The two most important ingredients for success in the NFL.

The two most important ingredients for success in the NFL.
By Cian Fahey
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On the fifth of January 2008, some time after 10pm local time, Ben Roethlisberger was in the process of adding another playoff victory to his lengthy résumé. Roethlisberger had just led his Pittsburgh Steelers to 19 straight points—three touchdowns with two missed conversions—in the fourth quarter to lead the Jacksonville Jaguars by 29-28.

Despite throwing two interceptions and completing less than 50 percent of his passes, David Garrard marched his offense down the field on a drive that lasted just over two minutes. A controversial 32 yard scramble by Garrard put the Jaguars in position to bring on kicker Josh Scobee. Scobee stepped up and kicked the game-winning 25 yard field goal, to give the Jaguars their first playoff victory in eight seasons and only their fifth of all time.

What was supposed to be a joyous landmark of the franchise's history, eventually became known as the worst win in history to some.

After that victory, the Jaguars gave head coach Jack Del Rio a four year contract extension worth $21 million. Along with that they gave Garrard a six year extension worth $60 million, the richest contract in franchise history. After having a sixth ranked offense and 10th ranked defense that season, the Jaguars believed that they only needed to add one or two pieces to their defense in order to compete for a championship. That attitude led to them trading seven draft picks to select two players, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. Neither pass rusher worked out. Harvey lasted just three seasons in Jacksonville and today he no longer has a team, while Groves lasted just two seasons before moving to the Oakland Raiders. Today, Groves is a situational pass rusher for the Arizona Cardinals.

That one season, and playoff game in particular, dramatically altered the direction of the franchise. Del Rio and Garrard both left the franchise last year, after a record of 20-28 in three seasons previous. While Garrard proved to be a limited, but at worst average performing quarterback, Del Rio was quickly found out as a head coach. Del Rio, along with Gene Smith who was appointed General Manager for the franchise in 2009, both have as much responsibility for the 2012 Jaguars, who have a 1-8 record after 10 weeks of the season.

While the NFL is built to promote parity, no competitive league in sports is constructed solely on constants. The NFL has many variables, but the two greatest ones come at the general manager and head coach positions. Every variable has limitations and definitions, the limitations of talent from roster to roster is defined by the salary cap and NFL draft. The limitations of head coaches and general managers don't exist. There is no salary cap for putting together a coaching staff and rarely do other franchises hold back general manager candidates from interviewing for open positions.

The General Manager in football is responsible for constructing the roster. Even though the head coach and various scouts employed by the team have input on who the franchise selects in the draft, the final decision generally falls on the shoulders of the General Manager. Some head coaches look for greater control in these areas, such as Bill Belichick, but typically the process puts all of the responsibility on the general manager.


Once the general manager puts the pieces in place, it is the responsibility of the head coach and his staff to develop each player and run a system that plays to the strengths of the roster. The head coach sets the tone of the whole franchise, creates an identity for his players to follow and most importantly establishes discipline and accountability within the locker-room.

When the Jaguars brought in Gene Smith and gave Del Rio a contract extension, they failed to put in place the two most important aspects of their franchise. The Jaguars aren't the only franchise who has failed in this area in recent times. Right now there are some criminal failures by general managers and coaching staffs in the NFL, that are resulting in losing records for teams with as much, if not more talent than anyone.

Andy Reid's demise in Philadelphia is the most publicized of the group. Reid must be pitied, considering how long he has endured undeserved criticism with little acclaim in Philadelphia. He also lost a son just before the start of this season and has been an outstanding leader of men throughout his career. During the past two seasons however, Reid has simply mismanaged both his coaching staff and his players.


His first mistake was hiring long-time offensive line coordinator Juan Castillo to be his defensive coordinator last season. Castillo noticeably struggled during his first season, and when the unit was finally getting it together this season, he fired Castillo and replaced him with former defensive backs coach Todd Bowles.


On offense, Reid has failed to play to his strengths. LeSean McCoy has played like the superstar back he is this season when he has been given the football, and while it could be argued that his 162 carries after nine games are more than enough, there is no argument that those carries haven't been best used. McCoy is repeatedly used as a decoy early in games by Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Instead of using him to establish the run, the Eagles prefer to consistently fake the ball to McCoy and hope for the defense to bite on the play-action. As much as Michael Vick is unable to read defenses and his offensive line can't pass protect, Reid's lack of commitment to running early in games has exasperated every facet of the passing offense. It obviously isn't helping the rushing attack also.

Reid has failed to establish the appropriate identity to highlight his roster's strengths and hide it's weaknesses. Instead, he has done the complete opposite. The Eagles, picked by many to go to the Super Bowl this season, have a record of 3-6 entering Week 11.


Another NFC team who many expected to at least be in the playoffs this year are the Detroit Lions. Instead, the Lions are languishing with a losing record of 4-5 and are the only team in the NFC North with less victories than losses. The Lions don't have any identity issues, but they do lack the discipline and accountability that comes with champions.

After the Lions became the only team to ever go winless in a 16 game season in 2008, they hired Martin Mayhew as general manager and Jim Schwartz as head coach. Mayhew was expected to retool the least talented roster in the league, while Schwartz' main priority was to eradicate the losing culture that had engulfed the franchise for eight long seasons. Mayhew hasn't been perfect, the Giants still have significant holes in their roster, but he has done his job for the most part. Schwartz on the other hand, is beginning to be found out after a hot start.

Schwartz was given plenty of tools to work with, most notably Matthew Stafford in 2009 and Ndamukong Suh in 2010. Stafford hasn't been properly developed however, as he is still very much reliant on Calvin Johnson, while Suh's personal discipline and scheme discipline remains a major issue. Suh initially helped changed the culture in Detroit as he brought a nasty streak to the defense, starting in his first preseason game with a borderline assault on Jake Delhomme, but over the years his persistent personal foul penalties and off the field issues have permeated through the franchise.


It's very unlikely that you can bring 53 intimidating athletes together and not get one with rough edges, but how you handle that perceived problem child sets the accountability and discipline for every player on the team. When Suh was in trouble, he was never properly dealt with. That led to the Lions leading the NFL in arrests in 2012, with six. After six arrests in one off-season, one would expect some heads to roll. Even though top draft choices Nick Fairley and Mikel Leshoure were arrested twice, it was lesser known players Aaron Berry and Johnny Culbreath who were released for their individual arrests.

Basically, the Lions have established that if you are talented enough on the field, you can do what you like off of it. The problem is, a lack of accountability isn't something that is segregated. Doing what you like off the field has resulted in many Lions doing what they like on the field too. Suh, and the majority of his defensive line teammates, are known as outstanding pass rushers. Yet, their complete lack of interest in stopping the run has made it easy for teams to move the chains on them. It's not a talent issue, it's a scheme discipline issue. Successful pass rushers don't just chase the quarterback, they check their run assignments before pursuing the passer.


There are many more teams not reaching their potential because of either, or both of their respective general managers and coaches. The Cleveland Browns(GM), Kansas City Chiefs(GM+Coach), New York Jets(GM), San Diego Chargers(Coach), Jaguars(GM) and Carolina Panthers(Former GM) are the standout candidates for change in the off-season.

Opportunities to add talented players to your roster in the NFL are constant. From season to season you will initially get draft picks and have cap room. What you decide to do with those picks and that space and how you manage the assets once added to your roster, is what separates the challengers from the simply challenging to support.

There are very few variables that you must get right in the NFL, but getting the right head coach and general manager can be very difficult.


Follow Cian Fahey on Twitter - @Cianaf
Read more of Cian Fahey on Irish Central and in the Guardian’s US Sport section.

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