Former head coach Chuck Knox said to me in 1985, “those same guys who help you WIN, end up being the same guys who get you fired”. For every head coach and general manager in the National Football League, the toughest part of their job each year is deciding who, from your own locker room, to pay and who not to pay.
Some might think that the hardest decisions come during the draft, determining who to pick in the first round of any given year. Others might think its whether or not an organization should pursue certain free agent deals to acquire a talent. Many tasks come with running a professional football team from the “football side” but in my career, I have never spent as much time thinking through a decision as I have, when it comes to not only rewarding certain players but also making business decisions to let others go. Here are some of the reasons why.
First and foremost, it’s YOUR locker room. Every one of those guys, who has a space in there, has an opinion on EVERY OTHER PLAYER in the room. They may never reveal it, they may never share it, or say anything but they know who the players are, they know who their leaders are and they also know who the difficult guys are to deal with. They are also well aware of who the tough guys are as well as the guys who play through pain or choose to milk injuries. They know better than you (as a GM) who THEY value as teammates and who they prefer to go to battle with each weekend. It’s because of this, that their opinions matter. In fact, they matter so much that I would feel the pressure to do right “by them” more than any pressure i would feel from the outside. No media source, fan forum, or any voice from outside that locker room mattered to me as much as the collective voice from within.
To that end, you have to really recognize the pulse of your team. You have to make the commitment to really get to know your players and establish relationships with the guys. You don’t have to be friends with them but respect is important. They have to know you care and that their thoughts and opinions matter. One wrong signing or one questionable release of a key veteran player can take a year or more to overcome. Team chemistry is always a fine line but it’s the job of the HC and/or GM to know it. Communication can sometimes be hard but it’s vital. It might be a short exchange on the practice field with a player, it might be listening to the training or equipment staff (who are with the players basically every time they are in the locker room). It may be a common but simple situation of sitting on the team bus and having zero verbal exchange with anyone but instead just listening and being aware of players, coaches, staff and the vibe around you. I say this all the time, “listening is a lost art”, but I truly believe that’s how you measure people, opinions and develop instincts for making decisions thus can build a consensus. That’s why I always enjoyed a visit with a Junior Seau or Zach Thomas, a Pete Kendall, Shawn Springs or Cortez Kennedy. I made it a point to listen to a Jeff Blake, Joe Johnson, Joe Horn or Jerry Fontenot. It was my job to listen. None of us are smarter than all of us in my opinion.
Sure, numbers, statistics, injuries, durability, all factor into deciding who to pay or extend with a new contract but I never wanted to lose track of the pulse of the locker room when making these decisions. Players know players and that’s where I felt the most pressure when making these kinds of decisions. The eyes of 52 professionals and a couple dozen staff members were always on you, wondering what you were going to do “with their livelihoods”. It’s a pressure that is hard to duplicate in another business. It’s a pressure that can’t be measured by a hiring firm/search firm, by analytics specialists, or lawyers for ownership groups that all are involved in hiring general managers these days. This is a presence that leaders have in their own individual ways.
Ask Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman if he feels any pressure right now deciding what to do with often injured and somewhat inconsistent performing RB Dalvin Cook? Cook has had one good season in his first three and is now threatening to hold out if he doesn’t get his current contract extended. It will be an interesting decision. Oh, the life of a general manager in the NFL! ☺
Coach Knox might have sounded crass when he used to say- “Don’t tell me how rough the water is, just get in the boat”. Well I’m here to say the toughest part of a general manager’s job is deciding who you want in the boat.