Can Finesse Teams Still Go the Distance in Today's NFL?

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Can Finesse Teams Still Go the Distance in Today's NFL?

One of the greatest revolutionaries in the history of the world, Gandhi, once stated something that transcends political discourse and can act as a rally cry for athletes everywhere.

"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."

You don't have to be the most physically gifted football player in the world in order to succeed. A team with heart, strength and dedication can surely defeat a more talented roster on any given Sunday. We have seen this story repeated over and over again in the history of the National Football League. 

Physicality in its truest form can help a team get to the postseason, but toughness will enable it to go the distance. Who was the last finesse team to hoist the Lombardi? Does it happen on a regular basis? If not, why? 

I will answer these questions and more below. 

Finesse is a term that has a certain level of ambiguity to it. Were the 2010 Green Bay Packers considered a "finesse" team because they struggled running the ball and didn't dominate on defense? What about the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the '80s and '90s? Was that a finesse squad? 

I wouldn't go that far. 

Green Bay boasted some hard hitters on the defensive side of the ball and dominated the trenches against opponents. Aaron Rodgers was sacked just 31 times in 15 games, while Green Bay's defense got to the quarterback 47 times. 

Clay Matthews finished with 13.5 sacks, and the Packers defense forced an average of two turnovers per game. 

That being said, Green Bay finished 28th in total defense during the regular season and finished in the bottom 10 in the NFL in rush offense. Not exactly markers of a team that dominated the trenches. 

San Francisco's dynasty of the '80s that won four Super Bowls was loaded with skill-position players. Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones and John Taylor were among the regulars that received praise for leading the team to multiple championships. 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Joe Montana and Bill Walsh led the 80s 49ers to multiple Super Bowls.

San Francisco's last championship of the Montana era in 1989 saw the team dominate in nearly every category. It ranked first in scoring offense, third in scoring defense and first in point differential. Despite not getting a great deal of play from the national media, the 49ers couldn't have had this type of success without some dominating performances outside of the skill positions. 

Pierce Holt and Charles Haley each racked up 10.5 sacks and hard-hitting free safety Ronnie Lott led the club with five interceptions. In addition, San Francisco boasted four Pro Bowl-caliber players along the offensive line. 

In short, this team was anything but finesse-orientated. 

So this brings me to my next point. 

Who was the last finesse team to hoist the Lombardi, and how can we possibly define that term? 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Were the 2009 New Orleans Saints a "finesse" team?

The 2009 New Orleans Saints, who defeated Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV, were the last "finesse" team to win the trophy. Interestingly enough, the Peyton Manning-led Colts team that they defeated likely falls under that category. 

New Orleans finished 20th in overall defense that season, which indicates that it relied a great deal on the offense to shoulder the load. 

It did, however, have two Pro Bowl performers along the offensive line and two more in the defensive secondary. Darren Sharper forced the turnovers with nine interceptions, while Roman Harper represented the hard-hitting strong safety. 

Outside of Will Smith's 13 sacks, no other Saints defender recorded more than 5.5. 

While no Saints running back tallied over 800 yards on the ground, they did rank sixth in the NFL in rushing offense. The "committee" averaged over 130 yards per game and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground. A lot of that had to do with stellar play along the offensive line. 

Still, this team will always be remembered for Drew Brees and the fourth-ranked pass offense in the NFL. In total, New Orleans ranked first in the league in points per game with a tad under 32 per outing. 

Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Indianapolis rode the right arm of Peyton Manning to its first Super Bowl title back in 2006.

Before that, you'd probably have to look at the 2006 Indianapolis Colts as the last "finesse" team to win the championship. Led by Peyton Manning, who tallied nearly 4,400 yards passing, the Colts finished 12-4 behind the second-ranked scoring offense in the NFL. 

They realized their ultimate goal of bringing the Lombardi to Indianapolis despite finishing 23rd in scoring defense and yielding zero Pro Bowlers from that side of the ball. 

The 1999 St. Louis Rams fit this bill as well. As "the greatest show on turf," Kurt Warner and Co. broke numerous league records on offense, including a ridiculous 32.9 points-per-game average. 

Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt led that team to relevance, not the likes of Grant Wistrom and Ray Agnew. 

 

Can Finesse Teams Win in Today's NFL? 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Is Atlanta a "finesse" team? If so, can it bring home the Lombardi?

The Atlanta Falcons went punch, counterpunch against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game this past January. However, they blew a huge lead against the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers and couldn't respond when all was said and done.  

They couldn't stop Frank Gore and LaMichael James from scoring two game-defining second-half touchdowns, both of which were easy walk-in scores. When they needed a big play from the offense to counteract San Francisco's run, the Falcons turned the ball over on two consecutive third-quarter drives. 

This is a prime example of a "finesse" team not being able to hold up its end of the bargain when faced with a true test.

Atlanta has won a grand total of one playoff game in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. It possesses elite talent at skill positions, but seem to lack beef up front along both the offensive and defensive lines.

In reality, teams like Denver and Atlanta don't stand a chance to win in the trenches against the Baltimores and San Franciscos of the world in January.

Peyton Manning's overtime interception against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game is yet another example of this. Denver had to rely on the right arm of the future Hall of Fame quarterback because its defense couldn't hold a previously pedestrian Ravens offense down. The Broncos yielded 38 points, 479 yards and multiple big plays: 

Without better running games on offense and stronger performances on the defensive side of the ball, both Denver and Atlanta will be pretenders when it comes to winning a Super Bowl. 

The New England Patriots have had a ton of success over the past 13-plus seasons as a "finesse" team. They haven't performed well on the defensive side of the ball, though. This is one of the primary reasons that Bill Belichick and Co. added defenders with their first six picks in the 2012 NFL draft. They needed to rebuild a unit that had gotten old and lacked the necessary talent to succeed. 

The year before, New England picked up two running backs (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) with two of its first four picks. While Vereen has struggled to stay healthy, Ridley led the seventh-best rushing attack in the NFL this past season. 

It was an indication that New England saw the writing on the wall and was fully prepared to change with the times. Moving forward, the Patriots are not going to have to rely as much on an aging Tom Brady to lead them to Super Bowl contention. For them, it is all about sustainability and competing in the new NFL. 

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Is it a coincidence that San Francisco and Baltimore met in the Super Bowl?

San Francisco and Baltimore both finished in the top half of the NFL in scoring defense this past season. In addition, they finished fourth and 11th, respectively, in rushing offense. It's not a coincidence that they met in the Super Bowl in New Orleans this past February, or that 12 of their combined 15 Pro Bowlers were non skill-position players. 

Neither the Ravens or the 49ers would have gotten to the big game without dominating defensive and offensive lines. It really is that simple. 

It's also important to note that some of the top young teams in the NFL seem to have followed the model of the two reigning conference champions. 

The Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco's biggest threat in the NFC West, are about as hard-nosed as any team in the league. They feature two Pro Bowl starters along the offensive line in Russell Okung and Max Unger. In addition, half of Seattle's starting defensive backfield earned First-Team All-Pro honors. 

That's the blueprint for success in today's NFL, not building a team around talented skill-position players in hopes that the stars align elsewhere. 

Teams are built from the inside out in the NFL, not the other way around. The Detroit Lions' lack of success in 2012 is yet another prime example of this. 

Yes, they had the best receiver in the modern history of the game in Calvin Johnson catching passes from a quarterback who has thrown for over 10,000 yards over the past two seasons. But where has that gotten them? Well, a four-win club with a whole heck of a lot of holes to fill elsewhere on the roster. 

In reality, Detroit is in no way ready to contend in a division that includes two other postseason contenders and one of the top teams in the NFL in the form of the Green Bay Packers. 

Speaking of Green Bay, is it actually a serious contender to win the NFC with Seattle and San Francisco likely lurking in the playoffs? 

Unfortunately, history tells us a story that isn't too kind to the chances of Aaron Rodgers and Co. coming out of the NFC without an improved running game on offense and better overall play on defense. 

A case study would be Green Bay's blowout loss to San Francisco in the playoffs this past January. Once the running game started to slow down in the second half, the Packers had to rely on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers. Then, the 49ers pass rush was able to take advantage of an offensive line that allowed its quarterback to get sacked more than any other player in the league last year. 

Obviously, the end result wasn't too great for Green Bay. 

Kaepernick ran circles around Green Bay's defense back in January.

This doesn't even take into account the fact that Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record for a quarterback with a ridiculous 181 yards on the ground  according to ESPN. 

When all is said and done, the new NFL requires more balance and toughness on both sides of the ball in order to succeed. It is kind of like looking at the exterior of a mansion and putting a down payment on it without even taking one look inside. 

It could be a house built of cards that is fully ready to collapse at any point. Again, I look back to the 2012 Detroit Lions as a case study. Once you get past Stafford and Johnson, there really isn't much to see there. 

At the very least, NFL teams are starting to fully understand this. How else can you explain that the first seven picks of the '13 NFL draft were linemen? Once teams looking to contend for the Super Bowl start realizing this en masse, there will be a level playing field around the league.

Until then, the same suspects will be vying for the championship. 

 

All basic statistics provided by NFL.com

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.

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