If you were to ask any person on the street what the most important aspect of a winning team is, the answer you get will likely be something along the lines of “having the best individual players.” This answer, of course, is wrong.
Now, I don’t believe most people to be clueless, mind you, but the fact is that Joe Everyone walking down Main Street, USA may subscribe to the New York Yankees'—or, since this is a football article, the Washington Redskins'— style of team building: throw a bunch of money up in the air and whoever comes and grabs it gets a jersey and a locker. Truly, this is the American way; throw money at a problem and it’ll fix itself in time.
In baseball, this particular style might work, since baseball is ostensibly a team game it is one that depends on the caliber of the individual players. However, football is different. As a general rule, football is far more dependent not on the particular quality of each part but instead on how well the parts come together as a whole.
In football, if a team is made up of players that mesh together and work as one, then that team is far more likely to succeed than a team that is made up of high-priced stars that are brought in on a yearly basis. Teams that have a chance to come together as one and move, act, think, block as a unit are almost always the most successful ones.
This particular phenomenon is usually described as “chemistry” by the talking heads on TV, and it truly is the most important part of building a successful team in the NFL (or really in football at any level). Team chemistry is what makes mediocre teams good and what makes good teams great.
NFL history is littered with examples of championship-caliber teams that had pretty good players but great team chemistry.
Vince Lombardi knew this when he took the pathetic, moribund Packers franchise to five NFL championships and their first two Super Bowls. He had a solid line that moved as one on their legendary sweeps, a QB who no one noticed but has more professional championships than anyone who isn’t Otto Graham, and an awe-inspiring defense that beat the daylights out of everyone.
In the early 1970’s the Miami Dolphins won two Super Bowls (including a perfect season) with the No-Name Defense. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s the aforementioned Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls running behind The Hogs, a group of lineman who individually were solid but as a whole were spectacular (though the case could be made that tackle Joe Jacoby belongs in Canton).
Most recently, the New England Patriots have championed this "team first" mentality. While now they may be seen as the Evil Empire of the NFL, they were once upon a time the team that popularized being introduced as a unit as opposed to individuals.
Even now they are experts at plugging in castoffs from other teams and turning them into key cogs in the machine. Antowain Smith was let go in Buffalo but started on the Patriots championship team. ike Vrabel couldn’t crack the Steelers’ starting lineup to save his life but became a Pro Bowler in New England.
The list goes on but the fact remains: Bill Belichick has done as much for the concept of team chemistry in recent years as he has for the popularity of the hooded sweatshirt.
Take players who may not be superstars on their own but can work well as part of a team. More and more teams in the NFL have figured this out and, as such, have maintained a winning mentality. The Colts have replaced most everyone besides Peyton Manning and still win consistently. The Falcons and Dolphins were considered to be long-term overhauls, but both made the playoffs this past season by developing their core as opposed to bringing in stars.
So often in football today coaches stress instilling a “winning mentality.” I believe that a “winning mentality” is the same as “team mentality.” In order to turn a team around—or to maintain the winning tradition—at any level, the most important thing is not to get the individual players with the most talent, but to create an environment where the team’s philosophies trump any personal goals. When the team has an identity, that team will win.