Why you should care
Dependency on a single skilled player can spell disaster for Super Bowl contenders.
For the past four seasons, undersized human lightning bolt Antonio Brown has been considered the best wide receiver in football. Why? One word: All-Pro. Besides leading the NFL twice in both receptions and receiving yards in the past four seasons, the Pittsburgh Steeler has been named first-team NFL All-Pro by the Associated Press for four consecutive seasons (in 2013, he made the second team). With regards to individual rewards, Brown has been the most dominant individual at his highly individualistic position this decade.
For Brown, a highly undervalued sixth-round draft pick in 2010, All-Pro status is the ultimate trump card. It thrust him into mainstream consciousness, earned him a spot on Dancing With the Stars and, when he signed a four-year, $68-million contract extension in 2017, made him the NFL’s then highest-paid wideout. And Brown’s All-Pro phenomenon is hardly unique. For players across the league, the AP’s All-Pro designations are a source of pride — and a measuring stick of greatness. As Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara notes, the All-Pro awards mean more to some players than a Pro Bowl invitation. “The Pro Bowl is an honor, of course, but the best players don’t always play,” explains Amukamara. “Guys miss due to injury or to [playing in] the Super Bowl.”
And, to paraphrase Voltaire, with great players come great teams. Weeks after the AP All-Pro teams are named in early January, football’s ultimate showdown — the Super Bowl — is played. In a game dependent on the sum of countless parts, one would think that having an All-Pro like Brown makes for a clear advantage. Yet, that has not proved to be the case.
No team with a first-team All-Pro offensive skill player (quarterback, wide receiver, running back) has won the Super Bowl since 2006.
Prior to the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl XLI victory, aided by All-Pro wide receiver Marvin Harrison, the last season any such player’s team accomplished the feat was 1999. That year, when the then St. Louis Rams topped the Tennessee Titans, both Kurt Warner (quarterback) and Marshall Faulk (running back) were All-Pro for the Rams.
So who’s cursed — or destined to break the All-Pro spell — in this year’s playoffs? The Los Angeles Rams (first-team All-Pro running back Todd Gurley), the Kansas City Chiefs (quarterback Patrick Mahomes) and the New Orleans Saints (wide receiver Michael Thomas).
That string of All-Pro-less champions points to an important lesson that many NFL front offices still struggle to learn: When it comes to building championship teams, paying proven superstars is not always advised. Yes, high-priced fan favorites like Brown, Aaron Rodgers and Odell Beckham Jr (to name a few) sell tickets. And yes, the best players in the world will certainly help win their fair share of games. But building a complete Super Bowl contender requires incredible depth, impeccable scouting and manufactured consistency across the entire roster.
“There’s no one set way to build a winner,” says former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason. “But if you pay superstars at the skill positions, sometimes the well dries up. The best programs are able to incubate consistency across the board.”
What that means in practice exactly is up for interpretation, but the general principles are clear: Through a combination of sound draft picks and advantageous free agent signings, NFL teams look to build sustained success. More specifically, drafting breakout stars like Brown or Saints running back Alvin Kamara (second-team All-Pro as a rookie in 2017) provides teams the necessary financial flexibility to build depth elsewhere. This year, with both Kamara and third-year star receiver Thomas earning less than $1 million on their rookie contracts, the Saints (13-3) were able to build an improved defense and offensive line to complement the stars, while still paying quarterback Drew Brees $24 million. Thus far, it’s been a recipe for success.
The AFC West champion Chiefs (12-4) are another prime example. With Mahomes and star wide receiver Tyreek Hill on rookie contracts, the Chiefs have spent money beefing up the rest of their roster. The key here is drafting immediate producers. As hundreds of former general managers will attest, that’s easier said than done. The only certainty is that roster building is increasingly difficult with eight or nine figures committed to one player. Just ask the Packers, Ravens, Raiders and Giants.
None of this is to say, though, that having mediocre players is optimal. The preferred choice, of course, is to field a team of All-Pros. But with only two quarterbacks, two running backs and four receivers named All-Pro each season, many of the league’s best players have won Super Bowls after being snubbed by the Associated Press. Was Tom Brady not one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks during each of his five Super Bowl-winning seasons? Hardly. In the three seasons that Brady was named first-team All-Pro (2007, 2010 and 2017), the Patriots made it to and lost the Super Bowl. In fact, eight of the last 18 All-Pro quarterbacks reached the Super Bowl and lost.
Will this be the year Mahomes breaks the streak?