The NFL is changing—albeit, at a glacial pace. Some of these changes are more prominent than others; we’ve seen the quarterback prototype evolve to feature dual-threat passers who can move just as well outside of the pocket as they can execute within it. How could we miss the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson evading defenders or the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes running from sideline-to-sideline before darting the ball downfield to a pass-catcher?
The changes that are most visible are a reflection of the staff in place, and even this is changing—or attempting to. While the league had to literally bribe organizations to reach out to and interview a greater number of minority candidates, there’s a sense of “cautious optimism” that greater changes will take place among teams’ coaching and executive staff. Now that the 2020 regular season is over, teams can begin filling open positions in an offseason that follows the most interesting year in sports history. These hires, most notably teams’ general manager hires, will shape franchises’ outlooks for seasons to come; the weight and the veil over these executive positions are heavy.
There are at least six general manager openings across the NFL. Teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and, most recently, Denver Broncos will all be looking to fill one of their top executive spots; the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington Football Team will all need a new GM as well. The search usually gives us three types of traditional candidates. They’re almost always white and, up to this point, always male with a scouting background, a coaching background, and/or an analytics background. It wasn’t until recently that this was disrupted with media personalities. John Lynch, who spent 15 seasons in the league, retired in 2008 and months later enjoyed a long career as one of NFL on FOX’s color commentators before accepting the general manager position in San Francisco. Now, Louis Reddick, who does have a scouting background to marry with a successful media career, is a sought-after candidate for multiple GM openings.
We’ve seen a wave of new, innovative minds with little-to-no NFL experience secure an open head coaching position. It might take longer for the same principles to apply to general manager roles. The two jobs are obviously and inherently different; this isn’t to say a parallel between the two can be easily drawn—it also doesn’t negate the years or decades of experience current and prospective GMs have. In a win-now (and win-often) league, there’s little patience to truly try something new; and no, hiring another Sean McVay clone as head coach doesn’t count. The Houston Texas reportedly hired Nick Caserio as their next general manager; this was the second time Houston has set its sights on Caserio, former New England Patriots director of player personnel. Caserio, a middle-aged white man with extensive NFL experience, a prime example of the NFL’s old prototype; it’s one that will take more than one offseason to move away from.
According to the 2020 University of Central Florida Racial and Gender Report Card, the NFL received an F racial hiring grade for general managers. Miami Dolphins’ Chris Grier and Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Berry are the only two Black GMs across the league; this is the lowest number since 2018, and it is the second consecutive year there were only two people of color in such a position. Grier had an extensive scouting background, spending time with the Patriots and Dolphins before having an executive role. Berry, who was also a former scout, had years of player personnel and football operations experience before he joined Cleveland’s organization in January 2020. Inside The Pylon recently conducted a general manager candidate case study that featured candidates with such experience; Reddick was the only name mentioned with current media experience. Here, however, a deeper question was asked and, more or less, answered:
“The question for NFL owners, who make the hiring decisions on the GM, is: Who is qualified for the job? To answer that, you need to understand the job. NFL analyst Pat Kirwan aptly summarized the difficulties of the GM position:
‘[R]unning an NFL franchise isn’t easy. Can you evaluate personnel, manage a salary cap, negotiate contracts, select a head coach, handle the media, make tough decisions, cooperate with an owner, deal with the league office and, most importantly, carry out a vision for a winning franchise? If so, then you qualify for the job.’”
Ultimately, a general manager is going to mirror the direction a team wants to move. A GM will need to have knowledge in or delegate to people with knowledge in every aspect of the game; it would be unrealistic to think anyone could fill this role otherwise. But, with certain owners and prominent head coaches taking on significant front office responsibilities too, more leeway can be afforded to a new GM as they learn all aspects of the job. Think of an offensive guru head coach that leans on a wily veteran defensive or special teams coordinator.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that the previously unwritten guidelines need to be altered.
Each organization can be guided by, learn from, and grow under the direction of new, young, diverse voices (with less experience) that have been largely (and mostly) excluded from top executive rolls; or it will be much of the same, leaving teams spinning their wheels trying to keep up with the changes rippling throughout the league with people unequipped (despite their extensive experience) to change too.