How to Build a Winning Franchise in the NFL
The concept of “tanking”—that is, sacrificing some short-term success for a more stable long-term future—seems taboo in the win-now mentality held by sports fans and media. But it’s a strategy used in business all the time. So why is it so maligned in the sports world?
Young and Restless
Mark Cuban, someone I truly admire for his business sense and intellectual curiosity (as valuable a trait as one can have, in my view) recently admitted that his Dallas Mavericks “tanked” last season when, once eliminated from playoff contention, coaches opted to play younger players instead of veterans. To me, this isn’t tanking in the traditional “try to lose” sense; it is a long-term strategy used by dozens of professional sports teams, including some in the NFL.
Every veteran was once an inexperienced player; you can only develop talent with game experience. Many successful front offices (such as the one I worked in for nine years in Green Bay) prioritize developing young talent with coaching staffs. This is an organizational philosophy to build sustained success—not “tanking.”
Jets in Trouble?
The NFL team now receiving the “tanking” moniker: the Jets, who released David Harris and Eric Decker. But is the team really “tanking” because it released or didn’t re-sign a few older players?
Last year, the Jets’ roster featured “win now” veterans such as Harris, Decker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis and others. They finished 5-11. If the Jets stumble to a similar record this year, at least they will have provided vital experience and development for younger players. The Jets may not even have one of the youngest rosters in the league; does that mean that rosters younger than theirs are tanking?
The waiver wires in February and March are full of veterans who have been released to make room for younger players; are all these teams tanking? Of course not, it’s simply the very short cycle of life for NFL players.
Living in Philadelphia and having spoken several times with former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, I have seen the “trust the process” strategy that has frustrated many for its tortoise pace. But that approach—in which the 76ers acquired Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and now Marquelle Fulz (these were Hinkie-acquired assets that allowed a trade to the top overall pick)—will have a much more sustained positive effect than if the team spent the past years on the fringe of the playoffs with established veterans. Hinkie took long view, which, in his words, “picks at the lock of mediocrity.”
How then, do you achieve sustained success in the NFL? Every team is looking for that answer, but one common trait of successful teams is that they have an unshakeable philosophy that stands the test of time. Some may not like their team-building philosophies, or the way they handle contracts, or the risks they take (or don’t take) on character, but with organizations such as the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, Ravens, Cowboys and a few more, you know what you are getting. Conversely, teams that bounce from one strategy or philosophy (often with different decision-makers) never establish a culture that players and fans can know and trust.
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has said that if Amazon has a good quarter it is because of the work and decision-making done three to five years ago. This applies to sports as well; success in 2017 will have formed its roots years ago.
Teams like the Browns and Jets—recent unsuccessful franchises that have traversed various strategic models of team building— appear to be committing to new philosophies that eschew quick fixes and instead taking the long view. This version of “tanking”— bringing a foundation down to its studs rather then continuing to remodel—could be an organizational philosophy that can work.
As to whether a “super team” could form in the NFL, as we have just seen in the NBA, it is highly unlikely. NBA superstars have much greater value, as NFL players do not play more than half the game. Also, NFL stars rarely make it to the free market, inhibited by four-year rookie contracts, option years, franchise tags, etc. Even if a young star quarterback—the most impactful position—were to somehow make it to free agency, a team can only have one quarterback on the field; that player is not signing with New England, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland, Carolina, Tennessee, etc. The NBA champion Warriors have four superstar players; the NFL Champion Patriots, with a roster four times the size, have maybe two or three.
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It is only a matter of time before one or more “new media” titans—Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. —develop a deeper relationship with the NFL. Amazon, having just purchased Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in cash (you want that in hundreds?), will stream Thursday night NFL games this season, assuming the role Twitter occupied last season. With the lines between traditional and new media becoming blurred—and given the enormous cash reserves of these companies—sports league partnerships are inevitable.
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The offseason story of Panthers’ offensive lineman Michael Oher is one the NFL probably does not want you to hear. Oher is still “in concussion protocol” due to a head injury he sustained last season. He even posted a picture on social media (since deleted) of several prescription drug bottles, suggesting his course of pain management.
We are still in the infancy stages of determining optimal return to play, but we’ve seen the spectrum: players visibly compromised who were not even evaluated on the sideline (Case Keenum, Cam Newton) to those retiring due to concussion-like symptoms, a fate that may await Oher. It is OK for the NFL and teams to admit that, like a serious knee injury or shoulder injury, a serious head injury can cut short a football career. That is being open and honest about player health and safety.
We wish Michael Oher the best in his recovery and his future.
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When asked if Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed, Roger Goodell said that he wasn’t. Really, you think? Did we expect the commissioner to say, “Yes, we put out the word to keep him off our rosters, and it’s working!”
You heard it here first…
On June 6, NFL officiating czar Dean Blandino said on Fox Sports Radio: “If we’re worried about player safety, then eliminate overtime.” On May 23rd, I wrote: “If player safety is the primary concern behind reducing overtime, then why play overtime at all?”
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