Generally speaking, aside from the players themselves, head coaches are far and away the major headliners on the pro football front. With the social-media craze subjecting them to steadily increasing scrutiny, the ongoing speculation regarding their security, or lack thereof, has become a hot, around-the clock topic.
But NFL insiders in the know recognize the equally significant impact of the league’s 32 general managers. Thankfully receiving far less face time than their coaching companions, their behind-the-scenes efforts provide an important dynamic that is destined to both make and break more than a few NFL teams before the 2012 season runs its course.
The stellar job Pro Football Weekly 2012 Executive of the Year Trent Baalke did in his first season as the Niners’ GM is a case in point.
“When you look at how fast the Niners have turned it around in a year, you (have to) look at the guy who hired the head coach (Jim Harbaugh) and put those lines together,” one NFC-rival GM told PFW. “It pains me to say it, but the reason San Francisco flipped around so quickly is because of Trent.”
The way we hear it, there are as many as 8-10 teams that would feel a whole lot better about themselves right now if they had GM situations even remotely close to the Harbaugh-Baalke partnership in San Francisco.
That means there are 8-10 GMs, by PFW’s estimation, currently on the proverbial hot seat in varying degrees. Making those seats a lot hotter is a high-quality group of potential replacements currently biding its time on the NFL periphery.
“There are a lot of good GMs out of work,” one current GM said. “(Former Colts GM) Bill Polian is a first-ballot Hall of Famer to me. I don’t think he will be out of work much longer. Will Bill Parcells get the itch again? Carl Peterson did a great job in Kansas City for what he was asked to do.”
When you add other former GMs or personnel execs such as Jerry Angelo, Billy Devaney, Tim Ruskell, Chris Polian, Ron Hill and Tom Modrak to the mix, the level of GM intrigue is intensified.
After spending some time picking the brains of the collective GM community, it would appear there are two GMs in particular who could be living on borrowed time — Tom Heckert in Cleveland and Jeff Ireland in Miami.
Four GMs believed to be skating on thin ice not far behind Heckert and Ireland are Gene Smith in Jacksonville, A.J. Smith in San Diego, Scott Pioli in Kansas City and Rick Spielman in Minnesota.
What follows is a team-by-team breakdown of suspect GM situations, accompanied by a NFL insider’s take in each case:
GMs ON BORROWED TIME
Tom Heckert / Browns — Heckert has methodically turned over the Browns' roster in his three seasons. The Browns are younger and more potential-laden than they were when Heckert joined the club in 2010. However, the Browns haven't made up any serious ground on the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals in Heckert’s tenure, and they are very much a work in progress in 2012. With new owner Jimmy Haslam III likely to make some organizational changes once he settles in on the job, Heckert's long-term future in Cleveland could be murky. The Browns' lack of wins and blue-chip talent don't work in Heckert’s favor, but he has done some good work, especially with regard to revamping an aging defense.
Veteran evaluator: “I would not be surprised if (team president Mike) Holmgren had the same bailout in his contract that (Bill) Parcells did, where he could walk and take his whole salary because the whole ownership changed and does not really fit him. I think Heckert has put two great drafts together and deserves to stick around, but I think that boat has sailed. They’ll find someone young who understands the Pittsburgh way.”
Jeff Ireland / Dolphins — Owner Stephen Ross surprised many— and angered fans — when he retained Ireland after deciding to hire a new head coach. He wanted some continuity, we hear, but Ireland is still on the hot seat. When you look at the inability of the team to improve the wide receiver position in the last year, a lot of that goes to the players that Ireland either drafted or signed. If the team has another bad season and someone needs to go, it likely would be Ireland, though Ross has shown a loyalty to Ireland in the past. The GM made a good trade to acquire a second-round pick and a late-round pick in 2013 for underperforming CB Vontae Davis, but the results just haven’t been there, and the mistakes have outweighed his successes.
Veteran evaluator: “You have to be able to coach the talent you have. Vontae (Davis) is one of the most talented cornerbacks in the league. Find a way to manage him. That’s on the coaches, not the personnel people. Jeff has done a pretty good job drafting, in my opinion, but he has the personality of a scout, not a GM, and I think that’s been the biggest problem there. I don’t know how well he sees the big picture, either. As a GM, you need to be thinking about how to put fans in the seats, and I don’t think he has done much to endear himself to the people of Miami. If anything, he has just created resentment.”
GMs ON THIN ICE
Gene Smith / Jaguars — The arrival of new owner Shahid Khan, who has yet to tip his hand on how patient he will be as an owner, paired with the fact that Khan this past offseason signed off on a contract extension for Smith that runs through 2014 makes this a difficult situation to gauge. It seems likely that Smith will be given until at least the end of 2013 to right the ship in Jacksonville, but most league observers agree that, four years into his rebuilding project, Smith’s roster lacks the necessary talent and depth to be a postseason contender. Smith’s future remains directly tied to second-year QB Blaine Gabbert. If Gabbert doesn’t make major strides in Year Two, it doesn’t bode well for Smith’s long-term future with the Jaguars.
Top personnel exec: “Gene is one of the greatest guys you will ever meet, and I like him a lot as a person, but his drafts have been very average, free agency has been a near disaster and there’s just not enough talent on the team to make a run at it. He’s been there from the start. Has he had the support he has needed to get the job done the last few years? Probably not. But that’s his team. He put his stamp on it. He might be able to finagle one more year, but they better show continued progress or he’ll be out fast.”
A.J. Smith / Chargers — Right after the 2011 season ended, team president Dean Spanos retained GM Smith and head coach Norv Turner. “A.J. Smith is the best man to improve our roster, and Norv Turner is the best man to lead that roster on the field,” Spanos said. We hear that Spanos was very pleased with what Smith did this offseason, improving depth throughout the roster, but through four games, not many of those veteran additions have made huge strides. If the Chargers miss the playoffs and a change has to be made, it would be Turner leaving before Smith. It likely would have to be a disastrous season for Smith to go as well.
GM: “People in the building tell me (current Bills GM) Buddy (Nix) was the key guy there making the draft decisions. When he was pushed out, the drafts went to (nothing). He was the one guy that would stand up to A.J. — (A.J.'s) an overbearing personality now. It’s black and white — there’s not a lot of grey area with A.J.”
Scott Pioli / Chiefs — Pioli was brought on by Chiefs owner Clark Hunt in 2009 to reshape the roster and change the direction of the team. Pioli was asked to turn the Chiefs into the Patriots of the Midwest, and the early results smacked of great, quick progress. Pioli and head coach Todd Haley turned around from 4-12 in 2009 to 10-6 and a playoff appearance in ’10. Optimism followed in 2011, but the team yinged and yanged to a last-place appearance last season, with Haley getting fired. Pioli reached to his past, promoting defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as Haley’s replacement, and the team’s 0-2 start this season raised serious pressure for head coach and GM. Two Kansas City writers attacked Pioli — far more than Crennel — for the team’s lack of talent, depth and, notably, a franchise quarterback. Could Pioli be in trouble with a losing season? Perhaps, but he has improved Hunt’s product (at worst, financially) and remains close to the owner.
GM: “I don't think the Bill Parcells style of being a (jerk) works. The game is too (expletive) hard — you might as well enjoy where you are working and enjoy working with (your) people. That style and where they get that, I don't get it. … Kansas City has an intimidating, scare-tactic style of doing business. As long as he has the owner fooled, he’ll be fine. I don’t think he’s in immediate danger, but I don’t see the team getting better. … If Scott doesn't know the difference between Shaun Rogers and Kelly Gregg, he's in trouble.”
Former Chiefs front-office employee: “Pioli could get run out in K.C and Romeo might get a pass for a year or two, the same way Lovie (Smith) did when (Jerry) Angelo got run out. They might let some money burn off his contract first before they fire him and start the clock over. It would give a new GM time to hire the next coach and turn it around."
Rick Spielman / Vikings — The Vikings made a GM commitment for the first time since Jim Finks stepped down as general manager in 1974 when Spielman was promoted from vice president of player personnel to GM this January after six years with the team, changing the front-office power structure. Spielman has final, absolute say over personnel matters, something that previously was muddled when several men held a share of the power. Spielman brought back head coach Leslie Frazier, oversaw his first draft this April and made the call on the team’s trades and free agents. He has a strong foothold with the team, despite it appearing that the Vikes sit fourth on the NFC North totem pole and likely are there to stay unless ownership drastically changes direction.
GM: “Did anyone think the Vikings would be 3-1 right now and have a win over the 49ers? I know I didn’t, and anyone who is honest would tell you the same. I know people in the building who are already looking for new jobs. They don’t think it’s going to hold.”
GMs FOR WHOM THE CLOCK IS TICKING
Mike Tannenbaum / Jets — Tannenbaum is in trouble if the Jets have another bad season, which would be two in a row, and the perception is that Tannenbaum would go before head coach Rex Ryan if the team implodes. Tannenbaum’s draft picks and free-agent pickups in the past two years have not panned out. The problem at right tackle since Damien Woody’s retirement has been a black eye for the club. Here’s what owner Woody Johnson said when asked if this was a make-or-break season for Tannenbaum: “First and foremost, I never comment on coaches’ or players’ status, or their contracts, or anything like that during the season. I made a practice of doing that. As I said, I’m confident, I’m very optimistic and confident in this organization and this group of young players and experienced players to get the job done.” Not really a strong vote of confidence.
GM: “I don’t think (Tannenbaum) is in any danger. He has a good rapport with the owner. He hired a strong staff and is a good listener. When you lose a (Darrelle) Revis, it’s not easy to overcome. You can’t replace guys like that. (Tannenbaum) has had some big misses in the draft, but overall, he’s done a very good job. I think Woody will cut him some slack.”
Marty Hurney / Panthers — With the Panthers’ playoff drought going on four years — their last winning season was also in 2008 — owner Jerry Richardson could face pressure to make big changes if the team does not show significant improvement in 2012. The alterations could start with Hurney, who was celebrated for his selection of QB Cam Newton with the first pick in 2011 but has had little success finding key contributors in the draft outside of the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year. Only one other player from the 2009, ’10 and ’11 Carolina draft classes (WR Brandon LaFell) is currently a starter for the team. Hurney also raised eyebrows around the league for paying above market value to keep former draft picks, such as RB DeAngelo Williams and DE Charles Johnson, from leaving in free agency.
Veteran evaluator: “All you heard last year was how great Cam Newton was. It looks like the honeymoon is over. I think it was an owner decision, but (the hiring of) Ron Rivera is on Marty, and if that does not work out, he could take the fall for both of them. When you look at the people in the two leadership positions in the franchise, it does not give me a feeling of confidence.”
GMs WORTH MONITORING
Howie Roseman / Eagles — The team’s power structure is confusing and complex. Jeffrey Lurie is the owner. Andy Reid is the head coach. Roseman is the general manager, and has been since 2010. They each fill those roles, but there is some overlap. For instance, Reid has final say over personnel matters, even though Roseman handles the day-to-day operations. And the jobs all have changed a little with longtime Lurie partner and team president Joe Banner moving on (he soon will join the Browns officially), replaced by Don Smolenski. Lurie has hinted Reid might be on the hot seat; it’s not clear what it will take for him to return. Roseman (and others) took on a lot of Banner’s negotiations and salary-cap matters, so it stands to reason that his position with the franchise remains safe regardless of Reid’s future. But it’s also pretty obvious that Lurie, and Lurie alone, would make that call. What else is certain: The franchise is in a pivotal season, no matter who stays or goes.
Mickey Loomis / Saints — While there are no indications that Loomis is in immediate danger of losing his job, the Saints are in the midst of an embarrassing season and there could be an outcry for accountability from Saints fans if things don’t improve.
Buddy Nix / Bills — With Nix nearing retirement age, change in the front office could come if owner Ralph Wilson passes away, as was the case in Oakland after the death of Al Davis.