Where Do NFL GMs Come From?

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Where Do NFL GMs Come From?
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

David Caldwell spent his life trying to prepare for this moment. The fate of a franchise was on his shoulders, just as he envisioned as a lowly scouting assistant for the Panthers 17 long years ago.

Draft days have always been the most tenuous time for the former scout, dating back to his days with the Panthers, Colts and Falcons. Yet somehow, even with the immense pressure of running a team in the hemisphere’s most popular league, Caldwell was calm, according to Albert Breer of NFL.com:

“There was a calmness here,” Caldwell said from the team facility the day before the draft. "I remember thinking, in Indy and Atlanta, 'Man, I hope this guy or that guy falls.' ” 

In fact, you could argue that the Jaguars war room was a bit too laid-back:

How could a first-time general manager be so calm in his first draft?

“When you're in the game, you're just reacting and doing it. When you're on the sideline, you're more stressed.”

Like so many NFL executives, Caldwell has endured the pain, blood, sweat and tears it takes to make it to the top. His experiences, more so than anything else, have prepared him for this moment and erasing all doubt about his choices.  

As glamorous as it was to watch Luke Joeckel, Caldwell’s hand picked tackle, walk to the podium of the noisy, “old world” environment of Radio City Music Hall by his own command, it was not an easy ride for David Caldwell to get to where he was. The NFL can be a dirty place of business where the glummest of stories rarely breach the surface of fun, exciting football that everyone in America seems to enjoy. 

The coaches and quarterbacks get all of the airtime, but it is these suited men behind closed doors that truly run the show. After all, they are the ones who get to pick the coaches and players who call the plays and sell the jerseys.  

These mysterious men live behind a wall of secrecy, far more interested in producing on-field results than selling newspapers. These are the architects of everything you see on Sunday afternoons in autumn.

Who exactly are these men, and where do they come from?

  

Origins

Generally speaking, there are four different types of general managers: former scouts, number-crunching accountants, former players as well as a few owners who choose to make their own personnel decisions.

Here is a breakdown of the background of every general manager (or equivalent):

Team GM Background

Buffalo Bills

Doug Whaley Scout
Miami Dolphins Jeff Ireland Scout
New England
Patriots
Nick Caserio Business/
Law
New York Jets John Idzik Business/
Law
Baltimore Ravens Ozzie Newsome Player
Cincinnati Bengals Mike Brown Owner
Cleveland Browns Michael Lombardi Scout
Pittsburgh Steelers Kevin Colbert Scout
Houston Texans Rick Smith Coach
Indianapolis Colts Ryan Grigson Scout
Jacksonville
Jaguars
David Caldwell Scout
Tennessee Titans Ruston Webster Scout
Denver Broncos John Elway Player
Kansas City Chiefs John Dorsey Scout
Oakland Raiders Reggie McKenzie Scout
San Diego Chargers Tom Telesco Scout

Team GM Background
Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones Owner
New York Giants Jerry Reese Scout
Philadelphia Eagles Howie Roseman Business/
Law
Washington Redskins Bruce Allen Business/
Law
Chicago Bears Phil Emery Scout
Detroit Lions Martin Mayhew Business/
Law
Green Bay Packers Ted Thompson Scout
Minnesota Vikings Rick Spielman Scout
Atlanta Falcons Thomas Dimitroff Scout
Carolina Panthers Dave Gettleman Scout
New Orleans Saints Mickey Loomis Business/
Law
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mark Dominik Scout
Arizona Cardinals Steve Keim Scout
St. Louis Rams Les Snead Scout
San
Francisco 49ers
Trent Baalke Scout
Seattle Seahawks John Schneider Scout
 

It makes plenty of sense that the majority of general managers—67 percent—have taken the traditional "former scout" track on their way to the top. After all, you could be the best cap magician in the world, but if you can’t separate trash from treasure, your ability as a general manager will always be limited.

 

While businessmen and lawyers are typically more reliant on their scouting and pro personnel staff to identify talent, they have ways of working to the cap and bending the laws in their advantage. 

There is one exception here for Rick Smith, the current general manager of the Texans. He was never a scout or a businessman, he was a defensive backs coach for the Broncos before he was promoted into their personnel department. 

No matter what track you take to being a general manager, this lonely path is long, hard and not for the faint of heart.

 

Humble Beginnings

Howie Roseman was a maniacal New York Jets fan growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Since he was in high school, he was determined to become the general manager of an NFL franchise, sending out countless letters to NFL teams inquiring about how he can possibly get his foot in the door. 

As he graduated Fordham Law School, Roseman was incessant in developing his football network, calling administrative assistants at the faintest hint of interest. 

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Howie Roseman's unlikely climb through the NFL ranks was far from easy.

Roseman’s tireless efforts paid off­—at the ripe young age of 24, he was in the National Football League as an Eagles intern, with his desk was so tightly nudged into the corner of the office that he had no room for his legs.

Most law school graduates are looking for a little more than an uncomfortable desk for a company that hardly wants you, but in relation to NFL standards, Roseman hit a goldmine.

He had a foot in the door. Now, the possibilities are endless.

However, as tireless as he was in his pursuits, few are as fortunate as Roseman in their NFL endeavors.  Most resumes never see the light of day. In reality, the only way to wear a team-colored polo while on the job is to know someone at a higher position on a personal level. Even then, the odds to stay in the NFL for long are slim. 

Roseman, the reigning general manager of the Eagles, is now one of the six GMs with a business or law background.  Most GMs make their bones as a lowly scout with little control over their future.

The scouting trail may be the road more traveled, but in no way is the path well-paved. The life of an NFL scout seems exciting on the surface, but in reality, it is a lonely, thankless job with minimal job security.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Scouts are almost always on the road, traveling the country to watch players in-person and get an intimate idea of what kind of people these prospects are. A Giants scout claims to have put 35,000 miles on his car in one year.  Another has gone through his fourth car.

This inordinate amount of travel and time away from home puts an inordinate amount of stress on families. Scouts miss their kids growing up in pursuit of a faint dream in which they will eventually be promoted to a higher office.

That is, of course, if they don’t get fired first.

Scouts do the heavy lifting when it comes to writing reports of the thousands of draftable players, but they have little say in who actually winds up on the team. If the general manager has a few bad drafts or whiffs on a free agent, he and the rest of his scouting department winds up on the street, no matter how deadly accurate those reports were.

 

Getting the Corner Office

So, how does one find a way to advance through the front office ranks amid these seemingly-impossible conditions?

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Both of these teams produced first-time general managers.

First and foremost, your team has to win consistently and become a model organization for other losing franchises to emulate. Why? Simply put, teams are not going to hire new general managers away from losing teams. Two new general managers this year, John Idzik (Jets) and David Caldwell (Jaguars) were on opposing sides of the divisional championship game (Idzik with the Seahawks and Caldwell with the Falcons).

This is no coincidence.

If your team’s pro personnel director or another high-ranking executive moves on to a bigger opportunity, a line of promotions is usually in order, assuming a team promotes from within (which is likely as teams do not want to upset their winning ways).

Every team has their own unique structure to its organization, but the path is a bit more linear with the scouting facet of the operation being much more organized.  

 

This is identical to the route current Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff took during his ascent, which followed some time in the CFL. Starting out as a part-time scout for the Chiefs, Dimitroff, rose to the director of college scouting position in New England before making the jump to Atlanta. 

When there is a new opening, scouts are typically judged on the accuracy of their player reports—even if the players were never drafted by the team. Every evaluation a scout does is archived and carried with them for the rest of their NFL careers.

For the accountants and law candidates, the path is less clear. Teams have various types of internships or entry-level gigs that, while usually irrelevant to the decision-making aspect of football operations, allow these recent graduates to get their foot in the door and start making connections.

Whether it is cutting up video, putting together playbooks or fetching coffee all morning, highly-educated men and women have to swallow some pride if they want to have a chance at a life in the NFL.

However, if one is able to impress in such demeaning jobs, there is an opportunity to make a jump into the decision-making process. Here is one possible career path for someone without a background in scouting:

As you can see, the path for non-scouts is far less linear. Knowing how to wash practice jerseys and load equipment trucks seems irrelevant for the job description of a general manager. However, while working such monotonous jobs, one learns how to interact with players and get a better feel for the inner workings for the NFL.

Perhaps an intern may stay a few hours late sitting in the back of a film session to learn scouting or develop a personal relationship with a player or coach. These are the types of things Howie Roseman had to do before he made the jump from being a lowly intern to the director of football administration while commuting from New York to Veterans Stadium every day.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

For players, how and where they start on the totem pole largely depends on their former status as a player. Reggie McKenzie, now in charge of the Raiders, only played in two games as a 49er after a four-yeat stint with the Raiders. As a result, he had to make his bones in the scouting circuit, but his background as a player clearly helped him get his foot in the door.

On the other hand, John Elway, a living legend in the eyes of Bronco faithful, was named Vice President not long after having dinner with owner Pat Bowlen.

In the end, like most other industries, climbing the NFL ladder is more about who you know than what you know.

 

The Last Step

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Doug Whaley (right) has taken Buddy Nix's job in Buffalo (left).

So, you got a job as a scout and turned in enough accurate reports to climb the ladder of your winning franchise. As the director of college scouting, you are within striking distance of the ever-so-elusive general manager job.

Now comes the hard part.

Unlike head coaches, the list of leading general manager candidates is fluid, changing from year to year. Only a select few names like Baltimore’s Eric DeCosta have the luxury of turning down offers, knowing they can wait until the perfect opportunity comes along.

Simply put, it is harder to quantify exactly how much each executive had in each team’s success because of their lack of visibility relative to players and coaches. Many owners employ search firms (at a premium price) to identify qualified candidates.  

For this reason, potential general managers should take the best offer they can get while it is still there, because you never known when another opportunity will arise. At this point, landing a GM job depends on the right timing of the performance of your team and the needs of teams looking to fill their vacancy.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
For John Idzik, landing a GM job was all about timing and opportunity.

As a member of the Seahawks front office, John Idzik could not pass up an opportunity to accept what was seen as an undesirable job with the Jets, who were suffocated with bad contracts and were intent on retaining head coach Rex Ryan.

However, on the heels of the Seahawks' breakout season in which they nearly reached the NFC Championship Game with a rookie quarterback, Idzik's stock was never going to get much higher. 

As long as it took to get to this point, there is one way to cheat yourself all the way to top—that is, if you have the money for it.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Jones loves his team too much to turn over the GM job to anyone else.

If you are one of the lucky 32 men on this planet who own an NFL franchise, you can, of course, name yourself general manager, just as Jerry Jones (Cowboys) and Mike Brown (Bengals) have done.

The motivations for doing so vary. For Jones, he is too emotionally invested in his team’s success to leave the job to someone else. For the notoriously-cheap Mike Brown, who has yet to install an indoor practice facility, there are economical benefits for not doling out millions for a general manager.

 

The Future

Josh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports
The success of Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta ensures that former scouts will always have a place in GM chairs.

The vast majority of general managers come from scouting backgrounds, and that should not change anytime soon. With the success of Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta and John Schneider in Seattle, the concept of having a GM with a strong scouting background is not going away anytime soon.

However, there could be some change at the bottom, with the growing use of advanced statistical analysis to build teams. 

The Jaguars have already begun this progressive way of thinking, as they incorporated this "money ball" method into the selection of Luke Joeckel second overall. 

Taking a right tackle second overall goes against every pre-concieved notion we have in terms of accepted draft strategy. After all, the left tackle protects the blindside and is thus a more important position, right?

 

What was the driving force behind David Caldwell's rouge selection? As Albert Breer of NFL.com reported, the Jaguars have adopted to a new NFL in which the importance of each offensive line position is more balanced than ever:

Caldwell emphasized the rising importance of the right tackle in a league where defensive coordinators are becoming more varied and creative in exploiting weaknesses, and Khan turned to a ProFootballFocus.com study compiled by Steve Palazzolo showing the right tackle had become just as vital as the left tackle.

In other words, to the Jaguars, the only difference between left and right tackle is the amount of money they make. 

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
Progressive owners like Shad Khan (left) could pave the way for new ideologies as to how teams are built.

The Jaguars will serve a case study as to whether or not this statistical analysis approach could actually be used to build teams. If the Jaguars are able to build a winner with this approach, "moneyball" could be coming to the NFL as something more than an experimental instrument. 

As a result, general managers come in all shapes and sizes in all walks of life. Unlike players entering the draft, there is no one linear path to earn the highest front office position in the sport. 

You don't have to be an accomplished player like Ozzie Newsome or John Elway (although it certainly helps). Just like Howie Roseman, you can replace a Hall of Fame resume with tireless work, energy, the willingness to make personal sacrifices and a little bit of luck to earn the prestigious title of general manager. 

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