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The Sports Daily > Buffalo Wins
One Fan(n)’s Opinion: What “One Voice” Means to Me – and What it Doesn’t by @rich_fann

While the Bills embark on their quest for a new general manager and scouting staff, I think this is a good time to talk about the “One Voice” approach. Joe and I are at odds a bit on the definition – with Joe seeing it as a declaration that Sean McDermott is the great and powerful Oz ala Belichick.

I think it’s more nuanced, more akin to partnerships, ala what former GM Mike Lombardi mentioned in his The Ringer article:

In football, a successful partnership between the head coach and GM starts with a philosophical connection. I was a more effective personnel man working for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick; we share the same vision for what it takes to win in the NFL. When I wasn’t with Bill, I was horrible working with … I’ll leave out the name, as it pains me to even remember. The cohesiveness between coach and GM is vital to an organization. Pete Carroll found it with John Schneider in Seattle, Ted Thompson found it with Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and the Steelers have always had it with whoever is their GM — in this case, Kevin Colbert — and their head coach, Mike Tomlin.

Two of those teams mentioned – Seattle and Green Bay – are particularly due to their ties to the Bill Walsh coaching tree. Additionally because of McDermott’s close ties with Andy Reid, I’ve been drawn to read a bit from one of my favorite books football wise of all time, Finding the Winning Edge by Bill Walsh. In it, Walsh details his vision for teams from top to bottom – which has been passed to his assistants such as Mike Holmgren, who then passed it to Reid and so on. A lot of what Walsh has in the book resonates with the current Bills situation – and I figured I’d share a bit with my thoughts. If you have the cash (it’s currently out of print and wildly expensive on Amazon) I’d definitely recommend purchasing it at some point for your personal library. Here’s an excerpt on his view of organizational leadership flow and how it can be designed:

At some point, an organization must have a single source of authority who can collect information and then make a decision. Organizations must take care, however, that they do not place a person in this position who does not have the capacity to fill that role. If the person in this role is overmatched by the position, he will often make incorrect decisions. Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin and Jimmy Johnson are outstanding examples of single source authority.

This individual does not necessarily have to be the head coach, Al Davis, Bobby Beathard, Bill Polian and Don Klosterman are examples of single source authority besides the head coach who have built an organization to championship levels.

Examples also exist of teams who formed successful relationships between the head coach and administration: Tex Schramm and Tom Landry; George Young and Bill Parcells; Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs; Bill Polian and Marv Levy; and Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan. The key is to have a talented personnel man who can do business with other teams, as well as a strong football person (not just a good businessman). – Finding the Winning Edge, page 49.

Nothing is more important that an organizational structure that is dynamic, clear and communicative. With the Bills moving to replace everyone on the football ops side, this is an opportunity for Sean McDermott and his GM to create that environment. While he is a rookie head coach, having a coach and general manager see eye to eye on subjects and have a clean slate is essential for Buffalo to have success.

Having McDermott as the “one voice” – the one face that is seen in dealing with the media or with any organizational decisions with the exception of owner-driven moves I think is a good way to start that process. The key will be whether McDermott will follow the example of early Andy Reid, where the consultation with Joe Banner and others was welcomed or the example of Mike Holmgren, who was negotiating the Joey Galloway holdout while also being the head coach.

Sometimes too much is too much. In my day job, I tell my students all the time, you never want to negotiate salary with your boss – you want to do it with HR, because if you see it as your direct supervisor putting that value on you, it may damage the relationship. The same is true in football. The GM is trying to get a player on the field; the GM won’t be calling to tell him how many plays he installed that day that the player missed.

McDermott saw in person the stresses Andy Reid had as exec/head coach and then from afar dealing with those things and losing his son Garrett. You cannot control everything at every time and I hope he learns that lesson most of all – because a lot of things are more important that football – family being number 1. Having established coaches that have been around him growing up like Leslie Frazier, who has himself been a head coach will be invaluable experience to fall back on – as well as a person he can have “heat checks” with to ensure he’s not burning the candle at both ends.

Having McDermott as the sole voice, but a team of professionals that fit their roles well in personnel shouldn’t be seen as a detraction to the job. As coach Walsh mentioned, the need is to find the combination of football acumen, people skills and vision between the decisionmakers and the decision maker. Terry and Kim Pegula seem to have given that organizational trust to Sean McDermott, but they aren’t ceding the team writ large to him, in my estimation. As I mentioned above, I do not expect that McDermott is going to be negotiating Sammy Watkins’ contract while also making sure that 3rd down blitzes are up to snuff for instance.

More from Walsh:

Maintaining Confidentiality Within the Organization

The need for strict confidentiality concerning specific matters and circumstances within the organization is critical. Surprisingly, many clubs fail to place a sufficient amount of emphasis on this factor. One organization which has addressed the issue in a serious way is the Oakland Raiders. Traditionally, the Raiders have had a reputation for an absolute (some individuals would claim—paranoiac) policy of extreme secrecy.

While many people have scoffed at and ridiculed this seemingly unnecessary organizational stance, the Raiders’ approach makes much more business sense than the policies of the large majority of NFL franchises (indeed, of most professional sports organizations).

In reality, the layers of employees who have access to critical internal information is often far reaching. Disturbingly, because many of these individuals would like to have others believe that they have a heightened degree of importance within the organization, they inherently can’t control the urge to divulge sensitive information. The net result is an almost complete loss of confidentiality in the organization. In the process, the organization’s decision makers are disarmed and severely compromised. Even off-hand remarks gossiped from one second level employee to another can have negative consequences. The employee who was the recipient of the gossip then proudly takes the information (often after embellishing it) to his/her decision maker.

We’ve seen this aspect of Walsh’s suggested behavior with the addition of former Eagles PR guy Derek Boyko, as well as the way McDermott has handled chatting with the press. Additionally, since the hire, the sheer number of leaks have lowered. There’s still good reporting being done and still some leakage, but not the sieve that was the last 5 years in Buffalo.

Another note on this media policy – the Game of Thrones like change to the football staff will force the remaining leaks to the front. Any of the draft-day commentary to SI for instance, you would assume came from an outgoing member of the scouting staff. Now, if anything were to leak, there are only so many people who are in on the day-to-day that it’ll become obvious where the information is coming from.

And this doesn’t mean that the relationship between media and coach has to be antagonistic. Walsh embraced the media challenging decisions, as he mentions below:

On occasion, the relationship between a high profile executive and the media not only appears to be somewhat hostile, but in fact is adversarial. Nevertheless, it is critical that the executive in charge conduct all dealings with the media in a professional and responsible manner. By developing a rapport with members of the media and respecting their roles as professionals, you are able to work to create a reservoir of respect that can earn you a measure of understanding during tough times and that may even assist you in getting through a crisis situation. Moreover, you will be able to establish a forum where you can enhance the likelihood that “your side of the story” will be heard in both good times and bad times. The key point to remember is to never mislead, fabricate or be coy with the media.
—Bill Walsh
Personal Interview
July 11, 1997

As a blogger and fan, I can appreciate this mindset. I can assume that those folks I trust in the media in Buffalo would appreciate that sort of relationship, as opposed to either the circus coming to town (hi Rex!) or the “believe me, 110% all the way” (hi Doug!) methods of the last 3 years. Walsh also cited one of the key potential upsides of the relationship, which I think Bills coaches in the last few years have avoided – being up front during bad times, to allow your story to get out. Instead of off-the-record leaks to justify a decision, having a full and frank conversation would allow half of the temptests in a teapot to be merely blips, instead of continual referendums on the failure at One Bills Drive.

With the help of the Bill Walsh playbook, off-field and on, the one voice philosophy stands to give the Bills a chance to be successful in this year and beyond – as long as the owners truly believe in Sean McDermott and McDermott in turn isn’t a tyrant with his support staff. Given the examples of that gone wrong he’s experienced, I’m more inclined to the former rather than the latter.