Mind Masters: Executive Force
Photo: Christian Petersen (Getty Images)

For a while there was at least Ryan Grigson, and that was enough. A perfectly rectangular former NFL lineman partial to tactical sunglasses and oddly shiny suits, Grigson always projected the sense that he was imagining himself as the lead in a 1990s action movie called Executive Force. In his first move as GM of the Indianapolis Colts, Grigson drafted Andrew Luck first overall. He got some less obvious decisions right after that but was still fired five seasons later, by which point his team had made a clean loop back into mediocrity; by the end, owner Jim Irsay forced Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano to attend counseling sessions together to mend their relationship. It didn’t work and Grigson didn’t change.

Instead he steered ever more aggressively into the sort of Dumb Guy stuff that NFL executives love, until his job seemed to be split cleanly between aggro dominance posturing and psychedelic acts of gut-trusting. He schemed and scowled and minimized threats to his authority by systematically alienating and undermining virtually everyone he worked with. He traded a first-round draft pick for Trent Richardson and righteously fined Pat McAfee a game check because of an Instagram post he thought was unprofessional. He made draft picks that did not make sense at the time and make even less in retrospect. But his teams played in the AFC South and won for a while, which means Grigson left Indianapolis with a winning record and his large square head held high. “You’re judged by your record—I always hear Parcells said that,” Grigson told The Sporting News in 2017. “That’s why I put my head on the pillow at night no matter what people say.” Grigson works for the Seahawks now, and no one can ever take his 2012 Sporting News NFL Executive Of The Year Award away from him. The award was not given out the following year.

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It was awarded in 2014, to Steve Keim of the Arizona Cardinals. At that point, Keim was situated at roughly the same spot on the NFL Executive Continuum that Grigson had been when he’d won the honor. Keim had thoroughly overhauled a shitty roster and hired a new coach and won some trades and spent some money on veteran free agents, none of which are easy to do well. The teams Keim built stayed good for a while, then declined precipitously—his aging quarterback got hurt and retired, the coach retired, what once looked like strategic team-building work gave way to a sort of reflexive churning. It never got Grigson-grade weird between Keim and his underlings; Bruce Arians referred to Keim as his “little brother” when he retired. It just stopped working.

Ordinarily this would be the end of the cycle. Keim would have been set free to Put His Head On The Pillow At Night and eventually move on to some other similar job just as Grigson had at the end of his run; Keim’s embarrassing attempt to play the I Know A Cop, Actually card after a DUI arrest sure looked like a logical endpoint for his employment with the club. Yet it didn’t happen. The Cardinals gave Keim a contract extension and a shot at starting things over again. The owner let Keim hire a new coaching staff, pay a veteran quarterback in Sam Bradford, and trade multiple picks so that he could select UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th pick of the draft. It really, really didn’t work—Bradford was bad and then badly injured, new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired after Week 7 and first-time head coach Steve Wilks shortly after the season ended, and Rosen never developed or really ever had much of a chance to develop. Keim’s rebuilt team was terrible enough to land the top pick in the NFL Draft.

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Which marked another logical endpoint for Keim’s tenure as the team’s chief executive, and yet again it did not end. Keim drafted a new, shorter quarterback in Kyler Murray and only then set about trying to trade Rosen, which unsurprisingly proved difficult to do. Keim was, as flailing GMs tend to be, extremely busy around the draft to unremarkable effect, but every move seemed to compound the folly of the previous one. He finally dealt Rosen for a late second-round pick, which he used on receiver Andy Isabella.

“Keim dealt the 15th, 79th and 152nd picks a year ago for the 10th pick, so the Cards could draft Rosen. Keim just dealt Rosen for the 62nd pick and a fifth in 2020,” Peter King wrote in assessing Keim’s recent performance. “Which means, in essence, he traded the 15th, 79th, and 152nd picks of a draft for a slot receiver from UMass.” It is worth taking a moment to consider just how much a NFL general manager has to do wrong in order to get roasted in print by Peter King.

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Because Keim is a NFL general manager, he is both unwilling to believe that he got anything wrong at all—“I don’t know that it wasn’t that he didn’t work out,” Keim said of the quarterback he traded up to draft, drafted, and then dumped at a discount after one season—and extremely excited about what he believes that he has just gotten right. Last week, new coach Kliff Kingsbury declined to commit to Murray as the team’s starter for Week 1. It was perfunctory coach bullshit, the sort of meaningless and obvious obfuscation that makes the NFL discourse go, and it took Keim less than 24 hours to come cannonballing in with a firm “yes” on Murray starting the season under center. It was a wild ride to this point, Keim later told Rich Eisen. “It’d be hard to understand any circumstances other than the one that just happened that that would happen,” he said, with clarity.

The NFL does not really ever go away, even during the months in which football is not being played. It just becomes a television show about human resources and executive bluster that somehow believes itself to be about matters of urgent national import. Elsewhere in the NFL, there are front offices working to carry Ryan Grigson’s important work in the executive arts forward; the Raiders, predictably and especially, have done a lot to advance Grigson’s pioneering combination of paranoid Dumb Guy office politics and backward-looking football mysticism. But Dave Gettleman of the Giants and especially Keim have broken out of those strictures and reached towards the avant-garde. Gettleman is working righteously to create a truly dignified and values-oriented six-win team; it is the first time a NFL team’s organizational philosophy has been modeled after a doomed Senate campaign. Keim, who has been set free to expensively and aggressively botch rebuilds in consecutive years, is combining Executive Force–style gutwork with a furious boldness and overdetermined busy-ness that will be recognizable to anyone that has ever worked for someone with no actual ideas and more job security than is practical. There’s no real reason to believe it’ll work, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to watch.