Analysis  

 

Who's really in charge? General managers reign in NFC North

When it comes to building an NFL roster, hierarchies vary from team to team. Some organizations are driven by general managers, others by owners, a few by head coaches -- and of course, many franchises divvy up checks and balances. Albert Breer takes an in-depth look at all 32 power structures in this eight-part, division-by-division series, which aims to answer one simple question for each NFL team: Who's really in charge? Read the NFC North breakdown below. Click here for other divisions.

CHICAGO BEARS

Owner: Virginia Halas McCaskey, 31st year
General Manager: Phil Emery, 2nd year
Head Coach: Marc Trestman, 1st year
Other front-office notables: George McCaskey, Chairman; Ted Phillips, President and CEO; Cliff Stein, Vice President of Football Administration; Marty Barrett, Director of College Scouting; Kevin Turks, Director of Pro Personnel.

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Who's really in charge? What became, in essence, a two-year transitional period for the organization is now complete, and the new-age Bears are moving forward with Phil Emery and Marc Trestman in command. Emery has final say on all personnel matters and the final 53-man roster. And he was a major player in the decisions to move on from Lovie Smith and to hire Trestman. The structure now has Trestman reporting to Emery, who reports to Ted Phillips; the president/CEO runs the team on a day-to-day basis.

Emery is trying to build flexibility into every facet of the organization, and he has emphasized looking for versatile athletes who can transition from scheme to scheme. It makes sense, then, that Emery was attracted to Trestman, who has the ability to adapt his scheme to different kinds of athletes. This is one reason why the styles of these two men marry up well. Each considers himself -- and his counterpart -- an analytical type.

Emery's staff took a hit when pro director Chris Ballard left to become John Dorsey's top lieutenant in Kansas City. Ballard was replaced by Kevin Turks, with Marty Barrett running the college side. But, just like when it comes to players, Emery wants his scouts and directors to be adaptable, so he involves college-side guys on the pro side and vice versa. On the contract side, Cliff Stein, one of the league's most respected negotiators, has become a valued and trusted confidant to Emery.

An outside perspective from an NFC executive: "They've become a franchise where the GM is in charge, clearly. The coach, Trestman, was one (Emery) can work with, a good out-of-the-box hire. But (Emery's) overall role was to make sure everyone was gonna be on the same page. The Bears have been known as a team that's been slow to change, and these are signs that they're moving forward, after having a long-run head coach."

DETROIT LIONS

Owner: William Clay Ford Sr., 51st year
General Manager: Martin Mayhew, 5th year
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz, 5th year
Other front-office notables: William Clay Ford Jr., Vice Chairman; Tom Lewand, President; James Harris, Senior Personnel Executive; Brian Xanders, Senior Personnel Executive.

Who's really in charge? Tom Lewand serves as the day-to-day boss in Detroit, with both Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz reporting to him. The Lions have strived to create a Baltimore Ravens-like structure, with Mayhew making the personnel decisions and Schwartz responsible for all the coaching decisions -- this differs from what was previously in place, with Matt Millen at the top of the flow chart.

Bill Ford Jr. largely has taken the reins from his father in leading the club, and he has followed the family's model of hiring people with specific expertise in specific areas. Over time, the family has shown patience uncommon in the NFL, with leaders like Wayne Fontes and Millen. And the Fords push for an inclusive process in running the club.

Mayhew has surrounded himself with experienced staffers, including former Denver Broncos GM Brian Xanders and veteran exec James Harris. Mayhew certainly hasn't shown much reluctance to allow Schwartz to take chances on players with checkered pasts, something Schwartz saw Jeff Fisher do plenty of in their years together with the Tennessee Titans.

An outside perspective from an NFC executive: "They had a huge task, going from 0-16, and everything was good on the way up. What you're seeing now is that progress doesn't mean you're always getting better. It's easy to work together in the honeymoon phase, and they did a good job. The fact that they were seen as taking a step back shows how far they've come. They have had some notable (off-field) incidents, but it's not like (Matthew) Stafford or (Calvin) Johnson are a problem. People fill in everything with that narrative -- they drafted the tackle from Iowa (Riley Reiff) last year -- and they're too lazy to change it. They had one group that was bad, and I still think they're moving in the right direction there."

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Owner: N/A
General Manager: Ted Thompson, 9th Year
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy, 8th Year
Other front-office notables: Mark Murphy, President and CEO; Russ Ball, Vice President of Football Administration; Eliot Wolf, Director of Pro Personnel; Brian Gutekunst, Director of College Scouting; Alonzo Highsmith, Senior Personnel Executive.

Who's really in charge? Ted Thompson's say-so in Green Bay is about as strong as any GM's influence in the league. The Packers tried a coach-driven model after Thompson's mentor, Ron Wolf, retired -- giving the keys to Mike Sherman. Thompson left Green Bay to serve as the Seattle Seahawks' vice president of football operations for five years. But in 2005, the Packers brought back Thompson with the title of general manager and returned to the method they implemented through the 1990s. Thompson hired head coach Mike McCarthy in his second year on the job. McCarthy reports to Thompson, who reports to Mark Murphy. And Murphy is overseen by the board of directors for the publicly held club.

The Packers are considered a model NFL franchise, but they didn't get there without some luck. The drafting of Aaron Rodgers, for instance, only occurred after Thompson's attempts to trade down failed, leaving the club to take the highest-rated player on its board at a position that wasn't of immediate need. But the system has been good in Green Bay, largely because those in charge of different departments are experts in those areas and are able to put egos aside.

Thompson can be a demanding boss. Standards are high and don't bend much. But it has worked. Great success has led other clubs to raid Green Bay; Joe Philbin was hired away from McCarthy's staff, and John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey were poached from Thompson's crew. Guys like Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith and Brian Gutekunst have been relied upon to step up. Russ Ball, who's garnered some interest as another GM candidate, has become a right-hand man to Thompson in handling the contractual side. Suffice it to say, many teams envy how smoothly things run in Green Bay.

An outside perspective from an NFC general manager: "It's all football, all the time there. The majority of the revenue goes right back into the team. There isn't an owner saying, 'OK, this year, if we make $7 million, I make $4 million, and $3 million goes back into it.' It all goes right back into the organization, into improving the team, into hiring coaches, or, on the business side, investing in the building itself. There's no owner, but there's a successful group of businessmen that the president and GM have to sit with, and talk about their direction. The only way it goes bad is if the committee feels like they have a lot of juice in football decisions. But normally, they're just a great resource in how they grow the business, and also to keep a gauge on Ted and Mark and Mike and whether they're doing a good enough job."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Owner: Zygi Wilf, 9th Year
General Manager: Rick Spielman, 2nd Year
Head Coach: Leslie Frazier, 3rd Year
Other front-office notables: Mark Wilf, Owner/President; George Paton, Assistant GM; Rob Brzezinski, Vice President of Football Operations; Scott Studwell, Director of College Scouting.

Who's really in charge? The Vikings overhauled their chain of command over the last few years, making Leslie Frazier permanent head coach and promoting Rick Spielman to GM. Brad Childress previously had control of the 53-man roster, and that proved problematic. One memorable example of this: The sudden release of Randy Moss in 2010, a decision the coach made unilaterally. Under the new system, Frazier reports to Spielman, and Spielman reports to the Wilfs.

Spielman now has final say over all football matters and the 53-man roster. But his biggest undertaking has been getting the team back in alignment, something he worked on during the lockout by having the coaches set up clinics for the scouts, to clearly illustrate the kinds of players desired at each position. Spielman and Frazier have organized a consensus-based system of decision making, with a renewed emphasis on the draft.

In that area, Spielman leans on George Paton -- who's been a GM candidate over the last two offseasons in a number of different places, and who goes all the way back to the late-1990s Bears with Spielman -- as well as Scott Studwell. Rob Brzezinski takes the lead on contract negotiations. And while the Wilfs are in the loop on the bigger calls by Spielman and Frazier, and sign off on the finances in significant moves, they largely let the football people do their jobs.

An outside perspective from an NFC Personnel Director: "They're well-respected guys. (Spielman is) a tireless worker -- he leaves no stone unturned -- and they've definitely got it going there now. Obviously, (Adrian Peterson) played out of his mind last year, but they've hit on a few guys, gotten younger, and it looks like they're headed in the right direction. ... You can tell they're putting their stamp on the team, getting their people in there. With Percy (Harvin), whatever happened, it was a headache for them, they felt it was time to move on, and they made a strong move, and you gotta commend them for it. They've also made a commitment to get better on (the offensive line) -- that's obvious with (Matt) Kalil -- and their draft was unbelievable this year. And Leslie's a real guy, a man's man. He played the game at a high level; his message is consistent; he won't flip-flop on guys -- they'll know what to expect every week."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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