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How much failure does it take before NFL GM’s get fired?

The Broncos have now had four straight losing seasons. How does that compare with other franchises’ extended runs of futility?

NFL Combine - Day 2

This is the fourth straight losing season for the Broncos and the fifth year in a row without a playoff appearance. The Broncos have not had four straight losing seasons in my lifetime. The last time this occurred was 1969-1972. From 1973-2016 the Broncos had a total of seven losing seasons and never more than one losing year without at least getting back to .500 the next season: that’s 7 in 44. Over the course of those 44 seasons the Broncos had a record of 412-270-4. That’s 142 games above .500.

This got me wondering about a few things:

  1. When was the last time each franchise had a four year losing streak (four straight losing seasons)?
  2. How long do those losing runs generally last?
  3. How many NFL general managers keep their jobs during extended blocks of losing seasons?

So let’s state this upfront: John Elway is still under contract as the Bronco’s executive VP of football operations/general manager. Joe Ellis is still the president/CEO. Both men were in those positions in 2017 when this extended streak of losing seasons started and both men appear to be coming back for the 2021 season. The general thought is that Ellis does not have too much control over player selection and retention. Things like how much money to offer various players like Brock Osweiler, Chris Harris, Ja’Wuan James and Melvin Gordon are more of his purview.

Now on to the historical data. This table shows when each franchise last had a four year streak of losing seasons. The Raiders can avoid one if we lose to them on Sunday, but if Denver win, the Raiders will have had one winning season in the last 18. Three franchises have never had a four-year streak of losing seasons: the Panthers, the Vikings and the Ravens. This table also shows how long the streak lasted. Many teams recent times in the desert lasted only four seasons, while others lasted significantly longer. The Browns had twelve straight losing seasons from 2008-2019. The Lions had ten straight from 2001-2010.

Franchise Last 4-yr Losing Block Total Length of Losing Block General Manager at Start of Block Tenure with Team as GM
Arizona Cardinals 2003-2006 8 years Bob Ferguson 1999-2004
Atlanta Falcons 1987-1990 8 years Tom Braatz 1982-1985
Baltimore Ravens never
Buffalo Bills 2010-2013 9 years Tom Donahoe 2001-2005
Carolina Panthers never
Chicago Bears 2014-2017 4 years Phil Emery 2012-2014
Cincinnati Bengals 2017-2020 5 years Mike Brown 1991-2020
Cleveland Browns 2016-2019 12 years Sashi Brown 2016-2017
Dallas Cowboys 1987-1990 5 years Tex Schramm 1960-1988
Denver Broncos 2017-2020 4 years John Elway 2012-2020
Detroit Lions 2007-2010 10 years Matt Millen 2001-2008
Green Bay Packers 1974-1977 5 years Dan Devine 1971-1974
Houston Texans 2003-2006 5 years Charley Casserly 2002-2005
Indianapolis Colts 1983-1986 9 years Ernie Accorsi 1982-1983
Jacksonville Jaguars 2013-2016 6 years Gene Smith 2009-2012
Kansas City Chiefs 1975-1978 5 years Jack Steadman 1963-1975
Las Vegas Raiders 2012-2015 4 years Reggie McKenzie 2012-2018
Los Angeles Chargers 1988-1991 4 years Steve Ortmayer 1987-1989
Los Angeles Rams 2013-2016 10 years Les Snead 2012-2020
Miami Dolphins 2009-2012 4 years Jeff Ireland 2008-2013
Minnesota Vikings never
New England Patriots 1990-1993 5 years Pat Sullivan 1983-1990
New Orleans Saints 1994-1999 6 years Bill Kuharich 1993-1999
New York Giants 2017-2020 4 years Jerry Reese 2007-2017
New York Jets 2017-2020 5 years Mike Maccagnan 2015-2018
Philadelphia Eagles 1984-1987 6 years Jim Murray 1973-1984
Pittsburgh Steelers 1968-1971 8 years Francis Fogarty 1951-1968
San Francisco 49ers 2015-2018 4 years Trent Baalke 2010-2016
Seattle Seahawks 2008-2011 4 years Tim Ruskell 2005-2009
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2012-2015 5 years Mark Dominik 2009-2013
Tennessee Titans 2012-2015 4 years Ruston Webster 2009-2015
Washington Football Team 2017-2020 4 years Bruce Allen 2010-2019

For these “recent” blocks (PIT, GNB and KC have not had an extended period like this since about the time I was born), the average length is 5.4 years.

Added in response to commenters request regarding the success of these GMs with their franchises

The General Managers

They break down into three groups from a tenure perspective:

  1. short (less than or equal to 5 years) - 12 guys
  2. medium (5-9 years) - 9 guys
  3. long (10 or more years) - 8 guys

I’m going to focus on third group since Elway is part of it. There were seven (or eight if you include Elway) GMs who are/were in the long tenured group: Bruce Allen of WAS, Jerry Reese of NYG, Jim Murray of PHI, Jack Steadman of KC, Tex Schramm of DAL, Francis Fogarty of PIT and Mike Brown of CIN. You could argue that John Elway belongs in this group since he was employed by the franchise in 2011 as director of player personnel, DPP. He was not elevated to GM until 2012. If you count his 2011 season as DPP, then he has had 10 years with the Broncos in a GM or GM-like role.

Mike Brown is principle owner/president/general manager of the Browns and has been since 1991. He is the son of the founder of the team. He is not going to fire himself since he is the owner. In his 30 years as the head of the team, the Bengals have only had 7 winning seasons and have an overall record of 192-283-4.

Tex Schramm, Jack Steadman and Mike Brown are real outliers since all had/have extremely long tenures with their teams, but for different reasons. Schramm was inducted into the hall of fame in 1991 for his long run as the GM of the Cowboys (from 1960-1988). The Cowboys compiled a record of 250-162-6 under Schramm. The Cowboys were having their run of futility at the very end of Schramm’s tenure. It was also the very end of his career in the NFL. Interestingly enough, the Cowboys used their 4-year run of failure to build a dynasty in the 1990s that would win three Super Bowls in four years.

Jack Steadman was almost as much a part of the founding of the Chiefs (who were the Dallas Texans when they were founded) as Lamar Hunt was. Steadman was the team’s first GM and would serve as the GM from 1961 until 1975. The team would be quite successful during his time, winning their first Super Bowl in 1969 as well as an AFL championship in 1962. The team would only have four losing seasons during his tenure as GM. Two years of their four-year losing block would be at the very end of his career, similar to Schramm. Jim Schaaf would be hired as GM for the 1976 season. He would be nowhere near as successful as Steadman, despite spending 13 seasons as the team’s GM. The franchise would have an overall record of 79-119-1 under Schaaf with one playoff appearance. This a far cry from the 121-79-10 record that team had under the guidance of Steadman.

Bruce Allen is similar to Brown in that he is family to a man revered in the Washington organization. Allen is the son of Hall-of-Fame coach, George Allen. Allen was GM for the Bucs from 2004-2008. He was initially executive VP/GM for WAS from 2010-2013, then his title was changed to president/GM for 2011. His role as GM was stripped from him in 2012 and he was listed only as president. I don’t know how much this changed his control of personnel decisions or not. WAS would only have one winning season with Allen in the front office, 2012, and would have an overall record of 45-83 during his tenure. According to what I have read, Allen, who was fired in 2019, was not implicated in the sexual harassment scandal that has ended the careers of others in this franchise’ front office.

Jerry Reese was a long-time member of the Giants’ front office, serving 23 total years. He was GM from 2007-2017. He was fired near the end of the 2017 season with the Giants having a 2-10 record. The Giants head coach, Ben McAdoo, was also fired at that time. Reese is given credit for many of the player decisions that led to the Giant’s super bowl victories in 2007 and 2011. Despite that and his long tenure, the ownership of the Giants fired him after the Giants missed the playoffs in five of the six years after winning the big game in 2011. For context, the Broncos have missed the playoffs in five straight years after winning the Super Bowl. Similar to the Broncos, the Giants had only one winning season during that time, going 11-5 in 2016.

Jim Murray was GM for the Eagles from 1973 to 1984. He took over when they were bad and turned them into a contender. The Eagles had five straight losing seasons at the beginning of his tenure, but then they had four straight winning seasons and playoff appearances reaching the Super Bowl in 1980 (and losing). While Murray was not a great success as an NFL GM, he is probably best known as the co-founder of Ronald McDonald House.

Francis Fogarty was the GM for the Steelers from 1951 until 1968. The Steelers had existed since 1933, and were not very good. The had one playoff appearance from 1933-1951, but they had zero playoff appearances during Fogarty’s run as GM. The Steelers had an overall record of 93-129-10 during Fogarty’s tenure, but their run of bad seasons came at the end of his tenure. Starting with 1964, the Steelers endured eight straight losing seasons. The fifth one is what finally got Fogarty fired. The team would finish 2-11-1 in 1968. Interestingly, and somewhat similarly to Dallas, they would emerge from their losing years as an NFL powerhouse. The Steelers had winning seasons from 1972 to 1980 winning four Super Bowls and would not have a losing season until they went 7-9 in 1985. The man who would take over as GM in 1969 was Dan Rooney. Dan is the son of team owner, Art Rooney. Dan served as GM from 1969-1970 when his title was changed to chairman. Dick Haley took over DPP/de-facto GM in 1972 and served in that role for the Steelers until 1990. Dick is the father of former NFL head coach, Todd Haley.

In summary, here are the TL:DR for each of the seven guys who are in group three with Elway. Brown is in a category by himself since he is the owner. Schramm and Steadman were at the very end of long successful careers. Allen never really had success but was given latitude because of the franchise’s fondness for his father. Reese was given latitude because of his two SB victories. Murray was given latitude because of the team had been terrible and he was able to build them into a winner after years of futility. Fogarty was given latitude because the Rooney’s were not interested in shaking things up. Their team had always been average or poor prior to him. So there is some precedent for GMs with a connection/history with the team getting plenty of latitude even when having long streaks of losing seasons.

John Elway’s contract is up after the 2021 season. If the Broncos have another losing season in 2021, I would expect that John Elway’s contract would not be renewed.

Poll

What do you see as the most likely scenario for 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Broncos have winning season, make playoffs, Elway gets new contract
    (322 votes)
  • 27%
    Broncos have losing season, miss playoffs, Elways gets new contract.
    (284 votes)
  • 3%
    Broncos have winning season, make playoffs, Elway still gets fired.
    (34 votes)
  • 31%
    Broncos have losing season, miss playoffs, Elway gets fired.
    (330 votes)
  • 7%
    some other scenario (mention in comments)
    (74 votes)
1044 votes total Vote Now