Talent Strategy & the NFL

Please note, this article was written in 2015

As a fan of American Football (specifically the New York Giants), I make sure to follow the the sport all year round. Working in recruitment, I’m always fascinated by the approach that teams take to talent acquisition. However if you’re a passive viewer or follower of the NFL, you could be forgiven for thinking that not much happens between the lifting of the Lombardi trophy in February and the first game of the new season in September. But once the celebrations are over and confetti cleared from the pitch, the huge task begins of getting a team ready for the next season. Indeed, for the thirty teams not competing for the ultimate prize in American Football this process will have already started.

By the time the first game of a new season kicks off an NFL team will have an active roster of fifty-three players. These will be a mixture of athletes re-signed from the previous season, rookie players who come through the college ‘draft’ and unattached ‘free agents’ from other teams. However when the off-season training camp commences a team is allowed to have up to ninety players at their disposal. Midway through this pre-season agenda the number of players will be further reduced to seventy-five, before one final cut leaves the team with their final playing staff of fifty-three.

From team owner, to General Manager, to Head Coach, there are several key figures involved in this complex and high-pressure process. And for the players themselves, the chance to realise (or have snatched away) their childhood dream of playing professional sport can be a daunting and stressful process. But the glamour and complexity of this offseason spectacle belies an analogy that many businesses should consider; an effective talent strategy. Or in other words, a targeted plan for having the best people, at the right time, for the right price, within your organisation.

Much like an NFL franchise that needs to address an immediate need with an often over priced player deemed surplus to requirements by another team, a business that rushes in to hiring someone without considering the long term effects (both financial and otherwise) is likely to find that the decision they make is far from perfect. As hard as it may be, it is essential to stick to your principles of hiring and not let a seemingly urgent situation dictate who you bring in to your business. One of the most well run and iconic NFL teams of late are the Baltimore Ravens. Their General Manager Ozzie Newsome is revered as an expert in finding great players, and not rushing out to fill needs by making concessions and over paying for bad ones. His strategy is to avoid paying over the odds for short term gain and instead, putting faith in the system he created to build a sustainable team. His team’s Superbowl win in 2012 was the highest endorsement the game can give.

Hiring for the future is also one of the most important considerations for an NFL franchise. With highly touted young players coming in to the league each year, the NFL provides a great example of organisations that do this well, and those that don’t. Take for example, the much maligned Cleveland Browns. Ever since they came back in to the league in 1999, they have struggled with bringing young talent onto their team. A combination of poor assessment and a lack of a coherent hiring strategy has lead to their most recent first round pick (controversial Quarterback Jonny Manziel) struggling badly in his first few games and spending his off season in rehab. He was drafted to replace a similar failed rookie acquisition and his current situation means the team are linked with yet another move for a first year Quarterback. It’s clear to see that something isn’t working in Cleveland.

On the other hand the Dallas Cowboys now boast one of the strongest offensive lines in the league (one that allowed their running back DeMarco Murray to lead the league in rushing yards). This is a direct result of a targeted strategy that started four years ago by highlighting an area of need and taking a measured, long-term approach to resolving it. In this example, a measured tactic to bringing in junior talent has lead to recent, sustained success. Indeed, one of the biggest successes in this instance was accurately highlighting an area of need in the first place.

NFL teams give a unique example of how organisations can get their staffing and talent strategies right, and also how it can go wrong. Successful sporting franchises, as with successful businesses, are reliant on having the right talent in place. With the glitz and glamour of American Football it can be easy to forget that often the bad teams are struggling simply because they haven’t recruited well. The same can be said for struggling businesses.

Tim Barber

Linebacker

 

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