Daily mailbag: Front-office structures

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
I thought we went pretty hard at the Matt Millen story on Wednesday, but I've gotten more than a few mailbag notes asking for more. Frank of Los Angeles noted that I said "absolutely nothing" in Wednesday's coverage and suggested I put a little more meat on the bone.

I can't tell you whom Detroit's next football boss will be, primarily because the Lions themselves don't know. But one thing we can do is flesh out the structural possibilities we broached Wednesday. After all, the first thing the Lions must do is determine whether they want to hire another all-powerful leader, whether they want to shift into a more traditional general manager/coach relationship or even whether a committee system will work.

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each approach, and then I'll offer my opinion on each.

All-powerful team president/CEO

Definition: One person heads the entire franchise, including the usually-separate football and business sides.

Pros: No one has any doubt who is in charge, who the boss is and to whom they're accountable. It allows for a single vision to permeate the entire organization, even the business side. Because one person does all the hiring, or at least signs off on it, there is a decent chance of collecting a group of people who all fit and work well together.

Cons: Putting so much responsibility on one person, with no checks and balances, is inherently risky. Football teams have such a unique mix of operations that finding one person with enough expertise to manage all areas is difficult. There aren't many personnel experts with strong finance backgrounds, and not many salary cap analysts know the game well enough to make draft decisions. And sometimes you can understand finance and talent evaluation but be a terrible manager of people.

NFL examples: There aren't many. Kansas City's Carl Peterson is one. Perhaps the most successful is Indianapolis president Bill Polian.

My take: This approach sounds great in theory, and I'm a big fan of vertical leadership. But in reality, the pool of candidates for an all-powerful team president is minuscule. I can think of only one qualified candidate: New England's Scott Pioli.

General manager/coach

Definition: The general manager runs the football operations, hires the coach and supervises the scouting staff.

Pros: The coach works for someone who shares a professional background in strategy and personnel. The general manager can be a confidant and a credible sounding board. Likewise, the general manager with a football background can knowledgeably evaluate the coach and his team and provide accurate feedback to his boss, the owner. In this model, all of the people involved in football decisions are football people. And there are no football people trying to run the business side of the organization.

Cons: Sometimes this structure limits the pool of coaching candidates. Not all coaches, especially those with experience, want to work for a general manager. They prefer to deal directly with the owner. A common complaint in these arrangements arises when a coach doesn't like the players he's given. On the reverse side, a general manager might not appreciate the way a coach develops the players he drafts.

NFL examples: Green Bay has a model with general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy. Similar arrangements also exist with the New York Jets, Baltimore, San Diego and Chicago.

My take: This approach is the most traditional but also the most proven. It makes sense to have everyone on the football side of the organization working for one person who shares a football background and has strong management skills. There are usually a number of qualified people to pick from. Former Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese is available, and there is an annual group of young up-and-comers who could be interviewed. The Lions have one in-house: recently promoted general manager Martin Mayhew.

Coach/general manager

Definition: The coach doubles as the top football executive, hires the general manager and has authority over him.

Pros: Because the coach has ultimate authority, he can acquire exactly the type of players he wants on his team. He can provide scouts their marching orders during the college season, make the final decision on free agents and even decide the makeup of the video and equipment staffs if he wants. In this arrangement, the coach has no limitations except for what he places on himself, theoretically giving him every opportunity he needs to win.

Cons: Some coaches aren't good administrators, tending to hire friends and yes-men in important positions. Few of them have the right mindset for making good draft decisions, taking a short-term or risky approach when a steady hand is needed. They rarely have enough time to fulfill all of their organizational duties while still coaching the team.

NFL examples: Denver's Mike Shanahan and Philadelphia's Andy Reid. New England's Bill Belichick fills this role the best.

My take: This hybrid role is a dying breed. It's too difficult of a job and there are too many instances of coaches who got in over their heads. Interestingly, though, some exciting coaching candidates would probably command this type of power in order to work in Detroit. Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher is among them.


Definition: The coach, personnel director and salary cap analyst all have equal authority and made organizational decisions jointly.

Pros: Everyone focuses on their areas of expertise. It's a natural system of checks and balances, guarding against people reaching out of their professional comfort zone. Promotes teamwork and healthy discussion.

Cons: Requires multiple high achievers to work together and share, a combination that doesn't always go together. Lends itself to backstabbing and infighting as everyone jostles for position. Needs a strong owner to ensure that everyone plays nice.

NFL examples: Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions (for now).

My take: If you have the right people, including the right kind of owner, this approach can work well. But it's like a complicated offensive game plan: It must be executed flawlessly to succeed. It's rare for high-ranking sports officials to subordinate their egos indefinitely. Everyone has their own ideas.