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Chapter 1: Principles of Team-Building

“[L]ife is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half step too late or too early, you don't quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast, and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.” - Coach Tony D’Amato, as played by Al Pacino, in the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday

It seemed inevitable that the Cincinnati Bengals would tie Super Bowl LVI on the final drive, if not win it outright. Down just three points with 85 seconds and two timeouts left, quarterback Joe Burrow wasted no time, hitting star rookie Ja’Marr Chase for a 19-yard gain, and then getting across midfield with a nine-yard completion to Tyler Boyd. The Bengals, with one of the most potent offenses in the game, and a kicker in Chase McPherson who hadn’t missed all postseason, stood just a few yards from a Super-Bowl-tying field goal.

But they would get no further. Burrow threw away a deep pass on second-and-one. Then Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, three time AP Defensive Player of the Year, took over. On a third-and-one run play, he stiff-armed right guard Hakeem Adeniji with one hand, leaving the other free to stone running back Samaje Perine just feet short of a critical first down. Then on fourth down, he worked against the other guard, Quinton Spain, swiping away the blocker’s arms and spinning Burrow to the turf as the quarterback heaved up a prayer. It fell harmlessly to the ground, much as the victory confetti would fall a kneeldown later.

Dozens of decisions led to this handful of plays that would determine which team won Super Bowl glory. In the 2021 offseason, pundits debated back and forth on the relative merits of Cincinnati’s draft options with the fifth overall pick. Some favored adding a receiving weapon in Chase; others preferred Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell. Ultimately, Chase proved to be the correct choice; he dominated as a rookie, tallying 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns, and added 89 yards in the Super Bowl. But as outstanding as Chase played, no quarterback took more sacks than Burrow during the regular season, and the deficient offensive line reared its head at those critical moments.

But Sewell wouldn’t have necessarily fixed the interior of the line, where the fallout from other decisions loomed large. Cincinnati signed veteran guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to a three-year, $10M contract in 2020, but wound up dumping him just a couple weeks before the Super Bowl after two injured and ineffective years. Adeniji, a sixth-round pick in 2020, took over. Spain spent stretches of 2020 on the practice squad but started 16 games for the Bengals in 2021. In the 2022 offseason, the Bengals would overhaul the interior line completely. But with a plethora of holes to fill in 2021—Cincinnati finished 2-14 just two years earlier—the team went cheap at guard. With a chance to win the Super Bowl, that left Spain and Adeniji matched up on Donald, the best defensive player in the world.

And we can go back to that decision—the one where the Rams, then in St. Louis, selected Donald with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Donald wreaked havoc during his college career at Pitt, but his small stature—6’1” and just 285 pounds—made him an outlier. He wasn’t even the Rams’ first selection; they chose Auburn tackle Greg Robinson twelve picks earlier. But the bold choice of the undersized lineman has certainly paid off in spades.

Earlier in the Super Bowl, the Rams took the lead on a back shoulder connection between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp. “In a pressure situation, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone be better than Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp,” opined commentator Cris Collinsworth. Stafford earned a Super Bowl win in his first year in Los Angeles after toiling away with largely substandard Detroit Lions teams. The Rams paid two first round picks and incurred a hefty dead money salary cap hit to swap incumbent quarterback Jared Goff for Stafford, and that move paid off (see Chapter 4).

Kupp, like Donald, proved a bit of unconventional brilliance. A small school standout who ran a pedestrian 4.62 40-yard-dash, Kupp emerged as a force in the slot after the Rams picked him in the third round of the 2017 draft. Despite his slow 40 time, Kupp demonstrated great GPS-timed speed at the Senior Bowl, and the Rams bet on that game speed. His 145 catches and 1,947 receiving yards in 2021 ranked second all-time, and his 16 touchdowns also led the league. In the Super Bowl, he was maybe even better. On the critical go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter, Kupp caught four passes for 39 yards and the game-winning touchdown, drew two penalties that converted first downs, and took a jet sweep for seven yards on a critical fourth-and-one.

Every game—and ultimately, every season—comes down to a handful of plays, and plays come down to the performances of players, their individual brilliance and their ability to work in concert with one another. General managers and head coaches build their teams through the various avenues available: the draft, undrafted free agency, trades, the waiver wire, extensions, big-ticket free agent signings, and unheralded pickups. All of it plays a role, and how team-builders deploy their finite resources determines success—or failure.

The Bengals came within a yard of extending their final drive, likely leading to a game-tying field goal or maybe even a game-winning touchdown. Instead, they fell inches short. The margins between success and failure are small. Team-building shows the same pattern; the difference between the best-run teams and the average ones come down to small edges. A sense of which receiver will outperform his 40 time, or which undersized defensive tackle can excel. A savvy midseason pickup, like Rams acquisitions Von Miller and Odell Beckham, Jr., who both had key plays in the Super Bowl. A budget signing that outperforms his contract, like Bengals additions D.J. Reader and Chidobe Awuzie.

No one has a magic bullet; it takes diligence, vision, and discipline to assemble a great team. Savvy teams look in every corner, trying to find better ways to use all their limited resources, to get quality from limited investments and to get transformational improvement out of bigger splurges. The game changes constantly, and even successful teams can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing and expect the same results. They must continue to seek competitive edges wherever they can find them. The inches we need are everywhere.