The difference maker

If you are an avid football fan and watch religiously with a forensic eye, you will know that the difference in each game comes down to about five big plays. That’s five plays that could happen because of a blown assignment, a missed tackle, a penalty, a wrong route, and/or a missed block. Outside of the balanced give and take between two teams, it’s these five plays that make the difference in the outcome of a game. Usually, the team who makes the least mistakes wins.

So what are the macro-fundamental reasons why so many teams can’t consistently win ten games or more over the course of a decade? What are the unseen forces of why teams fail to be consistent winners, and make the playoffs two thirds of the time?

Here are four factors for losing organizations you may not notice on Sundays but they are usually the reason.

It does start at the top: Owners can be their own worst enemy by either being too deeply involved with personnel (coaches and players) moves, being too cheap, and/or letting their ego or the media sway their decisions. Now a bad owner even gets lucky sometimes and wins a Super Bowl in spite of themselves. They may score a great QB in the draft and land a great coach, however, they usually can’t keep the wins coming.

The best owners hire great football people, reinforce and support their plans and get out of their way. I would be foolish to name any owners but you know who they are.

The training room: NFL teams will manage about one hundred players over the course of a year. During the season it’s about sixty. However, the vast majority of NFL training rooms are understaffed and lack quality depth. Some teams only have three to four trainers backed up by a few interns. Others have about eight to ten high quality trainers. Some head trainers are empowered to make decisions in the best interests of the player first. Some others can’t even order an MRI without permission from a GM or front office exec.

Eighty percent of all NFL players have an injury during the season that requires serious attention. Many players don’t get the care and attention they need. Teams with superior training rooms do a great job in catching an injury before it gets worse, even preventing injuries and making players feel they can trust the decisions being made. The reality is, most players don’t trust NFL trainers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the saying from clients, “Our trainers are a joke”. Or, after moving teams, “Wow, the treatment I’m getting now is night and day”.

Teams that keep their players healthy will win more frequently with a training staff that helps to create high morale throughout the team.

No real offensive/defensive “system” in place: The Packers have been running the same offense for many years. So have the Patriots, Giants, Saints, and the Falcons. They are system-based offenses that can plug in players that fit the needs of the system.

Defensive coordinators Dom Capers, Dick Lebeau, Wade Phillips, and Greg Williams run a philosophy and system based defense that players can adapt to quickly. When these coaches are with one team for a long time they usually have long-term success.

Once players learn a system, the work/practice time is about perfection, execution and adding some wrinkles. The Patriots have used WR’s Troy Brown, Tim Dwight, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and/or Julian Edelman to plug-in and play their slot receiver for years. The Packers and the Patriots have both pawned off back-up QBs that have excelled in their systems but struggled with other playbooks after being traded.

Having a developed system on both sides of the ball allows players to improve each year without having to learn new playbooks every three years.

Ability to develop players: Teams that know how to develop young players will have depth and can rely on the “next man up” philosophy. Under the new CBA coaches don’t have the on-field development time they used to so they have to improvise. Teams who properly manage their preseason reps, balance coaching time between vets and rookies and have a definitive patient plan in place will always have a pipeline of good players.

Teams who don’t have developed depth fall apart around midseason once their best players get hurt. The Ravens and Steelers do an excellent job in developing young players. GM Ozzie Newsome once told me he hired John Harbaugh because he’s used to working with the bottom half of the roster and is a teacher. Thus, John likes hiring coaches who are always “teaching”. It’s actually the reason I sent UFA LT James Hurst there this year after 18 teams bid for his services. As a rookie, he started four games and did a good job protecting Flacco.

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