Rebuilding a Franchise: What Might the Colts Future Hold?

Greg Cowan looks at just how long it should take for a bad team to return to contention

During the preseason I did a podcast with Nate Dunlevy of During that conversation one of the topics we touched on was how the Colts should approach the final years of Manning’s contract — whether or not the team should ever enter cap hell. Dunlevy’s opinion was that the Colts should be willing to go all-in in Manning’s final years, reasoning that it does not take a team long to rebuild in the NFL. With those words, Dunlevy became my Leonardo DiCaprio, as he placed an idea in my head. How long does it really take to rebuild a franchise in the NFL? Of course, with the recent news that Manning is all-but-certain to miss the entire 2011 season, this discussion takes on a slightly different tone than it did in September. Perhaps this won’t be a discussion for 5 years from now, but instead for the upcoming off-season, as the Colts evaluate the health of Manning and the talent on the rest of their roster.

So how long does it take an NFL franchise to rebuild? The first problem in this situation was defining a time frame. 1994, the year free agency was introduced to the NFL, seemed like a logical starting point. Free agency is probably not the most ideal way to rebuild your franchise, but it is another means of acquiring talent, and, if used properly, can help you place the finishing touches on your roster. The second issue was deciding what qualified a team as bad. Looking through the record books between 1994 and present, there were a lot of teams that failed to make the playoffs, but they always hung around the 7-9 to 9-7 record area. They weren’t good, to be sure, but they weren’t quite bad, either. In fact, they were something much worse than bad: they were mediocre. Mediocrity, it seems, is the worst thing a team can be in the NFL – you are not good enough to make the playoffs, but you are not quite bad enough to acquire top-end talent to become good, either. Beyond that, though, one really bad season (6-10 or worse) did not seem like enough to qualify a team as bad, either. There was definitely a sense of “bad season, but not a bad team”. The most logical explanation for such seasons was injury (or having your quarterback arrested, or both, if you’re the Atlanta Falcons), though other random bad luck also played a factor in some cases. So for our purposes a bad team, in need of a rebuild, was one defined as a team finishing with a 6-10 record or worse in at least 2 of 3 years, or one that finished with 3-consecutive sub-500 (7-9 or worse) seasons. The final decision to be made was what constituted a completed turn around? As with the decision that it took more than one year to define a team as bad, a successful rebuild seemed to need more than just one successful season. The Cincinnati Bengals were a great example in this case: they had no winning seasons between 1994 and 2004, made the playoffs in 2005, but followed the 2005 season with 8-, 7-, and 4-win seasons. One trip to the playoffs did not make them a good team. So as with bad teams, some sustainability was needed, and good teams were defined as a team that either made the playoffs or had 10+ wins in 2 of 3 seasons. So let’s take a look at some of the bad teams over the past 17 years, and see how long it took them to rebuild (and, in some cases, they never did):  

Team Name Year Designated Bad Year Designated Good # of Bad Years
Arizona Cardinals 1995 2008 13
Atlanta Falcons 1999 2002 3
Baltimore Ravens 1996 2000 4
Carolina Panthers 2000 2003 3
Chicago Bears 1996 2005 9
Dallas Cowboys 2000 2006 6
Indianapolis Colts 1997 1999 2
Jacksonville Jaguars 2000 2005 5
Minnesota Vikings 2001 2008 7
New Orleans Saints 1994 2009 15
New York Giants 1995 2000 5
New York Giants 2003 2005 2
New York Jets 1994 2001 7
New York Jets 2005 2009 4
Philadelphia Eagles 1997 2000 3
San Diego Chargers 1997 2004 7
San Fransisco 49ers 1999 2001 2
St. Louis Rams 1994 1999 5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1994 1997 3
Tennessee Titans 2004 2007 3
Washington Redskins 1994 2005 11


What we learned:

  • Four teams – the Steelers, Patriots, Packers, and Broncos – did not qualify as “bad” during this time period (though the Broncos seem well on their way to qualifying this year)
  • Eight other teams – The Bills, Bengals, Browns, Lions, Texans, Chiefs, Dolphins, and Seahawks – qualified as “bad” at some point between 1994-2010 but have failed to successfully turn their teams around.
  • Two other teams – the 49ers and Raiders – qualified as bad for a second time, and have yet to turn around their franchises.
  • The average turnaround time for the 21 teams that qualified as “bad” but eventually had a successful rebuild: 5.6 years.
  • While that number may seem long and somewhat discouraging, a closer look at the numbers reveals some good news. 8 teams (38.1% of those listed) were able to turn their teams around in 3 or fewer seasons. 62% of the teams were turned around by the end of the 5th season.
  • Can you predict a turnaround? Nearly half of the teams on the list (10) can trace their turnarounds to the arrival of a specific player. In all ten cases that player was a quarterback.
  1. Kurt Warner (ARI)
  2. Michael Vick (ATL) (and Matt Ryan would help prevent ATL from landing on this list twice)
  3. Tony Romo (DAL)
  4. Peyton Manning (IND)
  5. Drew Brees (NO)
  6. Vinny Testaverde (NYJ)
  7. Chad Pennington (NYJ)
  8. Donovan McNabb (PHI)
  9. Drew Brees (SD) (and Philip Rivers picked up where he left off)
  10. Kurt Warner (STL) Two other quarterbacks – Brett Favre (MIN) and Eli Manning (NYG#2) can also be linked to furthering the turnaround.
  • What do the 8 teams on the list that have yet to turn around their franchises have in common? They have all struggled to find stability at the quarterback position. The Lions, Texans, and perhaps the Bills appear to be on the right track to finding that stability, and all 3 teams are leading or tied for the lead in their respective divisions.
  • The Jets were an exercise in roller coasters and frustration, and also a prime example of what injuries can do to a team. The Jets had a 12-4 season in 1998 and were on the way to a successful turnaround before injuries to Vinny Testaverde derailed their rebuild for 2 full seasons. Starting in 2002, the Jets alternated successful and failing seasons (9 wins, 6 wins, 10 wins, 4 wins, 10 wins, 4 wins) as they struggled through injuries to Testaverde and Pennington.

I think the simplest conclusion we can draw from this is that unless your team is run poorly, being bad is a temporary ailment in the NFL. None of the names that appear on the list of teams that have had long, painful stretches of futility surprise anyone. Some have notoriously bad ownership issues. Others have been destroyed by horrendous strategies from bad general managers. One team was Matt Millen’d. In fact, the biggest thing I learned in the process of researching this was that the being very bad was not a deterrent to getting good, and, in fact, was sometimes necessary. Looking at it through the eyes of a Colts fan, I think the news is even more encouraging. Whether the Colts are forced to rebuild now due to the abrupt end of Manning’s career, or in approximately four years, due to one last championship push at the glorious end of Manning’s career, I am comforted by the fact that they are led by an owner that is willing to spend money on a good front office staff and let’s them do their job with no interference. And I am comforted by the fact that that front office understands how to best build a team – through the draft- and has shown an ability, when drafting near the top of the first round, to draft at a very high success rate. 2011 may be a rough year for the Colts, but given their young talent on defense and along the offensive line, it seems that their future, with or without Manning, is bright. A special thank you to Nate Dunlevy and Brett Mock for their help on various parts of this piece. (Extra thanks to Brett for listening to me whine as I worked on it)

A table of sadness, unless you don’t like the 8 teams below, then you’re probably pretty giddy
Team Name # of Bad Seasons since 1994 # of Good Seasons since 1994
Buffalo Bills 6 4
Cincinnati Bengals 8 2
Cleveland Browns 10 2
Detroit Lions 11 4
Houston Texans 5 0
Kansas City Chiefs 4 7
Miami Dolphins 3 9
Seattle Seahawks 4 7