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The NFL’s Empathy Gap

A lack of basic communication skills is causing the smartest NFL teams to make the simplest, most avoidable mistakes

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The story of the 2021 offseason was of a relationship gone sour.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not attend spring workouts or minicamp, then used the threat of a holdout to negotiate a restructured contract that makes it much easier for him to leave Green Bay after this season, should he still want to. Rodgers, last year’s NFL MVP, was drafted and developed by the Packers, has played his entire career in Green Bay, and won a Super Bowl with the team. He is a poster child for an organization getting it right at the quarterback position, one of the most challenging tasks in sports. The Packers have a championship-caliber roster, a well-regarded young coach, and a general manager with an excellent draft record, yet a fractured relationship with the franchise quarterback could prematurely close their championship window.

And it’s possible they could have avoided this scenario with a single phone call.

“I haven’t connected with Aaron yet,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said on draft night in 2020 after picking quarterback Jordan Love in the first round.

Love’s selection was another example of Green Bay’s front office making a decision without keeping Rodgers in the loop, one of the central frustrations that led to his holdout. Other moves had irked Rodgers, like when the team jettisoned veteran players who were favorites of his without consulting him. But this decision affected his job security. Rodgers got no advance explanation or assurance that the pick was not a reflection of him or his standing with the team. So he stewed, not making his displeasure known fully until this offseason, when he presented what he felt was evidence of things the team’s management had lost sight of.

“It’s the people that win championships,” Rodgers said in a press conference after reporting to training camp. “It’s the coaches, it’s the players that win championships. And the organization, everybody in the organization benefits from that, and we all win together. But it’s the people that get it done.”

The Rodgers drama played out like a soap opera, but its central themes are fairly common in the NFL. Poor communication, professional tensions becoming public, and ever-growing franchise staff struggling to work in concert are occupational hazards in the league.

The NFL’s most recent evolutionary life cycles have been about data and schemes. Analytics, player-tracking data, aggressive management of the salary cap, and offenses lifted from the college game are all hallmarks of successful franchises in 2021. But in the race to optimize, some teams have tripped for reasons as basic as poor communication with players or unhealthy competition between departments within their organization. Cutting-edge teams have faltered by failing to navigate the messy convergence of player empowerment, constant news coverage, ownership demands, and the integration of objective data into team decision-making. There’s a new frontier for teams to explore: In a league obsessed with gaining the slimmest of edges, empathy may offer a competitive advantage.

Based on interviews with more than a dozen NFL players and current and former executives, coaches, agents, and analysts about the state of interpersonal communication within organizations, the picture that emerges is one where internal struggles often stem from a lack of basic communication. Some organizations, like the Patriots or the Steelers, are top-down and hierarchical, which creates clear roles and consistency but limits the agency of most staffers. Others, like the Eagles or the Giants, consult widely throughout departments but sometimes fail to manage the ensuing conflicts over who gets the final say on decisions. There are costs and benefits to each style, but smooth collaboration is the exception, not the norm.

“I’ve worked in three places, and the communication has never been great,” says a league source who works in personnel.

Former NFL general manager Randy Mueller agrees.

“These teams are supposed to be the best in the world at what they do,” says Mueller, who held personnel executive positions with the Seahawks, Saints, Dolphins, and Chargers from 1995 to 2018 and was the GM in New Orleans and Miami. “But we still have junior high communication levels at times.”

Players sometimes find out about trades or roster cuts on Twitter before hearing from their team or agent. Agents say they’ve contacted personnel departments about injured clients to find out the coaching staff and trainers hadn’t communicated to the personnel department that the player was even injured. Players take frustrations to their agents or to social media instead of having honest conversations with teammates or coaches. Some organizations keep their draft board secret from most coaches and scouts.

Rodgers offers a recent and high-profile example of the need for consistent communication, but there are others. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII by championing aggressive play-calling and a roster created by smartly manipulating the salary cap, but the team then cratered in the ensuing years as interpersonal conflict spread through the organization. In January, The Athletic reported “an environment characterized by second-guessing, paranoia and a lack of transparency” in which the analytics department had been pitted against the coaching staff, and team leaders were more focused on maneuvering for credit or job security than the organization’s common goals. After a 4-11-1 season in 2020, owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman fired head coach Doug Pederson and traded quarterback Carson Wentz, therefore letting go of two key members of the team’s Super Bowl–winning season. During a January press conference, Roseman said his main regret last season was not strategic or analytical; rather, it was his careless choice of words. Following the selection of quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft, Roseman said he wanted the Eagles to be a “quarterback factory,” a comment that potentially further crumbled Wentz’s depleted confidence.

“Of some of the things that I’ve done this season, I certainly regret that comment,” Roseman said in January.

The Eagles traded Wentz to Indianapolis in February in a deal that required them to swallow the largest dead money charge in the history of the NFL salary cap. The $33.8 million hit eclipsed the $22.2 million dead cap hit the Rams took on this offseason to trade quarterback Jared Goff to the Lions. Goff, like Wentz, had taken the team that drafted him to a Super Bowl and signed a lucrative contract extension, only to have both his play and critical relationships deteriorate. In March, ESPN reported that Goff’s relationship with head coach Sean McVay “fractured in 2019 and slowly decayed throughout the 2020 season,” during which the coach had “one-sided shouting matches” with the quarterback on the sideline during games, with little patching up taking place afterward.

“I could have been much better about those real-time communications,” McVay said.

Coach-quarterback relationships often come up as examples that can require a delicate touch, but front offices were most frequently cited in interviews as places where communication is both critical and often lacking. It makes sense—general managers and front office personnel don’t have as much day-to-day interaction with colleagues and other members of the organization as coaches and players who work together during practices and games. They’re asked to support an organization’s long-term objectives but need buy-in from coaches and players whose goals are often shorter term. They also traditionally come from scouting or analyst backgrounds, roles that involve far more evaluation than management. Front office staff garner less attention, fame, and credit than coaches but often have closer relationships with team owners.

Former Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff spent much of the past year traveling the country in a Sprinter van and interviewing GMs. He started the project as a professional development exercise but is now working on turning it into a TV series. A common theme in his conversations, he says, was that the challenges of communication and leadership style were far greater than those of actual evaluation. Most GMs he spoke with felt confident in their abilities as evaluators and even found solace in whatever days or hours they spent on the scouting trail, at pro days, or watching film. As they’d risen through the ranks to become GMs, though, evaluation was less and less a part of the job relative to managing relationships with the coaches, the media, ownership, and players: Dimitroff found most GMs’ concerns rested in those areas.

“So often, as I really started digging in, when they let their guard down and started talking about what their pains were and what they felt was so important, it did come down to communication,” Dimitroff tells me. “It came down to taking deep breaths and saying, ‘Yes, it is about wins but if you’re not taking care of the other elements and time and again, it’s the beginning of the end.’”

Dimitroff says that if he could give NFL owners one piece of advice in hiring GMs, it would be to provide them with leadership coaching as soon as they’re hired.

“Get that training done early,” Dimitroff says. “So, when things really start flying on these guys, they can maintain the people skills. If they can keep the morale up, at least then they have a fighting chance to be successful and work through those really heated moments.”

It’s easier said than done, and it’s not a challenge unique to football. Amy Gallo, an editor at the Harvard Business Review who writes about workplace dynamics, tells me that a lack of “empathy about how decisions affect people and their emotions is pervasive” in most workplaces. Organizations are increasingly aware of the importance of emotional intelligence but struggle to apply it consistently.

“I think that’s where the real disconnect is,” Gallo says. “We understand that intuitively because we do it in our personal lives with our spouses, with our friends. But then we sort of think when we enter the workplace, it’s somehow a nice-to-have rather than an essential part of how we interact and especially conflict.”

Managers often struggle, Gallo says, to put themselves in their subordinates’ shoes because they’re not required to do the work of examining other perspectives the way their subordinates are. This allows differences of opinion to fester and leads to unproductive outcomes. Gallo cites a concept in social psychology called “artificial harmony,” which essentially boils down to conflict aversion when the appearance of harmony is prized above building real consensus.

“There are lots of normal, inevitable tensions and disagreements that happen in organizations all the time,” Gallo says. “And if you pretend they don’t exist, you end up creating more conflict as a result, and more unhealthy conflict then becomes personal.”

Gallo says these conflicts exist in most workplaces, so it’s natural to find them in complex, high-profile work environments like the NFL, where high-achieving people make high-stakes decisions that affect their standing in a competitive field. As awareness about the impact of emotions on performance has increased in the past decade, so has acknowledgment of workplace conflicts by organizations and employees. In the NFL, players have become more open about struggles with mental health and their desire to be seen as more than their athletic talents and not, as Rodgers said this summer, “put on a pedestal that we’re beyond any mental hindrances.” Simultaneously, a generation of team owners and executives who used hard-nosed business leaders like General Electric’s Jack Welch as touchstones is aging out of the game. NFL leaders are more aware of the need to relate well to their colleagues, and that requires empathy.

One of the most common tensions in an NFL front office is between analytics groups and more traditional scouts and evaluators. For as much as traditionally minded coaches may occasionally scoff at the increasing sophistication of the sport, teams covet data. Every team employs at least one staffer with an analytics title. The Titans were the last to do so, hiring Matt Iammarino as an assistant developer of analytical football research this summer. Players have become more accepting, too. The quants have won.

“No longer can I sit across from an owner and say, ‘It’s just right here, man, I know it,’” Dimitroff says, tapping his chest near his heart. “This guy is looking at me and he’s saying, ‘Wait a minute, [Pro Football Focus] is saying ABC and XYZ.’”

Data-driven thinking has helped teams like the 2017 Eagles win championships, but that franchise’s struggles since that season illustrate how a lack of interpersonal communication can blunt the effectiveness of an otherwise thoughtful organization. Drawing from a variety of viewpoints should, in theory, help an organization; the challenge is merging different modes of thinking without creating an adversarial environment.

“We’re flawed humans,” says a personnel executive. “It’s like anything, where the cap guy doesn’t want to teach me about the cap because then his value decreases. The analytics guys think they can make more efficient decisions without bias than the personnel guy, and the personnel guy thinks he knows everything because he has the tape. The relationships just become super strained because everyone lets their ego get in the way and believes they know best.”

Instead of seeing an analytics department as a potential resource, coaches and scouts might worry that research will reflect poorly on their decisions. In detailing the Eagles’ dysfunction, The Athletic reported that Pederson had a meeting with Lurie every Tuesday to answer questions based on a postgame report written by the team’s analytics staff.

“That group [in analytics], fortunately or unfortunately, they can provide a lot of great information, but sometimes they can reveal things that maybe the team builders don’t want to reveal to an owner,” Dimitroff says.

Even the vernacular used to describe different departments emphasizes divide—teams that rely heavily on analytics are “smart,” implying that others are not; scouts and coaches are “football people,” implying that anyone else is an outsider. Differences in style and philosophy easily overshadow common goals. And as Gallo explains, disagreements that aren’t resolved openly and constructively tend to turn personal.

“The football people act like the high school teenage boys that picked on anyone that wasn’t a jock,” former NFL general manager Scott Pioli tells me. “And the analytics people go immediately to the place that they’re going to for their ego, that they are going to win their fight and insult the football person’s intelligence. They both go right after the insecurity that the other has lived with their entire life to win the fight and cut the throat.”

These fights can be costly—they’ve contributed to organizational overhauls in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Houston, among other places. There’s a more subtle cost, though, taxed when certain problems require a combination of philosophies to reach the best solutions.

Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at Pro Football Focus, uses his applied mathematics background to leverage PFF’s data into predictive tools, like a wins above replacement model. Eager is a quantitative evangelist who believes NFL teams leave plenty of meat on the bone in their embrace of analytics, yet there are still cases when he knows a model can see only so much. Teams make some moves, Eager tells me, that his models would see as carrying negative value, but are understandable when he factors in human motivation or how a locker room would likely respond.

One example Eager gave was the Browns signing running back Nick Chubb to a three-year, $36.6 million extension in July.

“Somebody like me would say, ‘The hit rate on contracts for running backs is so low, so of course it’s not smart to sign Nick Chubb,’” Eager says. “But if you’re the Browns, it’s like, well, ‘What do I say to our newest draft class if we’re not even going to sign a guy who is like one of the best players in the NFL right now?’”

Another example Eager gave was the Chiefs trading for Ravens tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in April. Looking at the trade in a vacuum, Eager sees far more value for Baltimore than for Kansas City: The Ravens played Brown at left tackle last season after their original starter, Ronnie Stanley, was injured, giving reps at a premium position to a player who wouldn’t be their long-term starter. Baltimore then sold high on Brown before needing to sign him to a second contract. Brown is set to hit free agency next offseason, when Kansas City is reportedly prepared to use the franchise tag on him.

“They have the easiest offense to play left tackle in, and he played well and they sold him to Kansas City for like a good amount of value, and they don’t have to pay him the [$16.5 million on the franchise tag] after that. Right. And it’s like, that’s a negative [expected value] move for Kansas City,” Eager says.

The picture changes when Eager looks at it from the Chiefs’ perspective. Kansas City’s loss to the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl was largely pinned on a makeshift offensive line, and its offseason has been mostly dedicated to fixing that weakness on the roster. With Patrick Mahomes signed through 2031 at a relative bargain, Kansas City has both salary cap flexibility and the need to make sure Mahomes feels good about his support. Trading a first-round pick and three other lower picks for Brown and then paying Brown’s salary might be a negative-EV move, but acquiring Brown, bolstering the offensive line, and keeping Mahomes happy in the process is “probably break-even or better,” Eager says.

“If you pay your brilliant quarterback less money than he’s probably worth and you don’t foresee five years from now him being in a small-market city and being Aaron Rodgers–like disgruntled because you didn’t take care of him, then you’re probably missing the mark a little bit, right?” Eager says. “If you want the left tackle, I mean, go ahead and overspend for a left tackle, because you’re using some of that residual money. It’s a shame you couldn’t use it in a more positive-EV way, but it’s also a shame you didn’t have 80 percent of your starters on the O-line in the Super Bowl there. Real life happens.”

The “analytics,” Eager says, wouldn’t have found anything wrong with the Packers drafting Love, yet it’s obvious from a human perspective that the handling of that pick may wind up costing the team.

Former NFL executives had similar examples. Pioli brought up a contract the Patriots gave running back Corey Dillon after the 2004 season, which ended in a Super Bowl win. Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards that year, and Pioli and the Patriots brass knew they were buying high on a running back entering his age-31 season. Still, Pioli, vice president of player personnel at the time, says he was confident that rewarding Dillon would play well in the locker room. Another example Pioli gave was Rodney Harrison.

Harrison signed a six-year deal with the Patriots in 2003 after being cut by the Chargers. Harrison was coming off an injury and wanted to go to a good team, so he took a below-market offer from New England.

“He came in and had an incredible year, immediate captain, helped the locker room on a level I can’t even articulate,” Pioli says.

After that season, the Patriots felt the disparity in Harrison’s value and what he was earning was so pronounced it could wind up causing tension between the team and a key player. Standard operating procedure around the league in such cases was to offer an extension that came with more money in exchange for more years, but the Patriots wanted to do something different in Harrison’s case. They gave Harrison a raise of $1.5 million—no strings attached.

“We’re getting a bargain that’s off the charts right now, but let’s just do something that’s going to be a little bit closer to fair market,” Pioli says. “We’re still going to be winning. We don’t need to be pigs and win in a landslide.”

When Pioli told Harrison about the raise, Harrison initially didn’t believe it came without a catch. When Pioli finally convinced him, Harrison got emotional.

“What he became as a leader after that was even more exponential,” Pioli says.

Other examples abound. Dimitroff explained that there was a time during his career when a group of offensive line coaches around the NFL carried a reputation for holding especially strong opinions about the players they were tasked with developing. (The group went by the nickname “The Mushroom Society,” which, according to their website, is because, like fungi, they are “kept in the dark and fed garbage but continue to flourish.”)

No matter how high an offensive line prospect ranked on a draft board or free-agent chart, Dimitroff says it was important to know how a team’s resident Mushroom felt about the player. That didn’t mean letting a position coach pick the players, but Dimitroff said he was always aware he needed to keep offensive line coaches in the loop and hear their input.

“If they didn’t believe in that player that we started with drafting or acquiring, what’s the chance, when you try to build that team, that guy is like, ‘I’m not putting my time into this guy,’” Dimitroff says. “So it was a really, really touchy situation if you weren’t communicating properly and you weren’t communicating why we wanted a certain player that they weren’t necessarily that high on. You set yourself up for a lot of issues, possibly cutting someone you spent high draft picks on or money on.”

While reporting this story, two things stood out above all else. The first is that solid communication and empathic leadership doesn’t have an ideological alignment to a specific part of an NFL operation. The two general managers who came up most frequently as excellent communicators were Cleveland’s Andrew Berry and Indianapolis’s Chris Ballard, two executives with different backgrounds and styles. Berry has a Harvard economics degree and significant experience with analytics and salary cap management, but he’s also worked in scouting departments; Ballard is a dyed-in-the-wool scout who rose through the ranks in Chicago and Kansas City before going to Indianapolis. Both have had success as general managers and, according to multiple sources, lean on their personal skills as much as their skills as analysts or evaluators.

“Andrew Berry, and I think he’s probably the best communicator I’ve ever been around in the history of my 25 years in the industry,” said veteran agent David Canter. “Chris Ballard is probably the best humanist at the general manager position I’ve ever met. He understands the dynamics of the human psyche, he understands the dynamics of needs and pain and pleasure and the whole gamut of psycho-machinations that go into being an NFL player.”

The second common thread that players, coaches, executives, analysts, and agents agreed on is that there’s a dearth of empathy in how teams function. It’s common, sources say, that organizations at the pinnacle of professional sports simply don’t work well, ironically, as a team. This weakness is accepted as something that’s harmful, but difficult to overcome. The competitive nature of sports, too, can be a cultural barrier to collaboration.

Pioli brought up Theo Epstein, the former Cubs and Red Sox general manager who stepped away from his front-office duties last year and expressed some regret for how the clinical optimization of player performance he’d championed had come with unintended consequences.

“It is the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it just because of the way the game is evolving. I take some responsibility for that,” Epstein told The Boston Globe last November. “Executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.”

Pioli found Epstein’s words compelling and brave, particularly given Epstein’s success using those exact measures. There was a clear application for the NFL, too. Rodgers’s example captured the league’s attention for months, but an issue stemming from the human desire to feel seen and appreciated is hardly unique.

Analysts like Eager, who want to influence the league’s direction, think about how to stave off regrets similar to Epstein’s. Eager says in the past two years, he’s spent time thinking about how to hold an awareness of “the human aspect” of the game while remaining loyal to objective principles.

“How do we talk about players? Are we being humanizing enough?” Eager says. “And like, it’s always hard, right? Because you’re trying to win football games. You have constraints like the salary cap that I don’t think are pro labor at all. But you can’t not talk about them because if you say, ‘Oh, pay everybody,’ you’re being a bad analyst. Right? There’s all these things.

“There’s an aspect to it that we’re not building into our objective functions as analysts.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the value of strong collaboration between departments, or a star player feeling heard. It’s also hard to deny that value exists when looking around the league.

“You’re talking about a game—this is a brutal game where people are literally sacrificing their bodies and minds and physical well-being,” Pioli said. “If you can’t be human in that space … ”

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