How to Win the Super Bowl

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How to Win the Super Bowl

Everybody wants to win the Super Bowl.

Every NFL team's owner, executives, coaches, players and fans all want to win the Super Bowl—at least, that's what they'll say if you ask them.

To win the Super Bowl, it takes full organizational commitment from the very top on down. Millions of dollars must be spent, thousands of man-hours must be burned and dozens of people must give everything they have, around the clock for years on end.

Even then, they'll need a lot of luck.

Many teams have reached the Super Bowl at the end of a one-off dream season—just ask the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals about that. Winning a Super Bowl, on the other hand, takes sustained success—year-after-year winning that comes from a systematic approach to the game. All of the Super Bowl winners of the past decade have followed this same schematic.

Fortunately, I have a copy of the blueprints. If you want to see them, just keep reading.

 

Step 1: Decide to Win the Super Bowl

Deciding seems like the easy part, but it isn't. The decision has to come from the top: the owner. It's almost impossible to win the Super Bowl without a completely committed owner.

Complete commitment doesn't just mean signing checks.

Though fans assume every team's goal is to win as many games as possible, that simply isn't true. Some NFL teams are run to be as profitable as possible. Others are run to be profitable with as little cost as possible. Others are run as hobbies or vanity projects. 

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

An owner committed to winning has to spend extra money and go the extra mile in every facet of the business. Like the John Hammond character in Jurassic Park, he must spare no expense. Stadiums, practice facilities, technology, football staff, medical staff, operations folks, equipment—owners who want to win a title cannot skimp on any of these.

Yet, that money must be spent wisely. Nobody has outspent Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones over the last few decades, but the Cowboys have only four playoff appearances and no Super Bowl championships since the 1990s.

 

Step 2: Decide How to Make Decisions

Once the owner has decided to win the Super Bowl, he must decide on the right power structure and the best people to fill it. Whether the owner is hands-on and does much of the hiring and oversight himself or delegates to a president or CEO, sorting out the decision-makers on the football side is absolutely crucial.

The owner, executives, coaches and scouts all have various roles to play in hiring staff, scouting and acquiring players and getting those players game-ready. The NFL is often called a copycat league, and rightly so, but there are as many ways to split decision-making power as there are teams in the NFL.

On one end of the spectrum, you have Jones and the Cowboys. Shortly after he purchased the team, Jones installed himself as general manager and hired head coach Jimmy Johnson. In 2012, Johnson told Barry Horn of The Dallas Morning News it was he, not Jones, who single-handedly built a dynasty out of little more than a Pro Bowl running back and a logo.

Once Johnson and Jones could no longer coexist, Jones assumed total control of the football operations, which he's had ever since. This February, Jones told Clarence E. Hill of the Star-Telegram he's going to "make sure [he] gets the credit" when the Cowboys win a Super Bowl under his rule.

On the other end of the spectrum are Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Belichick has complete control over football operations, as Johnson said he did when he was in Dallas. As described by Albert Breer of NFL.com, Belichick includes owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft in big decisions and has let a very small handful of assistants gain influence. Belichick's control remains absolute.

Is this the blueprint, then? Hire a coach and give him carte blanche over all football operations?

Not at all. Many different power structures have succeeded over the years, and few coaches have both the skills and dedication to be an outstanding executive and outstanding coach at the same time.

The New York Giants, per Breer, have had a consistent power structure for decades: The general manager has full control over the roster, the coach has full control over the depth chart and coaching staff, and the owner keeps tabs on everything.

This power structure acts much like the United States federal government: The general manager, coach and owner check and balance each other. When all three are doing their jobs well—and Jerry Reese, Tom Coughlin and John Mara have been—the results can be fantastic. The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last six years.

However the owner structures the team, the decision-makers must excel at identifying, acquiring and maximizing football talent, above all else.

 

Step 3: Find an Identity

In the hyper-competitive world of the modern NFL, it's impossible to build a team that's flawless in all three phases of the game. Instead, successful franchises have an on-field identity, a team-building approach that emphasizes certain goals or players above all else.

Here are the teams that have won the last 10 Super Bowls, along with their production and ranks in scoring offense, scoring defense, pass offense, pass defense, rushing offense and rushing defense, all per Pro Football Reference:

Super Bowl Winners of the Past 10 Years
Team Season Record O-Rnk O-PPG D-Rnk D-PPG TOM Rnk
New England Patriots 2003 14-2 12 21.8 1 14.9 2
New England Patriots 2004 14-2 4 27.3 2 16.2 8
Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 11-5 9 24.3 3 16.1 9
Indianapolis Colts 2006 12-4 2 26.7 23 22.5 6
New York Giants 2007 10-6 14 23.3 17 21.9 26
Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 12-4 20 21.7 1 13.9 11
New Orleans Saints 2009 13-3 1 31.9 20 21.3 3
Green Bay Packers 2010 10-6 20 24.2 2 15 4
New York Giants 2011 9-7 9 24.6 25 25 7
Baltimore Ravens 2012 10-6 10 24.9 12 21.5 8

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/years

 

There are very few consistencies here.

The average Super Bowl winner of the past decade ranked 10th in offense and 10th in defense, but individual teams finished between first and 20th on offense and between first and 25th on defense.

All but one team (the 2007 Giants) had at least one top-10 unit. Two teams (the 2004 Patriots and 2005 Steelers) boasted a top-10 scoring offense and defense.

The evolution of the NFL toward the passing game is apparent. The winners of the past 10 Super Bowls ranked an average of ninth in net adjusted yards per attempt on offense and 10th in allowed net adjusted yards per attempt on defense. On the ground, these title winners averaged just 19th in rushing yards per carry and 14th in rushing yards allowed per carry.

It's clear that "run and stop the run" is no longer the secret to NFL success.

USA TODAY Sports

If whoever hired the head coach hired well, the offensive and defensive identity of the team will flow from the head coach (and propagate through the staff). The scouting staff and front office have to understand this and scout with the coaches' positional profiles and needs in mind. For a perfect example, just look at how the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted linebackers over the past two decades.  

 

Step 4: Find a Quarterback

Teams have won Super Bowls without outstanding quarterback play (the 2000 Baltimore Ravens come to mind), but having a quarterback who can make plays and take care of the football will always put your team in contention, year after year.

Just look at Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. After his rookie season, the Colts only finished with fewer than 10 wins once in his 12 other seasons as their quarterback. In their first season without him (due to injury), they went 2-14.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Look again at the Super Bowl winner stats above. The one clear trend between them is turnover margin. The last 10 Super Bowl winners finished an average of eighth in turnover margin. In fact, all but one team finished in the top 11. The exception was the 2007 New York Giants, who finished 26th in the NFL in turnover margin at minus-nine.

Since the '07 Giants were the only recent Super Bowl winner who had a negative turnover margin during the regular season, is that the secret? Build a team that consistently gets great turnover margin?

It's only half the secret.

A big part of turnover margin is fumble luck. Football Outsiders and other football researchers have long since found that while there's some skill involved in holding onto and stripping the ball, which team recovers the fumble is completely random.

The other major part of turnover margin is interceptions. Unless your defense is outstanding at picking other quarterbacks off, you have to have a quarterback who can avoid getting picked off. 

Whether your team is built around airing it out or pounding it out, you need to have a quarterback.

 

Step 5: Get Lucky

All but one of these Super Bowl teams (again, the Giants, this time in 2011) had double-digit wins the years they won it all. Often, though, they had better win-loss records before or after their crowning glory.

The "lowly" 2007 Giants, with a negative turnover margin and no top ten unit on offense or defense were dominant in 2008. They had the third-best offense, fifth-best defense, went 12-4—and got bounced out of the playoffs in the first round.

Once a team has a strong decision-making staff, coach, roster and quarterback, they have what they need to make the playoffs year after year. They're still only 90 percent of the way to that ring, though. 

What they need to get to the top of the mountain is the Tuck Rule. Or fumble luck. Or a return touchdown. Or a once-in-a-lifetime catch. Or another once-in-a-lifetime catch:

 

Step 6: Repeat

Teams that follow Steps 1 through 5 tend to reach Step 6. If they've got the right decision-making structure, right decision-makers, right coach and right quarterback, they'll be in the mix every single season.

Once that championship "window" is "open," Lady Luck could smile on that team more than once.

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