As in most American sports leagues, the NFL does not have a relegation rule. So basically any team can play a season no matter how unsuccessful, they will be allowed to play again next season. In addition to that there is a salary cap that limits the wages to be paid to players and new players can be obtained in a draft system. This combination results in more variety as in the long run basically any well managed team may have to opportunity to become a title contender.
Actually only 5 teams never appeared in the big final, the Superbowl, during the 43 years of its existence, with 17 different teams winning it. Just compare this to e.g. some of the big European soccer leagues like Spain, where over the same 43 years period Real Madrid and FC Barcelona won a combined 31 titles (and only 5 other teams shared the remaining 12 trophies), or the England Premier League, where meanwhile the “Big Four” (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool FC and Manchester United) also won 31 titles.
One central phenomenon created by this system is called “rebuilding”.
When you had a successful team that reached its performance peak and some of the key players end their career, in most cases it is not possible to extend the success by simply replacing these players with some other players of the same strength, as these other players are either not available at all, too expensive to fit into the salary regulations or as they would force you to change your game system, which would take quite some time anyway.
Therefore most teams try to completely rebuild a new team, bringing in young, talented, inexpensive players and develop them into top players, creating a great team.
Many companies today are facing the same issue. They had a very successful period over the last years, but now a lot of key managers are about to retire. Should they bring in experienced managers from elsewhere or “rebuild” – that means recruit young talent and develop it.
Interestingly enough, the reasoning is not too far off the NFL: Experienced personnel is not always available, quite expensive and does not always fit with the company style and culture (“game system”). Young graduates are cheaper and, more importantly, bring in fresh talent, dynamic and will that can be used to really create a convincing team on the long run.
Sounds easy in theory, but there are some twists to it:
First you have to pick the right people: Those that really have a good potential, which is not always obvious, making it a huge challenge. Then you have to convince them that they can have future success in your team. Finally you have to put up the right development measures.
How to do it? Maybe we can learn from the NFL teams again. Some are extremely successful in rebuilding. The Indianapolis (formerly Baltimore) Colts for example were an at best mediocre team for much of the late 1970s, 80s and 90s until they started making the right picks, like bringing in Peyton Manning as a quarterback in 1998. Since then they made it to the playoff 10 times, winning the Superbowl in 2006. On the other hand, Detroit won their last title in 1957 and failed to rebuild a strong team ever since (some fans even sell T-Shirts saying “Detroit Lions – rebuilding since 1957” to mock them, see since57.com). Four days ago they finished the 2009 season with 14 losses in 16 games.
What’s the difference and how to do it right?
First, commitment to the “young” strategy is required. Some in Detroit question the owner’s commitment in general, which is not a good starting point.
Second, you have to make the best people find the best people. Indianapolis only took off after they brought in Bill Polian, one of the most successful team managers and the guy who drafted Manning and other key stars like Edgerrin James.
Third, give them time. Polian’s first season ended with 3 wins and 13 losses. However, one year later the Colts created the biggest NFL turnaround ever at the time, finishing with 13 wins in 16 matches.
Fourth, be prepared to spend some money on your HR organization as it will pay. Many successful NFL organizations have some of the greatest experts in charge of the personnel, like Bill Parcells, the Executive VP of Football Operations at the Miami Dolphins, who won two Superbowls as a head coach. That will also convince young people that they will be entering an organization with potential to become successful.
And fifth and final: Have some luck with making the right picks.
In that sense: Good luck to you!