The Playbook for Firing in the NFL
If you haven’t been fired, then you know someone who has. Firing is a part of daily life, even though it is dreaded by many on both sides of the conversation. Being fired shatters an individual’s sense of stability, along with their personal plans. All of a sudden, a person could find their source of income or insurance benefits gone due to factors that may not be entirely under their control. Of course, a teenager being fired from a summer job has lower stakes when compared to a full-time employee being laid off. We’ll be focusing on the latter.
The central theme that guides a firing is the power dynamic between the employer and employee. In the workplace, an employee reports to their employer, who instructs them (either directly or through other employees) to complete tasks for the benefit of the firm or organization under which both employer and employee work. The employer doesn’t always have to be the head of the firm, but the employer always has more leverage than their employees. An employee generally follows the directions of their employer, because in many cases there is no alternative. Simply put, the employer has as much power as they need over their employees, which is what makes firing such a one-sided decision. This process piqued my interest, so I looked at examples of the process in markets that also piqued my interest. Naturally, my interests led me down a path towards the NFL.
I decided to study the mechanics of firing in the NFL to find out which strategies employers use as they navigate through that strenuous yet common challenge of firing players. It seems that the goal of firing players is to inform the player of their release while also maintaining a good professional relationship from the team perspective. If possible, how can we make that process more amicable for the player? I wanted to know how the employer explains their decision to the player. From that research, a convention for firing players can be formed and further critiqued.
Firing by itself is already its own genre due to its rhetorical techniques and the situations in which it takes place. Charles Bazerman, a Professor of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, defined rhetoric as a tool that “helps us think about what we might most effectively use words to meet our ends in social interchange, and helps us think about what others through their words are attempting to do with us,” (14). For example, a common rhetorical technique may involve the use of euphemisms as employers try to “soften the blow” upon their employees. Other employers may be blunt with their employees in an effort to speed up the firing process.
First, we need to think about how this power structure applies to the NFL. Generally, it’s a clear application of the employer-employee model, but not always. In the NFL, the employees (the players) are a singular group, but in specific situations, the employers can vary. In this dynamic, the employer refers to the person who has control over roster decisions. It’s not always a single individual, though. Certainly, the coach is someone who has control over the roster, but many teams allow additional input from the general manager and the owner. This can be a strange dynamic. Ultimately, the coach and general manager are subordinates to the owner, but the owner relinquishes control over the roster to them (as they have more football knowledge than the owner).
In most situations, though, it is the coach who has the final say over which players are cut from the team, even though he may not have control over who the organization adds to the roster (via the draft, free agency, etc.).
The importance of firing is emphasized in the NFL, even compared to other markets, because of one concept: scarcity. Accountants or truck drivers have tens of thousands of jobs to apply to if they find themselves in need of one. In the NFL, there are 32 teams with 53 roster spots. Of course, nearly every player plays just one position, so they may find themselves competing with any number of players to play a position that NFL teams only allot four to seven roster spots towards. Of those several spots, two or three could be already taken by players that the team has invested resources into, such as newly drafted players or established veterans.
This all goes to say that securing a roster spot is an extremely difficult task. Scarcity plays the biggest role, but so does the high level of competition that requires these supernatural athletes to remain in peak physical condition for months out of the year. Being fired means a lot in the NFL, because there isn’t a guarantee that you’ll land a job in the field again.
I’ll note one caveat — in some circumstances, the fired player may be asked to join the practice squad, which still pays a significant amount of money (between 165 and 252k for a whole season). Those firings tend to be more amicable, as the resolution is less disappointing for the player.
To find documentation of firings, I found a clear answer: HBO’s Hard Knocks, a documentary that focuses on a particular team’s preseason in full scope. There are over a dozen seasons of the hour-long show (with ~60 episodes in total), which means there is plenty of content. I did not use all the material that the show provides, but still found an ample amount nonetheless.
Obviously, there are some limitations associated with researching from a television show, especially one that is aimed to entertain audiences first and foremost. Informing the audience of how an NFL organization works is merely a secondary objective, and editing may be compromising the full source material. Nevertheless, it appears that they leave the firing scenes without significant alteration.
To help myself identify patterns between firings, I decided to utilize a method called move analysis. The move analysis method was developed by John Swales, a rhetorical writing expert at the University of Michigan. As he put it, he considers moves as “discoursal or rhetorical units performing coherent communicative functions in texts,” (40). We can recall Bazerman’s definition of rhetoric here to help us understand moves better. Using that lens, I see a move as the product of rhetoric used for a singular purpose. As the purpose of the rhetoric in use evolves, the boundaries of a particular move are crossed into the next move.
In the NFL, firing is a process that happens face-to-face, so we can neglect its presence in texts and focus on the distinct coherent communicative functions in verbal form from the coach. In-person communication is preferred because, as Bazerman notes, it’s a more intimate and personal form of communication. It would be easier from a time standpoint to send the player an email informing him of his release, but it’s far from an ideal last impression. A face-to-face conversation allows for a more comfortable space for both parties to express themselves.
An example of a move in the context of our situation could be the coach directly telling the player that he’s been cut. It’s considered a move because it carries a clear function (to inform), and it’s distinct from other things that the coach may tell the player. Another example could be an apology, because it informs the player that the team believes that they have wronged the player in some shape or form, and signifies the value off the field that the player has.
The first “move” that became apparent is a technique that I’ve dubbed “The Call.” NFL teams value secrecy in their roster moves until they notify the player, as it serves the team no good if a member of the media reports information of a player’s firing before the final conclusions are made. As a result, the player will generally get a call from an assistant GM or another person who is higher up (not highest, though) in the power structure. The call is concise and direct — the assistant GM informs the player that he needs to come into the office to meet with the coach.
Other forms of this “call” can be in-person communication from an assistant, who directs the player towards the head coach’s office. In the Dolphins’ 2012 series, these assistants were known as “reapers” around the facility due to the grim nature of their job. This is more common during the “final cut day,” during which the final firings take place. Because many cuts are to be made on this single day, all players are directed to show up to the facility. Logistically, this makes sense, as it is easier to reach players if they’re in the same area.
Because it’s recognized as a common move among teams, players trying to make the final regular season roster dread the call, especially experienced players who have been cut in the past. The drive/walk to the coach’s office is often a disappointing one, as players try to rationalize other reasons why they might have been called, and come to terms with an approaching reality.
The alternative — a player learning of this decision through a tweet from the media rather than the team itself — is a far worse look for the team, so the team generally opts for “The Call” instead. Exceptions may be made during final cut day — depending on the organization, the Assistant GM might notify the player of his release while on the phone, yet still call him to the coach’s office for a brief exchange.
While there are some variations with The Call, The Meeting is rather universal in the NFL. What I mean is that every team will have that meeting with a player when he gets cut, whether it be the coach, assistant GM, or another figure be the representative informing him of that decision. The meeting is an overarching move because it contains dialogue within it that are also moves.
Why consider it a move then? Well, by choosing to have an in-person dialogue (albeit of brief length), the employer is showing respect to the employee, and giving the employee the option to voice any responses they might have to the news. Having the option for a two-sided dialogue certainly gives the player more opportunity, which makes the situation more understandable from the player’s perspective. Ultimately, the meeting is the final dialogue between the player and the coach, so it’s vital to the firing process.
Moves within the Meeting
Every meeting is different, but there are three key moves that shape them. They are listed in the order in which they occur:
- Within the meeting, the coach will directly inform the player of his release. The coach will make it short and to the point, as there is no reason to leave the player in further suspense from either perspective.
- The coach will give a brief rationale for the team’s decision. Frequently, this will involve some detail into what the player could work on or an evaluation of how their training camp went. This rationale generally includes positive and negative feedback and is communicated in a matter-of-fact way, generally including football-specific terminology. Positive feedback may be related more to the player’s character than his athletic prowess.
- The coach will give the player an opportunity to respond. This could be done explicitly in the form of a question, or the coach may let the room be silent for the player as he ruminates. This step may be done out of order, as more outgoing players may feel prompted to ask a question before the coach can finish his rationale.
These moves are universal in even the shortest of meetings. No coach will leave out a rationale after informing the player of their firing, no coach will skip to rationale without informing the player, and they’ll never do both without giving the player at least some sort of platform for a question or a comment. Some coaches make an additional move in their meetings: After the first two moves have been made, the coach may give advice to the player. The advice is mostly related to the sphere of football. This doesn’t occur in most meetings, but particular relationships may allow space for the coach to feel comfortable (and not condescending) in giving a player advice.
Few other common moves are made during the discussion. Both parties realize that it’s not a time for humor, nor a time for storytelling. Neither party wants to continue the meeting for too long. It’s not fun for players to get fired and many coaches view it as a necessary yet unpleasant chore.
Values & Takeaways
Ultimately, the exchange reveals far more about the team than it does about the player because the team has control over the process. What’s clear about these exchanges, though, is that teams want to leave the firing on good terms with the player. Why does it matter?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s more logistically convenient for the team to simply shoot the player an email or text notifying him of his release. Taking the time to explain the decision to the player takes away from time that could be spent focusing on the players on the roster. That puts the team who saves time at a competitive advantage, right?
Well, the team sees no benefits from leaving the player on sour terms. Firstly, players talk, and the media does too. No team wants a reputation of treating players disrespectfully, and no organization wants to be seen as the one that will kick someone as they walk out the door. Essentially, teams are actually at a competitive disadvantage if they treat players disrespectfully. With a finite pool of elite talent, it does a team no good to scare off that talent by not exhibiting respect towards other players, especially at their lowest moments.
Another note: there were few situations where the player responded harshly to the news, which signifies that teams are keeping those last impressions benevolent. In other words, these teams seem to be pretty good at firing players. Perhaps it’s because many coaches and GMs were players, and have been on the other side of the desk before. Or it could be because organizations fire players en masse every year, which is unique to the NFL.
Here’s a fact that I’ll leave you with: During training camp, teams are allowed 90 roster spots, which inevitably shrinks to the 53-man limit when the regular season starts. Teams fire nearly half of their roster every year! It’s incredibly hard to find this similarity in other walks of life, which makes the NFL uniquely prepared for firing players. The preparation is evident in how they treat those players in the valleys of their professional athletic careers. Perhaps other companies could take a page out of NFL teams’ firing playbooks because they’ve had more practice than most in that department.
Bazerman, Charles. A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1. The WAC Clearinghouse; Parlor Press, 2013. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2013.0513.
Moreno, Ana I., and John M. Swales. “Strengthening Move Analysis Methodology towards Bridging the Function-Form Gap.” English for Specific Purposes, vol. 50, Apr. 2018, pp. 40–63. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esp.2017.11.006.