How exactly does an NFL franchise construct a winning team? While there are, of course, many factors, the common wisdom is that team success is largely attributable to four organizational leaders—the quarterback, head coach, general manager, and owner. But who is the most important? According to a study of 38 years of win-loss records, these four leader variables—quarterback, coach, general manager, and owner—explained 68.2%, or more than two-thirds, of the variance in team performance. Owners carried the least weight (roughly 11.12% of explained variance), followed by general managers (22.43%), then coaches (29.08%), and finally, quarterbacks (37.37%). Quarterbacks were key and, according to the data, have become more so in the 21st century, though strong GMS and coaches, especially when the roles were combined, were also important. There are two key implications for business. First, organizations should look to QB-like leaders, who produce as well as manage, to drive success. Second, they must remember that leadership is a team sport and make sure they have the right people supporting each other in all their most critical roles.
Super Bowl aside, it’s hard to think of an event on the American football calendar that gets more hype than the NFL draft. When the 32 teams gather from April 25 to 27 in Nashville, they will be looking to plug the holes in their rosters and add new strength to their squads. That got us thinking: How exactly does a franchise construct a winning team?
While there are, of course, many factors, the common wisdom is that team success is largely attributable to four organizational leaders—the quarterback, head coach, general manager, and owner. But who is the most important?
Most pundits say the choice comes down to quarterback versus head coach. The debate can get heated, especially when the team in consideration is the New England Patriots. The quarterback—Tom Brady, in the Pats’ case—may seem like the obvious choice. After all, the QB is the leader on the field and the position is often seen as the most important in all of sports. Over the past 21 NFL drafts, the first overall pick has been a quarterback 15 times, and there were only two drafts during this time period in which no quarterback was picked in the top three. Quarterbacks are also the highest-paid players in the game by a wide margin, both at the top and throughout the league’s talent pool.
People who argue that the head coach—the person who directs player activities and team strategy—is more important point to the fact that he’s the guy who tells the athletes what to do. Plus, the coach has a strong influence on all three phases of the game—offense, defense, and special teams—whereas the quarterback directly contributes only to the offense. Furthermore, football coaches have greater opportunities than coaches in other sports to make in-game decisions, aided by football’s stop-and-start nature and the widespread use of communications technology in the league. It is telling that football is the only major U.S. sport in which the league’s championship trophy is named for a coach, Vince Lombardi.
Still others argue that the general manager, in charge of evaluating players and assembling the team’s roster through free agency, trades, and the draft, might be even more important to success than the coach. After all, the coach cannot successfully implement strategy on the field without the right players. There’s a strong argument for this perspective in the record of the Baltimore Ravens from 1994 to 2018, under Ozzie Newsome. In the 25 seasons prior to Newsome’s taking charge, the franchise won exactly as many games as it lost. In its 25 years under Newsome, the Ravens went 231-192-1 and won two Super Bowls. Newsome added defensive greats Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs to the team’s roster, among many other key decisions. “Ozzie, in my view, is the most important person at the Ravens,” concluded team president Dick Cass in an interview with ESPN. “He has created two Super Bowl-winning teams 12 years apart and only one player (not a quarterback) was on both teams. He’s a rare human being.” But he’s not the only such example. (Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey has clearly made an impact during his tenures with two teams over just six seasons.)
Finally, some contend that an NFL franchise’s owner, in fact, is the most important person in the organization. Ted Sundquist, former NFL player, manager, and commentator, ticks off the arguments: Owners establish the mission and identity of the franchise; they select the organizational leaders—the general manager and (sometimes) the coach—to implement their vision; and they are positioned to provide resources to enable those people to perform at their best and develop their talents. Specifically comparing owners to the other leadership positions within a franchise, Sundquist declares, “Not even close. Head coach is only part of the overall puzzle that makes up the club, no more or less important than having a franchise quarterback or a keen-eyed talent evaluator at general manager… The most important position within an NFL organization is its owner.”
It is important to acknowledge that, in many cases, the lines between the four leadership positions are blurry, especially between the coach and general manager. Power structures vary across the league: According to ESPN, general managers currently have the final say on roster and personnel decisions in 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams. On four others—the Patriots, 49ers, Raiders, and Falcons—the coach serves as de facto general manager, with final decision-making authority on personnel decisions, despite there often being an executive with the general manager title in the organization. Seven teams “are seen to have that ubiquitous collaborative effort mindset, including three of the NFL’s final four this year in the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, and Los Angeles Rams.” Finally, the dynamic is still unclear in one team, whose coach was recently hired. There is also one owner who doubles as general manager: the Dallas Cowboys’ enigmatic Jerry Jones.
Undoubtedly all four roles are vital to success: The quarterback is the most important player; the coach leads and determines the team’s style of play; the general manager assembles the talent; and the owner sets the tone, hires, and empowers other leaders. But the question remains: who’s the most important? To find an answer, we decided to analyze the numbers.
For our analysis, we created a 38-year panel data set that included the win-loss record of each team in each season. (See our methodology section toward the end of the article for more.) Over the course of our sample, combined leadership explained a remarkably high proportion of the success or failure of each team. In total, our four leader variables—quarterback, coach, general manager, and owner—explained 68.2%, or more than two-thirds, of the variance in team performance. It is interesting, if not totally surprising, to see how much influence just four individuals can have in organizations worth billions of dollars. Of that 68.2%, owners carried the least weight (roughly 11.12% of explained variance), followed by general managers (22.43%), then coaches (29.08%), and finally, quarterbacks (37.37%).
That means a quarterback accounts for more than three times the variance in performance that an owner does and appears to be the most critical factor in team success. However, coaches and general managers are still very important: they represent more than half of our model’s explained variance.
As we mentioned earlier, there are some cases in which team leaders have more than one role. Jerry Jones and Bill Belichick are two examples of individuals to whom we assigned multiple roles in our data set, but there were others, as well. In such situations, it may be fair to argue that an executive does wield even more influence on team performance than that team’s quarterback does, based on our finding that a coach and general manager combined are responsible for much more variance than the quarterback is alone.
We also decided to split our sample in half—19 years in the 20th century, and 19 in the 21st century—to see if there were any trends. We found that owners and general managers were slightly more important in the 20th century, while quarterbacks appear to have grown more important in the 21st century:
Football has become more complex and more dominated by offense in recent years. “The NFL is the middle of an offensive explosion, and it is the jump in passing production that has been most jarring,” reported The Guardian during the 2018 season. We hypothesize that, along with this evolution, it has become more important than ever to have an effective quarterback. According to our model, this increase in importance has come at the expense of the owner and general manager. One need look no further than the league’s recent MVP award voting results to see this hyper-emphasis on the quarterback: QBs have taken home the award in 92% of the past 12 years, a dramatic increase on the 63% rate at which they won the award in the first 32 years of its history.
This helps explains why everyone pays close attention to the NFL draft in April, while top quarterbacks also drive much discussion during free agency. The finding also validates the league-wide obsession with evaluating and projecting collegiate quarterbacks; despite the fact that “no position in sports is more important or more misunderstood than the quarterback,” according to FiveThirtyEight.com, “NFL scouts, coaches and general managers—the world’s foremost experts on football player evaluation—have been notoriously terrible at separating good QB prospects from the bad through the years.” This suggests that teams should continue to prioritize the development of their QB prospect evaluation systems.
From the NFL to the Business World
When it comes to large, complex organizations with multiple leaders, the questions of which ones truly matter, and of each leader’s importance relative to the others, are of tremendous interest and value to sports fans and corporate executives alike. Although the data needed to tease apart the relative values of different organizational leaders do not exist in the business world, our findings may have some applicability.
One implication of our research is that the capability to execute has become more important in the 21st century, as reflected in the increased importance of quarterbacks. When people think about performance, they often think about leaders who come up with great ideas, visions, and strategies, but they forget that value is created or destroyed by people who are “on the field” implementing those plans. A figure such as a quarterback not only produces results on the field but also manages the team in the middle of games and leads in the locker room through the season. These duties all reinforce each other: leaders that produce can inspire followers with greater effectiveness. We therefore believe it is critical for organizations to have strong “quarterbacks”: those coveted producer-expert-leader-managers who can drive excellence in execution. In the 21st century, as markets mature, innovations take hold, and competition gets fierce, this need is greater than ever.
Another, related implication is that the chief executive is not alone in having an out-sized influence on organizational performance. It takes a team to be successful: NFL organizations won’t succeed if they focus all of their resources on finding a star QB but fail to surround him with strong partners at the coach and GM level. The same applies to a team that sinks a disproportionate amount of time and money into a great coach or GM at the expense of the other leadership positions. While QBs get drafted in one of the most-watched television broadcasts annually in April, great teams will be well served by attracting, developing, leveraging, incentivizing, and retaining their best and brightest across levels. Firms may want to adjust their governance and hiring practices accordingly. They should take the time to determine which roles in their organizations are the most critical, make sure the right people are in them, and do everything they can to develop and retain those leaders.
Notes on methodology: We used publicly available data from www.pro-football-reference.com to create a 38-year panel data set that included the win-loss record of each team in each season, which we used as our outcome variable, along with independent dummy variables for coach, general manager, owner, and quarterback. We ran simple linear regression analyses to find out which of the four explanatory variables contributed the most to the explained variance in team performance by looking at the sum of squares for each variable. We followed the theoretical groundwork laid out by Grömping (2006, 2007), who established “averaging over orderings of regressors” as a recommended method for assessing relative importance of regressors in linear models. Grömping (2009) had also compared linear model approaches with random forest approaches, and Grömping (2015) concluded that, while there are many approaches to variable decomposition analysis, and despite an “absence of good subject matter theory,” some approaches are viable, including the “averaging over orderings of regressors” approach we employed, in which we took all possible permutations of the sequence in which the variables could appear and calculated averages in order to determine the weight of each variable.
Notes on our process: For coaches, if they were not the coach for the full season, we chose the coach that participated in the most games. In the case of a tie, we chose the coach that began the year. For quarterbacks, we used the same approach as coaches. For owners, we referred to Pro Football Reference and, in the case of new presidents being appointed, we did not consider it to be a change of ownership if the change came from within the same family of owners. For the Green Bay Packers, since the team is owned by the community, we considered a new president as a change of ownership because it represents a new direction for the franchise. For the Baltimore Ravens, because the team moved from Cleveland and changed its name in 1996, we merged Cleveland Browns teams from prior to the move with all Baltimore Ravens data.