How should NFL teams look to find the next great general managers?


In this special article for Touchdown Wire, guest columnist Dan Hatman takes his years of NFL experience and gets macro on how teams should find general managers, goes deep on how best to refine the process and names more than a few of the best candidates out there.

Nothing about 2020 has been typical. and that certainly extends to the team-building and player evaluation aspects of an NFL franchise. The common refrain from people around the league has been a co-opted Marine motto: “adapt and overcome”. This year forced teams to change and the new protocols built may have significant impacts moving forward. So, I’m leaning into the term ‘adapt,’ and I’m adapting this year’s version of GM candidate research. This year, I have crowdsourced from the scouting community a list of candidates that may not pop up on other lists, but names of those who stand out in the minds of those at all levels of the industry.

So yes, I will show you candidates that check the traditional boxes that ownership has an affinity for, but if you can stick with me to the end, I will also highlight candidates with unique and/or diverse backgrounds and explain why those skill sets may be critical for the position moving forward. With all that said, let’s begin:

What makes a good general manager? I’ve been trying to answer this question for 12 years. I have many hypotheses, but it is so hard to test them. This is due in large part to the turnover in those who hold the role.

Case in point, of the 32 final decision makers, the 16th and 17th most tenured in their roles are Chris Ballard of the Colts and John Lynch of the 49ers, both were hired in 2017 and are completing their fourth seasons on the job. On the other side of the scale, if you take out the teams where ownership sits as GM (DAL and CIN) and setting aside Bill Belichick, the only GMs with over 10 years of experience in the job are Kevin Colbert (PIT), Mickey Loomis (NO), Rick Spielman (MIN), and John Schneider (SEA). The rest of the seats feel more like musical chairs than stable environments. You can read my research from last year to learn much more about the stability of organizations.

This high-volume turnover makes it incredibly difficult to conduct longitudinal study of what situation a GM came into, how they overcame the obstacles they were left with (GM openings occur due to issues, not successes), what pieces they added, and how all those pieces built towards sustainable success.

Last year, I wrote the following: “Forty-one different people have had their shot at making the final calls for an NFL franchise in the last decade. The scale by which we are turning over these front office positions seems to indicate that ownership views the candidate pool as deep, never-ending, capable, and well-trained on the nuances of executing the position.” The last sentence there has sat poorly with me for 12 months. There clearly is not a never-ending pool of well trained candidates ready to deal with the entire scope of job duties held by the General Manager. If so, we’d have more success stories.

I do not believe this is because people across the industry lack the intellect for tackling such a diverse and ever-evolving series of duties. I believe this is because this industry does not invest in their people, it does not consistently promote people within their roles, it does not actively work to prepare those involved for the highest position. If Owners want to see their football operations staff execute better, they should invest more in their football operations staff.

So this year, the focus needs to be on skill sets and experiences held by a GM candidate. With the hypothesis being, the larger the tool box they possess, the better positioned they may be in regards to solving problems. We should be looking for multi-track minds. No two days are the same in an NFL front office. So walking in the door with a plan, developed in a vacuum, free from the active constraints of that organization and lacking knowledge of the various crises that will show up so often, leaves most plans as a loose dream of what they want things to be like vs what it will actually be like.

Ask someone who has been a GM about the job, and what they wished they knew beforehand, and they will pour out with anecdotes and insights on all the things they were forced to learn on the job and the things they did not feel prepared for. Ask them about their day to day and they will tell you how they went from spending potentially over 80% of their time watching film and evaluating players in their roles prior to maybe upwards of 30% (on a good day) when they finally reached the GM chair.

Then the beginning of this year’s research needed to be the categorizing of past hires and studying more on the candidates experience prior to becoming a General Manager, a topic I discussed at length with Mike Sando of The Athletic and Brad Spielberger of PFF. The goal being to explore what factors may have the largest impact on the success of the GM. These inputs are critical as there is no formal training for the GM and candidates see the landscape as a moving target as they feel compelled to guess what Owners care about, as again, little guidance is given.

So in order to do this categorization, I went back into my database to 2007. This is not an arbitrary year, but the first year I was able to collect candidate names from public record and not just who was ultimately hired for the job.

Five categories emerged from 71 hires since 2007.