How NFL Teams Get In Line For The Future
In the NFL, it’s very, very hard to win. Winning a game, winning two games in a row, winning consistently over the course of a season, winning over the course of multiple seasons – it’s fucking hard. The margins are slim. Referees can make enough bad calls to kneecap your team in a game. There are many structures in place, like the salary cap, that hold you back when you're taking a step forward.
The league is also like the kind club where everybody knows everybody and everybody has worked with everybody and everybody has learned from everybody. In those situations, everybody tends to do the same things as everybody else. And when everybody does what everybody else does, everybody finds it consistently hard to be better than everybody else. The NFL Draft is a great example, which has proven to be an incredibly consistent vetting market for talent. That’s because teams have optimized the process, from scouting to trading picks to when to send the intern for coffee between choices.
The point being that to win in the NFL, teams have to go deeper. They have to look passed the often binary arguments made in the media or the public, arguments like, ‘We need a better pass rush.’ Or ‘We can’t win on the road.’ Teams have to analyze how salary cap rules are changing, the short-term and the long-term impact of that. Teams have to recognize the trends in how college players are being coached. Then, teams have to be creative and project just what all of that could mean two- or three- years from now. To win, you need to have a plan.
It’s why teams like the Patriots are successful year-to-year. Yes, they have Tom Brady. Yes, he is hugely responsible. But he’s also been playing on teams that continually innovate and give him new pieces to play with, more advantages. In 2008, the Patriots were on the cutting edge of the passing meta game trending towards spreading the field. A couple years later, they took advantage of teams looking to keep up with the spreading of the field on defence and built their offense around two stud tight ends. The Pats keep ahead of the curve.
This is why teams like the Browns have been losers for years. They can’t get out of their own way long enough to even see one season into the future, let alone see any kind of trends. Because they fire coaches and General Managers frequently, often multiple times within the normal cycle given to a GM or coach. They'll hire a coach before they hire a GM and then draft a young QB because they think they have to then start him, ignoring that the roster is no state to help the kid and the coaches aren't either. The young QB falters, the team fires the OC mid-season, and then the team fires the coach one season into a four-year deal (thus owing them money) but not before re-shuffling the front office to handicap the GM. Then they expect to be competitive the next season.
It's organizational mistake like these that the Chicago Bears have been one of the worst teams since the start of the decade.
Since 2010, the Bears have had three different head coaches. They just hired their fourth on Monday, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, Matt Nagy. Lovie Smith (prior to 2010, Smith was very successful. After then, not so much), Marc Trestman, and John Fox all failed. They have had six offensive coordinators in that span (none lasting more than two seasons) and three defensive coordinators. One constant among all three of them has been quarterback Jay Cutler. But even the one season after Cutler was shipped out, the Bears stunk.
Except, despite just firing their head coach - again - for the first time in a long time, the Chicago Bears may just be set for a sea of change.
It all began with the hiring of Ryan Pace. But the reboot didn’t start immediately. Pace came into a situation where ownership had already begun a coaching search. When John Fox hit the market, the McCaskey family and president Ted Phillips loved him and wanted him. Pace, hardly with the team long enough to remember where the washrooms were, accepted this and hired Fox.
At this point, Pace was stuck. He had inherited a bad team. A bad, old, costly team. A bad, old, costly team with a QB who was so hot-and cold-as to be perfectly average (with a bad contract). And he had now just hired a veteran coach, a guy who had recently been to the Super Bowl, who wasn't going to be excited about a rebuilding project. Philosophically, Pace has displayed a belief in having an open, positive culture built on communication. He could butt heads with Fox, say no more than yes, and continue the dysfunctional culture that Trestman and former GM Phil Emery left. Or he could work with Fox, see out the Cutler contract, and continue to look to the future. He chose the latter.
But this had a consequence. It meant delaying his plan. A plan which, at that point, had two of its major moves already nixed. He couldn’t pick the coach he wanted. Neither could he have the QB he wanted. Pace had no choice but to keep Cutler to appease Fox, to give the veteran coach used to winning the tools to win. The two biggest pieces in Pace’s plan would have to wait. In the meantime, he would look ahead and put all the pieces in place for the moment he could make those two big decisions.
Pace's plan of rebuilding the team had many parts to it, but one was how he handled free agency. Many pundits have cracked him for some of his moves, and rightfully so. In a vacuum, some of his signings haven’t panned out - see Royal, Eddie and Glennon, Mike. But many of his free agent deals have been one-year deals – like Prince Amakamura, Akiem Hicks (who has since re-upped), and Kendall Wright. Or the deals have been similarly short-term, such as three year deals for Royal, Jerrell Freeman, and Bobbie Massie. The question is whether Pace needed them to pan out right away or if he was betting on the windfall should they pan out in the near future. For example, hitting on a short-term signing like Hicks is well worth it if you otherwise could have walked away from the contract quickly.
Many of the latter have been heavily front-loaded deals, too, like Glennon (who they get 11 million in savings if they cut pre-June 1). Meanwhile, the guys who they signed for longer terms all made sense as pieces to bank on. Pernell McPhee was a younger building block who has been derailed by injuries while Danny Trevethan is both in his prime and very good.
Even the free agents he let walk away, like Alshon Jefferey, have been calculated. Jefferey was aiming for a contract close to his franchise tag salary, at $17 million. Today, after starting on a one-year deal with the Eagles and after signing an extension, Jefferey isn't going to make nearly that much - just over $2-million less, in fact, at $14,725,000. That would make him the highest-paid Bears player.
All this had the effect of rolling back cap space, not committing long-term money to pieces that were not going to be part of a long-term plan, and put the club in a position to make big moves at the right time. As in, free-agency 2018.
Then were Pace's drafts. They have steadily improved. He's got in place building block players like Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Kwiatkoski, Jordan Howard, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Adam Shaheen, and Mitchell Trubisky. Some of his picks haven't panned out - like Jeremy Langford or Hroniss Grasu - but those misses haven't been devastating because they either were beat out by other draft picks or have contributed to roster depth. The big miss, Kevin White, is one derailed by the Anton Chiguhr, harbinger of fate: injuries.
Now this off-season, with the team putting together another disappointing year, Pace finally had the moment to put the last pieces of hjis plan in place, the most important part: picking his own head coach.
A head coach is everything in the NFL. Even before X's and O's, a head coach represents the tone and culture of a locker room. If the coach is steady, the locker room stays calm. If the coach is meek, the locker room becomes chaotic. Say what you will about Fox's aptitude for winning games, but he undoubtedly had control over his locker room.
Pace had been waiting three years to pick his guy. And he did, hiring Nagy, moving with a certainty that points to a man with a plan. He knew what kind of traits he was looking for. He may have known so well and done his research so extensively, that he knew which guy he wanted before he even interviewed him - like when he took Trubisky. Even Nagy's first hire, ex-Oregon HC Mark Helfrich, is a nod towards the forward-thinking nature of the organization now.
Pace was working to align everything at the right time. It appears like he is now in the position to apply his vision fully. A young roster without too much money invested in future assets, a QB he wanted, and a head coach at the forefront of league trends to corral them all. That Pace has managed to do this over three years - burdened with a conservative head coach used to success and a veteran, moody QB - without making it look like he firebombed the place, is impressive.
This doesn’t mean the Bears will be winners - far from it. It’s simply an acknowledgment that for once, it seems there is a plan. Not just a plan to fill gaps on a roster during an off-season, or a plan to find an offensive coach who can get the best out of Jay Cutler or a plan to fix a defence to snag more takeaways. For once, they are doing what successful organizations do. For once, there is hope.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster