How To Build an NFL Team: A Manifesto

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Last Updated on 23 Apr 2022 5:21 pm (UK Time)

Why do the same teams seem to win all the time?

Why do the same teams seem to be bad year after year?

The NFL does a lot to attempt to create a level playing field for teams to compete: the reverse draft order; salary cap; even the schedule all operate the way they do to try and maximise parity between the teams and ensure even competition every Sunday, every year. And yet, we see the same teams in the playoffs year after year, and the same teams picking early in the draft. There must be something to it. 

There is. The following is my personal manifesto for how to build a successful NFL franchise, based on what I see the good teams doing. It may be simple, it may be basic and lacking the nuances only a GM in the League could provide, but this is what I see from the outside looking in; a sort of North Star of team building.

Agree or disagree, I don’t mind. But maybe this can help you identify what your team does or doesn’t do, and may provide a eureka moment as to why they are successful or not in 2022 and beyond.

Hire a new Head Coach and General Manager Together

The ultimate authority within any organisation is the owner. It must be the owner who sets the vision, agenda and tone for the rest of the organisation to follow. Hiring both a head coach and general manager together at the same time allows the owner to recruit two individuals who believe in and are prepared to commit to the owner’s vision. 

Bringing in new people to both positions allows for a clean slate, there is no spillover from the previous regime, no company politics, no power struggle. Both the head coach and general manager are united under the owner. This arrangement allows for clarity of organisational vision and collaboration between the coaching staff and front office staff. Decision making becomes faster, easier, more transparent and, ultimately, more effective. Better decisions will lead to a better football team, better decisions are made when all members of an organisation are united and following the same path towards a common goal. Hiring an HC and GM together is the first step down that path.

Build from the inside out

Building from the inside out means that you prioritise having good quality starting players at positions in the centre of the field. On offence this means center; quarterback; running back, on defence, defensive Tackle; middle linebacker; and safety. Having a strong “spine” ensures each eleven has a solid foundation upon which to build. The spine is the foundation of your roster and the players in these positions have a great effect on the players around them. A rising tide lifts all boats, and so improving the quality of spine players improves the team as a whole. Improving the spine raises the floor of your team, improving the players in other positions raises the ceiling. 

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Build Through The Draft

Being able to bring several rookie players into your organisation each year through the Draft is a great opportunity to influence the culture of the team. Each of these young players are handpicked not only for their football skill and physical traits but because they have desirable personality traits also. Once a part of your organisation, each cohort of new players can be moulded by coaches and veteran players to adopt the culture of the team, and, in turn, influence subsequent cohorts of young players in future seasons. Using the draft to build the core of your team and homegrown players to constitute the majority of your roster allows for unity of vision and culture and fosters mutual loyalty between players and the organisation.

Free agents should be used sparingly to bolster positions of need or to add “puzzle piece” players to take team performance to the next level. Free-agent players generally sign with the team that offers them the most lucrative contract, meaning that it is difficult to keep many free agents simultaneously, and hard to retain them when their contracts expire. For these reasons, free-agent players are best used to supplement a roster built primarily through successive drafts. (Click here to see Early Winners and Losers in Free Agency.)

Defence Wins Championships

The top-tier high-powered offences of the modern NFL can seem unstoppable and will score frequently against any team. Having a good defence that can slow down the opposition’s rate of scoring, or, better still, create turnovers, gives your offence more opportunities to possess the ball and score points in return. Keeping up with a high scoring opposition is not all about offensive production.

Keeping games within reach each week gives your team the best opportunity to win by relieving pressure on the offence, allowing them to utilise the full playbook throughout the game, and be patient with drives. The inverse is also true, being able to build pressure on the opposition offence, eliminating certain facets of their playbook (therefore making them more one-dimensional and more predictable) and reducing the amount of time available to score through sound defensive play, increases your likelihood of victory.

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Historical evidence shows that, as a general rule, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game (https://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2014/10/how-random-are-turnovers/). Building a solid defence that can create turnovers each week gives you an increased chance of winning each game – particularly important in the post-season.

Good Systems

As discussed in a previous paragraph, bringing a new coach and GM into a team at the same time means they both follow the owner’s vision. The only element of NFL life which is not short-lived or transient is ownership. Coaches, schemes and players come and go but the owner and the organisation remain. The importance of competent organisation cannot be understated. A strong, organised, functional, competent team has good structures and systems in place and relies on them to guide the organisation to make sound decisions at all times and in the best interest of the team.

Players too are transient; the success or failure of a team or position group should not rely solely on one player. Player signings, injuries, retirements, contract holdouts and so on should not have a major impact on the success of a team. If a team has good systems in place designed to maximise the success of its current roster, each unit or position group will function better and achieve more. While losing players should not harm the team, the addition of exceptional talent should raise the level of the team or unit. The systems employed by the team should raise the floor of the organisation and allow for a limitless ceiling.

The same goes for coaching, the hiring of a defensive-specialist head coach should not reduce the performance of the offence and vice versa. When good systems are put in place, the loss of coordinators and position coaches to other teams should not impede ongoing success.

In this manner, a team/organisation can truly adopt a “next man up” philosophy. Relying on sound systems within the organisation allows for promotion from within to cover player and staff turnover alike.

Quarterback is the most important position on the team

There is no getting around the fact that in the NFL, teams with good quarterbacks do better than those without. If your team has nothing else in place, a good quarterback will raise the level of your team beyond where it ought to be, and if you have a good team but lack a high quality starting quarterback, acquiring one can take your team from being pretty good to being Superbowl champions.

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The quarterback has a disproportionately large impact on the success of a team, and that is why you must relentlessly pursue good quarterbacks at all levels of your depth chart year after year.

Unfortunately, acquiring a good starting quarterback is a lottery. Maybe you get lucky and inherit one, maybe you get lucky and draft one, maybe you have to give up huge draft capital and/or players to trade for one. However you go about it, the team’s attitude towards starting quarterback is simple: if you don’t have a good one, don’t stop trying to get one until you have one. This offseason has been a great example of this with several teams making huge trades for QBs.

Having a good backup quarterback is also pivotal to sustained success in the NFL. Should your starting QB be unavailable for whatever reason, having a reliable backup QB allows the team to weather the storm until the starter returns. The loss of one player doesn’t mean the end of your season. Secondly, having a good backup QB allows for flexibility from a team-building perspective. A player who serves as a good backup QB for you may be seen as a potential starter by other teams, and as such, their value may not be measured in game starts or minutes played, but in how much another team would be willing to give up in a trade for them.

Having a third-string QB with potential becomes important as they must be ready to be elevated to the backup position at any time. The low likelihood of their seeing any actual playing time makes this an ideal opportunity to take calculated risks on young players who have desirable height, weight and speed traits, collegiate success, or who possess rare talents such as elite arm strength. If you succeed in coaching them up to NFL level, you’ve just secured the future of your franchise by grooming a successor to the starter, can help your franchise by trading them (or the backup QB) away for other players and/or picks, or, if they never develop into the player you envisioned, they can be cut from the team with no great loss of investment. In this way, drafting or acquiring a developmental QB each year can be seen as a low-stakes investment with a tremendous potential future payoff in the future.

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