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Battle of the Blueprints: How to Build a Super Bowl Contender in the Modern NFL

After a series of aggressive moves via trade and free agency, the Rams were all in on 2018. The Patriots prefer to play the long game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I think in the sports world right now, there’s been, whether it’s the tanking phenomenon or the draft-pick phenomenon, everyone wants this really long window, and you can’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, ‘You know what, this happened a little faster than we thought.’” —Kevin Demoff, Los Angeles Rams executive VP of football operations and COO, this week in Atlanta

It happened faster than anyone in the Los Angeles Rams organization thought it would. The Rams are in the Super Bowl not as a result of a teardown or a tank (no, that’s not what they were doing under Jeff Fisher) or a years-long rebuild. They built a contender rather quickly with a handful of strong draft classes, a smart young coach, and a series of aggressive moves that led the media to dub them “all in” on the 2018 season.

This Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams features two of the most interesting, innovative teams in sports. What is unusual is that they have taken nearly opposite approaches to get to where they are. The Rams made a string of moves specifically designed to maximize their window, and the Patriots have stopped at nothing to be window-proof for two decades. It is overly simplistic to say it’s a team that’s all in vs. a team that’s never all in, but it’s not inaccurate, either.

The Rams have made aggressive moves to vault themselves into the NFL elite, the kinds of moves the Patriots would never dream of making. L.A. can afford to do this because it has a starting quarterback on a rookie contract, which gives the team plenty of cap space. The Patriots can afford their strategy because they have the best quarterback and coach in history. It is the short game vs. the long game. Both teams use trades, but the Rams are far more aggressive with them. The Rams have 11 players on multiyear contracts with guarantees above $15 million, while the the Patriots have five. This is not to say that one team drastically outspends the other; the Rams ranked fourth in the amount of cap space used in 2018, and the Patriots ninth, according to Spotrac. It’s just a difference in how each team ties up that money and acquires those assets in the first place. The winner of one game will not act as a litmus test, but these teams suggest that there are two distinct routes to building a championship roster.

“There are multiple correct answers,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week when discussing roster-building. “Ultimately you have to try to find the right mix for your team. That can be long- and short-term because there’s a development aspect to younger players and then with the longevity and productivity of older players.” When you add everything together, Belichick said, the situation becomes complicated. “Usually it’s not that clear. You have three or four options, and you try to pick the right one and prioritize all of those things.”

L.A. drafted quarterback Jared Goff, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and running back Todd Gurley, among other stars. Once head coach Sean McVay had his breakout season in 2017, the Rams accelerated their build heading into 2018. They traded a first- and a sixth-round pick to New England for receiver Brandin Cooks. They traded a 2019 second-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters. They traded a fifth-rounder to the Denver Broncos for Aqib Talib. They signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Last spring general manager Les Snead compared the Rams’ offseason of star acquisitions to the Golden State Warriors. “We’ve seen the Warriors embrace that,” Snead told Sports Illustrated.

The Patriots rarely make such aggressive moves. If the Rams are the Warriors, the Patriots are the San Antonio Spurs, picking their spots and knowing what got them here, namely, a few key core players and a great coach. They play the long game because they can. They hoard draft picks, with Belichick often trading back to acquire more draft capital. The Patriots operate a ruthless style of salary cap management. Belichick dealt Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, two star defenders, before their rookie contracts expired. Jones continued to be a star, albeit an expensive one, later netting $51 million guaranteed from the Arizona Cardinals. Collins signed a four-year deal worth $50 million with the Cleveland Browns, though he has not regained his Patriots-level production.

There is a long list of players the Patriots have dumped for money reasons, a list that added the names Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis last year. “They traded Richard Seymour, got rid of Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy. It’s a long-standing principle,” said Joel Corry, a salary cap expert and former agent. “They are going to play hardball and they aren’t going to chase a player in free agency. Look at what they did with Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Julian Edelman. They just go tell them to test the market.” They also take low-cost fliers on a considerable number of players. Kyle Van Noy and Josh Gordon are the most recent examples in a group that also includes former players like Rob Ninkovich and Mike Vrabel.

The result is that the Patriots sometimes have less talent than their opponent and hope to make up the difference with coaching, role players executing their jobs to perfection, situational football, and a quarterback who solves a lot of problems. Belichick and Brady are the common ingredients in all nine of the Patriots’ Super Bowl berths this century. In Brady’s eight appearances, he’s has played behind 24 different offensive linemen, including seven right tackles. He has thrown touchdown passes to 71 receivers in his career. Remarkably, only defensive backs Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty join Brady in having played a significant number of snaps during the Patriots’ latest run of four Super Bowl appearances in five years.

“The lesson is your head coach and quarterback are very, very important,” said Tony Pastoors, the Rams’ lead negotiator and vice president of football and business administration. “The cast around them has changed. It’s always a different Patriots team. Every year they reinvent themselves. It’s incredible the way they’ve done it. I don’t know if it’s replicable.”

Take Cooks, who played in the Super Bowl with the Patriots last year. New England traded him to Los Angeles after one productive season for the same price they paid to acquire him, a first-round pick. The cost of the acquisition for the Rams was a first-round pick and the $81 million extension they signed Cooks to. He was a highly productive player for both teams and is an example of each of their approaches to roster construction.

The first aggressive move the Rams made, long before acquiring Suh, Peters, Talib, or Dante Fowler, was drafting Goff. They paid a high price to move up to no. 1 in the 2016 draft to select the Cal passer: two first-round picks, two seconds, and two thirds to the Tennessee Titans, but his emergence as a solid NFL starter allowed the rest of the plan to move forward. And there was, like with all of the aggressive moves, sound reasoning behind the decision. Shortly after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, Demoff noticed in the quarterback market “escalating quarterback contracts—not as much for the best ones but for the middle-tier guys.”

In response to this rise of quarterback cash, the team acquired Nick Foles to replace Sam Bradford, who became the highest-paid rookie in NFL history after his selection as the no. 1 overall pick in 2010. Foles’s cap hit in 2015 with the Rams was $4 million. The previous season Bradford cost $17.6 million against the cap. “We tried to do a hedge contract. If [Foles] was great, we’d save money. If not, we’d probably overpay just a little.” Demoff pointed out that Foles did not work for the Rams; he had a sub-70 QB rating in his only year with the team. But the franchise kept searching for ways to find an inexpensive quarterbacks and realized how valuable they can be. “There were so many economic advantages to drafting quarterbacks with the rookie deals. People talk about the assets you have to give up for a top pick, but what they leave out is what you get by adding that salary,” Demoff said. “We probably picked up $50 million over the next four years that we could add to our roster.”

The Rams did not invent this approach. Pastoors compared them to the Seahawks from earlier this decade, who hit on a high number of draft picks. “The key to building around a quarterback on a rookie contract is having the players to actually build it. Obviously, you look at Seattle, building around Russell [Wilson], they had players—Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Avril, Bennett, Wagner. They hit on those guys and knew what they had,” Pastoors said. “We were fortunate to hit on Jared and have Aaron, a superstar. Todd was a budding superstar. We were able to supplement those guys with guys like Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Andrew Whitworth. It all starts in the draft so that you aren’t trying to piece-meal it all together.”

Corry said that the difference between the Rams and other teams who have employed similar strategies, such as the Seahawks and the Denver Broncos in 2015, is that the Rams have pursued high-profile players via trade and free agency, such as Suh and Cooks. “This Rams team pushed all their chips to the middle of the table,” Corry said.

The Patriots, of course, also have an advantageous situation at quarterback. Without Brady, New England’s long game would be sunk. Not just because he is on a below-market rate contract, but because of how well he works with a rotating cast of receivers and offensive linemen. The Patriots build schemes around being able to save money or draft capital. Belichick has spoken about switching defenses because nose tackles became too scarce. Part of the Patriots’ emphasis on different areas of the passing game during the Belichick-Brady run is cost efficiency: Belichick’s focus on inside receivers was due in part to talented receivers on the outside becoming largely overvalued. The tight end position was also being overlooked, so he built offenses around both. Belichick can afford to be efficient because he rarely has competition for the type of player he’s looking for.

There are two things to understand about this particular clash of philosophies: The first is that the Rams, of course, want to have a two-decade-long window, similar to the Patriots’. They are just taking advantage of the set of circumstances that gives them a massive opportunity to win in 2018. “One of the things you hope for, and the Patriots have had this advantage for so long, is that you can build a good program and guys want to come for you for a little less and play for a ring,” Demoff said. “Probably our greatest advantage over the last year is guys saying, ‘I’m happy to go live in L.A., go play with Sean and Wade [Phillips], to be in great weather with a team that seemingly has a chance to win.’”

“The odds are the Patriots will never be duplicated again,” Demoff said. “I think most teams look at that and say it’s going to be an anomaly.”

I asked Demoff, with all this in mind, what he thinks about Goff’s second contract, which would mark a new era for the team’s thinking. Goff, after all, is eligible for an extension after this season. Even if he signs a deal below the cap hits of say, Kirk Cousins, it will still result in a cap hit of over $20 million each year. His cap hit this year is $8 million and would be $9 million next year; there are 14 quarterbacks in the NFL with cap hits of over $20 million. Demoff joked that the team is focused on other things at the moment, but said that the Rams have “typically looked at doing deals after three years,” which would be this offseason for Goff. “I think we’ll look at it,” he said. “We’ll talk.”

“I think everyone’s comfortable that Jared is going to be with us for a long time.”

And so, their long game begins.