How To Build An NFL Winner: Strong Core vs. Strong Head

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 05, 2013



By Justin Henry (@jrhwriting)
Cold Hard Football Facts' Dr. Death

I consider myself a survivor of the Eagles' "Dream Team". Really, it's just me, the other bewildered fans, and Evan Mathis.

Even though Vince Young's Dream Team declarative is taken out of context by the knuckle-dragging media at large (he said "it's LIKE a a dream team", referring reverently to seeing so many Pro Bowlers and big names walking around at Eagles camp), the bar would have been set high for my Birds anyway.

Why wouldn't it have been? Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Ronnie Brown, Donald Lee, Steven E. Smith, and Young himself?

You couldn't turn off the salary cap on classic Madden Franchise mode and make a better free agent haul than that.

Madden it wasn't. On Madden, the cumulative good player ratings will have you squashing opponents 35-6 left and right on autopilot simulation mode. In that ill-fated 2011, the only squash abound was of the autumn decorative variety, as it was around the harvest season that us Eagles fans were inquiring, "Shouldn't we be, uhh, winning?"

If I'd been as smart two years ago as I am now (well, smart-ER now), I'd know the hazards we were bound to face. Had I not bought into the free agent hype like a giddy wanna-believer, I would have honestly said, "Shame we can't draft to save our life."

Indeed, that old argument. The notion that you build your football team up through the annual college draft, raise some young pups in the same pen. Not only do you develop the individual abilities of those youngsters (provided you're doing it effectively), but you create chemistry among them from working them together.

Breeding that familiarity, along with making smart choices through the draft, provides a rock-solid foundation that allows you to endure.

It's little surprise in hindsight that the Eagles's first three picks of the 2011 draft are no longer with the team. Offensive lineman Danny Watkins (first round) and cornerback Curtis Marsh (third round) were heave-ho'ed days ago, while underperforming safety Jaiquawn Jarrett (second round) was ditched after one game last fall.

As a matter of fact, the Eagles' 2012 season fielded a roster with just 51.2 percent of their picks made between 2008 and 2011 (including the jettisoned Jarrett; it drops to 48.9 percent without him). Only eight teams had a lower percentage. Of those 21 (out of 41) players, Watkins, Jarrett, and Marsh, a triumvirate of terrible, were counted among them.

I chose the 2008-11 timeframe for several reasons:

1) Any 2008 draft picks remaining were likely either extended or re-signed, unless it was more than a four-year contract. All four-year deals from that year could have expired without modification, and a move by the organization to keep those players details a desire to keep them as part of the core.

2) I left off the year's rookie class (2012), as the majority of players would have been signed anyway. I wanted the timeframe to reflect more hindsight than four months of evaluation and player-rearing allowed.

Here's how all 32 teams looked headed into last season (asterisks denote 2012 playoff teams).

 

The chart provides a multitude of mixed messages, so let's go through it piece by piece.

-Six of the eight teams that kept 16 or more of their picks from the first five rounds made the playoffs.

-The two teams of those eight that didn't (Titans and Chiefs) were beset with poor quarterback play. Tennessee's Offensive Passer Rating was 76.91 (eighth worst in the league), while Kansas City's clocked in at 63.81 (second worst).

The other six teams all finished in the top half of the league, with Baltimore ranking lowest of the group (sixteenth best, with a healthy 86.43).

-Four of the other six playoff teams (Denver, Washington, San Francisco, and Seattle) only returned between 9 and 14 of their 2008-11 top picks (first five rounds). However, they just so happened to rank second through fifth in Offensive Passer Rating. As a team, in order, their ratings went 105.34, 102.06, 101.19, and 100.58.

-The other two playoff teams, Minnesota and Indianapolis, ranked 22nd and 27th respectively in Offensive Passer Rating, while returning 12 and 11 draft picks fitting the criterion.

However, their success hinged on Herculean efforts: Adrian Peterson's near 2100-yard rushing season, and Andrew Luck's propensity for comeback wins (four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives). Those are career years; had they merely been ordinary, or 'good' without further modifier, both teams miss the playoffs.

-New Orleans and Dallas returned 10 qualifying draftees apiece. Being as both teams are near the bottom of the chart, this is notable because they were the only two teams in 2012 to have a team passer rating over 90.0 (96.39 for the Saints, 91.32 for the Cowboys) and miss the playoffs.

The Saints defense had more gaping holes than an industrial-sized cheese grater (though its antithesis in lethal capacity), rendering Drew Brees' third 5000-yard season moot.

Dallas lost a number of defenders due to injury and, without a calcified backbone, gave up 28+ points in four of their final six games. The Cowboys were 3-3 in that stretch, losing two to....wait for it....the very Redskins who beat them for the NFC East title on the final night.

Suddenly, wheeling and dealing so many draft picks (the Saints selected just 22 players in four years), or simply making bad choices (44% of Dallas' picks survived) caught up fast, no matter how good Brees or Tony Romo played.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

-You need to draft intelligently, choosing that cliched "Best Player Available" almost every time, and never squander a good pick on a reach. Sounds simple, but it's a trap many times fall into, based on the statistics. Teams like Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, and Green Bay look to continue many more years of playoff berths at their current rate, simply by accumulating good picks that build chemistry as one. 

-But that's not enough. The core can be strong, but if the head is weak, you're not walking far. Tennessee and Kansas City (not to mention the Arizona debacle and Brandon Weeden's up-and-down rookie year rounding out the top ten) prove how meaningless consistent, sound drafting can be if your quarterback sucks.

-You need a healthy combination of both of these qualities. Unless you have a 2000-yard rusher or a seemingly unbeatable fourth quarter QB. In which case, special circumstances can create victories where perhaps they shouldn't have been achieved.

Just for fun, let's take a look at the 2013 chart, and see if it sways our own projections about the forthcoming year (NOTE: if any numbers are off due to a roster cut I missed, my apologies. Hard to keep up this week!)




Seven playoff teams from 2012 comprise the top eight. The lone exception is Cleveland. Could this mean that, if Brandon Weeden maintains a steady keel and avoids mistakes, the Browns could be a surprise playoff team in 2013?

If they are, don't just credit Weeden for having a breakthrough year. He couldn't have done it without the strong core around him.

Together, you could call such a combination a 'Dream Team'. But let's not jinx it.


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