Frequently you hear NFL teams broken down into two categories. Some teams are rebuilding while others are trying to “win now.”
Rebuilding teams are focused on the future while win now teams are trying to build the strongest team possible...now. Rebuilding teams might use free agency to sign veteran leaders to help guide young players, while win now teams might go after big names they think can be the final piece of the puzzle. Rebuilding teams might trade expensive aging players for Draft picks that can help them in the future. These players are traded to win now teams. They can help these teams in the short run more than Draft picks who might take years to develop.
There are uses for this construct, but I think it falls short in many ways. The current state of most teams isn’t really a binary choice between focusing only on today or solely keeping an eye on the future. To some extent all teams are (or at least should be) balancing the short run and the long term. Some teams are focused more on the future than the present and vice versa. However, only a few teams at the extremes are worried only about tomorrow at the expense of today or willing to mortgage all future resources to try and make a run this year.
If you have ever taken a business class, you might be familiar with this chart or some version of it. It breaks the lifecycle of any product into four phases. It can apply to any product like an iPhone, a car model, etc.
At the start you have the introductory phase. This is the beginning. At this phase a company invests in raising awareness of the product.
Next is the growth phase, which is when people start buying. With a successful product, the number of customers rises rapidly.
Eventually the rate of growth has to slow. There are after all a finite number of people in the universe who can buy your product. This leads to the maturity phase. At this level you maintain a large number of sales.
Then perhaps the product becomes outdated or something better comes along. You reach the decline phase where sales go down.
While there are differences, I think this framework has a lot of overlap with the lifecycle of building an NFL team.
The introductory phase of building in the NFL is about assessing what you have. Unlike a new product, a general manager isn’t starting with a blank slate. He has players and coaches in place. The GM uses this period to assess which are keepers and which are not going to help elevate the team to future success. Ideally in this phase the general manager is doing his best to stockpile Draft picks and build future salary cap room.
The growth phase comes once the general manager starts using the picks and cap space. Hopefully he makes the correct decisions. If he does, the team can improve rapidly with a new core of impact players improving the win total.
After a few years, more Draft classes have been added. Additional smart free agent signings to fill remaining problem areas have also come aboard. There is a complete roster in place with few holes. The team has reached maturity, which means contending for the Super Bowl.
Core players eventually get old, which finally leads to the decline phase.
In the world of business, only the most successful products are able to experience the full lifecycle. A product can fail at any point. The same is true of NFL building jobs.
The Jets have seen multiple failures to get past the introductory stage over the last decade. Foolish free agent signings and a failure to commit to the Draft (along with awful picks when they did keep their picks) have left them unable to reach the growth stage.
The growth stage might be the most dangerous in today’s NFL. It is amazing how many teams make mistakes here. Just as a company can ruin its product in this stage by trying to grow too fast by taking on too much debt or too much inventory, NFL teams tend to become extremely short-sighted at the first sign of growth.
You see it almost every year. Some team comes from the bottom of the league to go 9-7 or 10-6. They might sneak into a Wild Card spot. The next offseason the team thinks it is close and spends big money in free agency and/or trades Draft picks for big names. Then the team regresses.
Despite what the cliche might tell you, an NFL team isn’t always what its record says it is. A sixteen game season is a small sample size. Luck and randomness can play a major role in determining a team’s final record. The difference between 6-10 and 10-6 might come down to schedule strength, a few fortunate bounces of the ball, a series of blown calls, injuries, or any number of factors beyond a team’s control.
So many general managers are fooled by a 10 win season into thinking their team is closer than it really is. They fail to appreciate how much luck factored into the result. There isn’t enough of a core of impact players for the team to have legitimate Super Bowl hopes. The roster still has numerous holes. Yet these teams frequently decide to make a series of expensive and flashy moves, giving up Draft picks and doing long-term damage to their cap space to make a run here and now.
Some of the most egregious examples include the current day Los Angeles Rams and the Mike Tannenbaum/Rex Ryan Jets from a decade ago. Numerous other teams haven’t taken things to this extreme in the growth phase but short circuited their build by trying to do too much too soon.
Once you have reached the maturity phase, you are among the elite in the NFL. The danger here comes in not understanding how much work staying in the maturity phase will take. Draft picks don’t become any less important once your team reaches the top of the league. Your young core of stars eventually commands a raise, which makes important role players impossible to fit under the cap. These contributors need to be replaced and at cheap prices. This can only be done by hitting on Draft picks. Some of the veteran free agent signings you made for the growth phase will also age and decline at this point. This year’s Draft picks might need to replace them a year from now.
At the maturity phase it is acceptable to occasionally send premium picks out for an impact player. Unlike at the growth phase, that player might actually be the piece that puts the team over the top. Teams at the maturity phase that don’t continue to Draft and develop effectively, however, will face decline sooner than they ever imagined.
Every few years there is a team at the top of the league that is supposed to own the next decade who falls well short of expectations because that team stops developing talent.
The best way to win a Super Bowl is to extend the maturity phase for as long as possible. Teams that go “all in” trying to win one year frequently are praised at the time for rolling the dice, but it takes more than just having a great roster to win a championship. Again luck plays more of a role than anybody would like to admit. An unfortunate injury at a key time, a blown call in a big game, a miracle play by the opponent, or a bad matchup can end legitimate Super Bowl dreams. Every New Orleans Saints reading this is probably nodding in agreement. The longer you are at the top of the league, the more big games your team plays. The more big games you play, the higher the odds that your team will eventually get the lucky bounces.
I have come to respect the great organizations in this league that are constantly competitive. Every team has a down year or two. Sometimes injuries take a toll, and the result is a losing year. Sometimes these teams fall into a mediocre two or three years stretch. Still they have made a habit of consistently being near the top of the league even as they turn over their rosters through consistent successful drafting and player development.
So where does this leave the Jets?
Much to the chagrin of many fans, this is a team clearly at the introductory stage. It is frustrating to be back to square one after nine years of no Playoffs, but Joe Douglas is essentially starting with a new product. The failures of the John Idzik product and three(?) Mike Maccagnan products to make it to the growth stage got us to this point.
Creating unsuccessful products in the past doesn’t allow your next product to get a head start. The same is true of the Jets. They don’t get to skip ahead just because their past general managers failed.
For his part Douglas has wisely avoided parting with substantial future assets to make splashy additions. The team just isn’t at a point where such additions would materially help.
Instead the Jets have focused on stockpiling resources to help future growth. In the short run, the team can use 2020 to evaluate which players and coaches are part of the future. Going forward the Jets own a treasure chest of Draft picks and future cap space.
If Douglas uses those resources effectively, the growth phase could be turbocharged.
The cap space looks particularly valuable heading into the 2021 offseason. Many recent Jets offseasons have begun with the team among the league leaders in salary cap space. These were all seasons where the league’s cap went up. This meant everybody had money to spend. Maybe the Jets had more, but when everybody is bidding the prices go up. The value you get for what you spend goes down.
This coming offseason may look very different. The salary cap seems likely to go down. This will prevent many teams from being players in the free agent market. Few bidders means the price of players goes down, and the value per dollar spent goes up. Beyond this, a lower cap might lead teams to cut good but expensive players they otherwise would have kept. More players further lowers prices and increases value.
It’s one thing to have a lot of cap space. It’s another to have a lot of cap space in an offseason like 2021.
For all of the holes the Jets have, I’m not sure they can get into the maturity phase in one offseason. This time next year I don’t think we will be talking about the Jets the way we currently talk about the Ravens or the Chiefs. Still with the cap space and potentially five Draft picks in the top 100, with the right moves this team can make up a lot of ground.
People upset that the Jets aren’t spending big or trading for a big name ask in frustration when the team will ever make big moves to try to get good. That point isn’t five years away, though. It is closer than you think.
Perhaps some will think this is too bold, but I believe if Joe Douglas smartly uses these tools at his disposal the Jets can be at a level just below Kansas City and Baltimore as early as next year. They can be a dark horse contender, the type of team nobody wants to play.
Of course, this is easy to say. Making a bunch of smart signings and Draft picks is very difficult. Stockpiling resources is a means to an end, not an end itself. If the resources are not used effectively, the Jets will find themselves right back at the introduction phase in a few years.
That said, Douglas spent the early parts of his career learning in one of the great organizations I mentioned above, the Baltimore Ravens. Running that team’s football operations, one of Douglas’ mentors Ozzie Newsome was among the best at balancing the need to win today with preserving the resources necessary to prevent a decline tomorrow. At the start of his career he learned all of the lessons he needs to make the right decisions.
Growing steadily and maintaining your progress are essential to success whether you are selling a great product or building a great NFL team. In either case these things require understanding which stage of the lifecycle you are in.