It’s a copycat league.
That copycat line has been used countless times to over-simplify how in the National Football League, those that are successful will be mimicked by the lesser successful.
Eventually, an innovation becomes the norm before it is inevitably nullified by some other coach who watches game video instead of attending his kid’s school play.
After decades of conservative front office craft, where trades are made on Draft Day in April and the buzzy deadline deals are left to Major League Baseball, football executives have seemingly become the influencers.
Since the Los Angeles Rams began mortgaging their future in 2017 and maxed the credit card in stocking a talented and pricey roster sufficient to win the Super Bowl in their home stadium last year, other general managers and team presidents seem to have pinched their proverbial chin and muttered:
“Let’s do that.”
Welcome to the era of the all-in.
And with the NFL trade deadline approaching on Nov. 1, more teams with visions of one key piece now being worth several in the future could attempt to copy-cat the Rams.
Thing is, not all of them can make it worthwhile.
The Rams made this a thing. The Broncos or 49ers may become the cautionary tale that makes it a thing of the past.
But right now, all-in is very in.
Former Green Bay Packers vice president Andrew Brandt, though, needs to see more teams follow the Rams’ lead to declare this a trend.
“I’d be hard-pressed to say this is a trend when it’s hard to come up with more than a handful in this all-in strategy,” Brandt told Gaming Today. “Certainly the Rams and certainly their success last year has shown a roadmap for people to not be so concerned with draft picks.”
Los Angeles got its Super Bowl validation but is dealing with ramifications. They are now 3-3 with quarterback Matthew Stafford, 34, ailing and a veteran roster that could have used some draft refreshment. Stafford came to the Rams from Detroit as one of the final puzzle pieces in January 2021 for two first-rounders, a third, and quarterback Jared Goff.
But Rams general manager Les Snead got a trophy, a parade, and a haughty T-shirt to wear to it. It bore an image of his face and the slogan “F— them picks.”
Rams, 49ers, Broncos, Browns “F— Them Picks”, Too
Snead started saying f— those picks in 2017 for fodder to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks (who was spun to Houston in 2020), cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and Stafford. LA hasn’t had a first-round pick since 2016 and didn’t have a pick in the first 100 in April.
The Broncos followed suit when they sent 2022 and 2023 first- and second-round picks, defensive lineman Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant, and quarterback Drew Lock to Seattle for 33-year-old quarterback Russell Wilson — a presumed Super Bowl capstone — and a 2022 fourth, and inked him to a five-year, $245 million extension, including $124 million guaranteed.
Amid a bad breakup with Baker Mayfield, the Browns sent 2022, 2023, and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth, a 2023 third, and 2024 fourth to Houston for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Cleveland then paid him a fully guaranteed five-year, $230-million contract as an investigation into his personal conduct would eventually lead to an 11-game suspension he’s still serving.
And last week, the San Francisco 49ers sent a 2023 second-, third- and fourth-round pick and a 2024 fifth-rounder to Carolina for running back Christian McCaffrey. San Francisco had to offer more depth picks because the high ones were burned two years ago drafting quarterback prospect Trey Lance. Now, a team 10 from the Super Bowl last year gets a dynamic playmaker who appears a seamless fit as a rusher and pass catcher in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
General manager John Lynch said the Rams’ philosophy heavily influenced his regarding acquiring McCaffrey.
“I was trying to [complete a deal] because I know their propensity to come in late and go big, and so I was trying to get it done before but that wasn’t going to happen. … We had to be patient, wait it through, and ultimately weigh it at the end of the day if it was a good decision for us. Ultimately we felt it was.”
John Lynch discusses how the Rams' interest in McCaffrey influenced 49ers, and how he tried to get the deal done early:
"I was trying to because I know their propensity to come in late and go big. I was trying to get it done before, but that wasn't going to happen." pic.twitter.com/Xe6UuayUeX
— KNBR (@KNBR) October 21, 2022
But the Niners also got a running back with a troublesome history of injuries. And he’s 26. Increasingly, that’s the expiration date for NFL players at his position, no matter how special they’d been before.
Brandt said three third-round compensatory picks due to San Francisco next year because of front office movement temper the gambit someone.
But, he said, the risk is real:
“They’re going to be very leveraged going forward and the 49ers, they went all-in last year to get a young quarterback who’s been injured to replace a quarterback that’s been injured and now they get a running back who’s been injured.”
The Rams got a good look at what they missed out on when San Francisco beat them, 31-14 in Week 8. McCaffrey, in his first full-workload game, rushed 18 times for 94 yards and a touchdown, caught eight balls for 55 yards and a score and threw for another, a 34-yarder.
Trading Future Picks is One Thing, Paying for Stars is Another
The salary cap is another matter. While McCaffrey slid onto the 49ers’ books easily, the Broncos are tethered to Wilson for seven seasons after adding to the two years left on his previous deal. Los Angeles has deferred the tab on Stafford with a low cap hit and heavy bonusing.
And Snead has found a way to retain stars like Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp, sign wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a one-year deal last fall, and this season add pieces like Bobby Wagner, who was too expensive for and released by Seattle.
“Stafford has $61 million in cash this year — $60 million bonus and $1 million salary — and his cap number’s $13 [million],” Brandt explained. “So that’s $48 million that’s got to show up on the cap sometime. It’s kind of strange to think that $48 million is being pushed out, you know?”
The philosophy is markedly different from when Brandt handled contracts and the salary cap in Green Bay from 1999-2008.
“When I managed the cap, people asked me all the time, ‘Well, can they do this? Can they do that?’,” he shared. “My answer’s always the same: If we think the Chinese are coming next year to take us, we can do anything.
“If our only concern is the now, we can do anything. We can sign an all-star team.”
“But if we want to keep it going …. And in my situation, it was always we wanted a team for our next quarterback. Once Brett [Favre] retires — it was going to be Aaron Rogers at that time — we have to prepare. We don’t want to go in a big hole.”
The Rams, not surprisingly, ranked well on top of The Ringer’s “All-In” Index before the regular season. They were followed by the Broncos and Browns. The 49ers were fifth.
49ers Could Have Busted Rams’ All-In Gambit With One Play
San Francisco could have tipped the final domino on the whole Rams experiment. Early into the all-in era, Los Angeles lost Super Bowl 53 to the Patriots, missed the playoffs in 2019, and was blown out by Green Bay in the divisional round in 2020. In came Stafford. Maybe the bill wouldn’t have come due with another failure. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a reboot. Snead was close to having to make those decisions.
Despite all the resources expended, the Rams’ grand experiment would have coded again had 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt simply held on to an interception of Stafford with 9:55 left in the NFC Championship game and San Francisco leading, 17-14.
He dropped it.
Matt Gay’s 40-yard field goal tied the game, another from 30 put the Rams ahead, and a Jimmy Garoppolo interception allowed LA to advance to and win a home-field Super Bowl.
“I know everyone can point to the Rams’ success,” Brandt said, “[but] you wonder what the perception would be of the all-in strategy if that didn’t happen.”
Sample size makes it all hard to judge, but Brandt, who handled player contracts and cap management in Green Bay, sees the change in front-office philosophy beyond all-in deals.
“You look at the sort of teams that have done the two No. 1s for a player, whether it’s the Bears for Khalil Mack or the Seahawks for Jamal Adams,” he said. “You just have to wonder as they look back, the Russell Wilson trade, is that going to be the way to go or not?
“I come from a background of team management that’s a lot more, I guess, conservative. And the idea for the Packers and the Patriots and the Ravens and all these other teams seems to be sustained success rather than sort of, ‘Let’s try to hit it one year and worry about the future later.’”
Brandt said situational needs will ultimately determine if the trend grows. And the nerve of management and ownership.
“If teams feel like they’re in a window, maybe they go for it,” he said. “But I think for going forward’s a very risky strategy because only one team gets [a Super Bowl win].
“It could be an interception here, a tipped pass there, and then you’re stuck with this future that’s not so great. It could be happening to the Rams now.”
According to Sports Illustrated, the Rams were at it again in attempting to trade for McCaffrey but didn’t have enough capital to fend off Lynch. LA dangled 2023 second- and third-rounders in 2023, fourth- and fifth-rounders in 2024, and out-of-favor running back Cam Akers.
Just One Gets the Payoff, But Every All-In Team has to Pay Up
The Broncos are wallowing at 2-5, last in the AFC West. They lost in their season-opener at Seattle. Wilson has become a national target of mockery, as he and first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett appear lost. Wilson’s cringy Subway commercials were canceled. A trendy Super Bowl pick has tanked in the odds.
Every all-in maneuver is a sum of its unique variables, but if Denver doesn’t recover, this deal could be the kind of thing that renders GMs more risk-averse.
The Niners deal could end a movement, too. Because there’s plenty of variables there, also. McCaffrey’s age is chief among them. And even though his workload in Carolina might have contributed to his injury problems and the 49ers have far more tools offensively … he’s had injury problems.
Additionally, the 49ers also still don’t know who they have at quarterback next year. This season they committed to Lance after sending three first-round picks and a third to Miami to snag him with the third pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. Lance was lost for the season after sustaining an ankle fracture in Week 2 and outcast-returned-starter Garoppolo has fluctuated between middling to panic-inducing as he plays out a one-year contract. San Francisco’s big bets are over-lapping. They need one to pay off soon.
“Certainly, the McCaffrey trade looks a little curious for a team that’s starting out again with a new quarterback next year,” Brandt observed. “But they feel that they can get something done this year.
“So we’ll see.”
Many other teams will be watching.