Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Strong front offices set tone for success
By Michael Smith
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As his own agent, Tedy Bruschi has, relative to his teammates, a unique perspective of the Patriots' football operation.
And when you look at how well Super Bowl participants New England and Philadelphia are managed, it's easy to see how they've managed to dominate their respective conferences for the past four years. These teams have co-authored the book on how to maintain a successful franchise in the modern NFL. Lesson No. 1: maintain continuity and harmony in the front office. It has a trickle-down effect.
"I respect it. I respect it tremendously," Bruschi said this week of the Patriots' leadership. "That's probably the biggest compliment I can give a team, I can give a player, an organization, anyone. For me to say I respect this organization, I've seen the work. I've been inside of it. They've dealt with me professionally. I've seen [defensive coordinator] Romeo [Crennel] and [head coach] Bill [Belichick] work together on the sideline, I've seen how Bill and Scott [Pioli, vice president of player personnel] are on the same page, and how Mr. Kraft [owner Robert Kraft] is right in there with them.
"A lot of times egos get in the way and points are tried to be made and all of a sudden somebody wants to leave. But they've been able to keep it together and the way they work together is something that I admire.
"It's got to start somewhere," Bruschi said. "And why not at the top? If it didn't start at the top, I'd really shake my head and wonder, 'If it's not at the top, why should it be here, in terms of the locker room?' They have to set an example. If you want us to be one way, you have to be the same way, and they show that."
Eagles assistant director of player personnel Jason Licht is the Jay-Z/R. Kelly of Super Bowl XXXIX. In other words, he's the best of both worlds. On May 12, 2003, not long after a Patriots' draft that yielded four current starters, Licht left a similar position with New England for greener pastures in Philadelphia, though, obviously, the grass is quite healthy where he was.
Licht spent four years with the Patriots and has a Super Bowl XXXVI championship ring. It's no accident that 1½ years after making the switch, the team he's helped construct under head coach/executive V.P. of football operations Andy Reid and alongside team president Joe Banner and V.P. of player personnel will try to win its long-overdue title at the expense of the other team Licht had a hand in building as Pioli's top aide.
It's also no surprise that a former dynasty looking to rebuild, the San Francisco 49ers, recently requested from the Eagles permission to interview both Heckert and Licht about their vacant general manager position, this according to a source familiar with the Niners' search. (Heckert recently signed an extension and has pledged his allegiance to the Eagles much the way Pioli has to the Patriots through next year's NFL draft. Licht might be more willing to listen to what San Francisco owner Dr. John York has to say after the Super Bowl. Licht declined comment.) The Niners also are said to be interested in Patriots director of college scouting Tom Dimitroff.
If you're a rebuilding project, you want to model yourself after the Patriots and Eagles. These aren't just pro football's best teams, but, top to bottom, its marquee franchises. And every year this decade, one or both have been in the running for the Lombardi Trophy. Why? Because of how efficiently they're run.
"They're similar in the fact that -- and I think it's one of the most key ingredients in a great organization -- the people making the decisions get along so well," said Licht, who jumped to Philly for added responsibility and the opportunity to work under Heckert, with whom he had worked in Miami. "Managing the salary cap, not overpaying for players, identifying young players and re-signing them before they become hot commodities elsewhere, building through the draft, rewarding your own players, making sure free agents are the right fit for your team -- we both have those same exact philosophies."
The relationship among Kraft, Belichick, and Pioli poses a contrast to Kraft's prior relationships with head coaches and Belichick's with former Browns owner Art Modell. Remember, Bill Parcells could not co-exist with Kraft, who inherited the coach's contract when he bought the team in 1994. Kraft couldn't stay out of the way and let Parcells' replacement, Pete Carroll, and general manager Bobby Grier run the show. But he trusted Belichick enough to give him final authority over personnel matters. He's learned that his job as owner is to allow the people he hired to do their jobs.
He trusted that Belichick and Pioli had done the necessary research into Corey Dillon's background prior to the trade last April that landed the former Bengals running back. He also knew that they not only know but also share in his belief of what type of individuals he wants his team to include. He just needed to have a conversation with Dillon.
Belichick and Kraft's relationship is such to where they negotiated a contract extension for the coach after the 2001 season between themselves, without an agent present -- a far cry from the communication issues that existed between Belichick and Modell toward the end of his tenure in Cleveland.
Belichick hired Pioli as a Browns pro personnel assistant in 1992. They worked together again for the Jets from 1997-99, and Belichick brought Pioli to New England in 2000.
Often it seems as if Belichick knows it all. He might, but there's no way he could possibly do it all. That's where Pioli, last year's NFL executive of the year, comes in. He and his scouting staff find a pool of players to fit the Patriots' system. Belichick and Pioli collaborate on selecting and acquiring them. Pioli gets their cap-friendly contracts done (with Kraft's money, of course). Belichick and the coaching staff train them. It's a machine. And it doesn't hurt that the architects are friends.
That machine has a virtual duplicate in Philadelphia. Owner Jeffrey Lurie, a Boston native who once attempted to purchase the Patriots before landing the Eagles in 1994, is a Kraft clone in that he allows the people he's put in place to perform. "He's very into what we're doing and we have to answer questions as to why we're doing things, but he doesn't ever question anything," Licht said. That's a subtle but important difference, asking questions and questioning.
|Bob Kraft's leadership has helped the Pats earn a lot of hardware over the past four seasons.|
||It's got to start somewhere. And why not at the top? If it didn't start at the top, I'd really shake my head and wonder, 'If it's not at the top, why should it be here, in terms of the locker room?' They have to set an example. If you want us to be one way, you have to be the same way, and they show that.”
||—Pats LB Tedy Bruschi
It was Banner who had the biggest hand in bringing in Reid from Green Bay, where he was Brett Favre's quarterbacks coach. As you might imagine, quite a popular hire in Philadelphia. Banner oversees the cap, and he's seen to it that the Eagles are something like $16 million under for next season.
Lurie opened up the pocketbook last offseason to sign Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens. Reid always had opposed spending major money on a wide receiver. Heckert convinced him T.O. would be worth it. He was right. That's why Reid was so adamant about keeping Heckert. Reid wears the coach/GM hat so well because he has Heckert at his side to make sure he's wearing it right. He's his Pioli.
And right now, this is the Patriots' and Eagles' league.
"I've been fortunate to work for two great teams with two great coaches, with two great personnel philosophies where we identify players who are good for us," Licht said. "We don't grade guys for the entire league. We look for players that fit our system, and that's a big key."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.