The way Paul Zimmerman and I went about building our teams—with a clear demarcation between the front office and the coach—flies in the face of what's happening in the increasingly win-now NFL. Since the end of the 1996 season the number of teams with coaches who have the power to make every major football personnel decision has risen from six to 10. Ray Rhodes has consolidated his grip on the Philadelphia Eagles, while the new coaches of the Atlanta Falcons (Dan Reeves), the Detroit Lions (Bobby Ross) and the St. Louis Rams (Dick Vermeil) have been granted total authority.
The issue of control drove a wedge between New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and his coach, Bill Parcells, and led to the ugliest football divorce since Al Davis pulled his Raiders out of Oakland in 1982. The New York Jets eagerly embraced Parcells as their football czar—though NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had to broker a deal on Monday whereby the Jets gave up their third-and fourth-round picks in this April's draft, a second-round selection in '98 and a first-rounder in '99 to compensate the Patriots for waiving their rights to Parcells in '97.
While throughout pro football history there have been coaches who were suited to wielding overarching power and marching a team to an NFL championship, the two-heads-are-better-than-one system is still the best way to go. Indeed, one successful coach who works under a strong general manager, the Kansas City Chiefs' Marty Schottenheimer, is bemused by this frenzy over hiring control freaks. "The volume of data and problem solving and day-to-day coaching that's involved in putting a football team together is so overwhelming that, to do it right, Einstein couldn't process it all himself," Schottenheimer says. "That's why I'm firm in my belief that organizations [as opposed to individuals] win."
The last three Super Bowl winners—the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers—all have clear divisions of authority in their organizations: The coach coaches, the personnel department (with input from the coach) identifies talent, and the owner or general manager is the ultimate decision maker on all matters, including financial issues, other than cutting the roster. The combined 1996 winning percentage of the coaches who now have ultimate power, on the other hand, was only 55%.
Certainly the 49ers became dynastic under Bill Walsh's autocracy, as did the Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson's control. But there seems to be a greater chance for success when two or more people, working in concert, check their egos at the stadium door. (That didn't happen in San Francisco and Dallas, where owners Eddie DeBartolo and Jerry Jones, respectively, decided their coaches had grown too powerful and tried to rein them in, prompting Walsh and Johnson to bolt.) In 1995, when Packers general manager Ron Wolf wanted to sign tight end Keith Jackson after a holdout that lasted into October, coach Mike Holmgren initially balked because the Pack was playing well and Holmgren feared Jackson was signing purely for the money. But Holmgren relented, saying, "I've got to trust Ron. I may not agree, but he's usually right on these things." It turned out to be a good move: Jackson has performed unselfishly and caught 11 touchdown passes in the last season and a half.
Wolf and Holmgren, clearly, are a match made in football heaven. But finding two such capable professionals who will work together selflessly, owners will tell you, is difficult.
Egged on by the fans and the media, owners are aggressively courting coaches whose clippings portray them as football know-it-alls. Vermeil hasn't coached a game in 14 years, yet he got a five-year, $9 million contract from Rams president John Shaw, whose two-year honeymoon with the city of St. Louis is over after a 6-10 season in 1996. Neither Shaw, a lawyer by trade, nor owner Georgia Frontiere, wife of the Rams' late owner Carroll Rosenbloom, has football savvy, and their hunger for a strong, decisive coach who could take all the heat led them to Vermeil. Owners under fire in Atlanta and Detroit did the same by hiring Reeves and Ross.
Jets owner Leon Hess, who had blown his previous coaching hire—the inept Rich Kotite, who went 4-28 after inexplicably being given total control two years ago—was likewise drawn to Parcells. And Parcells's many friends in the media, particularly in New York, where he coached the Giants and chafed under the thumb of general manager George Young for eight seasons, fanned the flames. The New York Post, for instance, jumped squarely onto the Tuna's bandwagon, running this back-page teaser for NFL columnist Steve Serby's Jan. 28 article inside: SERBY'S PLEA TO NFL COMMISH: FREE BILLY! Last week the Jets signed Parcells to a six-year deal (four as coach and chief football operating officer, two as CFOO only).
Now Parcells can try to prove the notion that one head is better than two.