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Is There Any Validity to a 'Super Bowl Window'?

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Is There Any Validity to a 'Super Bowl Window'?
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Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl window in Indianapolis lasted a good 12 seasons, as he led the Colts to 11 playoff appearances, two conference titles and a Super Bowl win during that span.

In New England, Super Bowl contention has been somewhat of a mainstay since Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback back in 2001.

Do these two quarterbacks represent a mirage of sorts? Are Super Bowl windows existent in the National Football League today?

I will attempt to answer those questions and more below.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The Baltimore Ravens reinvented themselves in 2012.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to look at "dynasty's" prior to the salary cap era. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s were able to manipulate a flawed system and have success for a long time doing so.

Instead, we need to look at more recent history. 

The Baltimore Ravens are the most recent example of a team that has shown us that there isn't any validity to the Super Bowl window, at least in a vast majority of cases.  

Even after losing future Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, as well as former Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan  Boldin, Baltimore was able to replenish what was an increasingly questionable roster this offseason. 

While they were stopgap measures, the acquisitions of a wide array of veterans on the defensive side of the ball will help the Ravens contend in the long term. 

Player Position Contract
Chris Canty Defensive end Three years, $8 million
Elvis Dumervil Linebacker Five years, $26 million 
Michael Huff Safety Three years, $6 million 
Marcus Spears Defensive line Two years, $2.75 million

 

Three players currently projected to be on Baltimore's starting defense came via free agency this offseason. With the exception of Elvis Dumervil, these contributors chose the Ravens to rebuild their own value and are not going to be long-term solutions. 

They are, however, stopgap measures for what was a strong draft class this past April. 

This is one way to take the Super Bowl window and throw it out the back door. It's the ability to bridge the gap between aging veterans and unproven youngsters. 

The San Francisco 49ers also utilize this philosophy a great deal. They don't necessarily build their roster through free agency, as they are able to find cheap veterans to hold down the fort while youngsters get their feet wet. 

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
The addition of Cornellius Carradine in April's draft shows San Francisco's strengths.

San Francisco just signed defensive lineman Justin Smith to a cap-friendly three-year contract extension that will pay him just $9.5 million guaranteed. The 33-year-old Pro Bowl performer likely has just a couple solid seasons of football left ahead of him. 

This is one of the primary reasons that general manager Trent Baalke went out there and selected defensive end Tank Carradine in the second round of April's NFL draft. The Florida State product was Matt Miller's No. 5 overall prospect leading up to the draft. 

Acquiring value at a position of need outside of the first round is yet another indicator of being able to deny the validity of there being a Super Bowl window. 

With two NFC Championship Game appearances in consecutive seasons, Baalke and Co. have done this to a T over the past few drafts.

Again, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Magnified even more during the salary cap era, is the necessity to actually find Pro Bowl-caliber players in the NFL draft. This story has been repeated over and over again throughout the recent history of the league.

To prove this point, let's take a look at ESPN's Future Power Rankings (insider access, required): 

 

Draft Grades
Ranking Team Grade
1 San Francisco 49ers 8.8
2 Green Bay Packers 8.0
3 Seattle Seahawks 7.5
4 Baltimore Ravens 9.0
30 Jacksonville Jaguars 5.2
31 Oakland Raiders 5.3
32 New York Jets 5.5

 

ESPN took into account where a team stands as it relates to its quarterback situation, other talent on the roster, front office success, hitting on draft picks and coaching ability. 

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the four teams at the top of the rankings are going to be among the top Super Bowl contenders this season and for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the three teams at the bottom will be battling it out for the No. 1 overall pick and the right to get a guy named Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina. 

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't considered a true franchise quarterback until he put up one of the best postseason performances in the history of the league last season. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick was a relative unknown before he took the NFL by storm in leading San Francisco to the Super Bowl after just seven regular-season starts.

While it remains to be seen if either will live up to their 2012 performances in the coming years, they may represent a new trend of quarterbacks ready to lead their teams to the next level. It goes without saying that neither Baltimore nor San Francisco would have made it to New Orleans without Flacco or Kaepernick under center. 

This brings me to my next point as it relates to devaluing the idea that there is a Super Bowl window.

Elsa/Getty Images
It took the Patriots to get a franchise quarterback before they became viable contenders.

Dating back to the start of the Super Bowl era, nearly every “dynasty” has had one thing in common. The San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots all possessed franchise quarterbacks.

Even teams who fell short of the “dynasty” term had future Hall of Fame quarterbacks under center. Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Brett Favre in Green Bay come to mind. If a team gets that franchise-type quarterback, it can reverse field in terms of how it plays the game, but one thing remains a constant and that is stellar quarterback play.

 

Franchises with Multiple Lombardi's (Five-Year Span)
Team Titles Seasons Quarterback
New York Giants Two 2007-2011 Eli Manning
Pittsburgh Steelers Two  2005-2008 Ben Roethlisberger
New England Patriots Three 2001-2004 Tom Brady
Denver Broncos Two  1997-1998 John Elway
Dallas Cowboys Three 1992-1995 Troy Aikman
Washington Redskins Two 1987-1991 Doug Williams/Mark Rypien
New York Giants Two  1986-1990 Phil Simms/Jeff Hostetler
San Francisco 49ers Two 1984-1988 Joe Montana
Oakland Raiders Two  1976-1980 Ken Stabler/Jim Plunkett
Pittsburgh Steelers Three 1974-1978 Terry Bradshaw
Miami Dolphins Two 1972-1973 Bob Griese
Green Bay Packers Two 1966-1967 Bart Starr

 

While the San Francisco 49ers went on to win five Super Bowls in a 14-year span, the cores of those teams were much different.

What started out as an up-and-coming 49ers franchise with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark culminated a generation later with Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and Ken Norton Jr. None of San Francisco's key contributors from its last Vince Lombardi Trophy were even in football when the franchise had won its initial title in 1981. 

Perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, won four championships in a six-year span. They did so with Terry Bradshaw under center and "The Steel Curtain" pretty much intact throughout the duration of the run. 

Despite losing their last two Super Bowls, the Brady-led New England Patriots grabbed three championships in a four-year span. Overall, they have won five conference championships since 2001. 

What do most of the teams listed above have in common? 

With an exception of the New York Giants of the mid-to-late 1980s and the Washington Redskins of the same era, almost every quarterback that has qualified to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame has been a member of a Super Bowl champion. 

As you already know, one of the major accomplishments that Hall of Fame voters look for when it comes to inducting a quarterback into Canton is Super Bowl victories. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that a vast majority of the Super Bowl champion quarterbacks listed above are either already in the Hall of Fame or will be once they qualify. 

The first point of business in terms of throwing out the Super Bowl window has to be to find a true franchise quarterback. Without that, a team might have success over a shorter period of time, but once issues come up on the rest of the roster; the team seems to take a step back. 

In order to fully understand this, let's take a look at the Patriots. Here is a breakdown of how the Patriots have ranked among rushing offenses over the past decade. 

As you can see, New England's ground game has been inconsistent during the Brady era. After selecting Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in the 2011 NFL draft, there has been a marked difference as it relates to New England's offensive scheme. 

New England has been able to change its offensive philosophy in midstream and still remain viable contenders to win the AFC championship. The primary reason for this has been Brady's ability to change his game over the course of his career. 

New England will have to adjust a great deal to what promises to be a much different offense this upcoming season after losing Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos in free agency and major questions at tight end with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez question marks to be on the field for Week 1. 

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Stevan Ridley looks to help change philosophy in New England.

Despite all of that, it's nearly impossible to realistically not expect the Patriots not to be the favorites to win the AFC East and challenge for the conference championship this  season. 

When all is said and done, New England is the one primary example of what to look for when it comes to opposing the idea that there is a Super Bowl window. 

Are the Ravens still in the same window as 2000 when their dominating defense destroyed NFL offenses to win their first Super Bowl? No, and it would be utterly foolish to conclude that they are. In fact, Ray Lewis was the only holdover from that Ravens' roster and he retired following Baltimore's victory over San Francisco this past February. 

While general manager Ozzie Newsome still sits in the front office, he is building another window with a completely different supporting cast. 

Are the San Francisco 49ers in the midst of their Super Bowl window? The answer remains to be seen, but all indications are that Jim Harbaugh and Co. will be competing for the NFC championship for the next few seasons.

With a 35-year-old quarterback in Brady, New England's window seems to be closing. How much longer can we anticipate Brady to be on the top of his game? Maybe even more importantly, do the Patriots have an in-house candidate to carry the torch? 

Are the Colts are still in the same Super Bowl window that saw them reach two Super Bowls under Peyton Manning? Again, the answer is likely no considering that the Colts are not yet contenders to win the AFC and are attempting to build an identity with a new quarterback, a new head coach and a new front office. 

Are the windows all but cracked for the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, who make up four of the last six Super Bowl winners? While that might be up in the air, none of those three teams are among the overwhelming favorites to bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2013. 

Let's take a look at the teams who currently possess the best odds to bring home the championship this upcoming season and where they stood just a few years ago, according to Betvega.com.

 

Team Odds '10 Record '09 Record
San Francisco 49ers 6/1 6-10 8-8
Denver Broncos 7/1 4-12 8-8
New England Patriots 7/1 14-2 10-6
Seattle Seahawks 8/1 7-9 5-11
Green Bay Packers 12/1 10-6 11-5
Atlanta Falcons 14/1 13-3 9-7

 

What do most, if not all, of these teams have in common? They have either had a franchise quarterback over the course of the past few seasons or were able to acquire one in the NFL draft or in free agency. 

It isn't a coincidence that Denver, San Francisco and Seattle have all added what we can easily consider top-tier talent at the quarterback position from the time they struggled to now. 

Let's take a look at the past few teams to bring home the Lombardi and where they stand as it relates to odds of bringing home another trophy this upcoming season. 

 

Year Team 2013 Odds
2007 New York Giants 22/1
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 25/1
2009 New Orleans Saints 20/1
2010 Green Bay Packers 12/1
2011 New York Giants 22/1
2012 Baltimore Ravens 22/1

 

That's definitely a stark contrast from what we have seen in previous seasons. The NFL is an ever-evolving league. Franchises must get with the times or face the real possibility of becoming irrelevant.

Pittsburgh, New York and New Orleans all face that ominous reality this season unless they can buck the trend and change their philosophies to fit a different type of talent. 

In this case, and depending on how you classify "Super Bowl window," it is real and present. 

How quickly will San Francisco's window close? Will the Packers remain contenders for the title as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center? Can Russell Wilson help Seattle take the next step in the ultra competitive NFC West? 

The answers to those questions will go a long way in determining whether there really is a Super Bowl window in the NFL today. 

As it relates to recent history, it seems that Super Bowl windows are relatively small unless a team has a franchise quarterback. It also indicates that franchises must hit on the draft consistently in order to remain viable contenders. Without either of those two things, a franchise faces the possibility of remaining as a version of the current-day New York Jets. 

This brings me to my final point. 

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Was Mark Sanchez ever considered a "franchise quarterback?"

The New York Jets seemed to have everything going for it just a couple seasons ago. It went to consecutive AFC championship games in Mark Sanchez's first two seasons under center. It possessed a dominating defense, solid coaching staff, unheralded offensive line and a strong running game. 

All the indicators for long-term success seemed to be there, but obviously, it hasn't turned out that way. 

Combine Sanchez's clear regression from a couple of seasons ago with lackluster player personnel decisions and a horrible slate of Jets' draft picks and you have the perfect storm for a Super Bowl window being closed in short order. 

No one in their right might could have possibly seen this coming just two years ago, but it is real and evident. The Jets have gone from being a legitimate championship contender to one of the least-talented teams in the NFL in a dramatically short period of time. 

They are a perfect example of there being some validity to the idea that there is indeed a Super Bowl window. 

As it is, up-and-coming franchises in the NFL need to be prepared for what happened in New York. They need to prepare the absolute worst-case scenario, such as in San Francisco.

While there are no indicators that it will show dramatic regression within the next couple years, the simple fact that it has been to two consecutive NFC championship games and is coming off a Super Bowl appearance, leads me to believe that the time is now, and not later, for the 49ers. 

Moving forward, the same will likely be said of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks of the world. 

This isn't Major League Baseball, where teams can go out and buy players from smaller markets. It isn't the National Basketball Association, where teams like the Miami Heat can buck the system and bring in two of the top players in the game. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The "Dream Team" didn't exactly hold up its end of the bargain in Philadelphia.

In order to avoid a rather short Super Bowl window, a number of things need to happen: 

 

Get a Franchise Quarterback

As already mentioned numerous times, acquiring an elite quarterback enables a franchise to contend over a longer period of time. If that quarterback is able to prove he can change with the landscape of the organization, success can be sustained for over a decade. We saw this in both Indianapolis and New England. 

 

Show Restraint in Free Agency

The Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins are recent examples of teams that refused to plan for the long term when drawing up an organizational philosophy. They attempted to catch lightning in a bottle and the results were mediocre at best.

The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills might be current examples of this philosophy. Just take a look at the two teams who competed in the Super Bowl this past February. Both Baltimore and San Francisco utilize the philosophy of supplementing their rosters in free agency, but building the core of their teams in the draft. 

 

Build Through the Draft

It's fine and dandy to attempt to build through the draft, but a team needs to actually hit on its draft picks. It's the idea of moving on from aging and expensive veterans to cheaper and younger alternatives. Not only does a team need to hit on a majority of the picks it makes, it needs to get creative. This means stockpiling picks down the road and being able to target specific players in each round. 

 

Continuity in the Front Office and Coaching Staff

What team has the biggest Super Bowl window in the NFL today?

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The best organizations in the NFL today find a happy medium between coaching on the field and player personnel decisions in the front office.

Prime examples of that are Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh in Baltimore, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft in New England, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and even John Schneider and Pete Carroll in Seattle. It gets the entire organization on the same page. The complete antithesis of this would be the Dallas Cowboys under owner Jerry Jones. 

 

Preparing for the Future

Not only does it make sense to move up and down the draft board to acquire additional picks in coming seasons, a team must understand when to cut ties with certain players and replace them with cheaper alternatives. It might be a cutthroat philosophy, but it is the only way to expand the Super Bowl window past a few short seasons.

Baltimore didn't want to pay Ed Reed market value, so he moved on to the Houston Texans. While it is going to be hard to see Reed in any other uniform, this was the right decision for the Ravens organization.

We saw that to a lesser extent with Alex Smith in San Francisco. He might have led the franchise to being an overtime NFC title loss away from the Super Bowl, but it made sense for the 49ers to cut ties. 

Super Bowl windows are real. It's just up to the franchises to decide how long their windows remain open. The most successful teams will find a way to extend that window beyond five seasons, while the New York Jets of the world will watch it close in relatively short order. 

It's now time to see just how long San Francisco, New England, Seattle, Atlanta and other top teams can continue to remain viable Super Bowl contenders. 

That will tell us all we need to know about the Super Bowl window as it relates to the NFL today and moving forward. 

 

All contract information provided by Spotrac.

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 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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