Thoughts on organizational culture, Maurice Clarett and the influences on Fox and Elway are on my mind as Friday dawns.
All is quiet at Broncos headquarters and leaks are minimal — as they should be at this time of year. When I worked there, this was the time of year when curtains would go up in the team meeting room, so not even the worker bees who weren’t in football operations could peer at what was being discussed.
This secrecy wasn’t always the case. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, I remember walking down the hallway by the team room, glancing through the window and seeing various headshots of players being discussed. It was also easy to get into the draft room; I even interviewed a team official or two in that room, and my eyes couldn’t help but drift to the boards in the back of the room, showing how players were graded and who the Broncos might pick.
(But I didn’t see Maurice Clarett coming. And oh, what a nightmare that was. In the months before the draft, I’m certain that over a drink with a friend or relative, the phrase “I’ll be thoroughly disgusted with the organization if it picks Maurice Clarett” left my lips. But I met him on the second day of the 2005 draft whilst he toured Broncos headquarters, and being a good soldier, I thought, “I’ll give the guy a chance.”
It didn’t last long, for well-documented reasons. That was a bizarre Broncos summer, when the two players who commanded the most national media attention that summer were Clarett and Jerry Rice. Neither made it to Week 1.
Sure, sometimes you roll the dice in the draft, but the end of the third round is too early to treat your choice like a MegaMillions ticket. The next two running backs selected were Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber III. Either would have been helpful in recent years; the Broncos started 13 different running backs from 2005-10 before finding Pro Bowler Willis McGahee last summer. And let’s say the Broncos had decided to bypass Clarett for a quarterback? The next passer chosen was Kyle Orton to Chicago, six picks later, who, while an object of scorn from Broncos fans, is a successful pick relative to his draft status.)
The ability to even have a passing glance at draft preparation declined in the following years. As Mike Shanahan’s tenure wound down, the paranoia increased and the walls heightened between football operations and those on the business side — and even between factions in football operations. This was depressing and I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but these were my “younger and more vulnerable years,” so I did anyway, even though I hadn’t revealed any secrets, spilled any beans or leaked any stories.
This was why The Kansas City Star’s January report on the internal tumult within Chiefs organization rang so true; I know how it feels to be on the side of the organization that doesn’t feel it can be trusted. It becomes not a team, but just another place to work. It stops being special for the staff. More crucially for the club, it does nothing to foster organizational cohesion.
NFL organizations are relatively small concerns; at 150-300 full-time employees, they are hardly multi-national corporations, although their brands are well-recognized. Most have one centralized office, some, like the Broncos, split their staff, with some at the stadium and others at a training facility. Either way, one of the great sins of organizations of this manageable size is not trusting its staff — if you don’t trust your people to do their jobs, why hire them in the first place?
By all indications, the Broncos operate much differently now than in the latter Shanahan days and the Josh McDaniels era. It’s to the entire organization’s benefit — and ultimately, the fans, because the majority of recent championships have been claimed by quality organizations: the Steelers, Giants and Packers. All are models worthy of emulation, but the Steelers and Giants have a special distinction: they are the only two-time Super Bowl winners in the last seven seasons, and have built stable organizations with philosophical continuity in the front office that dates back to 1979 for the Giants and 1969 for the Steelers.
One of the people John Elway sought for advice is Ernie Accorsi, the former Giants general manager who was the second in that club’s line of mentor-protégé continuity that began with the late George Young, continued with Accorsi and carried on to the promotion of Jerry Reese upon Accorsi’s 2007 retirement. When Accorsi worked with the Giants, his defensive coordinator for five seasons was John Fox, whose résumé included three years with the Steelers (1989-91) on Chuck Noll’s staff.
Now, those influences permeate the Broncos. Steadiness and consistency are treasured commodities. There are fewer worries about trivial matters; paranoia, while a league-wide condition, is dialed down a few notches, replaced by a focus on more pressing matters, like drafting the best possible players.
As they painfully learned during the ill-fated McDaniels era and the Browns learned under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, the Patriots’ model is difficult to replicate. But mimicking the philosophies of the Steelers and Giants has helped take the Cardinals and Panthers, two franchises of modest historical distinction, to the Super Bowl in the last decade.
Throw Peyton Manning into the mix, and the Broncos are far closer to the models of their sport than they have been in quite some time — and appear to be consolidating a philosophy that stands a good chance of success beyond the Manning era.
Steady and quiet doesn’t create streams of headlines and reams of copy — until the season, when you win.
* IMLTHO is “in my less-than-humble-opinion,” where I’ll spout off on whatever comes to mind. And based on the site traffic numbers and page views, this will become a regular feature, so consider yourself advised — or warned off, depending on your perspective.