Free agency is upon us and a new chase for the Super Bowl has started.
That’s what the start of a new “league year” means, and there are many who will try to get off to a quick start under the belief that they can truly improve their team by signing talented veteran players.
The truth is that most of the general managers are really fooling themselves if they believe they can turn their teams around by signing big-name players. This is really just a Band-Aid approach and it is often the fast lane to major disappointment in the new season.
The very best teams can cement their status with one or two key free-agent signings, but those teams didn’t get good by filling their shopping cart at this time of year.
Someone needs to get this point across to the Miami Dolphins, who will officially sign stud defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh away from the Detroit Lions. Suh is one of the most talented defensive linemen in the league (53 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 3 passes batted down) and would seem to be a great fit for the Dolphins who were just a player or two away from having an exceptional defense last season.
But the signing of Suh represents a complete culture change for the Dolphins, and do you really think that mild-mannered head coach Joe Philbin is the right man to rein in Suh and teach him the “Dolphin Way” of playing football?
I doubt there is a “Dolphin Way” any more. There may have been when Don Shula was coaching a Miami powerhouse in the early 1970s, but that’s ancient history. The team that played crushing defense and combined it with exceptional fundamental football has been missing for decades. The addition of Suh won’t help matters.
Suh has a long history of nastiness and dirty play throughout his run with the Lions, although he seemed to tone it down early in the 2013 season. He has been fined just once since then when he backed up and stepped on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the final regular season game in 2014.
There was a thought that Suh had outgrown such behavior prior to that incident, but he could have been suspended for his team’s playoff game the following week against the Dallas Cowboys. That’s the kind of risk that Suh is willing to take because he doesn’t have the personal discipline to keep his team and the big picture in mind.
The Dolphins have a couple of superb pass rushers in Cameron Wake (11.5 sacks) and Olivier Vernon (6.5 sacks), so the idea of adding the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman seems like a winner on the surface.
But it doesn’t work out that way because the Dolphins suddenly become Suh’s team. It won’t sound that way at the opening press conferences and the possibilities will seem endless, but tensions will mount once the team begins working in training camp and the Dolphins are likely to become a controversial mess by midseason.
Teams that want to improve have to do it through the draft. It’s not just about hitting home runs with first-round picks, either. It’s about showing consistency up-and-down the draft for a two- or three-year period. That’s what teams like the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and New England Patriots have done that better than the competition in the last few years.
Coming up with the right players in the draft is not the only key to success. The most overlooked factor in assessing winning teams is the teaching aspect of the game. Just because players have succeeded at the college level does not mean they know it all or have reached their peak just because they are moving on to the professional level.
The best coaches are often the best teachers. It’s not so much the head coaches any longer, but coaches like Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, and Mike McCarthy hire position coaches who teach the game superbly. They pick out mistakes and correct them on the practice field and in the film room, and they do it quickly.
Average and below average head coaches either don’t recognize subtle mistakes or don’t correct them effectively. That’s why teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, and Washington Redskins have been so stagnant for so long.
The start of free agency is an exciting time in the NFL, but it is filled with peril. Teams are willing to commit sizable portions of their salary cap to supposed superstars, and that strategy only works on rare occasions.
Finding the winning formula by drafting successfully and teaching well is the only way to find consistency in the NFL.
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