What does it mean to be a large market team in the salary-cap era NFL?

Since the NFL adopted its salary cap in 1992, many studies have been done on how the ability to spend cash no longer has a strong correlation to winning games.  Generally, that’s the idea we’ve gotten from the salary cap era NFL: make as much money as you can, because you can’t buy a championship.  The teams that have tried to spend their way to the top have typically struggled at one point or another along the way.  Most teams struggle to win consistently.  It’s probably not right to try and separate the Washington Redskins from the Arizona Cardinals based on willingness to spend.

The assumption would be that because player salary and wins are uncorrelated, there is no on-field advantage to working with deep pockets.  I am going to explain why I believe that is not true.  The Redskins should have an advantage over teams like the Vikings, Jaguars, Chargers, and Buccaneers.  The Redskins have, unfortunately, been doing it wrong for a long time with their player salaries.

A small market football team has only a couple different ways of competing in the current NFL climate.  Teams like the Bills and Bengals are typically working with stripped down coaching and scouting budgets, and typically have to honor labor contracts they sign because of their inability to eat the contract and make a competitive offer to a better option.  With those stripped down budgets, the only way to compete with teams with larger budgets is to set up a system of internal continuity, which has typically been defined as a coaching staff and a quarterback and a system and a (small) group of core guys.

Indianapolis, and to a lesser extent, San Diego, is/are probably the gold standard for small market success in the NFL, although I have to qualify that by saying that the Colts were not required to function according to small market rules when they employed the game’s biggest star.  They were able to fund and build a new stadium in downtown Indianapolis.  They employed the same quarterback and team president from 1998 through last month.  Everything those teams did sat nicely within the context of one player, one system.  The Colts did it very differently from the Chargers: the Colts always leaned towards a stars/scrubs approach and a ton of cap dollars towards the top of the roster and then system development on the other side.  The Chargers just kept adding value to value in an attempt to load the roster with heavy talent so that they could withstand the test of time.

What is remarkable about a lot of smaller market teams is how much they typically struggle on special teams.  Even with player salaries a non-factor in determining who wins or loses games, teams like Indianapolis, San Diego, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Jacksonville are pretty much at the bottom of the league in special teams every year.  Buffalo was a consistently good special teams unit under coach Bobby April, but they’ve trended towards the bottom since he left after the 2009 season. Consistently at the top every season: Chicago, the Jets, Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, New England, Tennessee, and Phildelphia of recent.

No one would ever suggest that you need to spend more on player salary in order to field a good special teams unit, but it’s clear that it is much easier for the teams with greater means (coaching and scouting) to excel on special teams than it is for teams that work on tighter margins.  The Redskins, however, are consistently below average at special teams, despite enjoying the advantages that seem to correlate best with excelling on special teams.  The Redskins have never been a consistently bad defense, but when compounded by all the offensive personnel mistakes the Redskins have made over the years, being weak on special teams is completely unnecessary.  For all his faults, Vinny Cerrato specifically used to draft players with the idea of having specialists to play once every four downs, though typically since these players rarely made the roster, it may not have been the best way to go about things.  Dallas is a team who, for all their faults under Jerry Jones, typically covers kicks quite well every season.

The crux of the argument for large market teams is that they have the advantage of never having to stay the course if the current course of action is negative.  In theory, a team like the Redskins can always have the best coach available for the current roster because they can pay buyouts instead of honoring contracts.  Whether or not you create a negative culture in your organization by haphazardly firing people without cause is always a concern of a big market owner.  You don’t want to make stupid moves simply because you have money.  But having money should give a team an advantage of making the right move.

Dan Snyder’s ownership of the Redskins has been highly criticized for making too many changes.  It’s a valid criticism that he’s been too happy to change things that may be working, but if the criticism is preventing Snyder from doing the best thing for the Redskins in the present day, that might be worse.  The Redskins cannot expect to be great on offense all of a sudden in 2012, but they need to stop struggling on special teams, and finally learn to excel on defense.  The Redskins aren’t far away in those two facets of the game, and can reach the levels they need to under the current coaching staff.

The other point is that it seems that the current model for making deep playoff runs on a year to year basis appears to be that once you get your coach and your franchise quarterback, everything else will follow.  Let’s examine this closer.  That is probably close to the only way for a resource-limited organization to compete, which is why San Diego was near the bottom of the league when run by Doug Flutie and Mike Riley and why the Colts couldn’t sustain success with Jim Harbaugh and Jim Mora.  It’s not that those players were inadequate, but they need a strong support system that couldn’t be found in San Diego and Indianapolis.  Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Marty Schottenheimer, and Tony Dungy were precisely the kind of picks and hires those teams needed to overcome their other shortcomings.

In theory though, the Redskins should be able to compete year in and year out on coaching alone.  A ten loss season is pretty inexcusable for a team like the Redskins, quarterback or no quarterback.  Schottenheimer needed about five games in 2001 to change the structure of the on-field operation so that the Redskins could compete with and beat teams without a quarterback.  Norv Turner was a great source of organizational dysfunction for the Redskins and consistently struggled to produce competent special teams.  And yet, the Turner era was a great example of how the Redskins were able to maintain high expectations for their team in the salary cap era.  The NFL salary cap didn’t change the Redskins advantages over other teams such as the Cardinals.  The Turner era produced wild inconsistencies in week to week and season to season results, but the Redskins were more or less a .500 team under Turner (looking at years 2-7), under Gibbs 2.0, and were exactly a .500 team under Schottenheimer.

The Redskins “fired” Steve Spurrier and fired Jim Zorn because it was clear they could not compete on the support system and coaching alone, despite significant financial advantages.   And the fact that the Redskins still have these advantages that the Cowboys enjoy.

It should be said that in many ways, the Redskins have been very competitive over the course of the Mike Shanahan era.  Clearly, they have not been as competitive as they need to be to make noise in the NFC East and the Redskins -79 point differential is the worst figure since 2003 under Steve Spurrier, but the Redskins haven’t been a -100 point differential team since 1998, one of only 2 seasons where the Redskins lost by an average of a touchdown per week since Vince Lombardi was coach of the Redskins.  If you don’t believe the Redskins financial advantages have aided the Redskins, consider that the Redskins have never selected first in the NFL draft since the merger.  In fact, they have picked in the top three (excluding the 2000 draft where they had all those extra picks) just once since the merger, in 1994.

Even when you look through the worst post-merger seasons in Redskins history; 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2010, the Redskins have never been in the running for worst team in the league.  They simply enjoy too many advanages to ever be a historically awful team.  It’s the same thing for the Dallas Cowboys.  It’s the same thing for the New York Giants or New England Patriots.  Those teams can have really bad years.  But really bad should never result in worse than 10 or 11 losses.  Because there are smaller market teams that when having a bad season, simply lack the means to get the ship righted and continue to spiral out of control towards the no. 1 overall pick.  The Redskins are cursed in that things can never seem to bottom out.

But if the Redskins can’t use their advantages to their own advantage, then they don’t deserve to ever make the playoffs again.  Look, the Redskins are simply too talent laden in most years (with 2011 being an obvious departure from the norm) to land in a position where they get a franchise quarterback handed to them.  The Redskins should be able to create the idea of a franchise quarterback like the Houston Texans have, or like the Baltimore Ravens have, or like the Philadelphia Eagles have done with multiple guys, or even like the Minnesota Vikings did during the Daunte Culpepper days.  The Redskins have become the Miami Dolphins, except that they didn’t have a Dan Marino to replace: they do everything they can to sell themselves on the idea that their next quarterback is someone else not on their roster.

The Redskins should be easily able to recreate Mark Rypien, or at least Brad Johnson, through strong quarterback coaching and a decent supporting cast, particuarly a ravanous defense and special teams that can put points up on the board.  The Redskins do not need to believe in having a single franchise quarterback.  They do need to start believing that their quarterback can help them win games.  They didn’t always believe in Jason Campbell’s ability to do that.  Mark Brunell probably was believed to be too old to carry a team.  Joe Gibbs couldn’t trust Patrick Ramsey.  Mike Shanahan actively took the game out of Donovan McNabb’s hands to put it in Rex Grossman.  The Redskins coaches are largely contributing to the concept that the Redskins are lacking a franchise quarterback, even though the Redskins obviously have the resources to overcome.  None of those guys (well, Ramsey is the exception) have had less impressive careers than either Rypien (MVP) or Johnson (super bowl title).  But the Redskins couldn’t even go .500 with any of them.  That’s embarrasing work by whoever is in charge of this operation.

The Redskins do not need Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin to win games in 2012.  They do need to be better on three sides of the ball.  But more importantly, they need to to what it takes to land punches with the big dogs of the NFL and blow out the little guys who the Redskins should be blowing out through physical domination in the trenches and precision on the outsides.  And if the Redskins can’t do that in 2012, then they need to find coaches and a front office who can do it for us in 2013.