The NFL offseason is in full swing. The memories of the most dramatic Superbowl in recent times have started to fade away (unless you’re a Falcons fan). The Scouting Combine has transformed unknowns into household names. New mock drafts, player profiles, and scouting reports are published daily.
The offseason is a time filled with hope which after all is the NFL’s number one commodity. Every year the NFL reminds us of how many new teams made the playoffs. Eli’s Giants slaying Goliath (twice) is forever etched in our minds. The Narrative Industrial Complex keeps us coming back with the idea that our team could be next. With a couple good drafts and a little good fortune, our team could be the next Cinderella story.
That hopes is what drives our relentless fascination with the “underwear Olympics” and the draft and OTAs and training camp and on and on it goes. The relentless year-round spectacle is designed to make us believe our team has a chance. Are they lying to us? Does every team really have a chance? What do contending teams look like? That final question is what I hope to answer.
What do contending teams look like?
In January of last year, Zach Moore from www.overthecap.com posted data from a research project in which he studied the past 21 Superbowl champions (1994-2014). A cursory look at his data reveals an unsurprising truth: well-balanced teams have one the vast majority of Superbowls in recent years. If we add the Superbowl champions from 2015 and 2016 to Zach’s data, only 6 of the past 23 Superbowl champions were ranked outside of the top 10 in points scored during their Superbowl winning season and only 5 of the past 23 champions were ranked outside of the top 10 in points allowed. Before #TeamWellActually starts pouring through this data for inconsistencies, please note I do not believe merely winning the Superbowl classifies a team as a contender or positions a franchise for long-term success.
The ability to attain success is but the first part of the journey to becoming a contender. Sustaining success is what separates the great franchises from the rest of the league. Since 1994, 24 teams have made the Conference Championship round of the NFL playoffs. In the past ten seasons, 18 teams have made the Conference Championship round. With more than half the league making a deep playoff run in the last decade of play, Goodell and Co. have the ammunition needed to make us believe. Unfortunately, when we take a closer look the veneer of hope begins to lose its luster.
Warning: Arbitrary Segmentation Incoming!!!
In the past 23 seasons, only seven franchises have reached the Conference Championship round more than four times. In the past ten seasons, only five franchises have made it three times or more. In the past five seasons, six franchises have made the Conference Championship round two or more times – San Francisco (2), Green Bay (2), Atlanta (2), Seattle (2), Denver (2), and New England (5).
Let’s take a closer look at how these six recent contenders were built:
Ok, I lied. We’re not going to spend any time discussing San Fran. They were good. Harbaugh left. Their players retired. They are picking second in this year’s draft. Let’s move on.
Green Bay is another team on this list we won’t spend too much time talking about. The Packers are imposters. I say this not (only) because they’re our most hated rival but also because they are not a great football team. The Green Bay Packers have Aaron Rodgers and that about sums it up. Rodgers makes an otherwise unspectacular offense outstanding while helping to mask what has been a largely average defensive unit.
In the six seasons since Rodgers and second ranked Packers D won the Superbowl, Dom Capers’ unit has an average rank of 17th for points allowed. On the one hand, Rodgers is one of the most talented QBs of all-time and it’s awful dealing with him in our division every year. On the other hand, Rodgers’ brilliance is seemingly keeping him surrounded by mediocre coaches and a GM without the will to optimize the roster around him.
I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see Atlanta on this list. I should probably pause here to admit that I’m likely biased to expect nothing but the worst from Atlanta sports after living there for most of my formative years. With that completely unnecessary trip down memory lane out of the way, let’s dig into how Atlanta built itself into a contender.
The Atlanta’s turnaround can be traced back to the 2008 NFL Draft in which they acquired Matt Ryan. The Falcons found their franchise QB and changed their fortunes immediately. For all intents and purposes, Atlanta took a roster that went 4-12, subtracted Joey Harrington, added Matt Ryan, won 11 games in 2008, and continued on to make the playoffs in four of Ryan’s first five seasons (no I will not add context by talking about what happened in 2007).
Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff traded the world for Julio Jones in 2011 which nearly helped to propel the team to the Superbowl in 2012, but the loss of draft capital also contributed to Falcons winning a mere ten games in the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined. Mike Smith was fired after the 2014 season. Dan Quinn was hired. Dimitroff and Quinn aggressively added early round defensive talent which helped to open Atlanta’s current window to contend.
The foundation for Seattle’s current run of dominance was laid in 2010 when they hired Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Schneider then drafted Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, and Kam Chancellor in the 2010 NFL draft and traded for Marshawn Lynch early in the season. The 2010 Seahawks went 7-9, won their division, beat the Saints in the playoffs, and brought Beast Modeinto all of our lives. Schneider added Richard Sherman, KJ Wright, Byron Maxwell, and Malcolm Smith in the 2011 draft before truly striking gold with Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson in 2012.
Russell Wilson is the piece that truly turned the Seahawks into Superbowl contenders. While the narrative around Wilson is that Seattle won early in his career because of defense and Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks (with Marshawn Lynch and a solid defense) were ranked 23rdin points scored in 2010 and 2011. The season Russell Wilson became the Seahawks starting quarterback, they became a top 10 scoring offense. They went on to repeat this feat for four season, have made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, have been to two Superbowls, and have won one Superbowl title.
John Elway was hired, Von Miller was drafted, and a contender was born. After the additions of the Elway in management and Miller on the field, the 2011 Broncos doubled their win total from 2010 and moved from worst to first in the AFC West. Elway knew the 25th ranked scoring offense led by Tim Tebow was unlikely to get the Broncos to the Superbowl and he went all-in to win the Peyton Manning sweepstakes in 2012.
Peyton Manning transformed the Broncos offense into a unit which ranked no less than second in scoring in his first three seasons with Denver. During each year of the Manning era, Denver ranked in the top 10 in points differential and never finished worse than third in yards differential. In an ironic turn of events, Denver won the Superbowl in Manning’s worst statistical season as a professional quarterback in 2015. Manning retired after the Superbowl win which ushered Denver into
Osweiler/Siemian/Lynch era, a third place finish in the division, and their first time missing the playoffs since the 2010 season.
After their second loss to the Giants in the Superbowl, Belichick began building Patriots 3.0 to retool for this iteration in their never-ending run of dominance. New England made the 2011 Superbowl but their scoring defense was uncharacteristically average ranking 15thoverall. While Brady deservedly gets a lot of credit for New England’s success, their scoring defenses has ranked in the top 10 during the most successful years of their dynasty’s run. Belichick double dipped in round one of the 2012 NFL by selecting Don’t’a Hightower and Chandler Jones and his first pick of each draft since has been a defensive player. Belichick and the Patriots are basically the anti-Packers in the aggressive manner in which they look to optimize their roster around Brady which is why they’ve made it to Conference Championship or the Superbowl in each of the past five years.
What does it all mean?
My first observation is a very obvious one: teams with strong offenses and strong defenses are most likely to be contenders. The next observation is probably just as obvious: the best way to sustain high-level offense is have a top 10 quarterback. San Francisco’s brief run was kicked off by upgrading from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at the peak of his powers. Aaron Rodgers by sheer virtue of his brilliance keeps Green Bay in the conversation. Matt Ryan with great weapons and a solid defense is good enough to win (consistently?). Russell Wilson’s off the charts passing efficiency transformed Seattle into perennial contenders. Peyton Manning paired with Denver’s defense created a window that slammed shut when Father Time escorted Peyton out of the club. Tom Brady continues to run NE’s offense like a well-oiled machine while Belichick reinforces the defense and offensive line to keep him protected.
This bring me to a quick look at our Minnesota Vikings. Mike Zimmer’s arrival transformed our defense from last place doormats to consistent top 10 unit. This ever-ascending unit is solid but has not yet reached the levels of Seattle or Denver at their peaks. The Minnesota offense is another story altogether. The Vikings have not had a top 10 scoring offense since 2009 and have only had an above average scoring offense twice since Farve’s magical season. With the jury still out on Sam Bradford’s ability to be a consistently above average QB, Minnesota cannot afford to settle at the position and must invest heavily on the offensive side of the ball in the draft, via waivers, trade market, and free agency. San Francisco, Green Bay, and New England each acquired their QBs while an established starter was entrenched and Seattle drafted Russell Wilson after signing Matt Flynn to a big free agent contract. Minnesota must continue to build around Sam Bradford but must not shy away from bringing in competition via the draft or trade if the opportunity presents itself. Minnesota has half the ingredients required to be a contender because of Mike Zimmer’s defense but unless the offense takes a huge leap forward, the Vikings will continue to be a franchise mired in mediocrity worshiping at the NFL’s altar of false hope.