The word "culture" has become the in-vogue term to describe the fiber of a franchise. Culture, in the NFL sense, means creating a winning environment based on shared beliefs and practices.
A tale of two franchises
In this century, no NFL franchise has spent more time on the concept of culture than the New England Patriots. With three Super Bowl championships, they have become a model for changing the culture of a franchise. Head coach Bill Belichick has educated all who work for him to cultivate a team that believes in one common goal -- winning.
The Patriots, however, are by no means the only team that rid themselves of a losing culture. They are just the most recent.
Ron Wolf did it in Green Bay, Bill Walsh in San Francisco, Jimmy Johnson in Dallas, Mike Shanahan in Denver, the Mara family in New York and the Rooney family in Pittsburgh. Each had a way of developing a set of attitudes that changed the beliefs, practices and customs of an entire organization.
This year's Super Bowl pits one of the long-standing successful franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers, against the upstart Arizona Cardinals. Ironically, it was the Cardinals who tapped into the Steelers model when they hired three Pittsburgh coaches to come to the desert and turn a lost and failing franchise into a winner.
Building a winning culture isn't just an idea; it's a process that takes vision and a plan. Bill Parcells proved in Miami this season that it doesn't have to take years to change the culture of a franchise.
Here are the ingredients a coach or front-office executive must closely look at if he wants to build a Super Bowl winner. He might not hit on every category, but he'd better hit on most of them:
1. The owner -- Everything starts at the top, and the owner of the team must know what it takes to win, be willing to listen and not turn back when things get rough. Coaches such as Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh or Tom Coughlin in New York are blessed with owners who know what it takes to be successful and inherited programs with a foundation in place. Bob Kraft in New England is a perfect example of a man who learned how to win by studying other successful programs and trusting his coach. Less than half the teams in the NFL have this component covered.
2. The tradition -- Make no mistake about it: A coach or general manager who takes over a team that has won in the past can influence the current group by showcasing the franchise's previous glory as a model. The Dallas Cowboys aren't playing very well right now, but they have tradition. The Super Bowl teams of the 1970s gave rise to the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, and those two experiences eventually will give rise to the next winning team. The Steelers' tradition of winning is a big reason they overcame the toughest schedule in the league this season to reach Super Bowl XLIII.
3. The quarterback -- The most important position on the field is the best place to start if a coach or GM wants to change the culture of a losing team. Trading for Brett Favre was Ron Wolf's first move when he left the New York Jets and went to the Green Bay Packers as GM. Troy Aikman's arrival had an awful lot to do with the culture change in Dallas, as Joe Montana and Steve Young did in San Francisco. Six of the last 10 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks. Without a very good QB, changing the culture might never happen.
4. The staff -- In order to really create long-term change, a coach and GM must fill the roster with good players who also are great men. It doesn't take too many personnel mistakes or bad apples in the locker room to drag a once-proud franchise to the bottom. Smart scouts and great teaching coaches are critical. Belichick does a great job training his scouts to find the type of players he wants, and they rarely bring back guys with character issues or a lack of intellect. Once those players are on the field, the teaching takes over, as evidenced by QB Matt Cassel's performance this season. Look at the Cardinals' offensive line, coached by Russ Grimm. Starting left tackle Mike Gandy has tremendously improved under Grimm. Also consider the effect of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on his team's success.
5. A special trait -- Sometimes a coach or GM can develop a special trait that's so strong, it can carry the team. Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens' GM, built the NFL's finest defense, which carried the team to a Super Bowl XXXV victory. Denver head coach Mike Shanahan built a running game around Terrell Davis, making the Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl champions (XXXII, XXXIII). The Bears believed they had a special defense when they lined up against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI, but it wasn't good enough, and Chicago still hasn't recovered.
6. The tough decision -- The coach and, more importantly, the GM must be able to make the hard decision that appears cold on the surface but is the right thing to do in the long run. Cutting a player, firing a coach or dismissing a scout isn't easy, but the smart teams pull the trigger when necessary. Trading Montana and going with Young wasn't easy, but it enabled the 49ers to continue their winning culture. Sometimes, the decision can backfire, as with Kurt Warner. You have to wonder how many more Super Bowl trips the Rams would have made if Warner was still there.
7. The team -- The locker room is where teams can be made or dismantled. There's no fooling the players when there's a weak link in the locker room or a player interested in self-promotion over what's best for the team. The Cowboys might presently suffer from this issue, and it could be what holds them back from a return to glory. On the other hand, the strong winning culture in the Patriots' locker room has helped players such as Rodney Harrison and Randy Moss flourish in their new home.
8. The building -- There's probably not enough attention paid to this issue. I learned a number of valuable lessons from Parcells and Belichick when they came to the Jets. Everyone was under evaluation. The doctors, trainers, equipment men, travel department, security, public relations and groundskeepers all were under the microscope. Too often, people who are in contact with the players and have little or nothing at stake professionally breed a losing culture in the building. I like to call it the "here we go again" way of thinking. It exists in every business, and as long as it does, losing will creep back into the workplace.
9. The media -- Making information public can be devastating to the security of an operation. I know the media has a job to do, but they don't have a right to know a club's inner workings. Leak word that a GM is trying to trade a player, and watch what it does to the locker room. The media can't help improve the culture of a team, but they sure can help destroy it with a few ill-timed stories -- usually leaked to them by disgruntled employees. I don't think it has to be a "one-voice" mentality, but I do believe the best teams restrict the flow of information.
10. A bit of luck -- Every team needs some luck. For example, the last four teams left standing in this year's playoffs (Steelers, Cardinals, Ravens and Eagles) all received 16 starts out of their quarterback. Great preparation is more reliable than luck, but if something fortunate happens -- like getting a borderline call or an opponent missing an easy field-goal attempt -- it doesn't hurt.
When you think about the Steelers, it feels as if they hit on all 10 points -- and that makes them tough to beat. When owner Dan Rooney walks into that locker room before the game, all of the players will have a special feeling for the team's history.
When the Cardinals come together in their locker room, they will sense they are on the verge of something brand new to the organization. They have the quarterback, staff, team and maybe a little luck to break a losing tradition.