San Francisco suprised the NFL in Harbaugh's first year at the helm.
The word rebuild is dirtier than most traditional four-letter curses when it comes to major professional team sports. The National Football League is no different in this respect. Even when the overhaul measure is acknowledged by team executives, and understood by local fans and media, the term will still draw cringes when uttered aloud or in print.
The good news for football fans of most rebuilding teams is the parity that exists currently in the league offers the promise and opportunity to potentially bounce back in two or three seasons. The Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers are both recent examples. This is a lightning pace when compared to the slash-burn-and-develop scenarios endured in Major League Baseball.
This can be attributed to a combination of factors that I think include the existence of a salary cap, the physical nature of the game that leads to more fleeting performance consistency and the relative brevity of the regular season.
This is not to say that Major League Baseball is boring or unfair because I used to work in that industry and know that it is a great game with surprising team successes every year. Pro football is simply rooted more strongly in these competitive ingredients.
With the salary cap comes the construction that most teams have a nearly equal chance for short- and long-term success based on the fact that every club has identical access to the same player-procurement streams. There is also the expectation, perhaps it is an assumption, that most organizations get fairly even strategic direction from football operations. To NFL teams that suffer extended periods of futility, I recommend looking up the chain of command to understand that impetus.
The significant injuries, and even cumulative physical wear and tear, incurred by every field player that sees extended time also add to the unpredictability of football wins and losses. A club's depth chart that appears great on paper can be completely reshaped with several key injuries across the top of the roster and/or a rash at one or two single positions. Similarly, the ability for a player to produce at a high level for a long period of time is also jeopardized by the violent nature of the game.
And the fact that there are only sixteen games in the modern NFL regular season—no I am not a proponent for a longer slate—means that randomness and variable chaos has a much greater impact than in leagues like MLB, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
If a team gets hot/cold or lucky/unlucky for a quarter of the season, defined as playing reasonably better or worse than expected based on all other predictive and analytical factors, that is 25 percent of the ledger.
In baseball that same fractional run of mojo or bad breaks would have to run 40-41 games in order to affect the same percentage of the standings.
Below I look at three teams that may need to admit to themselves and their local public bases that the 2012-2013 offseason will be best executed under the premise of rebuilding. Each situation brings different indicators, pressures and projected timelines for reconstruction, as well as varying primary culprits that should be exiled as part of any commitment to wipe the slate clean.
"Circle the wagons" will likely need to be the organizational mantra from top to bottom and in the community throughout the 2012-2013 NFL offseason for the Bills.
This team has not had a winning record since 2004 (9-7) and that is the only one of those since 1999 (11-5) when Buffalo last registered double-digit victories in a season and qualified for the playoffs.
Sports fans, that is a 14-year stretch.
The most obvious football operations element to this famine of success is the absolute dearth of talent at the quarterback position. Buffalo has barely and fleetingly boasted a franchise guy, and certainly not an elite one, under center since the days of Jim Kelly. And they have tried just about every avenue to acquire and develop one that an organization can: physically talented high draft pick (J.P. Losman), mid-round guy with some upside (Trent Edwards), a former elite on the backside of his career (Drew Bledsoe) and now a career backup trying to reward the faith shown to him (Ryan Fitzpatrick).
If some fits of quality and a sizable in-season contract a year ago do not translate into playoff-qualifying success this year, Fitzpatrick will be cut. And it will have to be admitted, with Vince Young, Brad Smith and Tyler Thigpen the remainder of the stable, that the answer is likely not on the roster. But if the current era of Bills' teams have tried every route imaginable to procure and grow its elusive unicorn, then what next?
As I alluded to above in the introduction, time to change the operators and not necessarily the process. 2012 will conclude the third year of the Buddy Nix (general manager)-Chan Gailey (head coach) marriage. Barring a huge step forward by Fitzpatrick, probably in conjunction with dominant defensive-line play from the offseason splashes made there, this pairing will have done little to change the fate of the Bills.
Which team is most likely to rebuild following 2012?
This assertion may be less obvious because Philip Rivers is one of the very best signal-callers in the game right now, a true elite, and is not close to the end of his prime. With this mind, this prospective rebuild could be analogized to a short sell on the housing market. With quick action, clear vision, and some painful pride-swallowing, a solution may emerge in short order.
Understanding Rivers' standing as it is, who are the starring culprits in San Diego's ongoing charade? Answer: general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner. Two of the more obvious, publicly visible changes that need to be made in the NFL are the replacement of these two. It almost happened this past offseason, but the Spanos ownership family showed saintly faith and patience.
After qualifying for the AFC playoffs in four consecutive seasons (2006-2009)—even those years were seen with certain disappointment because of the Super Bowl talent and expectations attached to the roster—the Chargers have failed to win 10 games in three of the last four campaigns and missed the playoffs in the last two.
It is my opinion that San Diego needs a culture change atop its football operation. Smith continues to ignore some of the most glaring needs on the roster—offensive line and defensive secondary this past offseason—and Norv's clubs are soft, underachieving and undisciplined. Penalties, untimely turnovers and special teams have been consistent harbingers of doom for these latter-day Chargers teams.
Smith's lack of conviction to what needs to be done to the roster also serves to hamstring the team on the field. The shortcomings along the offensive line limit the effectiveness of its two best weapons on offense in Rivers and Mathews. And continuing to ignore the deficit of talent and quality in the secondary, in a time when passing offenses are quickly taking over the NFL, also puts this club at a serious disadvantage.
I recommend seeking a general manager with a better track record in the draft while in his incumbent position and a head coach that is less guru and more guts. A sideline leader that will put more emphasis on fundamentals, toughness and special teams could couple with the offensive skill on this roster and make a swift return to dominance in a weak AFC West and some playoff relevance.
This one is somewhat conflicted for me because I am fighting objectivity with my personal scouting pride as it applies to Kevin Kolb. Even though I felt like the Cardinals overpaid the Eagles in terms of trade compensation, and then Kolb himself from a contractual standpoint because he was so unproven, he is still a guy that I believe can succeed in this league as a starting quarterback.
In bald-faced defense of the player, his tenure in the Land of the Sun has been accompanied by horrible offensive-line play. This fact is often obscured by the casual fan, and lazy analysts, when maligning him. Consider that very few quarterbacks, even elite ones which Kolb likely is not even at his best, can succeed consistently with poor pass-blocking that leads to injury and some unsettled play in the pocket along with a general lack of a running game.
But if those two elements improve this season, namely the pass-blocking, and Kolb still cannot get it together, his replacement may come in-season. Such a change may signal some other moves, like a new direction in offensive philosophy to better suit Kolb's successor and/or the dismissal of the architect of Kolb's acquisition.
This chain reaction would most likely affect offensive coordinator Mike Miller, who also spent 2009-2010 as the Cardinals' passing-game coordinator, and Rod Graves the general manager since 2007.
Since the only two playoff appearances (2008-2009) for this franchise since the one in 1998, its combined record is 13-19 with zero playoff appearances, though the arrow was pointing up as Arizona surged to 8-8 to finish 2011.
Again, if Kolb can settle in and this club can maintain the defensive upswing it enjoyed over the second half and get improved play and production from the offensive line and running game, I think this call to rebuild is moot. But if those positives do not occur and the Cards are closer to a double-digit loss campaign than a playoff berth, the aforementioned overhaul may occur in earnest.