Y2K--a Pivotal Year in the NFL
Super Bowl XXXIV (Rams-Titans) was more than another Super Bowl for me as it seemed to mark an end of an era. Almost every Super Bowl champion after this seemed significantly inferior to almost every Super Bowl champion that preceded them. The latter seemed way more talented and far more balanced. For example, the great 49er teams in the 80s were known for their offense, but their defenses were pretty dang good as well. Slowing down the offense didn't guarantee a win, as the defense could keep the Niners in the game, if not win it. They were good in all phases of the game, and this type of balance extended to both sides of the ball as well. Some of those Niner defenses were terrific at the front and back end, and if they were better at defending the pass, they weren't slouches at stopping the run. Additionally, the defense could attempt to neutralize a strength of their opponent without leaving themselves extremely vulnerable in another way. Similarly, while the Niner offense was known for their passing attack, they could and would willing run the ball effectively against opponents. Trying to take away the passing attack wasn't a surefire strategy to beat them. Now, I could say this about almost every Super Bowl champion prior to Super Bowl XXXIV, but I couldn't say the same for almost every Super Bowl champion afterward.
Take the Patriot teams in the early part of the 2000s. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Patriots employed a game plan that shut down the Panther's running game, but that plan left them vulnerable to the pass--so much so that the normally conservative Panther offense almost won by letting Jake Delhomme run around and fling the ball as if he were playing street football. (If not for a terrible kick after a late TD pass by Delhomme, that pass could have been the game winner.) In Super Bowl XXXVI, instead of taking away the run, the Patriots devised a plan to neutralize the Ram's explosive attack. My feeling is that the game plan, more than the greatness of the defense, won that game for them. (And the fact that the Rams didn't run more.) Whether this claim is true or not, the point I'd make is that I've never felt that way about previous Super Bowl champions. Coaching and strategy were important, but I never felt it was the primary reason a team won the Super Bowl. The eventual winners seemed to win because of superior talent or execution, but not necessarily because of a clever game plan. The Super Bowl champions starting around the year 2000 just didn't seem as talented overall or balanced; and if they were balanced, they didn't seem really exceptional like previous Super Bowls champions. Let me put it this way: if I were to list the best teams of all time, none would have played after 2000. In this post, I want to lay out some of theories I've developed over time to explain this, including my observations and theories on the way teams became Super Bowl champions since 2000 and how this differed from the past.
Before I do, I want to be clear from the start about my attitude toward this post: I do NOT think I am an authority on the subject--my opinions are based simply on watching games and reading articles (since the late 70s), not extensive research or data analysis; certainly not an inside information. Indeed, I'm sure there are errors and gaps in my understanding, and I'd be surprised if that turns out be to untrue. At times, the tone of the post may suggest confidence or certainty, but that would be misleading. The purpose for writing is to get feedback about my observations and theories about the way teams have changed since 2000. My hope is others will provide feedback--confirming, correcting or even expanding upon the views I'm about to share--which will hopefully lead to an interesting discussion.
With that said, here we go.
My Understanding of How the NFL Changed after the year 2000
Why did Super Bowl champions after 2000 seem inferior to previous champions? My guess is that rules involving the salary cap are the main reason for this. Around the year 2000, my sense is that the NFL decided to prevent teams from hoarding the best players--with the intention of creating parity and preventing dynasties, allowing more teams to have a chance at winning the Super Bowl. In the past, teams could hoard many good-to-great players, and I would say the teams with the most money and willingness to spend it would have a distinct advantage. As a result, a small group of teams could win over a long period of time, while other teams could spend years without any realistic hope of even making the playoffs. That all seemed to change around the year 2000.
Teams still could secure good players, but if they weren't careful--especially in the contracts they signed--they could get in trouble. In the short term, teams could also end up with quite a few awful players on their roster if they signed too many good (read: expensive) playersl. My sense is that this would commonly happen when a team would (over)emphasize one side of the ball. For example, Altanta might try to emphasize the offense, aggressively pursuing good offensive weapons, but the result would be a bare cupboard for the defense. In the long term, bad contracts could cripple a team's chances for getting and keeping good players in the future. The effect could last for several years, destroying any hope for post-season play during that time. Basically, there seemed to be two options for teams:
- Being really good on one side of the ball, while being fairly weak on the other or;
- Being balanced, but not outstanding in any phase of the game.
Teams could not be good-to-great in all phases of the game; they could not have many good-to-great players in all three phases. The salary cap seemed to make this all but impossible. Again, this was not the case prior to 2000. Teams could be very good, if not great, in all phases, having much more good players on one team than they can now. There weren't many teams like this, but every year there were a few, and one of them would win the Super Bowl. In 2000, the NFL seemed to have decided to end this, creating a whole new set of conditions to prevent it.
The Patriot Way
My sense is that many teams didn't fully understand all the ramifications of these new conditions, and most struggled as a result. The one exception, to my mind, was the Patriots. I'm not sure if crediting the Patriots with the actions I'm about to describe is fair--I'm pretty sure they weren't the only team doing these things--but my sense is that they were one of the first to really understand the implications of the new rules. With that said, here are are some the things I associate with the Patriots:
- The amoeba approach. As I mentioned, there were no truly dominant team, i.e.--a team with so much talent they would be good-to-great in almost every phase. Instead, many of the best teams had some glaring weakness that could be exploited. The Patriots seemed to respond by building a team with versatility and flexibility, allowing them to morph, amoeba-like, into whatever style that could exploit the weaknesses of any given opponent, while masking their own. For example, they could run the ball with power against a team with a weak run defense or employ a finesse passing attack against a team that would have trouble against that offense. They were a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of team. (And they still have this capability.) They didn't have to be great in any area or style, merely competent because the opponent's weakness was so substantial that's all it required. To me, it was a brilliant approach, especially since Belichick was a great scheme/gameplan tinkerer that could make this work. (Note: I do not believe this approach would have allowed a team to win a Super Bowl prior to 2000.)
- Letting go of good, but expensive players. The Patriots seemed like one of the first teams to let go quite a bit of good players, instead of resigning them. (Richard Seymour comes to mind.) At the time, I remember these moves as being somewhat controversial--and at some point I heard the call this a sign of Belichick's arrogance (i.e., he felt he didn't need great players to win). With hindsight, the moves seem like decisions that came from the hard realities of the cap, more than arrogance. Team could not obtain or keep too many good-to-great players--they would only be able to keep a few, so the good teams had to prioritize and choose wisely. Whether the Patriots always chose wisely is up for debate, but the fact that they seemed to do this--while other teams did not--suggests they fully understood the new hard realities.
- Getting more draft picks. I'm even less sure they did this first, but I feel like they were at least one of few to operate this way early on. The approach made sense on two levels. One, it could spread out risk by not putting all the eggs in one basket, so to speak; two, rookies are cheaper, so by getting more younger players, a team could potentially get good players at a low price tag.
- Valuing intangibles (slightly) over talent. Additionally, they seemed to place intangible slightly ahead of talent. If the player didn't possess the right attitude and character (later called "the Patriot way"), the team wouldn't hesitate to release or pass on the player. A team-first attitude that manifested itself in accepting a little less money, rather than attempting to milk the team for every dollar, was a big part of the Patriot Way. And it suggested not so much that the team was stingy or trying to take advantage of players, but that the team, once again, understood the new reality of the salary cap era. If the Patriots were indeed the first team to really do this, the move was ahead of its time.
- Valuing intangibles, part 2. But the Patriots also put a higher priority on other character traits to a degree that many organizations did not, even if they valued these traits on some level. In a way, the approach reminded me more of a great high school or college coach than an NFL one. My sense is that NFL coaches often chose talent slightly over character--because they had to for winning. But since the year 2000, the talent differential between teams--at least the top teams--wasn't as significant. As a result, putting character traits that would lead to a more unified team could provide a competitive advantage.
By understanding the new NFL, the Patriots adjusted their approach to personnel, culture and even on-field strategy, and these adjustments lead them to dominate the early part of the 2000s, as well as create sustainable success afterward. My sense is that over time teams starting catching up, adopting many of the points I described above. Still, the Patriots and the other good teams that adopted similar a approach were still not as good as the teams prior to 2000.
Getting Around the Salary Cap
While the Patriots and other teams managed the salary cap constraints, they never really fully got around them. I want to pause for a moment to consider if getting around the constraints is even possible--i.e., if teams can stockpile good-to-great players like teams did prior to 2000? And if this is possible, how would teams do this now? To understand this, let's look at one key premise of the salary cap--namely, that the quality of a player and the cost of that player would be directly proportional. That is, the better a player, the higher his salary. That's basically true--with two possible exceptions: good FAs with red flags (e.g., age, injuries, off field issues) or draft picks. Both could provide a team with really good players at a bargain price. Theoretically, if a team got enough of these type of players, they could circumvent the salary cap rules.
However, there are problems with these players. The FAs I have in mind are limited in number. Plus, these players have risks, and to manage those risks teams would generally have to sign them to short term deals; therefore, the players could fill a roster temporarily, supplementing a roster, but not much more than that. On the other hand, the draft--and undrafted free agents (UDFAs) could address a sizable portion of a roster, especially if that team was willing to trade away high draft picks for many lower ones. Additionally, teams could have these players at a relatively low cost for a few years, while also having the first crack and signing some to a longer term deal. However, the problem with this approach is the low success rate for finding good players, not to mention great players, in these later rounds. If the success rate was better and more reliable, I expect more teams would use this strategy. But let's suppose the success rate was higher, would it be high enough to provide the team with enough good players to create a roster of good-to-great players? Using a more conventional perspective towards a roster, I don't think this would approach would work--not to the point where a team could have vastly more talented players than an opponent. By "conventional perspective" I'm talking about an approach that defines success by emphasizing whether a player is among the top players at his position. Another facet of this perspective is undervaluing a draft pick that turns into a competent player, but not much more than that. This last point is important, and if it's true it could a significant flaw in this perspective.
To understand this important point, let's compare the nature of NFL rosters before and after 2000. Prior to 2000, my sense is that the best teams had the most players from the top tiers--e.g. all-pros or players within the top five of their position. But I'm wondering if there is one detail that is overlooked: the best teams also didn't have very many awful players that they had to rely on, if at all. Maybe filling roster spots with serviceable players wasn't difficult, whom, while not outstanding, weren't significant liabilities as well. (This might have been even truer prior to expansion as well.) If teams didn't have trouble securing these players, that would mean that the best teams would separate themselves by concentrating on securing as many top-tiered players as possible.
My sense is that this is no longer the case. I don't think teams have great difficulty securing a few top tiered players (except for the QB), but the challenge seems to be filling out the rest of the roster with the best players possible. How could a team do this, given that better players are usually more expensive? Actually, I think the more critical question is, how could the team avoid really bad players in the remaining spots? The first question is closer to the more conventional perspective I referred to earlier, while the second question represents what I think is an important re-framing of the challenge.
Think about it. A team can have many great players, but if the team also has to play really bad ones, the bad players could almost negate any of the positive contributions of the great players. Opponents could and would focus on exploiting these weak players, and that approach alone could decide the game in their favor. The adage that you're only as good as your weakest link seems truer than ever (at least since 2000). Therefore, if a team could eliminate all of these players--even just replacing them with serviceable ones--that would eliminate a huge vulnerability. Of course, if these players were more than serviceable, that would be even better, but my point is that they don't necessarily have to be to make a significant difference.
It's also important to note that what I'm saying applies to the bench players as well as the starters. Injuries to starters are inevitable--and a significant number of starters losing time to injuries is not uncommon. Teams will rely on their bench. Because of this, teams not only need to eliminate awful players from their starting lineup, but they must also try to remove these players from their bench. If a team never has to bring in an awful player, that's a huge advantage. It might even separate the best teams from everyone else. If this is true, then the merely competent players have become more valuable than one would think.(What's interesting to me is that the roster is superior not in the sense of having better players so much as not having any terrible ones.)
This brings us back to the viability of building a superior roster from lower-round draft picks. A team couldn't reasonably expect to turn many of these picks into elite players, but they could reasonably expect to turn many into competent ones. If that's true, using lower round picks could become a key way to build a dominant roster.
To summarize, the major roster challenge I would say teams have to face is a) eliminate players who are liabilities on the field; b) make the non-elite players on the team as good as possible. Building a roster off of later round picks can address the first issue--although success isn't a given--but less so with the second issue. But if a team did find a way to turn late round picks into very good, if not great, players, the team would take a big step toward building the type of rosters that existed prior to 2000. Normally, I would say that proposition is unrealistic, but there's evidence to suggest that Seattle might have figured out a way successfully draft and develop later round picks. It's too early to tell at this point, but if they have, then they could be on their way to building a legitimate dynasty.
(Note: I originally planned to speculate about Seattle's approach to developing later round picks--or just players in general--but this post is getting to long. My plan is to write about this in a second part.)