The 10 Signs of a Successful NFL Franchise
There are a lot of ways to define success in the NFL, but the only success fans care about is the kind that results in playoff appearances, trophies and rings. You may not be able to judge a quarterback by wins, but you can define the success of a team that way.
You can identify the successful signs of an NFL franchise just like you can identify the ingredients in a recipe. Most of the signs of a successful franchise are obvious, like the ingredients in beef stew, for example. You might be able to make the stew sans a couple carrots, but obviously beef and broth are required.
The recipe for success in the NFL is a little more complicated and consists of various complementary ingredients that have to be added and cooked in a certain order to fully develop.
The best recipe includes as many of the key ingredients as possible, of course, and most franchises know what those are—they just lack what it takes to find them and put them together.
A few franchises are arrogant enough to think that they can depart from the award-winning recipe and still have success. These franchises are either perpetually bad or routinely average, and only a streak of amazing luck can change that.
So what are the signs of a successful franchise?
They Have Patience
Successful franchises are patient. This has to be an organizational philosophy and trickle down from the ownership to the groundskeeper. It takes time to put together a successful team, especially when the team is missing so many key factors.
In many cases, teams are not willing to take the time required. We want to think that franchises can turn on a dime, but that’s rarely true. Every couple of years, impatient teams fire their leadership and start over. If you’ve ever made a good beef stew, you know that it needs to simmer for an unholy amount of time before the flavor fully develops.
Impatient teams are basically pulling a perfectly good stew off the stove and pouring it down the drain. The only reason to change the leadership after a short period of time is when something is clearly wrong, but that’s not the case as much as fans believe.
Since Dan Synder purchased the Washington Redskins in 1999, they haven’t been patient enough to let a system develop. Norv Turner was kept for two years after Synder bought the team, Marty Schottenheimer coached for a year and Steve Spurrier lasted just two years.
Joe Gibbs came back for four seasons and made the playoffs twice before retiring, yet Synder didn’t learn that stability was the key. Jim Zorn was hired and fired after two years before Mike Shanahan was hired in 2010.
Synder allowed Shanahan the time to turn things around, even after recording only 11 wins in his first two seasons. Shanahan’s third season as head coach was a success, and the Redskins made just their fourth playoff appearance in the last 14 years.
For the first time, Synder’s team also had a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Patient teams often use the best-player available strategy in the draft and don’t trade away valuable future draft picks without knowing that they are getting a key ingredient to the success of the franchise. These teams don’t reach in the draft to fill a need, because they know they will be able to fill that need in another way.
The Green Bay Packers demonstrated this philosophy by selecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the first round and letting him sit on the bench for three seasons behind Brett Favre. Not many organizations would have enough patience to let a first-round quarterback sit on the bench through a coaching change and two disappointing seasons. Rodgers is now arguably the best quarterback in the league.
A lack of patience by any key person can cripple a franchise that may otherwise have what it takes to be successful. It doesn’t seem practical to be patient when you see quick turnarounds and fan unrest, but it is important.
They Find a Franchise Quarterback
It’s probably the most obvious sign of a successful franchise, but it’s also one of the most important. A successful team finds a franchise quarterback. As the NFL has shifted rules to favor the passing game, quarterbacks have become more important to the success of a team.
The odds that a team wins enough games in the regular season to make the playoffs with an average quarterback are slim, and the odds that it makes any waves in the playoffs are even more remote. You have to go back a few years to find a team in the Super Bowl with an average quarterback (Rex Grossman, Super Bowl XLVI).
It’s a quarterback-driven league, and there is no escaping that fact. There is a reason why quarterbacks are the highest-paid players in the league. Every year, the importance of the starting quarterback grows.
The New Orleans Saints allowed 908 more yards than any other team last season and still won seven games—because they have Drew Brees. The Saints allowed 0.5 yards more per play than any other team (the next largest gap between two teams was 0.2 yards), but they have a franchise quarterback.
The Kansas City Chiefs sent six players to the Pro Bowl, but they won only two games because their quarterbacks were Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. The first big move that new general manager John Dorsey made was to trade two high draft picks for Alex Smith. Dorsey comes from the Packers, an organization that values draft picks like gold.
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson led their teams to the playoffs as rookies. They show that a franchise quarterback can have profound impact on a team. No cost is too great for a quarterback if a team believes he’s a franchise player.
They Fit Schemes Around Players
There are proven schemes in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean a team should force square pegs into round holes. Zone-blocking might be the most effective running scheme when executed directly, but not every team has a mobile offensive line or a running back capable of consistently executing the scheme.
A team that likes to throw deep is naturally going to need great offensive linemen and a quarterback with a strong arm. Teams that want to run the read-option are going to need a mobile quarterback. The worst mistake any organization can make is to use the wrong schemes for their players.
Even though Norv Turner is a great offensive mind and superb play-caller, the San Diego Chargers failed and Philip Rivers struggled because of a terrible offensive line. The Chargers should have adjusted by throwing shorter passes, but their entire scheme was designed around the deep ball.
Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers tweaked their schemes to fit their mobile quarterbacks with great success. It obviously helps to have great players, but some of these teams could have done a lot worse if they hadn’t tweaked their schemes to the strengths of their players.
The New England Patriots tweaked their schemes a couple of years ago to feature both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez instead of relying on lesser wide receivers. Tweaking schemes to fit the players means getting the best players on the field at the same time and forcing defenses outside of their comfort zone.
They Find Players to Fit Schemes
Successful franchises not only fit their schemes around the players they have, but they look for players to run schemes they want to run.
In theory, the Patriots realized NFL defenses were not equipped to handle two big tight ends in the passing game. Maybe Bill Belichick realized cornerbacks were getting smaller and neither safeties nor linebackers were good in coverage.
Wouldn’t it make sense to target two tight ends and devise a scheme that puts them both on the field as receivers? Of course it would.
The Redskins found a gem in Alfred Morris in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft. The only running back with more rushing yards than Morris in 2012 was Adrian Peterson.
Why was Morris such a steal? The answer is quite simple: Morris was perfect for the zone-blocking scheme that Mike Shanahan has favored for years.
Shanahan turned late-round draft picks like Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary into productive running backs. The Houston Texans deploy the same scheme, and they turned undrafted running back Arian Foster into one of the best in the league.
Good teams find players who fit their schemes. The zone-blocking scheme is just one example because there are several well-known success stories.
Say a team wants to run a version of the Air Raid offense in the NFL. This team may already have a quarterback who can be trusted to be audible at the line of scrimmage, but it may have only one decent receiver on the roster. To fit this scheme, the team needs to acquire a bunch of good receivers to make the scheme work.
If this team can’t find at least three quality receivers to put on the field, it would be better off running a different scheme that more closely fits the skills of the players on the roster. Over time, this team can change its scheme as the necessary players are required.
They Don’t Spend a Lot in Free Agency
Successful franchises don’t spend foolishly in free agency. Most free agents are either older and looking for lucrative long-term contracts, or there are reasons their former team didn’t want to retain them.
Binge-signing in free agency is a classic desperation move by a general manager. Free agency is a quick fix for a long-term problem. Sooner or later the franchise is going to have to pay for irresponsible spending. Once a franchise goes down this road, it can be hard to reverse the damage.
Chances are a general manager who spends a lot in free agency is going to get fired shortly after going on the spree. The next general manager is going to spend his first two years cleaning up the mess, get desperate in his third year and repeat the mistake.
The Miami Dolphins went on a spending spree this offseason because it's widely believed that the job of general manager Jeff Ireland is in danger if the team does not make the playoffs. This likely stems from an organizational lack of patience emanating from the owner, Stephen Ross.
Successful franchises like the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens have nearly as many needs as the Dolphins, but they all avoided spending big in free agency. These franchises know that spending big in free agency doesn't result in sustained success.
It's the equivalent of using a credit card. The most successful franchises don’t buy talent on credit because the talent is a short-term fix for a long-term problem. It’s harder to dig out of credit card debt than it is to learn how to use resources wisely and make smart buying decisions.
They Spend Wisely
Every team needs to plug roster holes and retain its own free agents, but successful teams do so wisely. The reigning Super Bowl champions are probably the best example in recent memory of how to spend wisely during the offseason.
The Baltimore Ravens traded Anquan Boldin because he made more than they were willing to pay him. Not only did the Ravens minimize the expense on an aging player, but they added draft capital by shipping Boldin to San Francisco.
The Ravens let Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger leave in free agency because they commanded more than the team was willing to pay.
Instead of panicking and signing the next best options on the market for more than they were worth, the Ravens picked up quality players on the cheap. Michael Huff and Elvis Dumervil may be better than what the Ravens had last year at those positions.
The Ravens also had to replace Ray Lewis, so they signed Rolando McClain. Few inside linebackers were on the market, and McClain was a low-risk signing. Even if McClain has already worn out his welcome, he cost practically nothing and still has some upside.
Ravens were content to fill their other roster holes via the draft. They managed to land Matt Elam to replace Pollard, and Arthur Brown to replace Lewis. The only big money the Ravens spent was on Joe Flacco, which is understandable given the scarcity of quality quarterbacks.
Even though the Ravens had to make a lot of moves, they didn’t panic and spend foolishly in free agency. Even if the Ravens take a step back in 2013, they are better positioned for future success because they spent wisely this offseason.
They Build a Foundation of Trust
Another sign of a successful franchise is that it trusts its coaches, players and scouts. Everyone on staff has to be united toward one goal and trusted to do their job. This seems like a given if you want to have a successful organization, but it’s surprisingly uncommon.
A good indicator of poor mutual trust is when a general manager and head coach are hired and fired at different times. The Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets are a few recent examples. How can you trust a guy who is going to throw you under the bus to save his job if things turn sour?
The moment that members of a franchise start making decisions because they don’t trust their colleagues, subordinates or superiors, they have a major problem.
Ted Sundquist, the former general manager of the Denver Broncos, had this to say on his blog, the footballeducator.com:
The most successful NFL organizations will undoubtedly ensure that the GM and head coach are communicating on the same page when acquiring talent. There MUST be a joint effort in the preparation, planning and execution of a detailed personnel process that is inclusive of ALL elements involved in the identification, evaluation and procurement of new players. This should be well choreographed with a developmental plan that looks to maximize the potential and performance of every player on the roster.
If there isn’t trust, it can’t truly be a joint effort. If there isn’t trust, it’s unlikely the head coach and general manager can be on the same page when acquiring talent. If the general manager and head coach don’t see eye to eye, it’s unlikely that acquired talent will reach its maximum potential.
They Know Depth Is Important
Football is a physical game that is played by the biggest, fastest and strongest men on the planet. Although the NFL has made an effort to make the game safer, these athletes are still running into each other with the force of a car crash, 60 times per game and 16 games per year.
Depth is important, so the most successful teams have players who can get the job done when their name is called.
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl with 15 players on injured reserve, including at least five starters. The Packers also lost Donald Driver and Charles Woodson during the first half of the game.
Some NFL teams are just like the fans who want high-quality starters at every position, but one great player may not be more valuable than three quality players. In a perfect world, every player stays healthy, but every team has to deal with injuries to some degree.
The Oakland Raiders are a good example of a team that has spent up to the salary cap by overpaying starters, rarely leaving any cap room to bring in quality depth. Things have changed, but the Raiders exemplify the dangers of ignoring depth in the chase for quality starters.
Until the new collective bargaining agreement that enabled cap space to rollover into the next year, teams also ignored paying for quality depth because they were too cheap. These teams were doing their fans a disservice because roster depth could be the difference in two or three games.
They Find a Couple of Star Players
The most successful franchises have recently drafted a star player—and some were quarterbacks, therefore killing two birds on this list with one stone. Quite often, however, the star is a complement to a franchise quarterback.
Some examples of this include Clay Matthews, Von Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, J.J. Watt, Casey Hayward and Richard Sherman. It takes a handful of stars on the roster to compete in the NFL, and successful teams know they have to acquire them whenever possible.
It’s rare to land a star player via free agency without overspending, so the most successful teams use the draft to find their stars. First-round picks have the most star potential, but stars can be found later in the draft as well. The draft is an inexact science, but successful teams seem to have more luck than others.
The importance of finding impact players cannot be overstated. A star quarterback and defense with complementary pieces and solid depth can elevate the fortunes of a franchise. The reason that some franchises have turned around quickly is not just because they found a franchise quarterback but found other stars as well.
They Focus on Key Statistics
The best franchises know how to win the battles that win football games. In other words, successful teams stress the right things. Far too often, NFL teams focus on trivial or classic statistics that don’t have a huge impact on the ability to win games.
The static red zone is a good example of something that successful teams would ignore. The scoring zone is dependent on down, distance and the leg of the kicker.
NFL teams are turning to statistical analysts to refine raw information into future success. These data points can be helpful if they're not ignored. Successful teams have already been doing detailed statistical analysis to determine which areas are important. A dedicated analyst is just a natural progression.
Typically, a successful franchise wins the turnover battle, puts pressure on the quarterback, moves the chains, is successful on third down, converts scoring opportunities into points and makes big plays. Any key metrics likely revolve around these areas.