But in the coming weeks, with the start of free agency and later the NFL draft, Rivera’s football brain trust, with General Manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney, will face the first — and perhaps the toughest — test of its viability.
Washington has salary cap space to burn but also significant holes across its roster, a relatively low first-round draft slot and, particularly after the news that Alex Smith is expected to be released, no clear answer to its biggest problem: finding a quarterback.
“In this group, there’s not enough ego between the three of us that there’s just going to be one dominant attitude,” Rivera said during a recent news conference. "… I really do think if we do these things the right way and we collaborate and we listen to one another, we’ll come out of the room with the right frame of mind that we just made a good decision.”
While Washington’s loosely defined front office creates an air of mystery about its plan over the next few months, many current and former NFL executives believe its setup is sound. In fact, its day-to-day operations are likely to be quite similar to other teams in the league that use different titles and have different power structures — and those examples can provide hints to how Washington’s front office will approach key decisions.
“The wrong words are used to describe it,” said Scott Pioli, a former executive and current NFL Network analyst. “It’s not a decision-making ‘power.’ It makes it look like a dictatorial kind of thing. … Because the reality is, when it comes to personnel decisions, regardless of the structure, the healthiest personnel decisions are made collaboratively by the leadership group. It’s rarely one person.”
Pioli spent eight years as the New England Patriots’ head of personnel while Coach Bill Belichick had full control of the football operations. Though he answered to Belichick, their relationship was more nuanced. The back-and-forth over the roster was, too.
“When we were in New England, I stacked the draft board, and most of the time Bill was like: ‘What do you want to do here? What do you think?’ ” Pioli said. “You spend so much time working together that really the leadership group arrives at the same decision.”
And if one felt strongly about a player while the other didn’t, they would agree to not sign the player, out of respect and “humility,” as Pioli described it.
“He trusted me because I was spending so much time doing personnel,” he said. “People view that process as being much more confrontational than it actually is.”
‘It has to be connected’
Pioli and Belichick worked under Bill Parcells, who famously quipped in 1997, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” Parcells sought more control over the roster when he was coach of the Patriots, but owner Robert Kraft didn’t relent.
So Parcells left for the New York Jets to do his own grocery shopping. Yet even he — with Belichick as his top assistant and Pioli in personnel — had help with the purchases.
Pete Carroll does, too. For the past 11 seasons, Carroll has been head coach and executive vice president of football operations for the Seattle Seahawks. He has final say, but personnel decisions are made in lockstep with the GM he hired a week after taking the job.
“They asked me if I wanted to be the general manager, and I said, ‘No, but I’d like to be there to hire him,’ ” Carroll said in December. “So I was pretty clear what I was trying to set up. I wanted to set up a collaboration to work things out. … It isn’t something that I copied. It was just something that I felt was best to bring out the best I could offer. I needed John Schneider.”
The Seahawks have been to the playoffs in all but two years since Carroll and Schneider arrived in 2010. They are now facing a challenge that most good teams confront eventually: sustaining success.
“It’s not a one-person job to me, in my opinion,” Carroll said. “But it has to be connected. And it has to have philosophy and it has to be where we are united through the challenges of it or you’re going to split and fall apart and you’re going to get divorced, in essence. That’s not what we’re about here.”
Mike Tannenbaum, a former NFL executive who is now an analyst for ESPN, realized the many layers of the GM role when he was promoted by the Jets in 2006. Parcells used to tell him that “five bad, unexpected things are going to happen every day, so any day in which five bad, unexpected things don’t happen, it’s a good day.”
“It took me about 18 months to really understand what the job was,” Tannenbaum said. “And that was literally after being in the building for five years. Until you get in the seat, you really don’t know.”
‘Everybody’s pulling in the same direction’
The growth of NFL organizations — larger rosters, expanded scouting departments, social media teams, analytics teams, software development teams, directors of sports science, directors of sports performance and so on — has required front offices to evolve. Most decisions aren’t made by one person.
Rivera realized last season that Washington’s front office needed the help of a GM. Weeks of cancer treatment jumbled his schedule and left him physically unable to be a head coach, head of football operations and a patient simultaneously. He often turned to Rob Rogers, the team’s salary cap manager and lead contract negotiator, to handle the administrative tasks of the job so he could use his limited time and energy on his players.
But there’s a delicate balance in collaboration. Brian Xanders, a Los Angeles Rams senior personnel executive, has worked in multiple front-office structures. He said he believes the successful ones are able to align people with a shared vision without creating “groupthink” or power struggles.
“I think it’s just everybody’s pulling in the same direction,” he said. “You always want that respectful dissent to happen, but the next step of that is why is there dissent? Show us on video examples of: ‘Here’s what I’m seeing; here’s what you’re seeing. Let’s collaborate and go forward with that.’ … You want to avoid groupthink.”
Xanders was hired by Mayhew to be the Detroit Lions’ senior personnel executive in 2013. In their first year together, the Lions drafted three future Pro Bowl players while filling many of their biggest roster needs at the time.
“That’s Martin blending the scouts’ grades and the coaches’ opinions to do the best thing for the franchise,” Xanders said.
Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane worked closely with Rivera and Hurney with Carolina and has used parts of their approach for Buffalo’s rebuild. He, too, vouches for a collaborative setting with like-minded executives. Disagreement, he believes, is vital. But so, too, is a lack of ego.
“I can’t say every single player we signed here that I was like, ‘Man, that is the number one guy I want,’ ” Beane said. “What I can tell you — and it’s what I learned in Carolina — is: ‘Let’s hear what coaches think; let’s hear what scouts think. … Is there anyone else that knows this player from another team or knows somebody at that college?’
“And even if you don’t agree with it, once we make the decision, it’s the decision of the Buffalo Bills.”
For as many successful examples of coach-centric front offices such as Washington’s, there are just as many failed experiments, for various reasons. Ego. Control. Lack of communication. Or worse: a focus so narrow that the team’s long-term needs are sacrificed for short-term gain.
Rivera believes the experience atop Washington’s front office and its collaborative approach will achieve both — improvement for now with an eye on the future.
“To my benefit, to this organization’s benefit, we were able to get two extra sets of eyes — two very experienced guys in the league,” Rivera said. “So that was really the genesis of this entire situation to me. … I promise you I’m going to listen to Martin, I’m going to listen to Marty; I really am. That’s how I’ve always done it: I’ve listened to the people that have been through this.”
Sam Fortier contributed reporting.