At first glance, it would not seem that Aaron Rodgers and Nick Sirianni would have much in common outside interest in scheming NFL plays on offense. Rodgers is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback destined for the Hall of Fame. Sirianni was the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts before flop sweating through his first press conference in a golf shirt as the new head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. But both individuals have something in common: they have been involved in dramas that reflect the increasing trend of NFL franchises to treat the white-collar management as the superstars of the organization.
This is a trend that started in Major League Baseball. General managers began taking their role to be more than just assembling the parts for their managers to manipulate. The movie Moneyball depicts this phenomenon with Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane frustrated with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Art Howe reluctance to use the players the way in which he wanted. Beane was the hero in that story. He was adventurous rebel thinking outside the box as the underdog running a baseball team that could not extravagantly spend the money that rich teams were able to indulge. Howe was the curmudgeon locked in the old world.
Jonah Hill played the role of Paul DePodesta who Beane hires to teach him the secret math taught in the Ivy Leagues that would revolutionize baseball. The secret sauce is dubbed “sabermetrics” in baseball while analyzing statistics in other sports has been given the esoteric label of “analytics.” As I have written elsewhere, the secret math offers capital-T Truth — and those who question it are small-minded dinosaurs. Well, at least that is the impression that some who dabble (and profit) in the sports analytics community tend to frame the issues.
An embrace of a deeper appreciation of statistics in football was inevitable, but its growth in football is neatly symbolized by DePodesta leaving the Oakland A’s for the NFL and the Cleveland Browns. When Browns' general manager Sashi Brown traded away many of his veterans to acquire draft choices, it was as if DePodesta had discovered the concept of tanking games in ancient texts at the Harvard library. For many, the Browns’ Super Bowl was inevitable — and it was going to be clear who the heroes would be in that story.
Analytics are being embraced by every sport. In the NBA, we see its influence in the Philadelphia 76ers “trust the process” mantra that led to their current superstar duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. General manager Daryl Morey was highly influenced by analytics is assembling his Houston Rockets teams that were allergic to any shot that was not at the rim or behind the arc. Morey hired a head coach in Mike D’Antoni who shared this offensive philosophy. Morey now happens to be the GM for the Sixers. The number of championship appearances for the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia 76ers, and Houston Rockets remains zero.
To be fair, there are teams across all the major sports that have invested in analytics to then win championships. The Houston Astros offer the best example in MLB, and the Boston Red Sox won the World Series with an analytics department even after they failed to woo Beane away from Oakland. But then again, it is not as if the use of statistics was invented by the Oakland A’s. Bill Belichick is shrewd with his ability to use statistics to help inform his decisions as head coach and general manager of the New England Patriots. But Belichick does not have a shiny Ivy League degree hanging on his office wall. It is harder to peddle the “Belichick” way on your new statistics website.
This brings us back to Aaron Rodgers and Nick Sirianni. Rodgers is in a power struggle with Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst and his hand-picked head coach, Matt LaFleur. Remember that LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of the middling Tennessee Titans offense that was continually flailing away on 4th-and-1s in 2018-19. But LaFleur was buddies with Sean McVay, the new wunderkind who could solve personnel mismatches with the power of his intellect and a nearby whiteboard. Now granted, Gutekunst is no Harvard man. But even a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse appreciates the power of pulling the strings from behind his office desk. He could hire LaFleur to “fix” Rodgers — and if the veteran quarterback doesn’t like it, then he would just get another quarterback that LaFleur would scheme-to-success using the new secret sauce. It has been reported that it was Gutekunst who made the unilateral decision to trade up in the first round last year to draft quarterback Jordan Love. Amidst whispers of Love struggling in practices (albeit, in a season impacted by COVID taking away the normal practice routines), LaFleur never elevated him above the third string.
The Packers’ management has communicated that Rodgers is expendable. That motivated Rodgers’ rebuttal asking to be traded on the first day of the NFL draft. It was interesting to then observe Gutekunst choosing a defensive player in the first round, an area of need but not a choice that would placate Rodgers.
In Philadelphia, general manager Howie Roseman along with highly engaged owner Jeffrey Lurie proved that their Super Bowl-winning head coach, Doug Pederson, was expendable when they fired him after the season. Did one of them set Pederson up by demanding he makes sure Nate Sudfeld got some reps at quarterback, despite the Eagles playing in a close game with Washington late in the season? Sure, Philadelphia was “trusting the process” by tanking, but management (and/or ownership) telling the head coach how to use his players comes straight out of Brad Pitt trading away the first baseman that Philip Seymour Hoffman was playing every day instead of Chris Pratt.
It was later revealed that Roseman and Lurie would spend hours berating Pederson after games while demanding he defends the coaching decisions he made during the game. Roseman got his Law Degree at the University of Florida. Lurie was an academic with a doctorate before he finally followed in the footsteps of Michael Corleone to go into the family business to run the Hollywood movie company his grandfather founded. He produced Inside Man. Pederson was a career backup quarterback after a college career at UL-Monroe.
Roseman and Lurie lure Nick Sirianni away from Indianapolis who was the offensive coordinator for Frank Reich, who was the offensive coordinator for the Eagles’ Super Bowl triumph. The 39-year-old looked over his head in his first press conference. He was nervous, which is not a crime. But it is also a characteristic of someone likely to be easily intimidated. Sirianni comes from a coaching family who began his coaching career after graduating from Mt. Union where he was a Division-III star. Perhaps it is that experience where he developed the rigor for competition that motivated his Rock-Paper-Scissors zoom duels with his new players?
Sirianni may find success in Philadelphia, despite what seems to be a rocky start. What happens in August will matter far more than these initial events. He inherits a hot mess. But it seems evident that Roseman and Lurie hired someone who will take orders. Like in Major League Baseball where Ivy Leaguers have redefined the game to be a battle between strikeouts versus home runs because of The Math — the same Math that discovered that three points count more than two in basketball — the National Football League is slowly being taken over by the suits who know better. Because they have always known better. Just like the Enron guys. They were the smartest guys in the room too.
How’s Enron doing lately?