Lawrence: Culture Change

Numerous NFL franchises are in the midst of a rebuild, Amy Lawrence says, and some are further along than others

Amy Lawrence
October 08, 2019 - 9:28 pm
Matt Breida 49ers

USA Today Images


There's no such thing as a “quick fix” in the NFL, not for a franchise trying to change its culture and establish (or reestablish) a winning tradition. Sure, we see teams catapult from worst to first every season with a coaching change or by signing a veteran quarterback; but those aren't true rebuilding projects. Those are teams tweaking a system or finding the right leadership or adding the missing piece. In most cases, they already possess a winning culture and are simply a few steps shy of their destination.
Taking a quick glance around the league, we can easily spot franchises in various phases of rebuilding. The Dolphins are at the ground level, down in the basement. Owner Stephen Ross is determined to get younger and develop a "sustainable winner" after years of trying the quick fix with high-profile, expensive free agents. He doesn't want a flash in the pan, a playoff team once every few seasons; he desires consistency so Miami is starting over. Brian Flores knew the deal when he accepted the head coaching job, and he's filling the role of bad cop as the Dolphins clean house and stockpile draft picks and flexibility for the future. It's a painful process, but the timesaving method was a bust.
The Arizona Cardinals would like to believe they are a step further down the path. With the hiring of hotshot offensive mind Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and the drafting of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray number one overall, they think they have the most important tandem in place. The two can grow, learn, and develop together. And what a confidence boost to earn their first victory of the season in Week 5! However, star power is sparse on both sides of the ball. Larry Fitzgerald is as steady and reliable as they come, but David Johnson is wildly inconsistent and the offensive line is definitely a work in progress. The pass rush duo of Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs is formidable, but the rest of the defense is spotty and ranks near the bottom of the league in yards (408.0 per game) and points (27.6) allowed. Of course, Arizona took a major detour in hiring Steve Wilks and drafting Josh Rosen and then brandishing them both after a single putrid season. Similar to a false start, the franchise marched backward, lined up again and re-snapped the ball.
Believe it or not, one major factor in achieving consistent success is consistency! A revolving door of general managers, head coaches, coordinators and quarterbacks is detrimental and counterproductive. Cleveland is the poster child for this phenomenon. Stretching back to the rebirth of the franchise in 1999, the Browns have used eleven different head coaches and nine GMs or VPs, none surviving longer than four seasons. No wonder the team has struggled to install a steady winning culture—it’s a different leader with a different voice and different ideas every few years. The constant turnover breeds turmoil, which is the enemy of stability and success. GM John Dorsey holds the keys to the kingdom now, and he's busy drafting and signing talented players to beef up the roster. They seemingly have the pieces in place; but through the first five games, they lack discipline and direction and a true identity. All of that takes time to implement with a new coach, especially one who's never worn the hat before like Freddie Kitchens.
Through the first five weeks, the Browns have taken their lumps, from a 30-point loss to the Titans to a lopsided rout at the hands of the 49ers. No doubt, there is some discouragement and frustration after a 2-3 start. But they can find hope and inspiration in the journey of San Francisco, despite the thrashing and trash-talking in Santa Clara Monday. The Niners are one of the NFL's storied franchises, a tradition that includes five Super Bowl titles. Under Jim Harbaugh, they reached three consecutive NFC Championship games from 2011-13. Yet he and GM Trent Baalke frequently clashed over personnel and philosophy, so an 8-8 season made Harbaugh expendable in the eyes of the front office. The Niners promoted Jim Tomsula from within and then tried Chip Kelly to the tune of two wins. When the team turned to Kyle Shanahan in 2017, he became the fourth head coach in four years! How do you win like that??
It was tough sledding early on, even with the commitment to Shanahan and GM John Lynch. They limped to an 0-9 start in their first season. They needed to find, draft, and sign the athletes they believed would best fit their system. None of that happens overnight. The biggest challenge was finding the right quarterback. But even after San Francisco traded for Jimmy Garoppolo and signed him to a massive contract in good faith, they struggled through another losing campaign when he tore his ACL last September. Now finally, in their third season, the results are obvious and not just because of their 4-0 start. They believe in their formula, and the locker room has bought in. And ownership deserves credit for staying patient and giving Shanahan and Lynch time and space to turn the Titanic around.
The Bills and Lions are also starting to show signs of growth and progress after hitting the reset button. With Sean McDermott and Josh Allen and dedication to a culture of toughness, discipline and excellence, Buffalo is off to a 4-1 start. The fierce defense ranks among the best in the league. In Detroit, Matt Patricia inherited a veteran QB, but he's in the midst of swapping out other personnel while residing in the uber-competitive NFC North. It's still early, but there are signs of new life for a franchise desperate to get to the next level.
There is no shortcut through a culture change, no secret trapdoor or Jedi mind trick that establishes a winning culture. The formula for rebuilding includes patience, commitment, determination, hard work, desire, leadership, resolve, passion, vision, and shared values. Around the NFL, the franchises taking the time to do it right are reaping the benefits and offering the blueprint for others who come behind.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.