Sports Teams That Can't Figure Out How to Rebuild
Rebuilding implicitly suggests that something has changed—not for the better. Rebuilding means the best days are gone and the possibility of better days rests on an effort to restore what was lost. Regardless of the context, any effort to rebuild something will cost money and take time. For sports franchises that are in "rebuilding mode," the most important questions are "How?" and "Who?" rather than "How much it will cost?"
No one is ever excited about rebuilding a team, because it means the future looks grim without an overhaul, and a few teams have been rebuilding since Woodrow Wilson was in office. Ultimately, most franchises have found a way to rebuild themselves and find some measure of success, even if the process didn't move as quickly and gracefully as planned.
Time itself and the cyclical nature of success and failure have a way of grading any rebuilding effort on a curve. So when a team can't seem to get anything right or return to a level of success as judged by the lofty expectations set by past achievements, it stands out (even if it's unfair).
These are the sports teams that can't figure out how to rebuild.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Failure takes countless, painful forms—some sports franchises struggle from inception, while others never seem to truly capitalize on their championship potential.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, however, have invented an especially cruel (or entertaining for fans of other NHL teams) form of failure: crumbling in the shadow of long-gone glory days, despite its status as a billion-dollar franchise.
From 1930 to 1967, the Maple Leafs were the dominant force of the NHL, winning 11 Stanley Cups with all-time greats like Dave Keon, Syl Apps and Tim Horton. Over the past five decades, the Maple Leafs have transformed from a winner to an inconsistent, but mostly bad, team known more for twisting the knife in its jaded fanbase.
Even when the future starts to seem a little brighter, with players like winger Phil Kessel and defenseman/captain Dion Phaneuf, encouraging results are followed by turmoil.
The late Al Davis was one of the great innovators of the game who helped make pro football the juggernaut that it is. From 1967 to 1993, the enigmatic owner’s teams didn’t just define swagger, they won a lot of games—including three Super Bowls.
Since then, the Oakland Raiders have been mostly awful, drafting high-profile busts like JaMarcus Russell, overpaying free agents, trading for noncontributors and generally being the model of a dysfunctional franchise. When son Mark assumed ownership after Davis died in 2011, the team was concluding its ninth consecutive season with eight wins or less.
In many ways, growing up a fan of a perennial loser is easier than coming to terms with fading memories of greatness as a team continues its descent into the same category or living in a world where the conversations about championships derailed by misfortune or missed opportunities never seem to stop.
Such is the life of a Buffalo Bills fan—the franchise is one of the examples of a very good team haunted by a single play.
After kicker Scott Norwood’s wide-right moment sealed the Bills' fate against the undermanned Giants in Super Bowl XXV, the team couldn’t capitalize on a roster featuring future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas.
When those players retired or moved on, the championship-caliber team that came up short before getting steamrolled in three consecutive Super Bowls just became a bad team. A coaching carousel, bad quarterbacks and losing seasons are now the norm.
Washington Huskies Football
When the Washington Huskies lost to the Michigan Wolverines in the 1992 Rose Bowl, the team had just concluded an unprecedented three-year run, highlighted by a perfect season in 1991.
That 12-0 Huskies team shared the national title with the Miami Hurricanes, and under head coach Don James the school seemed poised to cement its place as a perennial contender alongside the traditional powerhouses. However, revelations of Pac-10 rules infractions led the conference to impose a two-year bowl ban in 1993, and James resigned.
Since then, the program’s ups have been overshadowed by devastating downs, including NCAA investigations and a $3 million lawsuit settlement with former coach Rick Neuheisel, who was fired in 2003. After hiring Steve Sarkisian in 2009, the Huskies hoped to resurrect the once-dominant program, only to see him walk away in 2013 to coach Pac-12 rival Southern California.
After winning the 2008 World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies have steadily spiraled toward the title of Very Expensive Bottom-Dweller—and in the process, the franchise has established itself as a great example of how expensive acquisitions and bloated contracts simply don’t ensure enduring success in the MLB.
Once the victory parade was over and the focus shifted to the future, the Phillies acquired Cy Young winner Cliff Lee from Cleveland and by 2011 their pitching rotation, featuring Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, was being called one of the greatest ever.
Despite winning 102 games in 2011—a franchise-best—the Phillies lost to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series and have failed to make the postseason since.
In 2015, the team is on pace for its worst season in over 40 years (the Phillies are 27-52), a point that belies the fact that the franchise has been bad much more often than it has been good.
For any football fan born after 1990, the idea that the Washington Redskins were as much a reason to fear the NFC East as their division rivals in New York, Philly and Dallas must be nearly impossible to comprehend. What isn’t so difficult to surmise is the demarcation line where the proud era of Joe Gibbs and hard-nosed winning football became the era of inconsistency and controversy.
Since billionaire and lifelong fan Dan Snyder bought the franchise in 1999, the team has only had four winning seasons and four playoff appearances—generating more headlines about staff shake-ups and other signs of dysfunction.
One of the luxuries of being the team where Michael Jordan established himself as not only the greatest basketball player ever but a good candidate for greatest athlete in the history of the four major sports is living through the post-Jordan existential crisis. But, fans of the team Jordan now owns would trade the pain of no championships for the pain of life after six championships.
For the Chicago Bulls, life after Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson was bleak—including three consecutive sub-20-win seasons from 1998-2000—until talented young players like Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose turned the team around.
Despite nine postseason appearances in the last decade, devastating injuries and this generation’s best player, LeBron James, have stood in the way of a return to glory.
Transcendent players eliminate the need for a visionary architect at the helm of a sports franchise—when your NHL roster includes Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, every decision made by the organization carries an insurance policy.
After “The Great One” established himself as the best hockey player ever and led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years, owner Peter Pocklington traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
The trade meant that once the Oilers finished riding the fumes of Messier, the easy job became a rebuilding one.
Since 1990, the Oilers have returned to the Stanley Cup Final just once—losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 (the first season after the lockout)—and have reached .500 just twice since. Instead of developing talent and following a clear plan, the team has turned the coaching job into a temporary position and done little to give their fans hope.
As someone who grew up during the NBA era of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, grasping the concept of a world where the Golden State Warriors just won an NBA title while the Phoenix Suns are trying to move past their fifth consecutive season of failing to make the playoffs is disorienting.
The Suns of the '90s were one of the top teams in the NBA and always in contention to be crushed by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, which they were in 1993.
But, the reality is the days of Barkley, Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and even Amar'e Stoudemire are long gone. The Suns have taken two steps backward following each season when the team appeared to improve—including winning 39 games in 2014-15 after winning 48 the season before.
Chicago White Sox
If you ignore their 2005 World Series win over the Houston Astros, the Chicago White Sox have kind of been rebuilding since winning it in 1917 with a roster that included legends like "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Red Faber. For nearly a century, the White Sox have struggled to put together a team that is a consistent winner, and when it seems like the opportunity for lasting success is there, the franchise can’t take advantage of it.
Second fiddle to the Chicago Cubs, despite a slightly better track record of success over the same period of time, the White Sox are almost inconspicuous, grabbing the spotlight on occasion during the Frank Thomas years and demanding it (not in a good way) when controversial manager Ozzie Guillen was at the helm.
New York Jets
When an NFL franchise’s second-greatest moment is a toss-up between hiring Bill Parcells and a Mark Sanchez-led squad losing in the AFC title game two years in a row, life has not been great in the years following the greatest moment. For the New York Jets, there haven't been too many moments to celebrate since Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath made good on his Super Bowl "guarantee" in 1969.
When former head coach Parcells appeared on the verge of transforming the post-Namath Jets from pushover to powerhouse in 1998, quarterback Vinny Testaverde went down with a season-ending knee injury minutes into the 1999-2000 season opener. Rex Ryan seemed to have the same opportunity, before “Sanchize” became “Butt Fumble.” So, here the Jets are—as they often are—headed toward a new season with a new coach and plenty of uncertainty.
New York Knicks
There was a not-insignificant period of time when the biggest challenge faced by the New York Knicks was getting over the hump—finding a way to beat the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Knicks were a good team with a great franchise player in Patrick Ewing, but they couldn't translate those things into their first NBA championship since the 1972-73 season.
In the 21st century the New York Knicks have done few things well, except giving forward Carmelo Anthony more money. A handful of forgettable postseason appearances aside, the Knicks organization has been on tilt—from making Isiah Thomas the man to lead the rebuild to hiring Phil Jackson a few decades too late.
The Miami Hurricanes football program used to play the role of villain with relish—they were the brash, smack-talking powerhouse by the beach. As an independent team, Miami claimed three national championships. As a member of the Big East, it won two more—the most recent in 2001. The school churned out NFL players including stars such as Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin.
But since going 11-2 in 2003 and beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl, the program has reached the point where appearances in the Independence and Russell Athletic bowls are cause for celebration. And Miami was hammered by the NCAA following a 2011 investigation into recruiting violations and other infractions. Fifth-year coach Al Golden was brought in to resurrect the floundering program, but he is now on the hot seat.
Before Michael Jordan helped lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in eight years, Jordan and the Bulls were bullied and bruised by the Detroit Pistons on the way to losing three consecutive postseason series. From 1983 to 1991, the Pistons won two NBA titles and were a regular playoff presence. After Jordan found a way to help push the Bulls past their conference rival, things changed.
The Pistons have been up and down over the past 25 years, winning a title in 2004 before sliding steadily to a point where 2014-15 represented the fifth consecutive season with 32 or fewer wins. The once-raucous Pistons fanbase has been replaced by a stoic arena of spectators unimpressed with a team far from its days of Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas.
It almost isn't fair—pointing out the failure of the Cleveland Browns to rebuild the franchise into the winner that it was when the team punished its opponents with a hard-nosed defense and a punishing running attack. In the '80s, Marty Schottenheimer's Browns battled the Houston Oilers for AFC Central supremacy before former Browns assistant Bill Cowher replaced Chuck Noll as head coach of the Steelers in 1992. That's when the Browns began to flounder.
Technically, the Browns turned things around in a huge way—winning Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. But the Browns were called the Baltimore Ravens because owner Art Modell fled the city in 1996 with the franchise in tow.
The true rebuilding process started when the Browns were reconstituted in 1999, and it hasn't gone well. The quarterbacks have been putrid, the coaches fleeting and there's just been one single playoff appearance in 16 years. The team is owned by a man who allegedly drafted ne'er-do-well quarterback Johnny Manziel based on the advice of a homeless man.