For a variety of reasons, the NFL is an environment that does not foster innovation.
Owners are quick to fire front office executives and coaches who may fail to meet expectations, instead of giving new plans a chance to take root. A small circle of individuals cycles through the available jobs. A culture of skepticism toward new ideas remains entrenched. All of this means that most organizations tend to do things the same way.
Whether it is the player evaluation and team building process, the Xs and Os on the field, or even how teams structure their front offices and football operations, the league is largely homogeneous in how it does business. The NFL is a “copycat league.”
However, a few teams do stand out from the pack in various ways. They don’t represent the NFL’s culture, but cut against it.
Which three teams push the envelope the most?
Stepping outside of the accepted norms of operation in the league takes someone who is extremely comfortable with risk and uncertainty. For the Dallas Cowboys, the fact that owner and general manager Jerry Jones made his fortune as an oil and gas prospector feeds into this. Jones, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his contributions to the league, has always been willing to take big-time risks.
However, the culture of innovation didn’t begin with Jones. The leadership of Tex Schramm, Tom Landry and Gil Brandt changed the way teams scouted players for the draft in the 1960s and ’70s. Landry made the shotgun formation a prevalent reality in the NFL as well as the 4-3 flex defense and many other innovations.
This willingness to take the big step continued when the Cowboys traded their best player, Herschel Walker, for a multitude of draft picks in 1989 which laid the groundwork for the 1990s dynasty. The Cowboys introduced the “War Room Cam” during the draft, built a billion-dollar state of the art stadium featuring a fine art exhibit and a Victoria’s Secret store, and moved into “The Star,” the team’s new headquarters of operations in the heart of Frisco, Texas. The facility features a Cowboys-themed gym, hotel accommodations, retail shopping and commercial office space.
While the current iteration of the Cowboys is very traditional on the field, the organization as a whole has always been ahead of the curve off the field.
The Browns have been in a virtually perpetual cycle of losing since the team was rebooted in 1999 after Art Modell moved the previous version to Baltimore in 1996 and renamed it the Ravens. The Browns have had 26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999, and for 15 consecutive seasons they have started multiple quarterbacks through the course of a season.
After the 2015 season, in which they finished 3-13, owner Jimmy Haslam decided to shake things up. He fired head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, and then made a surprise hire, bringing Paul DePodesta, an executive with the New York Mets as the “Chief Strategy Officer.”
DePodesta was made famous when he was portrayed by Jonah Hill in the movie Moneyball, which told the story of how DePodesta and Billy Beane changed the way the Oakland Athletics baseball team evaluated players. Their analytical approach to player acquisition and evaluation as well as actually playing the game on the field is now the standard across Major League Baseball. At the time it was groundbreaking.
In addition to DePodesta, Haslam promoted Sashi Brown, previously the team’s primary contract negotiator and salary cap expert, into the general manager’s position.
DePodesta and Brown have pushed the Browns’ front office to to the forefront of innovation in the league. Over the past two offseasons the team has accumulated a plethora of draft picks (10 selections in the 2017 draft and currently 12 picks in hand for the 2018 draft, including five in the first two rounds). They made the type of trade that had never happened in the NFL, acquiring Brock Osweiler and his highly inflated contract from the Houston Texans along with a second-round pick in exchange for a third-round pick in next year’s draft.
The Browns immediately started shopping Osweiler to other teams, offering to eat a portion of his guaranteed money in exchange for more picks. This type of deal, essentially trading cap space to the Texans for their pick, is something common in the NBA and Major League Baseball, where teams are allowed to trade cash considerations in exchange for players and picks, but was unprecedented in the NFL.
In the 2017 offseason the team also hired Gregg Williams to serve as its defensive coordinator. Williams, along with head coach Hue Jackson, an offensive guru, gives the Browns one of the most innovative duos of high-level coaches in the league.
It is still early in the Browns’ so-called experiment with the front office and coaching staff, and climbing out of a ditch of nearly unrelenting misery after 17 years will not be a quick or easy process, but the impact of this regime will likely be felt around the league for some time, even if the experiment ends without great levels of success.
New England Patriots
It should be no surprise that the Patriots would appear on this list. Similar to the Cowboys, New England has a necessary ingredient in a recipe of consistent innovation: a single individual at the top of the decision tree who has supreme job security. Head coach, general manager, and Grand Poobah Bill Belichick drives the Patriots’ innovation bus.
The Patriots are the model franchise the entire NFL is seeking to replicate. Patriots front office executives and assistant coaches regularly receive opportunities around the league in an attempt to mimic what Belichick has built in New England. The problem is that what makes it all tick in Foxborough is Belichick, and he is the part that can’t be replicated.
Belichick’s Patriots have consistently been at the forefront of the NFL, both on the field and in the personnel department.
Whether it was using hybrid defensive fronts and multiple coverages, or bringing together multiple pass receiving weapons at the tight end position, or going against convention by trading picks for veteran players, and deciding not to trade a promising young quarterback in the offseason where he may have been the most valuable commodity for multiple teams if he was made available, the Pats don’t care what they “should” do. Yet they consistently find ways to gain an advantage on their opponents in ways as simple as how the eligible receivers line up before a play, and will be very schematically different from one game to the next.
Having Belichick, who is likely the greatest football coach of all time, makes the Patriots the most innovative team in the NFL. The results, including five Super Bowl championships in the last 15 years, make them the standard by which the rest of the league is measured.