A Team Building Theorem

Peyton Manning

Peyton is not the rule, he’s the exception.

Building a winning football team isn’t about focusing on certain spots, there is no special forumla. There is one formula that, in my opinion, is the only winning forumla there is: acquire the best football players you can and things will take care of themselves*. That seems super simple, right? Elementary, my good man! But, apparently not in the silly season we call the NFL offseason.

*this is completely dependent on having a competent coaching staff and/or Peyton Manning

Once the calendar flips to March, every single NFL pundit, fan and scout lose their minds over one position: Quarterbacks. They go crazy. The QB spot is like a drug, almost like the dopamine of sport. Everyone looooves the QB and that is under selling it. This thirst for the QB position, this desperation, leads to mistakes. It’s how Mark Sanchez got drafted fifth overall. It’s how Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman went in round one and it’s how teams give up bounties for guys like Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith.

This, in a nut-shell is what the overriding football theory is at this point:

It essentially boils down to this: Pass the ball and make the other QB uncomfortable and that’s how you win games. But I don’t think that’s the case. To make my argument, I’m calling upon four case samples as evidence: the Detroit Lions, the San Diego Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.

The Detroit Lions:

They’ve got a #1 pick lined up as their QB and he’s quite good. Matt Stafford has thrown for 9734 yards and 61 touchdowns the past two seasons. They have potentially the most talented WR to ever play the game lining up on the perimeter in Calvin Johnson. They’ve invested three top-two-round picks in pass catchers in four years. And as far as making QBs uncomfortable, they’re pretty set with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley who they spent top-13 picks on and prior to losing him to NFL free agency, they had Cliff Avril as well.

By football theory standards, the Detroit Lions should be the crown jewel of the football world. In my eyes the Detroit Lions poke a pretty big hole in the “pass the ball and rush the passer” theory. They haven’t done anything despite following the new-wave football model to a T. The reason I bring up the Detroit Lions is this: Winning football games isn’t as simple as passing the ball and rushing the passer and having a great QB with a great passing game doesn’t just magically win you games. Which brings me to the next point in my argument: the San Diego Chargers.

The San Diego Chargers:

philip_rivers_009Philip Rivers is funny, isn’t he? In 2009 and 2010 Philip Rivers threw for 8964 yards, 58 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. In 2011 and 2012 Philip Rivers threw for 8230 yards, 53 touchdowns and 35 interceptions. His yards and touchdowns decreased by 9.1% while his interceptions increased by 15.9%. His team also won seven fewer games in the same two year span.

So what happened? Did Philip Rivers the QB get worse? Because it appears the decline of the Chargers and Philip Rivers closely correlates with the mass exodus of talent from their roster. From the start of 2009 to the start of 2012 season the Chargers lost Ladanian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Mike Tolbert, Vincent Jackson, Kris Dielman, Marcus McNeil, Antonio Cromartie and Shawne Merriman amongst others.

What’s my point? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Philip Rivers has slipped as his supporting cast has made their way out of San Diego. The supporting cast matters more than you think unless you’ve got a rare QB like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Rivers is a good QB, they spent a high pick on him and they gave him a coaching staff tailored to him and it didn’t translate into wins.

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks

These two teams have created some serious buzz in the past two seasons. The 49ers have been to one superbowl and two NFC Championship games. And the Seattle Seahawks have had a rapid ascension that ended with a last second loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs last season. Both teams appear to be destined for big things in the coming seasons, but here’s the kicker: their starting QBs are second and third round picks, respectively. Last season Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson combined for 4932 yards, 36 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 904 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. That sort of production and efficiency is astounding from young QBs, but they weren’t highly regarded when they entered the league as day two picks. So, what gives? They have fantastic supporting casts and schemes that fit them, they landed in perfect situations.

As talented as Kaepernick and Wilson are, would they be as successful if they were in Oakland and Jacksonville? Absolutely not. Would they still be good for those franchises? I’m sure they could be but they certainly wouldn’t be enjoying the early success they’re currently enjoying if those defenses weren’t putting them in position to win games, if they weren’t handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore, if they weren’t standing behind Russell Okung and Max Unger and Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and they didn’t have great coaches. Just like Philip Rivers is struggling without Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles and Marcus McNeil.

So what?

Build a foundation.

If you’re a bad team and a QB just happens to be the best player on the board (Colts, Redskins etc.) then good for you, the starts aligned and you’re in a great position to build a team. But more often than not, the QB isn’t going to be the best player left on the board and you end up reaching for a guy because traditional wisdom says that finding a great QB is like finding the golden god of football to come and save your team.

Finding great passers like Matt Stafford, Robert Griffin III and Matt Ryan is really, really hard. Finding great QBs who are great passers but also elevate the level of play around them like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and soon-to-be Andrew Luck is even harder. If you’re not careful, you’ll get caught with quarterback-goggles (the NFL equivalent of beer goggles) and end up chasing ghosts.

For a vast majority of teams that don’t have the luxury of drafting the Andrew Luck-s and RGIII-s of the world it’s a matter of manufacturing good QB play and developing passers. By drafting the best player available (assuming it works out) you’re building a foundation. A foundation that gives the QB you decide to take a chance on the best chance at succeeding. So when the Eagles draft “Joe Rugged, Trench Player from ‘Really Tough School’” this Thursday know that it’s going to improve the roster and help give whatever QB we trot out on Sundays a better shot at winning.

Note, this is a team building theory. This theory applies to teams that are building because as a a team gets more and more successful and the needs become more particular the drafting methodology should definitely shift towards more of a need based system in my eyes. But for a team like the Eagles that doesn’t have many long term solutions on the roster, the only theory that applies is the “Best Player Available” theory.

It’s a simple concept that a lot of smart people forget in April.

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