– What gets you there……..
Any sports fan has heard this term, “window of opportunity”. It refers to the amount of time a specific team, player or coach has left to compete for their professions’ highest honor, a championship. Sometimes one might say that, “their window is just beginning” or “the window is closing soon”. Which ever it is, my goal is to take a closer look at what gets you into that conversation, keeps you there and why it might end a lot sooner than you think. Here’s Part I.
As an avid follower of NFL history, I really have a deep and profound respect for the great dynasties over the years. Whether it’d be the Browns of the 50s, the 1960s Packers, Steelers of the 70s and so on. The NFL is a COMPLETELY different game now than it was back then. But starting in around the 1980s and the advent of the West Coast Offense (thank you Bill Walsh) and the rise of more complex defensive schemes (4-6, 3-4 etc.), we can draw on some similarities on how teams kept winning at a high level. But the current structure of the NFL as it now is today, started way back in 1993 with the addition of Free Agency. Because of this, NFL teams couldn’t hold onto talented players as easily. See former Eagles DE Reggie White, he became a free agent and his play was a cornerstone to the Packers 1996 Super Bowl. What about the hired gun himself Dion Sanders, he jumped to SF (SB in ’94) and then to Dallas the very next year (SB in ’95). No longer could teams retain everybody and maintain a championship level team. And with more player movement came a rise in player salaries, especially at premium positions, DE, OLB, OT and QB. It wasn’t till about 1999 when the age of parody began to dominate the league. With the last dynasty in our rear view mirror (2000s Patriots), I am curious to see what constitutes a “window of opportunity” and how a team and it’s players must be structured to win at the elite level in the NFL.
Now to delve into this discussion, we first must identify what major factors make up a championship or elite level team. So lets take quick look at the most successful NFL teams since 2010. And I choose 2010 because change is so rapid in the NFL, in reality things can shift the balance of power year to year (read option anyone). But three years gives us enough of a sample size while still staying current to today’s NFL.
Best Winning Percentage 2010-2013 (post-season included)
-The Elite Eight
- Patriots 42-12 .777 W%
- Packers 41-14* .745 W%-SB XLV
- Ravens 40-14 .741 W%- SB XLVII
- Falcons 37-15 .712 W%
- Steelers 34-18 .654 W%
- Saints 32-19* .627 W%
- Niners 33-19-1* .623 W%
- Giants 32-20 .615 W%-SB XLVI
*(Fail Mary and yes I am still bitter, Sean Peyton suspended for 2012, 2010 Niners was BH ->Before Harbaugh)
What can we take away from the NFL’s elite over the last three years? Well in life as in many other things, to be successful on a consistent basis one must possess certain traits and characteristics that lend itself towards success. The NFL is no different. In as a competitive market as there is in America, teams must possess certain commodities to win consistently. The three commodities that every elite team over the last three years either possessed or had for a stretch run (i.e. SB run) and will continue to need going forward in today’s NFL is what i call:
The Holy Trinity of Football
- Elite Quarterback: This one shouldn’t surprise you. Elite play from the QB position has been a bench mark commodity since the dawn of the NFL. There is a reason why it is the most important position in football. It’s also why they are the highest paid players and get all the credit for team success. Take a quick look at the QBs on that list, 6 of 8 have rings, 7 of 8 have been to the Super Bowl and every single one of them is a Pro Bowl caliber QB. Once one of the rarest commodities in the sport, with the advent of the “quarterback age” (2008-present), having an elite signal caller is getting less and less rare. Never the less, it is still THE essential chess piece going forward.
- Elite Coaching: Again another commodity that shouldn’t surprise you. Having an elite coach is probably the second most important commodity in football. Although Bill Barnwell from Grantland.com begs to differ (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8723176/jim-harbaugh-continues-biggest-bargain-football). Either way, it is an essential chess piece to winning in the NFL. And when you can pair the creme de la creme of coaching and quarterbacks, you get dynasties. A la, Lombardi and Starr, Walsh and Montana and Belicheck and Brady. You want to be considered in the elite, you’ll need a head coach who can scheme, motivate or due both at a high level, to succeed in the NFL.
- Elite Pass Rush: While the first two have been cornerstones in the NFL for decades on end, I considered this the newest commodity, and probably the scarcest one of all. Ever since the NFL became a passing league in 2004 (Defensive PI rules were changed to favor the WRs). The NFL became an offensive pass-happy league, with three of the most prolific passing seasons of all-time happening in 2004 (Manning), 2007 (Brady) and 2011 (Rodgers). While rushing the passer has always been a defensive staple, in 2007 we saw what type of havoc an elite level unit could wreck on an offense (the GOAT offense at that). Since then, the kryptonite for the #1 commodity in football has been an elite pass rush. The Giants had it in 2007 and 2011. The Steelers had it from 2008-2010. Niners in 2011-2012. Packers in 2010, so on and so forth. In a passing league, every elite offense is predicated on timing. Therefore the single commodity to throw off that timing and cause what NFL scouts call “changing the QBs eye level”, is pass rush. Instead of Peyton or Rodgers just progressing through one read after another, a pass rush takes their focus away from their receivers down field and puts it squarely on avoiding the rush. Which results in knockdowns, hits and sacks. Get enough hits on the QB and you begin to rattle him. Pass Rush = Passing Kryptonite.
As I stated before, not every team going forward must possess every quality. The Patriots possess probably the best combo of the coach and QB. But one of the biggest reasons why they didn’t win in 2007 and 2011 was inability to generate a pass rush. Same thing with the Packers in 2011, they went from 2nd in the league in sacks in 2010 to near the bottom in 2011. The Falcons have never been elite in any three of those categories, instead having just enough of all three commodities to compete. Which is the reason for great regular seasons but just 1 playoff win in 3 years. Some teams like the Giants (’07,’11) and Ravens (’12) hardly looked the part during their respective SB seasons, but once playoff time rolled around, they both flipped a switch and combined all three for a stretch run (a little luck wouldn’t hurt either, NYG @ SF ’12 & BAL @ DEN ’13).
But nothing hides the fact that in this “golden age of quarterbacking” (we just saw the greatest rookie QB class since 1983) that playoff caliber quarterbacks are more frequent. Gone are the days where you could pencil in the ’85 Bears, ’99 Rams or ’03 Patriots into the Super Bowl. Almost every single playoff team has a legitimate threat at quarterback. And if the team made the playoffs, that’s one hell of a coaching job in this day and age of parody. Two out of the three commodities are present. So in reality, if you make the playoffs, you have your “window of opportunity”. What were the last 3 seeds to win the Super Bowl? Ravens were a 4 seed, Giants were a 4 seed and the Packers were a 6 seed. Playoffs = Window of Opportunity. It might seem too simple but we are now in the age of football where there is a group of about 6-8 teams every year, all capable of winning the Super Bowl. It comes down to what team can harness their three commodities at the highest level for a sustained stretch of play. Quarterback, coach and pass rush.
Does your team have what it takes?
PS: Look for Part II of Window of Opportunity next week