Below is an unfinished draft of the beginning of the Front Office section of the “Caponomics Theories” section of “#Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis” which I’m pushing to have published and available on Amazon during training camp. I started this project in February after going to the NFL Combine and originally planned on having it done by June. Of course, I had no idea what I was talking about because I’ve never written a book before and it’s taken longer than I originally thought, so it might be out in August or it might be out a little later than that. On top of that, I am preparing for the NFLPA’s Agent Certification Exam that’s in July, so it could be delayed a little more as I prepare for that.
What I do know is that this will be the first of a series of books on this topic and I will likely have another book coming in the Spring of 2016 that will take what I discuss in this book, apply it to each team’s 2015 season and discuss why they were or were not successful in 2015. The writings from #Caponomics will probably have a place in most of my writing on OverTheCap.com from here on out as the theories I’ve created and the analysis that goes into this book will be, and already are, the basis of a lot of the things that I write about on here. This is a series of books that I am sure that Over The Cap readers will enjoy and I couldn’t be more excited to bring them to you.
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Now, what follows in this post is the first theory of the Front Office Theories section of the broader Caponomics Theories section. This section has three parts, the first being on the Front Office, the second is in regards to QB Spending as it’s the biggest factor in determining the direction of a team’s spending and the third section is in regards to spending patterns as there are a few proven models and patterns that teams can use to construct their rosters. What follows is the beginning of that first part on the Front Office.
This excerpt is a first draft and has not been proofread by my editor, so I apologize if there are any typos.
Head Coach, General Manager and Player Personnel Decisions
The first thing we need to discuss would be where all the decisions are made, the front office. You obviously can’t put together a Super Bowl team without a strong front office, so it’s important to get the systems, processes and vision in place.
Probably the most important piece of this whole section is this first theory, the head coach should have final say in all personnel decisions whether he’s the general manager as well or he just has a terrific working relationship with the general manager to the point where they work together on every decision and have a strong mutual respect for one another.
There are three ways to do this, the way that the Patriots and Eagles are doing it with Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly where they are both the head coaches and the de facto general managers, they have say in every single decision the team makes. For the last decade and a half, Belichick has continued to find the perfect players for his system year after year because he’s been unencumbered by the bureaucracy and debate that can occur when you have to go through someone else to do what needs to be done. In this 2015 offseason, we’ve seen Kelly transform the Eagles roster and build the exact team that he wants.
One of the major rubs Kelly had prior to him taking over the general manager responsibilities from Howie Roseman was that Roseman drafted Marcus Smith with their 2014 First Round Pick. Smith ended up playing in only eight games and was even a healthy scratch at times. He finished the season with zero sacks, tackles, nothing. A key factor for success in the NFL is ending up somewhere where you can succeed and Smith came to the Eagles 3-4 defense after playing a 4-3 base defense at Louisville, they’ve already moved him from defensive end to outside linebacker during the 2015 offseason as he was so useless to them at defensive end.
This is similar to why Doug Marrone left his job with the Buffalo Bills, he was frustrated by the Bills making that huge trade for Sammy Watkins where they gave up the #8 pick overall and a 2015 first and fourth rounder to move up four spots to draft a wide receiver in the deepest receiver draft in NFL history. Watkins is a great player, but they could have gotten solid players at #8 or even just gone after someone in the later rounds. When you’re a head coach, you know what the team that you want to build needs and I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to have to coach a team that someone who doesn’t respect your wishes, put together.
The second option is the way that Pete Carroll is doing it with John Schneider in Seattle and how Jimmy Johnson worked with Jerry Jones in Dallas in the early-1990s; in both of those situations, it was a perfect marriage between a former college coach who did a tremendous time drafting players, maneuvering their rosters around to find talent and building the team they needed to succeed. Carroll and Johnson didn’t have the title of general manager with those Super Bowl teams, but they had personnel authority, which was the critical piece that helped them construct the teams they wanted. I like the idea of giving college turned professional coaches full personnel authority, but giving them a general manager to help them due to their lack of a salary cap background having just come from the college game. It’s clear that it’s a great partnership in Seattle, but it was not in Philadelphia.
The general managers in this case, Schneider and Jones, were perfect partners in the business relationship as they knew the ins-and-outs of the salary cap and the NFL rules and worked very well with their head coaches and their needs. With their general managers help, Carroll and Johnson did things that no one had ever done before to turn around two franchises who weren’t doing very well.
In their first year together, Carroll and Schneider made 283 roster moves and took every single opportunity they had to bring guys in and see what they could do. He built the same culture in Seattle that he was known for at the University of Southern California, even turning his famous “Competition Tuesdays” from USC into “Competition Wednesdays,” where everyone’s competing for the opportunity to play on Sunday. They brought in guys from late rounds and undrafted guys, players that no one wanted and they created a championship culture with grinders, guys with chips on their shoulders.
In Dallas, Johnson was taking over a proud franchise that had fallen on hard times. Jones bought the Cowboys on February 25, 1989 and hired his college teammate from Arkansas, Johnson, soon after. In his five years as the University of Miami’s head coach, Johnson went 52-9 with his first season, 1984, being his worst at 8-5. After that, he lost four total games in the next four years and went 12-0 in 1987 to win the National Championship. Like with Kelly and Carroll, as a former college coach, he had no preconceived notions about how to run a team and because he didn’t come up through the NFL, he wasn’t tied to the standard ways that business was being done. In that first season, they went 1-15 and had very, very little talent, but that Herschel Walker trade to the Vikings helped lay the ground work for the 1990s dynasty that followed.
Johnson and Jones became two of the biggest innovators in NFL history because they were forced to, like Chris B. Brown says in Smart Football, “new ideas in football tend to arise as potential solutions to specific problems.” Their problem was that the Cowboys had very little talent, their solution started with trading Walker for a handful of picks that ended up building the foundation of the dynasty. That wasn’t all though, in his five years in Dallas, Johnson and Jones made 51 trades, which is more than the rest of the NFL put together. At the time, the league just didn’t believe in trades, they didn’t see it as something that teams did.
Since they weren’t tied to conventional wisdom, they didn’t care that no one thought trades were a way to build a franchise, they came from outside of the NFL and saw opportunities where others did not. Almost every single trade, if not every trade, involved a draft pick as well and because Johnson had just come from the college game and had the knowledge of the players and the connections to coaches, he did a terrific job drafting, like Carroll has in Seattle. Johnson even goes as far as saying that with every single draft pick they got, they never stayed in the same spot, they always either moved up or down with the pick. He’s so famous for his drafting abilities that the Draft Trade Value Chart that teams still use today is his invention.
The last way I approve of is the way the Ravens have done it with Ozzie Newsome as their VP of Player Personnel and de facto General Manager from their founding in 1996 to 2001, their General Manager from 2002 to 2012 and their General Manager and Executive VP since then. During this time, they’ve only had three head coaches with Ted Marchibroda having three sub-.500 seasons from 1996 to 1998, then the Brian Billick years from 1999 to 2007 that included a 2000 Super Bowl and finally the John Harbaugh years that have been the most successful with them only missing the playoffs with an 8-8 season in 2013 after their 2012 Super Bowl. Newsome has been in charge of personnel for 18 years and he has final say over all personnel matters, including the 53-man roster according to Albert Breer from NFL.com.
Breer goes on to state that the strength of the Ravens organization is built on a team of smart football minds, a group that includes four members who were a part of the original Ravens staff back in 1996 in Pat Moriarty, Eric DeCosta, Vince Newsome and George Kokinis with Joe Hortiz who was added in 1998. Is there another organization in the league that has had that kind of stability? As Breer points out, because of this, they have “a tried-and-true system that is inclusive across the board.”
DeCosta, the Ravens assistant GM, is part of a succession plan to eventually take over for Ozzie and he’s in charge of the draft. Breer states that the way the Ravens handle the draft is a “good window into the operation.” He assigns the top 50 prospects on both sides of the ball to his offensive and defensive coordinators, then he sends their position coaches to privately work out these players. Once they’ve done this, DeCosta then asks the position coaches and coordinators to rank their top players. Breer states that “Harbaugh will cast a wider net, getting a feel for the class as a whole rather than spending time writing reports, and he has significant influence with Newsome and DeCosta.” When it comes for free agents, Breer writes that “the process is narrower,” but that coaches and scouts are involved.
Owner Steve Bisciotti is “a valued sounding board who’s known for asking good questions and sorting out issues, even if he’s not a daily presence at the office, with Dick Cass running the day-to-day business.” Breer notes that one of the major parts of their success “could lie in the organization’s depth” as they rely heavily on their scouts like Joe Douglas, Andy Weidl and Milt Hendrickson.
What really got me excited about reading Breer’s article is that he has something titled, “an outside perspective from an NFC personnel director,” below the article on the Ravens process and whoever they asked is identical to my thoughts on the Ravens that I’ve expressed multiple times on Over The Cap. It’s also something that the Ravens have done perfectly during the 2015 offseason and this article from Breer was written back in June 2013, so they’re still doing things the Ravens way.
The NFC personnel director states, “What Baltimore does, they play a certain way, and they find pieces that fit the way they play. They don’t re-sign guys above the value they’ve assigned them, and they find players who fit roles, even if some of those guys have issues. They feel like they can work those out because they have a strong locker room. Ozzie knows what he wants in a player, and he goes and gets it. They miss like everyone else, but they have a plan and they’re good at executing it. … Everyone there is so clearly on the same page, and that’s key. They work well together, they’re consistent in what they’re looking for and they haven’t changed much. They just find people that fit, and when guys move on, they find other people to fit in.”
The Ravens and their continuity in their front office leads me into my next point, head coaches and general managers should be allowed to play out their vision. Teams hire these guys and then sometimes they’ll end up being fired two years into the job, which doesn’t even really give players time to buy into the coach’s system or the coach time to fill the roster with the kind of players he needs to succeed.
Across all industries, most successful organizations have very little turnover with their management, many organization has plans laid out for years into the future, even the simplest business plan has at least five-year projections. In an industry like the NFL, you’d want to know what systems you’ll have in place years into the future, so that you can prepare for those. One coach might need the kind of athletes who can run a spread offense, while the other wants to run an Air Coryell and needs a big, powerful back. If you had two CEOs, back-to-back, who needed entirely different assets for their plan for success, your stock would plummet, the experts would wonder what you were thinking, but in the NFL, organizations routinely have to make these kinds of transitions and sometimes coaches are given a very short time to prove their worth.
The organizations that have had the most success over the last ten to fifteen years are the ones who have this kind of stability that lets you count on the same system you have today, being in place well into the future. The draft is a great time for teams to get lower cost players to help build the system they want, but if you’re continually changing coaches and not giving them a chance to build the roster they need for their strategies, then you’re setting your organization up to fail. The Ravens, Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Giants and, recently, the Seahawks are evidence of the positive impact that years of drafting can have on a franchise. The 2011 Giants had some interesting facts like 25 of the players on their 53-man roster were drafted by the team, five of their last six first rounders started in the Super Bowl and the sixth, Prince Amukamara, was injured. Sure the coaches for these teams are good, that’s why they’re allowed to stick around, but they’ve also been given the time to build something. A lot of the owners in the NFL are terrific businessmen, that’s why they’re in the position they’re in, so they understand the importance of vision, they need to allow their coaches the opportunity to realize the vision they surely set forth for the owners when they got hired.
A great way for a head coach to keep their job and help the organization fend off the public calls for their firing is to draft well consistently and early. Of course, by drafting well, you’ll probably have a good team, so this will help you not get fired. I think that showing the public that you’re always making progress plays a huge part in the public perception. With Tom Coughlin these last couple years, we knew that he faced a lot of adversity in terms of injuries in both 2013 and 2014, plus the addition of key draft picks, especially Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants haven’t made the playoffs since that Super Bowl winning 2011 season, while the Jets haven’t made the playoffs since they made it to the AFC Championship against the Steelers in 2010.
Other than Coughlin’s two championships that grant him a little bit of breathing room, the key difference was that the Jets had become stagnant under Rex Ryan, their drafts had some busts at key positions and the public perception had dipped majorly since 2010. Geno Smith wasn’t developing into anything that resembled a franchise quarterback under Ryan in Year 2 and after not seeing Sanchez develop, that’s two high draft picks on quarterbacks that Ryan seemed to strike out on. The Jets had traded up to draft major bust, wide receiver Stephen Hill, in 2012.
When you look back, the Jets really didn’t have too much of a chance to really build anything at the beginning of Ryan’s tenure in New York, which is why they couldn’t sustain that early success. They had seven draft picks total in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, their first round pick was Sanchez, their third round pick was Shonn Greene and Matt Slauson was their sixth rounder. In 2010, it was Wilson, Vlad Ducasse, Joe McKnight and John Conner. With the kind of short period of time that players play in the NFL, drafts are important to restock the roster with young, cheap talent.
Ryan’s tenure was in a tough spot from the start and with his boisterous yearly Super Bowl predictions; it quickly became a joke in New York and he couldn’t recover from it because the roster never improved. A large reason for some of his issues is never having full control of his roster and having multiple general managers. In Todd Bowles first draft, the 2015 edition, he had six draft picks, but he had all that cap space that they spent on veterans who will be huge contributors and had a draft that many analysts gave an A-rating.
Ryan had 12 draft picks in 2014, which gave the team some key players like Calvin Pryor and Jace Amaro in the first two rounds, but not much else. That lack of success in the 2014 draft, when the Jets finally gave Ryan a huge opportunity, was just another nail in his coffin.
Across the league, people have lauded this Jets offseason; Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan have given the fan base reason to believe. While the signings were great, the draft really showed the entire league that the Jets were taking the right steps to become a real threat in the AFC East for years to come.
Drafts are important indicators for the direction of your franchise, so it’s critical that you have success in these. The average NFL fan is becoming more educated every year with a proliferation of platforms that can help fans understand how good a player is. With various websites that can give fans opinions on who their team should draft, gone are the days where the average fan is just calling for the most exciting player left in that first round to be draft, now fans are understanding what’s needed to build a team.
During that 2014 Draft, while Jerry Jones was contemplating drafting Johnny Manziel, the entire football world was hoping he wouldn’t do something that stupid and I knew many were even discussing Tony Romo’s contract extending far into the future. Once he drafted Zach Martin, the entire league applauded the move and it paid off in a big way as the Cowboys had the best offensive line in the NFL and will for some time as it’s a young line that they’ve drafted themselves. As I’ve explained in this book, in 2014, they essentially reconstructed the offense they had in 1995 with a Big 3 of Tony Romo, Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant like Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Their complementary pieces of Terrance Williams and Jason Witten had statistics eerily similar to Kevin Williams and Jay Novacek’s 1995 numbers and they’ve essentially reconstructed their historic offensive line from the early-1990s.
The head coach’s job is to build that infrastructure and get the whole organization to understand the direction that he wants to go in. It’s up to the organization to supply him with a scouting department that can ensure that he hits on his draft picks. Outside of the cost saving that you can see immediately when you’re looking at a roster with important pieces who are out performing the value that their rookie deals entail, there’s the cost saving that we don’t see, the money they didn’t have to spend in the free agent market because of that player succeeding. One spot that I’ve discussed at length on Over The Cap is the running back position, this is somewhere that’s especially important to hit at because you don’t want to have to go into that free agent market or have to pay one of your own aging running backs more than he might be worth due to a drafting mistake. A huge factor for the Cowboys, like that Zach Martin pick, has been that they’ve built a line that they think any running back can have success behind and four of their five starters in 2014 were drafted with three in the first round and their fifth, Ronald Leary, was an undrafted free agent signing. The 2015 undrafted free agent addition of projected first round pick La’el Collins will go down in history as one of the most valuable signings in NFL history, just an absolute steal.
To close out that thought, why are the Cowboys on the cusp of greatness again? Because the football minds are finally in charge again. It’s nothing against the incredible business minds who are in positions like general manager or owner in the NFL, these are, typically, brilliant people, but it’s important for them to understand where their expertise lies. Outside of an organization like the Ravens, I’d almost every single team in the NFL would be best suited with the head coach making the final decision on every roster move.
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If you liked the kind of cap analysis that went into this article, please e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com, so that you are added to our e-mail list and get some bonus finished chapters as they become available. A couple weeks ago, I sent out our chapter analyzing the 2000 Ravens. Coming soon will be the 2014 Patriots as well as a non-Super Bowl winning bonus chapter that will not be in the book on the 2014 Lions.
Caponomics is a book that analyzes the Super Bowl champions from the last 21 seasons and creates theories based on this analysis. Future books will use the theories from this book to discuss why the teams from the previous season were or were not successful, the 2015 version of this book will come out in Spring 2016. This is a series of books that I’m sure that the Over The Cap reader will thoroughly enjoy and I’m excited to bring them to you guys.