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A Bye Week Must: Ask Tough Questions

As more and more teams experience “bye” week rest on their schedule, the role of an NFL General Manager sometimes can be best served as one of a hall monitor who oversees what HAS happened and to make sure his team learns from it.

Sometimes this is as simple as just asking the tough questions and directing discussions to evaluate procedures, collaboration styles and specific uses of assets involved. Asking questions and challenging practices is sometimes viewed as being disloyal. I couldn’t disagree more. How does the saying go? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This is the time for those discussions.

We often hear of how important the relationship is between the GM and the Head Coach in running a professional football team. Part of the reason that this must be strong is for just this reason. The two men must have a strong enough bond that either can ask the tough questions of the other behind closed doors. Bill Parcells once told me about his relationship with his long time personnel man, Dick Haley. He said, “we can say anything to each other” and have there be no repercussions coming out the other end. It’s the prime example of two heads are better than one and none of us are smarter than all of us. I have always taken his statement to heart.

I felt as though I had this relationship with several head coaches that I worked with. In Seattle, Dennis Erickson and I had many uncomfortable conversations about staff, use of players, positioning players on a draft board, etc. I had the same ability with Jim Haslett in New Orleans and I truly think Nick Saban(who is totally different in personality and style) appreciated our frank conversations in Miami.

I always felt like it was the job of the GM to point certain things out. It was important to have discussion if for no other reason than it made us think through some of the decisions we had made to implement our plan. IMO discussions provoke more thought. Why is that bad?

Discussions and vigorous debate should never be seen as questioning authority or being disloyal. I think it improved our thoroughness. These conversations need to reallys be done at the right time, in the right setting and in most cases, that’s one on one behind closed doors.

The bye week is the time when our heads were less cluttered and we could take a step back from the week to week grind of game plans and specific weekly deadlines to look at things from a big picture standpoint.

An example might be as simple as asking if we should continue to run a trap play where we asked our tight end to motion down and trap the nose, otherwise known as a “WHAM” Block. We asked ourselves why we were running this scheme with our third best blocking TE when we could have made an adjustment and had a more fitting and functional blocker dressed and standing on the sideline as our third TE for this situation?

Coaching staffs can evaluate tendencies and self-scout easily without any input from the GM, but sometimes the use of specific personnel is not considered because the design, strategy and execution get 100% of their attention, and rightly so. In another instance, we may have continued to use a particular LB as a tackle on the punt team because he could execute a simple blocking technique better but he was never anywhere near making a tackle because he couldn’t run “a lick”.

For those of us who were charged with managing a team, these discussions were always very helpful. Sometimes at the end of the day no changes are needed but the dialogue strengthened our resolve and the decisions we were making in deployment of our people, if nothing else.

As the GM, It’s not solely about making suggestions either. I liked to be there for my partner (the head coach) to download his clutter about staff or understand issues he might be struggling with that he couldn’t converse with another coach about for fear of repercussions or unintended circumstances that may come from a tough conversation. As we know from being a friend, a spouse, a parent or a work companion, communicating is hard but to be effective in relationships you have to work at it constantly.

The Head Coach and GM MUST have a mutual respect and a relationship built on trust so that whatever gets said is taken for no other reason except to be used as a tool to improve the greater cause. The older and more experienced a GM is, the easier it is to ask these tough questions. I was not as confident early in my career. I think it’s a big reason why some of the younger crowd of the younger General Managers often have a person in the building who is universally respected and has a few skins on the wall to help with the communication of these types of things. Sometimes that little extra experience and perspective helps to ask the hard questions.

Having visited hundreds of college campuses and observed how people run their programs, I have always thought this partnership or dialogue was missing at that level. Maybe it’s just a leadership choice that some make, regardless of the industry. It is no secret that in college, the coach is king but even in places like Tuscaloosa, there is a trusted partner/advisor behind the scenes asking the tough questions. Sometime that role is best served by someone that is not in the daily fray or in the heat of the battles on the field.

Sometime staff members want to be involved in all the decisions, but too often they get bogged down in their own world and separate agendas. I always loved the bye week for not only a chance to catch our proverbial and collective breaths but also to have some hard conversations and to analyze from the bird’s eye view.

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