How Conference Championship Teams Were Built

A look at how the rosters for the Vikings, Eagles, Patriots and Jaguars were put together, and the recent philosophies applied by the two NFC combatants
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After the dust settled on the Miracle in Minneapolis, old friends Howie Roseman and Rick Spielman, now seven days away from playing for a trip to Super Bowl LII, traded texts. There were the normal pats on the back that you’d expect.

And then there was some version of this: “Can you believe it?”

It was 16 months ago that Roseman, the Eagles vice president of football operations, and Spielman, the Vikings general manager, brokered one of the most impactful in-season trades of this decade in the NFL. Or so they thought.

Spielman sent first- and fourth-round picks to the Eagles on that late summer Saturday for Sam Bradford, whom Roseman had given a two-year, $36 million contract six months earlier. That came in the wake of Teddy Bridgewater’s freak knee injury, and Philly’s willingness to do it came, in large part, because first-round pick Carson Wentz proved to be way ahead of schedule.

Yet, here the two were, looking forward to an NFC Championship Game with both teams in it, but neither Bradford nor Wentz starting, and not Bridgewater either. Instead, Roseman’s team will be led by Nick Foles (a Chief at the time of the trade) and Spielman’s by Case Keenum (a Ram then).

Can you believe it?


In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll go back to the moment when the Vikings players knew Keenum would become Keenum; we’ll reprise how the Jaguars settled on Doug Marrone to take over as coach; we’ll explain where Tom Brady’s motivation comes from; and we’ll go over some of the ebbs and flows of the still-spinning coaching carousel.

But we start with our annual look at the construction of the four championship-round teams, and why those text messages between Roseman and Spielman on Sunday night explain what ties them all together. First, here’s the breakdown, soup to nuts, of how the NFL’s Final Four were built.

Homegrown on 53: 28 (19 draftees, 9 college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 20
Trades/waivers on 53: 5
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Blake Bortles with the third pick in 2014.
Last five first-round picks: RB Leonard Fournette (2017, 4); CB Jalen Ramsey (2016, 5); DE Dante Fowler (2015, 3); Bortles (2014, 3); OT Luke Joeckel (2013, 2).
Top 5 cap figures: DT Malik Jackson, $15.50 million; C Brandon Linder, $11.07 million; DE Calais Campbell, $10.50 million; S Barry Church, $8.00 million; WR Allen Hurns, $7.00 million.

Homegrown on 53: 32 (25 draftees, 7 college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 16
Trades/waivers on 53: 5
Quarterback acquired: Signed Case Keenum to a 1-year deal on April 3, 2017.
Last five first-round picks: WR Laquon Treadwell (2016, 23); CB Trae Waynes (2015, 11); OLB Anthony Barr (2014, 9); QB Teddy Bridgewater (2014, 32); DT Sharrif Floyd/CB Xavier Rhodes/WR Cordarrelle Patterson (2013, 23/25/29).
Top 5 cap figures: QB Sam Bradford, $18.00 million; CB Xavier Rhodes, $10.43 million; DE Everson Griffen, $8.60 million; OT Riley Reiff, $8.50 million; S Harrison Smith, $7.50 million.

Homegrown on 53: 28 (19 draftees, 9 college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 17
Trades/waivers on 53: 8
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Tom Brady with the 199th pick in 2000.
Last five first-round picks: DT Malcolm Brown (2015, 32); DT Dominique Easley (2014, 29); DE Chandler Jones (2012, 21); LB Don’t’a Hightower (2012, 25); OT Nate Solder (2011, 17).
Top 5 cap figures:  QB Tom Brady, $14.00 million; Solder, $11.17 million; S Devin McCourty, $10.94 million; CB Stephon Gilmore, $8.57 million; TE Rob Gronkowski, $6.50 million.

Homegrown on 53: 25 (21 draftees, 4 college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 20
Trades/waivers on 53: 8
Quarterback acquired: Signed Nick Foles to a 2-year deal on March 13, 2017.
Last five first-round picks: DE Derek Barnett (2017, 14); QB Carson Wentz (2016, 2); WR Nelson Algholor (2015, 20); DE Marcus Smith (2014, 26); OT Lane Johnson (2013, 4).
Top 5 cap figures: WR Alshon Jeffrey, $10.75 million; Johnson, $9.84 million; DT Fletcher Cox, $9.40 million; DE Vinny Curry, $9.00 million; DE Brandon Graham/S Malcolm Jenkins, $7.50 million.

I ran this by a few personnel people and asked a simple question: Anything strike you here? One text came back from an NFC personnel director: “At first glance, it shows that building a championship team isn’t just all building through the draft. Three of four were balanced, when it comes to player acquisition.”

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But if you go past the data, and into how the season played out, you’ll see there is a commonality: resiliency. The Patriots got past season-ending injuries to Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower. The Jaguars lost their No. 1 receiver, Allen Robinson, to a torn ACL and the left tackle they dealt for, Branden Albert, to retirement, before the season.

The NFC teams took it to another level, undermining what I wrote in this space a year ago, which was that there’s no price too high for a quarterback. Combined, Keenum and Foles cost just over $3.5 million on their teams’ 2017 caps. So how have the Vikings and Eagles done it? With the help of a few well-placed people in each organization, we’ve come up with three key moves to each team’s resilience …


• The Bradford trade. The Eagles took Derek Barnett (more on him in a minute) with the first-rounder they got for Bradford, but the deal’s impact didn’t end there. It also freed the cap room needed to add Alshon Jeffrey to Wentz’s arsenal, which allowed the team to move former first-round pick Nelson Agholor to the slot. That made the environment Foles stepped into stronger.

• Prioritizing the lines.The priority for Roseman when he regained the reins in 2016 was to find a quarterback. A close second? Fortify the line of scrimmage. On offense, he signed Brandon Brooks to a big-ticket deal, but also found bargains at guard in Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack. On defense, he added Chris Long, Timmy Jernigan and Barnett to a group that already had Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham. And all these big guys created stability and an identity.

• Adhering to an order of business.Last spring, the Eagles decided to focus on corners in the draft over running backs. Smart, because the 2018 class looked to be deeper on the latter than the former. So they drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, then spun a pick for Ronald Darby. And they were resourceful in the aftermath, acquiring LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi late, and finding Corey Clement after the draft. The end result? A solid future at corner, and flexibility to add running backs this April.


• Fixing the line.One thing that was clearly coming out of the craziness of 2016 in Minnesota was that more than just new talent, the offensive line needed a new identity. So while Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein may not have been incredible talents, the Vikings had solid enough background on each to know they had the character and culture they desired. The result? The line has set the identity for the whole offense. “We’re tougher,” said one team staffer.

• Building depth in the backfield.Jerick McKinnon is a nice piece, but to further the cultural shift the brass wanted, getting a tough, downhill runner to replace Adrian Peterson was a high priority. Without Peterson, the Vikings were horrific in short yardage and on the goal line in 2016, a year in which Latavius Murray scored 12 touchdowns. So they signed Murray, who wound up becoming even more valuable when Dalvin Cook went down.

• Establishing a meritocracy.The defense is filled with big, fast high draft picks. But there are also players who came via a different path. The Vikings found Andrew Sendejo when he was a Sacramento Mountain Lion in the UFL, lost him to the Cowboys, then the Jets, then finally signed him as a special teamer and developed him into a starter. Likewise, the brass liked defensive tackle Tom Johnson as he came out of the CFL, but lost him to the Saints. When the Saints switched schemes, Johnson’s fit was no longer there, he was cut, and the Vikings pounced. Johnson, a few years later, wound up replacing former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd.

Looking at this, I recall a conversation I had with Spielman in the immediate aftermath of the Bradford trade. I asked if it should jolt his players and give them a sense of urgency. It was based on the premise that only a team that felt like it could win at the highest level would make this kind of move. Spielman didn’t shy away from that.

“We’re in a situation where the team has an opportunity to have a really good year,” Spielman said. “I’m not sure you’d do this if it’s the first year in a program. But because of everything we’ve done, Zim being in his third year, we have a good team, it made so much sense.”

A year later, Bradford’s down, but the belief that the Vikings were close is still very much there. Can you believe it? At this point, they’ve got every reason.

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1. Marrone had a powerful voice in his corner. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has become something of a kingmaker on the NFL job market in recent years, so it’s always notable when he goes to bat for someone who isn’t working for him. And he did just that last year, when Jaguars EVP Tony Khan consulted with Belichick on their coaching search. Sources say Belichick put in a glowing recommendation for Jacksonville’s own offensive line coach, Doug Marrone. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the first time Belichick had done it.

After Marrone opted out of his deal in Buffalo in 2014, and struck out on the Jets job, Belichick heard that he was talking with Gus Bradley about a job on the Jaguars staff. So Belichick called Khan and told him the Jaguars would be well-served to hire him as assistant head coach. A little less than two years later, the Jaguars fired Bradley and replaced him with Marrone on an interim basis. That week, Khan again called Belichick, who said to the son of the Jacksonville owner, “Hey, you’ve already got your guy.” The Patriots coach went on to tell Khan that he saw Marrone’s integrity to be beyond reproach, and felt like Marrone had the Bills playing as hard as he’d seen them play in two decades coaching in the AFC East. Two weeks later, the Jags were hiring Tom Coughlin, who had an established relationship with Marrone (both are Syracuse guys), and what Belichick had told the club rang true. 

Marrone has since built the same kind of old-school, no-excuses culture that Belichick has in New England and Coughlin had for all those years in New York, and results have followed. Maybe Belichick even takes some satisfaction in having been right about it. But it’s a fair bet he’d rather not have more proof Sunday.

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2. Garoppolo had value in his presence. Maybe some day when Tom Brady is looking back on his career, he’ll be able to reflect on it, but I believe it to be true now: Having Jimmy Garoppolo around was good for Brady. And to explain it, I want to go back to the summer of 2012, when I was doing a story on the Patriots quarterback that was examining if he was already at that point, at 35 years old, the greatest of all-time. I asked Brady on an August afternoon why he wasn’t really thinking big picture, about what he could add to his legacy at an advanced age and coming off the loss in Super Bowl XLVI. 

“Honestly, I guess because I feel the same way I’ve always felt. I feel like I have to come out here and earn a position like everyone else,” Brady told me. “I try to be the best quarterback on this team, the best quarterback I can be. I don’t think about the future, the past. You know, I’ve been really blessed to be on a great team with great teammates and develop great relationships and win a lot of football games. And that never gets old.”

That may sound like canned BS, but I’ve never believed it to be. This is how Brady got his job in the first place—a strong summer of 2001 in which he drew closer to Drew Bledsoe and beat out Damon Huard to be the backup set the stage for the then-24-year-old to take the job outright that fall. Part of what drives Brady is that knowing his own Tom Brady is eventually coming for his job. And where Garoppolo was drafted, and how he developed made it more real for Brady than it’d have ever been before. That’s human nature, and Brady’s play over the last four years reflects, to some degree, the extra push that the now-Niners starter certainly seemed to give him.

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3. Haley’s problem wasn’t production. We should’ve all seen this coming in the aftermath of the Steelers’ heart-breaking loss to the Patriots in December, when Ben Roethlisberger blatantly threw offensive coordinator Todd Haley under a Greyhound. You may remember that Pittsburgh’s fake-spiked-turned-interception ended its comeback bid that night, and you may remember Roethlisberger’s account of it: “It wasn’t a fake spike. I was yelling, ‘clock it’, because I felt like that was the thing to do, to clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline, ‘don’t clock it, don’t clock it.’” That explanation was followed by a very public back-and-forth in the media with no real conclusion, which is pretty unusual to see between a quarterback and his coordinator.

So Ben won out, and Haley is gone, and I’m not sure this will help Mike Tomlin maintain command over a locker room that’s bursting with assertive personalities. And that’ll be worth watching. It's why the Steelers fired Haley three days after his offense scored 42 points on the NFL’s second-ranked defense in a playoff game. The challenge on Haley’s replacement, Randy Fichtner, will be in maintaining the level of production and player development that his predecessor established.

As for Haley’s legacy in Pittsburgh, the divide between he and Roethlisberger will be remembered, but the job he did in creating Ben 2.0 should too. In Bruce Arians’ bombs-away offense, Roethlisberger played an unsustainable, free-wheeling style founded on getting the ball downfield early and often. Haley taught Roethlisberger the virtue of playing the position like a point guard, and to get the ball out of his hands and to his playmakers quicker. It’s worked, too, to extend Roethlisberger’s prime, and there’s no question that, for all the squabbling, he and Haley were capable of bringing out the best in one another. Can Fichtner do the same?

Todd Haley Out and Randy Fichtner In as Steelers OC

4. Jets move was a long time coming. That the Jets offense was respectable this year, given the 2017 offseason strip-down, seemed to reflect well on coordinator Johnnie Morton. But the truth is that over the last month of the season, it became abundantly clear to those on the inside that his days in Florham Park were numbered, and for a host of reasons.

First, Morton’s relationships with coaches and players quickly grew frosty, and let to internal issues. Second, he was reluctant to run the ball, even when Todd Bowles’ directive was to control the clock. And third, his ability to adapt on the fly became an issue. Morton, for the most part, was fine in the first half of games, when he was working off a script. Later in games, though, when coaches have to improvise, the offense’s production tailed off. Now, if you add all of that to the fact Morton was Bowles’ third choice (behind Lions quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan and Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo) last spring, you can understand why everyone knew the score over the final weeks of the season. By then, Jon Gruden was lining up staff for his return and perception in the Jets building was that Morton was angling for a job with him.

So now, Morton is gone and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who’s earned Bowles’ respect, becomes the immediate and overwhelming favorite to replace him. Bates helped in putting together those scripts, and has called plays for two different teams—Denver in 2008 and Seattle in 2010. From a football intelligence standpoint, Bates is cut from the same cloth as Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. And from the time he was hired last February, there was good reason to believe he’d eventually wind up in Morton’s seat. The questions with Bates have always been in his ability to manage his relationships with other coaches and players. The Jets are hopeful he’s grown up in that regard. If he truly has, after getting out of coaching for a few years to recharge, then Bates has the potential to be a big-time upgrade.

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First and 10


1. The Dolphins have a big decision to make on Jarvis Landry. They already paid Kenny Stills, and 2015 first-rounder Devante Parker didn’t have the breakout season many internally expected. Parker has next year and an option year left on his rookie deal. And there’s a likelihood that it’d be tough to pay all three. Add to that the fact that Landry can be a pain in the ass, and this is complicated.

2. Speaking of Miami, Adam Gase is doing some pretty interesting tweaking, starting with the split of the Clyde Christensen’s offensive coordinator spot. DowellLoggains has the title, while ex-Broncons RBs coach Eric Studesville is the run game coordinator. Meanwhile, on defense, the Dolphins brought over line coach Kris Kocurek. The common thread? Connections. Loggains coached with Gase in Chicago and Studesville with him in Denver, while Kocurek and Dolphins DC Matt Burke were together for five years in Detroit.

3. I’ll say this about Drew Brees’ impending free agency: He has always worked his leverage, in part because he’s a union guy, and union guys believe taking top dollar helps everyone. And if he wants to maximize his earning power in this situation, going to the market is the only way to do it. The Saints can’t tag him, he has a provision in his deal preventing them from doing that, so the freeway to free agency is clearly wide open. I think he’ll wind up staying as a Saint. But it may get a little messy along the way.

4. Titans’ interviews start Thursday with Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, and having spoken with people there it seems clear to me that they’ll look for someone who fits the identity GM Jon Robinson has put in place there around big, tough, physical players. So look for someone with an edge. And also someone who has a detailed plan, whether he’ll be the one executing it or not, to bring Marcus Mariota along at a better pace.

5. We wrote about it the other day, but credit, again, to Colts GM Chris Ballard, who had the foresight to build a relationship with Patriots OC Josh McDaniels over the last year, knowing he might hire him to replace Chuck Pagano. Ballard knew having a trust level with the GM would be a factor in McDaniels’ decision making, and got himself, and the Colts, on the correct side of that equation.

6. Don’t underrate Pat Shurmur’s ability to handle crisis as a factor in how he landed the Giant job. Shurmur, in 2016, was elevated to OC after Norv Turner abruptly resigned, and dealt with major injuries to Teddy Bridgewater, a host of linemen and Adrian Peterson. This year, they turned around and won with Case Keenum. All of that, it seems, would be decent training for lies ahead in New York, where a broken locker room needs fixing.

7. It’ll be fascinating to see how Arizona’s interest in Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores manifests itself in the coming days. The Cardinals were planning on going young last year, and had Sean McVay earmarked to succeed Bruce Arians before it became clear Arians would coach one last season. Flores may not be the x’s-an-o’s guru. But he’s got great leadership qualities and charisma, and could grow with a team, like the Cardinals, that clearly has a lot of work to do on its roster.

8. Trumaine Johnson, Sammy Watkins, and Connor Barwin are all up after this year, and replacing them will not be easy for the Rams. It’s one reason, in fact, why the team is expected to take its time in locking up star DT Aaron Donald, who they’d like get done before next season starts.

9. Rumors were rampant in December that Pete Carroll could retire. Conversely, his actions over the last few weeks might as well be a screaming reminder to all of us that he’s not done yet. He’ll be breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball in the fall.

10. If there’s one thing I’d fix now on replay, it’s to empower the league office to cut down on delays. Too often, there’s a crazy call that is clearly right or wrong, and we have to sit through the field official wasting his time going to the sideline and under the hood, Why not let Al Riveron, on the easy ones, buzz to down to officials and tell them, “don’t even bother, just (uphold/overturn) the ruling on the field and let’s move on.” To me, that should be one of the main reasons to have the ability to have sets of eyes from New York.

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Lesson of the Week


To most of us, Case Keenum’s walkoff, 61-yard scoring strike to Stefon Diggs was the ultimate fluke of a miracle. And it’s true there was a little good fortune involved. But his teammates see that play as exactly who Keenum has been when he’s at his best. All-Pro tight end Kyle Rudolph will explain it to you.

“Absolutely,” Rudolph said, just before lunch yesterday. “I really wish it wouldn’t have been that close, I wish we wouldn’t have been in that situation, having had a 17-point lead and doing some things in the second half that will get us beat, and that we can’t do if we’re gonna end our season the right way.

“But in that moment, when your back is against the wall, he had all the confidence in the world in one of us skill players to make a play for him. He told us in the huddle before the play, ‘Look, I gotta give somebody a chance here, and I trust you guys will make a play.’ And Diggs was that guy.”

Case Keenum Won’t Look Back—at the Good or the Bad

The quality that Rudolph is explaining is one that none of the Vikings could’ve seen in practice during spring or summer. It’s also something that’s hard to pull out of a player if you’re working him out, trying to figure if you want to sign or draft him.

And therein lies our lesson for Championship Week: Quarterback is a tough position to evaluate for teams, because there’s only so much you really know without seeing it for real.

“So much of it is the way that he extends plays,” Rudolph continued. “Ideally, we’re not seeing that in practice. We’re running plays that we think will work, and we’re executing those plays. But when you get in the game and lights come on, and something unexpected happens, he seems to always react the right way, create something, and then make something happen.

And it was a play like that during Keenum’s first start, a loss in Pittsburgh, where Rudolph started to realize that Keenum was more than just a fill-in.

It was third-and-20, and Keenum bought a little time, then feathered one down the seam and over a wall of Steeler defenders, one that Rudolph would haul in one-handed. As was the case in Sunday’s divisional playoff, Keenum was giving him a chance, and Rudolph delivered for him.

“We go to Pittsburgh, and we’re not sure if Sam’s gonna play or not, and he just exuded this confidence from the time that they told us that he was gonna be the starter, that Sam wasn’t ready to go, that everything was going to be completely fine,” Rudolph said. “He said to us, ‘Look, we’re gonna go out there and I’m gonna run around a little bit and we’re gonna have some fun.’

“I remember thinking from that point on—this guy’s got a little something about him. He’s not just here to fill in and be a backup, he’s the real deal.”

That moxie is a little of what the Vikings saw from the start. Without much of a run game, line or scheme in Los Angeles last year, Keenum won four games, and the tape was good. But Minnesota obviously didn’t know the extent of it, or the team wouldn’t have waited as long as they did to sign him in March.

They do now, after giving him a good team and a season of game action. And so do the rest of us.

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