The GM. In my eyes those two letters represent the most prestigious position in all of sports. They are the architects, the visionaries and driving force behind bringing a group of professional athletes together to achieve one goal, winning a championship. To further complicate things, there isn’t just one way to achieve success as a GM.
Let’s take the four major sports in America right now; football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The GM’s role and strategy differs drastically from sport to sport. For basketball, one player can make such a profound impact on each and every game, the GM’s goal is to acquire as many individual “superstars” as possible, and hope the coach can get them to work together. This model of success is tried and true, especially in recent memory (Shaq & Kobe, Celtics Big 3, LeBron and friends).
The idea of collecting superstars can also be applied to hockey. Like basketball, there are only 5 (not counting the goalie) skill players on the ice at one time, which allows for a superstar to have more impact on the game. In football and baseball, having just one superstar will get you absolutely nowhere.
There are many models for success in baseball, and there are many success stories to validate most of them. For the sake of this article not being 5,000 words, I am simply ending this baseball discussion before it gets started by pointing out that the Yankees and Red Sox have achieved great success over the past decade by going out and signing big name players, while the A’s and Rays do it through draft and development. There you go, two drastically different methods, both very successful.
Now, we come to the NFL. Unlike the other major sports, building a successful football roster is much more about chemistry and scheme, than it is about one individual star player. Barry Sanders was the best RB in football during his run of 10 straight pro bowls (1989 – 1998), yet he only has 1 post season VICTORY to show for it. This would never happen in basketball, as LeBron took a very mediocre Cavaliers team to the finals.
Unlike the other major sports, every NFL fan base believes that this is their year. No matter how the team finished last year, all fans believe that “this is the year that my team erupts from the doldrums and wins the Super Bowl”. Thanks to this common belief, the constant pressure that is placed squarely on the shoulders of every GM in the NFL is almost inconceivable. “Re-building” is the last phrase any NFL fan wants to hear. Fans obsess over their GM delivering a quick fix, instead of building a team from the ground up. This which is why, in my opinion, there is no greater challenge in all of sports than putting together a professional football team, and last Sunday, we got to watch two of the best GM’s the game has to offer go head to head in Baltimore.
Ted Thompson and Ozzie Newsome are two of the most respected and successful GM’s that the NFL has to offer. During their tenures as GM’s for the Packers and Ravens (respectively), they have reached, and won, three Super Bowls (Ravens SB XXXV and SB XLVII, Packers SB XLV), while sticking to the same team building strategy the whole time. Both men believe in the “draft best available player” strategy, regardless of the needs of the team. Some may see this is a recipe for disaster, and that this strategy could lead to a team having a gaggle of good players at one position (see Matt Millen’s absurd run of picking WR’s in the first round) with no other pieces around them. To build a team this way, Ted and Ozzie hired coaches who might not be the most proficient X’s and O’s minds in the game, but they are excellent motivators and teachers. These are the key characteristics needed when building a team through the draft.
“Draft and develop” is probably the least sexy strategy a GM could employ. There are no quick fixes here, and there is always a period of growing pains when a team decides to go this route. Most NFL fans get excited for the Free Agency period to open up every year, and hope their team can get that year’s “best available FA” (Mario Williams to the Bills, Mike Wallace to the Dolphins, etc.). Meanwhile, fans of the Packers and Ravens know that their FA period is actually the draft, where all 7 rounds are important, including, signing undrafted free agents.
Over the past few seasons, by building a team this way, the Packers and Ravens have been able to withstand releasing/losing star players to old age (Packers: Charles Woodson; Ravens: Ed Reed, Ray Lewis), losing players to free agency (Packers: Cullen Jenkins, Greg Jennings, Erik Walden; Ravens: Paul Kruger, Cary Williams), and major injuries (Packers: Clay Matthews, Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb; Ravens: Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta). Some may say that, the logical response would be to bring in new players to replace all of these guys that were lost, but Ted and Ozzie couldn’t disagree more. Instead, their teams abide by the age old football mantra of “Next man up”.
In 2010, the year the Packers won the Super Bowl, they finished the season with 15 players on IR, including 6 opening day starters. As the players started to drop like flies, Ted stayed the course and resisted the urge to find that band aid/quick fix. When key players like RT Mark Tauscher, RB Ryan Grant, and TE Jermichael Finley, was lost for the season, they were replaced internally by Bryan Bulaga, James Starks, and Andrew Quarless, none of which were household names when they assumed the starting role. Learning, and mastering, a team’s strategy takes a serious commitment of time and energy. By placing a premium on developing drafted talent, coaches feel confident that when a player’s number is called, he will make a seamless transition into the game plan. The Packers face a similar challenge this year that they did in 2010, and while the media can continue to throw around “logical trade ideas” to fix the Packers, Ted will once again stick to his guns, and expect the players who are already there to fill the holes.
Drafting the right guys is also a trait that defines and separates Ted and Ozzie from the rest of the league. My favorite story about Ozzie is during his first ever draft as director of player personnel for the Ravens. Ozzie’s first pick was very unpopular amongst the other members of the Raven’s war room. The 1996 NFL Draft set the precedent for how Ozzie would draft for his entire career. With the 4th overall pick, Ozzie, despite the pleading of his brain trust, chose Jonathan Ogden, an offensive tackle, over the flashy running back Lawrence Phillips. Ozzie drafted Ogden even though they already had a strong offensive line, and despite the fact that Phillips would fill the large gaping hole at running back. This was the first example of Ozzie drafting the best player available. Instead of drafting to fill a need (Note: Ted famously did a very similar thing by drafting Aaron Rodgers in the 1st round, with Favre still in the “prime” of his career), Ozzie targets the best players’ he can acquire, and relies on his coaching staff to effectively implement them into the system.
While other teams may seem more active and committed to improving their team during the off season than the Ravens and Packers, that is clearly not the case. When you are drafted into one of these organizations, you are expected to be ready any given Sunday that your number may be called. If recent success is any indicator, expect both of these teams to be competing for division titles, and ultimately Super Bowls, for many years to come. Now these aren’t the only GM’s that implement this type of strategy, but thanks to the recent success they have enjoyed, they are definitely the most high profile.
Ted Thompson and Ozzie Newsome have identified the winning formula for sustainable success in today’s NFL, unlike, say, the three gentlemen below….