Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bruce Allen: the Redskins last, best hope (since the previous last, best hope)

[Apologies as usual for the weird formatting. Blogspot is just f-ing terrible.]

As I wrote a few weeks ago when this whole shitstorm broke, what was so depressing about the revelation that Mike Shanahan and Dan Snyder's relationship had soured so badly was the confirmation that the Celebrity Coach model can't work in DC. I'm not a fan of such a model on it's merits, but it seemed like the last option for allowing a football operation to take place without Dan Snyder's interference. With Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan, the egos were just too big to peacefully coexist with the owner. He and Joe Gibbs seemed to get along, but that was mostly a case of hero worship. Hiring a more obscure coach to see if you could uncover hidden talent is a non-starter because without a strong football structure over him an unknown coach will be destroyed by the whims of ownership (Hi Jim!). My preference all along (everyone's preference, really) has been the Strong GM model, but it seemed like that is the one option that Dan Snyder would never accept. It would prevent him from either basking in Celebrity Coach’s reflected glory or micromanaging (and therefore undermining) an up-and-comer.

That's why I watched Bruce Allen’s press conference yesterday with great interest. In it he claimed that he was taking on a full GM role. He also said that he would have full control over personnel matters. It is important to remember, of course, that press conferences don’t mean a damn thing. But let’s take him at his word for the moment and discuss what that would mean.

We already know that Allen has Snyder's trust. Some will use that deride him as a puppet, but Dan Snyder being comfortable with you is a pretty obvious prerequisite for the job. Not only to avoid getting undermined and then canned, but because a large part of his duties will be placating Snyder and keeping him in the loop enough that he feels involved, but still minimizing interference in the football operations. If – and I stress if – Bruce Allen is setting himself up as an effective bulwark between Snyder and the football ops side of things, then it’s possible we are seeing the establishment of a real front office. You know, the kind like a professional football team might have. And bringing in an outside Strong GM-type means rolling the dice when it comes to whether he and Snyder could work together productively. I hate as much as anyone that the franchise's options are always limited by the dysfunctional personality of the owner, but he's not selling or dying anytime soon and that is just the context in which this team has to operate.

Some are concerned about Allen's player evaluation chops. However it is important to remember that his job is less breaking down film and more managing (generally!) the process by which his staff generates information and using that information to make sound roster decisions.* Here’s a quote from the press conference that jumped out at me, while Bruce Allen was discussing personnel guys Scott Campbell and Morocco Brown: “I see some people who have to be given an opportunity to succeed.” If you will forgive me for reading between the lines a bit, the implication here seems to be that Shanahan’s influence over roster decisions kept the player personnel department from working to it’s potential. Perhaps he was overruling their evaluations? And Shanahan was setting the direction, so if these guys were producing good work on the wrong sorts of players they were merely fulfilling their assignments from the boss. Such a scenario would be totally plausible given the well known problems of giving a coach full personnel control. Allen, at least, thinks there is a good personnel department here that can be effective if properly managed. You may disagree, but he knows those guys and you don't.

There's a lot that could go wrong, even if this "real front office" thing is in fact being tried. A Celebrity Coach hire would wreck this whole thing, so if Bill Cowher closes on a house in Northern Virginia this all goes out the window. Also, there was a bit of a perception that since Snyder knew well ahead of time that he wanted Shanahan, Bruce Allen was chosen partly because he was not a dominant personality that would end up in a power struggle with the new superstar coach. I suspect this is an unfair and simplistic portrayal of Allen. But a strong yet controlled personality will be necessary to handle both an overhaul of football ops and taming Snyder. And of course, if suspicions that he's just a Snyder yes-man are true he could just end up enabling the owner rather than reining him in. It's hard for me to get a read on the guy since he has mostly stayed in the background for the past four years while Shanahan got all the public attention.

Speaking of which, I hope that after a new coach comes in Allen maintains more public visibility than he did under Shanahan. I think he would be a good public face for the team. He comes across as professional. Reasonable. A grown-up. This franchise is justifiably seen as a circus, so putting a more professional face on it may take a little bit of the media heat off the new coach and the players.

I admit this is a rather tepid endorsement. Fans of most teams would like a plan they felt better about than simply accepting that this is a front office set up that may be slightly less likely to blow up in our faces. But with the Redskins this is the closest thing to optimism I can manage - I can actually envision a way this might work, even though I have no idea if it will.

That's why I am finding myself in "wake me up when they sign a coach" mode and have little interest in diving into the pros and cons of every conceivable candidate. The big question is whether the new coach will have the opportunity to succeed or fail on his own merits. I'd rather talk about football than personalities, but unfortunately personal dysfunction is a much bigger problem for this team than Xs and Os or lack of player talent. When a coach get hired I will mostly be interested in what it says about whether or not this front office plan is being seriously implemented.

*For a good description of a player personnel system working with unity of purpose, and the conflict inherent in getting it to that point, I recommend War Room by Michael Holley.

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