October 20, 2021

In the N.F.L., the Rebuilding Never Ends

On the surface, rebuilding sounds like a straightforward strategy for a down-and-out N.F.L. franchise: hire new management, trim the payroll, draft some youngsters and re-emerge in a year or two as a contender.

Any Jets or Giants fan knows that it’s rarely that easy. There’s much more to rebuilding a football team than following the directions on the side of the box. N.F.L. rebuilding projects come in seven distinct phases, each with its own rules, rituals and potential pitfalls. One false move can trap a franchise for decades.

Phase 1: Denial

The first step is admitting that it’s necessary. That can take several years, because N.F.L. franchises often kid themselves that the defense that led them to wild-card glory in 2017 is still effective despite allowing 31 points per game, or that their legendary quarterback’s shoulder doesn’t creak like a rusty hinge when he attempts a screen pass.

The Giants were in denial at the end of Eli Manning’s career. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the same place with Ben Roethlisberger now. The New England Patriots are in denial, but no one has the courage to confront Bill Belichick. And all communications with the Houston Texans were cut off months ago, so it’s safe to assume the worst.

Phase 2: Transition

A proper rebuild would start with the simultaneous hiring of a new general manager and head coach, who together search for a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately, a more typical rebuild starts with a new general manager waiting one year before selecting his head coach, who spends one year “evaluating” a lame-duck quarterback, who gets replaced by a rookie, whose early-career struggles cost the coach his job, with his successor spending one year sandbagging the general manager so he can hire an ally. The result is a self-sustaining cyclone of conflicting leadership agendas. For evidence of what impact that has on a team, see Jets: late Ford Administration through last Sunday.

Phase 3: Preparation

A franchise needs salary cap space and extra draft picks to overhaul its roster, so many rebuilds start with an estate auction in which veterans are traded to contenders for future draft picks.

The Philadelphia Eagles entered Phase Three in February when they traded quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles will spend this year eating ramen noodles while paying down over $57 million in outstanding cap debts, but having multiple first-round picks next year could make the sacrifice worthwhile.

Cap-relief transactions have become so common that fans of perpetually rebuilding teams often root for them in lieu of victories as a coping mechanism. We just lost 42-6, but we traded the linebacker with the $30 million contract for a 2024 sixth-round pick. Let’s throw a tailgate party!

Phase 4: Culture Change

Culture change begins with the baroque foosball table ceremony. If the incoming head coach finds such a table in the locker room, it is removed to signal that it’s time to get serious about winning. If there is no foosball table, one is installed to signal that it’s time to treat players like men. For some franchises, the equipment manager who moves the foosball table has greater job security than the owner’s son.

Culture change also requires the invocation of mantras like “aggressiveness” and “accountability” by the new regime. Detroit Lions Coach Dan Campbell even said at his introductory news conference that he wants his players to “bite a kneecap off,” but there is no evidence that any N.F.L. culture change ceremonies involve actual cannibalism. Or any meaningful culture change, for that matter.

Phase 5: False Hope

The Giants nearly reached the playoffs last year, when the entire N.F.C. East descended into abject failure and shame. The Jets went 10-6 in 2015 thanks to journeymen having career years. The Jacksonville Jaguars reached the playoffs in the 2017 season and nearly burst into flames like a vampire entering church. False hope fools rebuilding teams into thinking that they are one player away from the Super Bowl, and that somehow that player is Nick Foles.

False hope is easy to distinguish from actual improvement: it’s almost always built upon narrow victories in fluky circumstances against weak opponents. Unfortunately, coaches and executives who benefit from a brief spurt of success have nothing to gain from honest self-evaluation. That’s why false hope inevitably leads to …

Phase 6: Recrimination

The Miami Dolphins hired Coach Brian Flores in 2019 (Phase Two). They traded veterans for extra first-round picks (Phase Three). Flores spent his first year trying to instill a winning culture by ordering his players to be “tough, smart and aggressive,” because no one else had ever thought of that (Phase Four). The Dolphins went 10-6 in 2020, with several wins over weak opponents like the Jets and the Jaguars (Phase Five).

The Dolphins are now 1-5. Recent drafts have been disappointing, second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s development has been sluggish at best, and Flores has already cycled through multiple offensive coordinators. History tells us that if the Dolphins don’t improve quickly, Flores and General Manager Chris Grier will turn on their subordinates, then on Tagovailoa, then on each other in a frenzy of skulduggery that makes “Game of Thrones” look like “Paw Patrol.”

The Cleveland Browns have staged the sort of coup d’état the Dolphins are barreling toward roughly every 18 months for the entire 21st century, but it has all paid off this year in a 3-3 team with an outside chance at a wild-card berth.

Phase 7: Rinse and Repeat

The Giants will be rolling to the end of the Dave Gettleman/Joe Judge era any day now. The Lions are rebuilding atop the wreckage of failed rebuilds. The Jaguars started over with Urban Meyer in 2021 and will likely start over with a head coach who behaves less like a Will Ferrell character in 2022. The Jets are the Jets are the Jets.

Sadly, the most probable end result of an N.F.L. rebuilding cycle is another one. So fans of struggling teams should brace for another round of coaching changes, veteran liquidation sales and repositioned foosball tables.