What makes an NFL team successful?
I mean, what makes a team really successful? What are the qualities that build a team up from the doldrums of the NFL into a lean, mean, fighting machine? How can a team set itself up for success not only in the short term but also for years to come?
Where does true and lasting success stem from in a league filled with coaches, personnel men, analysts, stat gurus and Monday morning quarterbacks?
So often, we speak of a blueprint to beat a team. The New York Giants apparently have a blueprint to beat quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It's not clear where they keep this blueprint—hopefully hidden on a bookshelf or in a safe behind a painting—but they have it.
Instead of a blueprint on tearing a team down, how about a blueprint to build one up? Which team has that blueprint, and how can other teams emulate it?
Weeding Out the Counterfeit and Incomplete Blueprints
A lot of analysts provide simplistic maxims for team-building success: "Run the ball and stop the run" or "pass the ball and rush the passer." High-paid commentators extol the necessity of drafting a franchise passer, as if their listeners didn't realize that quarterbacks are important in today's NFL.
It's easy to weed out the teams that barely have any coherent plan or have plans in such infancy that it's impossible to foresee how well they will stick to them.
Take, for instance, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars spent years with little to no success under former general manager Gene Smith. Not only did Smith draft the wrong players, he often did so with little regard to overall team building—as if every draft or free-agency move was in a vacuum.
Want proof that Smith never had a great plan? He rolled with David Garrard at quarterback for quite some time and then had to reach for Blaine Gabbert in draft-day desperation.
The paradigm for teams with zero plans is, of course, the Matt Millen-led Detroit Lions. While Millen led the team for far too long, his tenure was punctuated by near constant upheaval of coordinators and coaches. This led to wild swings in draft strategy, as the players who fit one system were quickly made obsolete.
Thus, instead of focusing on the teams in the NFL with no plan or those that are just starting, let's take a long look at the teams that have a plan in place.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have strong general managers and talented coaching staffs. However, all of those teams have roots in an NFL of the last decade to some extent.
In the cyclical nature of the NFL, teams must continue to evolve. Each of those franchises can continue to be successful, but they have to show they can adapt heading into the future.
Under general manager John Schneider, the Seattle Seahawks have an impressive plan in effect. While the plan is not in its infancy by any means, it is still a few years from fruition. The quarterback is in place with Russell Wilson under center, and the offense looks to be shaping up nicely.
The defense, however, is the big story in Seattle, where a cohesive plan has allowed the Seahawks to grab talented players who fit their system—even in the middle rounds. This astounds draft analysts (including yours truly) year in and year out.
That happens because the analysts from ESPN, NFL Network, Bleacher Report, etc., don't have the Seahawks' battle plans on their desks. We have a loose approximation of what they're doing, but it was hard to divine the purpose of a pick like defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft when we didn't know the Seahawks were looking for a one-dimensional pass-rusher.
Finally, the San Francisco 49ers are probably the most perplexing team when considering franchise blueprints. General manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have put a remarkable system in place. With the talent and depth they've amassed, the 49ers have the ability to contend for Super Bowls for many years to come.
The problem, however, with both the Seahawks and the 49ers is that neither is king of the mountain. A successful blueprint assumes getting to the pinnacle of success and staying there until the forces of parity allow. While I (and many others) are bullish on these two NFC rivals' chances, one team sticks out both in terms of ultimate success and longevity.
Why the Baltimore Ravens' Blueprint Will Keep Them Coming Back for More
No blueprint in today's NFL has withstood the test of time like that of Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Newsome has been with the Ravens since they were the Cleveland Browns. He joined the franchise in 1991 after retiring as a Browns all-time great. Along with the franchise, he moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the general manager in 2002. He was the NFL's first African-American general manager and remains one of only a handful of black general managers in a league of mostly black players. He has won two Super Bowls as an executive.
If Newsome retired today, he'd be a Hall of Fame-caliber executive even if he hadn't played a down in the NFL.
So what is Newsome's blueprint?
First, realize that he has hired the right people to work under him and has kept stability in an NFL that almost preaches constant turnover.
John Harbaugh is one of only three coaches to lead the Ravens and only the second during Newsome's tenure. Newsome inherited Brian Billick as well as a stellar cast of defensive coaches including Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, Falcons head coach Mike Smith and Minnesota Vikings assistant Mike Singletary.
The Ravens have had six defensive coordinators in their history, and that number is so high because they keep getting hired elsewhere. Marvin Lewis went on to coach the Cincinnati Bengals. Nolan left for the 49ers. Ryan left for the Jets. Greg Mattison left to coach the University of Michigan's defense. Chuck Pagano left to be the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Dean Pees isn't exactly a young man, but chances are that he'll get a look as a head coach in the coming seasons.
The cohesiveness in the overall direction of the team and the defensive scheme has led the Ravens to be one of the most steady teams over the duration of Newsome's tenure. His deputy—assistant general manager Eric DeCosta—has turned down a number of job offers and will provide an almost seamless transition when Newsome decides his time is up.
It isn't just last year's Super Bowl win that puts the Ravens' blueprint chief among its peers. Rather, it's because that blueprint isn't going anywhere for a long time to come. It may receive some edits, additions and alterations as the NFL changes around it, but the Ravens' path to success is as solid as they come.
Which Teams Are Closest to Matching Newsome's Acumen?
How can a team match what Newsome has built in Baltimore?
While longevity is a huge part of the Ravens' success, it's only the foundation. There's much more to this blueprint.
In terms of longevity, however, one would be remiss not to point at the exact same list of exceptional NFL teams above. The Patriots, Steelers, Giants and Packers all have front offices that are the envy of other teams. The coaching staffs, too, are tenured and have spawned extensive coaching trees around them.
As I said above, those teams and their blueprints are to be desired even if Newsome and the Ravens' plan rises above them.
Newsome has also placed a large emphasis on the quarterback position. Now, I know what you're thinking—the Ravens are a defensive team.
Yes, I'm getting to that, but even though the Ravens are known for having a bit of a mess under center, Newsome has always tried to get a young franchise passer he could be proud of.
He inherited absolutely nothing at the position, as Jeff Blake and Chris Redman started games at quarterback in 2002. Newsome immediately drafted Kyle Boller and gave him a long leash. When Boller proved to be less than worthy, Newsome signed Steve McNair, who was coming off a Pro Bowl selection.
In 2008, Joe Flacco was drafted in the first round and hasn't missed a game since. He was a Super Bowl MVP for the Ravens this past season and (for a time) was the NFL's highest-paid quarterback.
Of course, while Flacco hasn't always played up to Super Bowl MVP standards, the Ravens defense has been "the show" for much of Newsome's tenure.
Newsome's initial first-round pick was linebacker Terrell Suggs in 2003. A few years later, he added lineman Haloti Ngata. These were additions to an already stellar defense that contained linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed—Newsome played a part in drafting them as well.
The Ravens took a step back on defense last season by ranking 17th. So, while the general consensus is that they took some huge defensive losses in free agency—Lewis, Reed, safety Bernard Pollard and linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, among others—the defense may actually be better this season.
Pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was practically a gift from heaven after a fax machine mishap released him from the Denver Broncos. Safeties Michael Huff and rookie Matt Elam have a shot at being a better tandem in 2013 than Pollard and Reed were in 2012. Suggs and cornerback Lardarius Webb should be 100 percent healthy, and defensive linemen Chris Canty and rookie linebacker Arthur Brown are fantastic additions as well.
Do not be surprised when the Ravens defense is in the statistical top 10 for the umpteenth time this season.
The Colts, Seahawks and 49ers all have placed a high emphasis on the quarterback position while maintaining a great defense as well. The Jaguars are giving Blaine Gabbert another chance but could be headed down that path as well.
The Atlanta Falcons have also followed a similar path, drafting quarterback Matt Ryan in the same year that Baltimore added Flacco. Since then, the Falcons defense has had its ups and downs, but Atlanta added a lot of talented personnel this year.
Building the Next Ravens from Scratch
You want to build the next Ravens? Let's pretend Roger Goodell wants to hand you an expansion franchise in London or L.A. How would you start the process?
First, one would have to lay that foundation we've talked about—a foundation of longevity and cohesiveness in the front office and coaching staff. Of course, before someone can be in place for a long time, one has to make sure to hire the right person in the first place.
Jaguars GM David Caldwell, Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim fit profiles similar to Newsome. They've been top personnel assistants for successful teams for a long time.
Who fits that role that we could hire for this pretend franchise? Alonzo Highsmith of the Green Bay Packers' front office is well respected by many in the league. So is Marc Ross of the New York Giants. Of course, why not go with the gold standard and pretend we could lure DeCosta from the Ravens?
At head coach, the Ravens have always gone with well-respected assistants who are good leaders.
Recent NFL hires like Gus Bradley for the Jaguars and Mike McCoy for the San Diego Chargers fit that bill. Down the pipe, we could look at Kyle Shanahan of the Washington Redskins or Mike Sullivan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Over all the other good candidates, however, give me Cleveland Browns new defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
Once those hires are in place, it's simple. Place a huge emphasis on scouting—the Ravens are the best in the biz at that as well—and getting picks right. Don't have a trigger finger on the firing button when things don't go right.
Get a franchise quarterback in the first round of the draft. If that doesn't work out, admit the mistake and get another one until it does. Then, don't mess up on defense.
It seems so simple, but in a league that gets enamored with the latest fads and offenses that put up a lot of points, this blueprint isn't followed often. In a league that constantly asks, "What have you done for me lately," the cohesiveness of the Ravens is to be admired.
Every team should follow Baltimore's blueprint because the Ravens are successful now and look to be into the future.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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