The NFL’s commitment to competitive balance isn’t an abstract idea. It will be taking the field for the Super Bowl shortly.
Ritchie Valens died on the toss of a coin. Bobby Kennedy ran into his assassin taking a shortcut through a hotel kitchen. John Hannah once sat with his agent and decided whether or not to star in a uniquely annoying romantic comedy. Cristiano Ronaldo, already on Arsenal’s and Liverpool’s radars, so stunned Manchester United’s players in a friendly that they badgered Ferguson to sign him.
History is filled with remarkable moments like these, where one decision appears, in retrospect, to redirect the entire course of events. One such moment took place on Thursday 28th April 2011. For it was then that this year’s Super Bowl teams were founded.
We are all on a branch line to somewhere.
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It was draft day and, following the 2010 season, Carolina and Denver – one of whom will become NFL champions in just over a week – were officially the worst two teams in American football. Carolina had won only twice that year and Denver just four times. But, rather than facing a total rebuilding project with limited resources, they had some grounds for hope.
For a start, unlike in the Premier League, they would be getting an equal cut of TV, ticketing and merchandising revenue from the league. Secondly, the salary cap meant that, while other teams might have better players, their opponents would be able to spend no more on their teams than Carolina or Denver would be able to on theirs. No team would be able to reinforce its dominance and gain a perpetual advantage over the others.
Finally, of course, there was the draft. Picking first, Carolina selected Cam Newton, a tall, powerful superstar college-quarterback whose infectious personality, disciplined passing, strong running and indomitable will has made him the face of his team. Drafting second, Denver took Von Miller, the human dynamo who runs their defence and was the third fastest in league history to record 50 sacks.
Laying the foundations: Cam Newton and Von Miller.
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At a stroke, Carolina and Denver had foundations for their teams. How they’ve built their title-challenging sides has differed (of which more later), but without these two acquisitions – the product of the NFL’s belief that, even if life isn’t fair sport can be – neither team would be in the Super Bowl this year. Almost every single Super Bowl-winning side has a similar story: the draft class where they found the players to build around.
This, of course, is not quite how it’s done in the Premier League.
Imagine if you asked a Premier League club to redecorate your house. If it’s Chelsea or Man City you’d asked, then, on day one, the manager would turn up with twenty or thirty different pots of paint. He’d open half of them and then, like Jackson Pollock with a mean hangover, fling the paint around. Returning a few hours later, he’d hurl some more paint on the uncovered portions of the walls before going home.
The next morning, the chairman would come in, assess the quality of the finish and then, perhaps, call in the manager again to repeat the process – this time with freshly bought paint – until the walls were properly covered.
If the chairman wasn’t happy, though, he might sack the manager and send a new one in, complete with new paint to start the process again. Any excess would then be wiped down, poured into pots and then resold to smaller teams. Other tins, which had been left out all night with the lid off or tucked behind the door and forgotten, would be thrown out.
Arsenal are a different case, as we know. If you asked them to do the job, the manager would come in, use a roller to apply a single, impossibly smooth layer of paint and then leave, disregarding yours and his chairman’s appeals to do a second or a third coat while there was still enough paint in the roller tray. He would come back the next day and repeat the process, refusing any offers to upgrade to a bigger roller or more expensive paint that would cover more readily.
Premier League team just a striker away from challenging for the title.
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I invoke this image because, unlike Carolina and Denver, Man City and Arsenal, currently two of the league’s top three teams, were not the worst teams in the Premier League five years ago. Metaphorically, they didn’t have a rebuilding job to do, just an interior design challenge. City have been champions twice since, while Arsenal have been third or fourth every year and twice FA Cup winners. They have known no fallow period.
Since Carolina and Denver bottomed-out, City have spent an average of £100m+ a year on transfers to acquire players like Touré, Silva, Agüero, Navas and De Bruyne. Arsenal, meanwhile, have spent about £40m a year, bringing in Arteta, Cazorla, Giroud, Özil and Čech. These, it should be said, are not net expenditure figures; both have made significant sales to partially offset these purchases.
What matters, though, is that they have vastly outspent – in transfer fees and wages – all but a few clubs in England. These, then, are achievements built and reinforced by spending power that most cannot match. Arsenal, with their stadium construction and patient support for Wenger, are one of the more admirable of the Big Clubs, but their achievements are diminished if you compare their finishing position over the last ten years with their position in a league table of player wages. They’ve been about where they ought to have been.
The other member of the current top three, the remarkable Leicester, have done it slightly differently. Their success has been so unexpected that it’s hard to know what lesson to draw from it. My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that it’s neither replicable nor a sign of a more competitive Premier League. We’ll know more next season, but it’s certainly notable that Leicester arrived in the Premier League with an enormous wage bill (by Championship standards) and yet were still, almost miraculously, able to come in dead-on the FFP limit. (There are suggestions that Leicester effectively gamed the system through the use of offshore finance.)
No need to be churlish, though. What Leicester have done under Ranieri has been absolutely astonishing; one of the greatest achievements of the last twenty years in English football. They’re hired a managerial retread and he’s been able to turn a team of journeymen and overlooked talents into a top-three side almost overnight. It’s a glorious thing, but it’s not, I think we must admit, a reliable technique for building a title challenger in the Premier League.
That method, as we know, is to buy, buy and buy some more, swapping managers each time you fail to get as close to the title as your chairman believes he deserves to be.
Ed Woodward drives yet another hard bargain.
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In the NFL, meanwhile, Carolina were slowly building their team. In their first year with Cam Newton at quarterback and with Ron Rivera as coach, they won six games – a four-game improvement that meant they drafted ninth overall at the end of the year. With their first pick, they took Luke Kuechly, the dominating inside linebacker who is the physical and emotional leader of their defence. In the fifth round, they went for Josh Norman, the player who’s emerged this season, like an angry polecat with stalking tendencies, as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. They traded their third round pick, meanwhile, to get tight end Greg Olsen – now Cam Newton’s favourite passing target.
That year, the team stuttered, losing six of their first seven games. The owner held his nerve, though, backing Rivera. The team won their last seven games and twelve of their sixteen the following year.
Since then, they drafted other key performers like defensive linemen Star Lotulelei and Kony Ealy – creating a defensive line that’s as mean as Scrouge and as brutal as Bill Sikes – as well as impressive first year wide receiver Devin Funchess.
Eventually all these players will move from relatively inexpensive rookie contracts to deals that reflect their market rate. And so, to accommodate them, other veterans have and will be released. Elsewhere, the team filled the gaps in its offense by getting players from the pound shop. Ted Ginn Jr, a one-time first round draft pick who’s looked less impressive almost every year, was generally taken to be finished. A remarkable athlete with a frustrating habit of dropping the ball, he’d bounced around a number of teams, gradually becoming side-lined as little more than a kick returner. In his last year in Arizona he caught just 14 balls and, having turned 30, found himself unwanted. Returning to Carolina, though, he’s become a critical big play receiver for his team – this fly sweep from the NFC Championship game could be the longest 22-yard run in history. His 44 regular season catches are the second most in his career (he caught 56 in 2008), his 16.8 yards per reception is a career high and his 10 receiving touchdowns are just shy of half his career total of 21.
Dave Gettleman, Carolina GM, scouts another free agent player.
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Carolina has also filled one of the most important roles on the team on the cheap by signing Michael Oher and moving him to left tackle. It’s hard to overstate what a masterstroke this was. It’s like signing late-period Titus Bramble on a free and turning him into vintage Rio Ferdinand. The subject of the best-selling book The Blind Side, and the film of the same name, Oher’s NFL career had been a huge disappointment, with poor performances at the less important right tackle spot getting him bumped down the pecking order and then out the door of several teams. The Carolina General Manager saw something that no-one else in the NFL did, though, and picked him to protect Cam Newton. To universal surprise, he’s been one of the best at his position in the league this year. With premium left tackles commanding $12m+ a year, Carolina have managed to save about $8m a year, getting Oher for a bargain $3.5m a year – money that has been spent helping to close other holes in the team and ensuring the best players are retained.
Carolina’s rise, then, is a story of strong drafting, organisational patience, player development and a mysterious ability to revitalise aging bodies that would’ve impressed Wilford Brimley. Even if they don’t win the Super Bowl this year, they’ll be a force for several years to come.
Denver’s route has been an interesting contrast: a high risk series of gambles on ‘stars and scrubs’ designed to get the last good years out of a high priced quarterback.
Appointed to run the team immediately after the disastrous 2010 season, John Elway, Denver’s greatest ever player, has taken a much more aggressive approach than Carolina. Unimpressed by what he saw on the field in his first season – a mediocre rather than promising 8-8, despite a play-off win – he fired the coach, cut meek-armed quarterback Tim Tebow, and traded up in the draft to get man-beast defensive end Derek Wolfe.
Since then he’s focused on free agent signings, bringing in highly paid marquee names like DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib in the belief that, with the right quarterback and a few stars, he could engineer an overnight success.
The cornerstone of this strategy was getting Peyton Manning at quarterback. By any measure one of the best five ever to play the position, he was available as a free agent at the end of 2011. Able to dictate the tempo like Riquelme, but with the incision of Scholes and the awareness of Xavi, Manning elevated sporting intelligence to the point of clairvoyance. You daren’t catch his eye in case he read your mind, beat you on the play and then emptied your bank account after the game using your PIN.
Peyton Manning: “That nagging voice inside your head telling you you’re going to lose. That’s me.”
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In the Premier League, a player like that becoming available would mean, realistically, that only about three teams could afford him. In the NFL, though, with its salary cap, every team in the market for a quarterback could afford him – if they were willing to cut players elsewhere to make ends meet. This is the kind of opportunity small clubs in the Premier League simply never experience. The incomes of the Big Clubs so far exceed those of even the teams in sixth or seventh that they are never in a situation of having to let someone go because they can’t afford to give several players new contracts at the same time.
And so Denver went all in with Peyton Manning, gambling on spending nearly a sixth of their entire salary cap on one player. The result of this was that, in recent years, they’ve been unable to keep quality out-of-contract players like receivers Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas. Both are now making lesser teams better for money Denver simply didn’t have.
The cap cuts both ways, though. Denver’s star wide receiver is Emmanuel Sanders. Short for his position, but quicksilver and with hands like velvet covered clamps, he was originally considered the lesser of three outstanding wide receivers drafted by Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2010. And so, when the Steelers looked at their cap room and decided they could only afford to pay the going rate to one of the three, he found himself squeezed out. Pittsburgh’s loss was Denver’s gain.
Elway’s high-stakes plan has been broadly successful. Denver have been transformed into one of the toughest teams in the NFL, winning 12 or more games in each of the last four years and going to a Super Bowl in 2013. But, with Von Miller suspended for six games and then lost for the play-offs with an ACL tear, that season ended in an embarrassing shellacking by Seattle. After last season’s first-round play-off exit, and with Manning’s age beginning to show, Elway doubled-down on his strategy, replacing the coaching staff for one final roll of the dice with his now 39-year-old quarterback.
In what must be his last year, Manning has had not just the worst seasons of his career, but has been comfortably the worst starting quarterback in the league. His mind is still there, but his body won’t respond. Short of a Robocop-style refit, Manning will be gone next year. And then what?
Denver will have had a great run and, perhaps, a Super Bowl, but it’ll be a high priced team of veterans trying to make it work with an inexperienced quarterback. Von Miller will be there, along with Derek Wolfe and Emmanuel Sanders. The rest, though, Elway may have to tear down and rebuild. And, thanks to their Super Bowl berth, they’ll be picking either last or second last in the draft.
Latest Denver annual accounts.
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There’s no tougher love for profligate sports teams than the brutal discipline of the NFL cap and draft system. Build your team your way, it says. Sign who you like. Tinker with their contracts. Trade up and get involved in free agency. But know this: sooner or later, there will be a reckoning.
Sustained success in the NFL means four or five good seasons. Extending your dynasty beyond that happens only when lightning strikes a team twice – as happened for the current New England Patriots or the San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s – and they find themselves able to pair a once-in-a-generation coach with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
For everyone else, decay is inevitable. The draft rebuilds competitors and the salary cap prevents you from hoarding top players.
This awesome commitment to competitive balance comes with no guarantees, though. Badly run teams can easily waste their draft picks or pour money into high-price mistakes in free agency. (I’ve written, too, about the difficulties of projecting players, especially quarterbacks.) But it’s undeniable that, if run well, every team in the NFL has a chance to move from the basement to the penthouse in less time that it would take most Premier League clubs to hire and fire three managers.
Which is why, Leicester’s shimmering, ghostly, St. Elmo’s fire of a season aside, the list of Premier League contenders reads, year-after-year, like a mantra; an unchanging and numbing recitation of four names whose repetition brings us closer to oneness with the supreme god: Mammon.
In the NFL, meanwhile, you can watch the Super Bowl on February 7th and find out which team was able to go from worst to first in just five years.
Enjoy the game. Who knows what crucial moment it may turn on?
Martin Calladine is a freelance writer and the author of a book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”.