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Rebuilding - When to Say When and How to Do It

No fan base wants to see your team go through it, but it happens to everyone sooner or later. It’s the dreaded rebuild. Even the mighty New England Patriots have now entered into rebuilding mode. It’s never easy to accept that your organization needs a full overhaul, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. The big issue that most teams have, is knowing when to say when. You often see organizations delay the inevitable, and that can set an franchise back several years.

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As a fan of an organization that has been rebuilding for 64 years now (the Lions), I feel like I can provide some insight as to what goes into a rebuild and how to go about it in a successful manner. I will lay out some decisions and circumstances that I believe will accelerate the rebuild of your team. Now given, it is often much easier to be an arm chair quarterback and say what a team should do from a far, than it is to be in the trenches. Having said that, I feel like there are several areas where teams go awry.


The most important step of deciding when to rebuild is knowing when to let go of aging stars with large contracts. No one is better at this than the Patriots, who often release or trade a player a year or two before their decline begins. The Patriots have a track record of this that is impossible for other teams to live up to.


You see this issue pop up so often around the NFL. The aging star has given the organization everything he’s had for 10 plus years. He wants to ride it out with the team, but his salary makes it difficult to fill the rest of the team with impact players. Nobody wants to release, trade or not re-sign a guy who has given so much to the organization, but failing to do so can set a team back four or five years.

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The Lions and Texans are two teams who are currently entering a rebuild and they both have had decisions to make regarding the long time faces of their franchises. Luckily for their two organizations, which both have a track record of being poorly managed, the stars came to management and asked to be traded or released. Matthew Stafford was traded for a package that included two first round picks as well as a young quarterback who lead his team to the NFC title just a few short years ago. The Texans decided to grant JJ Watt his release, which now allows him to sign with any team he would like to. Even by trading and releasing these two guys, both organizations put them in favorable situations. Stafford is going to a team that will be a contender in the NFC, while Watt gets to choose his next team after being granted his release. This is two organizations that are doing right by their guys, while setting up their team for a better future.


The second piece of the rebuild is deciding on the right people to lead it. The only way a rebuild is ever successful is when you have a solid Front Office and General Manager leading the way. Rebuilding can be an extremely difficult and tedious process. It takes patience, which is where some organizations get off track. Teams often feel pressure from the owners, city and fan base to make a quick turn around but this isn’t always possible. Very few teams are in a situation like Jacksonville where they are equipped with the first overall selection in the 2021 draft, while also holding $100 million in cap space. Those are pretty much the most ideal circumstances you can have while entering a rebuild but it rarely works out in such a way. Instead, you need a plan. Where are your teams greatest needs? What type of system are you going to run and who is going to lead your team in that direction? The teams that are most successful have the answers to these questions.


The first example that comes to mind is the 49ers. They put John Lynch in charge of building the team and he decided they were going to start by building on the defensive side of the ball. More specifically they have built from the defensive line back. They want to put pressure on the quarterback and disrupt what the other team wants to do on offense. They've been extremely successful at this and continue to add pieces to their already stacked defensive line.

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My third piece of the rebuild is getting your quarterback. Currently with the direction the NFL is going in, you’re not going to win without having a stud quarterback leading your team. Gone are the days of Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson leading their teams to a Super Bowl victory. In a league that has turned into a race to 40 points, you'll need to find the guy who can lead your team up and down the field. Having said this, most teams make the mistake of thinking the young star quarterback needs to be the first piece to the puzzle.


Year in and year out you see teams reaching for quarterbacks early in the draft, hoping that they will find the guy that will turn around your franchise. For every Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, there are a ton of Mitchell Trubiskys. The guy that was picked towards the top of the draft to be the savior for the organization. Often these teams have few other pieces to build around and the quarterback is thrust into a nearly impossible situation. How often do we see the quarterback of the future, come in and take a beating while losing his confidence in the process? It happens way more often than a Mahomes-like situation where a guy comes in and completely changes the culture of his team. Personally, I think teams reach more often than not just to fill the QB1 position, instead of finding it as the final piece to the puzzle like the 49ers are doing now or the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson a few years back. It’s extremely valuable to have a team that is built to succeed around a stud quarterback who also happens to be on a rookie contract.

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Every situation is different, and I’m not qualified to run a team, but I feel like these are three items that are often missed by an organization while they are going through the rebuilding process. Deciding when to rebuild, prevents you from holding on to a pipe dream for too long while delaying the inevitable. Not choosing the right people to run the organization and guide the rebuild could extend it by several years. Lastly, by not having the right quarterback in place, you are all but guaranteeing that your team will not be a true Super Bowl contender anytime in the foreseeable future.


No fan base wants to see their team rebuild, but it’s something that every organization will be forced to go through sooner or later. Having a plan and making sound decisions will greatly accelerate the process. We all want to see our teams become a true playoff and Super Bowl contender, but only a handful of organizations are able to do it on a consistent basis. A full organizational rebuild is often the only way to bring a struggling franchise back to where they want to be. Some rebuilds take years. Some take a decades. Others last for what seems like forever. The biggest thing is knowing when to say when.


-Jason Sullivan (@jsulli2121)

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