Dan Hatman is director of scouting development at The Scouting Academy.
The secrecy built into the scouting and evaluation processes of NFL clubs, designed to maintain competitive advantage, has an unintended consequence of making it incredibly difficult to identify the individual contributions of scouts as they relate to the outcomes on the field. There are dozens of people, from scouts, to coaches, to administrators, to medical personnel, who have a voice in team-building decisions. The various inputs are designed to improve decision-making. Unfortunately, with so many people involved, it is hard for even those in the organization to really understand why certain decisions were made and makes it virtually impossible for someone on the outside to determine whose voice mattered most in a good (or bad) decision.
In other words, it’s difficult to assign credit, or blame. This systemic flaw doesn’t just affect the process of choosing players, either; it has an impact on picking front-office personnel.
This is one major reason the process of identification and evaluation of candidates for the role of NFL general manager has holes and opportunities for human error. The lack of accurate/accessible information on candidates seems to influence owners and search committees to stay within their Rolodexes and those they have worked with personally. This hypothesis is driven by my own research, which dates back to 2007 and reveals that only 27% (19 of 71) of GM searches led to a new decision maker who does not have clear ties to the owner, search committee, or head coach.
Those recommending candidates can tell you who was “the best they worked with,” but that does not guarantee that the candidate is “the best,” just the best that person has been exposed to. The assumption most people in football work from is that teams want to hire the best, but the question before us is this: How can we be sure they do?
The strongest indicators of GM candidacy are:
- Close relationships with ownership/search committee
- Win/loss record of their current team
- Robust nature of their current title
- Influence of their agent
The GM landscape is a stock market, with the value of any potential hire’s stock heavily dependent on being at the right place at the right time, which is a constant source of frustration for candidates. Joe Douglas is a massively respected scout and now the GM of the New York Jets after a Super Bowl run as an executive for the Philadelphia Eagles, but if he had not taken the Jets job and was still with Philly now, would he be as hot of a candidate as he was in the summer of 2019? Probably not.
If we are looking at another cycle of the same search processes following the same procedures as we have the last decade, doesn’t it stand to reason that we would also be looking at the same results?
In this atypical year, I am here to put forward a new idea: In GM searches, the focus needs to be more on skill sets held by a candidate, rather than ties to the team. The larger the toolbox candidates possess, the better positioned they may be to solve problems. We should be looking for multi-track minds. No two days are the same in an NFL front office. That’s not to say experience is unimportant. Walking in the door with a plan developed in a vacuum, free from the active constraints of that organization and lacking knowledge of the various crises that will arise, is destined to fail, too. But those doing the hiring need to be able to find a balance.
My research on candidates was driven by surveying those around the game with a specific question:
Can you name 1 or 2 people in football that you’ve met or worked with that you think have a unique background/skill set/thought process about team building? Someone, who even if they are not ready for GM today, shows signs of being the type of person you would follow moving forward.
This revealed names who may seem unconventional, but a closer look suggests that their experiences and skills may present a toolbox that could help them execute the ever-growing duties and responsibilities of a GM in a league that is getting more heavily reliant on technology and data science.
They are listed in alphabetical order, and you can read the full research and each candidate’s bio here:
- Brandon Brown, director of pro scouting, Philadelphia Eagles
- Trey Brown, director of player personnel, St. Louis BattleHawks (XFL)
- Champ Kelly, assistant director of player personnel, Chicago Bears
- Louis Riddick, analyst, ESPN Monday Night Football
- Chris Shea, football operations counsel and personnel executive, Kansas City Chiefs
- Jim Nagy, executive director, Reese’s Senior Bowl
There is no substitute for years of experience in an NFL front office, so every candidate will need to have a level of tenure. That said, experience alone has not been a predictor of success. So while these candidates may not top everyone’s lists, they all have diverse, necessary skills that are worth a hard look from any NFL team seeking a change.
Hatman, a former college coach and scout for three NFL teams, works on the personal and professional development of the next generation of scouts at The Scouting Academy, which offers training programs and collects data for football talent evaluation.