The Kansas City Chiefs are trying to reverse an odd trend in the NFL. That trend is a profound lack of success from “successful” franchises. It’s a predictable pattern the last 20 years in the NFL. Team X has a couple of successful drafts, usually including a high-level quarterback. Mingled with a solid coach and a dozen affordable free agents, the team surges to a Super Bowl win. Everyone writes articles about how the team is “set for the next decade.”
And then . . . . the team rarely gets back to the Super Bowl. Or the conference title game. And often, even returning to the playoffs each year proves challenging. Parity sets in like a suffocating cloud. The reality of NFL economics often hits, and reaching the Super Bowl, or even the title game, proves much harder than the original success.
The truth is, other than New England, no one has broken the code. No one has a blueprint to proudly point to for sustained, high-level success. And frequently, even the Patriots’ success is dismissed as being exclusively due to the presence of Tom Brady. A dissertation on the entire NFL would be fascinating, but a quick case study of four teams illustrates the point.
Green Bay Packers
Easily the next-best franchise after the Patriots in terms of significant performance, Green Bay began the Aaron Rodgers era in style with a Super Bowl win in 2010. Having one of the top three quarterbacks in football EVERY year has produced exactly zero Super Bowl appearances in the ten years since. To their credit, the Packers have been back in the NFC Title Game four times, but unfortunately lost all four. Two of those games were blowouts; two were close.
Green Bay has even had a negative point differential in three of those ten seasons, missing the playoffs twice. One of those seasons, Rodgers missed enough games to ruin the season. But in ten years, even the most patient fan would expect multiple repeat appearances in the Super Bowl.
At the end of the 2008 season, the Steelers celebrated their second championship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Two different coaches, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, did the masterminding, but the future looked brilliant. Alas, in the 12 years since, Pittsburgh fans have seen one Super Bowl, a loss to the Packers. And while the Steelers have had two other AFC Title Game appearances, also both losses, they’ve actually missed the playoffs completely five times.
To be fair, the Steelers have played in a brutal division, and have often run into the Patriots in the playoffs. But the years since 2008 have been heartbreaking for Pittsburgh fans, especially considering the presence of a good quarterback and coaching staff.
New Orleans Saints
The Brees-Payton era ran for 15 seasons, with a heartwarming Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2009 season. Again, predictably, hordes of smart people predicted the Saints were set for years to come. In the 11 years since, New Orleans has made a grand total of one NFC Title Game appearance. Again, in all fairness, they should have won that game against the Rams, as fate devastatingly interfered. But, one NFC Title Game in 11 years hardly excites anyone. Even less exciting are the four seasons in which New Orleans missed the playoffs altogether since that glorious 2009 year.
Seattle in 2013 and 2014 was the big, bad bully on the block, kicking butt and taking names. Talented and confident, they were reminiscent of the 1980’s Miami Hurricanes. In the first of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Seahawks obliterated an incredibly talented Denver Broncos team. The next year, in spite of Tom Brady’s late-game heroics, the Seahawks still should’ve won their second championship in a row. And while the loss hurt, Seattle had a good coach combined with a young, outstanding quarterback. As the pain wore off, the future looked brighter.
Six years later, Seattle has only missed the playoffs once, but they’ve not made it back to the NFC Championship. Not bad bad, but not a blueprint for other franchises to copy.
The same pattern holds true for the Ravens, 49ers, Colts, Broncos, Panthers, and Eagles. Any team with any real success at all, other than the Patriots, has found it difficult to get back to the high ground. Winning a four team division is one thing; getting back to the final four is exponentially more difficult.
Sometimes great players move on, but more often NFL parity hits hard. Players that were on rookie contracts move up to high dollar second deals. In an effort to keep those players, teams find themselves investing a vastly higher percent of their cap into that small “core group.” Teams that once drafted in the top ten each round now draft in the bottom half of each round. Talent becomes harder to get and harder to keep.
Kansas City Chiefs
That brings us to Kansas City. The Chiefs are now standing at the same crossroads that those other successful franchises once faced. Super Bowl favorites this year, with an outstanding coaching staff and an all-timer in Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs look to be “set for years.”
But the success is never guaranteed. Mahomes is beginning that second contract, filled with massive cap numbers. Chris Jones, Tyreek Hill, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Matthieu all have large cap hits. Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown soon will, as well. Good drafting helps, but of course the Chiefs are at the end of each round every year. Or, from another perspective, they practically don’t have a first round draft pick each year, but are drafting at the “beginning “ of all the other rounds.
They’ll have to break the code somehow. Find ways to avoid the disappointment of coming up short. The New England Patriots did it. The Kansas City Chiefs can do it, too.
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