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NFL Rebuilds Part 3 (What Trends Emerge?)

Is it possible to crack the code on how to rebuild an NFL team? If so, why isn’t everyone following this playbook already?

Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

One of the dangers of letting evidence and data guide a research project is that sometimes the results are anticlimactic. For some, it is fun to have a bias and to run out and find examples that confirm that bias. However, that’s not actually proving anything other than access to a search engine and a skill at picking cherries. The flipside, however, is that sometimes the only result of a research effort is a lack of results.

When I started looking at rebuilds, I did not know what I would find. To be honest, I didn’t even know how many teams had actually gone through GM changes after losing seasons in the last decade. I had a general notion that the number would be somewhere between 20 and 50, but that was all (it turned out to be 26).

In Part 2, the requirements for a team that could at least “compete” with the rest of the league were examined. In order to rise to middle-of-the-back, a team needed to have at least one playoff win and either a single deep run (reaching the conference championship game at least once) or multiple playoff appearances. Based on these criteria, 12 of 26 general managers who undertook a rebuild since 2011 qualify as successful.

It’s worth pointing out the limits of this sort of exercise, however. It is easy to say that a team needs a “better” quarterback in order to be able to win. However, most struggling teams try changing the quarterback position. A team that is successful by definition has a more successful quarterback. This creates a problem where determining what is the cause and what is the effect is actually very difficult (in an objective sense, at least). The same issue applies to coaching changes as well as bringing in (or avoiding) high-priced free agents. In each of these cases, these strategies are so widespread that they are functionally tried at some point by all struggling teams.

Starting Point

While the whole group of rebuilding teams had just 10.5 wins across the two seasons prior to rebuilding (with a median of 10.5 wins), the successful rebuilders averaged just under 11 wins across the two seasons prior (and had a median of 11.5 wins across two seasons). Given the small sample size and the way the arrays actually work out, they had largely the same “starting point” in that regard.

Now, there is reason to consider pre-existing contracts and age of players, as well as “starting material” in the form of assets, but this quickly becomes a subjective exercise that says more about the person performing the analysis than the teams themselves. How does inheriting a player traded for a 6th-round pick (e.g. Jared Allen or Brandon Marshall) compare to three years of a rookie-contract for a cornerback who is going to go on and become a 1st-Team All Pro under new management (e.g. Kyle Fuller)? Any such analysis either quickly becomes descriptive or else relies on complex secondary metrics (like CAV).

Ultimately, holistically, most of these teams being rebuilt have somewhere between 5 and 15 players who would be considered assets and a smaller number of questionable contracts.

Draft Strategies

Some teams try to accumulate draft picks, either by trading existing assets for them or by trading down to stockpile picks. Other teams try to trade up in order to get “the best” players. Most teams try a mixture of both. Nothing in particular distinguishes the draft strategies of successful rebuilding teams from unsuccessful ones. Even if the Cleveland Browns are assembled as a single line of rebuilds (2014, 2016, and 2018) or taken separately, there is simply too much noise to determine any distinguishing characteristics.

Accumulation of picks? Sort of, but not in a way that stands out from the teams that failed to rebuild or from other NFL teams in general. There is a caveat, here, in that it is possible to make a pattern emerge by selecting years out from success. Three to five years before a playoff win, most of these teams had at least one particularly “broad” draft class with over 8 picks. However, that is also true of most teams over a 3-to-5-year span, and the players themselves are sometimes not even on the rosters of the teams that succeed. It is possible to force a pattern into place looking at whether or not teams success more readily after they have made at least 35 draft picks, but this again discounts looking at sustained multi-GM rebuilds (like the Browns) and it requires ignoring the early success of teams that only hit that level after they make a playoff run.

Drafting particular positions? Again, there is not a specific pattern. These teams typically invested in the offensive and defensive lines a little, but not in a way that diverges from the NFL as a whole or from the unsuccessful teams. One strange anomaly is a slightly lower number of wide receivers drafted in Round 2 (not R1 or R3, just R2), but that is almost certainly an artifact.

Early Improvement

However, one notable trait stands out—only one of these teams saw a net decrease in wins across the first two years, and the only exception (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) took seven years to make its playoff run and was likely only saved from failure by adding a Hall of Fame quarterback in that seventh year. Of the others, nine saw a net increase and two held even.

It is also worth noting that for eleven of these teams, the run from the third year to the fourth year also represented more net games won than the teams managed in the two years prior to the rebuild, however there are two important caveats. The first is that it is a different team (the Chargers under Telesco) that struggles. The second is that the rate of improvement is not consistent. Therefore, it’s worth considering that this is just a statistical artifact.

Still, this is a much stronger trend, and with teams that actually make it that far, seeing improvement in games 33-64 under a new GM (compared to the prior two years) actually has a 0.6 correlation with whether or not the team would meet the “success” criteria (just barely sneaking into significance).

Again, it is worth noting that teams that see improvement might be more likely to be given a chance by owners to succeed, but the trend is there. One way or another, there is almost no evidence to suggest that a team needs to get worse before it gets better. In fact, teams that successfully rebuild seem to start improving right away, and they seem to continue to improve, albeit fitfully. That is the closest thing to an actual trend that emerges for these groups.