Last year, I set about working on an assignment that wound up being more challenging than I ever anticipated -- but the finished product remains a useful reference point that I often turn back to.
The idea of the project, dubbed "Who's Really In Charge?," was to explain the decision-making process -- and structure -- for each of the NFL's 32 franchises. It took roughly a month to complete. It was harder to find the truth about some franchises than it was with others, and even more difficult to sort the clubs by category, which was one of my goals going in.
The coach-driven models varied from place to place. So did the GM-as-king situations.
Since then, eight franchises have gone through significant turnover at major shot-caller positions. The Texans, Lions, Redskins, Vikings and Titans hired new coaches, while the Dolphins brought in a new general manager and the Buccaneers and Browns underwent total overhauls.
And this time, we're seeing something else: a real trend emerging.
In 2013, there were just a handful of teams (Patriots, Eagles, Seahawks, Rams, Redskins) whose coaches had final-say power over the 53-man roster. It appeared, too, that the coach-as-dictator model was slowly disappearing, with Andy Reid departing Philly and ceding control to John Dorsey in Kansas City, and just Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan left as do-everything sideline bosses.
That's changed this year, with a twist. No, clubs aren't reaching for the Belichick/Shanahan blueprint. What they're seeking to copy, instead, is pretty predictable: the business plan of the champions.
The Seahawks lured Pete Carroll from USC in 2010 with the promise of significant on-paper control (not to mention cash), but it quickly became clear in the Pacific Northwest that GM John Schneider was going to be a lot more than a personnel director. A big part of why the Carroll-Schneider marriage works is because both are so invested in the collective vision. Schneider is in charge of building up the roster, and Carroll shapes/cuts it down to the final 53.
Likewise, offseason coaching hires Bill O'Brien (Texans) and Lovie Smith (Buccaneers) inherited ultimate authority over the 53-man roster. And while Miami's Joe Philbin doesn't have it, he's clearly become more influential inside the walls of the Dolphins' facility.
"To me, it's all about leverage," one NFC personnel executive said. "Everyone will tell you they want control over the roster, and that's all good (and) dandy. But if you aren't well-versed in personnel, you have to have people that help you. In a lot of these cases, teams have trouble identifying head-coaching candidates, so they want the hot guy, and they give him personnel control to get him. But the places that do it that way, that do it right, have a head coach that empowers people."
In Kelly, the Eagles have a leader who has convictions, but who also listens and pushes dialogue internally. In Carroll, the Seahawks employ a program-builder who has a defined vision and isn't afraid to delegate. Each of the teams that made changes in January can only hope to get off to a start like Kelly's -- or a finish like Carroll's in 2013.
Despite hiring new head coaches, three of the teams listed above (the Lions, Vikings and Titans) largely maintained the same overall business model. But the other five saw significant changes to operating procedures. So for the week of the NFL draft, here is our 2014 addendum to the "Who's Really In Charge?" series, with a closer look at that evolving quintet.
Owner: Jimmy Haslam, 3rd year
General Manager: Ray Farmer, 1st year
Head Coach: Mike Pettine, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Alec Scheiner, President; Sashi Brown, Executive Vice President/General Counsel; Jon Sandusky, Director of Player Personnel.
Who's really in charge? Last year -- Haslam's first full NFL year -- Cleveland had an unconventional structure, with CEO Joe Banner topping the organizational chart as the lone official on the football side to report to the owner. In December, things truly took a turn for the weird. First-year head coach Rob Chudzinski suddenly landed on the hot seat, while tension rose between Banner and first-year GM Michael Lombardi. Eventually, all three men were shown the door.
Now? Cleveland has adopted a model that mirrors the Ravens/49ers structure, one that divides power and involves the owner. Scheiner, Farmer and Pettine all report directly to Haslam. Scheiner handles the business side (and the club's budget) while collaborating with the other two on the team's vision. Brown runs the cap, as he did in Jacksonville, and reports to Scheiner and Farmer.
Farmer has full personnel control -- he runs the draft and free agency and retains final say over the 53-man roster. Pettine has a voice there, too, but his role is more of a pure coaching position. Haslam is in the office a few times a week and solicits explanations for major decisions. It's a fair bet more turnover on the personnel side is coming after the draft, as is often the case with a first-year GM.
An outside perspective from an NFC personnel director: "Ray makes the football decisions, but knowing him, Mike's gonna have a voice. Ray will never make a decision without his (coach's) input. And I think the owner trusts the two of them. And the cap guy's proven -- he does a good job managing that. ... Ray's a very good evaluator, he's very organized. And it's really his people skills that set him apart. He's good at knowing his guys, all the people around him, and what they'll do best. ... Mike is really fiery, an excellent motivator."
Owner: Bob McNair, 13th year
General Manager: Rick Smith, 9th year
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Cal McNair, Chief Operating Officer; Brian Gaine, Director of Pro Personnel; Mike Maccagnan, Director of College Scouting; Chris Olsen, Vice President of Football Administration.
Who's really in charge? The firing of Gary Kubiak brought the first big shakeup for McNair's organization in almost a decade. Smith survived the switch as the team's GM, and he still runs the draft and free agency. But just the same, it's clear that O'Brien carries a big stick coming aboard from Penn State, as evidenced by his securing contractual final say over the 53-man roster.
McNair has long viewed the Patriots organization -- which O'Brien spent five years in -- as a model. To that end, the Texans brought Brian Gaine -- who interviewed for the Dolphins', Jets' and Rams' GM openings in the past three years -- over from Miami as pro director. Gaine is fluent in the Parcells/Belichick language. Perhaps the biggest difference from last year is the specificity of the traits that O'Brien and his staff look for in players (the difference between "X" and "Z" receivers, "Y" and "F" tight ends, etc.). Maccagnan is a holdover, and has long been a trusted voice for Smith. Olsen handles the cap.
Both O'Brien and Smith report to McNair, who's very well-respected in ownership circles. McNair is in the office when he's in town, but because his other businesses do take him away at times, he has entrusted his son Cal to oversee day-to-day operations. McNair also is there as a tiebreaker for big football decisions, though that hasn't been needed early on in the O'Brien/Smith partnership.
An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "They've been an operation where the owner lets the GM do his deal the way he wants to do it. Rick's well-respected. Some of the decisions that have been made, you wonder, Are they coach-driven or GM-driven, or a combination? That's a question that's tough to answer. They do a lot, draft-wise, off of need -- and that's what causes you to question some of their decisions. ... I know from the people that I've talked to, it seems like Bill's a hell of a coach and quarterback developer. You know that in that tree, with the things they're used to doing, it will be interesting to see the player personnel stuff work, because he's from New England, where Belichick runs everything."
Owner: Stephen Ross, 6th year
General Manager: Dennis Hickey, 1st year
Head Coach: Joe Philbin, 3rd year
Other front-office notables: Tom Garfinkel, President/CEO; Dawn Aponte, Executive Vice President of Football Administration; Chris Grier, Director of College Scouting.
Who's really in charge? One thing is abundantly clear: Philbin has more influence now than he did in his first two years, and that means his staff has increased say, as well. Meanwhile, coming in as a first-year GM, Hickey has looked to build a facsimile of the Rich McKay/Tony Dungy setup he saw in his formative years in Tampa Bay.
Hickey spent significant time right after he got the job meeting with Philbin to learn his system, and he had assistant coaches make presentations to the scouts in February about which traits they wanted in players. Hickey also increased the amount of prospects each position coach is tasked with studying in advance of the draft. Grier, who has been with the franchise since 2000, has been a valuable resource for Hickey.
As for the reporting structure, both Hickey and Philbin report directly to Ross, as does Garfinkel, who runs the business side. Aponte is a skilled cap manager, and while she reports to Hickey on paper, it's become very clear of late that her voice counts for more in the organization. More staff changes can be expected after the draft, with contracts expiring for some personnel folks in Hickey's current organization and his former one.
An outside perspective from an AFC personnel executive: "The GM has the power on paper, but the head coach and staff have a lot more influence over player additions and subtractions. I think it's certainly collaborative, and the GM has the authority with player personnel. But the head coach, since the change was made, has been able to assert himself in the process and gained some authority. ... It's becoming a coaching-driven organization. Coaches have more say in the final calls. It's not that they didn't have that before, but those were (former GM Jeff Ireland's) decisions before. The head coach has more say now, and naturally, his staff does, too."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Owner: Malcolm Glazer, 20th year
General Manager: Jason Licht, 1st year
Head Coach: Lovie Smith, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Bryan Glazer, Co-Chairman; Ed Glazer, Co-Chairman; Joel Glazer, Co-Chairman; Mike Greenberg, Director of Football Administration; Eric Stokes, Director of College Scouting.
Who's really in charge? The model here is close to Seattle's: a coach with significant on-paper power who isn't overbearing, and a younger GM who's allowed to do his job. Smith and Licht hit it off two years ago when Licht interviewed for the Bears' opening that eventually went to Phil Emery. And thus far, this match of men with different football backgrounds has worked.
Smith has final say over the 53-man roster, with Licht controlling the draft and free agency. (In essence, the GM has leeway to build the 90-man roster, and then the coach is in charge of chopping it down.) Greenberg gives Licht a strong voice on the contract side; he's a big reason why the Bucs' cap situation has been so healthy in recent years. Stokes, who shares University of Nebraska ties with Licht, has also become influential.
Both Licht and Smith report to the Glazers, with Malcolm's sons responsible for running many of the day-to-day operations of the team. As is the case in Cleveland and Miami, more organizational change is probable after the draft, with a likelihood existing that another strong personnel voice will be added from the outside.
An outside perspective from an NFC personnel director: "Lovie has final say, but Lovie's trusting Licht to set it all up, and structure it the way they planned, where they can just come into a meeting and watch guys. I know Lovie values Jason's opinion, and Jason will very clearly have a voice in every decision. ... The thing I admire about (Seattle) is that Pete has the juice, but he doesn't flex his muscle a lot -- you saw he gave Schneider the credit, saying, 'This is the guy.' I really see that being how Lovie and Jason work together, too."
Owner: Dan Snyder, 16th year
General Manager: Bruce Allen, 5th year
Head Coach: Jay Gruden, 1st year
Other front-office notables: Scott Campbell, Director of Player Personnel; Morocco Brown, Director of Pro Personnel.
In the past, as a GM in Washington and Tampa (and as a senior executive in Oakland), Allen grew a reputation for being a coach's administrator. Thus, he is known to be strong in managing a staff and gathering information. In essence, Campbell runs the personnel side, while Gruden (who knows Allen well from Tampa) runs the coaching operation -- with both reporting to Allen. In the new setup, assistant coaches have been asked to evaluate how players fit into the larger vision that Allen, Gruden and Campbell have put together.
Snyder took a step back from the football operation in 2010 to facilitate the hiring of Shanahan. It remains to be seen if that will change with the structure flipping again.
An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "There's a more universal approach, and with a universal approach, there are guys that can work together or can't. Bruce has the personality to match it all up, to try to make it work. Jay is very flexible, but pointed on the types of players he wants. Morocco has been around that team so long, he knows the inner workings. ... (Gruden) has been around football his whole life; he understands all the aspects of it. As a head coach, he's responsible for things on a bigger level, but he's been around it. He has a good feel for all that; he's been around his brother. He's innovative with things -- he doesn't have a particular style, he's more into a lot of different things. He understands matchups on offense."
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.