Chip Kelly has been given total control of personnel decisions, making him one of the few head coaches not just in the league but in recent years to be given such power. But is this a good thing?
History is not kind.
When Mike Holmgren went to Seattle in 1999 he was given total control. It seemed like a smart move at the time: Holmgren was massively successful turning around the Packers to Super Bowl champions and had cultivated an impressive crop of assistant coaches with success as head coaches. Holmgren wanted more power in Green Bay, but Ron Wolf, a long time and successful executive, was in charge of operations. Holmgren wasn’t going to get it in Green Bay.
Seattle gave it to him, and initially it paid off. The Seahawks made the playoffs in Holmgren’s first year as a 9-7 division winner. But Holmgren couldn’t recapture his success. The Seahawks missed the playoffs for three straight years from 2000-2002, thanks in part to a poor defense that Holmgren was unable to fix. After a 2-6 first half, rumors began to swirl about Holmgren’s future.
After that season, Holmgren’s second losing season in four years, the fallout was severe. Holmgren was stripped of his General Manager duties and Seattle’s defensive coordinator and two defensive position coaches were fired, changes Holmgren wasn’t pleased about making but had to accept. With experienced front office staff once again above Holmgren, the Seahawks, with new additions in coaching and in personnel on defense, immediately went on a streak of five straight trips to the playoffs, including a Super Bowl appearance.
Mike Shanahan was given final say on all decisions by Daniel Snyder when he was hired as head coach of the Redskins. His situation had a lot of similarities to Holmgren’s. Both were Super Bowl champions who wanted total control. Both previously succeed as a head coach under long time executives running player personnel. And both struggled with the duties of running the entire ship. The Redskins of course gave up the farm for RGIII, and Shanahan was unable to turn around the team’s fortunes in free agency. And also like Holmgren, after four seasons he no longer had total control. But that is where their paths diverge, Shanahan was fired, having gone 24-40. Shanahan did have an experienced GM to split his duties with, Bruce Allen. But in Allen’s 11 years as a General Manager, his teams have never won a playoff game, and he may be "promoted" this off-season.
Mike Sherman, for reasons passing understanding, was given General Manager duties for the Packers after the 2001 draft. (If only Holmgren had waited.) Sherman and the Packers made the playoffs in each of his seasons with full control, but only managed one win. In 2004 he mishandled CB Mike McKenzie’s hold out, eventually trading him in-season. That hold out was partly responsible for Sherman’s disastrous 2004 draft. He reached for Ahmad Carroll in the first round, Carroll was off the team by the end of the 2006 season. And he hilariously traded up for punter BJ Sanders, who was so bad that he never played that season. Sherman was stripped of his GM duties and they were given to Ted Thompson, who took Aaron Rodgers with his first ever pick. Sherman went 4-12 that year, with his draft picks barely contributing, and was fired.
Josh McDaniels was an absolute disaster. Everything he touched turned to ash.
He fired the second-year GM that originally hired him and had his own puppet GM installed. He tried to trade Jay Cutler, who at the time was 25 and coming off his best season, and bring in Matt Cassel. McDaniels was unable to land the three team trade that would have sent Cutler to Tampa, and instead Cassel winds up with division rival Kansas City, and Cutler traded for Kyle Orton.
In free agency, he brought in a half a dozen former Patriots, all of whom were mediocre at best. A coach bringing in a few of his own guys, even if it is just backups, from his previous jobs is standard issue, but McDaniels couldn’t even do that right. His first signing was to bring over the long snapper from the Patriots, and cut the one who he inherited, an unpopular move with his players.
In the 2009 draft, McDaniels boasted his draft board had less than 100 names. The Broncos had two 2nd round picks and wanted to move up. Rather than use those picks in a deal, they traded a 2010 first round pick for a 2nd, and took Alphonso Smith. On the eve of the 2010 season, Smith was traded for a backup tight end.
After the 2009 season, where the Broncos started 6-2 and finished 2-6, he trades Brandon Marshall, and drafted Tim Tebow in the first. He traded a 2011 5th rounder for two 2010 7th rounders, a minor move but another example that he had no idea about draft value: the rule of thumb for acquiring a pick using a future one is you give up the previous round. McDaniels gave up an additional round. For 7th rounders.
McDaniels was fired during the 2010 season, and is somehow still getting job interviews. Without him the Broncos wouldn't have landed Peyton Manning, perhaps he can carve out a niche career as the guy who burns it down to start anew.
Marvin Lewis was given increased control of the Bengals this past off-season. He, along with Executive Vice President Katie Blackburn (the daughter of owner Mike Brown, who’s role has continued to grow in recent years, she has handled contract negotiations for years) now runs personnel decisions with the Bengals, though the exact structure isn’t clear because owner Mike Brown is still heavily involved and the Bengals internal mechanisms are covered in shadows. Lewis just lost his sixth playoff game in as many tries, the worst 0-for record in NFL history.
And we all know what happened when Andy Reid got complete control.
But it’s not all ugly. There are three Super Bowl winning head coaches in similar situations.
Bill Belichick has had complete control of the Patriots since he was hired in 2000. Belichick was able to gain this power immediately because owner Bob Kraft completely trusted him from his time as Patriots defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells. Belichick brought in many of the people who worked for or with him in Cleveland and New York, most notably Scott Pioli, who Belichick entrusted with many of the GM duties. It was clearly a great pairing, they won 3 Super Bowls together and reached a 4th during a near perfect season.
After the 2008 season, Pioli left to run the Chiefs. Pioli lasted only four years, while the Patriots, thanks to a HOF coach and a HOF QB, remain Super Bowl contenders, but it’s difficult to say that the player acquisition success during Super Bowl winning years was all Belichick. The Patriots have been a poor drafting team since Pioli left and for the most part rely on scrap heap free agents to fill out their roster. The Patriots notorious "short board" didn’t help Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels, and it’s not doing the Patriots, who once had a board of only 25 players, much good either. The Patriots routinely reach for players.
Bill Belichick’s best coaching job has been consistently fielding a Super Bowl contender the past five years with the roster that Bill Belichick the GM has given him.
Sean Payton has total control of the Saints, though it is unclear when he was given that power, it likely came with his 2011 contract extension. The Saints have a GM, Mickey Loomis, but he primarily deals with contracts and managing the cap, an area where the Saints have really struggled. In that extension, Payton had a clause, which was not approved by the league, that if Loomis left or was fired from the Saints or was suspended, that he would be free to leave. The language on that clause was "cleaned up" when Payton signed another contract extension prior to his return from suspension for the 2013 season.
Here too it is tough to say this is an arrangement that works. The Saints have also been a poor drafting team, most notably having traded up to take Mark Ingram and benching last year’s first round pick, Kenny Vaccaro. Loomis, who is also EVP of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans, may be promoted (or is it "promoted" considering they missed the playoffs?) as soon as this week. Saints Director of Player Personnel Ryan Pace, who the Jets are interested in for their GM position, is his likely replacement.
Pete Carroll was hired by the Seahawks, and then hired his own GM. This is a similar situation to the Eagles, where the head coach is allowed to pick his own personnel man. However unlike Kelly, Carroll had extensive NFL experience: he was in the NFL for 15 years prior to going to USC, including four years as head coach for the Jets and Patriots. Carrol hired John Schneider, who spent years as Packers GM Ted Thompson's right hand man. The combination has worked perfectly.
And then there’s Jimmy Johnson. Like Chip, he is one of the very few coaches who never spent a day in the NFL prior to being a head coach experience success. During his tenure, Johnson also ran the Cowboys personnel department. It was he who orchestrated the infamous Hershel Walker trade, and it was he who ran their dominant drafts in the late 80s and early 90s, armed with scouting and recruiting reports from his days in college. Johnson wasn’t without his flaws, in his first year he took his college QB, Steve Walsh, in the first round of the 1989 Supplemental Draft, even though they also took Troy Aikman first overall in the regular draft. By taking Walsh in the supplemental, the Cowboys their first round pick in the next draft. Since the Cowboys finished that season with the worst record in the league, it was the first overall pick. But nobody is perfect, and Johnson was able to correct his error by swindling another team when he traded Walsh to the Saints for a 1st, 2nd and 3rd during the 1990 season.
The early to mid 90s Cowboys were a juggernaut, and it was built by Johnson. But this too doesn’t have a happy ending. The relationship between Johnson and Jerry Jones completely deteriorated, and Johnson left. Jones got another Super Bowl on the back of Johnson’s team with Barry Switzer, but the Cowboys have been a mediocre franchise since then. Johnson was never able to replicate his success when he took over the Dolphins and given complete control. With his reports from college no longer applying, and unable to rob teams blind in trades to stockpile picks, he couldn’t repeat his dominance in the draft, so the Dolphins never really improved.
In fairness, this is a very small sample size because owners rarely give head coaches total control. And with good reason, it usually ends ugly.
So can Chip succeed?
So far Kelly has bucked the trend as a head coach with no NFL experience, even after two years he’s one of the more successful coaches to make that transition. But Chip was a head coach for years before coming to the Eagles. Taking over control of personnel is a different matter, and of course Chip only has two years in the NFL. Chip’s fingerprints are all over various parts of the 2013 and 2014 off-seasons, and the record is mixed, though overall positive.
Most of the key players under Kelly were inherited, the players that have been acquired during his tenure have been varied. Connor Barwin, Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins, Brad Smith, Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman have been as good as or better than advertised, and all are the embodiment of Chip’s vision of what he wants his team to look like. James Casey, the first free agent signing under Kelly, has seen limited playing time on offense but has been terrific on special teams, it’s not his fault the team drafted Zach Ertz and made him third on the depth chart.
But the team still needs massive help in the secondary. Patrick Chung was predictably awful, and Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams haven’t fixed the woes that have plagued the Eagles for years. It’s fair to wonder if the holdovers from the Eagles front office and scouting department are just plain bad at evaluating defensive backs, and that fresh blood will by default improve the team’s fortunes there. Isaac Sopoaga contributed nothing, but Howie Roseman was able to get the pick that landed Sproles out of him in a mid-season trade with New England in 2013. Riley Cooper had an obvious fluke half season and should never have been re-signed, but is in Kelly's corner. (Ed. note: Cooper is also a Florida alum, which is where Roseman went to school!)
No team, no matter how successful, perfectly hits on free agency. The draft is where great teams are built, and that too has been up and down. In 2013 the team went heavy on drafting players that Chip played against. "If you can’t beat them, have them join you" is a fine strategy, but two years later those picks haven’t quite worked out. Zach Ertz, primed for a breakout season this year, played in only half the team’s snaps because the team was not happy with his blocking. Matt Barkley has been terrible, and Jordan Poyer was cut during the 2013 season. Joe Kruger, who DL coach Jerry Azzinaro really wanted while at Oregon, spent 2013 on phantom IR and was cut in 2014. Still, it was a good draft, Lane Johnson and Bennie Logan are key starters, and despite Ertz’s lack of a breakout he’s still a good player with a bright future.
2014 had Chip’s fingerprints on it as well, and so far hasn't been as good. Kelly reportedly wanted Jordan Matthews in the first round, and had Matthews been taken there, we wouldn’t perceive it as a bad pick. But Matthews was available in the 2nd round, though the Eagles traded up to get him. Taken on it’s own, this is not a concern.
As part of a whole, it paints a questionable picture. We know that Chip wanted Taylor Hart in the 3rd round but was shot down by Roseman, who knew he would be available in the 5th, which he was. It’s not entirely damning that Hart never suited up on game day, DL is the best unit on the team, though Brandon Bair offered little beyond blocking a couple of kicks. But it also doesn’t help that a guy Chip wanted in the 3rd was deemed not good enough to dress by his coaching staff, particularly by his right hand man on defense, Azzinaro. That’s at least two players that Chip wanted at least a round before they were available. Josh Huff probably would have been available in the 4th, and 5th rounder Ed Reynolds, a PAC-12 standout, didn’t make the 53 man roster. Who was ultimately responsible for Marcus Smith, we may never know. We do know though that the Eagles had six players targeted for their pick, and none were on the board when it was time, another example of not properly valuing the draft board.
Taking a terrific player in the 1st that will be available in the 2nd is bad value, you are passing over the opportunity to draft an additional top value player, or to trade back and receive more picks. To put it another way, if the Seahawks had taken Russell Wilson in the 1st round, they wouldn't have Bruce Irvin.
And in fairness, the players that Chip wanted weren’t the equivalent of the 2011 draft. Jordan Matthews had a very good rookie season while other rookie WRs taken shortly before and after him did not. Josh Huff had his fair share of blunders, but also showed potential. Beau Allen, another player that Azzinaro tried to recruit and was taken in the 7th round, had a nice year as a depth player. Of course, the jury is still out on all the 2014 picks. But this isn’t about if the players they picked in 2014 are good or not. This is about if Chip Kelly can properly judge draft day value, a key ability of a general manager. And there is more evidence than not that Kelly doesn’t have a firm grasp it.
Which is why it is incredibly important he hire someone with a lot of experience at it. The recurring theme with all of the coaches who had or have total control of personnel is that those who had success had an experienced executive as their right hand man, and that those who failed didn’t. Just being a good coach isn’t enough, Holmgren and Shanahan failed. Though having a QB is critical and Belichick, Payton and Carroll all have a QB, just having a QB isn’t enough, Sherman failed and Holmgren had a pretty good one. If Chip Kelly is going to succeed with his new responsibilities, history strongly suggests that his hire be someone with a lot of experience. Thankfully, early indications show he is headed in that direction.