Institutional Dynamics: Another reason to give thanks to Tomlin and co.

Karl Walter

The off-season has been dominated by stories of dysfunction in various franchises, most notably in key institutional positions. These breakdowns in team dynamics give us reason to be thankful for what the Steelers have.

It seems to me that this off-season, one recurring theme has dominated the news cycle.That is the importance of sound institutional dynamics. The good news is that this, in a roundabout way, gives us another reason to rejoice being Steelers fans.

It is both desirable and completely necessary to have a roster full of players who interact and compete well together. "Team chemistry" has long been a crucial factor in determining success. However above and beyond the players themselves, a successful franchise consists of huge numbers of cogs operating at once. Much like a clock if one cog is defective everything breaks down (or another such cliché to that effect).

An NFL franchise is at its heart an institution, and these dynamics, the ability of these cogs to interact and operate together at all levels, determine whether it succeeds or fails.

The Miami Dolphins are a good example of an institutional failure at the lower levels. The Bullying scandal which engulfed the franchise midway through the season sparked a media frenzy. The recent Wells report further compounded the issue. It revealed that within the organisation, players on the team systematically bullied a second year Right Tackle Jonathon Martin and another undisclosed player. I won’t delve too much into the detail because I am sure you are all well aware of the facts. This may or may not be indicative of cultural failing in NFL locker rooms, but what it does show is a complete and utter failure on behalf of the Dolphins coaching staff to stay on top of this.

The Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner was fully aware of the bullying taking place amongst members of his position group. He did nothing, absolutely nothing to stamp out what was clearly going to become an issue. It is true Martin never complained, but that is not an excuse for how he acted. He has subsequently been fired.

The Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philibin was essentially cleared of having knowledge about the bullying taking place. However he still failed to properly police his locker room, his offensive line or Jim Turner. He essentially completely failed in his institutional duty to ensure a strong, conductive working environment, as did the offensive line coach.

As a result, the Dolphins are now down one position coach, have presumably lost two starters on the offensive line and have a huge, huge stink hanging around their franchise.

In San Francisco, there might be an example of institutional dynamics in play slightly higher up the proverbial food chain. I say "might" because predictably no one knows what is going on and everyone is covering their own end, but that shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

Rumors of a contract dispute Between Jim Harbuagh and the 49ers have arisen, suggesting there might be a break up on the horizon. Either Harbaugh wants too much money, too much power or his attitude has begun to wear thin. Either way the 49ers do not appear inclined to extend Harbaugh, an odd situation considering the wild success he has enjoyed in his three seasons.

I have written this previously, but I believe the reasons behind the story lie in the battle between Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke. It appears to be an open secret the two do not see eye to eye, and given Harbuagh’s demeanour can you blame Baalke? Harbaugh came over from Stamford with a reputation as a hard man to get along with.

Baalke was promoted to the position of GM in 2011, and has since sculpted a championship calibre roster. His ability to do his job, like Harbaugh, is not in doubt. The question is which one of them matters more. Baalke obviously believes it is himself, and presumably resents Harbaugh and his desire to wield more power (if in fact he does).

So the ownership is left with the tough choice of picking between the two, a decision which will have a huge impact on the performance of the franchise. Whatever you decide, a new HC or GM, that is a huge change, and will impact every aspect of the franchise including the players, the coaches and the Front Office.

The most important dynamic within the NFL is the relationship between the Head Coach and the General Manager, and the 49ers are currently showing early symptoms of Cold War developing between the two. This only stands to damage the 49ers as it progresses.

And to cap it all off, we have the Browns...always the Browns. This off-season the Browns have displayed to the NFL world what happens when the institutional dynamics at the very upper echelons of management begin to cease functioning cohesively.

At literally the last breath of the regular season a decision was taken to fire Rob Chudzinski after one season as a Head Coach. This decision came from the brain trust that was Owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi. Although mind boggling, this is not an example of poor dynamics, since it was a group decision.

However during the ensuing coaching search, things became truly dysfunctional. The GM alienated the Owner by being rude during meetings with two prospective coaching candidates. Then the GM and CEO joined forces by somehow alienating one of the hottest coaching candidates Bill O’Brien, who attributed his refusal of the Browns vacancy to both of them (as reported by It was in the ensuing coaching search that Banner and Lombardi fell further and further from each other’s good graces, which is made even more bizarre by the fact CEO Banner hand-picked Lombardi as his GM.

Apparently Banner lobbied for Lombardi to be fired, which was unnecessary because the Owner decided to fire them both. However this was not before attempting to trade for the aforementioned Jim Harbaugh, which was also of course just slightly before the decision was made to hire Mike Pettine after essentially running out of coaching candidates to interview.

Thus we come to the end of the Browns saga. Here, two cogs at the highest level of the institution disconnected, and it led to an essentially failed Head Coaching search and the dismissal of two of the franchises most important positions at the same time, not to mention creating a huge embarrassing stink for the Browns. All of this happened under the watch of an incompetent Owner, perhaps one of the worst things a franchise can poses.

If this off-season has proven anything, it is that finding key personnel for the office jobs is just as important as finding it on the field. The dynamics of relationships at every level of the franchise have an impact. The Position coach to Head Coach, the Head Coach to General Manager and the General Manager to Owner, they’re all vitally important. The dynamics have to work on all levels.

So here is where we get to rejoice. We may have the occasional squabble, but for the most part the institution of Black and Gold is built on a solid foundation. There are rarely any reports of infighting or a failure of one to do their job. Just another reason we should give thanks for Tomlin, Colbert and the Rooney’s.

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