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How to Have a Plan in the NFL—and Not Mess It Up

There are different ways to achieve long-term success in the NFL. The Ravens, Texans, and Dolphins are examples of how varied those plans can be—and how important it is to not make mistakes.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most instructive quote in modern sports comes, not surprisingly, from Michael Lewis’s classic book Moneyball, which describes one of A’s GM Billy Beane’s core rules: “The day you say you have to do something, you’re screwed. Because you are going to make a bad deal.”

Think of the start of the NFL season as an exam. Some students are prepared for what’s coming, and others wake up, check their phone, and say, “Wait, that’s today?” and end up trading two first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil. We are, of course, speaking in generalities.

The first week of the season is important because we get to see how every team prepared for the season. After Week 1, I’m struck by three teams’ plans: the Ravens, who are perfectly executing theirs; the Dolphins, who have the promise of one; and the Texans, who seem to lack one.

It is simplistic to say that there’s a right plan. The Patriots, Chiefs, and Rams each have vastly different strategies that they’re executing in 2019, and yet they are all contenders. They do share some common traits: a collection of team-friendly contracts, a good quarterback, a general manager who understands value, and a coach who can put it all together (in New England’s case, this is the same person). There’s wiggle room for everything else.

In football, smart teams beat dumb teams. It’s almost always proved true over time. Some teams, like the Patriots and the Eagles, operate like Anton Chigurh, knowing that whatever they seek will eventually be brought to them and placed at their feet. If you have to do something, you are screwed.

The stakes are higher this year when it comes to the importance of having a plan. We just saw what the lack of one can do to a franchise: Last month, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, a 29-year-old superstar, retired, saying his love for the game was eroded by his many injuries, ranging from a lacerated kidney to a bum shoulder. It is not hard to understand what happened in Indianapolis: Luck’s first general manager, Ryan Grigson, spent five seasons doing things like trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson and not beefing up the offensive line. These decisions, combined with Luck’s aggressive playing style, led to the quarterback taking some gruesome hits. Luck never got fully healthy and the Colts’ window for contention with him as their quarterback—which once looked like it would last for a very long time—is now shut.

It is easy for a team to let its strength—a good, young quarterback—become a weakness once it assumes that having such a quarterback will solve every problem. Organizations that have the plan but not the quarterback can succeed; coincidentally, that group might include the Colts this season, who have a stacked roster and a new starter in Jacoby Brissett. But teams with a good quarterback and no plan cannot succeed long term. A star quarterback should not be the end of a process, but the beginning, when the team starts its work to build around him. No one wins the Super Bowl because they drafted a good quarterback. They win a Super Bowl because they drafted a quarterback and then figured out what to do next.

Which brings us to the Baltimore Ravens, a team that seems to understand what it has in second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. The first thing you have to remember about the Ravens’ plan is that they got a fourth-round pick for Joe Flacco, who was last seen looking like one of the league’s worst quarterbacks on Monday Night Football against Oakland. It should not be much of a surprise that Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta understands value—under his predecessor Ozzie Newsome, the team cornered the market on compensatory draft picks, collecting eight more than any other team in the last 25 years. The Ravens plan for the future constantly and get rewarded for it. They selected Jackson in the first round in 2018 and have since gone to work building around him. It might be the franchise’s best plan yet.

There’s a cliché that geography is destiny, and it holds true for young quarterbacks: Their fates are largely determined by which building they end up in once they are drafted. John Harbaugh knows how to maximize Jackson’s abilities; Andy Reid can take an MVP talent like Patrick Mahomes and give him MVP schemes; Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick annually give Tom Brady what he needs to be great. Others are less up to the task, and we’ll get to them shortly.

A franchise quarterback can make some teams lazy, but the Ravens will not be one of them. They torched the Miami Dolphins 59-10 on Sunday, setting a franchise record for points scored, while the 22-year-old Jackson became the youngest player ever with a perfect passer rating. The Ravens are a good example of a team that was excited about their young quarterback and acted like it. Albert Breer reported that Baltimore’s so-called running-game revolution is not what it appears to be. The team did not rip up its 2018 playbook: The Ravens ran some old plays for touchdowns. What was new on Sunday was the presence of wide receiver Hollywood Brown, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, who, as Jackson put it, is “just fast,” and could catch touchdowns. Jackson said he plans on running the ball less this season.

This last part is important. In July, Harbaugh was told in an interview with NFL Network that Cam Newton once ran the ball 139 times in a season. Harbaugh responded by saying Jackson would run more than that and “I’d bet the over on that one. I’d bet the over for sure on that one.” Since these remarks came at the start of training camp, presumably when the team’s offensive plans were already in place, it seems obvious that Harbaugh was hard-selling a bit. He knew that Jackson’s passing would be dangerous. But the running part was what kept coordinators up at night this offseason. During training camp, coordinators told me Jackson’s speed was on par with cornerbacks, and that they had to come up with unique plans for defending him. There’s something beautiful about the Ravens establishing the run with words, and not through wasting plays. The defensive coordinators I talked to were spending a lot of time thinking about how to stop Jackson’s running, and now they have to stop Jackson and Brown in the passing game, too.

The Ravens understood they had an opportunity to win a lot of games with a dynamic quarterback, so they promoted a smart offensive coordinator in Greg Roman, used some subterfuge in the offseason, and shocked the league. Along with Brown, the Ravens drafted wide receiver Miles Boykin this year; last year, they took tight end Hayden Hurst in the same draft as Jackson. The Ravens used play-action on half their attempts on Sunday, and appear to have the perfect marriage of scheme and talent. They have managed to maximize Jackson’s talent and are now poised to reap the rewards.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about the level of competition the Ravens faced against the Dolphins, who appear to be tanking. It is true the Dolphins will be quite bad, but they are not an AAF team—their defense has notable players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Xavien Howard, and Eric Rowe. They were not throwing the game, and even if they have one of the least-talented rosters in the NFL, it shouldn’t minimize Jackson’s accomplishments.

What is unusual about Sunday’s Ravens-Dolphins game is that both teams were executing their plan to perfection: The Ravens unveiled their strategy around Jackson, and the Dolphins unveiled their hope for going straight to the top of the draft in search of a franchise quarterback. I have done a lot of reporting on the Browns’ tank. To pull something like that off, you need to get through a lot of losses like Sunday’s, and then hit on your draft picks—and you need to do it in a timely manner because NFL contracts and careers are short. But tanking is still a sound plan. The Dolphins have been Browns-like both by losing and hoarding picks—they received two firsts from Houston for Tunsil. If you are not going to be the Ravens—with a dynamic young quarterback and the scheme to maximize him—it makes a lot of sense to be the Dolphins.

It doesn’t make sense to be the Houston Texans, the team that traded for Tunsil. Moneyball came out almost two decades before the Texans panicked their way into the 2019 season, but Beane’s comments still apply. The Texans fired their general manager over the offseason and never replaced him. Two weeks ago, they ended the Jadeveon Clowney franchise tag episode by trading him to Seattle for a third-round pick and two average linebackers. They might have traded Clowney sooner when a team could have signed him to an extension, when his value would have presumably been higher. Then they panicked about their protection for quarterback Deshaun Watson and pulled off the trade for Tunsil, a fine tackle. It was, in theory, a noble lesson to learn, especially after Luck retired: A young quarterback needs to be upright. Guess what we learned during Houston’s game against New Orleans on Monday Night Football: Watson still needs protection. He has, it gives me no pleasure to report, a bruised butt:

The Texans’ roster now includes these highlights:

In 25 career games, Watson has thrown five go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown passes in games his team went on to lose. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have each thrown four such touchdowns in losses, but each has played over 290 career games. Watson is the most-sacked quarterback on a per-game basis on record at 3.6, edging out Neil Lomax. The team mortgaged its future to go all in on maximizing its chances around Watson this year, and it will probably fail. Panicking is not a plan. It’s a way to get everyone fired.

Let me repeat this: The Texans have spent three first-round picks and two second-rounders on three offensive linemen this year. Tytus Howard, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, didn’t play due to injury in Week 1. Max Scharping, one of the team’s two second-round selections, is not a starter. And they sent two firsts and a second to acquire Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. The plan is that Watson, with the roster as currently constructed, will somehow eclipse the Patriots and Chiefs. The Texans were, as Billy Beane said, forced to do something. This will end badly.