Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
NEW YORK — Once upon a time, way back in 2000, New England owner Bob Kraft swam against the tide and hired a 47-year-old coach, Bill Belichick, who brought along a trusted friend with a knack for picking players, Scott Pioli, 34, to run the personnel side of the team.
Pioli would scout and prepare the free-agent and draft lists with his staff, and do contracts, while Belichick would coach and pick the players … with the financial and moral support of Kraft.
The Patriots were $10 million over the cap then, and their top-rated free agent at an important position was a terrific young tackle, Jon Runyan. Nope, Belichick said; we’re not going to further screw up our bloated cap by signing the richest tackle in football. So the Patriots bit the bullet in 2000 and 2001, trying to get better through the draft ( Tom Brady came in 2000, Richard Seymour and Matt Light in ’01).
I always get flack from people for pointing out how Brady was an example of a great pick the Patriots made. They say, “He was a sixth-rouder. It’s a crap shoot!” That’s pure ignorance. Every single pick in the every single-Pioli/Belichick draft is pre-planned (if not pre-ordained). If they got word that the Rams were going to take Brady with the 198th pick, they would have traded up for him. I have that on high authority.
Then they took a very interesting gamble in 2001. One of their best young defensive players, tackle Chad Eaton, was a free agent, and the Pats let him go seek his fortune. Eaton signed with Seattle for a bonus of $3.5 million. The Patriots signed 20 mid- to low-roster veteran free agents for of $2.57 million in signing bonuses that spring.
Oops! Just caught a copy error in that paragraph. If anyone else notices, you can send it along email@example.com.
Of course, the Patriots won the Super Bowl that season, with 16 of those free agents playing in an upset win over St. Louis. Mike Vrabel, Antowain Smith , Roman Phifer and Larry Izzo were among them. In the spring of 2002, New England was the only defending Super Bowl champion in the first nine years of free agency to enter the next season under the salary cap.
Should I have noted that their highest paid player, Drew Bledsoe, was cut before the season? Should I have mentioned that had Bledsoe not been injured, not only would the Patriots probably have been closer to the previous year’s 5-11 than 2001’s 11-5, but they would have been significantly over the cap going into 2002? Should I have noted that the Drew Bledsoe injury is the main reason they had the flexibility to sign so many mid-level free agents, only a few of whom worked out? I thought it sorta takes away from the point of the story, right, so why include it?
After that 2002 Super Bowl game, I told Belichick at the Patriots’ team party, “You’ve just given a blueprint to every team in the NFL — draft well, find a quarterback and fill in all the cracks through middle- and lower-class free-agency.”
“I know,” he said.
Six years later, teams still don’t follow the blueprint. I don’t get it.
Especially the part about finding a quarterback. What don’t teams understand about finding diamonds in the rough at the QB position? It’s the single easiest thing to do in football. Look at Derek Anderson. Look at Tony Romo. I don’t get it!
Football’s the ultimate team sport. Isn’t that what we always hear owners, GMs and coaches say? The Browns are contending today because they rebuilt their offensive line ( Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach) and handed a former sixth-round pick (Derek Anderson) the reins at quarterback.
You don’t think Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel knew when he drafted Anderson that he had a future franchise QB?
The Packers are contending today because a soft-spoken general manager (Ted Thompson) hired the offensive coordinator of the worst offense in football (Mike McCarthy, San Francisco) and let him coach his way.
I lost my train of thought here, I think.
The Steelers are contending today, at least in part, because progressive owners (the Rooneys) hired a precocious, Noll-like 34-year-old coach (Mike Tomlin) with a big upside.
I guess I’m using the term contending pretty loosely here.
Dallas has a third-time-is-the-charm rookie head coach (Wade Phillips) and a quarterback (Tony Romo) whose rights cost them $10,000 four years ago.
I might be making the case that it’s easier to find a franchise coach than a QB, now?
Jacksonville is contending today because of a strong defense, a two-headed running game ( Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew) and a longtime backup quarterback (David Garrard) playing better than the high-first-round star quarterback (Byron Leftwich) ever did.
With guys like Garrard, Anderson and Romo, you just knew that they were being groomed from the time they made the practice squad as a tight end.
Why is Tampa Bay running away with the NFC South? Key guys: undrafted quarterback (Jeff Garcia), undrafted running back (Earnest Graham), ancient receiver on his third team (Joey Galloway).
Defense made up of perennial Pro Bowlers, too. A young, fiery coach with a Super Bowl ring, too. Easiest schedule and division in football, as well.
That’s not every team, obviously. But if Dallas and New England meet in the Super Bowl, it will be a battle of coaches who are on their third and second jobs, respectively, starring a free-agent bumpkin from Eastern Illinois at quarterback for one team and a quarterback for the other picked after Spergon Wynn in sixth round of the 2000 draft. The personnel czars would be Pioli and 38-year-old Dallas vice president of college and pro scouting Jeff Ireland. Those guys are barely household names in their own households.
In fairness to myself, you’d really have to have been to Jeff Ireland’s house to understand that joke. It’s killer.
(To be fair, Dallas owner Jerry Jones has the final say on the draft and in free agency and has had a smart season. Jones deserves a couple of pats on the back for ignoring geniuses like me who told him paying underachieving ex-Cardinal tackle Leonard Davis big dough to play guard was stupid. Now Davis, deservedly, is going to the Pro Bowl.)
And I don’t use the term “genius” loosely.
Atlanta was stunned by the Bobby Petrino fiasco, and the team’s first reaction was to go after Bill Cowher. Didn’t work. Second reaction: Go get Bill Parcells. No go. Third reaction: Pursue Marty Schottenheimer , from all indications. That may happen.
Another copy editor mishap! Stu, it was “ Third reaction: Pursue Marty Schottenheimer. F rom all indications, that may happen.” Dolt.
Miami was stunned by the Nick Saban fiasco 11 months ago, and owner Wayne Huizenga — after going from Jimmy Johnson and his heirs to Dan Marino to Saban and not winning a Super Bowl — went the lesser-light route. Coach Cam Cameron and GM Randy Mueller were going to embark on a long-term plan to rebuild the team. Huizenga gave the new plan 13 games before jetting to upstate New York for another big fish. Or Big Tuna. Parcells.
You won’t find me criticizing Huizenga for hiring Parcells, who has improved every team he’s inherited. Once he finds the right quarterback, Parcells will improve this team, too.
He’d be doing himself a favor by sticking with Cleo Lemon or John Beck – they fit the profile for success.
But I will criticize the NFL ethos of always looking for the star. The other day, someone said to me, “Well, the Ravens’ lousy year is really going to screw Rex Ryan‘s chance for a job.” My reaction: For God’s sakes, why? Why should one of the two or three best defensive coordinators in the NFL, and a forceful personality too, be eliminated from consideration for a head-coaching job because his team got destroyed by injuries and a lousy offense?
My reaction was logical and logic doesn’t play in the League. But, I also invoked God’s name, which plays quite well.
A prominent GM told me the other day that college athletic directors are often concerned when they hire a new coach about “winning the press conference.” Sometimes, he said, friends in college administration make hires they know will be popular with alums and fans rather than hiring the best men for the job. He says the same thing happens in pro football.
You should have seen Mark Duper’s reaction to the Cameron hire. Not good.
“People in dire straits do what is expedient to get themselves out of dire straits as quickly as possible,” the GM said. “Hiring a name gives them hope because it gives the fans and the organization hope.”
Obviously, I had thought the same thing. I’m sure you and all of your frat brothers thought the same thing, too. It’s pretty obvious, right? But I really felt this point needed the force of a quote from an unnamed GM to drive it home.
In baseball, youth has been served in front offices since the turn of the century. Wisely in the cases of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, Indians GM Mark Shapiro and the Diamondbacks’ Josh Byrnes. There’s no reason why youth shouldn’t have the same chance in football. The names of the young turks who should be at the top of the list for rebuilding franchises:
1. Scott Pioli, 42, New England. Smart. Ready, if he ever chooses to leave his good friend Belichick’s side, which he’ll likely have to do if he ever wants to have his football acumen recognized.
He’ll never get the credit he deserves in New England. I mean, seriously, has anyone outside to the cadre of football writers every heard of this guy? Ann Killion, who covers the 49ers for the San Jose Mercury News, looked at me like I had three eyes when I brought up Pioli’s name in conversation. And they say there’s an East Coast Bias.
2. Chris Polian, 35, Indianapolis. Working under his prominent dad, Bill, Polian has risen to vice president of football operations and tried to learn lessons from top baseball execs. Tough and precocious.
He’s also adorable.
3. Jeff Ireland, 38, Dallas. Thorough and ultra-prepared, with a reasoned opinion about every player he scouts. Unemotional and methodical.
A little more insight to why Mr. Ireland might not be a household name in his own house.
The next question is who Parcells will go after to build his new organization. That decision might lead to some trouble. When Huizenga hired Parcells, the owner said, “Anything that has anything to do with football, directly or indirectly, reports to Bill. That includes doctors and trainers and everything. Everybody is going to report to him.”
Look. I know that I spent the first 2 pages of this web column campaigning for no-names at the QB, Coach and GM positions. But, hey, I’m as much of a starf*cker as the next guy (really, that’s the only word).
Well, unless a front-office executive Parcells might consider hiring has his contract expire with his current team at the end of this year, or the guy is currently working without a contract (not altogether uncommon in the personnel business), Parcells might have a fight on his hands to woo a top personnel executive.
The NFL rule is that if a front-office man does not have control over the draft and free agency, and he is being offered a job with that final football authority, then his team would be obligated to allow him to interview if permission were requested.
Will that apply in Miami? Maybe.
Teams are notoriously stingy when it comes to their executives’ right to further their career. Wikipedia it.
There’s a good chance that if Dallas’ Jones were asked by Miami for permission to speak with Ireland, he might say (as might any smart-thinking NFL executive), “Hold on here. Why should I allow my top personnel man to go somewhere where he might have the title of GM, but we all know he wouldn’t be free to make the final football decisions?” In other words, Parcells might say his GM is free to make those kinds of decisions, but it would be up to the league to determine whether a new hire would really have that kind of authority.
I know, it’s just the kind of soap opera we need in the time of Michael Vick and Pacman Jones, but get ready, people.
I spoke with Parcells twice about this on Sunday. The first time, I told him what I thought — that a team with a good personnel guy might challenge the Dolphins’ ability to hire that personnel guy with the promise of giving him final football authority, because they would say Parcells is the real final football voice.
“That’s not the way it is,” he said from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “We set it up so the general manager I hire will have that authority. I want to make it clear: I don’t want to be the general manager. I don’t want to be the head coach. I told Wayne that very clearly. I don’t think it will be an issue.”
A few minutes later, Parcells called back. “You got me thinking,” he said, “so I got my contract out. I wanted to be sure about the wording.”
*I* got Parcells thinking. For all my detractors, I really am a genius. Ask Parcells, a certified genius, who I got thinking.
Then he read me the wording of what he said were the applicable clauses in the contract. “‘As Executive Vice President of Football Operations,'” Parcells read, “’employee shall be responsible for overseeing the club’s football operations. Employee shall act as club designee for purpose of [executing] contracts with head coach and general manager.'”
Said Parcells: “So what I am is the owner’s designee. My job is to hire a coach, hire a GM and put a structure in place for them to operate.”
Will the league buy that? As I said on NBC last night, I believe there’s a good chance some team might bring a grievance against the Dolphins over this.
Olbermann told me later that night that he thinks this is a story that has no legs, and is completely media-driven, or, more specifically, me-driven. I told him he shoulda stuck with the mustache.
“I’m not worried about it,” Parcells said.
We’ll see who’s worried when you try to steal Jeff Ireland from the ‘Boys. That was a double-entendre that no one outside of Ireland’s wife, dog and myself will get.
Clearly, the league could be skeptical about allowing any front-office man currently under contract to leave for a GM job in Miami the way it’s structured right now. I could see NFL executive VP and legal counsel Jeff Pash asking Huizenga, with a jaundiced eye: “You’re paying Bill Parcells $3 million a year or so, and you’re telling me you want to hire someone to have final football authority in the organization over him? That’s not going to fly.”
Reason #3902 I love writing this column: I can reveal little tidbits like Jeff Pash’s jaundice that we all suspect is due to years of alcoholism.
Remember, though, that if a personnel man is working without a contract, or if his team allows him permission to leave (which I could see happen with the gentlemanly Packers and good-soldier Schneider, if Miami were interested), the Dolphins would be allowed to interview that candidate.
It’s way too early to predict what will happen in Miami. An educated guess would be that Parcells aims for a strong personnel man, then interviews a slew of NFL assistants — and not just those he knows — to be the new head coach. It wouldn’t surprise me if he went for a smart, malleable, egoless, unknown type — like Dallas assistant head coach Tony Sparano— as his new coach.
A patsy. I should have just said it. He’s looking for a patsy.