A Study on Team Building: Know Your Team

For any great accomplishment, whether a one-man job or team effort, there must be a man with a plan. There must be a blueprint to ensure everyone is on the proper track in the process, all aiming for the same goal. When it comes to creating a Super Bowl caliber football team, not to mention sustaining a successful franchise, it is paramount that the coaches and management are both clear on the plan required to achieve the ultimate goal. In this study of team building, we'll concentrate on a vitally important statement, broad in scope but specific in intent, that is at the heart of any dominant organization: "Know your team."

This is really an all-encompassing statement. Management and coaches must know what team they are trying to build while also properly interpreting their current team roster and anticipating the talent and prospects to continue building the team in a never-ending process. Great franchises manage to maintain winning records, if not succeed in the playoffs, because they remain true to a consistent process of invigorating a good team on a continual basis. It can come to a point where the franchise highs and lows are on a far above average scale with limited volatility. In the past decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a losing record only once. The same holds true for the New England Patriots, when Bill Belichick rejoined the organization in 2000 with complete control.

It is safe to say the Steelers and Patriots know their team. They have an identity and know how to plan and build for the future. For longer than I can remember, a time of iron and steel curtains, the Steelers have been built as a defensively dominating team, punishing opponents with both their defense and a physical offense. Since 2000, twelve seasons, the Steelers defense has ranked in the Top 5 for fewest yards allowed eight times, and has been at least in the Top 10 every year. They have ranked Top 5 in fewest points allowed seven times and were never below average. That kind of consistency is very rare in the free agent era of football.

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Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Steelers do not rely on a heavy dose of first-round picks to create such a devastating defense. Between 2000-2011, the Steelers have had seven first-round draft picks for their offense and five for their defense. The Patriots appear to evenly distribute their picks as well, having drafted six on offense and six on defense. But while the overall numbers of first-round draft picks show an almost deliberate dispersal, there is proof year to year that these franchises know their teams and select the talent accordingly (not only BPA, but need). New England had a terrible defense in 2011 and as a result Belichick went out of his way in the 2012 draft (using draft day trades) to ensure he picked up two players that could make an impact for his defense. In fact, of the Patriots seven draft picks, six play defense. One of the few weak spots for the Pittsburgh squad is their offensive-line and the first-round addition of David DeCastro (not to mention Mike Adams from Ohio State in the 2nd) will certainly help.

A quick history lesson shows selecting BPA for need (offense vs. defense) is nothing new for Belichick and the Patriots. When he took over in 2000, the franchise had few highlights in their franchise history and had never managed to string together three sequential winning seasons. Today, everyone is aware of the Patriots high-powered offense. People will forget that Belichick was a defensive coach as he made his way in the NFL. Seeing a desperate need on defense, Belichick drafted Richard Seymour with the sixth overall pick to bolster the Pats defense in 2001 and helped make New England the sixth best team in points allowed. It also improved his offense from 25th in points scored in 2000 to 6th in 2001 (despite being below average in total yards of offense). In 2002, the Patriots defense was again showing weakness (17th points allowed) so in 2003 and 2004 Belichick spent the 13th overall pick and the 21st overall pick to bring defensive linemen Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork to New England. Tom Brady has been starting for the Patriot since 2001, but it wasn't until these defensive additions (2001-04) that the Patriot offense finally managed to crack the Top 5 for points scored in 2004 and never again fall out of the Top 10.

This finally brings me to the comparison to the Dallas Cowboys. Have any recent draft picks in franchise history made more sense than the 2011 and 2012 picks of Tyron Smith and Morris Claiborne? The two greatest flaws to the Cowboys at that time and Jason Garrett and staff made swift work in revitalizing both units in just two seasons. It seems Garrett "knows our team" and has done a great job of incorporating immediate needs to help achieve his long term plans for the team.

A comparison of the first-round picks and impact players for the 2011 defenses of these three teams:

Patriots Steelers Cowboys
J. Mayo 10th Pick J. Farrior FA-8th Pick D. Ware 11th Pick
S. Ellis FA-12th Pick L. Timmons 15th Pick M. Spears 20th Pick
V. Wilfork 21st Pick C. Hampton 19th Pick A. Spencer 26th Pick
R. Ninkovich FA-5th Rd Z. Hood 32nd Pick S. Lee 2nd Rd
D. Fletcher UDFA L. Woodley 2nd Rd J. Ratliff 7th Rd
J. Harrison UDFA J. Hatcher 3rd Rd
B. Keisel 7th Rd
D. McCourty 27th Pick T. Polamalu 16th Pick T. Newman 5th Pick
P. Chung 2nd Rd I. Taylor 4th Rd M. Jenkins 25th Pick
B. McFadden 2nd Rd

Once again, it is remarkable to see how many of the first-round and impact players for the Steelers defense started their careers in Pittsburgh. Even James Farrior, arriving as a free agent, has been with the team so long that few remember he wasn't drafted. And while James Harrison did spend some brief time with the Ravens, he was originally an UDFA for the Steelers and was quickly returned once available. It also appears the Steelers are far better at grooming late round picks to have an impact on defense. The Cowboys get considerable credit for Jay Ratliff, but Brett Keisel and James Harrison are phenomenal talents, and Ike Taylor is great value from a fourth rounder. And though the Cowboys had the most first-round picks on their 2011 defense...performance on the field would suggest several of those picks were not nearly as successful as the first-rounder for the Pats and Steelers (DeMarcus company excluded).

Though no clear conclusions may be drawn from such a short-sighted comparison, it should be noted that all three teams have more first-round picks on their defense than their offense, and all have at least as many first-round picks within their defensive-fronts as they do within the entire starting line-up for their offense. There is something to be said about the limited pool of athletes that have the combination of size, speed, and strength to play in the front-seven of an NFL team.

But for those that know their team, it should come as no surprise that it was the Patriots and the Cowboys that spent more offseason and draft resources on improving their defensive rosters. That is...assuming you believe the powers that be have a firm grasp of their team, both the weaknesses and the strengths, and are working with a blue-print to consistently improve the franchise. I for one have now seen many signs that seem to imply the Jason Garrett regime has finally led Jerry Jones to trust enough to hand over the reins and to not meddle with the plan that is being implemented.

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