How do you build a successful NFL team?
Seriously, think about this for a moment.
We all feel like we know the answer, right? For any members of the Madden(video game not person) generation, it’s just obvious. We’ve all gone through the franchise mode compiling as much possible talent from free agency and the draft to create powerhouse teams that win Super Bowl after Super Bowl. We can all recognise awful free agent moves and terrible draft picks as soon as they happen. A large portion of us are delusional enough to think that we would be better than most, if not all, of the 32 general managers who are actually employed.
The reality is, most of us don’t know the first thing about building a successful NFL team.
I may have just bruised the egos of some of you, but the reality is even a simulation as real as Madden is just that, a simulation. In Madden you compile talent and assign the salary cap to try and maximise your roster’s value. In real life you do that too, but in real life you aren’t building a roster, you’re building a locker-room. When you sign a player you don’t sign someone who just plays on Sundays, you sign someone who will be a permanent fixture in your building during football season and for a portion of the off-season.
Understanding the dynamic of a locker-room and how each move will impact your football team is vital for success.
Too often as outsiders we bemoan a lack of talent and blame that for failings, be it on the sidelines, under center, in the backfield or on the defensive side of the ball. While the NFL is not the NBA, where the talent level is more concentrated, it is very similar.
The NBA has a handful of superstars at the very top of the league, you likely won’t win a championship without one of them, but you can go deep in the playoffs with a strong all around team. A team like the Indiana Pacers were able to reach the Championship Finals without a top nine draft pick on their roster. The NFL’s ‘Superstars’ exist too, but most of them are at the quarterback position. You don’t necessarily need a single superstar to win in the NFL, the Ravens didn’t really have one last season, because you will always have opportunities to find talented players.
Finding talent isn’t the issue, but developing it and crafting it into a winning team is. Although coaches are primarily responsible for this, the general manager must understand how to implement this aspect of the game better than anyone else. That is because the general manager hires the head coach and and ultimately is most responsible for shaping the roster. He may not make all of the decisions, but he will more often than not make the biggest decisions, have final say and be held responsible for any bad moves.
As much as a general manager will want to build a talented roster, with players who properly complement each other on the field, he is in a greater sense building a locker-room rather than a roster. Unlike in Madden, where we can see the attributes laid out in front of us and it’s easy to piece the players together, real general managers can’t just look at forty times and game tape to determine who they want to bring in. They must understand the mental tests that must be endured during a football season and how teams can successfully handle them.
Having very talented players is one thing, but if you don’t put those players in a culture that is completely focused on winning, that talent may not be well represented on the field. That is why successful general managers build locker-rooms, not rosters. Locker-rooms establish culture, culture determines commitment and accountability, commitment and accountability determine what direction your team goes in.
Are you accountable to your teammates? Or are you accountable to upholding your individual statistical prowess? Are you going to spend the off-season on the beach working on your tan? Or are you going to be in and around the facility, studying your playbook, developing chemistry with your teammates and refining the physical aspects of your game?
The best way of explaining this is by showcasing the failings of those who ignore those aspects of the process.
When the Detroit Lions finished the 2012 NFL off-season with a top five draft pick, it was an inexplicable and completely unexpected result for many observers. The Lions had Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Louis Delmas, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew, a raft of talented, big reputation players who had turned the franchise around from a 0-16 season in 2008 to a playoff team in 2011.
An incredible accumulation of talent brought the Lions to the playoffs, but success quickly brought them back to the doldrums of the league. How did Stafford and company fall so fast and so far? Their locker-room culture of course.
Instead of working to take the next step, it was clear that the Lions lost whatever commitment to winning had previously existed. A raft of off-season arrests permeated through the off-season, with only the lesser-named Aaron Berry being sufficiently punished. The coaching staff and general manager’s refusal to deal harshly with those transgressions from some of their better players in the off-season set a bad tone entering training camp. A bad tone that eventually turned into a team that lacked discipline from top-to-bottom.
When I say discipline I don’t mean yellow flags, as they were middle of the pack in that regard, instead I am referring to the discipline of learning the game. Matthew Stafford, despite now being in his fourth season and coming off a 5,000+ yard performance the year before, was still throwing with terrible mechanics and forcing the football to his best receiver. To worsen that, the coaching staff never addressed it during the season, instead pandering to their young star and highlighting his poor play with a record number of passing attempts.
The Lions’ play-calling on the offensive side stood out. They may not have been a good running team, but ignoring that aspect of the game showed off a complete lack of understanding and disregard for discipline in structuring an effective weekly gameplan. In other words, it wasn’t a winning strategy or standard. Jim Schwartz may run around and shout a lot, but even though that is often confused for the demeanour of a disciplinarian, it is often the exact opposite.
With no accountability, discipline or commitment to winning, it was no surprise that the Lions faltered in 2012.
Along with the coaching staff, leaders on the players’ side must emerge to maintain a positive culture. A lack of aware leaders caused the Lions’ downfall. Youth doesn’t disqualify you from being a good leader, but it doesn’t help. From the outside at least, the Lions’ roster appeared to be too young for them to handle adversity last year. This is an obstacle that faced Ozzie Newsome entering this off-season.
The Ravens undoubtedly benefited from the additional guidance of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin and many more during their run to the Super Bowl last year. Newsome had long since put in a high-quality head coach in John Harbaugh and he would return this year, but Lewis and Birk retired, Reed joined the Houston Texans and Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Throw in other losses such as Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams, and it became clear that the Ravens’ locker-room was under threat.
Turnover is always threatening to a locker-room, but few throughout history had ever faced the sheer quantity of key changes that Newsome was set to encounter. That’s all without mentioning the impending free agency status of his Super Bowl MVP quarterback and the potential reaction to winning a Super Bowl.
Newsome understood that he was losing talent, but he also understood that talent was more easily replaced than leadership. In fact, their three most notable free agent losses, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams, had cost him just a second round pick, an undrafted free agent contract and a minor free agent contract coming over from another team.
Therefore, once Newsome re-signed his franchise quarterback, he went about finding veteran fits who could help guide the younger players on the roster and allow the heirs already on the roster to slowly transition into greater leadership roles. Newsome already had some veteran leaders he could rely on to set the tone, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata stand out, but he made a concentrated effort throughout the off-season to bring in players who have played to high-standards during their careers.
Bryant McKinnie may have had his weight problems in recent years, but he didn’t complain once last year while on the bench and was ready to play when called upon later in the season. That tells you that McKinnie is committed to winning, while his vast experience in the league will make him a good leader for a relatively young offensive line. With he, Marshal Yanda, Kelechi Osemele, Gino Gradkowski and Michael Oher, the Ravens have a strong mixture of veteran leadership and youth protecting their franchise quarterback.
Newsome will look to McKinnie, Yanda, Vonta Leach, Ray Rice and Joe Flacco to set the tone on the offensive side of the ball. Players like Yanda and Leach have played to a high-level individually for a long time, while Rice and Flacco’s reputations are growing with every passing season.
The offense wasn’t the real issue though. Because of McKinnie’s re-signing, they had only really lost Anquan Boldin from that group. The elevation of others should be more than enough to overcome his loss in terms of leadership if not on-field play. Instead, it was the defensive side of the ball where Newsome really needed to go to work.
It started with Marcus Spears and Chris Canty. Players who had a combined 16 years experience in the league and 181 total starts. Canty was the really big addition however. He had one two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, and their failures following the 2011 victory over the New England Patriots are still fresh in his mind. Canty will know first hand what the Ravens are going through this off-season and what they are set to go through during the rest of training camp and the regular season.
As much as Canty and Spears were going to help, neither were natural replacements for any of the departed free agents. Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe needed to be replaced. Newsome was able to land Dumervil, a proven veteran, for a cheaper price than Kruger, an emerging young talent with a less certain future on the field, while Arthur Brown arrived in the draft to fit into Ray Lewis’ spot.
Brown is a brilliant player, but replacing Lewis is about more than just playing football. Replacing Lewis requires you to replace some level of his leadership. It will be impossible to replace him fully with one person, but the combination of Terrell Suggs and recent free agent addition Daryl Smith should prove very valuable to the linebacking corps in Baltimore. Suggs is a former defensive player of the year who has learned from Lewis over the years, while Smith has played like an all-pro for years despite being surrounded by mediocrity and a losing culture in Jacksonville.
With those front seven additions, Newsome found the right balance between character, experience and on-field production, but he also afforded himself the flexibility to add a starting safety from the draft and another in free agency. Michael Huff may not be a vastly experienced player, but much like Smith he played to a certain standard in difficult surroundings last year with the Oakland Raiders. Huff and rookie Matt Elam should benefit dramatically from the overall leadership and culture that Newsome has created in Baltimore.
Although Ray Lewis got all the attention for his bravado and overstated approach to passion and leadership, Newsome has proven in recent years and this off-season that he is a massive reason for the Ravens’ gold-standard and winning culture. Because of the culture of the Ravens’ locker-room, it is much easier to buy into the idea of Huff and Elam starting together from day one. The same couldn’t be said about other franchises if they had united there.
158.3 is an obvious number to football fans. If you’re relatively new to the game and have been brought up with ESPN’s QBR instead of the the standard quarterback rating, you should know that 158.3 is the highest rating a quarterback can receive. When it is said he has a perfect rating, that is the numerical representation.
In a sport where the term QB Wins exists as a legitimate argument in support of a player(at least legitimate for a large portion of fans), it’s difficult not to attribute more victories to a franchise’s general manager. It’s not fair to judge general managers by their win-loss record, just like it’s not fair to do with individual players, but it’s clear that Ozzie Newsome is one of the very best, if not the best, general managers in the NFL and he has played as perfect a game this off-season as any quarterback has done for four quarters on a Sunday.
Today’s general managers are under a sever amount of scrutiny whenever they make any sort of move. Without fail, any half-way knowledgeable football fan will have an opinion on every single move they make. More often than not, it will be a strong one. While general managers do make bad moves, some on a very regular basis, it must be remembered that they are not playing Madden. They don’t know every attribuet and they do have a huge amount more to consider than just what the player does on the field.
Respecting Newsome as a talent evaluator is something that everyone can do, but talent evaluating is different from building a successful NFL team and Newsome may be even better at that.