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NFL Rebuilds: Part 2 (What Is a Success?)

While it is highly unlikely that all fans will agree with any one definition of success, looking at league-wide trends and rebuild-specific outcomes can give insight on what criteria are available to call a team “successfully rebuilt”.

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Fine, Elway rebuilt the Broncos. Harris still got him.
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In Part 1, we looked at the outcomes teams face when they bring in a new general manager after disappointment. One thing that was clear is that turning over the front office does not mean that a team is going to be successful. That raises another question, though. What constitutes a successful rebuild?

Does a team going 7-8-1 and sneaking into the playoffs only to lose mean that the team has been rebuilt? Does the GM only get credit if the team wins the Super Bowl? It felt artificial to create any of these markers based on my own personal desires, so I sought a benchmark from the rest of the NFL. The data from 2011-2020 (the years under study for teams being rebuilt) provide a frame of reference for what typical teams accomplish in the NFL. I then compared this to the accomplishments of teams actually needing to be rebuilt.

Benchmarks

The average NFL team had 4.4 winning seasons over this ten-year period (and the median team had 4 winning seasons). Meanwhile, the average team had 3.8 playoff appearances (with the median team having 3 playoff appearances). Finally, the average team has 3.5 playoff wins in this time, with the median team only enjoying 3 playoff wins. When all of the data lines up like that, there is a clear trend—a handful of teams at the top earn a disproportionate number of the winning seasons, the playoff appearances, and the playoff wins.

The New England Patriots have 9 winning seasons, 9 playoff appearances, and 16 playoff wins. The next-closest team (the Seahawks) has 9 winning seasons, 8 playoff appearances, and 9 playoff wins. “Rebuilt” teams that are above-average in all categories are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos. The San Francisco 49ers beat the averages in two categories (playoff runs and playoff wins), while falling a 0.4 short of winning seasons, only hitting the median. However, this project is not about team histories but instead about rebuilds.

What about rates of success? Only 14 teams had winning seasons at least half of the time. Only 12 teams had playoff runs at least half of the time, but 15 teams average more than a playoff win every three years. Certainly a team that hits any of these markers could be considered rebuilt, as they have done something less than half of the league has accomplished.

However, relying on rates quickly runs into a basic problem—it includes the years spent rebuilding. These benchmarks are useful, but they need another point of comparison, otherwise teams might be held to an unfairly critical standard.

Peer-to-Peer Comparison

In order to compare apples to apples and be “fair” to the GMs trying to rebuild, this means that the most readily available benchmark to use to measure rebuilding success is to compare rebuilding teams to each other and not the whole league. More than half of these teams recorded at least one winning season or made the playoffs at least once, and that matches what league records as a whole would tell us to expect—a typical team should have a winning season almost every other year and should have a playoff win once in every three years. A team that doesn’t win every so often is not rebuilt.

Likewise, given how readily teams get a chance to make it into the playoffs, only a single appearance is not seem to be enough for the team to have “caught up” with the rest of the league. After all, only 6 teams in the league average less than a one winning season in every five years, the same number of teams have less than one playoff appearance every five years. Notably, only nine teams in the league are without a playoff win every five years. A team needs playoff appearances, and playoff wins, to even be “mediocre”, which should probably be the minimum goal for a team trying to bounce back.

Thus, in order for a team to be considered a success in rebuilding, it probably needs to have at least one playoff win to prove that it is a contender, and it needs to either have a single deep run (reaching the conference championship game at least once) or at least multiple playoff appearances. This would at least indicate that the rebuilt team needs to be able to compete at a level typical of all NFL teams.

Conveniently, those cutoffs almost perfectly cut the field in half. Seven of thirteen minor rebuilds make the cut, as do five of thirteen major rebuilds. This means that only 12 of the 26 teams identified in the last article as “needing rebuilds” would qualify, and expecting a rebuild to measure in the top half of its peer group to qualify as a success seems reasonable.

In the final part, it will be time to look at what trends are shown by these successful teams in the course of their rebuilds.