Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones rekindled a debate this week about personnel control in the National Football League: Can or should the Head Coach of an NFL franchise have complete control over player personnel in addition to his coaching responsibilities?
To gain a clear answer to that question, we must look at coaches who’ve had that total power since the NFL implemented free agency in 1993.
We all know about the success Jimmy Johnson built in Dallas, most of which was done prior to the advent of free agency. However, Johnson moved on to Miami in 1996, and was unable to achieve that level of success in four seasons leading the Dolphins. He went 36-28 and failed to advance past the Divisional round of the AFC playoffs. His coaching career ended with an ugly 62-7 playoff loss to Jacksonville.
During the Denver Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl Championships in 1997 and 1998, the team featured an elite three-headed leadership model with long-time GM John Beake handling contract negotiations and free agent acquisitions, personnel guru Ted Sundquist assisting with draft analysis and research, and Head Coach Mike Shanahan making the final call on draft choices and roster cuts.
Following Beake’s retirement following the 1998 campaign, Shanahan gained total control of personnel and free agent acquisitions with Sundquist as an advisor, and slowly things fell apart in the Mile High City.
In the 10 seasons that followed, Shanahan’s teams reached the playoffs only 4 times. Shanahan went 91-68 over that time span, missing the playoffs his final three seasons in Denver while enduring a carousel of quarterbacks along the way. Remember when he signed the entire Cleveland Browns Defensive Line in free agency? It didn’t exactly pan out.
Since taking over in Washington, he’s 14-27 and has shown no improvement in the W-L column versus his predecessor Jim Zorn. After letting go of Donovan McNabb in 2011, he declared: “I’ll put my reputation on Rex Grossman and John Beck”. We all saw how that worked out. This year, his only saving grace that is keeping him from being fired is the incredible play of RG3.
Mike Holmgren reached the pinnacle of success by winning a Super Bowl in Green Bay. Along the way, Ron Wolfe served as the GM. In 1999, Holmgren jumped ship and signed on to become the Executive Vice President, General Manager, and Head Coach of the Seahawks. He went 31-33 in Seattle with total control. Following the 2002 season, owner Paul Allen announced that he had fired Holmgren as the GM but retained him to serve only as the Head Coach. Thereafter, the Seahawks flourished with five consecutive playoff appearances and their first ever trip to the Super Bowl.
Holmgren’s struggles in Cleveland as the decision maker for all-things personnel resulted in him being “retired” by new owner Jimmy Haslam a few weeks ago.
In Seattle, this is a make-or-break season for Pete Carroll after back-to-back 7-9 campaigns. Although Carroll does have final say on all things football, he now leans heavily on the expertise of Executive Vice President and GM John Schneider.
Meanwhile, both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have proven to be capable of producing winners on the football field while maintaining total control of the football side of the organization. Parcells did it in New England and with the New York Jets. Belichick did get great support from Scott Pioli, but has had success even after Pioli’s departure.
The Bill brothers are clearly the exception to the rule. There are so many variables that factor into success on Sunday’s in the NFL. It’s apparent to me that the Head Coach simply can’t be spread too thin, and those that are control freaks run the risk of burning out and/or failing on the field.
Yes, the Head Coach should make the final decision on all roster cuts, and yes he absolutely should have final say on draft picks from the 2nd round on. But 1st round draft picks, free agent acquisitions, and trades should all have multiple eyes (Owner, GM, Personnel Director, Head Coach) and a system of checks and balances to ensure that the best decisions are made.
So the next time we hear about a Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden contemplating a return to the sidelines with the caveat of total football control, we should consider the history of that arrangement in the NFL. It generally doesn’t end well.