As many suspected he would - even before he was eventually fired by the Carolina Panthers - Marty Hurney now stands on the cusp of being hired as the Washington Football Team’s next General Manager. Reactions range from feigned surprise, to a sense of disgust that Rivera is somehow more concerned with stacking the team’s ranks with his own loyalists from Carolina, rather than the most capable people for the jobs. I think reactions on both ends of that spectrum miss the sensibility of the choice, under the circumstances.
Similar emotions were expressed when Rivera assembled his coaching staff before last season, but those proved both unfair and unfounded. After all, Rivera retained Washington’s Special Teams Coordinator, Nate Kaczor, and brought in the respected and talented Jack Del Rio as his Defensive Coordinator, filling 2/3’s of his most important coaching roles with individuals he hadn’t coached with previously.
Those coaches he did bring over from Carolina - among them Pete Hoener, John Matsko, and Sam Mills - all led units that were significantly more effective in 2020 than they had been in 2019.
I would argue that now, as before, concerns about Rivera’s undeserved loyalty to individuals who aren’t “worthy” of it are overblown and unfair. Hurney, at 65 and freshly fired from the Panthers, certainly isn’t “the next hot trend” in NFL general management, but that’s ok. That’s not what Rivera needs from a general manager right now.
What Does Rivera Need?
As we’ve heard from the day Ron’s hiring was announced, Washington’s system is based on a “coach-centric” approach. That means, in essence, the final decisions on football matters for the team begin and end with Ron. Jason Wright, the Team President, was hired to be in charge of business decisions, but by his own admission, Ron runs football.
Jason Wright says: “there’s a clear dividing line” between what Ron Rivera runs (entire football side) and what he’ll do (run the business side). Keep in mind: this guy knows football. But he also understands doing the job you’re hired to do and how to run things.— John Keim (@john_keim) August 17, 2020
The new General Manager will not creep into Wright’s responsibilities, but will instead help offload from Rivera some of his own.
Rivera handled a ridiculous number of challenges and obstacles in 2020 like a champ: COVID-19, the name change controversy, cancer, team ownership turmoil and sexual harassment allegations, a young QB acting stupid, an old QB pulling off an improbable comeback, and more. Most of those had little to do with the on-the-field team performance, or just rendered it more challenging. Still, Ron and the team succeeded. I suspect Rivera would very much like to have someone he trusts deeply in a role that can help shield him from some of those sorts of distractions going forward.
Hurney hired Rivera with the Panthers in 2011, and was fired from the Panthers in 2012. Hired on for a second stint in 2017, Hurney again worked alongside Rivera until Ron was fired at the end of 2019. By most accounts the men are very friendly and have a tremendous amount of professional respect for one another. They understand their compatibility fully, and presumably neither’s ego is so large that one is uncomfortable being deferential to the other.
In my opinion, Ron needs someone in the GM role whom he trusts implicitly, and whom he can count on to show loyalty to him, even - perhaps especially - above the owner. He needs someone who can execute his vision for the team without much oversight, but who can also serve as an experienced sounding board for difficult decisions. On those terms, it’s hard to think of anyone better for the role than Hurney.
But what about drafting and free agency, and all those other important things that GMs do?
Washington Already Has Young Talent In-House
Intentionally or not, there has been much pot stirring in the local press to the effect that the team’s wunderkind Vice President of Player Personnel, Kyle Smith, “hasn’t been included” in interviews for Washington’s General Manager position. External candidates, like Martin Mayhew, Ryan Cowden, and Joe Schoen were all either interviewed or mentioned as top candidates. The reality is that none of them meet Rivera’s needs, listed above, and virtually all of them are no better than Washington’s existing, in-house talent in the personnel department. After all, Washington has had two of the best drafts in the league over the course of the past couple of years, and had a home run free agency crop in 2020 as well.
The lack of effusive praise for Smith from Rivera has fueled speculation that there’s some tension between the two, or that Smith’s “on his way out.” Given Smith’s performance, both in the draft and in free agency, that seems improbable to me, particularly when all reports from their collaboration last year were glowing, and indicated that the men were on the same page philosophically:
“One of the things that we talked about when I first got here was talk about a sustainable winning culture,” Rivera said. ”The whole idea about what we’re doing is we’re going to build this culture with the guys that want to be here, the guys that want to be a part of what we’re doing so we can go forward, and just feel good about where we are.”
Smith later doubled down on that approach.
“Since Coach showed up here, we made it very clear that, as an organization, anybody that has a year left on their contract we’re going to wait and see how you mesh with the coaching staff,” he said. ”And I think that’s pretty fair, personally, that, out of respect for the player, let’s see how we jive, let’s see how we mesh before we extend somebody for four years or three years or whatever the case may be.”
My suspicion is that Rivera had a frank conversation with Smith - whom he had just promoted earlier in the year - towards the end of the season indicating a few things: 1) Rivera felt he needed a General Manager to take on some of the larger roles of the position; 2) He didn’t think that Smith was ready - yet - to do that, but that he could be, eventually; and, 3) He was very pleased with the job Smith was doing in his VPPP role, and wanted him to continue to focus on those responsibilities.
Surely, I’ll be accused of “wishful thinking” for promoting such speculation, but it’s what I honestly believe to be true. I also believe it’s why he wasn’t singing Smith’s praises from the rooftops just as a quarter of the league was beginning its search for a new crop of general managers. There’s no need for public plaudits when private assurances of confidence have already been given.
In the event I’m incorrect, and that, for some reason, the relationship between Rivera and Smith is irretrievably broken, Rivera clearly believes he has additional young talent in his front office in the form of Eric Stokes, the team’s current Director of Pro Personnel.
Stokes got an interview for the GM position, which could potentially be a prelude to a promotion to VPPP or Asst GM, should Smith end up leaving. If Smith stays, the interview does Stokes (and the team) the favor of getting a young front office talent onto the radar’s of 31 other NFL teams. A move that could pay future dividends.
The WFT will interview Eric Stokes for their open GM position. Smart idea. Strong internal candidate as they reshape their football operations department— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 15, 2021
Likely Next Steps
It hasn’t been announced yet, but it could potentially be announced as early as tomorrow that Hurney has been hired as the team’s next General Manager.
Just spoke with a source about a new Washington Football GM - "Things are progressing, should be an answer tomorrow."— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) January 18, 2021
I would expect that, concurrently, we will learn one of two things (in order of likelihood): 1) Kyle Smith has been promoted to Assistant GM and will remain the primary point of contact for the draft and free agent evaluations, and that Eric Stokes has been promoted to backfill the VPPP role. Or, 2) That Kyle Smith will be leaving the team after the draft to pursue an Assistant GM role elsewhere (LA Rams, SF, etc), and that Eric Stokes is being promoted into the VPPP role.
One way or another, the personnel evaluation component of the traditional GM role will stay in-house with young, developing front office talent, and Hurney will become an additional, experienced voice in the collaborative mix, and a trusted sounding board and right-hand-man for Rivera, carrying out his directives, and potentially providing additional buffer from the owner.
He also becomes an important part of grooming the young talent within the organization for their eventual roles either as future General Managers in Washington or elsewhere. Under the circumstances, it seems like a pretty sensible plan of action.
Do you think Kyle Smith will stay with the team if Marty Hurney is hired as GM?
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