NFL rebuilds are hard to judge and even harder to do. One of the best ways to describe the perilous nature of rebuilding in the NFL comes from an interview I did with John Dorsey, shortly after he became general manager of the Cleveland Browns. “For a real rebuild, you’ve got to have patience, and it’s going to take about three years.” Dorsey was fired after two.
There are no rules for rebuilding in the NFL—there are so few truly great examples that there’s not a clear path. The definition of a good teardown rebuild in the NFL is that you know it when you see it. It is almost impossible to grade them in the moment except to say the process is sound. A football team that goes from bad to great does so by hitting on evaluations, snagging value for picks and players in trades and free agency, and having a little bit of luck. If you are missing any of these, you’ll likely fall short. It’s overwhelmingly complicated to start from scratch in football: It has the biggest rosters of any major sport (53 players) and is the only one with a position as singularly valuable as quarterback. No professional league with a salary cap has anything nearly as valuable as the NFL’s rookie contract, which makes its most productive players its cheapest. All of these things are hard to get right, which is why so few NFL minds consistently do. This brings us to the Miami Dolphins, whose rebuild is in full swing and who have earned the highest compliment you can give at this stage: The process is sound.
The Dolphins were among the big winners of the 2020 draft. It is not just that they got their target—quarterback Tua Tagovailoa—it’s that they got their identity, which can be hard for NFL teams to do when they’ve torn everything down. The plan was simple: accumulate draft capital, clear cap space, and, at some point, get a quarterback. When I went to Miami at the end of last season, I asked general manager Chris Grier when the rebuild ends: “Once culture is established and players know how to win or learn how to win, that’s when it takes it off. 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. “I think the closest thing now is San Francisco. It’s been three years but it probably got slowed a year by Jimmy [Garoppolo] getting hurt. Maybe that was a two-year deal. Cleveland made a big jump in their first year with Baker [Mayfield]; now they are battling through some stuff. It’s hard to put a time stamp on it because every team is different.”
The Dolphins aren’t at the end of their rebuild—they can’t seriously contend now with the roster they’ve got—but they’re at the beginning of the end of their rebuild, which means they are right on time. To recap: The Dolphins traded young stars Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil (the latter of whom was last seen getting the biggest contract ever for an offensive lineman) in exchange for three first-round picks. They took on the biggest dead cap charge in history to open up space and churned the roster to the point that they used more players over the course of the season than any team in history. Not all of the steps they’ve made have been perfect—Fitzpatrick would have been a great young player to keep around—but they’ve done a lot of things correctly without descending into pure tanking. Grier told me he doesn’t think there’s even a way to tank in football. Just from a practical standpoint, it would be hard to do in a sport where both careers and cheap contracts are so short. Hitting on two superstars in basketball is the end of the rebuild. In football it’s just the beginning. You could, if you desired, get rid of the entire five-person starting lineup in basketball in one season and engineer an entirely new one; that would take quite a while in football.
The Dolphins, led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, went on a two-game heater at the end of the season to push them into the fifth overall pick. They beat the Bengals in the first game, guaranteeing Cincinnati the first overall pick, and the Patriots in the second, knocking New England out of the bye and into the wild-card round where Brady played his last game with the Pats. It was a significant two-game win streak. Even so, the Dolphins were able to snag the player they were rumored to be tanking for all along, Tagovailoa, and they didn’t have to trade up. If Tagovailoa is healthy, the plan has gone perfectly so far.
The team then spent some of its considerable cap space in free agency on the best cornerback on the open market, Byron Jones, who—in a Belichickian build-from-the-back type of strategy—will be paired with a star cornerback on the other side of the field, Xavien Howard. Elsewhere in the draft, the Dolphins added to a young core with first-round tackle Austin Jackson and defensive back Noah Igbinoghene. These are the steps toward a sound rebuild.
When I talked to GMs around the league about building their teams, they often warn against a smoke-and-mirrors rebuild—when a team’s fortunes shoot up quickly and shoot back down just as quickly. It happens all the time: There are only 16 games in an NFL season, and it doesn’t take much to accidentally win 10. It is important to guard against these false signs of progress. After the 2017 season, when Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane—who organized one of the most successful quick rebuilds of the last few years—was coming off a playoff appearance, he said the team was still in “rebuilding” mode and hadn’t yet become a contender. Thinking like this is crucial: The first rule of a sustainable rebuild is having a quarterback. Everything else flows from there. In a sport with literally millions of variables, it is the quickest and easiest way to contend. From there, you need long-term salary cap flexibility and a decent stock of draft capital to keep what you built going. When it comes to rebuilds, I think of what Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane once said of former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who was obsessed with value and the long game: “When I think of Arsène Wenger, I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.” This is how Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, and Pete Carroll think. Not every team has the luxury of thinking this way with their current roster, cap situation, and draft capital. The goal is to get in position to think this way, then make every decision consistent with this philosophy.
There are more questions than answers about the 2020 season, especially as it relates to how teams will get better: The offseason program will likely be canceled in its entirety due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seems optimistic to think training camp will start on time in its normal form, so a team like the Dolphins, who are trying to acclimate new pieces quickly, may struggle. It may be a tough time to be in a rebuild but at least the Dolphins seem to understand where they are on their schedule.
Now, on to the team Grier mentioned as a guidepost for the Dolphins rebuild, the Niners team that just won the NFC and were a few plays from winning the Super Bowl. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, who took over the team in 2017, have become the poster children for how to quickly start building in the modern era. They have a schemelord as coach in Shanahan, and the majority of their moves have hit. They had three years of good drafts, grabbing defensive end Nick Bosa, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, linebacker Fred Warner, and tight end George Kittle, whom they added to previous first-round picks like defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. They augmented the roster with crafty free agent additions like cornerback Richard Sherman and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Both were seen as questionable signings at the time—Sherman was coming off an Achilles injury and Juszczyk was seen as an overpay as a fullback—but they each ultimately helped unlock their side of the ball. The team has continued to earn its reputation as value hunters, swapping Buckner for the Colts’ 13th overall pick just as he was due for an extension, a trade that came four years after they spent a first on him. They paid huge money for Garoppolo’s extension but structured it to be one of the more painless quarterback contracts in the league.
This is the rebuild teams have watched. Most of the league’s top teams haven’t had to undergo recent rebuilds, including the team that beat the Niners in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs did not need to rebuild the roster when Patrick Mahomes entered the lineup—they’d won double-digit games in the three previous seasons with Alex Smith. They added speedy receivers to take advantage of Mahomes’s deep-ball prowess, but the general structure of the team was already in place. No one retooled his team on the fly more than Bill Belichick, who could shift the philosophy of his team from year to year with the addition of just a few players to unlock the parts he wants to emphasize, be that Wes Welker in the slot or a player like Stephon Gilmore as a lockdown corner. The Ravens put together one of the best team-building jobs in recent memory last season to help Lamar Jackson develop into the MVP, but they did so by building on a consistently excellent franchise foundation led by a long-term coach in John Harbaugh and a steady front office, even after Ozzie Newsome’s 2019 move to executive vice president and Eric DeCosta’s promotion to general manager. The smart teams build a foundation and then they keep building good teams on top of it.
The 49ers’ rebuild probably influenced another team as well: the one they beat in the NFC title game, the Green Bay Packers. The Packers are trying to do a unique type of retooling, apparently changing course despite having a star quarterback in place for the foreseeable future. The team selected Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, running back AJ Dillon in the second, a tight end in the third, and then three consecutive interior offensive linemen. They did not select any of the 35 wide receivers selected in the draft. “LaFleur watched his friend and mentor, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, demolish the Packers in the NFC Championship Game with an offensive plan that featured 42 runs and just eight passes,” ESPN’s Rob Demovsky wrote after the draft. “If LaFleur needed a reminder that perhaps he strayed too far from his roots in his rookie season as head coach, that was it.” GM Brian Gutekunst said that LaFleur has mentioned repeatedly in media interviews that he wants the passing game to flow through the running game. The Packers changed the course of their franchise in the draft, much like the Eagles, who selected Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round. If the Eagles believe in Hurts as a “Taysom Hill on steroids” game-changer, as reported by Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, then their offense will change this year and beyond. Neither the Eagles nor Packers are rebuilding, but retooling is a stressful experience for fans.
Leaving aside for a second any judgement on these individual picks, this type of retooling is important and probably saves teams from teardown rebuilds later, even if it hurts the team in the short term. The famed soccer manager Alex Ferguson believed teams had four-year shelf lives before they needed to be shaken up. He said he often tried to disprove his own theory by extending that window but found it to be sound. Harvard Business Review studied his team-building methods at Manchester United and said he created what amounts to five distinct championship teams over the course of his two decades in charge. “We tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly,” Ferguson said of his shelf-life theory.
This is almost certainly true of football teams—rookie contracts run for four years, and a first-round pick’s fifth-year option balloons into a costly cap hit. A team must decide whether they want to give a player an extension—at which point he often ceases to be much of a value—or move on from him. This is the problem for a long-term rebuild: Players at the beginning of the rebuild can leave or get expensive as soon as things start to go well. That’s why the process has to be quick and smart. And stressful. Compound this with a lack of practice time compared to previous generations, which some executives think can delay a young player’s breakout, and rebuilding is a hard business. “There’s no patience,” Dave Gettleman told me about player development while he was GM of the Carolina Panthers. He said teams need to give players a third year to develop. Gettleman was fired less than a year later. There really is no patience.