Analysis  

 

Who's really in charge? Bill Belichick's savvy clear in AFC East

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 AFC East breakdown below. Click here for other divisions.

BUFFALO BILLS

Owner: Ralph Wilson, 54th year
General Manager: Doug Whaley, 1st year
Head Coach: Doug Marrone, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Russ Brandon, President/CEO; Jim Monos, Director of Player Personnel; Kelvin Fisher, Director of College Scouting.

Who's really in charge? The Bills have undergone a shift this offseason, with Russ Brandon assuming day-to-day control of the team while 94-year-old Ralph Wilson takes a step back. And Brandon has a new crew with him. In May, the Bills carried out the succession plan that had been in place since Buddy Nix was hired as GM in 2010, with Doug Whaley, the long-respected Pittsburgh Steelers personnel man who arrived in Buffalo three years ago, ascending to the big chair. Four months before Whaley was promoted, the Bills landed head coach Doug Marrone -- who had also been on the radar of the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles -- from Syracuse.

In the new setup, Whaley has final say over all personnel matters and the final 53-man roster, and Marrone reports to him. While in the past, Nix had reported to Wilson, now Whaley reports to Brandon. In the big picture, it's not unlike the way the Packers are lined up.

Whaley also imported Jim Monos from New Orleans and Kelvin Fisher from Pittsburgh to lead his scouting staff, so this truly now is his show. As for Marrone, he oversees everything related to the on-field process and his coaching staff.

An outside perspective from an NFC executive: "I think it's probably different than it has been. My belief is the organization has more faith in Doug than they did in Buddy. They've been excited to groom Doug for this role; he was designated for this role years ago. And when they made the change at head coach, it was designed to pair him with Doug, not Buddy. That's clearly true, whether they say it or not. It really is a chance for a fresh start there. It's the first injection of creativity into their head coaching and front office in a very long time. You have to give Russ a lot of credit; he has the pulse of where the league is heading. Marrone was a really good choice; he comes from the Sean Payton tree and has head-coaching experience, and because he was in Western New York, he resonates with fans there. And Doug has earned his stripes. They have a chance."

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Owner: Stephen Ross, 5th year
General Manager: Jeff Ireland, 6th year
Head Coach: Joe Philbin, 2nd year
Other front-office notables: Brian Gaine, Assistant General Manager; Dawn Aponte, Executive Vice President of Football Administration; Chris Grier, Director of College Scouting.

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Who's really in charge? The Dolphins did get a new head coach last year, but really, the biggest changes came a few years ago, when Bill Parcells departed and left the organizational power to GM Jeff Ireland. This move took the franchise down a new path.

Traditionally, Miami had been coach-driven in its decision-making structure, behind guys like Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt and Nick Saban. Now, while Joe Philbin does have a strong vision for what he wants the team to look like, Ireland has power over the 53-man roster and all personnel decisions. Ireland wields that control as one of the most hands-on GMs -- when it comes to scouting -- in the NFL. During the fall, he'll typically scout at colleges from Thursday through Saturday before joining the Dolphins at their game site. Meanwhile, his most trusted aides -- Brian Gaine and Chris Grier -- are similar types, with a scouting background and a foundation in Parcells' principles. Gaine, who works with Ireland all the way through the decision-making process, interviewed for the Jets' GM opening last winter.

All of this adds up to the need for a strong negotiator/cap manager, which the Dolphins clearly believe they have in Dawn Aponte, as she carries an "executive vice president" title. Ireland is headed into a contract year, so there's certainly urgency in Miami to capitalize on the club's draft haul and free-agent expenditures.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel director: "Parcells had a prototype, a routine of what you do, of what you're looking for, and some of it was antiquated and built before the salary cap. It's a little different, it's changed, because Jeff has to win now, so he's done his best to find good players quickly. Character is not as much of an issue, not as it used to be, and they had money to spend. This is their opportunity and time's running short. ... One thing Jeff always talks about is having a vision for the player. He came along in the Parcells way, and that way, you have an ideal for each position, and if you go off the ideal, something must stand out about him. If he's not this size, has to be this fast -- they rarely go with someone that doesn't fit their prototypes."

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Owner: Robert Kraft, 20th year
General Manager: N/A
Head Coach: Bill Belichick, 14th year
Other front-office notables: Jonathan Kraft, President; Nick Caserio, Director of Player Personnel; Jon Robinson, Director of College Scouting.

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Who's really in charge? Few football people have the all-encompassing power that Bill Belichick carries in New England, and the results have been hard to argue with. In explaining how Belichick manages things, one ex-Patriots personnel man said, "I don't know, maybe he has 10 clones of himself." But it isn't all roses. Belichick is involved to the point where it has frustrated his college scouts, who have been overruled in the past on draft picks.

That said, Nick Caserio has developed a strong voice in the organization and is regarded as one of the best talent evaluators Belichick has had in his 14 seasons -- maybe even better than Scott Pioli in his heyday. Caserio reports to Belichick, but is also part of the four-man group, which includes Robert and Jonathan Kraft, that meets to discuss big-picture strategy. The Krafts stay out of nitty-gritty football matters, but they do lend their business expertise, which Belichick applies to his side of the operation.

That structure has been in place since Belichick has been in Foxborough, with some tweaks made along the way. (Pioli held the spot Caserio boasts now, and ex-COO Andy Wasynczuk was part of the circle at one point, as well.) The reason it works is simple: People know their roles. Belichick and Caserio respect the Krafts' business acumen, and the Krafts try not to step on the toes of Belichick and Caserio on the football end.

Outside those four, the one other person to watch -- someone who could be an NFL GM candidate in the future -- is Jon Robinson, who has earned some say in the draft room. As you can see, the group with influence in New England is small -- intentionally so.

An outside perspective from an NFC general manager: "I think it's the person, not the structure there. There are very few people like him. Belichick is very unique. You see how many guys come out of that tree who have failed. That's because it's the person, not the structure, that makes it go. You have to be unique to do it that way. I think he's just extremely smart, and very well-rounded; good in all aspects. Most people can't do it like that, in that structure. Again, you see the guys from that tree, and they get out there and can't handle some of the other facets of running a team, outside their comfort zone. So you look at it, and you say, 'It's Belichick.' And if it wasn't Belichick, that structure probably wouldn't work, because it hasn't with guys who've come out of that system."

NEW YORK JETS

Owner: Woody Johnson, 14th year
General Manager: John Idzik, 1st year
Head Coach: Rex Ryan, 5th year
Other front-office notables: Neil Glat, President; Rod Graves, Senior Director of Football Administration; Brendan Prophett, Director of Pro Personnel; Jeff Bauer, Director of College Scouting.

Who's really in charge? There's no question that this quickly became new GM John Idzik's show. He has control of all personnel matters and final say on the 53-man roster -- though coach Rex Ryan's fate will fall to Woody Johnson down the line. Idzik also reworked the staff, bringing in Rod Graves to handle contracts and the cap, and restructured the way the Jets do business.

Under ex-GM Mike Tannenbaum, a culture of collaboration between coaches and scouts was encouraged. Early indications are that Idzik prefers to compartmentalize the organization much more than his predecessor did. That means having the college and pro scouting departments provide information for the GM. And it also means that Ryan's say-so on personnel isn't what it was under Tannenbaum. By all accounts, Idzik does his job by gathering intel and analytically making decisions.

Johnson has been involved from time to time, but he hasn't been nearly the meddling force some have made him out to be. He's not in the office much during the offseason, and he only comes in for a day or two per week during the season. Most of his work has been on the business side, and though he wants to be informed, he largely gives the football people autonomy.

An outside perspective from an AFC personnel executive: "That roster was built with a short-sighted approach. The subsequent trades, and acquisition of players, forfeiture of draft picks, to move up and get players ate away at their ability to accumulate players. And in the same breath, the contractual value of some of those acquisitions created the cap issues, and when you forfeit those picks to acquire a player, it forces you to recover elsewhere. They're trying to recover from that and repair and move forward. That's gonna take time. And it began with the trade of (cornerback Darrelle) Revis, and the release of some vets. ... They're repairing and recovering from that all-in approach that they operated under. The Jets got to the AFC title game two straight years, so you could say it was worth it, but at some point, they had to pay the piper. ... They hired a guy in Idzik who had the cap background, the background in contracts, and that's what his predecessor was. So I don't know how much of a shift there's been. From a player evaluation standpoint, I'd assume there's a lot of consensus-building going on with the personnel staff and Rex. Rex had a presence in the previous regime in player selection. I can't say if he still does."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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