How to build an AFL team the Belichick way
I realise the season is still in progress and there could be a perception that I am jumping the gun, but teams in the AFL will be looking forward to the draft and off-season in anticipation that they can solidify the stinky quagmire they have created.
What I am about to propose is a theory of how to rebuild your woe some rabble of a team into a power house using knowledge I have attained from watching one of the great “Creators,” Bill Belichick.
For those who are not religious followers of the NFL, Bill Belichick is the American sporting rival to Kevin Sheedy.
They both possess a smug look that insinuates that they know something you do not. They both win a lot and they have both created legendary players, teams and won multiple championships.
They have achieved this through a level of arrogance and knowledge of the sport very few posses. Belichick is a genius who creates teams with the right attitude rather than the most talented players.
One of his famous quotes: “On a football team, it’s not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how they all function.”
There will be reluctance from some readers to accept that an American football coaches’ philosophies could relate to an AFL team but given the success of the zone defence, a scheme taken directly from the NFL, these theories might also translate.
It should also be noted that the draft and the free agency has been a part of the NFL for an extended period of time, giving them far greater experience and expertise – and more data for us to examine.
Phase 1: Tanking
The fastest way to get your team heading in the right direction is to go in the opposite direction. Losing is the key; therefore if your team wants to get better, they have to worse, this is known as tanking. Its not a particularly honorable thing to do, it is not fun to watch, but it helps to get results in the long run.
There is nothing worse than the dreaded doldrums of finishing 6-12 on the ladder. You have the selection of ‘the next best’ draft picks which results in continually having good but not great players come to your club.
The process of tanking is not something condoned by the great man himself but is certainly a step, for the average to poor, in the right direction. Tanking is the process of cleaning out your team of “big names” and high value contracts in order to free up cap space and lose your way to the number one draft pick.
This raises all sorts of moral dilemmas and really tears at the fabric of everything sport seems to stand for in which “you play to win the game.”
Yet, this process will shed the weighty burden of ‘high profile’ players who may be chewing up valuable cap space. Those sort of players that, when you watch the top sides, make you think, “Could he even make their starting line-up?”
This is the first step, with it completed and oodles of cap space on your books you can attack phase two of the plan with some gusto.
Phase 2: Free Agency
This is an area where Belichick is beastly. He consistently acquires players who were discarded by other teams and transforms them into respectable and useful pieces.
Tanking gives you the cap space to make a serious run at the meat market that is free agency. You now have the ability to lure a big game player, Gary Ablett or Chris Judd to your club with a large pay packet that other teams can not match. This instantly raises your credibility and will raise the interest of other free agents.
Cap space is the key here. If you do not have it you can not buy the talent required to be competitive. You can not buy that winning feeling. Without it you will continually overpay your current talentless hacks that leave you with the feeling that you are in a bad marriage, you are staying together for the kids.
This is a period when you can drastically underpay talented players from the local leagues. It is only now that AFL clubs are looking at mature age recruits, such is the leagues obsession with youth. I would hate to think how many talented players did not get a look in because they did not have ‘star’ written all over them when they were 16.
There is a bevvy of experienced WAFL/VFL/SANFL players around who would instantly add stability to your team. While they are not likely to light the league on fire you know that you are purchasing a physique that is ready for the big time and if you have scouted them correctly, you will have a player who can perform to a certain level of expectation immediately.
Podsiadly and Barlow are the first two that spring to mind. Not great players but cheap for their relative utility in the team.
These players can be signed to your bench and emergency spots, heck a few of them could start up forward but I will get to that later. Their contribution will be noteworthy and you will only have to pay them peanuts.
The free agency is a time to fill your side with some experience, perhaps pick up an older player who can tutor the youngsters, a role model if you will. They do not have to play all that often but their knowledge is invaluable.
Belichick himself said, “The experience level they bring, there’s no question there is a value to that.”
The perfect example is when Tana Umaga returned to New Zealand and played sparingly for Counties Manakau in the NPC. His knowledge and leadership instantly increased the solidity of their midfield and turned then into a relative contender.
The emergence of their young talent was immediate. He had taught them the subtle techniques and attitude to becoming great. He left and the team fell back into irrelevance.
Phase 3: The Draft
To quote the man himself, when asked why he focused on drafting interior players first he said, “the thing about those players is they’re involved in every play. You can not have a play where you don’t block the nose [tackle]”
This can be translated to the AFL. With a focus on quick clearances, getting the ball away from stoppages and to the forward lines, the midfield is where you need to start. These are the players that are involved in a majority of the play. They have the greatest impact. If you can not win the clearance battle then you will struggle no end in your quest to win.
This is closely followed by the defensive side of the field after all, defence wins championships. It is an area, as Belichick sees it, where “you are always trying to isolate it into one player, one situation or one thing, and it just doesn’t work like that.” Defence is about finding intelligence rather than a physically imposing player.
Dustin Fletcher looks like he was the last kid picked in every playground pickup game he was ever involved in, he is all knees and elbows. What makes him special is his level of intelligence, his ability to read the game and understand what an attacking player is going to do before he himself knows it.
If you are going to draft a defensive player do not look at their physical prowess, look at what they do when the ball is not around, how they behave when a ball is in the air. Being big or explosive is not enough.
Lastly is the forward line. Big or agile forwards could be found in any local league, they are a dime a dozen. Being a forward is not that difficult in comparison to other positions on the field. They are the wide receivers of the AFL.
There are numerous tall well-built studs that could play in these positions. They should only be drafted in a high position if your team already has the required pieces in place.
If you have a stable defence and good midfield, someone of a Buddy Franklin or less distracting version of Brendon Fevola will help push your team into the upper stratosphere of the league.,the final piece in the puzzle, if you will. There is no point in drafting a powerful forward if there is no one to get him the ball.
The issue with a ‘big man’ is that they are very sexy to talent scouts. However they take a long time to develop and may be overvalued. A cardinal rule during the draft is “don’t fall in love with a player.”
These are my theories to developing a team. It is not an exact science and teams are bound to get it wrong at some point. It is easy to pick up a Jack Watts and pass on Natanui.
It makes your team look incompetent, but if Nic Nat had been a bust everyone would be praising Melbourne.
There is no hard and fast rule of how to get your self off the scrap heap in the AFL but I think if your team follows similar principles to those displayed by the master, Bill Belichick, then they will increase their chance of success. NFL strategies have worked in the AFL before they may just work again.
In all of this one rule applies; build a team don’t just collect talent!
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