On the America’s Got Talent television series, Jon Dorenbos, who had a long career in the NFL, best known as the long snapper for the Philadelphia Eagles, said that NFL stands for “not for long”. I had never heard the saying before so I assumed it was a sort of NFL players’ gallows humor.
The fact is that NFL careers are short. The average career is fewer than four years and there is a big statistical gap between players whose careers are really short and those who last more than five years. Most players simply aren’t good enough for the NFL and get replaced quickly. Others get injured early on in their career and are dropped from their team.
So building an NFL team is truly a crapshoot. Therefore, this unconventional look at how to develop a team begins with luck. Here, we’re not talking about the kind of luck you need to win a big jackpot at your favorite online casino. The luck we’re talking about is luck that you make yourself.
No one can foresee injuries; they are as much a part of the NFL as they are a part of any sport. Getting lucky involves more than players; it’s also important when you put together a coaching staff. The hapless Chicago Bears have gone from an unproven young, offensive minded coach who failed to a proven veteran head coach who failed to the next unproven offensive minded coach. The Bears have had a decade long series of bad luck.
You have to hire coaches who can teach. So many players, even those from famous programs, come to the NFL as raw talents. You need coaches at every level of the team’s coaching staff who can communicate and teach. There is a famous passage from a book about Vince Lombardi who in the team’s first meeting with him explained the power sweep. The play was designed to gain five yards; it was never expected to be a breakaway play. The player writing the book had been with the Packers during their worst years, the ones before Lombardi. He said that he had never before understood a play as well as he did from Lombardi’s explanation.
From this one meeting was born a decade of dedication from players to the head coach and all his assistants.
Could Tom Brady have had the career he had without Bill Belichick? Could Joe Montana have had the career he had without Bill Walsh? Could dan Marino have had the career he had without Don Shula?
Think Out of the Box
Sometimes a great player drops down to a lower round. The reasons may be his off-field activities, a history of nagging injuries, intangibles like concentration on every play, and many others.
In the lower rounds, teams should look for players that no one sees as being future NFL players but who have all the intangibles for long success. Some players have long careers on special teams. These players are often overlooked when the coaches fill in the roster but they can be the difference between winning and losing some games.
Some players can best be used in the NFL out of position. That means that in college they played one position but might be too small for that position in the NFL. The ability to adapt is a big aspect of thinking out of the box for a team.
Draft Offensive Linemen
Aside from kickers, offensive linemen have the longest average longevity of any position. Offensive linemen are not considered skilled players like quarterbacks, runners, and receivers but a s a unit they are definitely a skilled unit.
Defensive players can move before the snap; offensive players cannot. The offensive line must work as a unit to create running space fro he runners and protection for the quarterback. By seeing the offensive line as a skilled unit, teams can emphasize developing their line first. Then, they have a veteran line in place before they draft the franchise quarterback everybody wants or the great running back.
As many great offensive linemen have been drafted in the first round and have failed as have been drafted early and succeeded. It’s hard to tell who will really excel and who will not so drafting many offensive linemen when you’re starting to build a team means that you’ll have more chance to find a gem in a late round.
Emphasize the Late Rounds
While intangibles are extremely important at all times, they are even more important as you evaluate late round players. Here, you might look at a player who played in a lower college level. He might have played for coaches that you know are objectively not top rate.
There is so much player turnover in the NFL that the late rounds are the places where you find those hidden gems that get you over the top. Tom Brady was found in the sixth round. Richard Dent was found in the eighth round.
Don’t Draft a Franchise Quarterback
This means, you should have your offensive line in place before you draft the quarterback of the future. The quarterback will reflect the kind of offensive line you have. Don Shula knew that Dan Marino had a great release with his throws but was severely immobile so Shula put together an offensive line that would protect the quarterback above all else.
A first year quarterback behind a veteran offensive line can have more success and develop more confidence than if he comes in and has to play behind a line in flux.
Don’t Draft a Running Back Early
The same advice obtains to running backs and wide receivers. The most skilled players at these positions can often come into the league and become instant stars. So, it pays to use draft choices in rebuilding years on the players you want to be in place when you feel you’re ready to challenge for a championship.
As much as pro teams spend on scouting, we would venture to guess that they aren’t spending enough. The money spent on scouting goes a long way to creating the luck that is so vital to NFL success.