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NFL Team Building- What’s the most important ingredient?

The speed and temperament of how NFL decision makers take on the task of building their teams into winners varies from city to city. Examples liter the cemetery of what could have been. There are those that have tried to do it overnight and others who have taken years to try and get it right but never seem to raise expectations or standards.

Different factions have different timelines. Fans always want it “right now” and then they want to buy the Kool-Aid at a good offseason press conference. The media would like a team to show steady progress that runs parallel to the numbers so that it all can neatly be explained on paper. However, this story can often be swayed by numbers that don’t paint the full picture. Even in our locker rooms themselves, we had divergent agendas. Older guys despise the word “rebuild” and young guys see themselves as forever players. The urgency and the answers are debatable depending on whom you ask.

Having considered all this and as General Manager, with the biggest influence on decision making, the one ingredient that you must have is PATIENCE. And the patience I’m referring to does not mean taking your time or not acting with urgency. My meaning of the word PATIENCE means that once a skill set or a need is identified, the GM cannot create the player to fill that role. The person in the General Manager’s chair cannot force it, cannot reach to fill it, and even though the need may be great, cannot allow a desperate situation to alter the evaluation of a player. Over drafting or overpaying in order to cross off that particular box/building block is a mistake many make at the NFL level.

This is the part of the business that is missing from the opinions of the “draft gurus” because there is a difference between evaluating and building a team. Just because a pool of players is sequenced- it does not mean the quality at the top of that list is high. Some acquisition pools are littered with second and third tier players at the top and that is not to say these players are not valuable. These are your glue guys but they can not be acquired nor paid with top of the line capital to fulfill the timeline nor pressure applied by others outside your building.

Most of the time when fans say, we need this or we need that, their team’s decision makers agree. The good GM’s are not swayed by that public pressure to act, lets do not confuse activity with progress. If the value is not truly worth the price, the prudent move is to show PATIENCE.

Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard recently said something similar when he was a guest of Robert Mayes on The Athletic’s Football Show podcast. Sometimes even though a player might be listed as the best available at a particular position in the draft or in free agency, he might still not good enough to pay “top of the market” money or use draft capital to acquire. That’s dangling cheese in front of a mouse.

You can’t take the bait just because you are hungry. There is no substitute for quality and often waiting a year or until a different group of players becomes available is the prudent thing to do. This is not always the preferred route though of fans and media in our “win at all cost” and “right now or else” world. I think it takes more skill and guts to stick to your convictions and pass. I’d rather do this than overpay for talent you know will disappoint in the long run.

I’ve been involved in many of these decisions over the years. The first time I made the mistake was in New Orleans. We were coming off a successful 2000 season by any standards. We had totally rebuilt the team in less than a calendar year and won the first playoff game in franchise history. That next offseason, we were in desperate need of a WR to pair with Joe Horn, an up-and-coming star at the time. I let desperation rule and we signed a free agent from Washington, Albert Connell. I didn’t have the patience to wait and draft the receiver we needed to develop and it ended up costing us big. The first day I laid eyes on him in minicamp, I knew we had made a mistake with Connell. I knew we had paid a C+ player, A minus money. I didn’t sleep for a week. Connell also had some off-the-field issues as well that traveled with him to New Orleans and he just could not overcome them. I should have been more patient and waited for better.

When I was the GM of the Miami Dolphins, the shoe was on the other foot in the 2007 NFL Draft. I was pounded by both the media and some fans after our draft for not filling a giant need at the time. They thought Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn would be a slam dunk choice with our first pick. However, neither Cam Cameron, our head coach at the time, nor myself were sold on Quinn. We played the “patience” card and passed on him

It proved to be the right choice but, at the time, it took some thick skin to actually not take the bait and hamper the Dolphins in the future with the giant contract of a player they would be less than satisfied with. I wanted Quinn to be better than he was but in my heart, I knew he wasn’t. It was just a year void of any QB talented enough to be picked that highly in the draft. Wrong year, wrong timing. It was a hard pill for all of Dolphins Nation to swallow, including the fans and media.

There are many more examples of this within NFL team building walls. I could go on and on but my point is that the roster of a team cannot be built on any specific timeline. Everyone wants to win “right now”, but trying to create players in order to speed the process is a mistake that is hard to overcome. The best acquisitions I made as a GM were in situations when the conviction of our evaluation came together at the right time and when that particular player was available. It’s all about timing and nobody can control that.

Sure, it can be frustrating, but one can not force what is not there. On paper it is easy, but in the real world of NFL team building, even though you always have to be ready, patience is a virtue.

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