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Power Struggles Becoming the Norm for Successful NFL Franchises

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Jim Harbaugh posted a 44–19–1 record in four years in San Francisco, never had a losing record and took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game three times. John Fox went 46–18 in four years in Denver, never had a losing record and took the Broncos to a Super Bowl. Yet, when Harbaugh and Fox parted ways with their teams after last season, the NFL reacted with a collective yawn.

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“I’ve seen it too many times,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian says. “Who knows why these things change. There’s always internal dynamics that you can’t really put your finger on. That’s the way it looks. But it’s been done before, and I’m sure it’ll be done again.”

Harbaugh and Trent Baalke went through a messy divorce, with the coach claiming it was not nearly as mutual as the general manager depicted. Philosophical differences sent Harbaugh to the University of Michigan, leading to the 49ers’ elevation of little-known assistant Jim Tomsula to head coach.

Fox became the first Broncos coach in 30 years not to have final say in all football matters. And he and general manager John Elway eventually reached a point where they agreed to disagree, parting ways when the Broncos failed to get over the hump in three years with Peyton Manning as their quarterback. Fox moved on to Chicago, and Elway hired good buddy Gary Kubiak as the Broncos’ new head coach.

“In any relationship, whether it be player-coach, coach-GM, you’re always going to have bumpy patches,” Elway said at the press conference announcing Fox’s departure. “I think the main thing between John and I was we disagreed on how to get to the next level. We accomplished so much, four AFC West championships. But I think the biggest miss between us was how we can take that next step and what it was going to take to get to that next step. I think that’s where the disagreement came from.”

Why can’t they all just get along?

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More than 21 years have passed since Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson parted ways. Yet, they continue to play tug-of-war over credit for the back-to-back Lombardi Trophies the Cowboys won with them. Their five-year relationship ended after a public feud, with Johnson claiming his “girlfriend knows more about football” than Jones, and Jones countering that “any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls.”

Johnson walked away with a $2 million payoff, and Jones’ Cowboys won another Super Bowl two years later with Barry Switzer as the coach. They haven’t won one since.

The coach Johnson succeeded in Dallas, Tom Landry, lasted 29 years with president/general manager Tex Schramm. Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says his research revealed that the Landry-Schramm union stands as the only one in the modern era to last its whole tenure.

“Nobody was jealous of who got the credit,” says Gil Brandt, player personnel director for Dallas from 1960-89. “We got along even though we didn’t always agree. The funny thing is we all lived within a mile of one another. But I’ll say this: It was just a lot easier then than it is now with the salary cap and everything else that goes into it.”

The ugly divorces have become far more common than the long marriages. The Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14–2 season and a one-and-done playoff exit in 2006, citing a “dysfunctional situation” between the coach and general manager A.J. Smith.

Sometimes the coach loses the battle; other times it’s the general manager who goes. The Titans fired Floyd Reese after the 2006 season to end a power struggle between the general manager and coach Jeff Fisher.

Fisher worked with general managers Reese and Mike Reinfeldt and president/CEO Jeff Diamond during his 16 seasons in Houston/Tennessee. He enters his fourth season with Les Snead as his general manager in St. Louis.

“It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of trust,” Fisher says. “Communication is important. The responsibilities are so different. You have to share those responsibilities and respect those responsibilities. It starts from Day 1. There are going to be issues and disagreements.”

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One of Bill Parcells’ most memorable lines came during his departure from the Patriots after the 1996 season when he said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

Yet, Parcells’ Super Bowl titles came with George Young as his general manager.

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Mike Holmgren, seeking more power, left Green Bay after the 1998 season despite going 75–37 with two Super Bowl appearances and a Vince Lombardi Trophy. With Ron Wolf having final say concerning personnel, Holmgren went to Seattle for the dual role. Yet, Holmgren ended up being stripped of his general manager title in Seattle, going 86–74 with one NFC title in his tenure as head coach.

It’s the reason few owners allow the coach to have control over all football decisions.

Bill Belichick, of course, wields the power in New England, with those around him understanding their roles. Nick Caserio, Belichick’s trusted right-hand man, recently signed a contract extension with the team through the 2020 season. Caserio enters his 15th season with the organization, including his eighth as the director of player personnel, apparently comfortable with Belichick getting most of the credit.

The Eagles became a coach-driven franchise this offseason when they gave coach Chip Kelly all-encompassing power. Howie Roseman lost his title of general manager, which included authority over the draft.

The Cowboys have operated the other way since Johnson left in 1994, with owner Jones also carrying the GM title and having final say. But most organizations split the duties between the general manager and the coach.

“I’ve never wanted the GM to have the authority to hire the coach,” Texans owner Bob McNair says. “I think that puts too much power in the hands of the GM. That’s still my responsibility. The GM and coach have to appreciate each other’s responsibility. They have to understand how we operate, and that they’ve got to get along with each other and respect each other and listen to each other.”

Breakups aren’t always over power. Sometimes, like in Dallas with Jones and Johnson, it comes down to credit.

“Ego,” says Angelo, who spent 11 seasons as the Bears’ general manager. “That’s what it is. It comes down to ego. Who’s getting the credit? The funny thing is, there is so much credit to go around when you’re winning. Everybody is getting the credit. But somebody always thinks they are getting the short straw. That’s unfortunate, because great teams, great organizations win it. It’s not a great coach or a great player or a great owner or a great general manager. It’s a combination of all those things. When one feels like he should be treated more special than the others, that’s when we have a problem.”

The friction between Jon Gruden and Rich McKay began almost the moment the Buccaneers acquired the coach in a trade with the Raiders. The Bucs won a Super Bowl in their only full season together, but Gruden ripped McKay’s personnel decisions and deactivated receiver Keyshawn Johnson. It led to a split in the middle of the 2003 season, with McKay leaving for a division rival, the Falcons, where he remains as their president/CEO.

Both Gruden and McKay continue to take the high road in discussing the fallout.

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“It’s as simple as one word — trust,” McKay says. “I don’t think you need to go too far beyond that word. If you trust each other and your agendas are the same — and they’re always the same — then you have a great opportunity for success. As soon as it becomes clear to one of them, whether real or not, that there are different agendas, they can’t necessarily trust them in the way their message is being conveyed to some other party — whether it’s the media, another coach or whoever that may be — then you’ve got a problem. Trust has to be built. The way trust is built up is you work together, and you make concessions together. You don’t go in and say, ‘We’ve got to have this defensive end.’ You go in and say, ‘We want this defensive end. This is why I like him. This is the case for him.’ Then, when I give you a counter-case, you’ve got to take that into account, and you have to reach a joint decision. Trust will go away if one or the two of you decides to become the unilateral decider of fact.”

Sometimes the general manager and coach have different outlooks. Coaches, who generally don’t last long with one team, have a goal of winning now. They rarely are promised next year. General managers, who often have longer leashes, might look more toward the future. They build with a long-term plan in mind.

“There are a lot of dynamics,” Snead, the Rams’ general manager, says. “…You’re trying to come up with the best solution to a problem, so you talk through the different points of view. Often, it’s the head coach going to his staff and the general manager going to his staff to get other points of view and trying to mesh those together to make the best decisions for the organization.”

Most view the Steelers as the model organization. They have had only three head coaches since 1969, and since owner Dan Rooney gave up his general manager duties after the 1970 season, the Steelers have had only three general managers or de facto general managers.

Bill Walsh served as head coach/GM during his 10 years with the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls. In his book, Building a Champion, Walsh wrote of the relationship between general managers and coaches: “The advantage of having a coach and a general manager is obvious: You have two people with clearly defined responsibilities who can concentrate on their individual areas of expertise. There’s certainly enough work for two men.”

If the team wins, there’s credit enough to go around, too.

“Everyone has to check their egos at the door,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says, “and they have to do what it takes to work together.”

-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth Star-Telegram