Editor’s note, January 11, 2022: Since this article was published on January 6, five additional NFL head coaches have been fired: Miami’s Brian Flores, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, Chicago’s Matt Nagy, Denver’s Vic Fangio, and the New York Giants’ Joe Judge
NFL teams are terrible at hiring. We know this because they tell us over and over again. They abandon the plans they made two or three years earlier and distance themselves from it all by hiring the exact opposite version of the coach or executive they just fired. A defensive head coach is fired for an offensive mastermind. A first-time coach is fired for a veteran retread. A players’ coach is fired for a disciplinarian. The cycle repeats until someone, anyone in the chain wins 11 games and gets an extension. The three head coaches still in the league from the 2017 hiring cycle—Sean McDermott, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan—are among the top-10 longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. Thirteen franchises have changed coaches since the beginning of 2020. Half of the league’s GMs are in their first five seasons on the job. If any other industry existed for 100 years and still had so little success identifying the type of leaders it needs, there’d be a meeting or two about it. The NFL more or less shrugs.
The cycle will begin anew next week after the final regular-season games are played. There will probably be fewer openings than last season, but the decision-making will be just as chaotic because of how the system is set up: Teams will try to make quick decisions before the March combine based on relatively limited interactions with candidates. Last month, the league owners approved a resolution allowing teams to start interviewing candidates in the last two weeks of the regular season, providing more time for the hiring process. Jacksonville, which fired Urban Meyer in December, is currently taking advantage of it. But the process begins only when a coach is fired—teams like Chicago and Denver, where a coaching change is likely, will have little time to interview candidates if they decide to move on from their current coaches. The question is, why do teams keep making the same mistakes? The initial answer is easy: They rely on the same process every time. The same pool of candidates, the same timeline, the same structure, the same everything. The same owners have been hiring for the same two positions—head coach and GM—for a long time and most of them haven’t gotten better at it.
“Historically,” Bill Walsh once told the Harvard Business Review, “in sports, there has been one central figure in the organization whose presence dominates everything and whose judgments people identify with. That one person is the dictator, and everyone else simply does whatever he says. In a lot of ways, the old system was much easier for all involved. The dictator gave orders and everyone else just followed them.” This “one person” was usually a coach or GM, but it could have been anyone who was enabled by an owner. Walsh gave that interview in 1993 and things have mostly stayed the same since then. The “old system” Walsh described—and disliked—is still the ideal for a lot of owners. I think an owner’s dream is to simply find a coach who can call the perfect plays or a GM who can outdraft everyone. Owners want to turn over their keys to a guy who’ll solve all their problems and go from there. That’s how we ended up with Jon Gruden and Urban Meyer having so much power. That’s how Matt Rhule got a seven-year contract and helped pick his team’s general manager. The Raiders, Jaguars, and Panthers were aiming for a type of mega-coach or GM that doesn’t really exist except in unrepeatable scenarios—like the best coach and quarterback teaming up for two decades in New England. Football is won not through perfection or unicorns but through thousands of tiny edges created by an entire organization of smart people. Teams should hire like it.
I recently talked to Mike Forde, who runs a company called Sportsology, which has advised multiple NFL teams on how to structure their organizations. This very website dubbed Forde the “NBA GM Kingmaker” last spring for his influence in basketball, as well as other sports. He is a former executive at Chelsea Football Club. He’s studied the NFL hiring cycle closely. “When you go through the cycles,” he said, “and you ask [teams], ‘How did you end up here with this person in this model?’ It was very, very quick and dirty in terms of how it was done, I felt, across the league, compared to the thoroughness of some other sports.” Forde said he thinks there are inefficiencies in the NFL’s hiring practices. One is that teams make a lot of big decisions in a short amount of time, since every organization faces the artificial deadline of the combine, which starts a few weeks after the Super Bowl. Another is that an owner’s default strategy, he said, is often to look at teams that went to Super Bowls and try to hire that general manager’s no. 2.
Forde says there are a couple of things that make football hiring unique. The first is that there is no comparable professional league. Soccer, obviously, has nearly limitless leagues worldwide to hire from or study if you are looking for a manager or executive. Basketball’s coaching ladder often includes any number of coaches with European professional experience. But there is one significant professional football league in the world. Owners are not exactly looking far and wide for qualified candidates, especially when it comes to general managers, a position, unlike coach, that doesn’t even have a comparable role in the college game.
Sportsology did a deep dive on the 57 general manager openings in the NFL since 2010. The numbers paint a picture of owners’ lack of creativity: 75 percent of the hires were former NFL scouts, and 70 percent of all hires came from a team that had made a Super Bowl during their tenure. This means that if you are a senior scout with a past Super Bowl participant, you are likely to be firmly in the mix. The numbers get more interesting from there. The data showed that teams with GMs from scouting backgrounds won less than those with GMs who had a salary cap and football operations background, a group that includes New Orleans’s Mickey Loomis, Buffalo’s Brandon Beane, and Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman. There are small sample sizes when you’re dealing with over a decade of hires in a 32-team league, but it’s important to point out that the data shows no real difference in winning percentage between GMs who came from a Super Bowl team and those who did not.
So, in short, NFL teams look for scouts from Super Bowl participants when they might want to look for cap guys from any team. This makes me think of a candidate like Kansas City’s Brandt Tilis, who has masterfully managed the Chiefs’ superstar salaries in recent years.
Forde’s point is even broader than the distinction between scouts and cap specialists. He thinks NFL teams should consider a much wider candidate pool when hiring GMs. “If you look at the data, the people who were in the strategy, cap and contracts—who are really thinking about the problem and trying to find people that they can partner with to solve the problem—have been found statistically to be more successful in the regular season [by winning percentage]. So that was one thing: pursue smart, intellectual people who could put the jigsaw together.” The second insight, Forde said, is that coming from a successful team doesn’t guarantee future success, which he thinks stems from the fact that successful teams are often propped up by unrepeatable factors. “Some of the championship-contending teams in all major sports are put together by a unicorn player that hid a multitude of sins for everyone else, and actually stopped the pursuit of marginal gains across the whole business because the head coach or quarterback or a point guard landed the plane for everyone and, by default, everyone was great.”
In general, Forde says that teams should look outside the 32 NFL facilities more when hiring for front office roles. He thinks that hiring the “next person up” in the ecosystem, as teams do now, robs teams of “intellectual curiosity, and unless the owners are driving that curiosity, or the senior people above the GM, then it’s just going to be business as usual. And then we’re on the next cycle of Stairway to Heaven, or trying to hope that this next hire is different than the last one and that’s where the risk is, and but also where the opportunity is.” He mentions Warriors GM Bob Myers, who came to an NBA front office from a nontraditional professional background (he was an agent), as a guiding light for an outside-the-box hire. Forde also says that teams should consider hiring people who run big sports data businesses or work for a top tech company. Hiring people with outside perspectives and who have different experiences would probably lead to a change in the way a team is set up—if you brought a non-football lifer into the fold, they’d probably have different ideas than the current coach-GM setup that has existed for decades.
Forde said that the traditional approach will always have to exist in some way. Yes, the head coach will do the coaching, and the GM will still give out contracts, navigate free agency, and make trades, but Forde thinks there is potential for change in the number of people a team can hire to support decision-making and “have a more collective, brain-trust approach to how we deal with things. So you can still be traditional on the front end but you can be innovative in how you put together the management team to tackle the big moments.” This is not to say the Giants should go out and hire from Apple; it’s simply to say there’s a great big world outside of football and teams might want to check it out.
Obviously, the pool for head-coaching candidates is much smaller than for front office executives or GMs, because, well, they have to be coaches. But a different management team would view coaches differently, or manage them differently, or potentially make better choices to support them. You should not try to replace Matt Nagy with an agent, but maybe you should let an agent into the organization to help the next Matt Nagy.
Forde says that NFL teams simply don’t think about the future as much as they should. He said that in European soccer, where manager volatility and turnover are constant, teams have done a nice job of thinking about the future. It might seem counterintuitive, but because the average Premier League manager lasts less than two years, teams understand that even if they have the manager they want, change is almost always near. Those teams, he said, are perennially thinking about the future, whereas NFL teams, who try to hire in a cycle and then move on from it all, are not. The fact that the NFL changes coaches and GMs so much has not made teams any better at thinking about how they go about hiring.
A few months ago, I ran into an owner of a successful NFL team at a league event. We got to chatting and he mentioned that he was starting to believe the only sustainable competitive advantage in football was culture. Everything else can be replicated or figured out; culture cannot because it’s freaking hard to build. The Star-Ledger’s Steve Politi had a wonderful column this week about Giants coach Joe Judge, who claims to have changed the culture in New York, which is funny because his GM, Dave Gettleman, said he had changed the culture already before Judge was there. If you have two guys taking credit for changing the culture, it’s likely that nothing has changed. The point here is that in hiring season, the NFL needs to focus more on the big picture, not just who can draft marginally better than the guy they just fired.
So what happens next? Well, a lot of things. More of the same, certainly, but perhaps a slow crawl toward a more open hiring process, one that incorporates the innovative ways that modern football is analyzed and consumed. The internet allowed new voices to be discovered. In other sports—baseball and basketball, in particular—this has resulted in entry-level job offers. Baseball realized over a decade ago that a smart person who can explain complicated things clearly on the internet is probably a good candidate for a low-level job. All-22 footage and unlimited internet communication have helped democratize football information, but the sport has had no such revolution. Jobs are still filled mainly by nepotism or other connections and then, once those folks have paid their dues, they can start the climb up the ladder.
The league also needs more diversity in top positions, and the current candidate pool—built on that old cronyism network—needs to be adjusted accordingly. According to a University of Central Florida study last year, the NFL improved its record on diversity and 41 percent of all assistant coaches are people of color. The league has five head coaches of color and five general managers of color.
The best way to get into the door of an NFL facility at the moment is in analytics. This serves the same purpose that being a young salary cap expert did in the previous generation: It solves a problem that older GMs and executives don’t understand. In theory, this should lend itself to a younger generation of employees entering the NFL from a wider variety of backgrounds. Women have been hired in both analytics and in coaching staffs in recent years, such as Washington assistant running backs coach Jennifer King and Bucs assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.
If there’s anything worse than the NFL’s ability to hire good candidates, it’s the media’s ability to judge them, and that’s a problem, too. Bill Belichick’s hiring was widely panned. Pete Carroll’s Seahawks hire was met with confusion more than anything, which is an upgrade over the reaction to his USC hiring. My guess is part of the reason there aren’t many outside-the-box hires is that the football media—as far as it’s come in the modern era—would still pan any hire that’s not a “football guy.” Hell, calls for a “football guy” to help run the Bears above the GM (and alongside team president Ted Phillips) have been constant over the past month.
Mistakes will be made in this hiring cycle. We know this because a lot of the people doing the hiring have a track record of making mistakes. We also know that hiring from the same pool every season leads to bigger mistakes. This is how it goes every January, and that’s the problem.