The Secret to Team Success

When studying the past Super Bowl rosters I came to realize something. While every team has a handful of superstars-- that is not where Super Bowls are won. Super Bowls are won based on the role players, and the number of roles a team can fill. I believe there is a middle ground between star players and role players; players who are "stars in their roles". 

The teams that win the most Super Bowls are the ones with the fewest number of weaknesses. Successful organizations have fewer holes and more stars in their roles. The New England Patriots' dynasty is a perfect example of this philosophy. While this team did have star power with players such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the team really won with players who were stars in their roles. Guys like Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung. Even going back to the big names like Brady, Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman; those players truly understood their role in Bill Belichick's offense. Edelman is a perfect example; he wasn't the guy who was focused on taking the top off of the defense or the one who tried to catch all of these 50/50 balls on the outside. He understood his role which was a slot receiver who kills defenses underneath and is tough in the middle of the field. He didn't try to be bigger than he was; he was a star in his role.

The Patriots team is filled with these guys who don't cost a ton of money but had a major impact on the game. A lot of their impact comes mostly from the perception they put on the defense. For example, LeGarrette Blount's role in the Patriots' offense was to be able to gain tough yards on third/fourth and short. He was heavily used on the goal line and he was a devastating running back on inside runs. Him being on the field was enough to force defensive coordinators to stack the box and use bigger, yet less athletic defensive tackles. This was because his perception is that he is an amazing inside runner, so to defend the inside run defenses would use space-eating defensive tackles. His influence enabled Brady to utilize heavy play-action on third and fourth down, whether it be a rollout, outside-zone, or a quick tight end slip out. The Patriots were able to use the perception of Blount to their advantage. If defenses tried to stack up light boxes against Blount in the offense, the Patriots were able to gain those "tough yards" much easier with inside runs. Blount was a star in his role, had 18 touchdowns in one season, then got paid the following year by the Philadelphia Eagles. 

What makes Bill Belichick such a smart coach is that he understands what roles are valuable for his offense/defense, and will be very savvy in the offseason to address the biggest holes on his roster. This is why a lot of the time you'll see players who were considered "superstars" with the Patriots fizzle out elsewhere because they are given too many roles with other teams.

 

I think a good example to compare this to is what the Golden State Warriors have done with Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, a former number one overall pick, is having his best year as a pro, in year eight, and that is because he found his role with a different team and coach. In his seven years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was always considered a bust. That is because he has always been tasked with being the number one ball-handler and number one scorer for his team. That role shouldn't have been his to fill. In Steve Kerr's offense with the Warriors, he discovered his role. He is a spot-up shooter, an elite perimeter defender, who can use his incredible athleticism in transition and to defend other athletic ball-handlers. Kerr doesn't ask Wiggins to do more than he's capable of, which is why he is having an all-star season. That shows the importance of coaches knowing how to utilize their players. There is a very good chance this will result in Wiggins getting a max contract from another team, but if he is asked to do too much he may underperform.

 

The best coaches allow their players to play to their strengths. That is why so often you see players "come out of nowhere" and have their best seasons with teams like the 49ers or Packers. Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur do a great job at putting their players in positions that they are best at.

 

Even the Rams, who on paper, have arguably the most star-studded roster in NFL history. Sean McVay does a great job at putting his players in a position to succeed. I believe Odell Beckham Jr. is a perfect example of this. Obviously, Beckham Jr. has been considered a superstar in the past but leading up to his time with the Rams really struggled.  He didn't fit in the role that Kevin Stefanski wanted him to fit in Cleveland, and he really struggled because of it. This is what led to the frustration on both sides. With the Rams, he was in a more crowded receiver room and had fewer targets, but still found more success. This is because McVay allowed Beckham to play to his strengths, which is as an on-the-line, backside, route-running X-receiver. With Cleveland, he was tasked with being primarily a vertical-running Z receiver. In Los Angeles, he was a lot more comfortable next to a receiver in 11-personnel. While he wasn't the team's number one receiver, he still found stardom... in his role. 

When you really think about it, technically every player is a role player. The guys who are considered superstars just tend to fill up more roles. Roles can be something as big as being the vocal leader on the defense or less recognized like being an elite space-eater in the "1-gap". Sticking with that same Rams team, a player whom I believe is a star in his role is Leonard Floyd. Floyd is one of the best edge setters in the NFL. It is hard for offenses to the outside of the Rams' defense, and that is because Floyd does such a good job at setting the edge. Not to discredit Aaron Donald, because that man is a superhero, but a big reason he puts up the numbers that he puts up is because of what Floyd does on the outside. When listening to Donald talk about the Rams' defense, Floyd is usually the first guy he talks about because he understands how important Floyd's role is in their defense. Leonard Floyd is a star in his role. 

The teams that win the most games are the teams with the least amount of holes. Great coaches will expose opposing teams' holes. The best coaches and best organizations do the best job at doing whatever it takes to fill their holes. That is why the Rams acquired Beckham Jr. and Von Miller mid-season and that is also why the 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders mid-season in 2019. The best teams are the ones willing to go all out, year after year, to fill their biggest holes.

The secret to team success is building a roster with players who are stars in their roles. The best coaches are the ones who understand the most vital roles for their team, can diagnose holes on the roster, and figure out the best roles for their players. The best management finds players who fit the roles or fill the holes on the roster and goes all out to get those players. Superstars are the players who fill the most roles and the most valuable holes. While a player may be considered a superstar with one team, he may not find the same success with another. The best teams aren't the ones with the most stars or the biggest names. The best teams are the ones with the most players who are stars in their roles and their roles fit the scheme.