Picture the next 10 years in the NFL, and try to imagine a new dynasty emerging from the crumbling ruins of New England's crazy 14-year run that's seen four Super Bowl wins and six AFC Championships. No one's burying the Patriots just yet, but all dynasties eventually come to an end. As Brady and Belichick's amazing run together winds down over the next few seasons, another team will look to take their spot. Who will it be? Which teams are best positioned to take up the gridiron throne?
Will Andrew Luck take the torch from Tom Brady and put together a run of three or four championship seasons? Will it be Russell Wilson leading the Seahawks back to the promised land two or three more times? Will it be Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning or Big Ben going back to the show multiple times? Will any one team manage to find sustained success on the highest level in this parity-driven, salary-capped league?
The starting point for such a projection is mapping out the criteria necessary to put together consistent Super Bowl caliber teams. The first few things I jotted down for my list, keeping in mind the dynasties of the past, were:
1) A top-tier franchise quarterback
2) A talented defense with one or more tough, charismatic leaders
3) A head coach with a well-defined system and strictly practiced philosophy
4) Harmony between ownership, front office, and coaching staff
It's pretty clear that having a highly talented signal caller is an important common denominator for every dynasty in NFL history. So too is the presence of a visionary head coach. I'd throw in a strong defense as a prerequisite to consistent success at that level, and having a front office and owner that work in concert with the team's coaching staff to build a team and support and develop the players is hugely important as well.
Of course, these were just the first few things that entered my mind when thinking about the dynasties of the Patriots, the Cowboys, 49ers, Steelers, Packers and down the list. Former player and NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger's trio of criteria were similar to mine: 1) a legendary coach who has a vision and is able to execute it, 2) a championship-level defense with intimidating players, and 3) a franchise quarterback. NFL Agent Jack Bechta outlined five things that a dynastic NFL franchise must possess: 1) a special quarterback, 2) stability at the top, 3) an owner committed to winning and not just profits, 4) a great scouting department, system and philosophy, and 5) coaches who develop young players.
There's no master list or manual for building a dynasty, but these are a few variables that have tended to show up consistently in the league's great empires.
Looking forward, which teams are set up for a run at dethroning New England as the league's preeminent power? There are a few obvious choices, and a few dark horses.
If Seattle had punched the ball in from the 1-yard line back in early February to defeat the Patriots and win its second straight Super Bowl title, its claim as the next NFL dynasty would be quite a bit stronger. However, that did not happen, and the Seahawks have to avoid becoming yet another one-time winner that fades into mediocrity after a short stay at the top.
That said, the Seahawks have perhaps the strongest argument for a team set up for long-term sustained success at the top. They've got a franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson, who they'll almost surely lock up for the long term. They sport an historically stingy, intimidating and charismatic defensive group whose core of Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are all locked up for the future. They have an innovative and enterprising head coach in Pete Carroll who preaches his Win Forever philosophy ... and it shows up in everything they do. Carroll works in perfect concert with owner Paul Allen and GM John Schneider to draft and develop role players and future stars.
The system is working in Seattle, and they should be contenders for years to come.
SB Nation video archives: Watch the interception that prevented a Seattle repeat (2015)
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the best player at the most important position in the game of football in Aaron Rodgers. That almost alone gets them onto this list, but that's not where their checklist stops. They've got an excellent GM-head coach pair in Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy. The two work together almost seamlessly to build their roster through the draft, while rarely venturing into the dangerous and unpredictable waters of free agency. This also keeps their salary cap healthy, which is one of the more underrated but important aspects of building a team.
Green Bay has remarkable stability and continuity in its offensive system, and while the defense has been up and down over the past couple of years, it invariably has a few vocal leaders and star players. The Packers have talent on the defense, and if they can click over the next few seasons, they're going to be a team to reckon with because you can almost assume the offense will remain strong under Rodgers.
The Packers won it all in 2010 and could tack that win onto a dynasty claim if they win a few more over the next couple of years. They've got many of the variables necessary to do so.
Whether or not Joe Flacco is #elite, he's at least a franchise quarterback who has played some of his best football in the postseason. The offense looked good last year -- finishing eighth in weighted DVOA -- but similar to Seattle, Baltimore's identity lies with its defense. The Ravens consistently field tough, hard-nosed defenses and always seems to have the intimidation game on lockdown. They're balanced. John Harbaugh has provided consistent, intense leadership as head coach since 2008, and in Ozzie Newsome, they have one of the most respected GMs in the game. Newsome's ability to build the roster from the draft with such consistency is a major reason I'm bullish on Baltimore -- he seems to have the Belichickian foresight of when to move on from veterans, and the system works to develop from within. Scouting and coaching work hand in hand.
Continuity, a very specific philosophy, a recent Super Bowl victory under their belt -- yeah, I would say that the Ravens are still a team that we could look at as a dynasty when we're sitting here five years down the road.
They've got the franchise quarterback in Big Ben, known for his knack for big plays in big-time moments. Ben Roethlisberger, 33, isn't getting any younger, but still has at least five years left in his illustrious career if he stays healthy. He doesn't do it all himself, though, and it doesn't hurt that the Steelers appear to be the league's best evaluators in wide receiver talent, giving Roethlisberger an unending supply of speedsters to catch his passes. A focus on balance is pretty important as well, and you could make the argument that Le'Veon Bell could emerge at the top as the NFL's best back after Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch retire. Pittsburgh's explosive, star-studded offense doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon.
That's only part of the equation. The Steelers also have an extremely stable and consistent owner in the Rooney family, a highly respected GM in Kevin Colbert and a tenacious and long-standing coach in Mike Tomlin. That consistency and continuity in system and philosophy helps makes Pittsburgh perennial contenders. They've got two Super Bowl wins in the past 10 years, which gives them a big head start in the legacy department.
The Steelers' leadership core on defense is aging -- Troy Pand Ike Taylor retired; James Harrison is 37 -- and Dick is gone. However, there's been an infusion of talent through the draft on that side of the ball that could help them continue their tradition of defensive excellence. Their young defensive talent is still a wild card, which makes this projection a little more difficult.
I never underestimate the power of the system and philosophy in Pittsburgh, and it starts from the top-down.
The Colts are trending in the right direction. The runners-up in the AFC last year are led on offense by Andrew Luck, one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Assuming Indianapolis can lock up T.Y. Hilton long-term, they could have a great pair of receivers for Luck to throw to (with the addition of first-round pick Phillip Dorsett this year). They've also invested in a multitude of weapons, beyond Hilton and Dorsett, to surround Luck with since he was drafted first overall in 2012.
Indy's defense has been underrated of late, finishing 11th in weighted DVOA last season.
In terms of the dynastic pillars we've talked about above, outside of Andrew Luck, you have to do a little projecting with Indianapolis. They've got a passionate if unpredictable owner in Jim Irsay, respected but relatively unproven leadership from GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano. The three appear to work very well together and since drafting Luck, the Colts have only ascended, but the sample size is still relatively small.
Grigson has had a few high-profile flops -- most notably the trade for Trent Richardson -- but has added talent to Indy's roster and spent big in free agency to fill the gaps this offseason.
They have the foundation to build something for the long term.
It's hard enough to pick a potential winner of the Super Bowl next year, let alone a potential winner of several Super Bowls over the next five years. But, if we're talking about teams that are potentially on the verge of becoming great, a few come to mind.
The first few are the closest to "one player away" from being among the league's best, in my opinion: The Chiefs have an excellent defense with elite pass rushers, some studs up front and a talented secondary. They've got one of the best running backs in the league. They've got a strong GM from the Ron Wolf/Ted Thompson scouting tree, John Dorsey, who's added a ton of talent and depth to the roster over the last two seasons. They have a proven and highly respected coach in Andy Reid. He's honed his system over decades in the NFL. I'm not looking to insult Alex Smith, who is efficient and works within Reid's system, but what kind of team would we be looking at if Kansas City had a top-five, even top-10 quarterback under center?
The Vikings have done some really interesting things recently too. If Teddy Bridgewater continues to develop after a strong rookie year, we could be talking about Minnesota among the league's best teams. Is Chip Kelly's power grab and trade-happy dealings the work of a mad man or a genius? How would the Texans look with a stud quarterback throwing passes? How close are the Cowboys? What about the Cardinals?
There are so many teams that possess two or three of the most important criteria to building a dynasty -- but getting everything to align so you have four, five or six of them, well, that's where teams separate themselves from the pack.
At the end of the day, the NFL may never see another major dynasty. Parity is strong in this league, systems are in place to prevent sustained success, the salary cap and free agency make it hard for front offices to keep teams together long term, and coaches rarely have the luxury of time to install their system and philosophy with enough leeway from ownership to let it really take hold.
Additionally, as quarterbacks get paid more and more and take up big chunks of teams' salary caps, it becomes harder to field consistently elite teams. Can any franchise bat away all these challenges and rise above the rest? It's not going to be easy.
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