Super Bowl LVI is a case study -- actually, two distinct case studies -- in how to build championship teams. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that drafting carefully and spending wisely in free agency was the only consistently successful path to the Super Bowl. The Cincinnati Bengals are the latest evidence that the well-trodden path is well-trodden for a reason. It wins -- in the case of the Bengals with a spectacular, stunning two-year turnaround built on the familiar twin pillars of roster construction.
The Los Angeles Rams' ethos might best be summed up in a picture of general manager Les Snead that became something of a sensation. Snead was holding a coffee mug with a picture of his own face and the words "F--- Them Picks." It's not that the Rams don't view draft picks as precious. It's that they view them as precious currency, often best spent on veteran players who have already proven themselves elsewhere. All the talent, less of the risk of the draft. In the process, the Rams have exploded the myth that a super team can't be a Super Bowl contender, with a collection of stars -- a handful homegrown -- as vast as the city it plays for.
There are common denominators, of course, and we'll get to those. But Sunday's game is a showcase of two very different approaches that reached the same result. The game won't be a referendum on which worked.
They both did.
"What is the definition of unorthodox?" Snead mused last week. "Our philosophy has been that the pure math of 1 of 32 (teams) is we probably should be thinking a little differently than the other 31 about the bets we make. It doesn't mean we get them right all the time. But the game theory of being 1 of 32 means you should think unorthodox. You're trying to find an edge."
The Rams are not building as the Bengals have been. They already went through their build, and then they had a breakthrough when Sean McVay arrived. Now they are about sustaining. That means they don't have picks at the top of the first round, as the Bengals did. The calculus, to the Rams, calls for aggressively wielding draft picks to add talent, perhaps combining two of those first-round picks to snag a top-five talent they would otherwise have no chance of getting -- with the bonus that the player has already lived up to his billing.
"We only live once, so don't live your life scared," Snead said in 2019. That was right before he sent two first-round draft picks to the Jaguars to acquire Jalen Ramsey. With their cornerstones in place, the Rams are now using their draft capital to accentuate them. They traded draft picks for Von Miller to enhance the Aaron Donald-led front seven. They signed Odell Beckham Jr. after he was released to give Matthew Stafford another weapon and ease some of the defensive attention that was on Cooper Kupp.
"It's how do you acquire those Robins to partner with Batman?" Snead said. "It's not necessarily 'F--- the picks.' It's just using them in creative ways."
As a result, in the 2022 draft, the Rams do not currently have picks in the first or second rounds. They are currently projected to be a reasonably manageable $13.7 million over the salary cap in 2022, per Over the Cap.
The biggest piece of evidence pertaining to the Bengals' approach came in a decision they did not make. They did not fire coach Zac Taylor after the team went 6-25-1 in his first two seasons. Patience has been either a Bengals virtue or curse, depending on your perspective. Marvin Lewis was the head coach for 16 seasons, despite not winning a game in any of the team's seven playoff appearances during his tenure. The Bengals recognized the relationship Taylor and Joe Burrow had formed in Burrow's rookie season but moreover, the team -- particularly owner Mike Brown -- was all-in on the build, which means they were willing to persevere through the ebbs and flows.
"We just owe so much to that man for being patient with us," Taylor said after the Bengals beat the Raiders on Super Wild Card Weekend, securing the team's first playoff win in 31 years. "Personally, if I coached in any other organization in football, I probably wouldn't be here right now in my third year. That's the truth."
He's right. This approach demands hitting on draft picks, and spending wisely in free agency, both things director of player personnel Duke Tobin excelled at. The payoff now that the Bengals have had their breakthrough is they are set up to take advantage of this window to sustain their success. They have no notable draft pick trades affecting their picks for the foreseeable future. And they will have a projected $58 million in cap space in 2022, the third most in the NFL.
The biggest piece
When the Rams traded Jared Goff and two first-round picks (in 2022 and 2023) to the Lions to acquire Matthew Stafford last year, it catalyzed the all-in effort. The Rams decided to move on from Goff, with whom they had gone to a Super Bowl. They thought Stafford, dropped into the Rams' ecosystem, gave them a better chance, once they got into the Divisional Round of the playoffs, to go toe to toe with the people Snead calls "yellow jackets" -- the Aaron Rodgers and Tom Bradys of the world. That is exactly what happened. The Rams lost to the Packers in the regular season, but Stafford outplayed Brady and the Rams defeated the Bucs in the Divisional Round in what turned out to be Brady's final game. That put the Rams into the NFC Championship Game.
The draft capital surrendered for Stafford was enormous, of course -- the Rams don't currently have a first-round pick until 2024. But Snead looks at it differently.
"We're giving up late first-round picks at the end of the day," he said. "The quarterback position, how important that is, once you're able to acquire one of those guys, individually, statistically, the person was on par sparring with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Maybe our situation would actually bring to life what he had been doing already that was maybe behind the scenes based on him being in Detroit."
The Bengals had actually enjoyed considerable quarterback stability with Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. Dalton's teams had gone to the playoffs five straight seasons. But after missing the playoffs for four seasons and bottoming out with a two-win season in 2019, the Bengals got the parity-driven reward for their suffering. Joe Burrow has been extraordinary even by first overall pick standards.
"They won the lottery," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. "It's the quarterback you have to get to ignite a franchise and a dead fan base."
Burrow is a Heisman Trophy winner and a collegiate national champion, but he has still exceeded expectations in the NFL, particularly in crunch time. He has completed 72.5 percent of his passes for an average of 9.7 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 116.1 on third and fourth downs -- all the highest marks in the NFL this season, including the playoffs. His game especially took off in the second half of the regular season, when, Burrow said last week, he was able to use his legs to extend plays more than he could early in the season, when he was still recovering from a serious knee injury that ended his rookie year. Perhaps most importantly, he relishes his role as the face of the Bengals.
"He has been even better than I thought he would be this early, this quickly," Esiason said. "I don't remember the last time -- Patrick Mahomes in his second year. This kid is unflappable."
Origins of the talent
Contrary to perception, the Rams have drafted nearly as many of the players who started on Championship Sunday (10 of 22 starters) as the Bengals have (12 of 22). The big difference is that only one of their first-round picks -- Donald -- was a starter. Five of the Rams' starters were first-round picks by other teams (Stafford, Beckham, Miller, Ramsey and linebacker Leonard Floyd). Still, since Sean McVay's arrival in 2017, the Rams have made 45 picks, which is tied for fifth most in the league in that span.
Ironically, Snead recognizes what the Bengals have done because a decade ago, the Rams tried to do it themselves.
"When we first got to St. Louis in 2012, we were similar to the Bengals," he said. "They had been through five of the worst years in NFL history. We did a lot of trading to accumulate first-round picks. We had Sam Bradford. I respect what they did -- during our building phase, we were actually trying to do that. We didn't quite get there, with some of the adversity at quarterback with Sam not being able to stay healthy and not being able to do it the Bengals way, add skill around the quarterback and fill in the defense with free agency."
The Bengals drafted 12 of their 22 players who started the AFC Championship Game, including 8 of the 11 offensive starters. That includes three first-round picks (tackle Jonah Williams, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Burrow). All six of the team's skill-position starters were drafted by the Bengals (including second-rounders Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins). Four of the 11 defensive starters were Bengals draft picks, including Sam Hubbard, who was drafted in the third round in 2018 and has three sacks in the postseason. And belying an outdated reputation for not spending money, the Bengals were active in free agency, particularly when it came to defensive players, giving contracts worth a total of more than $100 million to three defensive starters. The most important under-the-radar player acquisition: The Bengals were the only team to draft a kicker in 2021. All Evan McPherson has done is make walk-off field goals in the Divisional Round and the AFC Championship Game.
In the blizzard of flashy personnel transactions made by the Rams this season, there was an easy one to miss. In the last week of August, they traded fourth- and sixth-round draft picks to the Patriots for running back Sony Michel. Cam Akers had torn his Achilles tendon days before training camp opened and Darrell Henderson entered the season as the starting running back. But the Rams thought Henderson was better when sharing the load. Enter Michel. He emerged as the workhorse in December, which became even more important when Henderson suffered an MCL injury. Since Week 13, Michel has 153 rushes (most in the NFL in that span) for 618 yards (second most).
"We wouldn't be here without Sony and what he did in December and January," Snead said. "We realize we gave up a fourth-round pick, but we should get a fourth-round compensatory pick back because we lost John Johnson in free agency last year."
It seems ridiculous to talk about an entire unit as an underrated factor, but the offseason overhaul of the defense is the quiet partner to Burrow's emergence. The makeover was so complete that during training camp, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin was mostly worried about all the new pieces learning to play together.
"We think it will come together and they'll play as a unit this year," he said. "The more they get comfortable and familiar with each other. We feel good about the talent over there and we've got some depth."
He had reason to feel good. When edge rusher Carl Lawson signed with the Jets in March, it was viewed as a blow for the Bengals. But with his injury-prone history in mind, they let him walk in free agency and then proceeded to sign four players who started on defense in the conference title game -- defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who had 14 sacks, and corners Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple. They also signed starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the Wild Card Round win) and in August, they traded former first-round pick Billy Price to the Giants for defensive tackle B.J. Hill, who tied his career high with 5.5 sacks in the regular season. They claimed Tre Flowers and Vernon Hargreaves III off waivers. The defense began to emerge in earnest in Week 7, when the Bengals manhandled the Ravens, sacking Lamar Jackson five times, in a 41-17 victory. The defense that had just 17 sacks in 2020, the fewest in the league, had 42 this season, and, most importantly, shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half of the AFC Championship Game.
This is no small thing when there are so many stars in one locker room. The presence of McVay is a huge draw -- players know he wants them there. But the superstars have also embraced the other superstars -- Kupp was happy when Beckham arrived. Miller and Donald spent the moments after the NFC Championship Game dancing around each other. Everybody is all-in.
"Superstars, because they have a lot of individual accolades, I think what happens is those players say 'I'm still empty, I'd love a chance to compete for that championship,' " Snead said. "Superstars have to be like superfriends now. You have to come together to do something greater than each one can do. That's what the Patriots did. Players that were superstars wanted to go there not to catch another ball, but to have a chance to hoist the world championship trophy. When superstars are looking for their next team, they're not necessarily looking to pad their stats. They get to the point where they'd love to compete for something bigger."
The new culture in Cincinnati can be summed up in two words -- Joe Burrow. For years, the Bengals have been one of the quietest franchises -- they went to the playoffs, they had stability, but they did not make much noise. Mike Brown is perhaps the most reserved owner in the game and the Bengals have often been accused of not behaving enough like modern franchises. They have not sold the naming rights to their stadium and they do not have an indoor practice facility.
Burrow has transformed the dynamic since his arrival in 2020. He has infused the entire team with his confidence, and brought an edge to a franchise that, until recently, had not had a national profile since the Ickey Shuffle. And he has all but demanded everyone respect the Bengals, eschewing even the feel-good storyline of the Bengals as Cinderellas.
"No, I'm tired of the underdog narrative," Burrow said before the AFC Championship Game. "We're a really, really good team. We're here to make noise and teams are going to have to pay attention to us."