- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

Mike Holmgren coached the once-iconic Green Bay Packers back to the top of the NFL mountain in the 1990s only to find that, with Ron Wolf running the front office, there were still more mountains to climb. So in 1999, Holmgren left a town in which there is a street named for him for Seattle and the power that comes with being coach and general manager.

But without Brett Favre at quarterback, Holmgren was just another coach. After compiling a 31-34 record with no playoff victories in four years, Holmgren was stripped of his GM duties after last season. Coincidentally or not, Holmgren’s Seahawks — with Bob Ferguson imported from Arizona as GM — had a franchise record-tying 6-2 first half and are atop the NFC West heading into tomorrow’s game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

“I wanted the final word in personnel to be able to determine your own destiny,” Holmgren said. “[But] when I thought long and hard about what’s important, the titles really take a back seat. We made some mistakes [during my four years in charge]. We went young in a lot of areas a couple of years ago and let some people go because of the salary cap. There were reasons we hadn’t gone through the roof, but I felt like we were coming close. I wasn’t going to let my ego disrupt that. My number one thing is to win games and coach our team.”

Holmgren isn’t even the most prominent example of a once all-powerful coach relinquishing control. Bill Parcells, who bolted AFC champion New England for the lowly New York Jets in 1997 after a power struggle with owner Bob Kraft, came out of retirement this year to coach — and only coach — the Dallas Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones retained his GM title. At 6-2, the Cowboys already have topped their victory total of each of the past three years and lead the NFC East.

Of course, there are exceptions. Marty Schottenheimer went 8-8 handling both jobs for the Redskins in 2001 but is only 9-15 (1-7 this year) as just the coach in San Diego.

“A lot of people said, ‘Parcells is power-hungry,’” said the Tuna, who retired from the New York Giants after winning a second Super Bowl in 1991 partly because he felt he had outgrown entrenched GM George Young.

“I never necessarily wanted to be the general manager, but if I knew I could do something better than the guy that was doing it and I had a lot more experience doing it and my butt was on the line, then I wanted to do it,” Parcells said. “What any coach or general manager needs is someone in the organization that you have 100 percent confidence in who won’t tell you what you want to hear all the time [and who] hopefully is an astute football person and a confidant.”

Parcells said he used scout Dick Haley as a “sounding board” when he was with the Jets.

In the era before widespread free agency and the salary cap, coaches like the Packers’ Vince Lombardi and the Redskins’ George Allen could be both coach and GM with relative ease. Players couldn’t leave unless they were cut or traded and salaries had to fit only into the franchise’s budget, not the NFL’s complicated cap system.

“Coaches don’t really want to be general managers,” Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said. “They want to be called general manager and have the power to make the final decisions on personnel, but they’re not going to negotiate contracts and worry about the salary cap.

“You have to have checks and balances. It’s to the owner’s benefit to hear different opinions. [Giants co-owner] Wellington Mara was asked if [coach Jim Fassel] and I agree on everything. He said, ‘I hope not, because if they agree on everything I don’t need them both.’”

Green Bay’s Mike Sherman, who went from Seahawks offensive coordinator in 2000 to Packers coach/GM upon Wolf’s retirement in 2001, disagrees with Accorsi.

“Someone that’s just a general manager is going to say that because that protects his job and his value,” Sherman said. “If you’re organized and you have a plan and the right people, [handling both jobs is] very doable. I don’t feel stressed. You have to be surrounded by good people who you encourage to give their opinions.”

A few other coaches are the ultimate authority in their organizations, but Denver’s Mike Shanahan (1997, 1998) and New England’s Bill Belichick (2001) are the only coaches/GMs to win Super Bowls during the cap era. Andy Reid has led Philadelphia to the NFC Championship game in each of the last two years.

Dave Wannstedt is seeking his fourth straight winning season in Miami. Dan Reeves had Atlanta in the Super Bowl in 1998. Newcomer Marvin Lewis is reviving long-dormant Cincinnati. But Reeves and Wannstedt are on hot seats, and Sherman has come under fire for several of his personnel moves.

“I believe it can be done,” Holmgren said of the one-man, two-job scenario. “Even though some of you may think I just kind of give all the orders around here, that’s not how it works. I have good football people that talk out a lot of stuff, and then I get to say kind of what happens at the end.”

However, of the 12 teams that would make the playoffs if they started tomorrow, only three — Patriots, Eagles and Dolphins — have coaches reigning supreme. And the NFL’s lone unbeaten team, Kansas City, is coached by Dick Vermeil, who doesn’t have the control he used to in Philadelphia and St. Louis.

“There’s no utopia for a head coach unless he owns the team,” said Vermeil, who works closely with GM Carl Peterson, an old friend. “Coaches aren’t running organizations as much as they used to, but someone will win it all by being a head coach and general manager, and people will think it’s a trend and do it that way again.

“It really doesn’t matter. Titles are meaningless if people work together properly. Where you have problems is when people have their own agendas. No one wants to take the blame. They all want the credit.”

Don Shula, who won an NFL-record 347 games before retiring as coach/GM of the Dolphins after the 1995 season, said successful coaches deserve the credit no matter their titles.

“With the salary cap the way it is, it’s much tougher in free agency to gain an edge in player personnel,” Shula said. “The rules are made for competitive balance, so now the owners realize that the best way to gain an edge is to have the best coaches possible.”

And another guy serving as the best GM possible.


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