Sunday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys featured two underperforming teams with different yet inherently flawed models for the role of general manager in today's NFL.
Although the needs of coaches and owners can be very immediate -- the next practice, the next game, the next deal -- a general manager must be as concerned about the future as the present, both in personnel and financial decisions. He must be focused on developing a steady pipeline of young talent ready when the inevitable injuries occur and not leaving a trail of salary-cap charges that hinder future success. The general manager must be willing to move on from older yet popular players before their expected decline.
Jerry Jones and Andy Reid have been tremendous assets to their teams and to the NFL as a whole. In both cases, though, their emotional investments in their players might be hurting their performances as general managers.
Jerry Jones is the NFL's clearest example of an "all-in" owner and makes no apologies for it. In fact, he clearly believes other owners should be equally invested, especially on the business side. I witnessed owners' meetings in which Jones chastised fellow owners whom he believed were collecting their share of league revenues without actively marketing their brands.
The same qualities that make Jones a formidable presence as an owner -- his bravado, charisma and emotional as well as financial investment -- are detrimental to his position of general manager. That role calls for a quiet, detached and surgical construction (and perhaps deconstruction) of a team's roster.
Jones delights in big transactions both in business and football, but in football that can sometimes be more risky than savvy. He has twice mortgaged future drafts to acquire veteran wide receivers, a low-value position. He traded two first-round draft choices in 2001 for Joey Galloway, and a first-, third- and sixth-round selection in 2009 for Roy Williams. Compounding the problem, he gave Williams a $54 million contract extension with $20 million guaranteed. Williams was released last year and has left a large footprint on the team's cap this season.
Jones' emotional ties to his players can also cloud business sense. Last year he extended the contracts of Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff -- for $19 million and $18 million guaranteed, respectively -- although both were under contract for two more years. Jones could have waited almost two more seasons to do the same contracts, and even if those contracts expired, the players would be entering free agency at age 31. Although Witten and Ratliff are still productive now, their long-term extensions appeared unnecessary at the time and driven by sentiment.
Jones' misplaced impulsiveness in contract decisions and misjudging of veteran talent have clearly created cap problems for the Cowboys beyond the NFL-imposed cap penalties from the uncapped year.
While much of the league is playing with a $120 million cap, the Cowboys are playing with a $90 million threshold. They carry $30 million of cap for a "dead money" roster that includes Williams, Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Jon Kitna, Keith Brooking, Igor Olshansky, Andre Gurode, Terrence Newman, Marion Barber and others. To quote Billy Joel, these charges represent "the cold remains of a passionate start."
Head coaches do not necessarily need players to like them but do need their respect and trust. The coach has to have the players' backs. Andy Reid, the coach, certainly does. However, Reid is also in the less friendly role of general manager, signing off on all roster and financial decisions regarding players.
I have known Reid for 15 years, from his time with the Packers as quarterbacks coach. He has always had great concern for his players and genuinely likes being around them. Unfortunately, that empathy for players makes him vulnerable as a general manager.
Reid no longer has former Eagles president Joe Banner down the hall, the "bad cop" on unpopular decisions that allowed Reid to navigate above the fray. I've been in that role. For five years in Green Bay, I worked alongside a coach/general manager, Mike Sherman. (Sherman is one of Reid's closest friends.) Mike, who needed the trust and respect of players, would often say in player decisions, "Andrew, I'm going to make you the bad guy here," which is what those situations required.
This is the major flaw of the coach/general manager model. Although Bill Belichick has been able to achieve sustained success, he has done so with cold and impersonal detachment, often not even responding to player discontent about roles or contracts, further infuriating players and agents. Reid, although a flat-liner with the media, cares deeply about his relationship with his players.
The Eagles are obviously talented but sometimes appear undisciplined and unafraid of consequences. Although there are many factors in their struggles this year, the arrangement of Reid as coach and general manager is certainly not ideal for this current club.
From the inbox
Q: Can you explain Michael Vick's contract and whether the Eagles can release him without paying him more?
Dale in New Jersey
A: Like virtually all NFL contracts, the team can escape without future obligation after two years. Vick, who made $20 million in 2011 and is making $12 million this year, currently has $3 million of his $15.5 million next year guaranteed for injury only. Injury guarantees ensure payment if an injury from a previous season renders a player unable to play into the following season.
Vick's $3 million injury guarantee converts to a "skill guarantee" -- a more comprehensive guarantee ensuring payment if the player is simply not good enough to be retained -- two days into the waiver period for 2013, which begins soon after the Super Bowl. Thus, were the Eagles to release Vick on the first day of 2013 waivers, in early February, they would have no further obligation to him, assuming no lingering injury.
Will Vick be released? Many have assumed the story there is already written, although I am not as sure. The Eagles' history is to retool and refuel rather than rebuild. Kevin Kolb was in the bullpen for three full seasons before he was handed the keys to the team. (And, in turn, handed those keys to Vick.) Of course, Vick's concussion requires Nick Foles to play now, and the evaluation of Foles will factor into the decision. I do not think, however, that Vick is necessarily gone next year, although his contract might force a renegotiation to more team-friendly terms.