Just a couple of years ago, the defending Super Bowl champions had a quarterback problem. They had two quarterbacks. One had accomplished great things for the franchise — in fact, he had just led the team to a remarkable and stunning victory in the big game — but the head coach believed that the hero of the recent past wouldn’t and couldn’t be the long-term answer at the position. The team had used a high draft pick on another, younger quarterback who was talented and promising, and the time was coming, soon, to turn things over to him.
Except Robert Kraft told Bill Belichick no. In the fall of 2017, he told him that Tom Brady was the Patriots’ quarterback and would remain the Patriots’ quarterback and that it was up to Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo so that the team could receive some compensation for a player who, per the franchise’s owner, wasn’t going to become the franchise’s quarterback anytime soon. Unhappy that Kraft had undermined his authority over personnel matters, Belichick nevertheless traded Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round draft pick.
“Most in the organization … felt that Belichick had earned the right to make football decisions,” ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote in January 2018. “Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it’s time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.”
If you’re familiar with the assertions and pronouncements and backtracking coming out of One NovaCare Way last week, you might see the connection between this anecdote and the Eagles’ — or, more specifically, owner Jeffrey Lurie’s — decision to fire offensive coordinator Mike Groh and wide receivers coach Carson Walch.
Lurie, according to The Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, deemed that Groh and Walch were not to return in 2020, despite Doug Pederson’s support of and loyalty to them, and I don’t know about you, but I’m shocked — shocked! — to find out that head coach-undercutting goes on in this establishment. You mean Pederson said one thing at a press conference and the Eagles did another? Well, color me flabbergasted.
Perhaps, in our collective fixation on press conferences and “optics” and the words that our most prominent athletes, coaches, and executives use, in our analysis of what Pederson said last Wednesday and why he said it and what he meant when he said it, we’ve forgotten a basic truth: Pro sports owners are the ones who wield the real power in these situations, and this sort of thing is what pro sports owners do.
These franchises are the places where rich men’s loyalties and preferences and favors and favoritisms play themselves out. The results are myriad — benefits and drawbacks and things in between. One might be a multimillion-dollar fund-raiser for autism research. Another might be Vera Wang-designed cheerleading ensembles. Another might be a competitive football team. But the results come with the usually implicit understanding that this is Mr. Owner’s Team and Mr. Owner’s Show. In this case, the result was more explicit than most. Lurie did what owners all around the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL do. He stuck by his guy.
Kraft has had Brady. Jerry Jones had Jason Garrett. Ed Snider had Bob Clarke. Lurie has Howie Roseman. They’re that close, and for Lurie, the choice between believing that Roseman had erred in counting on Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, and Mack Hollins and believing that those receivers just needed to be coached up more was no choice at all. And if you want to argue that Lurie isn’t prone to this sort of meddling, let’s remember who came up with the cutting-edge front-office alignment under which the Eagles operated in 2015, just five years ago. There was Chip Kelly, ostensibly in control of everything while undergoing Lurie’s yearlong assessment of his, Kelly’s, administrative, and coaching skills. There was Roseman, out as the team’s player-personnel czar but still in the building, in a smaller office down the hall, biding his time. Smartly, as it turned out.
Is it possible that Eagles players, current and future, will judge Pederson more harshly, or tune him out completely, after Lurie’s relative emasculation of him, knowing that the man with his hands on the purse strings can, will, and might override a coach’s decision? I suppose, though Pederson’s track record and acumen still give him plenty of credibility within the locker room.
Everyone in Dallas knew that Garrett, ultimately, was answering to Jones for just about everything, and maybe that dynamic made him a eunuch in the eyes of the players. But it’s just as likely, maybe more likely, that over his 10 years with the Cowboys, Garrett just wasn’t a particularly good NFL head coach, and his own limitations damaged him more than his relationship with Jones did.
As for Belichick, as angry as he was over the Brady-Garoppolo incident, as tense and tenuous as things got in Foxborough, he reached two more Super Bowls thereafter, won one of them, and is still coaching the Patriots. He didn’t resign out of protest or principle, and given that Pederson’s contract reportedly runs through the 2022 season — another three seasons — it’s hard to see this hammer shot to his ego causing him to choose to become the head coach of your 2021 Cincinnati Bengals.