Of All Models For Recent SB Success, 2007 NY Giants Remains Easiest to Replicate
So you want to root for a Super Bowl Champion, eh? The Green Bay Packers have shown us the blueprint for what a team needs to do: spend six years building one of the best organizations in football at every level. Then draft a quarterback who falls way too far in the NFL draft, and end up reluctantly turning the keys over to a player who wasn’t really showing much based on his practice habits after your future hall of fame quarterback retires. Then make sure to unconditionally support unproven, out-of-favor first round QB when hall of fame legend wants back onto the ship in a lead role now that those troublesome OTA’s are over.
Furthermore, be sure to build a receiving corps that ranks near the top of the league by spending four 2nd or 3rd round picks on receivers in three consecutive drafts. Next, change your defensive scheme after hiring a new coordinator, and oversee a flawless transition thanks to the strength of your linebackers and some choice draft picks on that side of the ball. Finally, realize that since your secondary is really kind of old to be playing at this level, happen to develop two of the best undrafted free agent cornerbacks in the NFC right as your team needs to make that push to the super bowl. Finally, do all of the above in a year where the consensus best-overall team in the NFL (New England) loses a hotly contested playoff game to a division rival. With the one team that’s clearly superior knocked out of the playoffs, play your best football of the season in January and February en route to a Super Bowl Championship.
It’s simple, really.
It’s also probably not a formula that can be easily replicated by teams who don’t already have front offices as strong as those in Green Bay right now. If you really want to copy a recent SB winning formula, you’re going to have to look further back than yesterday’s Packers, who really started the process of winning SB45 way back in 2005 when they hired Ted Thompson.
The Packers and the Steelers are both great organizations, and perhaps the only surprise in their meeting on the national stage and playing a somewhat standard game at a mutual high level of performance was that the Patriots didn’t have a shot to knock one or both teams out of contention before the Lombardi Trophy was presented. The Pats nearly delivered the knockout blow to the Packers’ season just before Christmas. They beat the Steelers in the regular season, but the Steelers ability to secure the first round bye protected them against facing the Patriots in the divisional round.
For teams looking to build their own super bowl winner, two prior SB participants have easier-to-copy paths to success. The 2009 New Orleans Saints and 2008 Arizona Cardinals both made it to the big game out of the NFC, although a replication of their prior successes proved elusive the next season. For the Saints, it’s probably time to evaluate where they are as a franchise after a devastating playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The 2010 Cardinals are a cautionary tale for the 2011 Saints: you don’t want to end up at the bottom of the league in most categories just two years after competing. The window of opportunity just isn’t large enough to consistently compete in the NFL.
The 2007 New York Giants were different. The Giants last had a losing season in 2004, the very beginning of the Coughlin-Manning era. They’ve built with a strong identity under Coughlin: bigger, faster, stronger football players at every position, and every level of the roster. That depth has helped the Giants consistently perform at the top of the NFC. Sure, one could argue that this model is inferior based on their late-season failure to compete with the Green Bay Packers, and that loss caused one team to miss the playoffs and the other to kick off it’s championship run. The Giants, though, were 10-6 and would have been a dangerous team if they made the postseason (thanks NFC West winner, for watering down the playoff field).
Here’s an interesting NFL factoid, courtesy of Chase Stuart: with Brett Favre’s retirement, and Aaron Rodgers’ victory, there are still just 6 active super bowl winning quarterbacks. Four of them are in my top five active NFL QBs list, and Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t be too far behind. The outlier, of course, is Eli Manning, a comfortably above average NFL quarterback, perhaps a bit underrated, but there is an Eli Manning-quality QB in the first round of nearly every draft class, and players of this quality are often traded from one organization to another.
It’s obvious that teams have a much better probability of reaching the super bowl when one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks is on the roster. In the AFC, for example, the quarterback who reached the Super Bowl was an MVP candidate each year of the last decade with a couple of key exceptions: namely the formative years of future all pro careers for Tom Brady (2001, 2003) and Ben Roethlisberger (2005). The standard of reaching the super bowl appears to be much higher in the AFC (where the Steelers, Patriots, and Colts have represented the conference each year since 2003) vs. the NFC (a different representative each of the last ten years). Eli Manning would rate in the middle third of the last 10 or 11 QBs to represent the NFC in the super bowl. I would argue that while the standard of quarterback play among all QBs who have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl in the last decade is higher than average, the standard NFC champion QB season is sub-elite.
Where Brady and Roethlisberger went on to win multiple rings and contend for MVP honors, Eli Manning has yet to win a playoff game since SB42, and has yet to put together a serious campaign for MVP consideration. He would be a fringe inclusion among the ten best quarterbacks in football. Yet, the Giants proved able to win four consecutive playoff games with him, something accomplished by only Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Trent Dilfer, Roethlisberger, and now Rodgers.
The Giants have been eluded by playoff success outside of 2007, however, are an annual contender thanks to their identity. Their quarterback hasn’t missed a start, even though they’ve completely turned over the skill position players around him. Ike Hilliard, Plaxico Burress, and Amani Toomer have given way to Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks. Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne have become Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw…with likely more turnover forthcoming. Manning has had a longtime ally in his offensive line, re-organized before the 2007 season, and consistent ever since (Diehl, Seubert, O’Hara, Snee, McKenzie). Plenty of names have come and gone on the defensive end, but if you ignore a performance dip in 2009, they’ve been strong every season.
The Giants began with the basics: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Pass Rushers, and various talent. Every season, the goal has been to add depth and talent throughout the team, fitting the bigger, faster, stronger mold, recently at the expense of quality special teams. Drafting best player available every year has made this strategy a lot easier: good scheme players are easily identifiable for the Giants, much like they are for the Packers or Saints. It’s not confusing, and it’s systematically guarantees success.
The Giants had a fair amount of luck to win the super bowl in 2007, as they’ve been a better team in any number of other seasons. By doing it this way, the Giants did not risk mis-timing the matching of talent to opportunity as the Packers risked (the Pack narrowly avoided a situation where the talent in the secondary rated well behind the rest of the team, getting timely development from Tramon Williams and Sam Shields to replace Al Harris and second round bust Pat Lee). Obviously, the Giants could view missing the playoffs in consecutive years as a setback, but there’s little reason to believe they won’t be right back in the postseason in 2011, and one of the many favorites to represent the NFC.
The Giants’ team model will aim to make Eli Manning the first quarterback since Kurt Warner to represent the NFC in the super bowl twice in ten years. Any other team that wishes to compete quickly in the NFC (or the AFC) would find the model used by the Giants one of the most easily replicated, as it requires little existing structure, and promotes strong year to year continuity in a league where turnover is the standard. If any team aims to overtake strong organizations such as the Packers, Eagles, Patriots, Steelers, or Colts — the best organizations in the NFL — it would appear sensible to establish just a couple of things the team already does well, and aim to establish strong offensive and defensive infrastructures to enter the annual playoff conversation.
Finding the right team identity and balance is the way to quick success in the NFL, as high turnover organizations wait to establish themselves among the best organizations in the game over the next five years.