Spare Parts
Issue   |   Tue, 11/27/2012 - 23:30

Back when the NFL locked out its players, the NFL Players’ Association emphasized that theirs was a union looking out for every NFL player, not just the superstars. To their point, they explained that on average, a player who tries out for an NFL roster has a career that lasts all of 3.3 years. Clearly, longevity is tough to bottle up in the NFL. Opportunities are fleeting, perhaps most constrained by the chance that the next hit, the next missed play, or the next loss could dismantle a team.

With revolving doors at every level, how do NFL teams plan for success? It’s simplistic of course to assume that success in the NFL could be wholly pinned down under either approach. But teams spend countless hours each year scouting players, interviewing coaches and tinkering with schemes, all in the hopes of getting over the proverbial hump. And that’s to say nothing of the millions of dollars teams spend signing free agents, in pursuit of the fabled missing piece. A changing of the guard at the top is exceedingly rare: owners, and the management teams they put in place, are in it for the long haul. So every season that results in failure should at least reveal one more piece of the puzzle for the blueprint to success in the NFL. Few organizations, however, have a track record that bears this out.

Last year, there were six NFL head coaches with at least one championship to their names. Only two of those men have won multiple championships for the team that currently employs them: Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots and Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants. Recent Super Bowl losses to the Giants notwithstanding, Belichick’s track record in New England is unparalleled. His teams have always finished with winning regular-season records since he took over in 2001, and he has three rings in five trips to the Super Bowl during that time to show for it.

To key in on Belichick’s success, we need to understand how the Patriots have won their games. For starters, let’s take a look at the difference between the points the team scored and the points they allowed, a statistic called point differential. Since 2003 (excluding the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win), the Patriots haven’t ranked worse than 13th in the NFL in terms of point differential. In fact, if we exclude 2005, the Patriots have never been worse than sixth. So, as we would have expected, the Patriots have outscored their opponents. But that alone tells us little about how they’ve managed to win so consistently.

But consider this: between last weekend and 2003, the Patriots defense ranked no worse than 17th in the NFL in points allowed per game. During that 10-year span, the Patriots were among the league’s top five stingiest defenses, points-wise, five times. Unsurprisingly, the Patriots offense has also done well for itself, never ranking worse than 13th in the league in points per game during the same period. Furthermore, the Patriots have never been stuck in both an offensive and defensive rut in the same year — they’ve never bottomed out. In every year except 2005, the Patriots have had either their defense or their offense ranked among the NFL’s top eight in terms of points per game.

So when we say that the Patriots have always been excellent at outscoring opponents, we know it’s because either their offense or their defense was consistently much better than the NFL average. Intuitive as this may seem, achieving this is no small feat. The elephant in the room is that the NFL makes sustainable success difficult: teams adapt to coaching strategies; successful players become superstars with unaffordable contracts; teams with the least success are awarded the highest draft picks in the draft each year. Winning, in other words, makes it all that much harder to win again. In the NFL, success breeds failure.

So how have the Patriots managed their consistency? Offensive statistics can again provide a clue. Let’s start with the running game, where the Patriots have seen their success vary wildly. In terms of rushing yards per game, they’ve ranked everywhere from 27th to sixth in the past 10 years. And throughout, they’ve never really had a transcendent running back. And yet, absent a star, the Patriots have managed a respectable ground. For proof, we need look no further than the team’s leading rusher this season, Stevan Ridley, who was a third-round pick in 2011. In his final and only season as the featured back at LSU, Ridley averaged 4.6 yards per carry. He’s averaging the same number this year with the Patriots, who rank sixth in the league in rushing.

So if the running game isn’t where the Patriots have had to sacrifices, then it has to be receiving, right? Here again, the Pats have used replaceable parts. Wes Welker, who does have superstar-level production, has been unable to collect a long-term deal from the team. Back in 2008, when the Patriots lost quarterback Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury, they made it work with Matt Cassel calling the shots. The Patriots drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005, despite his not having started a game in his college career. If you have any doubts about the Belichick magic, Cassel’s performance in Kansas City (the team the Patriots eventually traded him to) should be telling.

For Belichick and the Patriots, success is parts- but not personnel-specific. The Patriots attitude can perhaps best be summed up by one of their former Super Bowl MVP’s, wide receiver Deion Branch, who began his career with the team in 2002. A few weeks ago, the Patriots picked up cornerback Aqib Talib, a former first-round pick who’s litany of off-field troubles cost him a job in Tampa Bay. Of the decision to sign Talib, Branch said: “We know Coach Belichick and his staff and the organization always… put the team first, and do whatever it takes to help improve the team.” A few weeks later, the Patriots cut Branch from their roster to make room for Talib.

The clincher of course is that, idiosyncratic sideline gear aside, Belichick might be most famous for motoring through the rest of the league with a player nearly every team deemed a spare — a sixth-rounder named Brady.