The abrupt firing of Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman on Monday sent another round of shock waves through the NFL. They’re the same reverberations that accompanied the stunning departure of Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey in June, and they also represent an interesting turning point for those who make their livings in front offices. It’s basically a lot harder to survive as a general manager who doesn’t really know how to manage. It also might become more difficult for owners to believe in men who made their names solely as top personnel evaluators.
If there’s anything to be taken away from the pink slip Panthers owner Jerry Richardson just gave Gettleman — and more of the details behind that decision are sure to emerge as we move closer to the start of training camps next week — it’s that being a great scout doesn’t mean somebody will be a great general manager. The Charlotte Observer reported that Gettleman’s management style wasn’t working within that organization. Yes, he was the man in charge when the Panthers reached the Super Bowl during the 2015 season. He also happened to be the person responsible for creating a noticeable divide between the front office and the core players who contributed to the greatest year in franchise history.
As it turns out, “management style” was a word that was thrown around quite a bit when Chiefs owner Clark Hunt parted ways with Dorsey right after that team ended its June mini-camp. It also was a term that came up often in discussions with sources who worked with Trent Baalke in San Francisco about 49ers owner Jed York’s decision to fire Baalke as GM in January. The only other common denominator for these three men is that they all rose to their positions because of their reputations for evaluating talent. They also all apparently lost their jobs because of their inability to handle the manager part of their titles.
It’s one thing to be a gifted scout. It’s another to be the kind of leader who can run an entire organization seamlessly year after year. As one Chiefs front-office source said, “Some guys that have the job of general manager are not true general managers. Some guys are just personnel guys with no real business sense.”
Before progressing any further down this path, let’s first point out that this has been one of the strangest offseasons in recent memory when it comes to the timing of front office movement. Aside from the firings of Gettleman and Dorsey, the Buffalo Bills dumped general manager Doug Whaley right after he finished running that team’s draft in April. The Washington Redskins also fired general manager Scot McCloughan in March — roughly a couple of weeks into free agency — although there were also absences and reports of dysfunction under McCloughan.
It would be easy to lump all these men into the same category, but the situations of Gettleman, Dorsey and even Baalke fall on an entirely different spectrum. These are all men who attacked the job with a certain aggressiveness that ironically made it easy for them to become expendable. They all had their strengths and lorded over a noteworthy amount of success within their respective organizations. They also all made public gaffes that came back to haunt them in the end.
Gettleman, for example, deserves credit for cleaning up the salary-cap mess he inherited after becoming Carolina’s general manager in 2013. He also made a point of calling out star quarterback Cam Newton during his first year on the job, saying that the signal-caller’s impressive stats had obscured the fact that Carolina had gone 13-19 during Newton’s first two seasons. That kind of tough talk sounded like a breath of fresh air, until Gettleman started a pattern of alienating the franchise’s most popular players. This is the same man who dumped wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams, and who also let All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman walk in free agency last spring.
Gettleman obviously underestimated the remaining effectiveness of aging players like Williams and Smith, with Smith saying during a 2014 radio interview that Gettleman didn’t “have the cojones to tell us to our face [about the release]. We have to hear it from someone else.” Norman took his departure just as hard, as he said Gettleman never talked to him about the decision to rescind the franchise tag that the team placed on Norman at the start of free agency. The Washington Redskins swooped in to sign Norman to a five-year, $75 million deal within a couple days of that move.
As one might imagine, all three players took to Twitter to celebrate Gettleman’s firing, with Smith tweeting, “It’s okay! Dave I know how you feel …” Just as telling was the lack of sympathy given to Gettleman by current players. There has been some question as to whether Gettleman hurt his standing with the way he handled prospective extensions for tight end Greg Olsen and outside linebacker Thomas Davis (while failing to make expected progress with long-term deals for younger players like defensive tackle Kawann Short and guard Trai Turner). What’s also becoming clear is that Richardson might have noticed that most of the best players on his current roster were those that Gettleman’s predecessor, Marty Hurney, selected.
Dorsey didn’t inspire the same level of acrimony with players that Gettleman had — Dorsey’s decision to release wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in June via a voicemail left on Maclin’s phone was his most notorious move — but there was plenty to question during his time in Kansas City. Yes, Dorsey was responsible for the roster of a team that won at least 11 games in three of the last four years. He also oversaw a team that routinely found itself in salary-cap hell, wound up paying more money to Pro Bowler Eric Berry on a long-term deal that was consummated after Berry excelled while playing under the franchise tag, and lost two draft picks for tampering related to the contract Maclin signed in 2015.
It’s impossible to argue that Dorsey didn’t build a deep roster for the Chiefs. What was less discussed during his time with the team was the way he worked with the people in the building. The Chiefs source called him “a decent guy but a blowhard” who became more full of himself as the team enjoyed increasingly more success and may have pushed too hard when negotiating a contract extension with Hunt. The Chiefs have yet to comment on Dorsey’s dismissal, but it is worth nothing that his replacement is 39-year-old Brett Veach, a man whose NFL career began when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid hired him as a summer intern in Philadelphia in 2004 (Veach had only been the Chiefs co-pro personnel director for a couple of months after Dorsey fired former pro personnel director Will Lewis).
About the only thing that separates Gettleman and Dorsey from Baalke is that they didn’t leave their teams in undisputed chaos. Baalke was the man who won an in-house feud with former head coach Jim Harbaugh before giving the job to Jim Tomsula and then Chip Kelly. In the process, the 49ers went from being a team that reached the Super Bowl in the 2012 season to one that won just seven games over the last two years. That franchise also watched a talented roster evaporate to the point that it’s hard to find too many teams with a worse collection of players.
Niners sources specifically mentioned the dysfunction within the building, much of which related back to Baalke. One 49ers source talked about a franchise where too many people “worked in silos,” along with the elation that followed Baalke’s departure. Again, we’re talking about a man who was given the keys to an organization and used them to reveal his inability to handle power. What’s even more stunning is that it took York so long to recognize that this wasn’t working in the way he’d imagined.
That might be the ultimate blessing for the Panthers and the Chiefs. Sure, their owners could’ve found successors in-house if they had moved quicker on the terminations (the Chiefs watched director of football operations Chris Ballard go to Indianapolis in January as a general manager, while the Panthers saw assistant general manager Brandon Beane replace Whaley in Buffalo in May). However, there’s something to be said for recognizing when a mistake has been made. The lesson to be learned here is that there’s a lot more to being a general manager these days than simply picking the players.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.