With the right tools, Ravens can rebuild

The Baltimore Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -- By now, the once-dramatic climb from worst to first in the NFL has become commonplace. No longer is it a surprise when a team such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rises phoenixlike from the ashes to claim a division title.

That is to say, the Ravens' fourth-place finish in 2007 need only be a pit stop, not an extended stay.

Even if a roster isn't as equipped as the Ravens' for that quick turnaround, the time frame for success has accelerated.

"There is the mentality that you can change things quicker now," said Mike Reinfeldt, general manager of the Tennessee Titans. "In football, [building a team] used to be a five-year plan. Now, it's a three-year plan. We've changed the mind-set to that."

For some teams, it's not rebuilding as much as reloading. The Ravens might very well fit in that category after falling from a 13-3 division winner to a 5-11 also-ran almost overnight.

Certainly, the NFL landscape is filled with case histories.

Two years after the Green Bay Packers went 4-12 and fired coach and former general manager Mike Sherman, they bounced back to 13-3 and a No. 2 seed in the NFC this season.

Three years after a roster purge and two years after a 4-12 season, the Titans went 10-6 in the rugged AFC South to earn a wild-card berth this season.

The Carolina Panthers were a league-worst 1-15 in 2001. In 2003, they went 11-5 and pushed the New England Patriots to the brink before losing the Super Bowl.

Turnaround success doesn't necessarily have to be short-term, either. Before Bill Polian arrived in Indianapolis as team president in 1998, the Colts were the picture of ineptitude. Under Polian, they rebounded from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999 and from 6-10 in 2001 to 10-6 in 2002.

In the past four regular seasons, the Colts have won 51 games - an average of nearly 13 a year - and a Super Bowl.

The formula for these turnarounds is simple enough. It's the application that becomes the sticking point.

Proven model

The NFL's mantra is building through the draft and supplementing the roster with free agents. The subtlety comes in evaluating players, making shrewd decisions in free agency and coaching up all that talent.

But in the 15 years of the salary cap era, another trend has developed. Teams that once lavished millions on free agents have decided instead to spend that money on homegrown players.

"Free agency has changed so much over the years because teams are doing a better job signing their own talent," said Kevin Colbert, director of football operations for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "That takes so many good players off the market."

With the salary cap rising and the free-agent pool shrinking, it portends a stunning windfall for a very few, highly attractive free agents when the market opens Friday. Look for free-agent cornerback Asante Samuel of the Patriots to break the bank (last year's top corner, Nate Clements, got an eight-year, $80 million deal).

For the most part, though, the bank is safe.

"The thing about free agency is it's a tool you have to use," Scot McCloughan, general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week at the NFL scouting combine. "We don't want to be considered a free-agency team. We want to be able to build through the draft.

"A lot of teams have money nowadays. That doesn't mean you have to spend it. What we're trying to do is draft well, identify the guys we want around and [give them] an extension prior to free agency."

Reinfeldt replaced Floyd Reese in Tennessee last February after the Titans were forced to gut their roster and begin the rebuilding process.

"I came at a point when things already started to happen," Reinfeldt said. "From a cap perspective, we had been through a period of too much dead money [cash paid to players no longer on the team].

"When I came, we had a healthy cap situation. I was blessed with a coaching staff led by Jeff Fisher with a proven ability to win, and having a proven scouting department. The key was getting those people to communicate."

Spread the wealth

In Green Bay, Ted Thompson undertook a similar job. Under Sherman, the Packers had adopted a trade-up philosophy on draft day. It was ruinous and eventually cost Sherman his job.

In Thompson's three drafts, the Packers typically have traded down, gathered extra draft picks and chosen selectively from the free-agent market, mostly for second-tier players.

"We felt like the best way to do that was through the draft and to accumulate more picks because you're not going to hit on every one," Thompson said. "We feel like we've been able to make some inroads in adding core young players. Some of them may have started right away or looked like they were going to be starters. Some are special teams guys that might evolve into starters.

"It helps you getting through a 16-game season [because] it's hard to trot the same guys out there every week. We felt we needed guys that could step in and play two or three games."

Just as quickly as a team can rebuild through the draft, it also can come undone. For years, the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals were in the top five picks of the draft because they made poor decisions. Those mistakes tend to compound if they are repeated.

"It's not just this year's draft [that's critical]," said Billy Devaney, newly named executive vice president of player personnel for the St. Louis Rams. "It's two or three drafts together. If you miss out in multiple years and only get one or two players in those years, that's the nucleus of the team you're missing.

"Then what happens, it forces you to do dumb things in free agency. Now you're compensating by overpaying veteran players. It keeps coming back to the draft. That's your foundation. That's where you're going to win."

Reinfeldt concurs. There is high risk and low return on money invested in free agents. He calls it the Band-Aid approach.

"There are far more failures than success stories in free agency," Reinfeldt said. "You look at it and there are limited choices, so the options are not that good. You have that money to do it, so in today's society, we take risks that aren't wise."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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