Read any story about the New England Patriots’ success over the last decade and a half, and you’ll find a line like this one from NBC Sports writer Michael Smith:
“It’s so hard to keep winning in today’s NFL. The salary cap and free agency mean you simply can’t keep all of your best players together for years at a time, the way those great Steelers and Packers and Cowboys and 49ers teams used to do... That’s just the way it works in the NFL. You can’t stay on top for a decade or more.”
The idea that the league has created a perfectly communist ecosystem where no one can rise too far above is so widely accepted that it seems almost a waste of time for journalists to even mention it. The argument goes that between the schedule, the salary cap, free agency and the draft, it’s just about impossible to be a contender year in and year out for a decade and a half, which is what makes the Patriots’ run so impressive.
You can see why this construct appeals to people. It means that anyone could win a title, and there’s nothing last season’s elite can do to stop them. It means that even if your team is the defending champ, you can’t just turn on the TV in January and assume they’ll still be playing. It means so much to the fans, the league, the players and the media that everyone’s willing to ignore the fact that it’s a total fiction.
You can call them the Perennial Contenders: The Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. Five teams immune to the dictum of parity. Since 2000, the Ravens have been to the playoffs ten times and won two championships. Since 1999, the Colts have played in two Super Bowls (winning one), and they’ve gone 181- 91, missing the playoffs only thrice. The Steelers have been to three Super Bowls since 2001, winning two and posting only one losing season. Then there are the Green Bay Packers, who have been to the playoffs 18 of the last 23 seasons, capturing two Lombardi trophies and playing for a third.*
Outside of the Ravens, they all seem likely to keep churning out winning seasons for the rest of the decade.
Sure, none of them have had a run quite as impressive as the Patriots, but every span of time has a best team. If consistently being good in the salary cap era was really so impossible, wouldn’t that mean that no one else would be consistently good at all?
And if we’re wrong about how feasible it is to be a consistent contender, then maybe the things we think force parity actually don’t. Maybe they don’t so much make sustained success impossible as they just force teams to take a different route to get there. Maybe they actually help the very teams they’re trying to hurt.
Somehow, there continues to be a narrative that the better teams face tougher schedules, despite the fact that just one look will tell you this is false. Yes, everyone plays a number of games where they are matched up with an opponent that performed as well or as poorly as they did the previous season. But that number is two.
Out of 16.
Six games are based on who’s in your division and the other eight are matchups determined on a rotational basis. So even when the Patriots have to play two of the best teams in the AFC, that gets offset by them playing six games against the Bills, Jets and Dolphins, just as the Colts always play the Texans, Jaguars and Titans. Six teams who--despite everyone’s contention that any team can be good any given season--all suck pretty much all the time.
NFL.com ranks the easiest to hardest schedules teams will face in 2016 based on their opponents’ 2015 winning percentage. Of the four teams with the hardest schedules, none of them had a record over .500 in 2015. Last year’s two Super Bowl teams stand in the middle of the pack with the 12th and 14th toughest slates. And the team with the easiest 2016 schedule? That would be the Green Bay Packers.
Picking at the top of the draft
The NFL system of giving the highest pick to the team with the worst record and the lowest pick to the team with the best seems like one easy way to ensure that the bad teams leave the draft having gained some ground on the good ones. But that assumes that picks at the top of the first round are better than those at the bottom.
Over the last decade, Cade Massey and Richard Thaler have slowly gained more and more traction for a theory they call the Losers Curse: research that argues picking early in the draft is actually to an organization’s detriment. According to Cade and Massey, yes, the players taken at the top of the draft tend to be better than those taken towards the bottom, but they are not better by as big a margin as you might expect. Meanwhile, the players at the top of the draft receive far bigger contracts than later picks. So when you factor in both how good a player is and how much his salary restricts other moves you can make, it’s actually more beneficial to get the good and cheap player you find at the end of the first round instead of the really good and expensive player you find at the top of the draft. (The results of this study remain relatively constant using data from both before and after the league changed its rookie salary rules).
One thing the Perennial Contenders all have in common is they virtually never trade up in the draft. The NFL has accidentally created the perfect situation for them. All good teams have to do is not mess it up by doing something stupid. Like thinking the top of the draft is the place to be.
Free agency and the salary cap
You can see why free agency and the salary cap would affect good teams more adversely than bad ones. They generally have better players they are trying to hold onto, and better players cost more money. Because there’s a limit on how much teams can spend, good players leave to go somewhere new.
But these things cut both ways. The bad teams with cap room splurge on big free agents, and soon they too are strapped for cash and letting players go. The result is a boom and bust cycle that every few years leaves the spend-happy organizations vulnerable to their best assets being stolen by the prudent teams who always leave themselves at least a little bit of money to play with.
Outside of the Colts, all the Perennial Contenders have GMs who always seem to find those undervalued assets, then sign them to low-risk contracts that insure financial wiggle room down the line.
So the salary cap doesn’t necessarily make sustained success impossible, it just means there’s a new way to achieve it: having a disciplined GM who gets the right guys at the right price.
Perhaps this is why spending big so rarely pays off. Outkickthecoverage broke down who spent the most money in free agency over the last three years versus who spent the least and found that the more you spend, the less you win.
Quoting from the article…
Over those 3 years, only one of the 7 teams who spent the most in free agency has posted a winning record (Colts) while only one of the 7 teams who spent the least in free agency has posted a losing record (Texans). Teams like the 2015 NFC Champion Panthers, or the 2013 and 2014 NFC Champion Seahawks, have voluntarily spent as little as possible in free agency. Joining them were the Packers, Steelers and Bengals. Meanwhile, losing teams like the Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Jaguars, Jets and Bears have spent nearly as much as possible in free agency.
It’s the same concept exhibited in the draft: The free agents who cost more money are of course better players than the ones who cost less. But when building a team for the long term, the best way to evaluate a player is to balance what they do on the field with how much they cost. So players who are very good and expensive often end up being worse investments than players who are good and cheap. The Perennial Contenders win every year because they can't afford the guys who would hamstring them the most, but they always find a way to nab the ones who will slow them down the least.
Scan the Perennial Contenders for commonalities and some do emerge. All but the Ravens have had great quarterbacks for their whole run. All but the Colts have had elite GMs and upper echelon coaches (though one can debate the merits of Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy).
No one is arguing that it’s easy to win year-in and year-out. Being great in those three areas is no small feat. But the fact that those commonalities exist means that consistent success is not some unattainable fantasy, but rather a goal with a clear blueprint outlining how to get there. The Seahawks, for example, check all three of those boxes, and with a few more years of good play, they will be considered a Perennial Contender themselves.
Reaching that level will of course be difficult.
But hardly impossible.
* The Denver Broncos deserve mentioning too. They’ve clearly been one of the best teams in football, having won three Super Bowls and played in four since 1996, while going to the postseason 12 times in that span. But those eight missed trips to the playoffs got them left off the list.