It had been eight years since Dave Ziegler first turned him down, then as a Broncos scout leaving for New England. This time, as the Patriots’ assistant director of player personnel, Ziegler had withdrawn his name from Elway’s general manager search one day after interviewing. The sting felt familiar.
“They were disappointed when he left (in 2013). He was viewed as a shooting star, and you want to keep people like that,” a league source said. “He was really, really good in his interview.”
Over a three-hour video call on Jan. 10, Ziegler outlined his vision for the franchise. He demonstrated an intimate knowledge of Denver’s roster in all three phases, impressing Elway and Broncos coach Vic Fangio. Ziegler then stressed investing in people, integrating all departments of Denver’s football operations and laying a team-first foundation, from which everything would spring.
Overall, Ziegler said, the franchise would constantly evolve around key principles, many he planned to borrow from the Patriots.
What scrapped those plans was a call Ziegler received from one of the few people in football with more clout than a Hall of Fame quarterback turned Super Bowl-winning executive: the greatest coach of all time.
Not long after Elway hung up, it was reported Bill Belichick had persuaded Ziegler to stay, and he did. What those reports omitted is Belichick had been in regular contact with his 43-year-old executive over the previous 24 hours. His final message was a mix of promise and plea: I don’t want you to leave. This is what I will do to keep you.
Belichick’s offer? A promotion the Pats’ top personnel post of de facto general manager.
It wasn’t the first time Belichick had conveyed how much he valued Ziegler.
Last year, the Pats quietly created Ziegler’s position out of thin air to elevate him directly underneath director of player personnel Nick Caserio, Belichick’s longtime personnel chief. The move was downright bizarre for an organization famous for downplaying titles, especially publicly, and made waves in league circles. Several general managers who started in New England — Jason Licht, Jon Robinson and Bob Quinn — were never promoted this way.
In retrospect, Ziegler’s promotion was Belichick playing the long game. Under Caserio, he would learn all aspects of team-building and be groomed as his replacement. The league could see Caserio’s destiny as a true general manager approaching fast, and Ziegler’s wasn’t far behind.
“You know when someone’s going to be a player in this league and when they’re not,” a league source said. “He’s got all the personality traits of somebody who is going to be that guy soon.”
For now, he’s the Patriots’ guy, and sources say Ziegler is committed to the franchise long-term. He’s described as a sharp, tireless evaluator, whose scouting reports have contributed to Super Bowl wins. Ziegler is also unusually connected.
“Everything’s just a phone call away. That’s a great trait to have, especially being a potential GM in this league,” another league source said. “There’s so much (expletive) that’s thrown on your plate every day, you need this ability.”
One source believes Ziegler was No. 2 on Denver’s list, behind only its eventual choice, Vikings assistant GM George Paton. The world will never know.
Moments after Ziegler’s call ended, Broncos brass reconvened. Almost simultaneously, they confessed a sense of awe and confusion about his interview, the only one Ziegler had scheduled.
Why haven’t more teams talked to him?
Small beginnings, big dreams
The truth is the Broncos got lucky.
In early 2010, then-Denver head coach Josh McDaniels offered Ziegler a low-level job in his personnel department. He started by chauffeuring free agents, then updated rosters and scouting reports for players before finally writing them himself as a pro scout in 2012. Without McDaniels, the Broncos would likely never have discovered Ziegler.
The two originally connected in the late ’90s as teammates at John Carroll University, a Division III factory for NFL coaches and front office executives. Ziegler’s work ethic and attention to detail can be traced to his northeast Ohio roots, either at John Carroll, where he graduated as a three-time All-American returner, or his hometown of Tallmadge. Before he accepted McDaniels’ offer, Ziegler consulted with his former high school coach, Jeff Ferguson.
The call was a stark contrast to their first interactions, when Ziegler, as an eager sophomore wideout, would routinely jog off the field after third downs to inform his coach he’d been open. Ferguson preferred a traditional brand of Ohio football — three yards and a cloud of dust — so Ziegler harped often. Perhaps they would have butted heads if the kid hadn’t usually had a point.
“I remember breaking down one of those films,” Ferguson said, “and my assistant was like, ‘You know, he actually is open every play.’”
Ferguson recalls sitting Ziegler down to explain desire wasn’t enough. Greatness demanded he prepare harder, smarter and hone his speed. Soon enough, Ziegler joined the outdoor track team and set school records that stand to this day.
Over the summers, Ziegler worked for the town, groundskeeping and performing other maintenance jobs with a friend, Tom Headrick. Whenever they were called to paint, he’d hand Headrick the roller and claim the brush for himself. Details were his domain, and if Headrick’s third base line wasn’t straight enough, Ziegler would paint it himself.
Headrick, who owns and operates a professional landscaping company today, said: “I don’t know if we ever had a better grounds crew than when Dave was working.”
As football season approached, Ziegler pressed his quarterbacks to throw with him in August and on weekends. This continued at John Carroll, where Ziegler graduated with an education degree in 2001 before teaching at a local high school. The following summer, he quit to drive west with friends and started a coaching career in Arizona. But after three years, all he had to show for his travels was volunteer experience and substitute teaching checks.
Unsatisfied, Ziegler found a soft landing spot back at John Carroll as a graduate assistant in 2004 and 2005. Upon leaving campus a second time, he was hired as the wide receivers coach at Iona College outside New York City. Finally, progress.
Ziegler’s time in Arizona appealed to Iona coach Fred Mariani, who figured his new assistant could help recruit junior college transfers from the west coast. Ziegler’s sensibilities also aligned perfectly with his new boss’.
“You never look at the clock. When you’re done working, you’re done,” Mariani says. “And if you aren’t done at one in the morning, you continue.”
The problem for Ziegler, again, was money. He made $7,000 a year, so he earned extra cash by feeding what close friends call his love of the limelight as an extra on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Sopranos.
“My boy is a little bit of a showboat,” laughed Nate Zappola, a Tallmadge friend who traveled every weekend to watch Ziegler play in college. “He loves the spotlight, so there was an opportunity for that, and he jumped on it.”
Ziegler can most clearly be seen in the Season 8 finale of Law & Order: SVU as a reporter. In multiple shots, he’s standing behind a barricade in the background with a recorder in hand, waiting over the right shoulder of Ice-T and guest star Ludacris. He’s visibly eager to ask questions, but no one answers.
Ziegler’s appearance in The Sopranos series finale is harder to detect.
These stories are known to several colleagues past and present — except his boss at the time. “I don’t know when the heck he did that,” Mariani confessed, “because he was always working.”
But with Iona’s program headed for extinction, Ziegler escaped back to Arizona in 2007 as the wide receivers coach at Chapparal High School, a state powerhouse under new leadership. Head coach Charlie Ragle, now the special teams coordinator at Cal, made Ziegler one of his first hires.
“It was an instant connection,” Ragle said. “His energy, his passion about life, not even football necessarily.”
Ragle convinced the school to interview Ziegler for a guidance counselor position, which he quickly secured. Ziegler’s master’s degree in counseling from John Carroll opened that door and allowed him to set roots in the unforgiving Arizona terrain that had rejected him before.
“He was by far and away the best counselor we had at the school,” Ragle said. “His relationships with the students, the parents, the teachers, the support staff, everyone.”
At Chapparal, Ziegler won a state championship and lost another. Spencer Stone, the brother of Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone, played quarterback in those years. Stone’s father joined the coaching staff a year after Ziegler, and invited the staff to a movie premiere among other trips to the family’s home in Newport Beach, Calif.
These trips did little to dissuade other assistants from busting Ziegler with the nickname “Hollywood,” which was originally earned from his Law & Order tales.
Months later, more celebrating ensued when McDaniels called with his offer. Ragle and his wife took Ziegler out to Mastro City Hall, a famous Scottsdale steakhouse. Glasses were raised, filets were served, laughter filled their corner of the room.
The pre-made Patriot
Welcome to The Game.
It’s a delicate quid pro quo arrangement in the highest circles of NFL coaching and front offices between league members and national reporters. It often begins with a reporter’s pitch for a mutually beneficial relationship built on an exchange of information. Ultimately, it becomes a back-scratching balancing act, where reporters scratch in the winter by including an up-and-coming source on their lists of future head coaches and general managers.
On the future GM lists, there are typically a few staple descriptions: Rising star. Well-respected and connected in the scouting community. Grinder. Has a keen eye for talent.
The reason is NFL owners read these lists like anyone else. Owners are, after all, just fans with controlling interests. Though Ziegler, who appeared on one such list last December, kept his general manager aspirations private from close friends until last year. Perhaps purposeful, perhaps simply humble by nature.
The thing about Ziegler is these token descriptions fit him before his general manager candidacy materialized. In fact, they’ve fit for decades. He arrived in New England a pre-made Patriot.
In Foxboro, Belichick won’t stand for fence-sitting from his evaluators. Scouts and executives are challenged if their player reports aren’t clearly defined. No problem for Ziegler.
“The one thing I always respected about Dave is he wasn’t a yes man. He’s going to give you his opinion, whether you like it or not,” Ragle said.
The best evaluators develop national networks that extend deep within pro teams and college programs. In Denver, Ziegler’s drive and relationships fueled his rise. He managed to find common ground with everyone, from Elway to the equipment managers.
“He was all about the work, but the neat thing was how he treated people the same way,” said one source familiar with Ziegler’s Broncos tenure. “It was just very kind and professional, from the support staff to public relations to the video guys.”
Ziegler’s ability to maintain his pre-NFL connections has served him throughout his career. From McDaniels to Caserio to Ragle and other members of the Chapparal staff who later landed in Denver, everyone has shaped his ascension and reaped their own rewards. Even Ferguson, who in retirement admits he’s lost his professional usefulness to Ziegler, has enjoyed the ride.
In September 2018, Ferguson was gifted field-level tickets to a Patriots home game after the team had lost two straight, which put the building in a foul mood and discouraged Ziegler from touring his old coach around team offices. But as Tom Brady threw his first of three touchdown passes and the Pats unleashed predictable hell on Miami, Ziegler stepped out from his suite to wave Ferguson, almost as if to say, “See what happens when you throw it to the open guy?”
“Whether you are selling popcorn on Sunday or whether you are a star free agent,” Ferguson said, “you’re gonna get the same David Ziegler.”
In essence, Ziegler climbed the Patriots front office by demonstrating the same traits the team seeks in its players: consistency, intelligence and the ability to perform under pressure.
During the Pats’ preparation for Super Bowl LI against Atlanta, Ziegler presented two findings inside team headquarters that helped spur the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
One: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman could be exploited in his rare snaps of pass protection.
“Whether it’s speed to power coming from the second level or a bull-rush,” Ziegler told a room of coaches, “(Freeman) has major issues with that.”
Trailing 28-12 in the fourth quarter, Pats linebacker Dont’a Hightower blew up Freeman en route to a strip sack of Matt Ryan. The Patriots recovered and scored a touchdown in less than two and a half minutes, building vital momentum.
Two: Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews was susceptible to a particular type of pass rush.
“He is just light on the edge. Guys who power through his outside shoulder are getting to the quarterback,” Ziegler declared.
The series after Hightower’s sack, Patriots defensive end Chris Long drove into Matthews and drew a critical holding penalty that pushed Atlanta out of field goal range. The Falcons punted, and the rest is history.
As the Pats crashed out of the contention last year, Ziegler’s commitment to remained steadfast. He enjoyed his expanded role, trying as the season was, and expected to stay in January — even when the Broncos came calling.
Sources indicate Ziegler’s interest in Denver’s general manager job was more exploratory, a way to gain interview experience for a position he’ll someday take elsewhere. The Broncos’ job appealed, though its downsides were obvious: a poor quarterback, a head coach with a losing record for two straight seasons and the knowledge that dysfunction must be lurking somewhere for a franchise to lose so consistently in recent seasons.
Nowadays, Ziegler will often leave home around 4 a.m. to report to Gillette. He splits his 16-hour days with drives home to see his wife and three children in the evening before returning at night. Having recently built a house closer to the stadium, his commute is shorter now.
So is his climb to the top.
Back on stage
It’s late May 2018, and Ziegler is back in Tallmadge.
Dressed in dark jeans and a navy, short-sleeve button down, he stands relaxed among old friends and young fans. But clothing and company have nothing to do with Ziegler’s comfort. It’s his task at hand: captivate a crowd of more than 100 people famous for their ability to be unimpressed.
From the stage of his high school’s auditorium, Ziegler is retelling every step of his life’s journey as an invited speaker. Each year, Tallmadge High welcomes well-known alumni, who address the sophomore class as part of its Spotlight on Success program. Program organizers ask speakers to present for no more than 20 minutes, mindful of the teenage attention span.
But after 20 minutes, Ziegler blows past his stop sign. He pays no mind to the half-hour mark and crosses 40 minutes without a care. No one interrupts him because no one wants to. He’s commanded the room through a mix of visual aids, life lessons and self-deprecation.
And yes, his Law & Order stories.
Ziegler also shouts out Ferguson, who’s in attendance, and thanks his wife, who’s traveled with him. He later name drops Elway and Belichick and mentions meeting President Obama. He uses the word “grind” at least a half-dozen times and closes with advice about finding greatness in small tasks and being diligent about details.
By the time Ziegler finishes, he’s given the longest presentation in the history of Spotlight on Success at an hour flat. Another school record. After he’s showered with applause, Ziegler mingles with students, passes his Super Bowl rings around and poses for pictures.
It’s a good day in Tallmadge, where friends and family always gather whenever their shooting star streaks in and out of town. While Ziegler’s visits are typically short, everyone knows he’ll return again. The pull of home is strongest in a small town, even for those with the power to overcome the gravity of an NFL front office.
Almost three years later, amid a trying semester warped by the coronavirus pandemic, a student rushes into his classroom with news. It’s mid-January, and smiles are harder to spot than most years for teachers like Joni Giles, who helps run the Spotlight on Success program. But this student beams.
“Did you hear about Dave Ziegler? How he got promoted?”
Giles shakes her head, beaming back without a hint of surprise.
Six hundred miles to the east, with millions of uneasy fans in attendance for a defining offseason, the stage belongs to Ziegler once again.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .