, whether it's the offseason or the season, he’d say, ‘Hey, just go to bed, wake up tomorrow. It’s always better.’
“And he’s right. He’s right. I go to bed, get some sleep, wake up, it’s gonna be better tomorrow. It's not gonna be solved, but it's just better.”
Of course, Reid’s fingerprints on the personnel side of this Super Bowl go well beyond just the mentoring he offered to Licht and Veach.
Both teams are built through the lines of scrimmage. Their offensive lines have bookend tackles that are either making big money (Mitch Schwartz, Donovan Smith), arrived as first-round picks (Tristan Wirfs) or both (Eric Fisher). Their defensive fronts are stocked with high-end, invested-in pass rushers (Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul). Their defenses are anchored with playmaking safeties (Antoine Winfield Jr., Tyrann Mathieu).
And in a twist from the old Eagles days, when Philly was always criticized for the difficulty it had finding receivers, both these teams are stacked with wideouts.
Of course, that’s all achieved only if the organization is working in lockstep, with coaching and scouting seeing how to build a team through the same set of eyes, with the foundation being in relationships strong enough to withstand disagreement.
“I’m lucky I have that here with Bruce [Arians],” Licht said. “I’m very, very close with him and I’ve mentioned that I don’t think it's ever gonna be replicated. It’s such a unique relationship. I mean, there’ll be other good relationships in the future, but this particular one is just so special. I know that Brett and Andy have a special relationship, too. I think that that is a key for down-the-road owners looking to a hire head coach and GM, just how important that relationship is.”
“That's so well put,” Veach responded. “So there’s no surprise when you look at Tampa and you look at Jason and BA’s relationship, and then you look at the relationship that Coach and I have. When you have that type of relationship, when you go through a full calendar year and you have not just a season but then the free-agent process and the draft process, you have the trust. So when you come up with an idea or game plan, Coach is going to know that you’ve done the work, and he’s going to trust you and your staff.
“He's not going to micromanage you; he’s not going to want to look at every single player anymore. It’s pretty much: Let me know what you think and talk me through your game plan. I’ll add my advice where I think it’s needed.”
“No one’s worried about taking credit for things that went well,” Licht added. “We all did it. Or give it to somebody else, I don’t care. As long as the end result is good.”
For these guys, this year’s been pretty good. Come Sunday, it might be really good.
And even if it’s more obvious in one case than the other, Reid’s marks are very much there with both.
No games played! So here are my Super Bowl MVP power rankings (for entertainment purposes only, because I’m no good at gambling).
1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs: I picked the Chiefs to win, so their QB has to be No. 1.
2) Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers: I picked a two-point game, so Brady’s in play, too.
3) Lavonte David/Devin White, LBs, Buccaneers: I think the Tampa Bay ’backers are a huge key to keeping Mahomes in check on scramble plays and making him pay for engaging in them. They could also be a factor in dealing with Travis Kelce (as would Antoine Winfield).
4) Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs: The guy had 200 yards in the first quarter the last time these two teams played. He has to be on the list.
5) Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs: Getting pressure on Brady up the middle is important to beating him in a game like this (see: Justin Tuck, Brandon Graham), and Jones has the athleticism that some of the edge rushers moved inside to disrupt Brady in past Super Bowls have had.
THE BIG QUESTION
Why does Tom Brady still need this?
It’s an interesting question. The guy has six Super Bowl wins, is going into his 10th appearance in the big game and has four Super Bowl MVPs to go along with his three regular-season MVPs. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars. He has a family with school-aged kids. As Trent Dilfer said on my podcast this week—he could literally be doing anything he wants right now.
He chooses to be in dark rooms watching monotonous tape. He chooses to go through grueling training camps. He chooses to take the beating his body does on Sundays.
Well, in the process of writing the lede for my Wednesday mailbag column and talking to Patriots alumni for a Brady-Belichick story, I wound up asking that question. And I got a really interesting story from Brady’s old backup Matt Cassel that illustrates that this was always the plan.
If you go back in time, you’ll see that Brady isn’t the first 43-year-old quarterback on a Brady team. Doug Flutie turned 43 while on the Patriots’ roster in 2005. Vinny Testaverde signed with the Patriots the day after he turned 43 in 2006. Cassel was there for that and witnessed the conversation between those guys and Brady, how Brady was mining them for information on playing that long, and then how he’d flat-out tell them he wanted to play until he was 45.
“I laughed at it,” Cassel said.
No one’s laughing anymore, and the answer to our question is one that he had all the way back then—Brady just loves football that much. He’s not in Tampa to show Bill Belichick up. He’s not there to cement his legacy. He’s not in search of some fairy tale ending (a few of those were available to him the last couple of years).
There’s simply no place he’d rather be than playing football. And in polling the guys
I talked to, that explanation was, more or less, a unanimous take on the situation.
Cassel: “He loves football. He loves the challenge of it. … He enjoys the process of it. Guys like myself, I was with seven different organizations, traded three times. For me, with my family moving from one city to the next, I started to lose motivation. There were so many more dynamics at work. So being with the same organization for so long probably helps. But no, he just loves football.”
Ex-Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi: “He’s still out there because he can still play. For a lot of us, the game means so much to us. We’re going to keep playing as long as we can; I was that guy, I came back after a stroke. So I think he’s saying, ‘If I can play, I’m going to continue to play.’
It’s just never been done to where a guy’s 43 years old, that’s why, he loves it that much. … How long do golfers play? They play forever, then they play on the senior tour. You can’t do that in football. So if you love it and still can play, you will.”
Ex-Patriots C Dan Koppen: “The guy just loves to play. It may seem stupid and simple. Even when I was still playing, everyone at that point when he was 36, 37, all those questions came up: How much longer do you want to play? I’d ask him, how long do you think you’ll play. His answer is always he still loves playing and can’t imagine doing anything else. The guy just loves playing football. That’s it. That’s all he f------ wants to do.”
Ex-Patriots OC Charlie Weis: “Here’s what I think—I think he has it in his mind and body that he’s gonna play until he doesn’t think can still do it anymore. What drives him, he, in his heart and mind, he knows can still play. He knows it won’t last forever. But he’s saying, Why should I walk away? I love it, and I can still do it.”
Through all these calls, I forgot to ask Rodney Harrison the question when we talked, but did ask whether he, as an ex-teammate, is surprised that Brady’s still going, and going at this level. Harrison rarely minces words, and he didn’t here.
“Hell yeah, I’m surprised: He’s 43!” Harrison said. “What do you want me to say? It’s amazing he looks the way he looks and he’s still healthy, and he can walk and talk and he’s doing great for himself, and I’m just talking about as a human being. To be able go out there on a football field and still throw the ball 60 yards down the field with the accuracy and the velocity and the cognitive ability in the pocket, it’s amazing. It’s remarkable.
“Albert, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen in sports. … No offseason, he learned these guys’ personalities off of Zoom and he’s in the Super Bowl? Are you kidding me?”
Which, of course, underscores another point here. When Brady asked Flutie and Testaverde those pointed questions a decade and a half ago, those guys were just hanging on.
Brady most certainly is not.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
That the cap can be negotiated.
We’ve all sort of discussed the idea that the NFL and NFLPA are locked into a certain fate with the 2021 salary cap. And the truth is the basis of that conversation is a little off.
It’s not based on an equation of the past year’s revenue, but on a projection of the current year’s revenue, which is obviously complicated by the 2020 shortfall (which requires a sort of payback) and the uncertainty over what the rest of 2021 will look like. Normally, personnel departments get cap projections from the league at a December meeting. We’re two months past that, and teams are still in the dark.
When Licht, Veach and I talked on the podcast, they mentioned how they’re working off the idea that the cap will fall between $175 million and $195 million, which is a) a pretty wide range, and b) lower than the 2020 cap.
So it’s up to the league and union to work through this, and this is where the broadcast deals become key. If the owners can strike a set of deals, my sense is they’ll be willing to play ball on getting the 2021 salary cap as close to the 2020 cap as possible. If not, my guess would be the hardliners who don’t want to give the players an interest-free loan will push their peers to dig in a little more.
But again, all this is negotiable.
Just pay attention to this one. It sure could work to dictate who gets cut, who gets traded and which players will and won’t get paid come March.
THE FINAL WORD
We’ve just about made it. So I wanted to say thanks to all our loyal readers, especially during a week when a metered paywall went up on our site. We’re gonna be working our tail off to make this a site worth paying for.
And I appreciate all of you that’ll be here to see it.