Within a week of the end of the NFL lockout, I was reminded why exactly football is the unquestioned ruler of the American sports horizon. Football is a game of the haves and have-nots. The New England Patriots acquire Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco, while the Philadelphia Eagles land Nnamdi Asomugha, thus making the rich of the NFL only richer while teams like the Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, and Cleveland Browns continue to trip over their own feet.
In sports, success is generally a function of the haves and the have-nots. In MLB, the lack of a salary cap creates a market in which those that have the most money are usually the most successful (Yankees, Red Sox). Meanwhile, having only five players on the court at a time makes the NBA unquestionably a star-driven league. A team without a superstar can rarely win a championship. However, there is a key reason that the dominance of teams in the NFL is so much more attractive to fans than the dominance of teams in other sports.
The notion that certain successful teams in the NFL continue to stay on top yet another reason that football is such a fan-friendly sport. Unlike the NBA, in which it’s mostly luck be at the top of a draft when a true star does actually come into the league, or the MLB, in which teams can often buy their way to the top, the factors that allow football teams to flourish year after year is simple leadership and brainpower.
The Patriots, Colts, Eagles, and Steelers are simply smarter than the other teams in the league. The game doesn’t allow them to wave the magic wand of money and fix problems; the league is designed for parity. Teams share their revenue, the draft is truly built to help the teams at the bottom of the league get better, and franchise tags exist to prevent players from fleeing from undesirable locations. Yet year after year, the cream of the NFL continues to rise to the top while the inept teams continue to embarrass themselves.
The Patriots have seen unprecedented success in finding players that were dysfunctional on other teams and making them successful in their organization. There is little reason to believe that Belichick won’t be able to whip Haynesworth into shape, either mentally or physically. There is little reason to be concerned with Chad Ochocinco to begin with; other than a hold out he’s been a model citizen in the past for the Bengals.
Sure, Belichick might need to explain to Chad the expectations of controlling his hijinks, but there is no evidence leading us to believe that he wouldn’t be quick to jump on the Patriot way. Having dealt with the likes of Randy Moss, and having him do a complete rebirth of his attitude and production, the Patriots have shown great aptitude for ensuring success in reclamation projects.
The same can be said for the Eagles, who have helped to rejuvenate Mike Vick’s life and NFL career. Their ability to handle that situation has earned them the benefit of the doubt that maybe bringing in Vince Young is a move of genius, and not just a tire fire waiting to happen. He could be a possible long-term project for the Eagles at QB under Andy Reid to one day replace Vick.
Nnamdi Asomugha is, on the other hand, a surefire fit. In Oakland, he was a true star on the field, but off the field is where he truly showed his value. Asomugha showed great poise and stature in what seemed to be a workplace which bred incompetence. Even his release was handled with great dignity, as he told fans that even a return to Oakland wouldn’t be out of the question rather than question and ridicule the organization for such an asinine decision. This kind of character and in-house leadership like his are part of the reason that the Eagles can take a chance on more volatile personalities like Young.
Players and coaching leadership aren’t the only important factors for winning in the NFL. They are necessary to win, but to truly be a great organization, you need to have intelligence from the very top all the way down. Being a Raiders fan, I have become all too accustomed to embarrassment. Since their dynamic loss to the Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII, their plummet to the bottom of the NFL has been one that would make even the Titanic feel proud.
They have had six coaches in nine years. They have continued to over reach on free agents: DeAngalo Hall’s $70 million over seven years turned into $8 million for just eight games played before that experiment was cut short. In 2008, Tommy Kelly became the highest paid defensive lineman ever.
Even when it wasn’t just a matter of money being spent on overrated players, the lack of leadership led Randy Moss to show how dysfunctional and unproductive he could truly be. Moss caught 102 passes and scored 11 touchdowns in two seasons with the Raiders, sandwiched between an 111-catch, 17-touchdown season in Minnesota and a 98-catch, 23-touchdown performance the following year in New England. Each year, they ran out and try to find a quick fix to the problem, and each year they promptly imploded once they get onto the football field.
The problem isn’t the players. While they’re not as talented as those on the elite teams in the league, how can they really be expected to perform, develop, and excel when the coaching is on a revolving door? The coaches can’t even be held accountable since they’re not really given time to develop and succeed, themselves.
There is only one constant and that is upper management, Al Davis. While I know that Al wants to win, I can only assume it is ticking down of his decrepit body which leads him to believe he must turn it around this year so that he can once again see the glory of the “RRAAIIDDEERRSS” hoisting a Lombardi trophy one last time before he can be laid to rest.
The Redskins are another excellent example of a team constantly going for the quick fix. Daniel Snyder has also had more than his share of love ‘em and leave ‘em relationships with coaches and players. He gave Norv Turner a long run, and since has attempted to go higher-profile in Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs. Then, he had to go with seemingly anyone willing to take the job and gave Jim Zorn most of two seasons to try his luck.
Now, I believe they’re probably going to settle down a bit and hopefully give Mike Shanahan a long-term shot at turning the team around. I doubt he will be able to make them an elite team, at least not until he can find the right quarterback and a few pieces to go around him, but I do think that with time to provide consistency to the organization, he can turn them into a playoff-caliber team.
On the flip side of the Raiders and the Redskins, you have the success of teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have had three coaches over the past 42 years, and they have led the Steelers to 26 playoff appearances, six Super Bowls, and a .598 winning percentage. This persistence to stay with coaches has transpired from the top, as Dan Rooney has shown class, grace, and consistency in his ownership of the team, again quite the opposite from ownership of the NFL bottom-feeders.
Yes, it’s easy looking at it now to say that of course they shouldn’t have changed coaches, that they’ve had many successful seasons, that each of those coaches have won a Super Bowl, and that why, therefore, would they ever have thought to fire any of them? However, it took Cowher 14 years to win the team a Super Bowl. It was the patience of Rooney that allowed them to continue to be a constant playoff contender, rather than be quick on the draw to fire Cowher in search of someone that could “actually win the big game.”
Too often in sports today, very good coaches are fired for not being able to win the big game, or are not given a long enough opportunity to lead their team to success. It can be difficult to think rationally and see that they are getting maximum production out of their talent. All of the money involved and the high-profile nature of the games puts great deal of pressure put on owners and management from the fans, as well as an intense motivation to win that they themselves feel. Too often, this can lead to rash decisions. The ability to ignore that internal and external pressure is one indication of true greatness within an organization.
From the moment Steve Bisciotti bought the Ravens, he has brought a winning attitude and level head to his team, and this has led to consistent success. Accordingly, he has had faith that he has a great general manager in Ozzie Newsome and letting him make decisions and run the team without meddling. Despite Brian Billick getting more of a label for being a coaching genius than he ended up living up to, Billick did continue to make the team competitive. Sticking to their philosophy that great defense can keep them in any game, they continued to be competitive every year.
This stability from management and coaching leads to steady performance, as Ray Lewis and his crew continued to provide positive results on the field with a .556 winning percentage and a Super Bowl Championship. There is no doubt that the Super Bowl Championship he did win against the Giants made it much easier to add multiple years of life to Billick’s existence in Baltimore. He hung on in Baltimore longer than he probably should have been allowed, but all the while this was an indication that the leaders of the organization were avoiding rash decision-making. This long-term consistency is what allowed them to help make a smoother transition to John Harbaugh as a first-time head coach, and led prolonged winning and stability amongst the players in the organization.
In one of the world’s most physically brutal sports, it is really the intelligence of coaches, general managers, and owners that foster success among teams in the NFL. Fortunately for fans of even the most unwatchable NFL teams, hope does exist. Teams have often hired great leaders like Bill Parcells and seen instant results. The Detroit Lions purged themselves of Matt Millen, stopped drafting wide receivers in the first round, and the once 0-16 joke of the league can now see a light at the end of the tunnel.
For nauseatingly bad teams, it’s time to realize that if you’re not getting it done, on-field talent isn’t a quick fix; you need to have the right people driving the bus if you never want it crash. The right coach or general manager doesn’t guarantee you a championship, but it does all but ensure that your team will not be a colossal failure. At any moment, Al Davis and alike could stop burning cash on overrated or dysfunctional “talent” and invest half of that money into a true leader of the organization like a Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, or Bill Parcels, and change the fate of the franchise practically overnight. Yet in the NFL, it continues to be survival of the fittest, as the smarter organizations continue to eat the weak alive.