By Robert Weintraub
The NFL has a head problem.
No, this isn't yet another story about concussions or brain trauma.
I'm referring to the runaway ego on display in several front offices and coaching rooms around the league, wherever new "grocery shoppers," in Bill Parcells' inimitable phrase, have replaced the previous guys who couldn't cut the game film mustard. It is an easily recognized phenomenon -- whenever a team actively unloads seemingly half its roster, then makes noise in the media about the need to bring in "our guys," you know there is, in defiance of cliche, an 'I' in team.
Now, of course there is an element of shock doctrine in any coaching or front office change. Using a crisis situation to overhaul elements of a team that hasn't performed is the whole idea of the change. But in many cases, the right to alter is abused, especially by coaches or general managers eager to acquire or augment a reputation as a personnel guru.
When the great O.A. "Bum" Phillips passed away last week, many remembrances of his life and career included his immortal quote in praise of Don Shula:
"He could take his'n and beat your'n, and then take your'n and beat his'n."
The tastiness of the down-home rhubarb in that line obscures an essential truth seemingly forgotten in today's NFL: the quality of talent from team to team is virtually interchangeable, save perhaps for a few quarterbacks at either end of the spectrum and nine-tenths of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Teams differ by scheme and concepts, and by the coaching staff's ability to prepare their teams for critical situations and to break tendency when necessary.
In other words, most teams in the league should be able to beat their opponents with his'n or your'n, unless Peyton Manning or Blaine Gabbert are involved. Instead, excuse-making is rampant; since we didn't draft or trade or sign the player, goes the thinking, we can't be responsible for coaching him up.
Exhibit A is the debacle unfolding in Tampa under the red-and-pewter despot Greg Schiano, whose rule is drawing comparisons to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in terms of both quality of life under the regime (harsh), and, it would seem, duration (short). Schiano came to the Gulf Coast in 2012 breathing fire, in direct contrast to the cuddliness of the fired Raheem Morris, and in short order declared the roster devoid of difference makers. He played a part in convincing the Glazer family to splash out on the likes of Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson and Darrelle Revis, and impressed with his organizational acumen, learned at the knee of his Don Corleone, Bill Belichick. The Bucs improved by three games last season (compared to 2011), but a five-game losing streak torpedoed any playoff hopes.
During that streak, the Bucs lost at home to Philly in a close game in front of the 2002 Super Bowl team who were honored at halftime. Freeman was terrible in the first half of the game, costing the Bucs a key win as Jon Gruden looked on. Schiano was embarrassed, and it got worse the following week when the Sean Payton-less Saints destroyed Tampa, with Freeman throwing four picks.
If Schiano wasn't inclined to dump "Raheem's guy" before that, the die was cast in that seven-day stretch.
This year, Schiano's campaign to free the Bucs of Freeman engulfed Tampa's season from the start, like a forest fire suddenly fanned out of control by a strong wind. In short order, Schiano slammed Freeman's play, supposedly smeared his leadership abilities, reportedly leaked private and sensitive information, benched him, then dumped him on the open market.
The entire situation was emblematic of Schiano's egomaniacal attitude, yet if he was truly confident, he would have taken up the challenge of coaching Freeman beyond the promise the quarterback showed under Morris, not to mention last year, when he set franchise records for touchdown passes (27) and passing yards (4,065). Instead, he drafted a mediocre mid-round quarterback in Mike Glennon, merely, it seems, to have a "my guy" to turn to when the time came to unload Freeman.
When Schiano is replaced, either during or after the season, he will have only himself to blame.
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For Exhibit B of the "my guy syndrome," we go to Cleveland, where the Browns are the hub of activity before today's draft deadline. This is in large part because the new brain trust in charge in Cleveland (GM Mike Lombardi and team president Joe Banner along with coach Rob Chudzinski) are determined to take a wood chipper to the roster left them by Mike Holmgren's administration. The trade of Trent Richardson earlier this year was a clear statement of intent. The masses were caught up in the fact Indy traded a number one pick for him -- in truth, Cleveland would have shipped Richardson out of town in exchange for a bag of kicking tees, but found a sucker in Ryan Grigson.
The Browns are unwilling to stop there, choosing to distance themselves from practically every player Holmgren, who made his bones as an offensive guru, selected to play on that side of the ball. Cleveland has been shopping talented but troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon for weeks. Fellow receiver Greg Little and right tackle Mitchell Schwarz, like Gordon all second round draft choices (Gordon was tabbed in the supplemental draft), are said to be available. Even bedrock left tackle Joe Thomas was rumored to be on the block for the right price.
But why can't Lombardi and Banner let Chudzinski do the job they hired him to do -- coach up a roster that, while not the 1976 Steelers, has plenty of good players, especially on defense, and was considered, before the year, a dark horse playoff contender? Instead, the tyranny of "not our guy" has enveloped not just Richardson and Brandon Weeden, another 2012 draft bust, but practically everybody Holmgren acquired, with the notable exception of cornerback Joe Haden. In other words, the one guy you don't really need to coach.
The Browns are buying time, playing for 2014 and especially 2015. But if the newer players don't magically deliver the Browns to terra incognita (aka playoff contention), Lombardi and crew may rue sending the message to the Holmgren holdovers they're unable to deal that they aren't truly valued.
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While this practice of turning over rosters in such a way may not be a modern phenomenon, it certainly seems to have gained momentum in recent years. Two coaches who got off to hot starts in their first jobs let their supposed brilliance (which was purely based on prior, limited success) get in the way, and cost them their positions on the sidelines.
When Josh McDaniels swaggered into Denver in 2009 full of Belichickian bravado and fashion sense, he couldn't wait to put his personal stamp upon the roster, snickering as he gazed upon the personnel decisions of two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan. He dumped four starters from the 2008 team almost immediately, brought in a dozen free agents, and traded Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton. A year later, McDaniels, a supposed quarterback whisperer, selected Tim Tebow in the first round, a month after trading Peyton Hillis for yet another quarterback, Brady Quinn.
McDaniels got the job because of the excellence of his New England offense, but instead of tilting a nod of thanks in the direction of Tom Brady, McDaniels walked into his first coaching job as though he was directly responsible for the Pats dynasty. It was ego run amok.
Hue Jackson's reputation among NFL assistant coaches was higher and harder-earned, doing yeoman's work in Cincinnati and Baltimore before taking over the Oakland job in 2010 (among other good works, he turned Ray Lewis onto the benefits of deer antler spray). After a surprisingly competent start, incumbent quarterback Jason Campbell broke his collarbone, leading to Hue leaping at the chance to bring in "his guy," Carson Palmer, whom Jackson coached in Cincy. Oakland traded two high draft picks for Palmer, who was watching from his couch in California. To help him feel comfortable, washed-up former Bengals star T.J. Houshmanzadeh was brought in and thrust into a large role.
Jackson called the move "The greatest trade in football."
At season's end, Jackson was punted out the door, Housh released, and a year later, Palmer was dumped on Arizona.
Chalk up another victim to ego and overreach.
To be fair, sometimes the ego move works out. Jim Harbaugh, intent on chainsawing away the last vestiges of the forest planted by Mike Singletary, sat a concussed Alex Smith off a game in which he completed 18 of 19 pass attempts in favor of his chosen one, Colin Kaepernick (in a twist, Hue Jackson and the Raiders pushed hard to land Kaepernick in the 2011 draft, only to be outmaneuvered by their rivals across the Bay Bridge). While Smith is 8-0 in Kansas City, it's hard to argue with the result of the change, thus sparing Harbaugh the sort of hot seat that claimed McDaniels and Jackson.
But Harbaugh also coached Smith to the brink of the Super Bowl in 2011. Unlike Schiano and the Browns' front office, his ego deserves to be a large and healthy one.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.