The Rules For Winning in the NFL v2.0

Part 1 reposted 2007’s Rules for Winning in the NFL. It was a good way to look back and see what was working then. Everything is changing. The NFL is always on the move. The rules change because the NFL changes.

Some of the change is transparent. As an example, the rule change where a kickoff touchback gave a team the ball at the 25 yard line instead of the 20 yard line has had a lot of impact. The NFL wanted more safety, so the NFL got what they wanted- fewer returned kickoffs. Like it or not, that made Special Teams less important. Then they moved the PAT back to the 15 yard line. That added 2 point conversions much more into the mix.

Some of the changes were more subtle. But seen over the past ~14 seasons, the shift is stark. Consider the ever growing importance of throwing the ball. The NFL wanted more passing. In 2006, when passing was already gaining plenty of momentum over previous decades, the NFL was 53% pass and 47% run. In 2020, it was 57% pass and 43% run. That may not seem like a big difference, but it is significant. That mix dictates how you draft and how you allocate the cap.

An even bigger way to see the change in the NFL is to go back to 1978. In 1978, teams passed 42% of the time and ran the ball 58% of the time. Why 1978? Two things happened.

In 1978, the NFL further freed up receivers with the illegal contact rule, restricting contact beyond 5 yards downfield. And it loosened the interpretations of holding by offensive linemen by giving them permission to extend their arms and open their hands on pass plays. This had the desired effect of opening up the passing game and reducing conservative play calling.

NFL Football Operations

The second thing was under the radar. Bill Walsh became a Head Coach a year later.

The 49ers were cellar dwellers and they did not start throwing the pigskin regularly in 1979. But the “West Coast Offense,” coined by Bill Parcells, was going to shape football for decades to come. It ushered in a wave of precision passing. Teams no longer ran the ball regularly on first down. Offenses are still shaped by these roots today.

The second wave of passing came as a result of different rules enforcement by officials for what was holding. Specifically, the NFL no longer called a penalty when an Offensive Lineman held in between the shoulders. This happened sometime around when the first “Rules v1.0” were published, further incentivizing passing. Why is this important to the Rules for Winning? Because the Quarterback has always been critical to the game of professional football, but today it is EVERYTHING.

RULE #1. QUARTERBACK.

That is it. Quarterback. Period. You can win a championship without a very good quarterback, but you better have 21 other really good players accompanying him. He needs to make plays. The NFL is a passing league. If your QB is pedestrian, you will be on the outside looking in. I have said this before, but the historical perspective is necessary… the great Vince Lombardi lamented how he wished the league had less weight on the QB. Yet in 1967, his last season as coach of the Packers, he still ran the ball on 72% of the snaps from scrimmage. 72%! Imagine what Lombardi would say about winning in the NFL now??!! It is a Quarterback league.

RULE #2. PROTECT THE QUARTERBACK.

Are you catching on yet? You better keep him healthy, upright, and able to do his job throwing the ball anywhere on the field. The second half of Eli Manning’s career was thrown down the toilet because he was constantly given shoddy protection. Remember the Phil Simms Rule of throwing the ball downfield? Well, that ain’t happening if you can’t protect your QB. GMs are figuring this out, paying not only Tackles huge money, but also paying up for Centers and Guards. We quantified this with Spotrac data (see ‘Manifesto’ link below) on average salaries, where the Offensive Tackle is paid the 2nd highest salary out of 12 positions on the field, the Center is now #3, and the Guard (yes, the formerly lowly Guard) is now #5.

RULE #3. RUSH THE QUARTERBACK.

Are you seeing the pattern? First you obtain a good QB. Next, you make sure you maintain/optimize him. And then when you are done doing those two things, you do your best to kill the other guy’s QB, because that is what they are trying doing to yours. This may seem overly simple, but as the late great Mr. Rogers (yes, that one) said:

Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.

Fred Rogers

If you are doing these Rules properly, they should be fairly simple and direct. Everything else flows from the first 3 Rules. Everything else SUPPORTS the first 3 Rules. This is a pyramid. Like it or not, this is how you win. If you do all 3 well, your odds of contending for a title are high. If you do 2 out of 3, you are competitive. If your team is doing 1 out of 3 well, it is not competitive. And if it does none of the 3 well, it is probably near or at the bottom of the NFL. How did your team score against this metric? Last season’s Super Bowl teams both had excellent QBs and Offensive Lines. TB had the NFL’s 3rd ranked pass rush. The Chiefs were ranked 12th.

The Bucs drafted Offensive Tackle Tristan Wirfs at 1.13 Overall last season. As a rookie, he started all 16 games, gave up 1 sack all year, protected Brady, and did everything except go to the Pro Bowl. Considering he finished as the best Offensive Lineman for the Bucs, their ascension to the Title could not have happened without Rule #2. In stark confirmation (and title game contrast), the Chiefs had solid OL protection until the Super Bowl, when both Tackles could not play. Mahomes had no protection and the Chiefs lost the game.

RULE #4. EVERY OTHER POSITION IS IN SUPPORT OF RULES 1-3.

4a) WRs are a dime a dozen. I know. I know. Better WRs have better separation, helping your team move the ball. Just click the link, because this is about availability. QB LT (and even EDGE, to a degree) are obtained through meticulous cultivation. WR, on the other hand, is a commodity exchange.

4b) RB is not an important part of winning in the NFL.

This is not your father’s NFL. Running and stopping the run are not 2 of the 3 keys to winning in the NFL, unlike what you may have mistakenly heard from one GM. We wrote a manifesto on this topic. Since that piece was written, the following year a former Round 1 RB was released, signed to a 1 year prove-it deal, played a complimentary role and won a ring. And, Saquon Barkley tore his ACL. Case closed.

4c) LBers are worth less today than 14 years ago, but they still matter.

Don’t tell Devin White or Lavonte David that LBers are unimportant.

4d) Safeties have a bigger role in today’s NFL.

Their size and speed are necessary as a response to more passing. (CBs, while obviously necessary, have been “commoditized” by the NFL’s rules to make passing easier.)

4e) Special Teams are still underrated, but less so.

Kickoffs have been neutered.

4f) A very good Offensive Line coach is almost critical.

This is in support of Rule #2.

4g) Tight End in the Red Zone.

RULE #5. YOU WIN THROUGH THE DRAFT.

5a) Trading Down in the Draft is great.

GMs overpay for the right to choose. This has been documented ad nauseum. It is still somewhat frightening to me that Dave Gettleman made the best Draft day decision of his career in moving down 9 spots for a R1 and R4 pick and would not have done that if a WR he wanted was on the board. I don’t care if that WR is Jerry freaking Rice, Trade Down.

5b) Second Round Draft picks are the best value in the draft. No sizzle, all steak.

Verbatim from the old list. God has blessed the second round and GMs still have not figured this out. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it is just insane how easy it is to build a team by just moving down and living in Round 2. Plus, you don’t get the divas, you get the guys with something to prove. This has been going on forever and it continues to go on forever. Mark Collins, Erik Howard, Pepper Johnson, Jumbo Elliott, Michael Strahan, Jason Sehorn, Amani Toomer, Tiki Barber, Joe Jurevicius, Osi Umneyiora, Chris Snee, Corey Webster, Steve Smith, Terrell Thomas, Linval Joseph, Johnathan Hankins, Landon Collins, Sterling Shepard, Dalvin Tomlinson, and now 2 more who I think will be special, Xavier McKinney and Azeez Ojulari.

5c) Free Agency. ‘B’ players at ‘A’ prices.

The easiest way to see how you build value is that the Draft is wholesale and Free Agency is retail. Where do you want to shop? Sometimes you have no choice. Picking up one or maybe two high priced items in a year may be necessary, but the rest of your team and the rest of the cap will need to support that. Remember that if you are always living in retail, your cap structure is not going to be competitive. (I’m not talking about the journeyman players of Free Agency. There is actually some value in that part of the market.)

RULE #6. PRINCIPLES AND BEST PRACTICES.

6a) Pitchouts still do not work in the red zone.
6b) Do the unpredictable. Once you are predictable, you are dead.
6c) Build your own Super Bowl blueprint.
6d) The only thing the Prevent Defense prevents you from doing is winning.
6e) The only thing the Prevent Offense prevents you from doing is winning.
gf) The only things worse than the Prevent Offense is the Prevent Offense when your Defense is weak/depleted by injury.
6g) It’s always the coach’s fault when a large lead is lost.
6h) The Bill Walsh ‘Quality Win’ (11+ margin of victory) is a necessary objective at all times because it enables you to win more games that are hotly contested.
6i) After 1st & Goal from the 1-2 yd line, if you fail to score a TD on your first three tries, kick the FG on 4th down.
6j) The Steve Young Rule: September is the new preseason. Continue to improve the quality of play each week, as the end of the season rarely resembles the beginning of the season.
6j) The Carl Banks Rule: You cannot turn it on and turn it off in the NFL. Do not take any game off or protect players from injury if a playoff spot has been clinched.
6k) Defense (still) wins championships. This is a league of Offense. But you have to be credible on Defense or else these high powered Offenses will run you over when it counts. In the last 8 years, the Super Bowl winner’s Defense was ranked an AVERAGE of 5th out of 32 teams. It would have been 4th averaged if Seattle ran Lynch on 2nd and Goal from the 1. As a football purist, it is still appropriate to let Defense get the last word in the Rules.

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