When I think of successful franchises in the NFL, the following teams come to mind: the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and the San Francisco 49'ers. Since the Rams won their only Super Bowl in January, 2000, the first five teams named on this list have won 10 out of the last 13 Super Bowls. The 49ers are building a franchise along the same lines as the first five teams mentioned. They are moving forward successfully into year three of that plan. What are the characteristics these franchises share that allow them to sustain excellence and success?
Ownership and the front office
Robert Kraft. The Rooney family. The Mara family. The Green Bay Packer community. Ozzie Newsome. Trent Baalke. Ted Thompson. Jerry Reese. These are but a few of the owners and general managers who are associated with successful franchises in the NFL. The stability and business sense of the owners, coupled with the football knowledge and management skills of the GM's, have played vital roles in the continued excellence of these successful franchises.
Coaching and player development
Each of the successful franchises mentioned in this article all have head coaches (and staffs) that would rank among the best in the business. The Harbaugh brothers, Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick would all be considered among the top ten coaches in the NFL. Except for Jim Harbaugh, all have been the head coach of their respective teams for at least five seasons (with Belichick the longest tenured at 13 seasons). The excellence, stability and continuity each of these coaches bring to their respective franchises are a large part of the reason for the continued success of their teams.
The franchise quarterback
One of the keys to building a successful NFL franchise is drafting a franchise quarterback. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are both considered to be elite quarterbacks in the NFL. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are all great quarterbacks. All five of these players have led their teams to Super Bowl victories. Colin Kaepernick is part of the new breed of mobile quarterbacks, who create havoc for defenses, with their ability to run the ball and throw from outside of the pocket. Since the Rams' Super Bowl victory, 11 out of the 13 Super Bowls played have been won with quarterbacks considered the faces of the franchise (Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer being the lone exceptions).
The NFL draft
Surrounding your franchise quarterback with quality players (on both offense and defense) through the draft is a trademark of these successful NFL franchises. Bill Belichick practically invented the draft strategy of accumulating picks by consistently trading down, year after year. Ted Thompson of Green Bay pays little heed to free agency as a means of adding quality players, preferring the draft to maintain his teams excellence. The new CBA, flat salary cap and new rookie wage scale all favor a team building through the draft.
For the most part, the teams mentioned in this article do not create a big splash during the first week of free agency. They rarely do. For them, adding free agents is done on a very selective basis, looking for players that fit their systems (not for players they have to fit their systems around). These teams are cautious in free agency, paying particular attention to team fit and the effect of free agent signings on salary cap space. Some, like Ted Thompson of Green Bay, eschew the whole idea (for the most part) of adding free agents to enhance the building of a team. Yet, none of the these teams are afraid to pull the trigger on a big free agent acquisition if it fits into their overall organizational plan.
Defenses win championships
Five of the six teams/franchises mentioned in this article have won Super Bowls in the past 13 years. One of the primary reasons they did so was the presence of a strong defense. New England, which boasted the number one offense in the NFL last season, did not reach the Super Bowl. The biggest reason for this was an inadequate defense. The Patriots are aware of their defensive shortcomings. It is the biggest reason they devoted almost their entire draft last year to defensive picks. And why they signed Adrian Wilson, Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington in the off season, to shore up their suspect secondary. It is not surprising that all six teams mentioned in this article finished in the top 13 defensively, in points allowed, last season.
Managing the salary cap: the new economic reality
It's commonplace to read about the salary cap troubles of teams in the NFL. Washington, Dallas and the New York Jets are but three of the teams that have encountered serious salary cap problems recently. In the age of a relatively flat salary cap, it has become imperative that franchises exercise considerable restraint and fiscal responsibility in their financial affairs. Signing your core players, while maintaining a competitive advantage, and all the while managing the salary cap, is quite a juggling act, and incredibly complex. The successful franchises mentioned in this article are not among the franchises that continually run into problems with the salary cap. Their fiscal restraint and responsibility are part of what makes them as successful as they are.
Continuity and stability
When I look back on all of the points mentioned earlier in this article, two words stand out in describing what the key is to these franchises success: stability and continuity. Whether it be in financial matters, draft and free agency strategies, ownership, systems put in place, etc. these franchises stand out for their stability and continuity in all of the areas that encompass a successful franchise.
How are the St. Louis Rams faring in THEIR pursuit of building a successful franchise?
August 25, 2010. On this day the Rams truly started building towards becoming a successful franchise again. On that date, Stan Kroenke took over full ownership of the Rams. He had been a 40% owner of the franchise since it moved to St. Louis in 1995. He acquired the remainder of the team on that August date, from the Estate of Georgia Frontiere. Mr. Kroenke is not an Al Davis-type of owner. He does not interfere in the day-to-day operations of the football team. In a fashion similar to the other business's and sports franchises that he owns, he puts excellent people in place and lets them do their jobs. A stable, knowledgeable and committed owner of the highest order.
January 13, 2012. Jeff Fisher agreed to become the head coach of the St. Louis Rams. A well-renowned coach, with 17 years experience as a head coach, and a proven track record. No more experiments with coordinators having no head coaching experience. Instead, a consummate professional, who wasted no time in putting together one of the better coaching staffs in the NFL.
February 13, 2012. On this day the Rams hired Les Snead to be the General Manager. Kevin Demoff had this to say about his hiring (link).
Speaking of Kevin Demoff, he is now in his fourth year as Executive Vice President of Football Operations and Chief Operating Officer. Despite all the changes that have occurred in the last 2.5 years, Demoff has remained in his position with the Rams. He is among the best in the NFL, a wizard at mastering the complexities and vagaries of the CBA and salary cap.
One of the biggest reasons Jeff Fisher decided to come to the Rams was the presence of franchise quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford has had his ups and downs in a three year career. This past season, he showed marked improvement in all facets of his game. When I think of Bradford, I can't help but think of Joe Flacco. The fifth year quarterback led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory this past season, and just signed a six year, $120 million contract. With a weaker offensive line and fewer weapons than Flacco had, Bradford put up numbers that were strikingly similar to Joe Flacco's:
Player Comp Att Comp % Pass Yards TD's INT's QBR Flacco 317 531 59.7 3817 22 10 87.7 Bradford 328 551 59.5 3702 21 13 82.6
The Rams committed to improving the offensive line and adding playmakers to the offense during this past off season. They lived up to their commitment, signing TE Jared Cook and LT Jake Long as free agents, and drafting WR's Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in the 2013 NFL Draft. The Rams also added RB Zac Stacy and OL Barrett Jones in the later rounds of the draft. Although Bradford compared favorably to Flacco in 2012, statistics only tell part of the story. Bradford must step up to fill the leadership role vacated by Steven Jackson. It has come time for Bradford to lead the Rams to wins, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. He is being given the supporting cast that will allow him to flourish, as Joe Flacco has. His continued improvement is a necessity, for the Rams to reach the next level. In the 2015-16 season, I believe you will see Sam Bradford replicating Joe Flacco's performance of this past season, and leading the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Given Jeff Fisher's history as a coach and player, it was evident early on in his tenure that building the defense would be his first priority. He certainly accomplished that in his first year. Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson were drafted. Kendall Langford, William Hayes, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Cortland Finnegan were added as free agents. The defense kept the Rams in many games last season, and were the chief reason the Rams went from 2-14 to 7-8-1 in 2012. The Rams continue to add quality players to the defense via the draft, selecting OLB Alec Ogletree (1st round) and Safety T.J. Mcdonald (3rd round) in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Rams are now into year two of building a successful franchise. They have not yet achieved the continuity, longevity of success, and stability of the franchises mentioned in this article. This will take time. There will be bumps in the road along the way, setbacks, mistakes made, and times when the Rams faithful will question the direction the team is heading in. The Rams are the youngest team in the league, and have turned over 75% of the roster since January, 2012. This team is only a third of the way into a four year plan. A plan to reach the Super Bowl, and once again become a successful franchise. For now, you just have to sit back, take a deep breath, enjoy watching the team [and organization] mature...and see the forest for the trees.