NFL head coaches come from a teaching background. Every single one earned their job by being teachers beforehand. They taught players how to perform their skill and improve their ability.
Once they become head coaches, they are then asked to manage a game (clock, timeout, challenges), determine strategy (play call/in-game adjustments), motivate (give pre- and post-game speeches), and assist in player acquisition (provide their thoughts on scouting and the draft). While all head coaches have had some exposure to these activities prior to their promotion, their experience is quite limited with these, and they earned their position by being good at their previous primary function, being teachers.
NFL general managers come from a talent projection background. Almost every single one earned their job by evaluating and projecting the future performance of talent.
Once they become general managers, they are then asked to hire teachers, game managers, and strategists (head coaches). They are asked to acquire talent, sometimes through a strategy game, sometimes through interpersonal negotiations, and sometimes through other means. They are asked to manage salaries. And they are asked to terminate talent. While all general managers have had some exposure to these activities prior to their promotion, their experience is quite limited with these, and they earned their position by being good at their previous primary function, projecting talent.
There is something very wrong with an organization when what gets you promoted is fundamentally and totally different than what you did to earn that promotion.
When I look at the NFL, I see 4 distinct team functions (football-related):
- Coaching: Defined as the act of improving a player’s ability to perform in game
- Talent Acquisition: Hiring, Paying, & Firing
- In-Game Strategy: Play-calling, game management
- Talent Maximization: Day-to-day player management. Includes strength and conditioning, nutrition, motivation, personal concerns, etc.
These four functions are quite distinct, and in an optimal franchise, they would be split up. There would be a head of coaching, a head of talent acquisition, a head of in-game strategy, and a head of talent-maximization all reporting up to a president/CEO/owner.
Why should they be split? Well with this set-up each department head would have earned his position by doing the same job at a lower-level that he now does. He would not be new, or really anything less than an expert, at each aspect of his job.
Further, each of these functions require totally different expertise. Someone who may be a great teacher may be a terrible strategist (and we’ve seen many head coach examples of this.)
In the optimal NFL franchise, each department would have people with distinct abilities:
Coaching: This requires a teacher-like skill set. Coaches should be patient and knowledgeable about the specific position. Given that they should be teaching a skill, rather than deciding on strategy, it makes sense for them to be organization-specific, which means that the optimal franchise would hire and maintain coaches for decades, throughout changes in leadership. Coaching a position would be seen as an end-itself, not as the means to something more powerful, like a head coaching job (which doesn’t exist in this format).
Talent Acquisition: The talent acquisition department should contain a few different functions:
- Talent management, which manages team-makeup and salaries. This is essentially the head of operations of the talent acquisition department.
- Acquisition, with an emphasis on strategy and game theory, who work on player acquisition, led by a head of player acquisition.
- There should be scouting, which work to project talent, led by a head of scouting.
- And there should be analysts, whom constantly evaluate the talent level and various practices of this department to determine where new strategies/approaches should be implemented to maximize performance. This department should score every player in the league, it should evaluate various tools for projecting talent (scouting v. production-based algorithms v. analyst projections, etc.), and it should evaluate the efficacy and success rate of the acquisition specialists and scouts.
Each of these functions requires a different skill set. The head of talent acquisition should either have served in each department and/or should feel very comfortable empowering the leaders of each department when necessary.
In-Game Strategy: How many game simulations does the average head coach (or other play caller) perform prior to calling that game?
And that is absurd. Based on the latest information (from each week) the in-game strategy department would update and maintain a model that projects performance from every play. Teams currently measure various play success rates and tendencies, but they do not have a predictive model that responds to previous performance. They also do not have the ability to run simulations.
The person who calls the plays in-game should have run through over a hundred game simulations during that week against various AI models for the opposing head coach/play caller. He should have watched various bots run simulations against the AI of these opposing play callers/coaches and evaluated and worked to implement the strengths of each. Having done this, he would be well prepared in all situations to call the optimal play, or play with a modifier (such as play ____ with the defensive line spread). This is such a specific function with such time dedication that it merits its own department. It also clearly points out the need for various departments, as a current head coach would have nowhere near enough time to properly prepare in game strategy and play-calling.
Talent Maximization: This is the day-to-day HR department. It would have way too many functions to list, but the largest ones are player readiness (sports psychology), strength, nutrition, medical (all separate), security, and various player assistants.
Up to this point, I’ve argued that Head Coaches and GMs are ill equipped for their positions (based on their prior experience and training), that there are four distinct football functions, that these functions should be separate, and then explained what each department entails. I’ll now address some common objections:
Q1. NFL teams are multi-million (or billion) dollar businesses. Isn’t it obvious that they must have optimized their ability to prepare world-class teams for competition by now?
A1: No, I think it is very clear that they have NOT optimized, for the following reasons:
- Nearly every NFL team is structured the exact same way. This is NOT the case in really any other industry. The lack of differentiation indicates a lack of experimentation with new models, meaning that innovation is rare.
- There are a number of clearly sub-optimal decisions being made regularly. Take the Bills trading up for Sammy Watkins, for example. There is no mathematical model that can justify giving up that level of compensation for that limited a return, regardless of how Watkins turns out. Mathematical models of draft value based on past history clearly indicate that giving up future first rounders, especially for this limited a return (moving up 5 spots) is a highly destructive decision (with a very high confidence level). This happens all too often, indicating a partially broken system.
- Level of turnover is extremely high. If you were to hire and fire decisionmakers in other industries this quickly, you’d know something was wrong with your system.
Q2. What about Bill Belichek (or other top coach/GM)? He does a number of the functions you describe and is clearly successful. He wouldn’t have a place in your model, and this shows that some people can do it all!
A2. Belichek and other top coaches/GMs are merely those who are able to best succeed in this system. Maybe they had more exposure in previous jobs and had to learn less when promoted, maybe they’re great at learning new roles, or maybe they are simply the best at the status quo but would be unsuccessful when facing a franchise that operates under the organization I describe. Until it’s implemented, it’s impossible to say with certainty.
Beyond that, there are a number of clearly suboptimal decisions these people make as well. They are clearly not immune to being underprepared for their vast positions.
Finally, people like Belichek would be very valuable under the new organization I propose. I see him at his best as a head of in-game strategy, although he would likely be a great coach as well.
Q3. You’re just trying to make the NFL like a corporation. Who says they’re well run? Corporations make lots of poor mistakes!
A3. First of all, it is not my goal to make each NFL franchise function like, or even be more similar to, a corporation. Instead, I am trying to point out the inefficiency and unreality of having key decision makers who are asked to do many significant new tasks upon receiving a key promotion without having previously worked in those fields in a significant way. I’m also trying to point out how those various tasks are best thought of in four key buckets, which indicates that each should really have their own department lead, with a singular focus on those functions.
Q4. What about pre-game speeches? What about game-planning during the week of preparation? What about….?
A4. Every function that current exists is easily, and best, handled within the organization being described. A sports psychologist, who interacts with the players on a personal level every day, and who does not evaluate the players’ performance, would give the pre-game speeches. That’s much better than some teacher or manager who needs to distance himself from the players in order to perform his other functions. Game planning would be based on simulations from the week previous. Either there would be a head simulator who would prepare each week for the opponent, or there would be a team that each has a member assigned to an opponent, and that member would work on the updated simulations after each week of new data. Having different people in charge would also increase the difficulty of opponents preparing for the team.
Having focused departments doesn’t create gaps, it instead provides people who are singularly focused, and prepared for, each football task.