ST. PAUL, Minn. – Every member of the Eagles scattered across an arena floor on Monday night, and a group of fans spotted the one they most wanted to cheer.
Howie! Howie! Howie!
A few years ago, their calls would have included more venom than reverence. The object of their attention was once a polarizing figure in Philadelphia – and even at the Eagles’ own facility. Six days before the most significant game in 13 years, the once-exiled, now-celebrated football executive was treated like a movie star. For anyone adhering to the adage that there are no second acts in life, try explaining Howie Roseman at the Super Bowl as the architect of the Eagles.
Roseman, 42, eschewed his chance for a victory lap Monday night – but it would be within reason to take one. Once the NFL’s youngest general manager, Roseman survived a one-year banishment from football decisions after Chip Kelly won a 2015 power struggle. Roseman assumed more power than before and helped the Eagles to more success than the most ardent Roseman supporters could have dreamed two years ago. Roseman earned executive-of-the-year honors for his job building a Super Bowl roster, offering vindication after career obituaries once bore his name.
“This is a lot bigger for me,” Roseman said. “This is an opportunity to do something this organization, this team, has never done. When you say that, when you think about that atmosphere and the opportunity we have, there’s no way to think about anything else than to capitalize on the moment.”
Roseman offered similar versions of that answer throughout 40-plus minutes of questioning, deferring the credit to owner Jeffrey Lurie, his staff, his coaches, and his players. And though the public humility might have been strategic, it was also fitting. Because Roseman, who called the year away “probably one of the best things to happen to me,” returned a better version — and as he explains it, with a better understanding of the value of the people around him.
Back to school
Roseman didn’t spend his year away waiting. He spent it learning.
Without football decision-making responsibilities in 2015, Roseman crisscrossed the professional sports landscape and added stamps to his passport while studying management elsewhere. He worked in the Eagles’ South Philadelphia offices throughout his professional career, and though he was still under Lurie’s employ, he used the year to pick the brains of executives in other sports. When he explained how the Super Bowl was an organizational achievement, it wasn’t merely deferring credit. It was understanding all the dynamics involved in decision-making that go beyond the traditional notion of a general manager picking a player.
“I think during that year when you have the opportunity to talk to people in Major League Baseball, in the NBA, in the NHL, in the EPL, and even working outside sports, you see that it’s hard to have one person who just makes every single decision and runs every single department,” Roseman said. “Sometimes we forget … it’s big business. We’re managing payroll, we have a bunch of resources, and we’re trying to hire a lot of good people. Really, I think maybe we’re the last sport that doesn’t do that as much.”
This was Lurie’s prevailing point when he praised Roseman last week, noting how the football operations executive in 2018 is “so much more than simply what has been in the past decades with scouting.” Scouting is one element of the role, but there are other facets of the organization that contribute to a team’s success and fall under the executive’s umbrella. It requires salary cap management and strategic use of resources. There are parts of the operation that range from the training staff to the equipment staff to team security that require attention.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I’m just sitting in my office and I go, ‘What are we doing with the roster?’ ” Roseman said. “That’s why running the department is so big. There’s not enough time in the day.”
For all the distribution of credit and organizational jargon that Roseman can recite, it ultimately comes down to picking the right players and managing the resources to sustain success. Winning in the NFL is the ultimate meritocracy: Every team is allotted the same number of draft picks and the same amount of salary cap space, there are only 90 spots on the offseason roster and 53 spots on the in-season roster, and it’s up to Roseman to figure out how to use them.
The Eagles’ roster building was better in 2017 than it had ever been under Roseman. The free-agent additions included wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeGarrette Blount, cornerback Patrick Robinson, wide receiver Torrey Smith, defensive end Chris Long, defensive back Corey Graham, and offensive lineman Chance Warmack. Roseman traded for defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, cornerback Ronald Darby, and running back Jay Ajayi. Kicker Jake Elliott was signed off Cincinnati’s practice squad. And that doesn’t even factor in the draft, in which the Eagles took a decidedly build-for-the-future approach.
All 53 points scored this postseason were by players who were not on the team last season. There’s no better evidence for Roseman’s changes.
“Howie has come a long way through the last couple of years, and to be in this position, to help this football team win and succeed on the football field is a credit to him and his staff,” coach Doug Pederson said.
There were decisions that kept Roseman staring at his bedroom ceiling. It wasn’t easy to trade Jordan Matthews and give away another Day 2 draft pick, but the Eagles saw value in adding Darby. The Eagles could have taken a Day 1 contributor in the second round of the draft, but they were willing to wait for delayed rewards with Sidney Jones. At the trade deadline, there was risk adding Ajayi and disrupting a winning formula.
“Ron Wolf said it a long time ago: If you’re hitting 60 percent on your decisions, you’re going to be an unbelievable executive in the National Football League,” Roseman said. “The hard part is accepting that you’re going to have some failure. But your good decisions are going to have to way outweigh your bad ones. And make sure your priorities are intact, and when you make those bad decisions, research the heck out of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Roseman has often said that his year away reinforced the need for a top-level franchise quarterback, but it doesn’t require accumulating frequent-flyer miles for that realization. The trades to acquire Carson Wentz and open the starting spot for him were Roseman’s most important moves, but what brought them to the Super Bowl were the other moves — large and small — that fill the Eagles’ transactional calendar. The past month is evidence that the Eagles’ success is about more than Wentz.
The biggest difference with Roseman’s roster-building has been the depth on the roster. The addition of executive Joe Douglas helped the Eagles philosophy of trusting proven veterans in depth roles – and also knowing the type of veteran to identify for those spots.
“I think sometimes the sum is greater than the whole of its parts,” Roseman said. “You’re going to have injuries over the course of the year. … If one injury derails your ability to compete, we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to build up as much depth as possible. I think you’ve seen in the past, we would maybe go for younger players. But here we brought in some veteran guys to fill in those roles. We wanted to be able to have this next-man-up mentality.”
The Eagles also liked the optionality of players on one-year contracts or expiring contracts. Free agency can be expensive in the NFL, and the Eagles have experienced the perils of long-term contracts to players they’re unfamiliar with. They’ve tried to mitigate those risks by identifying players who played in similar systems or whom coaches or executives in the building know, but they also found that shorter commitments provide desired optionality. The Eagles gave in-season contract extensions to Jeffery and Jernigan after a few months with the team.
“If you have the opportunity to know these guys and live with them day in and day out, you feel better about it,’ Roseman said.
Douglas conceded that the Eagles have “tough conversations” – those aren’t rare in football offices – but he said they came to a plan on “the type of player we’re bringing in.” He applauded Roseman’s creativity and big-picture thinking, and there’s been a melding between Roseman’s philosophies and the ideas that Douglas brought from Baltimore and Chicago.
“It wasn’t just one of us,” Douglas said. “It was all of us getting on the same page and working in concert.”
Bearing the burden
Ultimately, Roseman is the one held responsible. When moves didn’t work in the past, it was Roseman under public fire. And when they lead to a Super Bowl appearance, Roseman earns executive of the year.
“I understand when I’m out in front sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad,” Roseman said. “The worst part is I have a family like anyone else and they have to deal with [the criticism]. They know what was said. That’s their dad and that’s their husband. I think that’s harder on them.”
Roseman said he can wear blinders, but there’s a human element that cannot be overlooked. Eagles president Don Smolenski sat next to Roseman for every game during nearly two decades. He has seen Roseman rise through the organization, the abrupt changing of roles in 2015, and Roseman’s return. What stood out to Smolenski was the way Roseman endured.
“It was a tough situation that he went through,” Smolenski said. “He put his nose to the ground and he took some time to reflect, and it’s nice to sort of see…him be able to enjoy this moment.”
The Eagles must win one more game for Roseman to enjoy it as he desires. He looks forward to sitting on a beach after this season and reflecting on what just happened. Because if you don’t believe in second acts, just look at Roseman’s revenge from exile into executive of the year.
“When you get an opportunity at a really young age and the arrow’s pointing up and you don’t really get a chance to step back and something like this happens, there’s humility in it,” Roseman said. “No question about it. But I don’t want this to be about me.”