select teams have figured out the formula
for long-term success in today’s NFL.
it includes stability, cap management, and
assembling (and keeping) pro bowl-level talent.
by Don Banks
hroughout its five-decade-long rise to indisputable status as
the king of spectator sports in the United States, the NFL at
every step has fostered and cultivated the belief that its overwhelming
popularity and success stems from having painstakingly built competitive
balance into the league’s DNA structure.
“Any given Sunday” is more than an antiquated mantra or catchphrase. It captures the league’s continual efforts to ensure that each one of
its franchises has a fair and fighting chance to
compete for a championship every season.
From the worst-shall-be-first format of the
NFL draft, to the league’s attempts to lift up
struggling teams through its approach to
scheduling, to the twin leveling devices of revenue sharing and the salary cap, the NFL pays
far more than lip service to the ideal of parity.
Yet dynasties still happen, and a handful of
teams continue to defy the law of NFL averages
in a system that is heavily weighted against
perennial success. Through strategy and innovation, the best teams find a way to win almost
every season, and a small group of franchises
have risen to the top—and for the most part
stayed there —in the most recent decade of the league’s salary-cap era.
Chances are you already know them: the New England Patriots,
Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and
Baltimore Ravens all had sustained success throughout the first decade
of the 21st century, winning seven of a possible 10 Super Bowl titles
and earning half of the Super Bowl berths.
Despite the NFL’s best parity-conscious designs, there has been no
funneling-back-to-the-middle effect for these five proven winners. The
body of evidence is overwhelming: Starting with the 2000 season, this
“Fab Five” has made 41 of a possible 55 playoff trips ( 74. 5 percent) and
posted winning records an astounding 84 percent of the time. And
2010 may have been the capstone—all five reached the postseason,
four of them as division champions, while combining for a 58-22 mark.
They totaled 23 Pro Bowl selections, led by the Patriots’ six.
“You’re absolutely correct in that the NFL system is not designed to
work that way,” notes Colts president Bill
Polian, who presides over a franchise that has
won 125 regular-season games since 2000.
“It’s designed to gut good teams, and for good
teams to lose good players because they can’t
afford to keep them.
Robert E. Klein/AP WWP
“If you draft well in this league, you’re
eventually penalized. As a winning team, you
might keep two players per draft class over the
years, because the system is set up for you to
lose those good players in free agency. And
that’s fine. We understand it. It’s for competi-
tive balance, and that’s part of what makes
the league so good.”
The factors that have allowed a select few
teams to rise above the gravitational pull of parity are varied, but in
many cases, similarities exist. What’s the single greatest component
shared by all five of the NFL’s leading franchises? Stability at coaching
and in the front office. Its importance cannot be overstated.
New England’s Bill Belichick was hired as head coach by Patriots
owner Robert Kraft in 2000, and the team’s glory era began shortly
thereafter. Throughout the decade, Belichick and former New England
vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli formed a tandem with a
Patriots owner Robert Kraft (left) has watched
Bill Belichick build a consistent winner on the field.
32 2011 NFL PRO BOWL