In recent weeks, we have taken a look at the quarterbacks and head coaches who are under the most pressure to produce in 2016, but what about the folks who are the face of their respective front offices? In the NFL, general managers are usually third in line to draw the wrath of fans and the media when a team flounders. And these days the job turnover rates are almost every bit as high, reflecting the insecurity of the GM position.
Here’s my assessment of the eight most vulnerable general managers as the new season looms roughly three months away. It doesn’t mean they’re all on the hottest of hot seats per se, but they do face the reality that the spotlight could turn squarely in their direction if their teams’ 2016 campaigns go awry.
And one note to get out of the way up at the top: I considered putting Broncos GM John Elway on this list, given that his risky handling of his quarterbacks—leaving Mark Sanchez rather than Brock Osweiler to succeed the retired Peyton Manning—has to work out to some degree in order for the Super Bowl champions to have a shot at defending their title, but let’s be realistic here. Elway walks on water in Denver at the moment, and two Super Bowl trips in the past three years have bought enough political capital to sustain him quite easily this season. Let’s check back on him in 2017, shall we?
Now to the list of endangered front-office species...
1. Jerry Reese, Giants: After four consecutive non-playoff seasons and three losing records in a row in East Rutherford, ownership finally showed veteran coach Tom Coughlin the door and clearly put Reese on notice that he’s next in line for blame if New York’s fortunes don’t improve this year. No one is certain if it’s playoffs-or-bust for Reese, but we know another 6–10 finish won’t cut it. The Giants’ uncharacteristic $200-million-plus spending spree on defense in free agency only underlined what’s at stake and how much Reese has riding on his latest attempt to upgrade the roster. In the wide-open NFC East, where nine wins go a long way, New York has to become a contender again for Reese to endure.
2. Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons: Owner Arthur Blank has issued Dimitroff a one-year reprieve in each of the past two Januarys, but diminished his overall authority in the process. That’s a tenuous existence to lead, and you have to figure if there’s a third such decision to be made next off-season, it won’t be the charm. Atlanta has gone just 18–30 over the course of three straight playoff-less seasons, a sharp contrast with the four consecutive playoff trips and five winning seasons in a row that began with Dimitroff’s tenure in 2008. (Remember, people: Winning early isn’t always the best long-term course of action.) The Falcons started a hopeful 5–0 under rookie coach Dan Quinn last year and then faded to 8–8 as depth issues surfaced. They’d better even out their ride and make a serious push for the playoffs, or Dimitroff and his so-so draft record could easily be deemed the scapegoat.
3. Trent Baalke, 49ers: That Super Bowl season of 2012 could pass for some foggy, distant memory at this point in San Francisco. The 49ers have quickly become the dregs of the NFC West the past two seasons, even while the Seahawks and Cardinals continue to win big and contend for rings. Baalke’s drafts have been unimpressive, the roster looks barren, and he needs some immediate impact from this year’s large draft haul to rewrite the increasingly desperate narrative. Hiring Chip Kelly as head coach bought at least a dose of credibility after the Jim Tomsula fiasco, but if Kelly struggles to win with sub-par personnel, even Baalke’s tight relationship with owner Jed York might not be enough to save his bacon.
4. Ryan Grigson, Colts: How Grigson and Colts head coach Chuck Pagano went from job embattled to extended contractually on that memorable night in January is still a marvel. Just because they both now have more financial security, it doesn’t mean their employment past this season is assured. How Grigson and Pagano coexist going forward is part of the story, and so too is reversing Indy’s spotty draft results. If the Colts return to the playoffs and Andrew Luck resumes his elite quarterback status, all will be well in the heartland. But if there’s any more dysfunction or underachievement, Grigson won’t survive a second close call.
5. David Caldwell, Jaguars: There are plenty of hopeful signs in Jags-ville, and owner Shahid Khan’s notable patience with the management tandem of Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley may be about to pay off. But a 12–36 record in Caldwell-Bradley’s three-season tenure speaks for itself and creates the expected amount of pressure in 2016. The time for excuses and finding silver linings is over. The Jaguars’ offense has taken the necessary steps the past two seasons, but unless there’s finally improvement on defense, playoff contention remains beyond Jacksonville’s reach. A .500 record would seem to be the minimum proof of progress this season, and it’d be a shame if the Jaguars’ next coach and GM got to take advantage of what their predecessors built.
6. Howie Roseman, Eagles: Everybody can grasp the meaning of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” I know Roseman can. Once banished to the proverbial basement like that poor sap in Office Space, Roseman outlasted coach Chip Kelly’s three-year reign and now has full control over the whole show in Philly. Obviously the pressure is all on him now, and if rookie coach Doug Pederson bombs or the three-headed quarterback platoon of Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz doesn’t quite add up to success, there’s going to be some ’splaining to do. On the positive side, this is the NFC East. The road from 7–9 to division supremacy isn’t exactly a navigational nightmare.
7. Les Snead, Rams: If they weren’t working in the alternate reality that was the final two years of the Rams’ existence in St. Louis, Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher might already be ex-employees of the organization. But the relocation game that owner Stan Kroenke was playing made the rules different, and thus four consecutive losing seasons were deemed acceptable. But what now? Will roughly the same logic prevail, that the high-profile and logistically challenging move to LA paired with the drafting of a franchise quarterback should buy Snead and Fisher even more time? That’s a distinctly possible, even probable, eventuality from my vantage point. Amidst all that good weather, I’m convinced it’s still quite good to be Snead.
8. Doug Whaley, Bills: Buffalo’s 8–8 record in Rex Ryan’s first season as head coach was disappointing but good enough to secure the status quo in Whaley’s case. While the three-year contract extension given to Whaley in January now means both he and Ryan are locked up through 2019, there’s still a distinct sense of urgency with the Bills shackled to that odious NFL-worst 16-year playoff drought. Whaley has his share of success stories in the draft and with the rest of the roster—with some glaring exceptions—but until Buffalo finally gets over the hump and returns to relevancy, his job security will continue to be a question that won’t go away.