It is a sort of nebulous, catch-all title, one that often defies definition and which means many different things to many different people.
NFL team executive.
Because when it comes time to select the NFL's "executive of the year," the list narrows considerably, as does the job description. Generally speaking, the award typically goes to a person who generally manages a club's football operation: the team president, director of football operations, general manager, vice president of personnel, occasionally a head coach, almost always the person at the top of the football decision making ladder.
A few years ago the award, founded by The Sporting News and annually presented at the NFL's league meetings in March at some posh resort, went to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. That was out of character, but certainly in keeping with the long tradition of honoring a traditional, so-called "football man" for his long and productive efforts.
This year? Well, with apologies to Indianapolis Colts president and general manager Bill Polian, a contender for the prize every season it seems, and a man who has captured it so many times (five), he ought to retire the award, three men seem to merit consideration for what their efforts have wrought in 2005.
At the outset of training camp, none of the three, even considering the usual optimism of summer, knew exactly how their teams would play this season. Six months later, all three -- Seattle Seahawks president Tim Ruskell, Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi -- have their teams in the playoffs. It's not our task here to choose one of the three. That responsibility lies with their peers, who cast the ballots, and who face a difficult task this year parsing the accomplishments of three dedicated and deserving team executives.
Think about where each of the three started the season: Ruskell, in the highest job that he has ever held in the NFL, inherited a Seattle franchise long on talent, but shy of direction in management, following a front office shakeup in which longtime team president Bob Whitsitt was ousted. Accorsi was looking at a team that had not advanced beyond the wild-card round of the playoffs since the Giants lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV and who was pondering retirement. And Angelo, the target of Web site detractors (firejerryangelo.com was a popular URL in Chicago only a year ago), and with a club that had won only three more games in the last three seasons than it had when it went 13-3 in the glorious 2001 campaign.
Now the Seahawks and Bears, respectively, are the two highest-seeded teams in the NFC playoff bracket. And the Giants can claim the NFC East championship, their first crown since 2000, with a victory at Oakland on Saturday afternoon. Not bad, huh, for the trio of longtime team executives whose collective league tenure covers eight decades? They are basically three spies who came in from the cold, who moved inside after many years on the road fleshing out prospects, who never tried to locate Easy Street, and who now have their teams entering the Super Bowl LX on-ramp.
It is no small feat, especially for guys who came up through the scouting ranks and are often on the road, to succeed in an environment that is more office-based. Scouts are, by the nature of the job, excellent self-starters, disciplined, detail-oriented. But they often make their own schedules and set their own hours, worrying more about just getting the job done on time than about time in general.
Meshing in an NFL front office, in any office setting for that matter, involves a special subset of people skills, delineation abilities, leadership qualities. It's one thing to be good when the only set of eyes on you are your own. In the office, when you hold a title like general manager or team president, every set of eyes in the building follows your every move.
"I think that's where communication comes in," Ruskell said. "It's paramount. You have to create an environment where people and ideas are heard. We had that in Tampa, when Tony Dungy was there. I've seen it a few other places. When I was on the road, I always thought, 'If I ever get a [general manager's] job, that's how I want things to be.' There's a lot of ego in this league, and so it doesn't always work that way, but you always want to try to be working for the good of the organization. You know, 'How do we get better?' You want people around you who don't have [individual] agendas."
Certainly, all three men have surrounded themselves with excellent support staffs, from top-flight salary cap managers to solid scouts and personnel men.
Asked to identify the most common trait in Ruskell and Angelo, two former colleagues, Atlanta Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay said: "I would say hard work. I know that sounds simple, but it's true. No one is ever going to outwork Jerry Angelo and the same is true of Tim." In the same vein, Giants coach Tom Coughlin used the term "tireless" to describe Accorsi's efforts in upgrading the New York roster.
Accorsi was the architect, of course, of the landmark '04 draft day megaswap that netted the Giants quarterback Eli Manning. But he did superlative work last offseason as well, getting Manning a deep threat receiver (Plaxico Burress) and an offensive right tackle (Kareem McKenzie), by pilfering standout middle linebacker Antonio Pierce from the division rival Washington Redskins and by upgrading the depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
For the embattled Angelo, it was more a matter of staying the course, and developing the Bears' nucleus of excellent young players, especially on the defensive side. Not even the preseason loss of starting quarterback Rex Grossman to a broken ankle slowed the Bears, who found a way to win with defense and a rudimentary offense led through the first 14 weeks of the season by rookie quarterback Kyle Orton.
But it might have been Ruskell, the relative newcomer to the executive suite, who had the most difficult fix. In his first position above the assistant general manager level, Ruskell took over a franchise whose front office was fractured, with a head coach who had been asked to surrender the general manager post, and with 18 unrestricted free agents, among them some Pro Bowl caliber players. Fortunately, the Seahawks had brought back superb cap manager Mike Reinfeldt, dismissed earlier, as a consultant. Reinfeldt was able to retain key players such as left offensive tackle Walter Jones and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck with long-term contracts, and that provided the club the latitude to use the "franchise" marker on tailback Shaun Alexander.
One of Ruskell's first moves was to rehire Reinfeldt on a full-time basis. He also got to know coach Mike Holmgren, with whom he previously had just a casual relationship, a lot better. In fact, providing their head coaches with the kinds of players they want and need to operate their systems -- not just good players but good fits -- is another common thread among our three candidates for executive of the year honors.
That's part of the reason why, in a 2005 season in which there are so many deserving candidates for coach of the year, there are also so many executives who stand out. But three, it seems, stand above the rest, and all deserve credit for their teams' successes.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.