Can One Person Be Both a Coach and a General Manager?
Bill O'Brien's tenure with the Houston Texans went off the rails very quickly this season. After forcing out multiple GM's during his tenure as coach, O'Brien finally got the chance to take full control of the organization as both head coach as general manager in January 2020. However, after multiple heavily criticized moves, such as trading star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, and an 0-4 start to this season, O'Brien was fired earlier this week.
This means that while some coaches such as Andy Reid and Jon Gruden have significant input in player personnel decisions, only one coach retains unilateral power over player personnel and on-field coaching: Bill Belichick of the Patriots. This should make us think more deeply about the role of being both a coach and a general manager, and whether one person is truly able to perform both roles simultaneously.
Throughout the NFL, teams have wholeheartedly embraced analytics. Detailed statistical reports have informed player signings, altered training routines, and changed the product we see on the field. However, this shift in the way football is played and consumed has made managerial and front office roles far more specialized than they have ever been. Front office personnel are often experts in statistical analysis, signing players based on player value statistics that have not always been considered "traditional" for evaluating players. General managers and their staff spend months poring through data in an effort to discern which players will provide the most value for their contracts. On the other hand, head coaches and members of the coaching staff are often hired as motivators and to manage the egos in their locker room. While they formerly had much more input in the signing and trading of players, coaches often have little say over player personnel today. They are expected to focus their entire job on formulating game plans, creating playbooks, and inspiring their teams to perform on the field.
As a result, performing both roles simultaneously can be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, job. The only person to be highly successful at both roles is Belichick, but he got to coach the best player to ever step on a football field in Tom Brady, and for almost two decades. In fact, that just illustrates the difficulty of the job. This season will be a test for Belichick; fans and pundits alike will be eager to see if he can generate the same results on the field without Brady by his side.
Bill O'Brien was set up to succeed in his role as head coach and general manager. He had a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, as well as multiple stars on both offense and defense. He took the reins of an organization that had demonstrated its willingness to spend money and trade for top-tier talent. Yet, he was still unable to successfully perform both sets of duties at once. That demonstrates that while it may seem attractive to give one person unilateral power over an organization, specialized front office and coaching roles is the best way to pursue success in the NFL.