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What is an NFL ‘rebuild’ anyway?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most over-used (abused?) terms you’ll hear NFL fans and writers use these days is “rebuild.”

The Seahawks cut Richard Sherman? “REBUILD!”

The Giants flopped to 3-13? “REBUILD!”

The cable company sent you a payment invoice but it got lost in the mail? “RE-BILLED!”

Okay, that last one might be more technically accurate. The other versions are usually ways to avoid a complicated conversation with a lazy response. The next time someone tells you that a football team is “rebuilding,” ask them to give you a definition of what that means to them. Because it seems to carry a slightly different meaning to everyone and essentially that tells me that it has no meaning at all.

The reason I think people tend to use it so often: it’s because of the implication.

A “rebuild” implies that the current team is bad and that the organization has an understanding that they will be bad for at least one upcoming season. For a lot of its users, the term “rebuild” is just a stand-in for “your team sucks haha.”

That would likely come from a fan of a rival team, but another common motivator for its usage comes from within: the fan who doesn’t want to get his or her hopes up. “I’m afraid that Seattle’s going to be a lesser version of itself because they got rid of three of my favorite players, so might as well parlay the word “bad” into “rebuild” so that it at least sounds intentional.”

Either way the term rebuild really just means “bad”; for the rival it’s an insult and for the fan it’s an excuse. What does it actually mean, do executives actually believe in tearing down their teams in order to build them up, and are the Seattle Seahawks in a “rebuild” year?

To answer the first question we must first clear something up on this football website: I think the term “rebuild” should probably only be applied to baseball, and maybe basketball. I imagine that’s where the term first came to be used and the best background for the word that I could easily find came from the Beyond The Boxscore website.

Rebuilding is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Some investigation via Google reveals fairly sparse use of the term prior to 2010 or so. You get the occasional article like this one, Baseball America’s ranking of Cleveland’s farm system prior to the 2003 season (side note: holy cow, that top 3 of Brandon Phillips/Victor Martinez/Cliff Lee was something else), that use the term in the way we’ve come to understand it today: trading away veterans, stockpiling prospects and draft picks, and planning for the future.

In baseball, franchises are arguably just as concerned with their farm systems as they are with their major league rosters. In the case of teams that have talent-poor major league rosters, they likely care even more about the young guys who could one day save the team. It also means that teams with one or two major league superstars on a bad roster could actually flip their older, more expensive coins into a few younger, but still only rich in potential bitcoins. (I realize actual bitcoins are worth more than potential, this analogy got away from me.)

This hierarchy doesn’t exist anywhere else in the major American sports. NFL teams do not have farm systems, so they are either bad now or good now. There is rarely ever going to be that opportunity for the LA Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, or any other franchise to say to themselves, “Well, we are 2-14 now, but because of the future of our roster we know we’ll be 14-2 in three years!”

It just doesn’t work that way.

You have to be good now — or next year at the latest — and that’s it. That’s it.

I don’t want to get into too many baseball specifics (because I’ve stopped paying attention for the most part) but the New York Yankees have the luxury of thinking that Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, and Luis Severino, or whoever they consider to be a part of their young core, will still be there and productive in 2022. That’s baseball. And I mean, a guy like Sanchez is a perfect example of the luxury of “the wait” in baseball because I remember that guy as an 18-year-old prospect back when I still was following the minor leagues and now he’s 25. The Yankees have had him for eight years and he could have 15 more left in him.

That’s not happening with Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, brand new to pro sports, is only two years younger than Sanchez. The Browns only just found out that he’s one of theirs. They don’t even know if he’s good. And he could be gone in three years.

People say that Cleveland is “always in a rebuild mode.” No. Cleveland is always bad. That’s all that is. They’re trying to get better for next season and the season after that, and that’s it. You can’t plan for 2020. How are the Browns going to plan for 2020? The entire NFL landscape could be different in 2020. Imagine the 2016 Browns “planning” for 2018, which is where we are right now.

Their roster in April of 2016 had about three players on it who are still relevant to Cleveland today, not including the ever-absent Josh Gordon: Joel Bitonio, Christian Kirksey, and Duke Johnson. And you’re going to tell me that teams can plan for 2020? It makes little sense. Beyond locking down a few guys in the hopes that nothing happens that compels you to cut them (which is pretty much going to happen to every player in the NFL at some point), there’s no planning you can do that far down the road and teams know that. Coaches and GMs seeing their colleagues fired for maybe one bad season know that. Coaches and GMs who have been fired after one bad season know that.

So the term “rebuild” as we truly seem to know it, is pretty much only applicable in baseball, for me. Football teams can’t plan that far ahead, so even the Browns right now are basically at point zero for a “rebuild.” I know some will argue that Cleveland has been rebuilding for years (again, they’ve just been BAD for years) or at least they’d go back to the time they hired Hue Jackson after that 2015 season and they started to get rid of all those players except for Bitonio, Kirksey, and Johnson. That this is “year three” of a rebuild that was intended to compete for a Super Bowl in “year five.”

This also coincides with the hiring of Paul DePodesta — a legendary baseball executive who basically helped invent a formula of “rebuilding” during the Moneyball era of the Oakland A’s as GM Billy Beane’s right hand man — in January of 2016 as the team’s chief strategy officer. Cleveland is the ultimate example of what a long-term “rebuild” could look like in football because they hired a baseball guru to move them in that direction, but consider that the Browns still made clear efforts to “win now” from the jump.

In 2016, they signed Robert Griffin III to a two-year contract to play quarterback — and they didn’t just need a “veteran option” because they already had Josh McCown. They never traded Joe Thomas. They hired and fired Sashi Brown as general manager. They kept Joe Haden in 2016 and didn’t trade him when he still had trade value. I believe that the Browns probably accepted that they’d be bad in 2016, but I don’t think they were okay with going 0-16 in 2017 because it was “still a rebuild.”

They never planned to lose 31 out of 32 games and then call it “Good” because they were picking first overall.

Last year, they paid money to Kenny Britt, Kevin Zeitler, J.C. Tretter, Jason McCourty, and an extension for Jamie Collins because they expected to be in contention for the playoffs. Now, what can be more “starting from nothing” than coming off of an 0-16 season? Just because they got Myles Garrett in 2017 doesn’t mean that a “rebuild started at that point” either. Cleveland was still winless last year and now some are calling them AFC sleepers. Why?

It wouldn’t be because of a five-year plan.

It would be because they recently added a lot more talented players. Is that a “rebuild”? What makes it “re”? It’s just a build, like any other team is trying to do. In the last 18 months, the Browns have added Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Zeitler, Tretter, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb, Tyrod Taylor, Drew Stanton, Denzel Ward, Damarious Randall, Jabrill Peppers, Jamar Taylor, Zane Gonzalez, Chris Hubbard, Austin Corbett — this is more than half of their starters and if they don’t make the playoffs and win in the next two years, most of them will be gone by 2020.

It’s almost always that quick.

There is no “good teams” and “bad teams.” You might as well call it “good teams” and “rebuilding teams” because any team that doesn’t win gets turned over. I mean even in the case of the New England Patriots, they change the roster all the time and shed superstars every year; nobody ever calls it a “rebuild” even though it looks identical to the moves you might see bad teams make. Add a high-priced veteran, trade a high-priced veteran, cut a high-priced veteran, watch a starter retire. The Pats do it just the same but nobody calls it a “rebuild” and that’s because:

Rebuild isn’t a process. In the NFL, it is just a term for bad. New England isn’t “rebuilding” because they are never bad.

People also try and use alternative terms when “rebuild” sounds too harsh, like “retool” or “reload” but why the compulsion to use a term at all? What does that do for the user that saying the reality of the situation — that teams are trying to get better for this season or next — wouldn’t do? Again, I find it as lazy arguing.

So are the Seahawks “rebuilding” in any sense of the word?

If you think Seattle is in a place where they aren’t trying to win in 2018, you don’t pay attention.

Schneider said during an appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle on Friday the Hawks organization is not rebuilding, instead calling it a “reset.”

”It’s a constant reset every single year, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “When I say ‘reset’ people are like, ‘Well it’s a rebuild.’ We’re not rebuilding; it’s just a reset. We’ve got some pretty good players on this football team. And there’s a lot of young players that people don’t necessarily—they haven’t heard their names yet.”

Pete Carroll took on a task of perhaps the truest thing to an NFL rebuild in the last 10 years — the Seahawks were terrible in 2009, he and John Schneider dismantled almost the entire roster, and had them in position to consistently win in his third season, winning a Super Bowl in his fourth — and at no point did he accept a loss as an eventual outcome. Not when Seattle went 7-9 and won a playoff game in 2010. Not when they went 7-9 in 2011 with a zero percent chance of winning anything meaningful behind the arms of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst.

I kind of doubt that the franchise now expects to be picking in the top-5 when they have a top-5 quarterback. (Or top-10/top-10 if that floats your boat.) Plus the fact that they’ve retained Earl Thomas despite a high percentage shot of losing him in 2019. They aren’t doing what a team like that would probably do immediately if they wanted to load up for future seasons: release Duane Brown, one of your oldest and most expensive players with no guaranteed money. They didn’t trade Doug Baldwin. They didn’t take any power away from Carroll or Schneider.

“It’s a constant reset every single year, it doesn’t stop.”

And if they hadn’t released Richard Sherman, I’m not sure anyone could even make the argument that they were trying to “rebuild” or “retool” or re-whatever. Yet they released Sherman after an Achilles tear so the timing also coincides with a belief that post-injury, Sherman won’t be able to live up to his large cap hit. They used that savings to pay three or four starters. Therefore, the Seahawks didn’t release Sherman because they were expecting or accepting a worse result for 2018, they released Sherman because they expected it to make them better for 2018.

Seattle didn’t trade Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles because they felt they needed to “rebuild,” they traded him because they felt his presence was not as valuable to the team this year as his absence would be. (They also got in return for not-Bennett: a little bit of cap room, Marcus Johnson, and moving up nearly 100 spots in the draft, which they in turn used to move up a few spots more for punter Michael Dickson.)

”It’s a constant reset every single year, it doesn’t stop.”

The Seahawks didn’t release Cliff Avril because they needed to get younger. They released Avril because he couldn’t play again. They didn’t get rid of Sheldon Richardson either, they just didn’t think he was worth more than $8 million, or he didn’t want to return, but you certainly wouldn’t call it a classic “rebuild” when you lose a 27-year-old defensive tackle and replace him with a 33-year-old defensive tackle. That’s going in the opposite direction of what you’d expect in a “rebuild” situation, right?

”It’s a constant reset every single year, it doesn’t stop.”

I’ve also seen people lump the firing of assistant coaches as more proof of a “rebuild,” which is suddenly a new wrinkle to rebuilding that I don’t think I’ve heard before. In what way do you fire coaches as a way to start from scratch? I would assume that Carroll fired Darrell Bevell and Kris Richard because he doesn’t think Seattle can afford to risk a repeat of last season — that change needs to happen now. That the Seahawks need to get better and get back to the playoffs now. That’s why you replace coordinators. It’s always been why teams replace coordinators. And you certainly wouldn’t usually lump Brian Schottenheimer in with: “time to get younger and try some new ideas from an unknown offensive prodigy.” Despite only being 44, he’s got nine years as an offensive coordinator. Ken Norton’s got 11 years of experience under Carroll and nearly three as a defensive coordinator.

They expect to win now. Almost every NFL team expects to win now. I mean, which teams are clearly not trying to compete in 2018? Not the 0-16 Browns, because new GM John Dorsey expects his players (Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, Tyrod Taylor, etc.) to make Cleveland a winner.

“As Bill Parcells would always say, ‘you are your record’ and you know what? There it is, so that’s the truth-teller in this thing,’’ Dorsey said. “And I’m going to do my darnedest to get Hue [Jackson] players.”

Dorsey had nothing but praise for Jackson, who has been the Browns coach since 2016. However, he didn’t promise Jackson would be back next season.

”I live in the present and I build for the future,’’ he said. “Right now the sun’s out, the tarps are coming out, we’re practicing outside, we’re getting ready to play the Baltimore Ravens and that’s my sole focus. And then it’s also getting familiar with the whole layout and the organizational structure.’’

“I live in the present and I build for the future.” Yes, build for the future. Seattle has a recent history of signing or trading for young players, but those are young players who are good now. Build for the future, but only if it helps you in the present too.

The Miami Dolphins are being picked to finish last by a lot of folks, but they signed Frank Gore, Danny Amendola, Josh Sitton, Albert Wilson, and traded for Robert Quinn. Adam Gase knows he needs to win now.

The Cincinnati Bengals parted with Marvin Lewis finally. Then brought him back. Do you bring back Lewis for a 16th season if you’re rebuilding?

The Houston Texans were terrible last year, worse than the Browns by the second half of the year, but are considered wild card sleepers because of Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt’s returns.

The Indianapolis Colts finally fired Chuck Pagano, but if Andrew Luck is healthy, they expect to compete. If he’s not, they acquired Jacoby Brissett because they view him as a capable starter who can give them an opportunity to win each week.

The Denver Broncos were bad last season and then got rid of a veteran like Aqib Talib but then signed Case Keenum to a big two-year deal because they expect to win again within the next two seasons.

The San Francisco 49ers could have been considered at year zero of a rebuild in 2017. They traded for Jimmy Garoppolo and now are considered contenders for an NFC playoff spot one season after hiring Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.

The Chicago Bears have been bad for a little while but fully expect to compete now, in Mitchell Trubisky’s second season as quarterback and Matt Nagy’s first as head coach.

The New York Giants drafted Saquon Barkley, not a quarterback to replace Eli Manning in a year or two. That’s a move to win now by a team that finished 3-13 last season. They do not consider themselves in a rebuild even though their 2016 “rebuild” of signing a few major defensive stars collapsed into itself after only one year.

The closest thing in the NFL to a “rebuild” as I see it is the Arizona Cardinals. They fired the head coach and saw the departure of all their quarterbacks, including one who was really good. But look again: their offense is loaded with veterans.

Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham, AQ Shipley, Mike Iupati, Justin Pugh, Andre Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Brice Butler, and returning from injury, David Johnson. They drafted Josh Rosen as a future at quarterback but then also signed Mike Glennon as Bradford insurance. They have veterans on defense like Chandler Jones, Antoine Bethea, Patrick Peterson, and Corey Peters. The Cards might be “bad” but in what way are they rebuilding, in the commonly-accepted sense of the term? This is is a team that is expecting to compete. A franchise that would not accept a 2-14 result next season, even if it happens anyway.

In the MLB and NBA, teams destroy rosters in order to rebuild. They strip them of all assets that they don’t see as having significant value in 3-5 years. They cut salaries left and right in order to have money for guys in the future. They trade players for picks and younger players. The Houston Astros did this with GM Jeff Luhnow when he was hired before the 2012 season, shedding players, getting worse, bottoming out, and picking first or second in four consecutive years. You can’t expect to pick at the top of the draft in four straight years in the NFL and expect to have a job by the end of it.

The Philadelphia 76ers were 10-72 just two years ago, but top picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, plus the ability to make player-for-player trades that instantly upgrade your team — a strategy that often doesn’t work in football — helped them get to 52 wins this past season. That’s easier to do when you have five starters as opposed to 22 on offense and defense alone.

You’re perfectly free to call Seattle in a “rebuild” if you want to, but I think the term you’re looking for is “bad” or “worse.” You expect the Seahawks to be worse off than they were a year ago, if not just straight up “bad.” That’s okay. If you are going to use the term “rebuild” though, I’d at least want to know your definition of it. If it’s that Seattle is trying to lose, you’re almost certainly wrong about that. I can’t identify a single team in the league that appears to have accepted a losing season in 2018, not even the Cardinals or the Browns. This is a win now league.

You may not expect the Seahawks to win now, and that’s okay too. Plenty of teams won’t win now. But they’re still only “rebuilding” for next year.

Can you really call that a rebuild?

”It’s a constant reset every single year, it doesn’t stop.”