NFL

Making the franchise-altering move: How NFL decision-makers navigate post-trade risk, criticism, second-guessing

  • Covered Chiefs for 20 seasons for Kansas City Star
  • Joined ESPN in 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Brett Veach thought he had come to peace last spring with the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to trade one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers, Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs general manager had talked for days about a potential deal involving Hill with other team officials, including coach Andy Reid.

The decision to trade Hill wasn’t easy for Veach and the Chiefs. Hill was their leading wide receiver in each of his six pro seasons. He accounted for 25% of the targets from quarterback Patrick Mahomes last season, the 12th-highest team share in the league per NFL Next Gen Stats, and caught a Chiefs-record 111 passes. And his 4,854 receiving yards since 2018 are fourth-most in the NFL.

But the Chiefs reasoned through it. Hill was headed into the final season of his contract in 2022, and both sides were negotiating toward an extension when the market for wide receivers exploded, causing the Chiefs to rethink sinking big money on a 28-year-old receiver. They considered trading Hill for days, but the move ultimately came together quickly, with Hill choosing the Miami Dolphins over the other finalist, the New York Jets. The Chiefs had ultimately come to the conclusion that what they could get in return — five draft picks plus plenty of salary cap space that would allow for future moves — was too rich for them to pass up.

Then, after Veach told the Dolphins they had a deal, it came time to announce the trade — to make public this move that promised to transform the Kansas City franchise, for better or for worse. Numerous highlights from Hill’s now-concluded Chiefs career were everywhere on local TV news and national sports shows. The magnitude of the move set in.

“When you see it break publicly, it does hit you differently,” Veach said. “You see all the highlights and all the great plays that Tyreek made for us. … It’s one of those things where it’s like you know that unequivocally this is the right thing to do for the organization, just from where we are in a short- and a long-term perspective. But it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna not miss the kid and not miss having him on Sundays, especially. Yeah, it’s one of those difficult decisions that is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

It’s the job of the general manager and head coach to make these major decisions that can affect the fortunes of a franchise for years to come. Veach — then co-director of player personnel — helped arrange a draft trade in 2017 that allowed the Chiefs to move up in the first round to select Mahomes. He then traded the incumbent quarterback, Alex Smith, the next year. Reid had once traded another long-time starting quarterback in Donovan McNabb while he was still coaching the Philadelphia Eagles. Just in the past two years alone, we’ve watched as the Detroit Lions moved Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers shipped receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Seattle Seahawks moved on from quarterback Russell Wilson and the Atlanta Falcons ended their time with quarterback Matt Ryan.

Each move was built on solid reasoning — but that doesn’t make it simple. Making such a move takes not only a belief in the decision but also the guts to stand in and take the inevitable heat. Public blowback can be fierce. Veach said he knew better in the days after the Hill trade than to listen to talk radio in Kansas City.

Fans took to Twitter, claiming the Chiefs got “fleeced” in the move. Others called the deal “absolutely horrible.” Media outlets including the Kansas City Star and several local TV stations carried stories featuring Chiefs fans questioning the wisdom of trading Hill. The reaction was intense.

Sometimes the criticism comes not just from the public but also from inside an exec’s inner circle. Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said he went to his son Beau’s football game last year while he was in negotiations to trade outside linebacker Von Miller to the Rams. Miller also showed at Beau’s game, something he would often do for teammates and other Broncos officials. Paton didn’t say anything about a possible trade to Beau, Miller or anyone else.

“I’m standing there watching, knowing we might trade a player like Von Miller, standing next to Von Miller, knowing I can’t really say anything, and it was like 100 kids came up to him during the game,” Paton said. “He signed every autograph, and he offered to take selfies with every kid. Adults were coming up to him. Everybody is telling him how special he is to the Broncos.

“By Monday we had made the deal. I’m not sure my son talked to me for a little bit after that.”

Regrets over making a big move like that should be minimal, a former NFL general manager said. The team should have done its homework beforehand, considering all angles and feeling good about doing it.

“There shouldn’t be second-guessing after making that trade because you should have considered the value, the assets you’re getting back and the impact in the locker room and on the field before you even start discussing a trade,” the ex-GM said. “If you’re not sure about any of that then you wouldn’t do it. You have to have 100% belief that you are doing the right thing for the franchise. Can’t have doubts.

“Fan [reaction] isn’t something you’d consider. … Sometimes you have to make a change. Not that you don’t care about what the fans say, but you have to do what’s best for the organization. … You’re better off thinking about the process than what the reaction is.”

Still, these moves can affect the trajectory of a GM’s career. In Kansas City, Veach is in great standing with the Chiefs after building a championship-caliber roster.

That could change quickly if Hill goes on to great things for the Dolphins while the Chiefs fall back to mediocrity.

“It would have been easy for the Chiefs to keep things steady as she goes and feel like they already had a chance to meaningfully compete for the championship year in and year out if they kept their group together as long as possible,” said Mike Tannenbaum, who made several major moves when he was general manager of the Jets and Dolphins and is now an analyst for ESPN.

“Nobody would have second-guessed them on that whatsoever. So you sort of get paid the big bucks to make those decisions. Look, we don’t know if this trade is going to work out for the Chiefs right now, but what I do know is it takes real conviction.”

Being wrong about a major trade or big free-agent signing puts a general manager and coach on the wrong side of history. He can be remembered only for one bad move.

Ted Thompson, who died last year, was general manager of the Packers in 2008 when he traded future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre to the Jets. Thompson had a solid reason: The Packers had Aaron Rodgers, drafted by Green Bay three years earlier, behind Favre on their depth chart. But Thompson was nervous about the prospect of the trade ruining the team and eventually his career.

The Packers and Jets had to submit paperwork to the NFL confirming details of the trade with someone in each office signing off on it. Thompson said he wanted someone else from the team to sign the paperwork, though he eventually did it himself.

“This is a high-risk business,” Thompson said after the trade was announced. “There are all kinds of risks in the NFL. There are all kinds of risks in life. You make the best decisions you can based on what you believe is in the best interests of the Green Bay Packers and you do it firmly and you do it the way a leader is supposed to do it. That’s what we try to do every day with every decision we make.”

Tannenbaum was the GM of the Jets at the time, and he says he understands how Thompson felt.

“One hundred percent,” Tannenbaum said. “As a human being, you’re allowed to pinch yourself and be like, ‘OK, we’re trading Brett Favre here?’ I’m sure Andy Reid drove home from the office that day after the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill and was thinking, ‘All right, we just traded arguably the most explosive player in the NFL. Was that really smart to do?'”

But Reid said he never felt that way after agreeing to the Hill trade. He said he was more nervous waiting for the Chiefs to draft Mahomes in 2017. The Chiefs moved from No. 27 all the way up to No. 10 on the draft board to make it happen.

“When you’re in the middle of a draft and you’re trying to make something work, there are a couple moments there … that are pretty intense,” he said.

The Chiefs were questioned at the time for drafting Mahomes. They already had Smith, who at the time had led the Chiefs to two straight playoff appearances and their first postseason win in 22 years. Mahomes wasn’t much of a winner in college at Texas Tech, where his record as a starter was 13-16, and there were concerns about his throwing mechanics, his tendency to leave the pocket early and him missing in the strike zone a little too often.

The move had potential to sink everything for Reid, Veach and the Chiefs if it didn’t work out. Instead, the Chiefs have four straight 12-plus-win seasons, four appearances in the AFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl title.

“You’re able to just put the blinders on and let the results speak for themselves,” Veach said of handling the criticism. “We’ve had a lot of success here, and I think you learn quickly that there’s a flip side to everything. If this worked out where [the Chiefs re-signed Hill instead of trading him], there’d be a portion of the fans and media saying, ‘Why would you tie up all those assets on a receiver that was close to 30 years old?’

“So there’s a flip side to everything, and I think you can learn quickly that every decision you make is always going to be questioned.”

The Hill trade likely won’t impact the Chiefs as much as a quarterback move but still could have some far-reaching effects. That includes a potential hit to the offense’s explosiveness.

The Chiefs have JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman and Skyy Moore as their top four wide receivers after trading Hill. Smith-Schuster is the most accomplished, having caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign in 2018. But he hasn’t approached those numbers since and only played five games last season. Neither Valdes-Scantling in four NFL seasons nor Hardman in three have produced consistently, and Moore is a rookie.

But the Chiefs could lengthen and strengthen their window to compete for Super Bowl championships with Mahomes at quarterback if they do well with the picks they received in the trade. The Chiefs used two of the three picks obtained from the Dolphins in this year’s draft to trade up in the first round to get cornerback Trent McDuffie. They drafted Moore in Round 2 with another and also have two of Miami’s picks in next year’s draft.

In the end, Veach slept well in the days after making the Hill move. But not because the magnitude of the trade was lost on him.

“I was exhausted from being up every night prior to 1 or 2 a.m.,” he said. “It also helped that I had some time before the trade was announced to process everything. But still, it’s never easy to make a trade like that one.”

ESPN’s Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.

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