Offseason adjustments throughout organization key to improvement
It was a play that coach Bill Walsh talked about all week before a 1986 playoff game. Catch a quick slant, make New York Giants defensive back Herbie Welch miss the tackle and the end zone is wide open.
I watched in amazement from the press box as the graceful Jerry Rice was heading toward the end zone. As he crossed the Giants 20 with no one in his path, something strange happened. While attempting to move the ball from his right hand to his left, Rice's knee rose up and hit the ball, causing it to fall forward and out of the end zone. The 49ers went from a potentially quick 7-0 lead to a moment of shock and despair, and before halftime our Super Bowl aspirations were gone. The offseason started that night on the long flight back to San Francisco.
This year's offseason is very different from those in the '80s -- for both the players and the front office executives. Back in '86 there was one minicamp, no extensive offseason weight program and, of course, no free agency. The college draft in late April was the only way of improving a team.
Today there is unrestricted free agency, 14 offseason practices, up to three minicamps and the weight program starts in late March and runs until the end of June.
There said, there are three areas that can cause a team to fail to achieve its intended goal of improving from one season to the next. The first is a breakdown in coaching, the second involves the schemes on offense, defense and the kicking game, and the last and most important area is talent level.
The consistent winners in the NFL have outstanding coaching, excellent schemes and their success is based largely on the talent they have assembled. That is the perfect paradigm to achieve maximum success. As an executive, if you're not sure in which area your team is malfunctioning, then your ability to turn your team's fortunes around will be difficult. You may wrongly blame the coach or the scheme, when the malfunction is actually the talent level. Making the correct determination is the most critical factor in offseason planning.
No matter which team l worked for during my 22-year NFL career, when the season was completed, my focus was first on self-evaluation in all three critical areas of the team. This examination requires complete honesty in your evaluations, a complete understanding of the NFL teams and coaching methods. Coaches will come back from a little break after the season and write reports on each player in their group. The personnel staff independently will write comprehensive reports on every player on the roster. Once these reports are finalized from coaches and personnel, a staff meeting will follow to go over each player on the roster.
Once both staffs have met, then you can formulate your team needs list. Bill Parcells, for example, will always have two working lists. One list he calls his Must List, meaning for his team to improve, he must get these needs fixed -- right now. His other list is his Need List, meaning he needs some improvement in these areas, but not as urgent. Parcells knows his schemes and coaching methods are top shelf, thus allowing him to center on the improvement of his talent base.
Here is an example of my Raiders team needs chart well before the start of free agency in 1999:
The results from these lists will ultimately separate the good teams from the bad in the NFL. The quality teams have quality evaluators able to determine which players have the starting potential, which players can be counted on to contribute as valuable backups and which players are not going to help a team win.
Counting on a player to help from within is critical. As you can see from the above chart, we counted on Mike Husted to be a solid kicker, but we misjudged his talent and he failed to succeed in his job -- which, in turn, cost us games in '99. However, we did solve a huge need in signing quarterback Rich Gannon to replace Jeff George. Gannon went on to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl and became the MVP of the league in 2002.