Last Wednesday afternoon, my cellphone buzzed with the Tennessee Titans' main line as I was finishing up another call on the home phone.
“I gotta go, have another call coming in that I have to take.”
A week had already passed since I jumped on a plane bound for Nashville, Tennessee, to take another run at an ever-elusive general manager position that rarely opens up in the National Football League. After hearing Ruston Webster’s contract hadn’t been renewed with the Titans, I reached out to the organization on my own:
Long time and under difficult circumstances for you and the organization. I wanted to let you know that I'd have a tremendous interest in the GM position there in Tennessee and feel I could help you and the rest of the organization with my background and experience. Would you be willing to let me know what "next steps" might be from the club's perspective?
Many thanks and hope this finds you otherwise doing well.
All the best,
The window for leadership positions within the NFL cracks open and slams shut rather quickly. I’ve been down this road over the years and know that you have to be forthright and aggressive getting your name in the hat even to be considered a possible candidate. The politics of garnering a potential interview are mind-boggling.
The NFL—supposedly at the request of frustrated owners whose hit-and-miss tactics with front-office leadership continues to do just that, hit and miss—created a committee made up of five former GMs and a high-profile ex-coach to vet the landscape of potential candidates and create a next-in-line list.
I might not be on their list, but I certainly felt that my accomplishments over 16 years with the Denver Broncos, both as a director of college scouting and as general manager, were as good as any candidate out there.
The media have their own influential input with a random selection of names out of the NFL’s Bluebook of College Scouting and pro personnel directors, usually from the last call of each season’s playoff contenders. Add to that seemingly any client represented by Professional Sports Representation (PSR Inc.) and you’ll find the pool of usual suspects drawn in for most interviews.
So to get an almost immediate reply in a positive fashion was a pleasant surprise.
Nice to hear from you, Ted. I hope that you are well. Would you be willing and available to interview for the position this week?
Been There, Done That
Over the years, each and every interview I’ve participated in has been its own unique inquisition.
My first experience ran through Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive headhunter firm out of Atlanta, back in 2001. It was a three-tiered process that went through 20 initial candidates on the way to hiring the replacement for Mark Hatley in Chicago. Later, I’d endure the same procedure in pursuit of becoming president of the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 through Korn Ferry out of Los Angeles. These were exhaustive but thorough undertakings for the candidate and the club.
But lately, franchises seem pressed to fill their leadership positions, whether GM or head coach, in a single sit-down setting. The opportunity to present my philosophy first and then follow up with the day-to-day details in subsequent interviews has been replaced with a three-hour crash course on how I would go about immediately fixing all of their problems at once.
In the Kansas City search of 2008, I came prepared with a two-inch binder of meticulous detail on how I’d implement my vision for the Chiefs: roster evaluations, personnel department plans, salary-cap comparisons, operations overviews. If it fell under the responsibility of the GM, then it was in the book I gave to each and every member of the panel.
San Francisco was an entirely different approach. The knowledge that the Niners’ new young owner had all but made up his mind with an arranged marriage of an internal candidate with a crosstown college coach made preparations a little less imperative. My hope was to catch his attention with a new way of looking at the same old problem: finding the right fit of leadership for his club.
In January 2013, the New York Jets called me in at the last moment. I scraped together as much information as I could and combined it with my own sense of team building to formulate a presentation that must have caught their collective attention. A follow-up phone call put me on a 48-hour weekend push to provide ownership and their new president with my 90-day plan and an overall vision for the club.
When Ray Anderson stepped down as executive vice president of football operations for the NFL, I reached out again on my own. With a focus on player development, I presented the committee with a detailed plan on how I thought my past experiences with military leadership and as a general manager in Denver could help them with a new approach to filling a role that was lacking any sense of direction or purpose.
One thing that seemed to run parallel with each of these opportunities was an inherent feeling on my part that those asking the questions during the interview didn’t even know what questions to ask. Having been a GM for six seasons in the NFL, I had a good understanding from every angle of what was required of the position and the qualifications necessary to carry out those responsibilities.
The Interview: Creating the Diagnosis
The talks in Tennessee seemed to be different. We spoke candidly about a number of aspects involved with creating a winning culture, something which I felt was necessary to put the Titans back on top. Lessons learned over the previous interviews and the laborious task of writing my own book on the details of building winning teams made the entire process feel more like a “get to know you” conversation than the detailed dissection of information laid out for the Chiefs, Jets and the NFL.
I was prepared. I felt like a doctor who had carefully studied a series of tests on his patient and was trying to find a way to explain the results and present solutions in a manner that everyone in the family could understand. There were clear indications that the health of the Titans was struggling. But with a little focus on the fundamentals that I’ve seen bring sickly teams back from the brink, anything was possible.
After all, Tennessee had already earned the right to its franchise quarterback a season earlier. The Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston debate had raged on for months, and I felt the Titans had gotten the better bet of the two. There was a core of young talent at receiver in Dorial Green-Beckham and Kendall Wright. You could build upon Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey up front on defense. Da’Norris Searcy was a solid pillar in the secondary.
However, there were some early indications that ownership wasn’t necessarily looking for a complete diagnosis of its problems.
Interim head coach Mike Mularkey was well-liked for the manner in which he had healed the organization from the previous head coach’s ill-suited style, even if it meant only two additional wins over the final nine games.
But Mularkey’s overall record was part of the “blood work” that spoke volumes to me about the future health of the club. A .316 winning percentage with three different teams is usually not what puts you on anyone’s radar in the NFL.
He suddenly resigned after only two seasons in Buffalo amid mixed reviews from the fans, the media and, most importantly, his players (some of whom I’d spoken with prior to my interview).
He had privately lamented the lack of talent in Jacksonville during his single season as the head coach there, and in my outsider’s opinion, he had appeared to lose control of the roster within. Jags GM David Caldwell had worked with Mularkey in Atlanta and yet chose to take a different route.
But without having my own opportunity to meet and speak with him, I wouldn’t give an indication either way of which route to take. I only asked that the club carefully consider biding its time in finding candidates from all available sources and then come to a careful conclusion of who the head coach should be.
In my opinion, it was that important of a decision for the future of the club and its young franchise quarterback, and it should take as long as necessary to get it right.
I also cautioned the Titans about trying to recreate the image of any other successful club directly on to their own. I told them that each and every organization has to look in the mirror and see its individual identity. That must start with ownership, and I spoke about my admiration of longtime family-owned organizations such as the Giants, Steelers and in a sense the Packers, who remained true to their values even during rough periods.
I respectfully asked that they give the me every indication of who they wanted to be, but independent of what was happening in New York, New England, Denver or wherever.
It was also clear ownership wanted to stay the course inside the halls of the complex. I was told, “We don’t want to blow up the building. This is a staff that works well together and avoids the internal politics and bickering that can and has brought down others in the past.”
Understood, and one of my adopted mantras has always been “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
But certainly a team with four different head coaches, three ownership structures, two presidents and just one winning season over the past seven years would require a full and complete “physical” to find out what was really ailing it.
The past few seasons had been brutal on this franchise. In 2014, the Titans finished with their fifth-worst average point margin in their 56-year history. In 2015, they improved...to 12th-worst.
Tennessee’s offense hadn’t ranked at or above the midway mark in the NFL for scoring or total yards since ’09. The 2014 unit was third-worst ever in the history of the Titans/Oilers. The 2015 squad made small improvements, mostly due to the team drafting Mariota, but Tennessee remained one of the NFL's flattest offenses all year.
Despite what some thought to be improvements under Ray Horton's guidance on defense, the Titans remained abysmal on that side of the ball in 2015. They recorded the same number of sacks (39) and picked off one fewer pass (11) compared to the year prior. They surrendered 30 or more points in seven games.
Tennessee brought in six candidates to interview, and I’m going to assume all of us knew how to evaluate professional football talent. We wouldn’t be sitting there if we didn’t; that shouldn’t be the question.
To me, it was a question of: Who best could build an atmosphere and create an environment in every aspect of football operations that would maximize that talent on and off the field? I told them from my own experience there is far more to being an effective GM than just scouting players.
The flight from Nashville back to Denver left me with a lot of time to reflect on how I’d get started. My wife told me it was the most confident I’d sounded on the call home (post-interview) since that first sit-down with the Bears nearly 15 years ago.
I began taking a mental inventory of what I’d immediately need to do to fix the Titans and what my first steps would be as general manager.
First Things First
Most would think that the first steps would be figuring out which players to keep and which coaches to hire. How do I surround Marcus Mariota with talent to succeed? Who would I draft with the No. 1 pick? Would I trade out of it? Which key free agents could I pursue? Who will be the cap casualties? Which current players will I re-sign? Will there be any coaching replacements? What about the offensive line? How are you going to improve the secondary?
It doesn’t work that way.
The general manager, much like the head coach, is about leadership. Implementing this lost art form and emphasizing the way we go about doing our business each and every day. Establishing a culture that gets everyone to buy into his or her role and to execute that role to the very best of his or her abilities. Serving as a conduit for communication that finds out-of-the-box ways to attack challenges and coming up with innovative solutions to those very questions. Knowing when to nip problems in the bud and removing cancers before they spread. Again, being a GM is much more than just scouting players. It’s leading your organization toward the right decisions to build a winner.
Press Conference: The Initial Vision
I was comfortable envisioning the introductory press conference at Saint Thomas Sports Park. The importance of acknowledging the history and past success of the Titans would extinguish any errant thoughts within the facility that “slash and burn” would rain down upon the organization in order to mold it into a carbon copy of something else.
Having technically been out of the NFL for quite some time, I know it would be paramount to address that status head-on and legitimize why I felt I was now the right man for the job. Leadership requires a need for action, not just talk. Results of my prior experience as an Air Force officer, as well as the director of college scouting and general manager of the Broncos, have shown that I’m not afraid to make hard decisions.
The broad-based mission of the organization would be publicly proclaimed: compete for an AFC South division title and Super Bowl championship. There, I said it. In a previous interview with another club, the owner had cautioned me, “We don’t say that around here. The media might hold us accountable to it.”
In Tennessee, I would expect, if not demand, nothing less.
“This is your team. I’m here for you.” Tennessee season ticket holders and other Titans fans who scrape together their hard-earned cash to support the club are our customers. We owe it to them to put a great product on the field—one they’re proud to identify with and support season after season. But we also owe them the confidence that we’re making wise choices based upon sound principles in relation to the game: coaching, scouting, player personnel and support staff.
I’d make that commitment for all of the fans to hear.
The flight pressed on and the stewardess asked me my choice of two dinner selections—“Salad or chicken sandwich?”—but my mind was keenly focused on Day One as the general manager of the Titans.
With the entire staff pulled into the auditorium, I try to establish my definition of who I am to the organization and express certain perspectives of my role as GM in relation to each of their own responsibilities. The goal is to get everyone feeling the importance of their role in relation to the mission and then committing back to the club their personal pledge to meet me halfway. It’s an individual decision that has to be made in a rather public setting. Those who are willing are invited to pick up a blue rubber bracelet inscribed with “I’m all in—Titans 2016”.
I want everyone to see this commitment.
Later that day, I would meet with the head coach to establish my vision and expectations of our working relationship. It’s important to communicate to him my desire of his role as the central figure of our team. Leadership will be his defining characteristic.
We review my operational plans for the offseason and look to ensure that we work toward a common understanding of any particular areas of need within the Titans.
Does he feel there are any existing issues that need to be addressed on or off the field? Is he comfortable with his coaching staff? What requirements does he have from football operations? Getting his own assurance that “I’m all in” will go far in setting a similar tone with our coaching staff and roster heading into a period of change.
The first week begins by immediately meeting with the coaching staff. The coaches undoubtedly will buy into the mission of winning. It’s the essence of what they do. But will they willingly accept a new relationship and mutual dependence with player personnel?
My goal is to create this through open lines of communication. Clearly defining and weighing the various position specifics as they relate to each offensive and defensive position. Stressing the need for their input and participation with key decisions in free agency and the draft. I don’t want personnel trying to cram square pegs into round holes, and I don’t want to hear from the coaching staff that we’re asking them to.
I want to introduce the idea of a “developmental coach” charged with the unfettered guidance and additional teaching of technique in coordination with position coaches.
We would inventory the roster from top to bottom, a thorough examination of productivity from a coaching viewpoint, vital for my overall blueprint of the team and 20/70/10 evaluation rankings. The 20/70/10 approach comes from former General Electric chairman Jack Welch as a way of identifying the best and removing the weakest people within an organization.
Later that week, I would work to meet with department heads within football operations. They’re tasked with their own inventory of the who, what, why, when, where and how of their department’s specific role in the bigger picture of football operations, and specifically as it relates to the overall mission of the Titans.
I want to know in written detail everything that they do and how it gets done, forcing them to evaluate their current policies and procedures. “That’s how we’ve always done it” won’t be an acceptable answer in defense of poor and ineffective plans.
The key to this first-week launch would be meeting with player personnel. I would request reviews on current club evaluations of free agents and college draft prospects, along with the detailed breakdown of how they go about getting this done. It’s a little late to start from scratch, but Tennessee can certainly implement some of my own techniques in sorting through the gathered data on each potential prospect or free-agent addition for 2016.
I round out the first week by requesting permission for potential new hires to supplement these areas but will most certainly zero in on an “executive officer” type who will be charged with implementing and following up on the proposed changes within football operations. I already have two candidates in mind from the Air Force.
First Month on the Job
“More water, sir?” Yikes, time flies when you’re not thinking about flying.
No sooner have we finished the press conference and my first week with the Titans before we’re now into the first month. I feel good about the direction we’re headed.
I’d begin sitting down with the directors of college scouting and pro personnel to coordinate the implementation of our personnel plan. The logistics of bringing in targeted unrestricted free agents for visits to Saint Thomas Sports Park is of particular interest. Unlike the luck of the draft, we’re in direct competition for the attention and recruitment of veteran talent, and I want to see every aspect of the visit coordinated with detailed precision.
I meet with the director of football administration to review the club’s current commitments and formulate a plan based on the feedback from the coaches and player personnel on our existing roster: restructures, cap casualties, re-signings. Included in these discussions is the chief financial officer, whose input will determine how we structure various payouts and to address any issues that might arise.
The end of the first month will culminate with the annual NFL Scouting Combine, and there’s much to get done in a short period of time. We’re in a situation of having the pick of the litter with the No. 1 overall selection, but I’ve always leaned toward maximizing time and exposure to all 300-plus prospects over the intense week of evaluations. Coaches and scouts need to know precisely what they’re responsible for, where to be and when to be there. Everything is orchestrated through a comprehensive guide that covers all our efforts in Indianapolis.
The heads of the departments within football operations have completed their inventories and we review each of their written assessments. Through these, we’re able to establish new plans and procedures that make the most operational sense for the Titans, and I begin to provide support in areas that require strengthening with additional resources.
First Quarter of the Year
The majority of the first three or four months on the job with the Titans would be focused on player personnel.
The offensive line is a mess, the running backs are nondescript, the top receiver is a tight end and the secondary is beat up and inconsistent.
Emphasis will be on setting up the personnel team that integrates all aspects of the scouting process: college, pro, salary cap and administrative requirements. I want us to make decisions based upon concrete achievements in multiple areas of evaluation and statistical analysis.
The attention to detail and constant reviewing of our system has forced to us to self-evaluate the process of how the organization goes about the business of player acquisition. Ideas for change and implementation of improvements have been solicited from our entire staff.
Now that I’ve had an opportunity to see everyone in action over the past number of weeks, I can evaluate our scouts and make necessary decisions as we move forward. Contracts are renewed and some might be released.
The changes we embrace are incorporated into the new 2016 scouting program: plans and procedures, grading, report formats, timelines, waivers, tryouts, workouts, emergency lists and salary-cap tracking.
With guidance from the director of football administration, we establish our cash and cap budgets for the coming season, then finalize our entry plan for 2016.
All of football operations has gone through a similar self-evaluation and improvements are implemented into written plans for the coming season.
At this point, I’ve met with key veteran leaders, lobbying for their support and constructive feedback of past problems that have held the Titans back. Emphasizing the notion that players are assets versus commodities, I ask for the same “meet me halfway” approach that was offered to the entire staff on Day One.
As a sign of my commitment to this core philosophy, the Player Performance Council is established with the hiring of the Titans’ very first director. This cutting-edge program coordinates and oversees the development of individualized performance plans for players and staff in six key areas: physical, mental, spiritual, social, intellectual and financial.
“How do you fix the Titans? You look for leadership.” I felt I conveyed that throughout the three-and-a-half hours spent with the interview committee. I was confident the connection had been made regarding what really matters and what is hyped-up journalistic jargon. If we remained focused, unified our efforts, stayed the course with our plans and demanded excellence in everything we did, wins would come to Tennessee.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Denver, where the time is approximately 5:30 pm.” Back to reality.
I picked up the buzzing cellphone and answered with an anxious “Hello?”
The voice on the other end seemed upbeat and optimistic in tone. For a momentary flash, I felt this was it, that I had finally been able to get my point across.
“Ted, I think all of us really enjoyed speaking to you last week. We’ve decided to offer the position to another candidate and wish you nothing but the best.”
A wave of disappointment rushed over me for a few seconds. An instant mental evaluation of the interview led directly to not being 100 percent on board with the inevitable coaching decision, perhaps looking to add some of my own people, another passing season out of the game and maybe just not being the fit that I had envisioned.
Nothing but the best? “Same to you.”
Ted Sunquist is a former general manager of the Denver Broncos, boasting the second-longest GM tenure in Broncos history and second-highest win percentage in Broncos history. You can follow Ted on Twitter at @Ted_Sundquist.