Before I get too deep into this article, I would like to offer a personal disclaimer. Other than watching games casually on weekends and gathering opinions on what I am watching, I do not know football strategy, nor do I fully understand it. Given the current lack of anything interesting going on in the NHL, some days are challenging to find anything meaningful to write about. I would like to personally thank the Buffalo Bills for offering an interesting talking point about the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Buffalo Bills have to some degree are an NFL parallel to the Toronto Maple Leafs in terms of franchise operation. There are obvious differences, the economies that operate the two being the primary. The Bills are without a doubt on the poor end of the pro sports spectrum, while the Leafs practically print their own currency. The nature of the two operations are also significantly different as the Bills are the sole source of revenue for Ralph Wilson while the Leafs, Raptors, Air Canada Centre, Television Networks, etc….are all filling the coffers for new owners Rogers/Bell communications.
While there are clearly differences, the similarities are striking. Both Franchises experienced their greatest levels of success before the respective leagues blossomed into their current form. The Bills of the 1960’s were two time AFL champions, in 1964 and 1965, but have never won a title since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. The Leafs have won 11 Stanley Cups, the Franchise has won 13, all before the 1967 expansion which saw the league go from 6 teams to 12. Both franchises have had “almost, but not quite” moments in the time since, but ultimately have failed. The Bills famously won 4 consecutive AFC titles and went on to lose each of the NFL Super Bowls (the only team in NFL history to accomplish this feat). The Leafs advanced to the NHL Campbell Conference Final in 93 , and the Eastern Conference Final in 1994, 1999, and 2002, losing each of these series.
The other striking similarity between the two, and it’s almost uncanny, is how awful the teams were in the periods outside of the isolated stretches of success mentioned above. The Leafs of the 1970’s and 1980’s were at times not even good enough to compete with American Hockey League teams, and the Buffalo Bills had lost 18 consecutive games against the Miami Dolphins (the NE Patriots had a similar streak broken last September). The teams are most similar at this time in the manner in which they can not seem to get out of their own way in becoming a successful franchise.
Now if you look at the history of professional sports as a whole, their are three variations of teams which exist. There are the teams that are consistently successful, which seldom experience down time. There are teams that have a few good years followed by a few bad years, at best being considered inconsistent. These teams over time trade positions with other teams of a similar ilk. Then there are the teams that just can’t be good. They can’t help it, and everything they do to try and get better seems to blow up. The Bills and Leafs are without a doubt in the latter group. With this being identified, and it can be further quantified with yearly records and stats, the question becomes how did this happen, and how do you fix it?
The Leafs look to be the easier of the two to identify. They don’t have the same financial constraints within their organization that the Bills have. When you are the salesman of a product that isn’t very good, yet it continues to sell, you theoretically have no problem. The same can’t be said for your customers. The Leafs could sell tickets to their games if they lost all 82. It’s not an opinion any more, it has become that apparent. The Canadian national demand for the sport of choice will overtake all dissatisfaction among the ticket holders and television viewers. Hockey Night in Canada viewership numbers see a bump when the team is better, but when compared to the non Leaf Saturday nights, they are still the largest draw.
At the heart both teams have the same issue, which is a total lack of will when it comes to having to stay the course. Good teams in the NHL recognize when a program is worth leaving unchanged, even for temporary
pains. They also have the good sense to acknowledge when things are completely off the rails and are willing to make wholesale changes. Good teams recognize that depth is as important as any individual talents, and finding pieces that work within a system is more important than finding marquee names. The Players the Leafs did not draft with all the traded picks is nowhere near as important as the fact that the deals produced have shipped two to three quality players to other teams in an effort to acquire 1. How many major splashes in the trade market have the Detroit Red Wings ever made? Since 2006, the answer is surprisingly few. The Red Wings fall into the category of team that is almost always good. Once in the last seventeen years has the team not opened the playoffs with home ice advantage in round 1. That’s dominance.The NE Patriots for better or worse would be the gold standard in the world of NFL football. They happen to reside in the same division as the Bills, and they have made it child’s play to walk all over this Buffalo team. The Patriots have this system that they apply to their personnel which basically can be summed up as no one player is bigger than the team, with one obvious exception. When Richard Seymour got expensive, he became three high draft picks from a desperate Oakland team that did not fare much better in spite of his presence. Same for Deion Branch, although he was just permitted to walk. He is now playing for them again, albeit for far less money. When Randy Moss became a distraction, he was shipped to Minnesota to become their distraction. He lasted two weeks for the Vikings before being sent to Tennessee to do not much more than receive a paycheck. When Adam Vinitari wanted a raise, Steven Gostowski got a promotion.
If you want to look at the biggest statement about the New England Patriots and how their team oriented approach works, look no further than 2008 when Tom Brady suffered a season ending injury opening day. Matt Cassel stepped in and filled the position admirably. This led to a full scale bidding war for his services when Brady returned the next season which was won by the Kansas City Chiefs. Not coincidentally, his level of play did not translate over when he joined his new team, being mostly injured since arriving in Kansas City. He led the Cheifs to a division title, but has been mostly inconsistant, reinforcing the mantra of the Patriots. Having a capable backup at the quarterback position that understood the system was more important than any one player on the team. The same story really happened about 7 years earlier when Tom Brady unseated Drew Bledsoe.
Using the theory above, it could be said that good teams help make Hall of Fame players, Hall of Fame players don’t always make teams good. The Bills made big waves this year when they signed first Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, in theory bolstering the pass rush which would without a doubt help improve the overall defensive posture. In the draft the corner position was improved with Stefan Gilmore, further improving on paper the defense. Announced after all of this, was that Dave Wannestadt, a guy that was no longer considered even good enough to manage a college team was named defensive coordinator, who immediately placed his handprint on the defense telling the world the Bills would now play a 4-3 formation (for those unfamiliar, a 4-3 formation is when the defense lines up with 4 Defensive lineman and 3 line backers). So in one fell swoop, there was a personell change, a coaching change, and a systems change. Anybody familiar with any organized sport will tell you that change is difficult to implement among pro’s, and this was the second attempt to change the defensive scheme over three seasons. Real recipe for success.
What happened yesterday afternoon at the Bills game looked very much like a Maple Leafs game, even though neither sport truly resembles the other. The Bills defense got walked all over in the opening drive, and the psychological damage was done. Each time they took the field, they looked like they were just waiting for something bad to happen, and inevitably it did. They were soft on coverage, looked confused at times, and were just all together bad. The only reason the game remained interesting was that the Tennesee defense was equally as bad. It should also be noted that while many elements of the defense were upgraded this summer, the linebacking team was inexplicably left largely untouched, and not surprisingly are as bad as they were last season.
The above paragraph sounds exactly like the Maple Leafs team construction. They had a general manager acquiring players based on one expectation, and coach that was trying to change the players to fit a mold that they had never been cast, and a complete lack of accountability when things went south. This is where the stories merge, accountability. The word gets thrown around a lot, and with good reason. The players and managers and coaches alike get paid well, and when things don’t work, questions should be asked. Both teams are filled with staff and players that use the word “accountability” whenever times get tough, but what does it really mean to be accountable?Brian Burke more than most says that he is accountable when things go wrong with the Leafs. The funny thing is, saying this is only the first step to being accountable. Taking responsibility and then proceeding to do nothing to correct the situation, is actually the opposite of being accountable. When you identify that you overvalued your goaltenders for example, but then proceed to proclaim faith in them and look to make no changes, that is not accountability. When you see players on your roster misused, and do nothing to make the situation better for both the team and the player, that is not accountability. When you see locker room issues, but look no further into correcting the situation, that is not accountability. Giving a speech taking responsibility for something is great, but to follow it up with a “we’ll do better next time” proclimation and move forward making no changes, all the while expecting different results, is not taking accountability. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “you are no longer the solution to the problem, you are the problem”.
Expectation is the first step toward making an organization respectable. This starts with the players under contract performing up to expectations. This sounds real good, but gets tricky once those expectations are not met. That is when hard decisions have to get made, when the men get seperated from the boys so to speak. These decisions are often unpopular, and may in the short term cause some grief, but only help maintain a level of respectabilitywithin internal ranks. When the people that work for you can no longer believe in the program you are trying to sell, it is hard to get them to execute in it. This is how good teams tend to stay good, and bad ones tend to stay bad. Simply hoping for things to turn around is not enough. If the pieces that you as a manager assembled don’t create the picture you expected, get new pieces.
So in looking at both of these teams, the same conclusion could be made. They are soft, both on the field and off. The soft attitude off the field of play only further reflects the soft performances on them. Attitude truly does reflect leadership, and if the attitude of the generals is lax, than why would that of the soldiers be any different? This is shown by looking at the positives of each loss, as though the bad things never happened. It is reflected in the expression “moral victory”, which assigns some level of success to what is nothing more than a failure. If a pilot does most of his job right in a plane, but ultimately crashes, does the NTSB mention all of the success the pilot had up to the critical error? The example is extreme, but the state of mind has to be the same.
The moral of the story, if you want to make anybody successful in life at anything, you first must start with expectations. With those expectations must come a set of resolved consequences if not met. The greatest way to accomplish any level of success is to not rely on any individual talent, but rather a system which best utilizes the talent of a group. In hockey and football, systems will always defeat individuals. This concludes the Tony Robbins inspirational speech of the day, unfortunately the people that can make the changes that are required are probably not listening.