NFL free agency showed opening Super Bowl windows, rather than building dynasties, has become the goal

In a copycat league like the NFL the Philadelphia Eagles are now the team everyone is chasing

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Saturday 17 March 2018 12:43
Comments
Everyone is chasing the champion Eagles
Everyone is chasing the champion Eagles

NFL free agency has never been so big, so glitzy, so celebrated.

A wild week has calmed somewhat now but as much as this is a time of year for teams to retool, it also gives us a window into the thinking of NFL teams. And it is those windows that are key.

For so long it appears that teams have been determined to build dynasties in the image of the New England Patriots, find a top-shelf quarterback, keep him for 20 years and the surround him with top supporting and coaching talent.

But in the same way that trying to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United is, to be kind, naively optimistic in the modern era, there appears to be an increasing comprehension that success in the NFL is about opening up a Super Bowl window and committing fully to it rather than praying for dynastic dominance that is nigh-on impossible to sustain.

In a copycat league like the NFL, bad teams look at what has worked for other franchises and try to reverse engineer success. Those doing their bit of soul-searching now will be looking at the previous 20 years of Super Bowls and noticing that 17 of those Lombardi winners have been helmed by quarterbacks earning less than 10% of their team’s cap. The easiest way to do that is with a QB on his first contract.

Why is this important? Well, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement put into place a solid wage structure that assigns salaries to players entering the league dependent on draft position. It means that if you strike gold in a premium position - quarterback, edge rusher, cornerback - then even an early first-round pick will represent good value. And why is that important? Because when there’s a salary cap, you can only afford so much talent so if you have the most expensive positions locked down for cheap you can divert resources elsewhere.

Doug Pederson took Philadelphia all the way to a first Super Bowl

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are other ways to win. The New England Patriots - in case you hadn’t noticed - have won a gaggle of Lombardis with the ageless Tom Brady but the 40-year-old signal-caller is in the rare position of being able to accept a deal significantly below market value by virtue of already being exceedingly rich in his own right and also having a phenomenally wealthy wife, Giselle Bundchen. Peyton Manning also won a Super Bowl after accepting a cheaper deal to be on a contender as he finished his career in Denver. Drew Brees this week reworked his contract to earn much less than he could have done on the open market and give his Saints a better chance of success.

But even if a couple of plays had gone differently and Matt Ryan or whoever else came away with a ring from their failed Super Bowl tilts of recent years, it wouldn’t change the fact that teams now realise that having a QB on a rookie contract means your Super Bowl window is open, and that window needs to be attacked aggressively.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ aggression in acquiring talent shook up the league last year, leading them to victory over the Patriots in Minneapolis last month and a first-ever Lombardi. It is no secret that when Carson Wentz hits his second contract they will not be able to pay their big defensive stars but that is a problem for another day. For now they are peering through their Super Bowl window and the signings of Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata emphasise that, for them, the time is now.

That model of trying to crowbar open your window and keep it open has been the driving force behind so many of this free agency period’s biggest moves.

The Eagles are re-tooling to go again in 2018 (Getty)

In Los Angeles, the Rams - who selected Jared Goff one spot before the Eagles picked up Wentz in the 2016 draft - binned the doddering Jeff Fisher for 31-year-old tyro Sean McVay a year ago and reaped the benefits. But it didn’t stop there, with GM Les Snead trading, buying and drafting a glut of talent to surround the face of his franchise. Goff and the Rams are clearly slap-bang in the middle of their window and, having reached the playoffs last year, further upgraded this off-season by acquiring top cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, but it has also been interesting to watch teams that were nowhere near the post-season in 2017 now gearing up for concerted pushes.

Chicago have followed the Rams template almost to the letter; bringing in a bright offensive mind to coach up their dazzling young QB, Mitchell Trubisky, and then surrounding him with top-level receiving talent. Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel are all huge upgrades on what Trubisky was throwing to in his first NFL season and, should Vic Fangio’s defensive unit fire on all cylinders and a couple of draft picks dazzle then this will be a team on the rise.

Trubisky’s contract is only 2% of Chicago’s salary cap for 2018. The Houston Texans, who picked Deshaun Watson later in the first round of last year’s draft, are paying just 1% of theirs to a talented QB and can therefore keep together a terrifying defensive unit on their second contracts.

The Bears are building around Mitchell Trubisky (Getty)

Their boldness this off-season has highlighted the inaction of teams like the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who boast quarterbacks on rookie deals but have been left behind by more aggressive and forward-thinking rivals. Then there are teams who feel as if they have everything needed to win a Super Bowl except a quarterback and who needed to address it.

Minnesota made the biggest splash of free agency, in financial terms, by signing Kirk Cousins on a fully-guaranteed $87m, three-year contract. Cousins is supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for a team that now have effectively admitted it’s Super Bowl or bust. Jacksonville might be in the same situation but look likely to address their QB situation in the late-first or perhaps second round.

And with all this focus shifting from the unrealistic dream of building dynasties to quickly and aggressively opening windows, it would be remiss not to note that a great team has been dismantled.

The Seahawks are in rebuilding mode (Getty)

Pete Carroll continues in Seattle but it is a changing of the guard. New coordinators on either side of the ball will find dramatically different personnel under their command next season and most notably on defense, where Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and possibly Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are out the door. Carroll and GM John Schneider crafted a likeable, intriguing and entertaining team that produced years of elite play from unwanted diamonds in the rough. They won just one Super Bowl - coming within a yard of another - but did so by finding potential stars with late-round picks and then coaching them up into elite performers.

The Seahawks, now paying QB Russell Wilson a fortune, couldn’t afford to keep that bunch together. This team will have to be rebuilt around their franchise passer, a brilliant player no doubt, but this has been an off-season to question the things teams have believed for so long.

Yes, winning is easier if you find a top-level quarterback because there are so few of them. But bad quarterbacks also win Super Bowls - see Nick Foles for details.

Cap management and the effective division of resources is more important in the NFL than finding someone to be the face of a franchise for decades. Some teams have woken up to this already, the others that continue to sleep on it can only dream of Super Bowl success.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in