Editor’s note: Brien is a well-traveled Houstonian and Army Combat Veteran with an extremely wide range of talents and interests including the NFL (Packers), Irish History, and writing. This is his first offering for Houston Sports and Stuff. Follow him on twitter @ODonalsVanguard
By BRIEN O’DONAL
The 2016 NFL season is coming to a close and those teams that aren’t perennial contenders and don’t look to be so in the future are preparing for the upcoming offseason with a lot of questions. They need look no further than the handful of teams that are already contenders year in and year out. We know who they are; the Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, and Steelers. Those who look set up to reach that level are the Cowboys and Raiders. These teams each have two major things in common: a franchise quarterback and their own version of a draft and develop strategy for player replacement (the Cowboys are currently dealing with an interesting take on the quarterback but that’s neither here nor there).
Draft and develop is simply managing the salary cap by targeting key players on the roster that can be signed to large contracts while replacing others through the draft, unrestricted free agency, and cheap free agency. Teams that employ this strategy are often consistently successful because they have plenty of room in their salary cap to keep star players while allowing others who are asking more than the team feels they are worth to walk in free agency. The Patriots are the most extreme example of this, often turning over their roster more than anyone; going so far as to trade away players mid-season before they even hit the open market. This approach keeps a roster full of ascending young talent and allows greater depth across the roster. Those elements are crucial to keeping a team ready to compete year after year.
The biggest component of course is a true franchise quarterback. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson are all quarterbacks that consistently keep their teams in the playoff hunt regardless of the struggles around them. No coincidence that they are still with the teams that drafted them. As for those teams without the star quarterback; draft and develop can be a hedge against it. If star players fill other positions on the roster they can help keep a team competitive until that quarterback can be found. The goal of any team is to make the playoffs. They simply need to make it to the dance. It has been shown that they can do it without that key position but success thereafter is limited. There are only a few examples of teams that have gone all the way (recent ones include the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, 2015 Broncos); however only the Ravens maintained some level of success after that (the Broncos don’t look like they are a playoff team this year).
The Raiders and Cowboys look to be teams in this same mold, built a lot through the draft with young talent on the rise and the look of being ready to stay that way every year. With all that sustained success and now a few more teams looking to join the club, why isn’t every team following suit? If every team followed this strategy I can see two things happening: 1) NFL games could become more competitive overall instead of each year ending with so many teams well under .500 and 2) the free agency market beginning to even out to a level where talent meets value and parity become more fluid.
Yes, teams like the Packers and Steelers have a long history and a fan base to match, but it has been the willingness of ownership and the general managers to be patient through tough times and not hear the screams of the fans. Two phrases that often fit these teams, “if you listen to the howl of the fans it won’t be long till you’re sitting with them” and “be good to your salary cap and your salary cap will be good to you.” It’s these concepts that allow them to let players leave in free agency without too significant a drop off in overall team success. So again, why aren’t more teams taking the more measured approach to roster building?
Living in Houston being a Packers fan with a Cowboys family I see a lot. I lived through the early 90’s when my Cowboys family was riding high. I have been a Packers fan through the Favre and Rodgers eras. I have also been witness to an expansion Texans team struggle to make it onto the big stage. The Packers have been draft and develop for nearly two decades and have the sustained success to show for it (15 playoff appearances in 21 years), although I would like more than two championships in that time. Now I have watched the Cowboys become a draft and develop team the last few years and I see fans excited about a team primed for a long run of playoff appearances.
The Texans on the other hand; well, they have never really been a team that looks like they can compete for championships. They have hit on multiple first round picks and found a way to build a top-tier defense, but I doubt anyone thinks they can do what the Ravens, Buccaneers, and Broncos did. Yes, they have great players; but they can’t find a quarterback and because they draft and develop so poorly there’s no depth and some of their key players are getting on the wrong side of father time and a trainer’s table. It’s about time they looked at finding a better way to manage the salary cap with young talent and build a team with young depth across the board. Being patient with this strategy could help them wait out their current quarterback fiasco and maybe keep them from bottoming out again like 2013. This applies to any other team willing to be patient with their players.
One last item: I recently had a conversation with a friend about the Cleveland Browns. After making so many draft trades last year and signing to the roster everyone they did select, people had no idea what to make of the new management. Despite being winless they are seen as a hard fighting team missing only a few key pieces (namely quarterback). With what looks like potentially two top 10 draft picks and a slew of other early rounders they could be ready to load up on young talent. If they stay patient, like what it appears they are doing by stomaching an 0-16 season, they can begin to raise form the ashes a once great franchise. Time will tell.