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NFL Rebuilds: Part 1 (What Rebuilds Really Look Like)

A lot of fans and pundits like to talk about “rebuilds” in the NFL, but what do these projects actually look like? Instead of looking at individual efforts, this series is going to look at what actually happens when teams take on new general managers.

NFL: AUG 14 Preseason - Dolphins at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rebuilds in the NFL are tricky. The league has a number of means of enforcing parity, but while the draft system is a huge advantage to a struggling team, the salary cap means that a team locked into bad contracts might need years to reset. Every so often, though, ownership tears off the bandage, fires a GM, and tries to get back into the mix of relevant teams.

Not every team actually needs to be “rebuilt”, even if there is a change at general manager, however. As a case in point, when Brian Gutekunst took over as the GM of the Green Bay Packers, the team had won 17 of their last 32 games (with a playoff run only two seasons before), had a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, and had a number of solid players in place. After a brief hiccup, the team returned to winning. How is that a rebuild? It’s more of a reset. Even Phil Emery’s replacement of Jerry Angelo in Chicago (17-15 in the prior two seasons) or David Gettleman’s transition to the New York Giants (a playoff run two seasons prior) are tough to characterize as true rebuilds.

Since 2011 (when the new CBA’s rookie wage scale substantially altered how struggling teams could allocate their cap), there have been 30 times that an NFL team changed its general manager after a losing streak—defined here as either a sub-50% record the season beforehand or a sub-50% record across the two seasons beforehand without a playoff run either time. Those seem like the candidates for what might be called rebuilds. That rules out Chris Ballard taking over the Colts and Reggie McKenze taking over the Raiders, as both teams had gone 8-8 each of the prior two seasons. In this group, there are two “interim” GMs (either officially or functionally) who only received a single year and two more GMs who have only had a year to work, so far. They can safely be excluded as well.

The remaining 26 teams had just over 10.5 mean wins across the prior two seasons (and the median team would also be at 10.5 wins across the two prior seasons). The worst team of this group would be the version of the Cleveland Browns built by Sashi Brown and entering into the care of John Dorsey, having gone 1-31. The best team would be the Miami Dolphins of 2014, since Dennis Hickey’s new team had gone 15-17 the two seasons before. The disparity between these extremes means that I will be tracking the entire group as a whole and subgroups on either side of the 10.5-win divide separately, just to be as transparent as possible. Teams with better records prior to the transition will be classified as minor rebuilds, whereas those with more ground to make up will be classified as major rebuilds.

Two-Year Markers

At the two-year mark, the rebuilds are in general going well, but these teams aren’t threatening to take over the NFL. On average, these teams have added just over 1.5 wins per season (the first 32 games under new management saw +3.1 wins more than the 32 games prior to new management). Sashi Brown’s 2016-2017 run that saw Cleveland fall from 10 wins to 1 win really skews this total downward by about a half win for the whole group. That aside, the minor rebuild group only saw an increase of 1 win per season, whereas the major rebuild group saw an increase of more than two wins per season.

While 10 of these teams made the playoffs after two years, the fortunes are not evenly split. Instead, 7 minor rebuild teams and 3 major rebuild teams found their way back to the postseason. Two more minor rebuild teams at least had winning seasons by the two-year mark, adding two more minor rebuild teams to the total (9 of the 13). 4 teams had even won a playoff game by two years out: the Gettleman Panthers (2013), the Grigson Colts (2012), the Robinson Titans (2016), and the Elway Broncos (2011). Contrary to what might be expected, these were not all driven by new quarterback acquisitions. The Panthers and Colts benefitted from Newton and Luck, respectively. However, this was the second year of the Mariota acquisition by the Titans, and the Broncos were a year away from signing Peyton Manning as a free agent.

Two of these rebuilds are about to enter their third year (the Douglas Jets and the Mayock Raiders), so no other data is available on them, but seven others stopped after this mark. One of these briefly lived rebuilds was the 2015 turnaround of Washington, which added +10 wins across two seasons and saw a drive to the playoffs, but it was cut short by Scot McCloughan’s departure for non-football reasons. Half of the remaining shorter rebuilds belong to the Browns in successive administrations (2014, 2016, and 2018).

Four-Year Markers

Only 17 rebuilds make it to the four-year mark, and they include twelve minor rebuilds and five major rebuilds, suggesting that in general teams aren’t patient with GMs whose teams struggle, even if they make improvement. These teams also are typically seeing some improvement, but it’s not consistent. Comparing the two seasons prior to these GMs taking over with only their 3rd and 4th years in power (basically, after they’ve had a chance to purge old contracts and build the roster a little more to their own liking), these teams see a net improvement of around +4.5 wins. That’s not that dramatically better than the +3.1 wins that all rebuilds (including the ones that stopped short of this mark) saw after two years, but it is still better. The median improvement is +4 wins (a spot occupied by the Ryan Pace Chicago Bears and the Les Snead Rams, a minor rebuild and major rebuild, respectively).

Of these 17 teams, 12 made it to the playoffs at least once, but 8 of those were minor rebuilds. Half of the playoff teams (6 total) had back-to-back playoff seasons in the first 4 years, but only one of those was a major rebuild. Meanwhile, 8 of these 12 teams won at least one playoff game, with 3 of those 8 being major rebuilds. Only 2 of the 7 teams that made it as far as the conference championship game in this timeframe were major rebuilds, though. Finally, only 3 teams failed to have at least one winning season by Year 4 of the rebuild, with the Rams under Snead and the Jaguars under Caldwell continuing while the Titans ended Webster’s efforts at this point.

Two more rebuilds have only lasted five years so far but still have the chance to continue (the Grier Dolphins and the Robinson Titans). There are also two rebuilds that stopped at the 5-year mark. Ryan Grigson was let go after back-to-back seasons without making the playoffs (going 8-8 both years), opening the door for Chris Ballard to take over a relatively sound team. Dave Gettleman, meanwhile, was fired by Carolina after amassing a 51-28-1 record and taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl in one of the three playoff runs he orchestrated over five years.

Six-Year Markers

That leaves only seven teams to spend at least six years after beginning a rebuild project after 2010. These teams follow no particular pattern, but they do suggest that sustained or dramatic success is not a particular prerequisite. Only two of these GMs have made it to back-to-back playoff seasons and only three of them made it as far as the conference championship game. Les Snead needed all six years even to post a winning season at all, and when it happened he became only the fourth of these seven GMs to record a playoff win. Only two of these seven teams even had winning records averaged across years 5 and 6! In fact, across the first four years, there’s almost no correlation between a team improving and a GM being allowed to continue in his role (0.13)

With the exceptions of Elway (averaging 11 wins per season) and Caldwell (averaging 5 wins per season), this group is distinguished by mediocrity. After surging up from the basement of the NFL, they move along at an average 6-8 wins per season, making the playoffs often enough to keep the door open that things might change for the better at any moment.

For one of these teams, that “any moment” came true in year 7, when the only GM without a playoff appearance in this group (Jason Licht) signed Tom Brady and the Buccaneers ended a decade-plus playoff drought with a Super Bowl win.

However, new GMs in this group do not seem to need to deliver big to keep their jobs. They simply need to be not terrible and to deliver the impression that a team is simply one more season away from turning the corner.