This time a year ago, rumours were swirling about Bill Cowher. The Glazers were supposedly recruiting the Super Bowl-winning coach, and after the worst season since 1991 plenty of Bucs fans were willing to jump on the Cowher bandwagon. Had Cowher been hired, he almost certainly would've brought in his own front office and restarted this franchise. But that never happened, and instead we now sit here with a team that just went 10-6, barely missed the playoffs and appears to have a very bright future. The key to sustaining this kind of success is continuity.
When I say continuity I'm not necessarily talking about the offensive and defensive systems in place, as those are always limited by the available personnel and subject to change as the league changes. Instead, I'm talking about the way players are acquired (focus on the draft, or free agency?), the general philosophy of the team (talent vs production, bad guys vs good guys), how players are re-signed (do you keep the roster constantly churning, or stick with guys you know?), the image of the team (dirty (Raiders), hardnosed (Steelers), classy ('49ers...way back when)?) Those are the kind of things that define a franchise.
Continuity doesn't mean that a franchise remains stagnant. Continuity means that a franchise can lose key players and continue on its path. That a setback won't undermine the future of the franchise. And that winning in the present won't come at the cost of losing in the future. Because through continuity you establish a method, and by sticking to that method it is easy to keep what made you succesful in the first place.
Almost every dynasty in the history of the NFL has had one source of continuity, one person who presided over the franchise and was the cornerstone to success.Vince Lombardi provided that continuity for the Green Bay Packers in the '60s. Tom Landry did that for the Dallas Cowboys in the '70s. Bill Parcells was that source of continuity for the Giants in the '80s and early '90s. For the Redskins of that era, it was Joe Gibbs. For the Patriots of today, it's Bill Belichick. And for the Colts of today, it's either Bill Polian or Peyton Manning. And for 25 years, Don Shula provided that continuity for the Dolphins.
Of course, there's one simple problem with every example I've mentioned: longevity. Coaches and General Managers retire or become ineffective (or scapegoats) and retire after a number of years. And when replacements come in they can change the culture of the franchise and push it in a new direction. When Vince Lombardi left the Packers, that franchise accomplished nothing until Ron Wolf took over the franchise and brought in Brett Favre in the early '90s. Since Don Shula left, the Dolphins have struggled to be succesful. The Redskins have only one division title since Joe Gibbs left the team for the first time in the early '90s. When a franchise loses its cornerstone to success, it needs to replace him. And good replacements are very hard to come by. Finding a competent coach or general manager isn't enough, the replacement needs to fit the established team. If he doesn't, the team will have to go through a rebuilding period as the new coach or GM tries to assemble a team his way.
So does this mean that whenever Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris retire the Bucs are doomed to restart and rebuild? Not if they learn from two of the most succesful franchises in NFL history.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been a very succesful team in the NFL, with very few downturns since the 1970s. They've managed to do that because they make decisions and commit. Since 1969 they have only had 3 different head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Each of those coaches has won at least one Super Bowl with the team. Surely the Steelers know the importance of continuity. But they guard that continuity not just through their coaches and front office, butt through the owners. The Rooney family has owned the Steelers for decades, and they're always involved with the operations of the franchise. They pride themselves on having hard-working, high-character players (although the events over the past two years may suggest differently). The cornerstones of this franchise haven't been coaches and general managers, they've been the owners.
But there's an even better way of doing things, and that's the way Bill Walsh built the 49ers. When he was hired by Eddie DeBartolo Jr. who had just purchased the franchise, he set about creating his own culture within the franchise. His philosophy was that everyone in the building was important to the success of the team, even the people who collect the trash. He didn't just change the team, he changed every aspect of the organization. And he didn't turn himself or any other person into the cornerstone of the franchise, he made sure that the cornerstone of the franchise was the franchise itself. That not only allowed him to win 3 Super Bowls in 9 years time, but it also provided the framework for the franchise to prosper for over 10 years after he left.
The Bucs have now established a vision of how they want to run this franchise. They want to acquire players through the draft, and build a roster by re-signing players they developed themselves. They want to offer room for youthful players to develop, and won't be afraid to thrust responsibility on them. They will place a premium on high-character players, emphasizing team captains and players with military backgrounds, but they will do their homework on any player who is dinged for character concerns. They will try to be explosive on offense, and place a premium on turnovers over yardage on defense. And most importantly, through the play of backups this season they've established that every player is replaceable. The culture is set, continuity should now be the priority.
Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris have to make this culture a part of the franchise itself. Whenever someone new walks into the building, they must realize what this franchise stands for and how it goes about its business. If they can do that, this franchise will be set up for long-term success regardless of what happens with players, coaches, front office personnel or perhaps even ownership.