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Part 3: A Winning Culture

To briefly cover the last two posts, we discussed how teams need to need to turn their drafts around, need to work to acquire more draft picks, and then have the right people in the scouting department to make sure those draft picks pan out.

The next step is to pick good free agents to complement those draft picks and fill in the holes while the drafted rookies learn and grow. This requires someone well-steeped in the salary cap to ensure that the team doesn't kill their future by overpaying new player and don’t push their money off to future years and end up in "Cap Hell" down the road. This also requires good people in the Pro Personnel department to properly evaluate the potential incoming players.

The third step is to change the team or corporate culture. What does this mean, exactly?

Well, basically, culture consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place. So you do things in the work place based on what other people expect. You show up at 8 am, or 9 am because the group, your workmates give you the evil eye if you don’t. Here in Australia, every one heads out early on Friday regardless of what management says because that’s what they do down under.

Where does this culture come from? I usually comes from the founders of the group. They valued certain things and ideas and behaved in certain ways that seemed to help the group succeed and eventually became part of the group’s DNA.

More often than not, some group decided that the culture in an organization needs to change, it makes up a list of what the new culture should be, turns this list of values into a piece of paper telling people what the new culture is and is passed down the pyramid. And nothing changes.

Corporate Culture

Anyone that doesn't think a winning atmosphere is important should visit Cleveland. Let’s go back to the years when Bill Belichick was head coach (91-95). The Browns finished 11-5 behind a solid defense, downed the Patriots in the wild card playoff game before succumbing to the Steelers the next week. The next year Art Modell announced the team would be moving to Baltimore, the team slumped and Belichick was fired by telephone at the end of the season.

The Browns went into "deactivation" mode for three years while a new stadium was being built and then were considered an expansion team when they started up again in 1999 under Randy Lerner’s ownership. Despite having former 49ers Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark (as CEO and GM respectively), the team struggled from the outset. They selected QB Tim Couch with the number one draft pick, they started 0-7 and finished the year at 2-14. Coach Chris Palmer was fired and replaced by U of Miami coach Butch Davis.

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Tim Couch via i.cdn.turner.com

Subsequent drafts brought in NFL standout QBs Spergon Wynn, Luke McCowan, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn and Colt McCoy. In the 15 season since being reborn as an expansion franchise, they have managed to have 12 double digit losing seasons. They have had 3 owners, 8 head coaches and 8 general managers in that time. An incredible 20 quarterbacks have started at least one game over the course of those 15 seasons.

Even the facilities were in on it. From 2004 to 2008, six players (C LeCharles Bentley, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Braylon Edwards, S Brian Russell, LB Ben Taylor and WR Joe Jurevicius) contracted staph infection while with the team. The CDC had to be brought in to remove all traces of the staph bacteria that was continuing to plague the team.

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Jeff Garcia as a Calgary Stampeder via storage.canoe.ca

To put this losing culture in perspective, let’s take a look at Jeff Garcia. Having grown up in Southern Alberta, I grew up a huge Calgary Stampeders fan. In 1994, after the NFL passed on him for being too short (can anyone say Drew Brees or Russell Wilson?), Calgary found him a spot as a third string QB behind Doug Flutie and Steve Taylor. Garcia took over as starter when Flutie went down with an elbow injury. The biggest game of the year in those parts is the annual Labor Day Classic game against Edmonton, the Stamps biggest rival. That year Garcia destroyed the Eskimos with 546 passing yards and six touchdown passes setting off a quarterback controversy as to who the starting QB should be once Flutie returned. Watching him play I became a big Jeff Garcia fan.

After Flutie left for Toronto the next year, Garcia became the starting QB, led the Stampeders to the playoffs for the next 3 years culminating in a Grey Cup (Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl) win in 1998 (and was voted Grey Cup MVP).

Following the Grey Cup win, he was signed as a backup to Steve Young in San Francisco. After Young went down with career ending concussion, he ended up as starter for the 49ers. In 2000, he passed for 4278 yards, 31 TD and 10 Ints and was named to the Pro Bowl. The next year he had 32 passing TDs and was named to a second consecutive Pro Bowl. The 49ers made the playoffs but fell to Green Bay 25-15.

In 2002, his numbers dropped but he made the Pro Bowl for the third year in a row and led the 49ers to win the NFC West as well as an improbable win over the N.Y. Giants 39-38 and the second largest comeback victory in NFL playoff history. However the next game they fell to Tampa Bay, the eventual Super Bowl Champions.

In 2003 the 49ers imploded. Former owner Eddie DeBartolo was forced to turn the team over to his sister (and brother-in-law John York), dead money from previous contracts buried the team financially and they fired their coach Steve Mariucci, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. They then went with Dennis Ericksen, then Mike Nolan and finally Mike Singletary as coaches, all who sported losing records. At the end of the 2003 season, they jettisoned both Garcia and Terrell Owens who had begun feuding with each other.

So, in 2004, Cleveland thought the 3-time Pro Bowler Garcia could pull their chestnuts out of the fire but he struggled mightily in Cleveland. He was released and moved to Detroit where he broke his fibula. In his next two stints in Philly and Tampa Bay, he led the teams to the playoffs and a Pro Bowl appearance while he was in Tampa.

The Point? While Jeff Garcia was not a "great" QB, he was pretty darn good and played at a Pro Bowl level 4 times with 2 different teams. But when he want to places like Cleveland and Detroit where they were completely devoid of a winning culture, he became horrible.

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Al Davis II, er... I mean Jerry Jones via www.washingtonpost.com

This winning culture starts with ownership. One of the things that stands out in places like Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, and Dallas is that the ownerships that get heavily involved in decision making and micro-management as opposed to letting the professionals do their jobs. Since pushing head coach Jimmy Johnson out the door, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys went 12-4 twice and won the Super Bowl largely on the shoulders of players Jimmy drafted. This was followed by 10-6, 6-10, 10-6, 8-8, 5-11, 5-11, 5-11 before luring Bill Parcells out of retirement. Under Parcells, the Cowboys went 10-6 and 9-7 before Bill tired of Jerry Jones playing games behind his back and retired. Again. Since then, 13-3, 9-7, 6-10, 8-8, and 8-8. Do you see the pattern here? Give a football man the reigns and the team succeeds. As soon as Jerry jumps in and takes over again, short term success based on the previous administration, but eventually mediocrity prevails.

The stories of horrible facilities and penny pinching are legendary under owner Hugh Culverhouse. The complaints about the aircraft noise, cramped offices, small locker rooms and run-down condition of One Buc Place. Led then-head coach Jon Gruden to sarcastically referred to the facility as "The Woodshed." This type of financial interference has led to more than one teams downfall.

Culture Change

So how do you change the culture of your organization? It had to start with a powerful person at the top or a large group. This person or group, typically the owner or CEO decides the old ways are not working and change is needed. He figures out a new vision, starts acting differently and enlists others to act differently as well. Eventually, if the new actions produce better results, if the results are shared with the rest of the organization, and if the new culture isn’t killed off by the old culture trying to maintain the "old ways" a new culture is formed.

Build Your Foundation

In the book "The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower" by Christopher Price, Bill Belichick details how important it is to have separate people handling the GM and Head Coach duties. Even though the final call on who gets drafted and who gets signed is Belichick’s, he relies on other people to do the scouting, handle most of the draft and bring in free agents.

This is in contrast to our last two Head Coaches who had total control in Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels. Poor drafts by Shanahan led to poor showings on the field which inevitably led to his firing. Josh was no different. He came in, threw his weight around, dumped a bunch of Pro Bowl players for picks, which should have led to a bonanza of burgeoning talent and left after squandering most of the picks, pissing off the fanbase, and having people film other teams practices Patriot-style as well as his team eventually finishing 4-12 without him at the helm.

Some other things I took away from "The Blueprint", Belichick jettisoned several players who were having off-the-field issues in favor of a team with a cohesive background. Later he brought in several players with questionable character but they either toed the company line or they were summarily tossed (ie. Randy Moss and Chad Johnson). Belichick brought in a lot of players that fit his system and refused to overpay for aging or over-hyped players, preferring to replace them with inexpensive players who would play his way. This has allowed the Patriots to operate at a high level over a number years. They have not had a losing season since Belichick’s first season (5-11). In the 11 years since his second season, they have put up double digit winning seasons every year, been in the playoffs every year except one, gone to 4 Super Bowls and won two of them. This is indeed the blueprint for teams that demand excellence year in and year out.

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The Duke via thenypost.files.wordpress.com

When John Elway took over as VP of Football Operations in 2011, he let the previous strength coach go and hired current Strength and Conditioning Coach Luke Richesson who was well known for his ability to get prospects ready for the draft using new practices and technologies. The old weight equipment was given to a local high school and all new equipment was purchased and brought in to Dove Valley.

He hired John Fox as Head Coach, a guy who was the polar opposite of the keyed-up, frenetic Josh McDaniels.

Over the next couple years he revamped the scouting department, installing Matt Russell and Tom Heckert as the Directors of Player and Pro Personnel.

He has drafted well and filled the subsequent holes with quality free agents. John has also made it clear that the team goal is the Super Bowl every year and been vocal about times when the team hasn’t played well.

Instead of a revolving door at coach (especially defensive coordinator where we had 9 defensive coordinators in 13 years), we now have stability. Same coach, same defense, same playbook (at least since signing Manning).

Although it is too early to judge whether the culture has changed in the Broncos organization, I believe is it safe to say that in reaching the Super Bowl in Elway’s third year at the helm, and in light of the changes in personnel made so far this offseason showing him to be consistently attempting to improve the quality of the players on the field, the right steps are being made to create a team where year over year excellence is expected and maintained.


This is a Fan-Created Comment on MileHighReport.com. The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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