Teamwork has helped Panthers and Patriots
The Panthers and Patriots have been helped by how well their coaches and front offices work together.
In a 10-year partnership that essentially produced three Super Bowl titles, Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and general manager Bobby Beathard frequently skirmished over veteran personnel moves, and often adamantly disagreed about draft choices.
Their tandem success in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, Steelers coach Bill Cowher and director of football operations Tom Donahoe finally reached a breaking point where they could no longer co-exist. There were times during their shared stint with the New York Giants that general manager George Young threatened to stash coach Bill Parcells in a closet on draft day. The disdain with which coach Jon Gruden regarded general manager Rich McKay, even after the duet combined to assemble a roster than won last season's Super Bowl, is now well documented.
Coaches, of course, always want players who can line up for them right now. You know, guys who can help them extend their tenure in a high-pressure job with escalating salaries but a shrinking shelf-life. On the flip side, general managers and personnel directors are more into projecting talent than protecting their pay checks.
Even with the internecine bickering that characteristically takes place between the two positions, history has demonstrated a coach and general manager don't necessarily have to be kissin' cousins to lead a franchise to the Super Bowl. But one of the compelling elements of Super Bowl XXXVIII is the very close relationship that the coaches and top football executives of the two teams enjoy.
In fact, few coach-GM marriages function much better than those of Marty Hurney and John Fox in Carolina and New England's Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, and the ability of the duets to work together certainly helped the respective teams advance to next Sunday's title game. There are no hidden agendas with the two pairs and no overt concerns about who merits credit for their teams' successes. They seem to operate without the kind of pettiness that marks many coach-general manager pairings. That is, indeed, not only refreshing and rare, but remarkable as well.
Which isn't to say the four men all arrived at their current couplings along the same path.
Hurney essentially is Fox' boss, having hired his longtime friend in 2002 after the failed experiment in Carolina with George Seifert. A longtime cap expert, whose fancy financial finagling bailed out the Panthers several times in the last few years, Hurney was elevated to the general manager post when owner Jerry Richardson reconfigured the operation two years ago.
Choosing Hurney, over candidates with more traditional football backgrounds, has proven to be a masterstroke. Hurney ended the disastrous stretch in which Richardson, seeking quick gratification, signed too many veterans in decline. Poor decisions, like the additions of Reggie White and Chuck Smith and Eric Swann, wreaked havoc on the salary cap. Under Hurney and Fox, the Panthers have more of a commitment to the draft.
That the easygoing Hurney himself has risen to such a lofty status is the stuff of Horatio Alger, given that he is a former scribe, a guy who once documented football deeds instead of directing them. Of course, any hack who is also a frustrated general manager confined to a laptop (which is most of us), can't help but revel in Hurney's successes. Players and coaches take great glee in diminishing the football acumen of writers. But Hurney is the second former sportswriter -- the Giants' Ernie Accorsi is the other -- to shepherd him team to a Super Bowl this millennium.
The roles are a bit reversed in New England, where Belichick is the grand poobah, and has near-absolute sway over all football-related issues. But the under-appreciated Pioli, who has worked for Belichick since 1992 and is just now beginning to command the credit long due him, is carving his own niche. His name is often mention in conjunction with general manager posts at other franchises and, while the Pats have precluded him from moving on, they might not be able to keep him forever.
The son-in-law of Bill Parcells, Pioli was recently awarded executive of the year honors by Pro Football Weekly, and is the overwhelming favorite to capture the league trophy as well, chosen by his peers and announced in March at the annual NFL meetings. Pioli fills a lot of roles for Belichick -- functioning as general manager without really having that title (he is officially listed as the vice president of player personnel) -- but the most notable is that of confidant.
Take a look, for instance, at the recent New England drafts and it is obvious the concert in which Belichick and Pioli exist has exploded into an opus. Theirs may not be the perfect world, and there has to be some disagreement over players, but rarely are the Pats wrong on a draft pick or veteran free agent. It is as if the two men, in a sort of football Vulcan mind meld, are like conjoined twins. When it comes to evaluating talent, and projecting precisely how players will dovetail into the Belichick systems, they rarely err.
Two summers ago, when this site featured a training camp piece on the Belichick-Pioli relationship, neither man could verbalize why it worked so well, but both agreed that they share the same instincts about players. And now, for the second time in three years, they will share the Super Bowl experience.
During the coming week of Super Bowl run-up, it's likely the spotlight will have to find Hurney and Pioli, because neither goes out of his way to locate even the edge of the stage. But they are two good football men who have played a considerable role in getting two good football teams to the championship game. And they did so, in large part, by working well with their head coaches and within a structured environment.
Around the league
Part of the problem for the Chargers is that some members of the organization still haven't recovered from the Ryan Leaf debacle, a reality that played a part in the decision to trade down from the top overall pick in '01, rather than select Michael Vick. If the team becomes comfortable with Brees, who at one point in 2003 lost his starting job to Doug Flutie, San Diego might again be in trade-down mode. This is a team, after all, which might actually be in worse shape personnel-wise than when it went 1-15 in 2000, and it needs quantity even more than it does quality. If not, a quarterback might well be the answer, both from an on-field and public relations view.
Remember, though, that head coach Marty Schottenheimer probably has to win in 2004 to keep his job. Coaches on a short leash are not prone to taking quarterback prospects, who need time to develop, and usually prefer players who can step directly into the lineup and offer immediate help.
So, even given the degree of disdain with which the media often is regarded, uh, who should you believe, folks? Payton balked for many reasons, not the least of which is Davis' adamant stance on staffing, on personnel decisions and, our personal favorite, disciplining of players. In the convoluted Davis mind, deposed head coach Bill Callahan, the guy who sent home two players when they were tardy for some mandatory team functions preceding the season finale, was misguided.
Unless veteran coach Norv Turner, who met with Davis on Friday, is so desperate to be a head coach in the league again that he sells his soul, the Raiders owner will wait until after the Super Bowl and interview the two New England coordinators. Indications are that Davis, who has always favored coaches with offensive backgrounds, likes Charlie Weis over Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. That said, Davis is said to be intrigued by the way Crennel has handled himself and by his game-planning prowess. League sources said that Davis has already "arranged" (their word) to get coaching-quality videotapes from Super Bowl XXXVIII, to better peruse the work of Crennel and Weis in the title game.
It appears now that Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman, who still could promote from within (either linebackers coach Mark Duffner or secondary coach Bob Slowik) to fill the void created by the firing of coordinator Ed Dontell, is seriously considering McGinnis. The New York Jets, who continue to strike out in trying to fill the spot previously held down by Ted Cottrell, have also made contact with McGinnis. Word is that Eagles linebackers coach Ron Rivera, who interviewed with Jets coach Herm Edwards on Thursday and was set to meet with Chicago rookie coach Lovie Smith on Friday, is headed to the Bears, where he played nine seasons as a linebacker. If that is the case, Edwards ought to hustle to land McGinnis, before someone else gets smart and hires him. The Jets could also wait until after the Super Bowl and then try to pry secondary coach Eric Mangini, a rising star, away from New England. Then again, given the Jets' poor luck so far in trying to fill the job, waiting around might not be prudent. New York has had five candidates either take jobs with other teams or be denied permission to speak to them. Heck, even Nebraska interim head coach Bo Pelini rebuffed the Jets advances to take a job at Oklahoma as the assistant defensive coordinator.
But he has been beset the past two years by injuries, remains an unknown commodity even though his workouts have been OK lately, but is a player worthy of a look. Especially given that the Steelers figure to revamp their secondary, through free agency and the draft, and that Fair was signed on the cheap. His contract, dated Jan. 16, calls for zero signing bonus and a minimum base salary of $535,000. That makes his cap charge, because of the rule that provides a break to franchises that sign veterans to minimum-salary deals, just $455,000. Translation: If he can't play anymore, and his recent 40-yard times certainly demonstrate Fair has lost some quickness because of the injuries, Pittsburgh can set him free and won't have invested so much as a nickel in him.
A first-round pick in 1998, Fair started 48 games for the Lions over four seasons, then suffered a "Lis Franc" right foot injury in 2001. He was released by Detroit and, after rehabilitating the foot, signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with Carolina that year. After playing just three games, however, Fair broke his right ankle and hasn't played in a game since. Agent Reggie Smith kept telling us during the '03 season that Fair was progressing physically but the veteran cornerback still missed the entire season. Now he's getting another (perhaps final) chance with a team desperate for cornerback help. Just 27 years old, there is still time for Fair to make it back, but the sands are, indeed, trickling through the hourglass. The thread that connected Fair to Pittsburgh is that Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert was the pro scouting chief for the Lions when Fair was chosen in 1998.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Crabtree responds to Sherman: Tired of talk
- Jones-Drew: London deserves an NFL team
- Johnson: Lions 'need to win a Super Bowl'
- Pack hold off Favre return, afraid of booing
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
- Antigua Men's New England Patriots Red Tone Polo