NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Most assistant coaches pounce at a chance to secure an NFL head coaching job.
Such opportunities are rare. They want to mold a staff, lead men, install schemes and be the face and voice at the top.
It does not necessarily work the same way for general manager candidates.
Some of the NFL’s top lieutenants are content to stay lieutenants in a stable front office, maintaining job security in a familiar structure.
The Titans have interviewed former Lions GM Martin Mayhew and will interview Jacksonville director of pro scouting Chris Polian on Friday and two others at unknown times – Buccaneers director of player personnel Jon Robinson and Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard.
But Baltimore Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta, who has turned down job offers and interviews in the past, said "no, thank you" to an interview with the Titans. Duke Tobin, director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals, also passed on interview requests from the Titans and Lions.
The Titans have expressed interest in George Paton, assistant general manager in Minnesota. But insiders say he’s highly unlikely to move. There's similar buzz regarding another executive who we don’t know if the Titans are interested in: Will McClay, senior director of college/pro personnel in Dallas.
Why the reluctance?
“You get one shot at your first chance to show how competent you are as a leader of a billion-dollar organization,” one NFL personnel man told me. “You need stable ownership and the ability to create your organizational structure. Guys won't just jump at a job if they have a strong situation.
“Example: Why go to Philly when they have a guy above you that still wants to be the GM? Or why go to Cleveland with a contract guy that has final say on the 53-man roster? Or why go to a team that the coach has control of personnel? That is why guys that are good don't just take a job for the payday or title.”
A good percentage of NFL coaches who botch their first chance get a second chance. Bill Belichick is the patron saint of successful second acts.
Currently 26 head coach jobs are filled, including interim coaches in Tennessee and Miami and Jim Caldwell in Detroit, whose fate will be determined by a new GM.
Of those 26, 10 have been NFL head coaches elsewhere.
Not every team operates with a general manager. But in that fraternity, I can only find Rick Spielman of the Vikings (previously with the Dolphins) and Scot McCloughan of Washington (previously with the 49ers) as second-time GMs.
Phil Savage is director of the Senior Bowl, radio analyst for Alabama football and an NFL Insider for ESPN. He was once a highly regarded personnel man in the front offices of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
Three of the five GM jobs for which he was contacted qualified as “pseudo GM positions,” he said on my radio show, The Midday 180 in Nashville. He pulled out of two of them and didn’t get another. (Hear the interview here.)
In 2005, Savage accepted the GM job with the new version of the Browns. He lasted four seasons. He worked in the Philadelphia front office for a time, but is now out of the league.
“I think often times the GM role is filled from within,” Savage said. “There is usually a little bit more of a relationship between the GM and the ownership than with the coach. And I think a lot of organizations want to find ‘their guy.’ They want to be the one to find Steve Keim, who’s doing an awesome job in Arizona. They want to be the one to find the first-time GM who can be with them for 10 or 12 or 15 years.”
Titans president and CEO Steve Underwood said Monday the Titans weren’t determined to hire a GM or a coach first. But all the reports of the team’s activity so far are about GMs, and I’ve heard from one source that the team hadn’t made any requests to talk to any coaches as of Wednesday.
Savage thinks the GM-first approach is the way to go.
“You want to hire the GM first, because he’s the one who’s going to set everyone in place, from the medical and training staff, the video staff, a lot of the people in football operations,” he said. “If you can keep that side of the building stable, then you might go through two or three coaches and still have some success.
“The Ravens, that’s the secret to what Ozzie Newsome has been able to do. In 20 years, they’ve had three different coaches. But they’ve had the same structure essentially, on that side of the operation. It’s so important to have that continuity from one regime to the next. That’s the biggest issue that the Browns have right now. No one ever survives from one group to the next. They are starting over every two to three years.”
Unearthing a good GM can be a lot harder than finding a good coach.
If a team hires a guy who’s worked as an offensive or defensive coordinator, it knows he’s basically been a head coach for one side of the ball. But front offices have all different titles under GMs – pro and college scouting directors, directors of player personnel, assistant GMs and more.
They are not all doing the same job.
In some setups, those deputies play a crucial role in setting the draft board and picking free agents. In others, they are predominantly logistics guys not heavily involved in decision-making.
A team like the Titans has to sift through some smoke to find out who’s really done GM-type work and who has not. And some good candidates are going to pass.
In their current roles, with a stable front office, working under a GM they like and respect, they can envision a lengthy tenure. Take a GM job where they can’t make it work, and after three or four years they can be out of work and not able to get back into the league, at least not at the level they had attained.
“I think the reason most smart people turn them down is because on this side, you don't get second chances,” a second NFL personnel man said. “If you truly care about winning, your legacy, and your future, you'd better be right on the job you take, because you don't get a second chance on the personnel side.
“Coaches that get head jobs get recycled and paid extremely well. Personnel people don't get paid close to head coaches and don't ever get recycled. You’re essentially one and done. So you'd better be right. Some people don't take them because they don't like the limelight -- nowadays you and your family and your name are run through the mud eventually, no matter what. Most guys that are taking jobs now are guys that don't care and just want the recognition and power, not to win and be successful.”