How to go about building a Super Bowl team? That’s the question 32 front offices ask themselves every NFL offseason — and almost all of them land on the incorrect answer, for one reason or another. The two clubs that get it right, meanwhile, usually offer variations on a theme for the rest of the league to copy. But we may never have seen two teams take such radically different paths to Super Bowl Sunday — or offer such different lessons in how to reach the cusp of a championship — as the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams this season.
And that variety is a good thing for football. A common refrain from other sports is that they’ve become too homogenized in their dominant strategies, whether it involves the rise of three true outcome-based rosters in baseball or 3-point-shooting teams in basketball. The NFL has its own massive homogeneity problems, to be sure, but there’s less to complain about when it comes to teams all building the same way. Cincinnati and L.A. are the only two teams whose championship hopes have not yet been dashed, but how they got here is a study in contrasts.
Cincinnati’s rise this season was meteoric. Though we called the Bengals “an intriguing pick to improve greatly” in our NFL preview, they also started out ranked just 27th in our preseason Elo ratings, with only a 1 percent chance to win the Super Bowl. Only one eventual Super Bowl team — the 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” (St. Louis) Rams — ever began a season ranked lower in Elo than Cincy did this year:
|Season||Team||Opening Day QB||Elo w/ QB||Preseason Rank|
By Week 7, when the Bengals demolished the Ravens 41-17 in Baltimore, it was becoming clear that Cincinnati had the potential to vastly exceed its meager preseason expectations. But after rising to No. 12 in Elo with that victory, Cincy hit a snag — losing four of its next six contests to drop back down to No. 22 in Elo. That’s when the Bengals went on another tear, winning six of seven to close the regular season and begin the playoffs — the lone blemish being a start by backup quarterback Brandon Allen in Week 18. After an impressive upset comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati now ranks seventh in Elo, a 20-slot improvement on its Week 1 ranking.
The Bengals’ journey is a testament to the power of building with young talent through the draft. The team took four of its five best offensive players this season by Approximate Value (AV) — QB Joe Burrow (15 AV), receivers Ja’Marr Chase (13) and Tee Higgins (10) and lineman Jonah Williams (9) — with picks in the top 33 slots of each of the past three drafts. Expanding the scope of things slightly, nearly 75 percent of the Bengals’ total yards from scrimmage this season were gained by players Cincinnati selected over the past five drafts (a list that includes leading rusher Joe Mixon as well). That’s a perfect recipe for a great young core, if not necessarily an experienced one. In terms of average age and previous career AV — weighted by the amount of AV each player produced during the season itself — the Bengals have both the youngest and the least-established roster of any team in Super Bowl history:
|Season||Team||Previous Career AV||Age|
That youth could serve the Bengals well for a while; a number of clubs on that list went on to contend beyond just their initial Super Bowl run. Win or lose, Cincinnati could be set up for lasting success based on the youth movement that has helped it reach this Super Bowl.
And the success of the Bengals’ young stars this year ended up being key to their master rebuilding plan. Because so many of the team’s best offensive players make comparatively little money — Burrow, Chase, Higgins and Williams earn a combined average annual value (AAV) of $23.3 million, or just under 13 percent of the salary cap, while producing nearly 21 percent of the team’s AV — Cincinnati could maintain one of the league’s most efficient passing offenses despite committing the 12th-fewest dollars of AAV to offense of any team. In turn, that enabled Cincinnati to increase its spending on defense from the second-fewest AAV dollars in 2020 to the 10th-most in 2021, and see its defensive performance improve from No. 25 in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game to No. 11. All of that, combined with the stellar play of its special teams corps (No. 3 in EPA), added up to make Cincinnati an unlikely — but far from illogical — AFC champion.
In many ways, the Rams took a completely opposite path to the Super Bowl. If little had been expected of Cincinnati coming into 2021, Los Angeles’s expectations were sky-high — pressure ratcheted up further by the offseason acquisition of QB Matthew Stafford to help push a star-studded roster over the top. L.A. ranked sixth in Elo before the season, and it mostly played to that form all year long: After starting off like a team on a mission, winning seven of their first eight contests, the Rams suffered their only losing streak of the year at midseason but recovered by winning eight of nine across the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. Along the way, the Rams knocked out the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers — ending Tom Brady’s career — and even vanquished their rival San Francisco 49ers, who had beaten them twice during the regular season and seemed to pose the biggest matchup challenge to L.A.’s preferred style of play.
And in stark contrast with the Bengals’ plan to build around highly drafted young talent, the Rams have famously eschewed high draft picks with a focus instead on building around established big names and hunting for late-round bargains. While Los Angeles’s most important player — defensive lineman Aaron Donald — was selected by the Rams with a first-round pick in 2014, essentially none of L.A.’s other contributors were taken by the team with a high pick. To the extent the Rams have any highly drafted players, they are stars like Stafford, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — all of whom were drafted by other teams and joined the Rams later.
That has helped give Los Angeles one of the least-homegrown cast of characters to ever reach a Super Bowl, with 40.8 percent of the team’s total AV coming from players who did not make their NFL debuts as Rams. While not quite as extreme as a team like the 2002 Oakland Raiders — for whom a stunning 56.3 percent of AV came from players drafted outside the organization — the Rams’ number still ranks them 13th out of the 112 teams in Super Bowl history, well above the all-time Super Bowl average of 25 percent for non-homegrown production.1
The strategy has also brought plenty of roster churn since the last time the Rams were on the championship stage, even though it’s been only four seasons since Los Angeles fell to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Compared with that team, L.A. in 2021 has a brand-new leading passer (Stafford instead of Jared Goff), leading rusher (Sony Michel, who was actually on the Patriots in 2018, instead of Todd Gurley), leading tackler (safety Jordan Fuller — who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 18 — instead of linebacker Cory Littleton) and only six total starters in common.2 Overall, this year’s Rams roster received only 33.9 percent of its AV from players who had been on the 2018 Super Bowl team — so tear up your programs from February 2019 if you’re looking for a who’s who of L.A. stars.
Still, Los Angeles has impressively executed its grand, unconventional team-building strategy. The Rams have found a number of starters with picks in the second round or later — headlined by the 2017 third-round selection of All-Pro wideout Cooper Kupp, who just hauled in the second-most receiving yards in a single season in NFL history. They also hit on most of their “mercenary” veteran acquisitions, with Stafford, Miller, Ramsey, Floyd and Beckham all playing significant roles in the team’s postseason run.3 The resulting group has a top-heavy quality; six Rams have a higher contract AAV than Cincinnati’s highest-paid player (defensive end Trey Hendrickson at $15 million), but L.A. also has only five players making between $2 million and $15 million. (Cincinnati has 14.) While it’s not quite a full “stars-and-scrubs” model of putting together a team, because L.A. has scrounged for genuine contributors up and down the roster, it’s a very different type of club than the one lining up on the opposite sideline Sunday.
But despite the radically different paths each team took to get here, the Bengals and Rams did both end up in the same place. Along the way, they proved once again that there is no shortage of approaches that can lead you to winning football games.
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