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NFL Coaches’ Power Is Increasing—and the Appeal of the GM Job Is Changing Because of It

With organizational flow charts restructuring throughout professional football, the GM job has lost some of its luster. But there are still a few key pieces that can make a job more attractive, and we’ve seen them in the Jets’ and Texans’ searches.

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When Brian Gaine was hired as Texans general manager in January 2018, he was—in theory—accepting one of the most prestigious jobs in professional football. Only 32 people on the planet retain personnel control for an NFL team. The gig remains every scout’s dream. But last week, less than 18 months later, Gaine was fired in the second surprising GM shake-up of the offseason (after the Jets let Mike Maccagnan go in May). The Texans are already in the thick of a search for his replacement—a process that now reportedly includes a tampering charge leveled by New England with regard to Houston’s interest in Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio—but both the circumstances of Gaine’s dismissal and the ensuing hunt for someone to fill that role point to the diminishing appeal of the general manager position in today’s NFL.

Let’s start with Gaine’s firing, which is rumored to have stemmed from the deterioration of his relationship with Texans coach Bill O’Brien. If Gaine’s pink slip really was driven by O’Brien’s desire to have him removed, it would be the second power struggle the coach has won as a part of the Texans organization. In December 2017, O’Brien’s relationship with then-GM Rick Smith frayed beyond repair, and Smith was forced out after 12 seasons in his role. Houston went 11-5 and won the AFC South last season, but at the time of Smith’s ousting, O’Brien had just wrapped up a 4-12 season. In his first three seasons with the team, from 2014 to 2016, the Texans went 9-7 each year. How O’Brien has wrangled this much power in the organization isn’t entirely clear, but there’s no denying that he has it.

Most GM candidates would likely be wary of working with a head coach who had two guys fired in less than two years, but there’s an obvious connection between the Houston head coach and the Patriots personnel man. Caserio and O’Brien both coached on New England’s staff in 2007—Caserio as wide receivers coach and O’Brien as an offensive assistant—and continued to work closely together when Caserio moved to the front office the following year. Both would know precisely what they were getting in each other, which would make for a unique case, considering how many GM–head coach pairings are essentially arranged marriages. But now that Caserio is presumably staying put (possibly with a better title) in New England following the tampering claim, any prospective Texans GM candidate will have to weigh whether he wants to step into a situation where the head coach wields tremendous power.

The apparent hierarchy of the Texans organization isn’t an exception in 2019. When the Jets fired Maccagnan in May, the move indicated that first-year head coach Adam Gase—who was also given temporary GM responsibilities before the team hired Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas last week—had come out ahead in the tussle for control. All over the league, head coaches have started to outlast the GMs who were already in place or who were hired at the same time as the coach—or have assumed much of the personnel power for themselves. Andy Reid stuck around after John Dorsey was fired in Kansas City. Ron Rivera was retained in Carolina after Dave Gettleman was let go. Even if there hasn’t been any turnover in their respective front offices, both Sean Payton and Sean McVay have obtained considerable influence over the Saints’ and Rams’ roster decisions, respectively. And Bill Belichick is in a class of his own when it comes to the duel head coach–GM role.

As general managers in other sports have risen to celebrity status—like Theo Epstein in MLB and Daryl Morey in the NBA—NFL GMs have remained generally anonymous, especially when compared to the league’s head coaches. This change in power structure largely stems from the outsize impact a combination head coach–play caller like Reid, Payton, and McVay can have on an organization, and that creates a sort of mythos around the job. When Douglas accepted the Jets GM job last week, he willingly walked into a situation where Gase had just emerged victorious over Douglas’s predecessor. The six-year deal (expected to be longer than Gase’s) and reported $3 million a year salary were enough to lure Douglas, no matter his reservations about working with a head coach he didn’t choose, but neither changes the recent history that caused his new job to become available in the first place.

Elsewhere around the league, two GMs likely on the hot seat—Arizona’s Steve Keim and Tampa Bay’s Jason Licht—will be working with first-year head coaches this season. If either the Cardinals or the Bucs dramatically improve in 2019, expect the bulk of the credit to go to Kliff Kingsbury and Bruce Arians, not to the general managers who hired them. Outside of the best decision-makers in the league—guys like the Eagles’ Howie Roseman and the Colts’ Chris Ballard—it’s difficult for a successful team’s GM to ever outshine its head coach.

With that dynamic in place all over the league (and given that a couple of teams may be looking for new GMs next year), it’s worth exploring what does make an attractive GM opening in the modern NFL. In the past, quality GM jobs were typically defined by a team’s quarterback situation. If a franchise had an established passer in place, that made for an appealing landing spot. But now, that thinking has shifted because of the sheer number of teams that do have an answer at the position. Nearly every organization in the NFL will start either a highly drafted rookie or a proven veteran at QB in 2019; in years past, the chance to build around a player like Sam Darnold or Deshaun Watson would be a potential GM’s dream. Now, those situations aren’t all that uncommon.

At this point, the ideal GM landing spot comes not only with a quality QB, but with the flexibility to remake a team from scratch. When Ballard took over in Indianapolis before the 2017 season, he was able to tear down the entire roster around Andrew Luck and rebuild it as he saw fit. And after the Colts were spurned by Josh McDaniels in their coaching search last spring, Ballard found Frank Reich, who has already emerged as one of the best coaches in the league.

Ballard’s situation was enviable, but it was also an outlier. That combination of factors is hard to come by for most people seeking a GM position, as evidenced by the jobs that have recently come open, and ones that have the potential to soon. If Licht is fired by the Bucs at the end of this season, the team’s next GM will likely be taking over a roster without a QB and with a two-time Coach of the Year already in place. Tampa Bay should have a ton of salary cap flexibility in 2020, with most of its guaranteed money coming off the books, but anyone who takes that job will also have his share of obstacles.

Cushy circumstances for a first-year GM still exist—they’re just harder to come by. At first glance, Douglas’s decision to leave his post as the no. 2 man in one of the league’s smartest organizations to take over a team that just handed out $140 million guaranteed in new contracts and seems intent on empowering Adam Gase looks like a significant risk. But the jobs that come available next spring may be even less attractive. The same goes for the Texans’ opening. In the current climate, the opportunity to build a roster around Darnold or Watson—and soak in the ego boost of becoming one of 32 NFL GMs—might be the best selling point that any potential hire can hear. The Houston GM job may not be perfect, but these days, they rarely are.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Houston was a wild card last season; it won the division.