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Building A Program, Pt. II: Developing Continuity And Consistency

In Part I of this series, Ol' Rabble asserted that the NFL's weaker franchises don't have a sound philosophical superstructure in place, and thus make decisions comparatively haphazardly. Here, he compares all 32 teams, trying to develop correlations between continuity and on-the-field success.

A study in contrasts: Jerry Jones with Steelers owner Dan Rooney
A study in contrasts: Jerry Jones with Steelers owner Dan Rooney
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, in the first half of this look at the advantages of building a long-lasting football program, I offered that, in the parity-driven NFL, "risk" is not a sound strategy. Allow me to elaborate: while risky maneuvers, such as trading way up in the draft, can certainly help a team get better in the short-term, the better organizations manage risk very carefully, and have a clear rubric, derived from a sound philosophy, that they can use to make those risk-reward calculations.

The weaker NFL franchises don't have such a philosophical superstructure in place, and thus make decisions comparatively haphazardly. Then, when things don't work out, they change their way of operating and their decision making processes. If they ever established a set of core beliefs, they abandon them and develop new ones. The best teams, on the other hand, trust in their core beliefs, even when they encounter setbacks; they believe strongly in their way of doing things, and believe that this methodology will, eventually, lead to a break-through.

To my mind, Jerry Jones' primary strategic initiative is "risk" (closely aligned to other short-term strategies such as "all in now," "the window is closing," or "doing something unconventional") which has, for years, led to precisely the sort of decision-making switcheroos detailed above. We are familiar with these philosophical changes, not only from coach to coach, but from draft to draft. What happens is that everybody in the organization is perpetually playing catch-up, adapting what they do to the new methodology or the updated player profiles.This is particularly true for scouts and other talent evaluators.

Scouts that work for teams that have a consistent way of doing things don't need to spend their energies adapting; rather, they can focus on scouring the country for the kind of players that fit that team's profiles. According to Garrett, such teams have "the right plan...[and are] going to do things the right kind of way with the right kind of people." Like the best college football or basketball programs in the country, with teams that continue to churn along even when they keep losing upperclassmen to the pros, they continue to win year after year.

In the NFL, with personnel turnover is a way of life, the best teams institute a similar model--a program. Indeed, this is the nomenclature Garrett employs. The Cowboys, he says, "are trying to put a program together, and [have] worked very hard to try to put it together the right way over the last couple years." How might we assess the efficacy of a program? Can we look at certain organizations and see evidence of consistency that a program might suggest?

In an effort to answer these and other questions, I've assembled a bunch of data in a nice little table. Before I show it to you, thought, I though it best to explain some of the categories I'm examining:

Number of Coaches: Simply put, the number of head coaches each team has had since (and including) the 1993 season. Because I wanted a distinctly Cowboy-centric perspective on NFL coaching turnover, I went back to 1993, Jimmy Johnson's final year in Dallas. Going that far back also gives us a wider numerical spread, from the Patriots, Giants and Titans, with three head coaches each, to the Raiders, who have had eleven (!!) coaches in that time span.

Fluctuations of more than 4 games: The number of times a team either won or lost four or more games than they had the previous season. To even out the playing field for this category, I went back to 1999, when the second iteration of the Cleveland Browns joined the league. That way, only the Texans (joined in 2002) won't have accumulated 14 seasons' worth of data.

Wins (high, low, average): This is pretty self-explanatory. In consecutive columns, I've tallied season high and low numbers of wins, as well as the average number of wins from 1999-2012.

Number of years team was 3 or more games above or below their average number of wins: Its one thing to fluctuate by four wins - but a team could do so and still hover around their average. For example, a team averaging eight wins could win six one year and then ten the next. It would look like they were inconsistent, but both win totals would be fairly close to its average number of wins. As a more accurate way of measuring consistency, therefore, I wanted to see how many times each team was more than three games above their average number of wins.

Fluctuation score: I'm sure this will have most statisticians guffawing, if not outright ROLFing, but I wanted a simple way to measure overall consistency, or lack thereof. So, here's what I've done: the "fluctuation score" is the number of 4+ game fluctuations + the number of seasons a team was three + games over or under their average number of wins, plus one half of the difference between their highest and lowest season win totals.

Without further ado, here's what I came up with:

Team # of Coaches Since ‘93 4+ Game Fluctuations - Since 1999 Wins - High Wins - Low Wins - Avg. # of Years 3 Games +/- Avg. Fluctuation Score
Arizona 7 2 10 3 6.85 2 7.5
Atlanta 6 4 13 4 8.29 6 14.5
Baltimore 3 (’96-‘12) 4 13 6 9.57 2 9.5
Buffalo 7 4 11 4 6.64 2 9.5
Carolina 4 (’95-‘12) 9 12 1 7.29 5 19.5
Chicago 4 5 13 4 8.29 5 14.5
Cincinnati 4 5 11 2 6.78 4 13.5
Cleveland 7 (‘93-‘95; ‘99-‘12) 4 10 2 5.21 2 10
Dallas 7 4 13 5 8.0 4 12
Denver 4 4 13 4 8.86 2 10.5
Detroit 6 6 10 0 5 6 17
Green Bay 4 * 6 15 4 10 3 14.5
Houston 2 (’02-’12) 3 12 2 7.0 4 12
Indianapolis 6 4 14 2 10.79 3 13
Jacksonville 3 (’95-’12) 5 14 2 7.5 4 15
Kansas City 7 4 13 2 7.0 7 16.5
Miami 7 5 11 1 7.71 5 15
Minnesota 4 3 12 3 8.07 3 10.5
New England 3 6 16 5 11.36 3 14.5
New Orleans 4 5 13 3 8.36 2 12
NY Giants 3 5 12 4 8.79 3 12
NY Jets 8** 5 11 4 8.07 3 11.5
Oakland 11 4 12 2 6.42 2 12
Philadelphia 4 4 13 4 9.29 4 12.5
Pittsburgh 2 5 13 6 9.93 4 12.5
San Diego 6 7 13 1 8.36 6 19
San Francisco 6 3 13 2 7.29 3 11.5
Seattle 5 4 13 4 8.29 3 11.5
St. Louis 7 8 13 1 7.14 7 21
Tampa Bay 5 7 12 3 7.92 6 17.5
Tennessee 3 5 13 4 8.93 6 15.5
Washington 7 5 10 5 7.21 1 8.5

A couple of observations:

  • The NFL is an up-and-down league; the vast majority of teams have a wide discrepancy between their best and worst seasons. Every team has won ten games at least once, and 27 of the 32 teams have had a 4-win season or worse. Curiously, as bad as the Redskins have been, they are not among them. Neither is Dallas; as frustrating as the Cowboys have been, they have never hit rock bottom. Also amazing is that, for the last fourteen seasons, neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore has lost fewer than six games.
  • Certain teams suffered from a great deal of fluctuation and then, with a change in management, steady the franchise. The obvious examples are the Giants, who have won between 8 and 12 games every season since 2005, Tom Coughlin's second season with the team; the Falcons, whose fortunes changed when they hired Tom Dimitroff as their GM (and he hired Mike Smith as head coach) in 2008 - since then, they have won between 9 and 13 games; and the astonishing Patriots, who haven't won fewer than nine games since Belichick's second year in Foxboro.

For these teams, its easy to believe in their programs, because they are winning (or at least not losing) year in and year out. As noted above, an organization tends to question its methodology when they have a bad season and the fanbase is up in arms. The better franchises, I argued, stick to their guns and follow the plan they believe in. A terrific case in point is Pittsburgh. From 1999-2004, under Bill Cowher, the Steelers were wildly variant in their win totals (6, 9, 13, 10, 6, 15). Yet they didn't blow up the front office; instead, they waited patiently for their franchise quarterback to fall to them in the 2004 draft, whereupon they developed a remarkable consistency, notching between eight and twelve wins per year in the seasons since, even though Cowher retired at the end of the 2006 campaign.

This leads me to my final point: there appears to be a strong correlation between long-term success and coaching turnover. Look at the teams with the fewest coaching changes and their average number of wins: Pittsburgh (9.93) has had two coaches since 1993; Tennessee (8.93); the Giants (8.79); New England (11.36) and Baltimore (9.57) have had three. Green Bay (10.0) and Philadelphia (9.29) have had four, but the Ray Rhodes coached the Pack for a single year, and the Eagles fourth head coach is yet to be hired, so both are effectively at three coaches.

On the other hand, the league's perennial doormats tend not only to have a revolving door to their head coach's office but to play musical GMs. Most of the teams averaging fewer than seven wins per season have had six or seven head coaches since '93; the Raiders top the list with a staggering eleven. More telling is that these teams have had instability in the front office, switching general managers as often as coaches. The Colts, on the other hand, had one general manager, Bill Polian, from 1998-2012. So, even though Indy had three head coaches during his tenure, each was able to notch at least one season with thirteen or more wins. Why? Because the organization was solid, and plugged the coach into its already sound philosophical superstructure.

Strangely, this might be one of the reasons that Dallas has been one of the league's less wildly fluctuating teams. Although it hasn't been easy being a Cowboys fan in recent years, they have never completely imploded (with the exception of Wade Phillips' final half-season), notching no fewer than six wins every season since 2003. Despite the fact that, since 1993, Dallas has employed six head coaches, a number that suggests a high degree of "tear it up and start over" thinking, they haven't had continuous radical philosophical turnover in the front office. With Jerry and Stephen as the constants, they have enjoyed a certain degree of consistency that many other franchises haven't.

So, what has kept them from joining the league's elite? I believe its Jerry's propensity for short-term thinking, his desire to win now, which leads him to the quick fix. Knowing this (and all-too aware of Dallas' position as the league's flagship franchise), his coaches tend to be on the proverbial hotseat the instant things don't go well, so they have often joined Jerry in short-term thinking. If you know you have to win in order to be here in three years, you'll be much more likely to trade away a first-rounder (and more) for a veteran wide receiver, for example...

As I've mentioned elsewhere, coaching continuity allows for long-term thinking, development of players, and lessens the pressure to win now that results in poor decision-making. The NFL is such a protean entity, with a tremendous amount of personnel turnover from year to year, that its absolutely foolhardy to make decisions according to the present situation.

In the 2009 draft, for example, the Cowboys were on the clock in the second round, and LeSean McCoy was the highest-rated player on their board. Instead of taking him, they traded out of the pick, because they already had what they perceived to be an embarrassment of riches at the position, with Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But they didn't really: Barber lasted two more years; Choice only a bit longer, and Felix has almost certainly played his last down in Dallas. Had they believed more strongly in the long term, and in their evaluations, McCoy would be a Cowboy now - and they still would have drafted DeMarco Murray in 2011. Not a bad 1-2 punch, eh?

When Jason Garrett claims that he wants to build a program in Dallas, its this kind of thinking that can (and I believe, will) be the result. But the key is that Dallas cannot panic; like Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, they (and by "they" I mean Jerry) must hold steady, believing in their system and program, trusting that the benefits will accrue slowly and that, once they do, they will be more permanent than possible under short term thinking.

I'll close by offering up two teams as an example. Carolina has had tremendous turnover, with nine fluctuations of four or more games, has once won two games and once notched only a single win. On the other hand, they have twice won eleven games and once won twelve, and has been to a Super Bowl. The Panthers have averaged 7.29 wins per season. Philadelphia, on the other hand, had been one of the NFL's "steady Eddies" under Andy Reid and Joe Banner, averaging 9.29 wins per, with eight ten-win seasons, six NFC championship game appearances and one Super Bowl. More importantly, there has been very little fluctuation; once they became good, they continued to be good.That's because they continuously stuck to a sound core philosophy; indeed, it was when they abandoned this philosophy in the 2011 offseason, spending money on Free Agents a la Daniel Snyder's Redskins, that the Eagles began to fall.

Here's the question: which of these franchises would you want the Cowboys to be modeled after? I'll take Philadelphia, Alex...

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