NFL

Job Security vs. Lombardi Trophy: Who’s Chasing What?

on

In theory, NFL general managers are always acting in the best interests of their franchises, both in the short- and long-term. But the gap between theory and reality is sometimes larger than most care to admit.

There are a few general managers around the league, especially those whose seats are getting a little warm, who are guilty of putting their personal interests ahead of their franchises’ interests.

This is nothing new. We saw it last season in Indianapolis, when the Colts insisted on sticking with Trent Richardson through the first 15 weeks of the season even though he was averaging a miserable 3.3 yards per carry. The team refused to admit GM Ryan Grigson wasted a first-round pick on Richardson and, as a result, struggled to develop a proficient ground game.

Richardson is not the only player to overstay his welcome in Indianapolis. Bjoern Werner, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, has been a colossal disappointment. Yet the Colts refuse to cut their losses and move on, which is what separates the good teams from the great ones.

“We love Bjoern’s effort,” said a delusional Grigson earlier this offseason. “I know he cares a heck of a lot, and that’s the one thing you love about him. I know how much he cares about the name on the back of his jersey. He wants to be a great player, and I think he will be.”

The best general managers — and by extension, the best teams — know when it’s time to cut bait.

Just look at Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick is cold, calculated and extremely effective. This is the guy who once released franchise mainstay Lawyer Milloy the week before the 2003 season. Almost 10 years later, he released Tiquan Underwood the day before Super Bowl XLVI. The common thread: when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

The Patriots have long believed in moving on from players a year too early rather than a year too late. That’s what allowed New England to steal a first-round pick from the Raiders in exchange for an aging Richard Seymour back in 2009. It’s a Belichick strategy that keeps his team ahead of the curve while the rest of the league tries to play catch-up.

There is a reason Belichick can get away with his ruthless approach while others cannot. And, despite what Patriots fans might tell you, it’s not because he’s the smartest guy in the NFL. It’s because Belichick has four Super Bowl rings, and therefore endless job security, so he can go against the grain without fear of repercussions.

Most other organizational architects are not so lucky.

Look at what Reggie McKenzie did last offseason in Oakland. Fearing for his job and with oodles of cap space burning a hole in his pocket, he went on a spending spree that landed Austin Howard, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Tarell Brown, Antonio Smith, James Jones and Donald Penn. The result? A 3-13 season.

Several other GMs tried to spend their way to safety this offseason, a strategy that rarely works. Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey was at the front of that line, giving Ndamukong Suh a six-year, $114 million contract in hopes of pushing his team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. He also added veterans Jordan Cameron, Greg Jennings and Brice McCain as part of his offseason splurge.

“He’s a versatile player,” said Hickey, justifying Suh’s mammoth deal. “He can do so many things. He’s a tough, blue-collar player and he’s unselfish. He’s willing to take on double-teams and free up [his teammates] and he’s just as excited about that. He’s a team player.”

There must be something in the water in Florida, because the state’s other teams acted desperately, as well. Tampa Bay brought in a trio of Cowboys to help Lovie Smith’s defense get on track: Bruce Carter, Henry Melton and Sterling Moore. Up in Jacksonville, GM David Caldwell — fearing his slow rebuild was going a little too slowly — spent $120 million to bring aboard Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick and Jermey Parnell.

You can see some general managers act increasingly selfishly as they become less secure in their position. Take, for example, Chargers GM Tom Telesco. In his first season on the job, he signed Derek Cox to a four-year deal. Cox proved to be a complete bust and was released after one season. One year later, Telesco made another mistake by inking Donald Brown to a three-year contract. But Telesco has refused to own up to his error this time around, keeping Brown on the roster despite the presence of Danny Woodhead, Branden Oliver and first-round pick Melvin Gordon.

The Chargers would lose just $1.1 million in dead money by releasing Brown but refuse to pull the trigger.

“I have a lot of confidence in Donald, I really do,” Telesco insisted. “Whether we didn’t see enough out of him this year or not, I’ve had a lot of confidence in him. Even in the passing game as far as taking a checkdown — you know, 5- or 6-yard pass and turn it into 15 or 20 yards, he’s got some big-play ability.”

It is tough to fault general managers like Telesco and Grigson. After all, they are paid to win, not tell the truth. If they have to lie to protect their team’s interests and intentions, so be it. However, in today’s NFL, the leaders who can be ruthlessly direct and honest usually get the best returns.

For the perfect example, look to the man who was a play away from upending Belichick in this year’s Big Game: Pete Carroll. Seattle’s head honcho has made several bold decisions in his NFL coaching career, none bigger than the 2012 decision to promote rookie third-round pick Russell Wilson ahead of veteran Matt Flynn, who had just joined the Seahawks on a three-year, $26 million deal earlier that offseason.

Carroll’s decision to go with his gut and ride with the rookie resulted in the Seahawks representing the NFC in each of the last two Super Bowls. Unfortunately, most other executives are too timid to go that route, as they’re more concerned with explaining themselves to their employers than chasing championships.


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.