Analysis  

 

Who's really in charge? Stellar power structures boost NFC West

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 West breakdown below. Click here for other divisions.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Owner: Bill Bidwill, 52nd year
General Manager: Steve Keim, 1st year
Head Coach: Bruce Arians, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Michael Bidwill, President; Jason Licht, Vice President of Player Personnel; Mike Disner, Director of Football Administration.

Who's really in charge? The new structure for the Cardinals is marked by the failings of the old structure, where things seemed to go south after Ken Whisenhunt got control over the 53-man roster written into his final contract. That undercut GM Rod Graves' power, and both wound up fired. And so the Cardinals turned to Graves' well-respected right-hand man, Steve Keim, who'd been a strong GM candidate in previous years and was a finalist for the Jacksonville Jaguars job this year.

Keim has power over all personnel matters and the 53-man roster, and he helped in the process of finding a new head coach. Bruce Arians reports to Keim, but Keim and his staff have made a point of involving the coaches and making sure they're on board with all their decisions, which plays into the GM's background as a football man and on-the-road scout. Keim's surrounded himself with likeminded people, starting with Jason Licht, who was a finalist for the Chicago GM job last year and has worked under Andy Reid and Bill Belichick.

Graves' departure left a need for a salary-cap manager, and the Cardinals hired Mike Disner away from the NFL's management council to handle that end of the business, and give the club a resource in an official who played a significant role in the labor negotiations.

Moving up the chain, Keim reports to Michael Bidwill, who is involved in bigger-picture football decisions and has taken over for his father in running the club day to day.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "I respect Arizona, and Keim is very well-respected. They believe in their area scouts, they trust them, and they're all involved in the process. The way I look at it: You're paying them to do a job, you should keep them involved. They've been around the kids for two or three years, their opinions matter. From a talent and character standpoint, the GM has the final say there, but he's keeping his guys involved. They keep an eye on the future there. ... Keim does it the right way: He's out on the road, he does the school calls, and he started on the bottom and worked his way up. He has a good eye for talent. And we'll see where it goes now that he's got the final call. He's a football guy, and he has football people running the show."

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Owner: Jed York, 5th year
General Manager: Trent Baalke, 3rd Year
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 3rd Year
Other front-office notables: Paraag Marathe, Chief Operating Officer; Joel Patten, Director of Player Personnel; Matt Malaspina, Director of College Scouting; Mike Williams, Director of Pro Personnel.

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Who's really in charge? While Jim Harbaugh came in to much fanfare two years ago, Trent Baalke has accumulated significant power within the 49ers organization, with final say over all personnel decisions and the 53-man roster. The head coach is given authority over the 46-man game-day roster. Both report to Jed York, who oversees both the business and football sides, after being handed the reins by his father, John, four-and-a-half years ago.

The idea in giving Baalke authority is for the Niners to maintain long-range thinking in building the team, and remain ahead of the curve -- not just with the draft, but also with contracts. The Niners already have extended a number of guys in their young core (Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis) and did so with years left on their respective deals. Paraag Marathe leads the way on negotiations, with guidance from Baalke on each player's value within the team's structure.

A good recent example of the teamwork in play was the club's decision to trade up for Eric Reid in the first round of April's draft. The Niners identified the safety as a player of interest early, which allowed them to move aggressively to land him.

Just a couple years out of a decade-long struggle, San Francisco has emerged again as a model franchise with a streamlined chain of command that's simple and fairly small on the football side.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "They've got a great staff. And Trent, with his mindset, he doesn't hang decisions over people's heads. He won't pull a tag on a kid that a coach feels strongly against. It's a disaster when you have that. ... Trent just works his ass off. He's not a self-promoter. He loves football, he likes to grind tape, scout and work. It's that work ethic, experience and perspective he has -- hard to succeed without it. And he has great instincts. ... And then, he allows Jim to run the show. Game day, that's Jim's baby, and that's just common sense, which is what Trent has, to let people do their jobs."

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Owner: Paul Allen, 17th year
General Manager: John Schneider, 4th year
Head Coach: Pete Carroll, 4th year
Other front-office notables: Peter McLoughlin, President; Scot McCloughan, Senior Personnel Executive; Tag Ribary, Director of Pro Personnel; Scott Fitterer, Director of College Scouting; Matt Thomas, Vice President of Football Administration.

Who's really in charge? Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle with major clout, and was hired before John Schneider, but the coach and GM have built a collaborative relationship in Seattle. In essence, Schneider runs the show during the offseason and Carroll takes the torch when the pads go on. Carroll has final say over the 53-man roster, but Schneider runs the draft and free agency, and has taken the lead on building a roster that's unique, different and loaded with young talent.

One reason the two are a good match: As a Ted Thompson protégé, Schneider believes in building through the draft, and Carroll has never been afraid -- in college or the pros -- to play young guys. As part of that, Schneider's two top assistants, Scot McCloughan and Scott Fitterer, are part of the GM's method of canvasing the country. In addition to the area scouts' normal work, the Seahawks make an effort to get either Schneider, McCloughan or Fitterer to every relevant campus in America to see prospects in person.

Positive results played a part in Seattle losing John Idzik to the New York Jets in January. The Seahawks replaced Idzik with Matt Thomas, who has been more zeroed in on contracts, the cap and budget than his predecessor, who had football responsibility, as well.

Much of what Seattle has constructed in building an innovative, forward-thinking operation reflects owner Paul Allen's values. Allen keeps up with the team's affairs and has an open line of communication with guys like Peter McLoughlin, Schneider and Carroll, but he leaves the day-to-day business to those he's hired to handle the club.

An outside perspective from an NFC executive: "It's an example of getting a good head coach and pairing him with a smart personnel guy. Pete and John share a philosophy -- they understand what the other is looking for, and they take chances together. That's the most important thing. If you're taking risks like they have, in finding that player, it's about being on the same page. ... The coaches who come from college are used to recruiting and evaluating guys as people. It's different than the draft, but with Pete, there's been some carry-over. Pete has a feel for what works. John knows what he wants. John has a great sense about him with that -- how to find players that they'll have great value for. And hey, all head coaches have say; maybe this one has a little more than others, but John and Pete trust each other. That's what's most important."

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Owner: Stan Kroenke, 4th year
General Manager: Les Snead, 2nd year
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher, 2nd year
Other front-office notables: Kevin Demoff, Executive Vice President of Football Operations/CEO; Taylor Morton, Director of Player Personnel, Ran Carthon, Director of Pro Personnel.

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Who's really in charge? Jeff Fisher came to St. Louis last year knowing he'd have influence within the organization -- something that helped the Rams beat out the Miami Dolphins for his services -- and the coach was part of the process in plucking Les Snead from the Atlanta Falcons to be GM. But in practice, and the way the contracts are written for Fisher and Snead, the Rams have tried to build a partnership between the two men, where the coach runs the show during the season and the GM is in command during the offseason. This is modeled after the approach of another team owned by Stan Kroenke, the Denver Nuggets, who until a few weeks ago had a similar setup with an experienced coach and younger GM. And according to those in St. Louis, that's really the way Fisher wanted it, having someone he could work with on the personnel side.

Both the coach and GM report to Kroenke, as does Kevin Demoff, who's charged with running the business side and helping to tie together the coaching and personnel ends of the operation. Demoff oversees contracts and cap, but allows Fisher and Snead to handle the heavy lifting on football. And further down the line, Snead imported trusted aides Taylor Morton and Ran Carthon from Atlanta to lead the team's scouting department.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "Jeff's got a handle on the business. He's a good administrator and he knows what he wants. Just an impressive guy. He's an overseer, with a great feel for the game and business. ... They're pretty impressive since those guys got there -- well-coached, sound and in a division that's getting pretty tough. They're stepping up. ... The one thing you have to watch is the makeup and character -- some of those guys had issues and they're showing up in the pros. The corners, the running back, there have been more problems, and that's part of being willing to roll the dice on guys. That can come back and bite you. However it goes, you get guys with a checkered past, and it bit them a little bit. ... But there's no question they made great hires, and they're heading in the right direction. The problem is, the division's a tough deal."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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