Search

PATHS TO POWER SUDDEN SUCCESS BY EXPANSION TEAMS HAS CREATED A NEW URGENCY TO FIND WAYS TO CONSTRUCT A CONTENDER

July 16, 1997
July 16, 1997

Table of Contents
July 16, 1997

Departments

PATHS TO POWER SUDDEN SUCCESS BY EXPANSION TEAMS HAS CREATED A NEW URGENCY TO FIND WAYS TO CONSTRUCT A CONTENDER

Two conservative football minds. Two guys who plan to win
football games with a diverse offense, rock-ribbed defense,
strong special teams and superior scouting. So how could Jaguars
coach and architect Tom Coughlin and Panthers general manager
Bill Polian have taken such different paths and yet, in just two
seasons, built their teams into NFL powers?

This is an article from the July 16, 1997 issue

The Jaguars invested major money only in youth, opting to build
a great team for the year 2000 and risk short-term lump-taking.
No one could have known that they would draft and trade so well
so early. Now they're not only the best young team in football,
they're also one of the best teams, period. "It's nice to know
we have a solid foundation that's not in its eighth or ninth
year," Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell says.

Youth, shmooth, was Polian's view. The Panthers wanted young
players but weren't fanatical about it. They paid for superior
special-teamers and defensive cogs even if the players were
older. "Football today is about winning now," says Carolina
linebacker Kevin Greene, who at age 34 is one of those cogs.
Nevertheless, Polian didn't sacrifice a lot of "next years" in
the process of building through experience. Carolina has two
All-Pro players on defense who are under 30 and an offense full
of promising greenhorns.

The different blueprints followed by Jacksonville and Carolina
underscore the many ways a team can become good in pro football
today. Or become bad. Because they were starting from scratch,
the two 1995 expansion teams did have tens of millions more to
spend in free agency than their peers ("They spent money like
drunken sailors," groused Art Modell, owner of the then
Cleveland Browns, two years ago), but give them credit for
spending it in the right places.

The rise of these two teams has turned up the heat on the rest
of the league's football architects, who inevitably hear the
fans' complaint: The Jaguars and the Panthers both reached their
conference championship game in their second season, so why is
our team floundering? "It's like comparing apples and oranges,"
says Green Bay G.M. Ron Wolf, who served as vice president of
football operations for the expansion Buccaneers in 1976. "We
had none of the advantages then that these teams had, and these
expansion teams had big advantages over the established teams
now: double draft picks in their first year and millions more to
spend in free agency. So you can't judge them against the other
teams."

Judge them, then, against each other. Here's what you'll find:
Carolina is more Super Bowl-ready today, but Jacksonville will
be better off in 1999.

"We had a model," Coughlin says on a spring day in Jacksonville.
"We thought there were certain positions we had to fill, and we
prioritized them: quarterback, left tackle, defensive line and
linebacker, cornerback, running back and wide receiver. We just
went about filling them with the best players we could find. In
the event we couldn't get a young guy for the long haul at a
position, we took the best veterans we could find and kept
looking for the long-term best players."

The Thursday before the 1995 college draft, the first for the
Jaguars, a trade that would have sent Brunell--a Green Bay
backup--to Philadelphia fell through. Coughlin, who had Brunell
at the top of his quarterback-of-the-future list, jumped in the
next day and dealt two middle-round picks to the Packers for
him. On draft day the Jags picked the best offensive-line
prospect Coughlin had ever seen, USC left tackle Tony Boselli.
"The timing was amazing," says Coughlin. "In one weekend we'd
gotten the two most important building blocks for our future."

Jacksonville stumbled upon a running back--San Diego had dumped
the serviceable Natrone Means--and found wide receivers Jimmy
Smith and Keenan McCardell, both surprisingly productive, in
free agency. The Jaguars failed to get a franchise cornerback,
striking out with free agents Todd Lyght and Aeneas Williams in
1996, but their defense got rich in the first two rounds of that
year's draft with the addition of outside linebacker Kevin Hardy
and defensive end Tony Brackens. Add an impact pass rusher and a
top corner to this team and it will be ready to beat anyone.

"I think we're in good shape not only from the standpoint of
being young and talented, but from having players who are good
people," Coughlin says. And from having them signed--don't
forget that. The Jaguars' core of starry kids, except for
Brunell, is locked up through at least 1999. But even the
Brunell situation isn't cause for undue concern. If the club and
Brunell's agent can't come to a long-term agreement when his
contract expires after this season, the Jags would use the
franchise tag on their quarterback to keep him from moving.

The pace of progress for the Jaguars and the Panthers has only
heightened the general urgency in the NFL to execute a coherent
strategy for building a winner. There are several approaches
currently being used, with, of course, varying degrees of
success. Excluding the two expansion clubs profiled above, here
are the styles of team architecture in the NFL.

OLD-FASHIONED

Teams that follow this plan--Pittsburgh, Houston, Minnesota, the
New York Giants, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay--are big
believers in building through the draft, developing players and
trying to sign them before they flee for free agency.

Notice we said trying to sign them before they flee. The
Steelers, the Oilers and the Vikings have largely failed in that
regard because they either don't have the resources to pay or
are unwilling to pay the big signing bonuses to keep their
stars--for example, Chad Brown with Pittsburgh, Micheal Barrow
with the Oilers, Henry Thomas with Minnesota--from leaving town.
The Giants have succeeded in locking up their youthful core,
signing 17 of 22 starters for at least the next two seasons, but
it's debatable how smart that is. New York has won just 11 games
over the past two seasons.

The Bengals, dinosaurs in the eyes of player agents and free
agents alike, must build through the draft because, playing in a
small market for a financially constrained ownership, they're an
unattractive team to players on the move. But Cincinnati gets
killed when big-money high picks like defensive tackle Dan
Wilkinson and running back Ki-Jana Carter underachieve. The
Colts, for their part, are in quicksand, held back by injuries
to high draft selections and by money problems that has prompted
talk of a franchise move.

The day before the 1996 draft, new Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy
sat in his cramped office a few long spirals from the noisy
runways at Tampa International Airport and acknowledged that
free agency wasn't the way to go for any program seeking
long-term greatness--especially a losing team with such low-rent
facilities as the Bucs. "Free agency with a real salary cap
can't sustain a team," he said. "Because even if you sign good
players, you can't sign enough of them to build a great team for
a long time. We believe we have to build through the draft for
the long haul."

The next day, with two picks in each of the first two rounds and
huge holes to fill all over the depth chart, Dungy went into the
war room with just such a blueprint. In the first round he
picked a pass rusher, Regan Upshaw, and a hole-filler, defensive
tackle Marcus Jones. Early in the second round he chose a
blocking fullback with every-down potential, Mike Alstott (page
48). Then the Bucs were considering cornerback Donnie Abraham,
among others, with the 41st pick. But the Chargers called. San
Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, who never met a draft-day
trade he didn't like, offered his 1997 first-round pick for
Tampa Bay's pick. Though Dungy strayed from his plan and
accepted the offer, there was little hand-wringing.

"We knew we had to do it," Dungy said this spring. "When we did,
it showed me the people in this organization were willing to do
what was best for the long run instead of patchworking things
together and making a big splash for one year. That pick this
year ended up being the receiver I think we've really needed,
Reidel Anthony. But that's how you build a winner, by thinking
long-term." Not the only way, but under Dungy, the Tampa Bay way.

PROGRESSIVE

Green Bay, Buffalo, Kansas City and Denver have built consistent
winners by mixing smart drafting and trades with bright forays
into free agency.

Wolf showed his savvy in 1992 when he dealt a first-round pick
to Atlanta to get Brett Favre, the quarterback he would build
around. The Packers have also been unafraid to admit their
mistakes, such as drafting cornerback Terrell Buckley in the
first round in '92; three years later they traded him to Miami
for a seventh-round pick. And Green Bay doesn't back away from a
trade that would salvage something from nothing--like obtaining
third- and fifth-round picks from Jacksonville for Brunell a
year before he would have left as a free agent.

The Bills retooled an aging defense through free agency--for
instance, signing impact linebacker Bryce Paup from Green Bay in
'95--and drafted well enough to keep contending as their core
grew older. The Chiefs have cultivated global resources better
than any other NFL team, finding talent in the Canadian Football
League (defensive end Vaughn Booker, return man Tamarick
Vanover) and the World League (linebacker Tracy Simien). But
Kansas City's success has been tarnished by the club's playoff
misery.

Denver has placed complete trust in coach-architect Mike
Shanahan, and except for the Broncos' crushing 30-27 playoff
loss to Jacksonville last year, Coloradans have been thrilled
with the results. A look inside Shanahan's office at the
Broncos' complex south of Denver one Friday last fall revealed
why he's striking pay dirt.

On the coffee table in the bright, expansive room lay 29 neatly
arranged and stapled packets of newspaper clips--the week's news
on every other NFL team, gathered from faxes and the Internet.
Every week Shanahan would steal time to peruse the 250 or so
pages of reports, gathering injury news or tidbits concerning
future opponents and potential free agents.

On a shelf behind Shanahan's desk sat a videocassette marked T.
JONES, BALT. Later that day he would watch the tape, which had
been compiled by his video staff. It contained play after play
involving Ravens tackle Tony Jones--one of many offensive
linemen Shanahan would study late into the night. Why? Because
Shanahan knew that his Pro Bowl tackle, Gary Zimmerman, wouldn't
be around forever, and he wanted a plan at hand for eventually
replacing Zimmerman. Bingo: The Broncos traded their
second-round pick in the '97 draft for the 31-year-old Jones,
whom they project as their starting left tackle through the end
of the decade.

Shanahan is the IBM Deep Blue of coaches, a man who believes
information is king in today's NFL. His brain is crammed with as
much of it as time allows him to gather. How else to explain his
ability to pick a plum like Terrell Davis--a 1,500-yard rusher
in '96--in the sixth round of the '95 draft? "You can't isolate
yourself now," he says. "There's not one way to build a team."

What Shanahan has done is amazing. In '95 he inherited a fading
7-9 team, hamstrung from earlier trades and with no picks in the
first three rounds of the draft that year. Denver is 21-12 in
his two seasons.

STAR-CENTERED

Dallas, San Francisco and Oakland are the live-for-today teams.
They want to win now and are willing to mortgage much of their
future to do so.

The Cowboys are the poster children for this method of
construction, signing stars such as quarterback Troy Aikman,
running back Emmitt Smith, wide receiver Michael Irvin and
cornerback Deion Sanders to monster deals that basically marry
the team to the player for years to come. As Cowboys executive
vice president Stephen Jones says, "On Sundays, history says the
biggest players make the biggest plays. That's how we've built
our team." The practice has served the Cowboys well recently,
but down the road it could force them into mediocrity by
salary-cap strangulation.

The 49ers have done like Dallas, but one near deal illustrates
the danger in such a strategy. Only the Giants' shortsightedness
in matching the 49ers' hefty offer sheet to Rodney Hampton saved
San Francisco from a cap-crippling contract with a running back
who'd seen better days.

Oakland's live-for-today attitude, however, tops that of even
Dallas or San Francisco. Keep in mind that the Raiders have been
merely mediocre in recent years--just two games above .500 over
the past five seasons. In March, SI obtained the team's
projected 1998 salary-cap sheet; it showed that Oakland had an
alarming $58.97 million committed to returning players for that
season. Even with a new, richer TV contract set to take effect
that year, the salary cap--which currently stands at $41.45
million per team--will most likely be at least $12 million less
than the Raiders' projected 1998 cap numbers. Owner Al Davis
will have to do some very imaginative maneuvering next
year--basically, cutting expensive players and replacing them
with minimum-salary guys--to get back in line for '98. It's one
thing for a winning club to be snug against the cap a year in
advance, but for an average team to be many millions over the
limit?

NEO-CONSERVATIVE

San Diego, New England, Washington, Arizona and Miami have been
burned by free agency; they've paid more than $1.5 million a
year apiece, respectively, for Marco Coleman, Dave Meggett,
James Washington, Clyde Simmons and Eric Green. Though these
teams can all afford to play the free-agency game, they view the
free market only as a necessary evil, preferring to build
through drafting and developing their own.

Beathard, the Chargers' G.M., despises free agency. He hated
overspending for Coleman, an underachieving defensive end, but
the market told him he had to overpay for a decent body for his
front seven, so he bucked up. New England owner Bob Kraft's
wife, Myra, thought her husband was nuts for letting the
Patriots draft Christian Peter, who had a history of alcohol
problems and had been charged with sexual assault, and for
paying Meggett $10 million. Perhaps she was right on both
scores. Meggett, who had previously excelled as a special-teamer
with the Giants, has one touchdown return in two seasons for New
England; the Patriots relinquished the rights to Peter shortly
after the draft, and he signed with the Giants this year. The
Redskins, after horrendous early experiences with free
agency--tight end Ethan Horton and defensive tackle Leonard
Marshall, to name two--are trusting coach Norv Turner to build a
first-class offense through the draft. Arizona spent big on
defense early in the free-agency era but never got a better
return than 8-8; now the Cards are doing things the way coach
Vince Tobin prefers--by way of the draft.

You can't blame Jimmy Johnson for the Dolphins' current
predicament, which is that they must put a contending team
around Dan Marino before his legs fall off. But you can question
Johnson's sanity for choosing to coach the Dolphins when he
could have gone to the Bucs in 1996, even though Tampa Bay had a
huge salary-cap advantage over Miami and better draft picks. But
Johnson likes the Miami lifestyle, so he took on the salary-cap
mess Don Shula had left for him, and he did it the only way he
knew how: He stockpiled 13 picks in the first four rounds of the
'96 and '97 drafts and went about remaking the Marinomates with
aggressive kids like 1996 third-rounder Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who
became Miami's first 1,000-yard rusher since Delvin Williams in
1978. Will Johnson's plan ultimately pan out? We won't know for
two or three years, but Johnson had no choice. Free-agency
failures forced him to this route.

MIX AND MATCH

It's not clear what the remaining teams--New Orleans, Chicago,
the New York Jets, St. Louis, Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore,
Seattle and Philadelphia--believe. They're always switching
courses or following dead ends, either because money is tight or
because the coaching staff and front office keep changing.

Just look at the Saints, the ultimate flip-floppers. When they
were thriving under coach and architect Jim Mora, they preferred
to stay with homegrown talent. Then they began to slip, and in
1995 they spent huge for corner Eric Allen and wideout Michael
Haynes. In 1996 they spent small for bit players--tackle
Clarence Jones and defensive ends Darren Mickell and Fred
Stokes. In 1997, with Mora gone, Mike Ditka the coach and G.M.
Bill Kuharich the power-broker, they are back to living and
building through the draft, with street free agents and with
trades.

"When Jim was here," said Kuharich, "I was general manager in
title only. Now we'll do a lot more of the things I believe in
and Mike believes in. I think it's essential in today's football
that if you believe in a kid strongly enough to pick him high in
the draft, then play him."

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Having mapped the various roads teams have taken since the
inception of the current free agency system after the 1992
season, we have seen a few keys emerge--signposts ownership
should, by now, have learned to follow.

--Get a master craftsman you trust implicitly. Too many cooks
spoil the contender; find one good guy, tell him he can spend
slightly beyond the cap with signing bonuses, then get out of
his way.

--Acquire draft choices. Lots of them. With the rookie minimum
salary at a cap-friendly $131,000, teams have to embrace rookies
and play them more than ever. (Everyone lauds Jimmy Johnson as
an incredible talent evaluator. He's very good, but part of his
success lies in having more draft choices than almost everyone
else most years. Basically, that gives him a larger margin for
error.)

--Once your team is on the verge of greatness, don't hesitate to
spend--even overpay--for that final puzzle piece or two. You can
be sure the '94 Packers wished they had bought a big corner to
cover Dallas wide receiver Alvin Harper. You can be sure that
the '95 Chiefs wished they had bought a free-agent wideout and
that the 49ers wished they had bought an offensive lineman or
two in '96 so quarterback Steve Young wouldn't have been
destroyed. And the crystal ball says the '97 Cowboys will wish
they had picked up some off-season insurance for a decaying left
side of the offensive line.

--Be patient. Even great architects have slumps. Beathard, for
example, is in a draft slump right now in San Diego. Wolf let
premier front-seven players Paup and Tony Bennett escape Green
Bay. Ignore the frustrated luxury-boxholders, avoid the sports
section and stay the course.

After all, as recent successes have shown, if you have the right
people in charge, eventually you'll win.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS By different routes, Carolina and Jacksonville are muscling quickly toward the Super Bowl. [Carolina Panthers players and Jacksonville Jaguars players in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Wolf's first major move in Green Bay was to snag Favre from Atlanta for a No. 1--a small price to pay for a championship. [Brett Favre in game]COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND The Jags built with an eye to the future, but lesser free agents like McCardell have helped them move the timetable up. [Keenan McCardell in game]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Dallas relies on big names to make big plays, not a bad strategy when Smith is one of the stars. But will the good times last? [Emmitt Smith in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER By continually restocking with proven talent like Paup, the Bills have so far prevented the slide into mediocrity. [Bryce Paup in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Davis, a sixth-rounder, is just one of many finds for Denver coach Shanahan, who builds success out of information. [Terrell Davis in game]

DUMB DEALS

NFL architects, beware: The salary cap is unforgiving. Because
signing bonuses and guarantees count against the cap even for
players who are released, a big-money contract to the wrong guy
can wreck a team's building efforts. Peter King picks the most
crippling contracts in the five-year history of free agency:

1. The Rison Folly
Cleveland owner Art Modell signed wideout Andre Rison to a
five-year, $17 million contract in 1995. Rison lasted through
one year of discord, had 47 meaningless receptions and cost
Modell $5.723 million. He has since been released by two other
receiver-needy teams.

2. The Jumbo Jet Crash
In 1996 the Jets signed tackles David Williams (off waivers) and
Jumbo Elliott (with shoulder and back problems) to five-year
contracts averaging a total of $5.4 million per season. Injuries
limited their training time, and they were ineffective during
the season.

3. The Raider Fader
Larry Brown's two Super Bowl XXX interceptions for the Cowboys
so impressed Oakland owner Al Davis that he signed Brown for
$12.5 million over five years. Never mind that Brown was
normally a zone corner in Dallas but would play primarily
man-to-man in Oakland. Brown was a disaster; the Raiders benched
him in October.

4. The Flim-flam Ram
In 1995 the Rams paid guard Dwayne White $10 million for five
years to be the keystone of the offensive front. He's been more
like the millstone. White has made two trips to the fat farm,
and he's still 50 Happy Meals overweight.

5. The Guaranteed Mistake
The Falcons made 49ers defensive tackle Pierce Holt the league's
highest-paid defensive player in 1993, despite his history of
back and knee trouble. For a three-year, $7.5 million
deal--fully guaranteed--Atlanta got 7 1/2 sacks, total, from a
player too banged up to dominate anymore.