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What 2020 Can Teach Us About NFL Team Building

The Dolphins dramatically improved—even though they weren’t supposed to. For teams that are apparently tanking, like the Jets and Jaguars, the lesson is that there is no one way to build a contender.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, Eagles center Jason Kelce went on a long, detailed, and brilliant rant against the idea that anything other than winning on Sunday matters to players. That tanking is not only impossible, it disgusts NFL locker rooms. It’s sort of an updated and longer version of Herm Edwards’s famous “you play to win the game” rant. I implore you to watch the whole thing, if only for his haircut—the message is also sound.

The CliffsNotes version: Players don’t care about the future of their team beyond that season and all players, even if they are in the middle of a lost season, are desperate to win. “You see a lot of losing teams sustain losses for a number of years, when they have bad cultures. They have cultures where you don’t try to win every week,” Kelce said. He said players never think, “‘What are we going to do in the draft? What are we going to do in free agency?’”

Kelce’s comments get to the heart of the matter of all franchise building. A pure, winless tank is the most direct route to a good player. But probably, more often than not, it’s a bad way to eventually build a good football team. A few days later, we saw Kelce’s comments put into practice when the Jets beat the Rams. The bad news is the Jets no longer have Trevor Lawrence lined up for the April draft. The good news is that the Jets are not so toxic as a franchise that they can’t win a single football game. It would be very good to have Lawrence on your team, but almost no Jets players or coaches care if he’s the franchise’s pick this spring. This is why NFL team building is really hard: A successful, sustainable franchise requires good players and a good culture; and both things are hard to achieve on their own, and nearly impossible to do at the same time. If this delicate balance were easy to find, a lot less people would get fired every year.

This debate reminded me of a conversation I had last December with the people who run the Miami Dolphins. The 2019 Dolphins were so widely assumed to be tanking that, when they started to win games, The Miami Herald had to report that their owner, Stephen Ross, was “not angry, or devastated” about back-to-back November wins. Ross told an associate, according to The Herald, that he liked finding out he had a good coach. The next month, toward the end of a lost season, I asked Brian Flores what it was like to coach a team that everyone outside the building—from media to fans to the rest of the league—thought was looking toward the draft and not concerned about the results on the field. Flores said he understood why people would think that. “But at the same time, to think that these games are meaningless, to me it’s crazy,” he said. “If you think it’s meaningless then you can go down there and run down on a kickoff if you think it’s no big deal.” We spoke before the Dolphins were about to play in what was, on the surface, one of the most depressing games in history—a Week 16 clash with the 1-13 Cincinnati Bengals, the worst team in football. At the time, both teams looked like they were hurtling toward lost seasons, but Miami’s turned out to be a productive one. And that’s the point.

This is a year we learned about team building because teams weren’t supposed to get better this season because of shortened training camp, no in-person offseason activities and limited practice time. It’s true that a lot of good teams stayed good and bad teams stayed bad, but the Dolphins and Browns got dramatically better anyway. The Colts built on a solid roster to get back to the playoffs after a down season last year. The Bills, who made a giant leap last year and another one this year, might make the Super Bowl. All of these teams had the same general vibe: young talent, augmented by smart, manageable veteran contracts and badass coaching staffs.

Is there, I asked Dolphins general manager Chris Grier last winter, a timetable for his franchise? “Once culture is established and players know how to win or learn how to win, that’s when it takes it off,” he told me. “If it’s a year from now, great, or two years, but for us we’re trying to win as many games as we can every year.” Grier said there is no real way to tank in the NFL, and offered an example of a path to becoming a contender: “I think the closest thing now is San Francisco.” The next time I ask a GM to provide an example of a model rebuild, Miami will be on the shortlist of options.

Last weekend, the AFC East changed hands for the first time in 12 years. That’s when the Bills clinched the division—the first one the Pats haven’t won since 2008—and, a day later, the Dolphins beat the Patriots to take another step toward the playoffs. There are a lot of reasons for the Patriots’ stumble: The team lost Tom Brady, they had a number of high-profile opt-outs before the season began, and they have generally been in a bit of a funk. But the main reason is that the division has become much more competitive. The Bills, who are firmly in contention for an AFC title, have been steadily progressing toward genuine contention since 2017, when head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane were hired. Despite making the playoffs that season, they decided, in the name of a longer rebuild, to take a step back. They cleared much of the roster, accumulating a massive dead cap charge of around $50 million in the process; they drafted Josh Allen in the 2018 draft, and augmented an existing core of good draft picks with midtier veterans.

The Dolphins did a more extreme version of a roster purge last year. This is the first lesson for teams following Miami’s example: Take your medicine early. If you have to clear out your roster, do it as soon as you can. The Dolphins had around $65 million in dead money last season. They traded two of their best players to net a total of three first-round picks. No team in NFL history used as many players in a season as the Dolphins did last year. They did not tank, they purged. Like the Bills, they did not need to be bad enough to get the top pick, but they still selected a quarterback in the top 10. They cleared the deck to start building the foundation as soon as possible. A number of teams hiring new coaches or GMs this year will inherit big contracts for players, as Grier did when he was elevated to overseeing football operations at the end of 2018. The key is to figure out what you’re doing, commit to it, and have your lost season as early as you can.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned if you’re a team looking to get better. The Bills rebuild, which started in 2018, was a master class in how to remake a team into a winner. The Browns, of course, at 10-4 and also in line for a playoff spot, are the improvement story of the season. But my recommendation, if you are an NFL team, is not to go on a two-decade odyssey, firing coaches and GMs on a near-yearly basis and finally landing on the right combination to cultivate talent collected during three separate regimes. The 2020 Browns are an amazing story—but their journey is not necessarily replicable.

There is no one blueprint in the NFL: Every team’s contracts, expectations and outlook are so different that, say, the Texans, with no cap space and few draft picks (but an elite quarterback) can’t follow the same path as the Jaguars or Jets, who have cap space and draft picks but a giant hole behind center. If there’s a pattern emerging in this most recent coaching and executive carousel, it’s that a blank slate is better than a team in transition. The Jaguars’ head coaching job is seen as better than it looks on the surface because whoever fills it will have time, a high pick, and a lot of flexibility. So the Dolphins’ two-year process offers lessons, but not an easily replicable how-to guide.

One of the problems with long rebuilds is that the NFL is simply not built for anything that takes much time. A rookie who becomes a star will start negotiating a big contract after his third year, which means there’s a finite time to take advantage of one of the best team-building chips in sports. Injuries can limit a player’s career. Teams can rise and fall quickly. Life is what happens when we’re making plans and so is football. That’s why Miami’s quick rebuild is such a crucial example.

Building a football team for the short term is a hell of a lot less difficult than the long term. A good guidepost for this is FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the NFL Executive of the Year Award, a list consisting of many fired executives like Reggie McKenzie, Mike Maccagnan, or Ryan Grigson. These are GMs who capitalized on some good players, made solid short-term decisions, and had a little luck to help them overachieve in a given year. “For the seven fired GMs [who won the award in the last decade], the average time from winning executive of the year to being unemployed works out to a brisk 1,122 days, or just over three years,” the site said.

Patient building is more important. The Dolphins, with more than $100 million in cap space after their purge last year, augmented the young base with veterans on relatively expensive but flexible deals: Kyle Van Noy, Emmanuel Ogbah, and guard Ereck Flowers among them. Ogbah and Van Noy lead the team in sacks, a combined 15. Homegrown stars like Xavien Howard are paired with pricey free agents like Byron Jones. There are no guarantees in football—the Dolphins might not win big with this core—but the process is sound.