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The Challenge of Dual Coach-GM Roles in the NFL

Considering the New England Patriots are the most successful NFL team of the 21st century, it’s hard to fathom how far they and their future Hall of Fame coach, Bill Belichick, have fallen through Week 5 of the NFL season.

The 1-4 Patriots are coming off the two worst losses of Belichick’s 24 years as New England’s head coach — a 38-3 shellacking in Dallas followed by an ugly 34-0 loss at home against New Orleans. The Patriots are rudderless at quarterback, as Mac Jones has been benched during the game the past two weeks. The offense has 10 giveaways (six of them are Jones’ interceptions), and the defense has produced a league-low two takeaways (after having 30 last season).

Time of possession has been a disaster — the Saints held the ball for 40 minutes after the Cowboys possessed it for 35 minutes. The Patriots have converted only five of 31 times on third and fourth downs in the past two games.

Belichick the Coach > Belichick the GM

In seeking an explanation for the team’s current plight, Belichick, the coach, need only look in the mirror at Belichick the GM; it’s the latter who has let the coach and organization down with a lack of talent on the team. The Belichick conundrum confirms the rarity of one person successfully handling both jobs.

Belichick has the most Super Bowl wins (six) of any NFL head coach and an amazing 17 AFC East titles in 19 years from 2001-19. He’s now 71 years old, but he hasn’t forgotten how to coach, and he is regarded as one of the best defensive strategists of all time.

The problem for Belichick and the Patriots organization is that in the modern-day NFL, it’s virtually impossible for a coach/GM to be successful long-term without an outstanding player personnel director as a sidekick. Belichick handled the dual role exceedingly well when he had Scott Pioli in the player personnel director position from 2002-08, when the Patriots won their first three Super Bowls; Pioli was a two-time NFL Executive of the Year. He left to become GM of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Nick Caserio stepped into the role from 2009-20 as the Patriots won three more Super Bowls before Caserio became GM of the Houston Texans.

Dave Ziegler took over for Caserio and then left for the GM job with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Matt Groh has held the director of player personnel title since 2022.

This lack of continuity — and what appears to be a lower level of expertise with Groh as the top personnel aide for GM Belichick — has resulted in one wild-card appearance (a 47-17 loss in Buffalo in 2021) during the past three seasons. And the prospects are dim for a dramatic turnaround in the loaded AFC this season, especially considering the Patriots’ poor play lately.

History of Coach-GMs in the NFL

Since the 1950s, when the NFL began its rise as a dominant pro sport in America, there have been a handful of coaches who also held the GM reins and led their teams to championship heights.

Paul Brown was the Cleveland Browns’ coach/GM for three NFL title teams in 1950, 1954 and 1955. Brown later held the dual positions with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968-70 and directed the team to an AFC Central title in 1970.

George Halas was the owner, GM and coach of the Chicago Bears when they won the 1963 NFL title.

Vince Lombardi was the Green Bay Packers’ highly successful coach and GM when the team won three NFL championships in the early- to mid-1960s before being victorious in Super Bowls I and II. Bill Walsh was the coach/GM of the San Francisco 49ers when they won three Super Bowls in the 1980s.

Belichick is the only coach/GM with that level of success since Walsh.

There are head coaches with a lot of power and influence in the personnel area, such as Andy Reid in Kansas City. Still, he has a successful GM in Brett Veach, who Reid credits with identifying MVP QB Patrick Mahomes as the team’s target in the 2017 draft.

Changing Times Affecting Coach-GM Role

I think times have changed in terms of the demands of handling both jobs. Coaching staffs have increased from a couple of assistants on each side of the ball for Brown to Belichick now overseeing 19 assistant coaches. Roster size has grown from 40 or fewer players in the Brown/Halas/Lombardi era to 53 active players plus 16 practice squad members and several players on IR (and that’s after going to training camp with 90 on the roster).

The offseason programs hardly existed 50 years ago, and they take up a lot of the head coach’s time with planning and implementation.

There also was no unrestricted free agency in the NFL until 1994, which has added significantly to the workload of any coach aspiring to act as GM. Draft prep demands a lot of time and attention. And media sessions for the coach have skyrocketed with the popularity of the league and so many more media outlets.

On the coaching front, Belichick made a bad decision when he gave joint offensive coordinator responsibilities to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge last season after Josh McDaniels was hired as the Raiders coach. That resulted in the offense being disjointed and Jones regressing in his second season as his passer rating fell from 92.5 in 2021 to 84.8 last season. His performance has worsened this season under new OC Bill O’Brien (a 74.2 rating to rank 31st in the league).

The talent level of the Patriots’ roster has declined over the past three years. In the personnel area, since Caserio’s departure, the 2021 draft Belichick oversees produced three starters: Jones, DT Christian Barmore and RB Rhamondre Stevenson. But only two starters have emerged from the last two drafts: G Cole Strange (first-round pick in 2022) and CB Christian Gonzalez (first-round pick in 2023 and currently on IR because of a shoulder injury).

It was surprising that the Patriots selected defensive players with their first three picks in 2023 after the offensive struggles last season. Then they took kicker Chad Ryland in the fourth round, and he has been shaky thus far, making only four of his eight field goal attempts.

Free agency has been relatively unproductive in recent years other than the 2021 signing of Pro Bowl linebacker/edge rusher Matthew Judon, who had 28 sacks over the past two seasons and had four sacks through the first three games this season before he tore his biceps in Week 4, which has weakened the defense.

Mac Jones

Patriots Not Performing As Expected

Belichick has not gotten the production he hoped for from his key signings in the free agent class of 2023: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster ($8.5 million per year — 14 catches, 86 yards, 0 TDs), TE Mike Gesicki (1 year, $4.5 million — 12 catches, 116 yards, 0 TDs) and RB Ezekiel Elliott (1 year, $3 million — 159 rushing yards, 3.8 yards per carry and 12 receptions for 44 yards).

The Patriots will face their top wide receiver from last season, Jakobi Meyers, this Sunday in Las Vegas, and he is having a much better season than Smith-Schuster, with 25 catches for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Meyers played a part in what started the Patriots' decline late last season when his lateral on the last play of the game in Las Vegas was intercepted by Chandler Jones and returned for the Raiders’ game-winning score. The Patriots had a 7-6 record at the time and wound up missing the playoffs by one game.

Most Patriots fans point to the departure of Tom Brady for Tampa Bay in 2020 as the start of the team’s downfall. Still, after a 7-9 season with Cam Newton at quarterback that year, Jones played well as a rookie, leading the team to the playoffs and earning Pro Bowl and All-Rookie honors.

Since then, it’s been a rough go for Jones, who will keep his starting job (at least for this week), according to Belichick. But Jones clearly needs an influx of talent, better coaching from O’Brien and better play on his part, especially in protecting the ball, to justify Belichick picking him 15th overall in 2021.

Owner Robert Kraft has a tough task ahead of him to address the recent shortcomings in the Patriots organization that stem largely from one man having too much power. If there’s not a dramatic turnaround over the rest of this season, Kraft needs to tell Belichick it’s time for the team to hire a new GM while Belichick coaches a few more years.

And if Belichick balks at relinquishing control of personnel, then it’s possible Kraft would quietly force him to retire from both roles.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM and a former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffdiamondnfl.