Updated: Aug 10, 2021
If you happen to encounter an NFL General Manager during training camp and you feel like his mind is in a faraway place during your conversation, cut him some slack. IT JUST MIGHT BE TRUE.
The work of decision makers in the front office of NFL teams is comparable to fixing leaks in a river dike. If the water isn’t seeping through, it’s probably about to. The front office is always trying to stay a step or two ahead on the personnel side.
The other main objective that is derived from the name in the title of the job is “to manage the people and the roster that you have." This takes up the majority of their time and can be less than satisfying at the end of each day, especially during training camp. Communicating is hard and its endless at this time of the year. Many days would be over and I’d ask myself, what have I accomplished today? Keeping the football operation all on the same page sometimes is all about being the messenger and that alone can take up your whole day.
Early morning meetings in the trainer’s office, sometimes that include team doctors, are usually how my day would start. An update on the entire health of a roster usually bookends the chaos of most days. I don’t like surprises and I always really wanted to be able to formulate a plan, especially if there were issues. I’d want to do this before even getting the coaches involved. Here were always my thoughts:
• Do we need to consider a replacement or is the injured guy down for just a day or two?
• What kind of numbers will we have overall for practice?
• Are we getting reps for the right guys so we can properly evaluate?
After hearing that information, it was off to a staff meeting, usually run by the head coach. This meeting included all coaches and auxiliary staff and was about organizing the day of practice(s) and any marketing/autograph events that might involve player obligations. I suspect that these meetings are more time consuming with COVID-19 protocols affecting almost everything being done. These meetings were also a time to inform or update the coaches on any tryouts or visits the scouting staff may be holding during the day. Announcing any camp guests, college coaches or CFL scouts who some on staff may know, just kept everybody on the same page.
Once this meeting was over, the head coach and GM would usually take another 15-20 minutes to process information from the assistant coaches. The information usually included pros and cons from some of the players and their thoughts. One of the main goals of the GM is to make sure he and the head coach are communicating and thinking alike on how the program is running each and every day.
I always wanted to be in step with our pro scouts as well, knowing who they really liked from the pool of players still on the street. For example, Chris Ballard, the GM of the Indianapolis Colts, is now deciding if there is anyone available from another team or off the street that might upgrade the newly-elevated starting QB, second-year player Jacob Eason. Those discussions were most beneficial for me to have with staff (pro scouting department) who had a big perspective and knew what were all the available options in the pool as opposed to a coach who might have worked with one player in his past and had a personal bias.
Once the day’s on-field schedule was set, I always liked to meet with the college scouts who are in attendance at camp to get to know the roster better. It gave me a chance to find out which particular players are daily learning the schemes and teaching methods of the coaches and helped me better identify characteristics for future players that fit what we are asking them to do.
It's almost like a separate scout school when they were in attendance at training camp. As the GM, I would have the scouts attend player/position meetings as well for those same reasons. I want them to know how the coaches were teaching and which players might be both learning well and or struggling as systems were getting installed. By having the scouts attend these meetings, I always thought it helped them establish criteria when evaluating prospects later in the fall from a mental and learning standpoint.
I always loved to watch film with the scouting group as well. I did so not for the purpose of “group think” but so that I could see and identify things on tape they were seeing whether it was video from practice or a prospects’ individual tape. Again, it was like a scout school for me.
The more the young players could be around and listen to tips from more experienced scouts on what they saw and how they evaluated, the better it made us as a staff. I remember times when we would spend 30 minutes on prioritizing the four key characteristics of a nose guard in our system and why they were listed in a particular order. These discussions usually got very detailed, but my belief was that this interaction was thought provoking. Never a bad thing.
If it was a two-practice day, it was time to hit the field after these meetings. I always liked to be visible, even before stretching, in case a player wanted to visit or had a question. Sometimes I struck up a conversation with a player, asked them about a teammate, etc. it was a good time to gather information from others to process as part of big picture decisions. As we have witnessed this offseason in the league, the players should have a voice.
A dialogue with players, especially the team leaders, is best to have on their turf/office and that’s the playing field. I tried to stay out of the locker room as much as I could. I felt like that was the players’ sacred area and was basically off limits to team management.
During practice, I made it a habit to hang on the sidelines with the defensive backs. I loved to listen to the banter between player and coach. Maybe it was my days as a ball boy, but I always felt like DB’s were the vocal hub of a team. I started my career as a ball boy with the Seattle Seahawks in 1978 as Hall of Famer Jack Christenson’s DB ball boy. I learned more about defensive football in six weeks of that camp than I did in my prior 17 years on earth. Whether a ball boy or the GM, I enjoyed listening, learning and taking the pulse of the team through the mood of the DB’s.
I always have felt like training camp was a learning lab for everyone. 15 years later, as the Seahawks Director of Pro Scouting, I had those same conversations with the legendary coach Abe Gibron, who was our advance scout in Seattle under Head Coach Chuck Knox. Gibron was in the movie, Brian’s Song, and coached the Chicago Bears for three years before becoming an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (coached by John McKay). Gibron became one of my mentors and we would watch film daily in my office. Having this kind of experience around that young scouts and coaches can listen to is seldom seen in this day and age of paranoia and only having people around that know less than the decision makers.
After morning practice, it was time for a quick lunch and then back to the film room with the scouts to watch the previous practice on tape. I liked each scout to rank and evaluate each player in their position groups. I wanted to have their views and thoughts to represent our entire staff when sitting down with coaches. The scouts would usually only be in camp a week or 10 days and some teams now (which I love) don’t have the scouts come until later in camp. When the pads come on, and real football gets played, the scouting valuations got more accurate.
A general manager works in time for media requests and marketing guests during his afternoon as well. I also would spend a fair amount of time meeting with our contract/salary cap experts to be updated on any contractual negotiations we had going on. I always had a depth chart in my office coded by length/years of contract or club control rights. A general manager always had to be working on both a short-term plan and long-term cap compliance at the same time.
As the GM, I would go to the team meeting at night, before the players broke up into position meetings. I again, just liked to gather information from the head coach’s message, the mood, the demeanor, to make sure everyone knew we were all in it together.
I always found the evenings to be a very productive time of the day. I studied the available preseason film from around the league, particularly looking at players the pro scouts had recommended, etc. The distractions were always minimal at that point in the day. Information and evaluations are king to team building and managing a team.
There were truly not enough hours in a day so you had to rely on others consistently. I always felt better when I saw as many guys as I could with my own eyes. After player position meetings in the evenings, we would always end each day with a staff meeting, attended by our coaches, to talk about our personnel. I wanted to hear from each coach, their views on what they are seeing, how a player might be grasping concepts and schemes and continue to get as much input from others as possible when putting our roster together.
Before you knew it, it was 10pm or even later. It was a long process and the daily grind of disciplined meetings and communication could wear you down over time. However, I always told my buddies when they would ask, what’s it like? My response, was it was better than working for a living.
Hopefully, I've given you some perspective on what it’s like for a general manager at this time of the year. It's no wonder he gives people a faraway look when asked about recent Olympics results.