The education of an NFL GM - The Buffalo News

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The education of an NFL GM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Upon greeting a reporter and photographer at a Jacksonville Jaguars reception desk, the first thing David Caldwell wanted to talk about were his Buffalo Sabres.

“Who are they going to hire for general manager?” Caldwell asked.

The St. Francis High grad maintains almost all of his Western New York allegiances, although the Buffalo Bills obviously couldn’t be one of them. Rooting for another club would be bad form for an NFL GM, especially the weekend in which they play each other.

Caldwell will welcome 46 guests, many of them from back home, at this afternoon’s game between the Bills and Jaguars at EverBank Field.

Caldwell, a rookie GM and the second-youngest in the NFL at 39, will be a much more pleasant host than he would’ve been in October.

Jaguars owner Shad Khan hired Caldwell in January to change the culture of a franchise that’s been to the playoffs twice in 14 years. Then the Jaguars began 0-8, their worst start in franchise history. Even their expansion team enjoyed three victories in their first eight games.

But now the Jaguars are hot. They’ve won four of their last five games and three in a row for the first time in three years.

Caldwell’s decisions are starting to click. His first move was to fire coach Mike Mularkey and hire extroverted Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Observers consider Bradley a perfect match, the yin to Caldwell’s understated yang.

Caldwell had the Jaguars offices renovated to foster openness, communication and togetherness. He also changed half of Jacksonville’s roster by opening day through the draft, free agency and waiver-wire pickups.

Bradley, nine years older, said Caldwell’s “got a lot of wisdom.” A prime example was squashing any Tim Tebow drama by emphatically stating up front the Jaguars were not interested in the lightning-rod quarterback.

“It’s really fit together,” Bradley said. “We’ve trusted the results will come, and they have.

“I trust Dave will bring in the guys to make us better. We improved the roster from the bottom up.”

Caldwell’s path took him from South Buffalo to John Carroll University in the Cleveland suburbs, where he played outside linebacker alongside fellow St. Francis alums Chris Polian and Tom Telesco.

Polian’s father, former Bills GM Bill Polian, was with the Carolina Panthers and offered Caldwell a scouting internship. Caldwell then spent 10 years with the Polians in the Indianapolis Colts’ front office and eventually became the Atlanta Falcons’ player personnel director.

The past 11 months have been eventful for Caldwell and Telesco, named San Diego Chargers general manager the same week the Jaguars hired Caldwell. They are two of the three youngest GMs in the league.

As Caldwell took a seat behind two laptops on his desk Friday morning, he looked relaxed in a black nylon Jaguars jacket, dark blue jeans and a black Nike baseball cap. A frame from the Notre Dame-USC game was frozen on his flat-screen television.

For the next 90 minutes, Caldwell spoke with The Buffalo News about how a South Buffalo kid found his way into that office to run an NFL team.

What was your childhood in South Buffalo like?

DC: “My parents raised four children. I was the youngest of four. My dad started at Sears at 18 years of age and retired from Sears at 52. He was an assistant store manager at the one in West Seneca and then got moved to the McKinley Mall when it opened. In the meantime, he would referee basketball in West Seneca, manage the Buffalo Raceway money room at night sometimes and lifeguard and give swim lessons. When he was refereeing basketball my brothers and sisters and I would shoot hoops at West Seneca East or West Seneca West. While he was lifeguarding, we’d go swim. If he was at the raceway, my mother would take us and watch the horses. They put four kids through private elementary school, high school and the three boys through private college.”

Your parents were providers.

DC: “Extreme providers. My mother was a medical secretary, and when I was really young she was the lunch lady at St. Bonaventure Elementary School.”

What neighborhood did you knock around in?

DC: “I call it the Triad. I was right in the middle of South Buffalo, West Seneca and Lackawanna on Tudor Boulevard, right off of Potter Road, across from Cazenovia Golf Course. When I left for college, that house was the only place I ever knew. I always tell people I wouldn’t change where I grew up for anything. It was a great place to grow up.”

Where did you get the inspiration to become an NFL executive?

DC: “Playing football at St. Francis and at John Carroll, I loved it. Obviously, I wasn’t talented enough to continue to do it. But I wanted to be around it. The biggest thing for me is the camaraderie of the sport. This is a great people business. You come across some great individuals. I wanted to continue to have that.

“I didn’t know if I was going to coach, and after college I was going to possibly go back and get my MBA and possibly be a graduate-assistant coach. But I got the opportunity to intern as a scouting assistant with the Carolina Panthers. Once I got down there I thought, ‘This is something I could get into.’ I did everything from be a ballboy to help with administrative tasks. … I wanted to stay around football. When I had the opportunity as an intern, my family did everything in their power to support me financially and help me along in a pay-your-dues role.”

How influential was Bill Polian to getting you started?

DC: “He was significant. To this day, I’ll bounce things off Bill and look for advice and counsel. But there were a lot of people who had a vested interest in me getting to where I’m at right now. I owe a lot of people, Bill primarily for giving me the opportunity. But also his sons, Chris and Brian, who went to bat for me and told their dad he should let me intern. Once I got to Carolina in ’96, guys like Dom Amile, who was my boss there and in Indianapolis, taught me the nuts and bolts about scouting and about the business.”

When did you become your own man in the NFL?

DC: “I don’t think I really came into my own until I left Bill in 2008 and went to Atlanta” under Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, “another incredible mentor of mine. He helped me go to the next level. There are a lot of people I owe for where I’m at right now.”

What about your father? What did he think about you pursuing this?

DC: “He’s been incredibly supporting and, uh, probably [Caldwell begins to cry] … Probably one of my biggest fans. So …”

What has his support meant to you?

“Um, well, I think it’s mostly because ...”

(Caldwell asks to stop the interview. He’s still emotional when he resumes.)

DC: “That’s weird. I don’t usually get emotional. Man, that came out of nowhere. Holy … When you get caught up in this, you don’t have a whole lot of time to reflect, and going through the whole Buffalo thing with you just now. … Wow.”

Do your parents know how you feel about what they’ve done?

DC: “Yeah, I talk to them all the time. That was weird. I think you get so caught up in this that you don’t have a whole lot of time to reflect, and then [Caldwell begins to cry again] … But my family has been incredibly supportive, which is ...

“I mean, he was always the guy that went out and played ball. I was pitching, and he was catching ...

“All right. I’m sorry about that.”

You don’t have to apologize for anything. That’s real life. That’s more important than football.

DC: “There are a lot of things more important. I think sometimes we get caught up in this industry so much that it’s tough. …

“The biggest thing was my dad’s work ethic, just his support. My mother, whether it was getting me to a baseball practice or coming to watch me play at John Carroll, their support was unconditional in whatever I chose to do.

“They continue to be my biggest fans. My mother texts me before every game, ‘Good luck, my son.’ My dad’s extremely proud. They love to talk about their son; I can tell you that.”

What about your mom?

DC: “Interesting enough, part of where I found my love for football is mom had two season tickets and started taking me at a very young age to Bills games. I was probably in first or second grade. The seats were along the goal line, about 30 rows up. My dad was a Giants fan. He and I also were die-hard Yankee fans. He and I would watch games every night in the garage in South Buffalo.”

How did growing up a Buffalo Bills fan shape who you are?

DC: “The Bills were a great inspiration. They went through a lot of downtime. Then to see them turn it around in the late 1980s and early 1990s gives you hope. To this day, you can look at them as an example of how you can turn a team around if you do it the right way.”

Which leads us to the Jaguars. Before you have a chance to even put a family photo on your desk, what did you consider the most critical issue to address?

DC: “The first thing I did was ask, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I remember going to my desk after my introductory news conference and thinking, ‘Now what?’ There’s no owner’s manual for being a first-time GM.

“The first thing for me was to hire a head coach. All in one day, I got hired and we let go the former coach. So we began the search for our new coach.”

What was the Jaguars’ culture when you arrived?

DC: “It needed some TLC. This was an organization that had pretty much the same front office in place for a long time. Then a new owner came in and there was some turnover. There were a lot of uncertainties. For me, I just wanted to open things up. I wanted an open-door policy. I want people to be able to walk into my office. I wanted this to be a place where family comes first.

“I had them replace the cold, dungeon doors with windows. I wanted transparency. When I interviewed here, they asked me what I thought of the facility. I said, ‘It’s made for dysfunction.’ The player personnel department was across this symbolic, rubber hallway,” a large stadium corridor. “I called it the Great Divide, with the coaching staff on the other side. The training staff was down the hall. We needed to be one. So we put everything together.

“Nobody knew what they were going to fit into. I just wanted to bring in people who would excel and run their indisputable departments as opposed to one guy overseeing three different things.”

Mike Mularkey had been the coach for only one season. Why did you fire him?

DC: “It was probably more symbolic than anything else. Mike is a good man, and he’s a good football coach. This was a fresh start. We had a new owner, a new general manager. We just felt like we needed to build a new foundation. That was the biggest thing. We needed a new energy in this building to bring in a new culture.”

In Buffalo, Mularkey’s known as a guy who quit on his team.

DC: “Yeah.”

Did you have that in mind when you took over?

DC: “I didn’t. I tried not to look too far in the past. I don’t know what went on behind closed doors in Buffalo at that time. I didn’t know all those details. From an outsider’s perspective, it may look like he quit on his team, but there could’ve been other things internally. So that wasn’t a huge factor.”

Can you put into words how much pressure there was to nail your head-coaching hire?

DC: “As a general manager, you’re going to be judged first on your wins and losses. But how you get there are your two most important decisions, your head coach and your quarterback. I feel like we’re one for one.

“I didn’t feel like there was a ton of pressure because our owner was incredibly supportive throughout the process, and we hired an outside consultant to sit in the interviews. I wanted a partner in this. So that was the first thing I was looking for, someone to co-build the team with.

“I had a good friend tell me, ‘You’re going to go through a lot of interviews, and when the right person walks through the door you’re going to know it.’ Sure enough, after three interviews, Gus was the fourth, and about 30 minutes into the interview I knew Gus was our coach.”

In a front office intent on building through the draft, how do you maintain patience in such a highly competitive business?

DC: “Our plan is to find the best draft class we can, supplement with B- and C-tier free agents that can come in and play and have a coach that will help develop those guys. Alan Ball, one of our starting cornerbacks had, I think, 12 percent play time last year. Geno Hayes had less than 50 percent and has been a good linebacker for us. Eight different rookies have started for us this year. That was the plan.

“As we move forward, we’ll pick and choose spots where it’s good for us to invest in free agents while still always focusing on building through the draft.

“It’s difficult to build slowly, but it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes I have to tell Gus and Shad, ‘Please keep me patient. Don’t let me get caught up and go down a path I don’t believe in.’ That’s why our executive structure is so good. We have such good communication to talk through things.”

Why would it be a mistake for the Jaguars to spend to get competitive more quickly?

DC: “I think we’ve learned from what they’ve done in the past. The year before we got here they spent $145 million in cash and went 2-14. Obviously, that didn’t work. To go down that road and do it again would be virtually insane.

“We wanted to accomplish a couple goals this year. One was to change the culture to the point people want to come here and stay here. Two, we had to make this roster competitive. We were able to do that through the waiver wire and our draft class. The next step is to make the roster even more competitive to the point it’s difficult to make this team.”

You’re trying to establish a new culture, but then you start the season 0-8. How difficult was that to manage?

DC: “Stay the course. We knew going into it that we probably would be better the second half of the season. We were playing eight rookies. I think there are 15 guys on our roster right now that didn’t go through training camp with us or play a preseason game for us. We thought we needed to upgrade the bottom half of our roster to increase competition and help our special teams. We’ve accomplished that, but first week of the season players we’d just claimed off waivers were starting or playing for us. That’s tough on a quarterback and the coaching staff.

“And you saw – even though the scores didn’t show it – there were victories within each game that told us, ‘This is pretty good stuff, now. This guy is coming along.’ Most games come down to four or five plays, regardless what the score is. Eliminating a mistake due to inexperience here or there – it’s such a momentum game, football – and the outcomes could be different.

“The early schedule was tough, too. People called us the worst team in history, but we were still third on the waiver wire because our strength of schedule was so hard. ‘Well, the NFL office doesn’t think we’re the worst.’ ”

After experiencing that, how validating does winning four of your last five games feel?

DC: “When Coach Bradley came to interview, I asked how he defined success and he said, ‘Just getting better every day.’ That’s always been Shad’s motto in business. … The sole focus would be daily improvement even if we were 0-13 right now.”

Many teams hitting the reset button change their quarterback. Why didn’t you?

DC: “We had a young quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and a guy that’s started a few games in Chad Henne. We needed to figure out what we had here first. Unless somebody actually presented himself as a can’t-miss guy or a gotta-have player that would definitely upgrade us as our quarterback of the future, we thought, ‘Let’s build this roster so that when we do get our quarterback of the future or one emerges from this roster, they have the best chance of succeeding.’ We needed to be able to line up a strong safety, a corner, a tackle. We didn’t have some of those on our roster.”

To what extent did you realize local hero Tim Tebow would be a story line here that needed to be squashed early and not become an ongoing distraction?

DC: “We couldn’t start fresh if we kept having the same recurring themes popping up. I wanted a fresh slate to be able to build this from the ground up.I didn’t want it to linger. I didn’t want it to keep coming up. I wanted people to focus on the good things, our new head coach, our staff, our new players, Maurice Jones-Drew and our other veterans.”

What’s the general philosophy with the 10 draft picks you have next year?

DC: “We’re going to sit down at the end of the year with our staff and see who will be coming back, who we’ll re-sign and supplement any glaring holes through free agency. Then hopefully we’ll add 10 guys that can come in and contribute.”

How has the need at quarterback evolved?

DC: “Chad’s done a nice job here. I still have belief in Blaine. I think him sitting behind Chad and being able to take it all in has been good for him. He’s a big, good-looking athlete with good speed, a strong arm. He’s accurate. He has all the tools you look for. But I think sometimes there’s the nature versus nurture. How do you bring him along? How do you develop that position? You look at how Blaine was brought into the league. He came in early. He was thrown into the starting lineup right away. Then you had a coaching change, a new offensive system, he got hurt, another new system, he got hurt again.”

How do the Jaguars apply analytics?

DC: “It’s a great tool for us. For coaches in season, it’s really good for tendencies. From an evaluation standpoint, it’s good for us to confirm what we already know or to raise red flags. I might say, ‘Find me five guys we don’t have on our draft board that have a trait of success. Let’s make sure we don’t miss on these guys.’ There’s so much that goes into a decision, and that’s part of it.”

What’s an example of how analytics have been beneficial?

DC: “Josh Evans, our sixth-round safety,” with eight starts. “Our analytics department said, ‘This is one of the highest-rated safeties based off production, height, weight speed.’ He led Florida in tackles. He was a local kid we knew fairly well, but our grades were a little lower than what they should have been. We took a closer look at him and found he’s wired pretty good. He’s tough, competitive, a great kid. We took safety Jonathan Cyprien in the second round, but Josh Evans was the next-best fit for what we were looking for. He’s worked out well for us.”

So what would NFL analytics show about St. Francis?

DC: “If you’re looking for a general manager, you should visit Athol Springs. Two out of 32 went to the same high school. We’ve had three if you count Chris Polian,” the former Colts GM and current Jaguars pro personnel director.

You and Tom Telesco are two of the three youngest in the NFL. Does that mean anything?

DC: “It means we better produce. Tom and I have been very fortunate to get started at a young age and have great mentorship.”


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