The Art (and Science) of Drafting: IV. 49er vs. Patriot Regimes in the Salary Cap Era

In Part 3 of this series, I compared the 49ers' overall draft strategy in the Salary Cap Era to that of the Patriots. Obviously, the problem with my analysis in Part 3 is the same one we encountered in Part 1. Namely, evaluating 15 years worth of picks, whether for SF or NE, and comparing two teams with respect to those picks, is akin to putting apples and oranges (i.e., different regimes and team contexts) into one basket and then comparing that basket to one containing bananas and grapes. So Part 3, in reality, was just a way of uncovering general differences between the Niners and Patriots that might explain their overall differences in winning percentage and playoff success.

The better analysis is to look at specific regimes under similar contexts. Because we're technically still in the McNolan regime until the 2009 draft, it's probably of most interest for you (and I) to see how McNolan compares to specific Patriot regimes. Beginning with the 1994 draft, there have been 3 such regimes:

  1. Bill Parcells, 1994-1996
  2. Bobby Grier, 1997-1999
  3. Scott Pioli, 2000-2008

As I mentioned during the introduction to Part 3, it turns out that NE has had overall team contexts similar to those of SF. All that's different are the dates on the calendar. Specifically, Parcells was the Bill Walsh I of NE, transforming a hapless franchise into a consistent contender. Grier was a combination of Policy and Donahue in that he unwound the pristine ball of yarn spun by Parcells. Finally, Pioli was a mixture of Walsh II and McNolan. He was charged with returning a once-proud franchise to its winning ways.

So the question is, "Which of the 3 NE regimes has McNolan been most similar to regarding draft strategy?"

But before I move on, I need to make one additional regime distinction. Further inspection of the Pioli regime makes you realize that it has actually encompassed two different team contexts, i.e., it's 2 different regimes rolled into 1. Pioli's drafts from 2000-2003 were of the dynasty-building variety, whereas his drafts from 2004-2008 were of the dynasty-sustaining variety. As my discussion of the Policy and Donahue regimes vis-à-vis the Walsh regime suggested, rebuilding drafts look a lot different than sustaining drafts. So when attempting to compare McNolan to the NE regimes, we have to consider Pioli as having had 2 different regimes (Pioli I & Pioli II) from 2000-2008. In other words, my question above revises to, "Which of the 4 NE regimes has McNolan been most similar to regarding draft strategy?"

To refresh your memory, here is the McNolan draft strategy I detailed in Part 2d of this series:

  1. Stockpile picks when your team sucks, but trade away picks when (you think) your team is good.
  2. Draft for need on Day 1, especially when your team sucks.
  3. Use Day 2 to take a lot of bites at the apple.
  4. BCS or die!
  5. We're Goldilocks (aka Vanilla McNolan).

After the jump, I'll compare McNolan's draft strategy from 2005-2008 to 1 of the 4 Patriot regimes of the Patriots. Keep reading to find out which one. The lucky winner might surprise you...

OVERALL REGIME COMPARISON

My preparation for this article put me in one of those pesky scientific situations wherein you expect one result and get an entirely different one. Anyone who does research of any kind always has to guard against what's called "confirmation bias," which, as the name implies, is the tendency to cherry-pick evidence or construct your research in a way that confirms what you were hoping to find in the first place. Plenty of researchers fall into this trap - especially when money and professional prestige are at stake - which actually is antithetical to the scientific method. The whole point of top-down research is to develop a hypothesis and try to prove it wrong, not right.

With that said, I was fully expecting that, given its mediocre record since 2005, McNolan's drafts would be somewhere in the middle between the least successful Patriot regime (Grier) and the most successful (Pioli). Also, given the disparity in team success despite similar contexts, I was expecting there to be a vast difference between the McNolan and Pioli I drafts. Needless to say, this wasn't the case.

Here is a table showing the differences in various draft categories between McNolan and the other regimes that have drafted for SF and NE in the Salary Cap Era:

 

DIFFERENCES WITH MCNOLAN

CATEGORY

POLICY

WALSH II

DONAHUE

PARCELLS

GRIER

PIOLI I

PIOLI II

Picks per Round

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picks per Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picks per Position

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picks per Unit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picks per Conference

✓✓

 

 

 

BCS Rate

✓✓✓✓

 

 

 

✓✓

Starter Rate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate

✓✓

 

 

 

 

 

Picks per Unit on Day 1

 

✓✓✓

 

 

 

 

Picks per Unit on Day 2

 

 

 

 

 

BCS Rate on Day 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

BCS Rate on Day 2

✓✓✓

✓✓✓✓

 

✓✓

✓✓✓

 

✓✓

Starter Rate on Day 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starter Rate on Day 2

 

 

✓✓✓

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate on Day 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate on Day 2

✓✓✓

 

 

 

 

 

BCS Rate on OFF

 

✓✓

 

 

 

 

BCS Rate on DEF

✓✓

✓✓✓

 

 

 

 

 

Starter Rate on OFF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starter Rate on DEF

 

 

✓✓

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate on OFF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate on DEF

 

 

 

 

 

Starter Rate from Non-BCS

 

 

 

✓✓

 

 

Starter Rate from BCS

 

✓✓✓

 

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate from Non-BCS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pro Bowl Rate from BCS

 

 

 

✓✓

 

 

 

4

1

0

8

4

1

1

✓✓

2

2

0

3

1

0

2

✓✓✓

2

3

1

0

1

0

0

✓✓✓✓

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

Total  s

14

22

3

14

9

1

5

 

Each check mark (✓) indicates a statistical difference between McNolan and a given regime with respect to a given category. The number of check marks indicates the size of the statistical difference:

  • = There's an 80% likelihood that the regime's drafts were statistically different.
  • ✓✓ = There's a 90% likelihood that the regime's drafts were statistically different.
  • ✓✓✓ = There's a 95% likelihood that the regime's drafts were statistically different.
  • ✓✓✓✓ = There's a 99% likelihood that the regime's drafts were statistically different.

Looking at the totals for the 49er regimes, it's pretty depressing that (a) McNolan has been least similar to Walsh II, (b) McNolan has been most similar to Donahue, and (c) the only statistical difference between McNolan and Donahue is that Donahue was actually better at finding starters on Day 2 (Donahue = 29.6%; McNolan = 8.6%). Stewardess, can you please get me a barf bag?

Looking at the totals for the Patriot regimes, however, paints an entirely different picture. In this case, it turns out that McNolan has actually been most similar to the rebuilding half of the Pioli regime (i.e., Pioli I); to an even larger extent than McNolan's similarity to Donahue. Of the 26 categories, the only area in which McNolan has differed from Pioli I has been the latter's relative effectiveness in  finding Pro Bowlers on Day 2, which we all know by now is a little skewed because of the better team having a built-in advantage for getting players selected to the Pro Bowl.

Some of you might notice that there seems to be an "era trend." The Policy regime and Parcells were equally different from McNolan, and they happened to be drafting during the same period of time (the beginning of the Salary Cap and Free Agency Eras). Also, McNolan has been most similar to Donahue and Pioli (both I and II), who happen to be the closest in proximity with respect to draft years. However, I'd caution against this interpretation because, as the table shows, Walsh II and Pioli I were polar opposites with respect to their McNolan differences despite overlapping draft years (Walsh = 1999-2001; Pioli I = 2000-2003) and similar draft contexts (i.e., rebuilding). And if you're wondering whether this discrepancy is due to the fact that Walsh II focused on rebuilding the DEF, whereas Pioli I and McNolan focused on rebuilding the OFF, just look at the table categories involving team units: only 4 of Walsh II's 22 check marks are due to unit differences with McNolan. This means that the unit-adjusted difference for Walsh II is 18 check marks, which is still the largest of all regimes, and dwarfs Pioli II's 1-check-mark McNolan difference.

So, the moral of the table is that, despite my (and probably your) expectations to the contrary, McNolan's drafts have actually been most similar to Pioli I's. Given this result, I'll be using the rest of the article to compare McNolan's draft strategy to Pioli's. Odds are, of course, that their draft strategies are quite similar. However, there might be specific areas in which the 2 regimes have differed, with these differences shedding light on the answer to our now-more-important question, "Why was Pioli I so much more successful than McNolan despite being so similar in the draft?" I'm sure you've already developed an opinion or two.

PIOLI I IN CONTEXT

When Bill Belichick hired Pioli in time for the 2000 draft, the Patriots had seen a Donahue-esque decline in team wins during the previous 3 seasons. Although they didn't exactly nosedive like Donahue's, the Patriot win totals during Grier's tenure nevertheless got worse each season (10 in 1997, 9 in 1998, and 8 in 1999). Essentially, just like Donahue's squandering of Walsh II's success, Grier squandered Parcells' success. And just like McNolan was charged with cleaning up Donahue's mess, Pioli I was charged with cleaning up Grier's mess.

I've already told you that Pioli I focused primarily on rebuilding the NE OFF - and with good reason. Below are the specific contexts of each NE draft during the Pioli I regime:

  • 2000 Draft - Key Losses: RB Terry Allen (free agency), WR Shawn Jefferson (free agency), TE Ben Coates (free agency), OL Heath Irwin (free agency), OL Zefross Moss (released), and DB Steve Israel (free agency). Weak 1999 Stats: 22nd in OFF DVOA.1 Lingering Issues: Still hadn't found a worthy replacement for RB Robert Edwards; major injury to LB Ted Johnson. Needs: RB, WR, TE, OL, DB, LB depth.
  • 2001 Draft - Key Losses: FB Tony Carter (free agency), OL Bruce Armstrong (retirement), DL Chad Eaton (free agency), and LB Chris Slade (free agency). Weak 2000 Stats: 20th in OFF DVOA; 20th in DEF DVOA. Lingering Issues: Still hadn't found worthy replacements for RB Robert Edwards and TE Ben Coates; Ted Johnson missed 3 games with minor injury; DB Otis Smith now 35 years old. Needs: RB, FB, TE, OL, DL, LB, DB depth.
  • 2002 Draft - Key Losses: QB Drew Bledsoe (trade), WR Terry Glenn (trade), TE Rod Rutledge (free agency) and DL Brandon Mitchell (free agency). Weak 2001 Stats: -3.7% (14th) OFF DVOA. Lingering Issues: Still hadn't found worthy replacements for RB Robert Edwards and TE Ben Coates; DL Willie McGinest missed 5 games with minor injury; Otis Smith now 36 years old. Needs: RB, WR, TE, DL, QB depth, DB depth.
  • 2003 Draft - Key Losses: FB Marc Edwards (free agency) and DB Tebucky Jones (trade). Weak 2002 Stats: None. Lingering Issues: Major injury to Otis Smith, who is now 37 years old; DL Anthony Pleasant and LB Roman Phifer now 34 years old. Needs: FB, DB, DL depth, LB depth.

In this case, the specific needs accurately reflect the general: NE primarily needed to rebuild the OFF. However, looking at these draft contexts, our first difference emerges. Namely, Pioli I had to replace 4 starters per draft, whereas McNolan had to replace about 7 starters per draft. Media accounts of both regimes (here and here) invoked the proverbial "out with the old, in with the new" theme. Looking back, it's more accurate to say that McNolan had much more old and new to take out and bring in, respectively.

So how did Pioli I replace their 16 departed starters? Here's how:

  • RB Kevin Faulk (1999 Grier pick) for Allen
  • WR Troy Brown (1993 Parcells pick) for Jefferson
  • Rutledge (1998 Grier pick) for Coates
  • OL Joe Andruzzi (2000 Pioli I free agent signing) for Irwin
  • OL Grant Williams (2000 Pioli I free agent signing) for Moss
  • Otis Smith (2000 Pioli I free agent signing) for Israel
  • Marc Edwards (2001 Pioli free agent signing) for Carter
  • OL Matt Light (2001 Pioli pick) for Armstrong
  • DL Anthony Pleasant (2000 Pioli I free agent signing) and DL Bobby Hamilton (2000 Pioli I free agent signing) for Eaton (after switching to a 4-3 defense)
  • LB Mike Vrabel (2001 Pioli I free agent signing) for Slade
  • QB Tom Brady (2000 Pioli I pick) for Bledsoe
  • WR David Patten (2001 Pioli I free agent signing) for Glenn
  • TE Christian Fauria (2002 Pioli I free agent signing) for Rutledge
  • Hamilton for Mitchell (after moving him from DE to DT)
  • TE Daniel Graham (2002 Pioli I pick) for Marc Edwards (after switching to a 2-TE offense)
  • DB Eugene Wilson (2003 Pioli I pick) for Tebucky Jones

Adding it all up, Pioli I rebuilt the starting lineup with 9 traditional free agents, 4 draft picks, and 3 players originally acquired by previous regimes. As compared to McNolan's first two drafts, which required a similar 15 replacements, Pioli I used free agency nearly twice as much, and had a holdover rate (20.0%) that was half as large. Therefore, we've found a second difference between the two regimes: Pioli I liked free agency and cleaned house more.

Now, let's move on to the point-by-point draft strategy comparison. Again, although McNolan and Pioli I drafts are similar, there are nevertheless important differences.

STRATEGY #1

Stockpile picks when your team sucks,

but trade away picks when (you think) your team is good.

As I reported in Part 2d, McNolan has had 35 picks in its 4 drafts. In comparison, Pioli I had 36 picks in its 4 drafts; very similar indeed. So, the way to evaluate this strategy is to compare the two regimes' draft picks by year after matching up the number of draft picks at identical junctures during their respective regimes. The table below shows McNolan's and Pioli's pick totals during their first, second, third, and fourth drafts:

Draft_history__part_4__chart_1_medium

Remember that Pioli I drafts followed seasons with 5 wins (1999), 8 wins (2000), 11 wins (2001), and 9 wins (2002).  Regarding number of draft picks, Pioli I's totals did seem to ebb and flow with team wins. Indeed, Pioli I's number of draft picks was lowest in Year 3, which followed an 11-5, Super-Bowl-winning 2001 season. Where a difference emerges relates to my placement of "(you think)" in the McNolan strategy. In true Vanilla McNolan form, SF had only 6 picks in Year 4 presumably because they thought the disastrous 2007 season was a mere aberration; the Niners were actually good in McNolan's mind, only requiring a new OC and a few draft picks to return to their 7-9 "glory" of 2006.

Contrast this with the much-more-realistic Pioli I approach. That regime only got rid of picks after winning the Super Bowl. Furthermore, they returned to the "stockpile picks" approach after a winning season. In other words, what I see here is Pioli I having a much higher threshold than McNolan for "your team is good." It seems that McNolan viewed a 5-11 season as only requiring some roster- and assistant-coach-tweaking, whereas Pioli I responded to a 9-7 season by amassing 10 picks in the 2003 draft. I guess the easiest way to put this is that, to Pioli I, 9 wins meant "we suck," but, to McNolan, 5 wins means "we're good."

STRATEGY #2

Draft for need on Day 1, especially when your team sucks.

OK, so I just established that "when your team sucks" meant "less than 10 wins" to Pioli I. Therefore, let's look at Day 1 of NE's 2000, 2001, and 2003 drafts. Referring back to the team needs I detailed earlier, the 2000 draft required Pioli to fix the OFF; specifically, RB, WR, TE, and OL. Their Day 1 picks? An OL (Round 2) and a RB (Round 3). In fact, their first 4 picks were an OL, a RB, an OL (Round 4), and a TE (Round 5). Not to mention that they stumbled upon a certain unassuming, jelly-legged QB from the University of Michigan in Round 6. Of course, that was luck more than anything attributable to Pioli I, but it's still worth mentioning. Anyway, addressing needs on Day 1 in 2000? Check.

In 2001, most of the needs were still on OFF. The positions they took on Day 1 of that draft were DL (Round 1), OL (Round 2), and DB (Round 3). So, did Pioli I address needs on Day 1 in 2001? No. One thing I will say though is that, if you're not going to address needs on Day 1, it helps to draft a Pro Bowl DE (Richard Seymour) and a Pro Bowl LT (Light) with your top two picks, and then snag your 2002 starter at RT (Kenyatta Jones) with your first pick on Day 2.

In 2003, the needs shifted to DEF because of advancing age and increasing proneness to injury. Specifically, NE needed to replace a starting DB, and needed depth at DL and LB. What did they take during Day 1 of the 2003 draft? Round 1: a DL. Round 2: a DB. Round 3: a WR. And just for good measure, they took another DL in Round 4. Addressing needs? Check.

Last question: "Did Pioli I also draft for need on Day 1 of the 2002 draft, i.e., when NE was good?" Even in their Super-Bowl-winning season of 2001, NE was still a below-average offensive team (See above OFF DVOA). At the very least, their 14th-ranked OFF was worse than their above-average DEF (DVOA = -6.3%). Therefore, their needs were on OFF. So what did Pioli I do on Day 1 in 2002? He took a TE in Round 1 and a WR in Round 2, and then, for good measure, took a QB with NE's first pick of Day 2. Addressing needs? Check.

So, taken together, Pioli I seems to have been very similar to McNolan regarding the draft strategy of interest in this section.

STRATEGY #3

Use Day 2 to take a lot of bites at the apple.

My identification of this McNolan strategy in Part 4 was based on its tendency to take a lot of WRs, DLs, and DBs on Day 2. In addition, I argued that their reliance on Day 2 talent at these positions might be one reason why they haven't found many good ones. Hey, but at least they're trying.

From the table showing regime differences that I presented at the beginning of this article, you can already surmise that Pioli I didn't differ from McNolan with respect to team units on Day 2. Therefore, there's no general trend. It's still useful to look at the specific position-by-position draft day totals, as well as the actual unit-by-unit results. Here's the relevant table:

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

QB

0

3

3

RB

1

2

3

FB

0

0

0

WR

2

1

3

TE

1

4

5

OL

2

3

5

DL

2

5

7

LB

0

3

3

DB

2

4

6

K

0

1

1

P

0

0

0

OFF Total

6

13

19

DEF Total

4

12

16

ST Total

0

1

1

Total

10

26

36

From this table, it's clear that Pioli I didn't have a unit bias between draft days: he split his picks 60/40 between OFF and DEF on Day 1, and basically split them 50/50 on Day 2. Nevertheless, there are two (albeit shaky) pieces of evidence of a Day 2 "bites at the apple" strategy having been used by Pioli I. First, they sure had a lot of picks on Day 2, meaning that they were taking a lot of bites at the apple all over the field. Of course, it makes you wonder how NE won a championship during Pioli I with all that Day 2 talent on the roster. Oh yeah, I forgot. Two words: free agency. OK, well, 5 words: free agency and Tom Brady. Second, you might recall from Part 2d that McNolan has had 21 picks on Day 2 in their 4 drafts, i.e., 5 fewer than Piol I. So how did Pioli I use those extra picks? How about at those needs on OFF? Specifically, Pioli I used 4 of the 5 extra Day 2 picks on OFF (and the 5th on a K), while taking the exact same number of DEF picks on Day 2 as McNolan.

So, in general, I'd say the differences between McNolan and Pioli I are pretty subtle with respect to this strategy, if they exist at all. One thing I will add, though, is that, unlike McNolan, Pioli I found 3 Pro Bowlers at need positions on Day 2: Brady, OL Dan Koppen, and DB Asante Samuel. Indeed, the table of regime differences shows that Day 2 Pro Bowl rate was the only category in which a regime difference actually emerged between McNolan and Pioli I. In this sense, I suppose it was a good thing that NE had 15 Day 2 picks - almost 2 extra per round than normal - in the 2000 and 2003 drafts.

STRATEGY #4

BCS or die!

This one's a pretty easy nut to crack. Pioli I used 28 of his 36 picks on players from BCS conferences, which is pretty similar to McNolan using 31 of 35 on such players. The only slight difference between the two regimes - certainly not large enough to be statistically significant - has been with respect to draft days. Whereas their Day 1 BCS rates were pretty similar, Pioli's Day 2 BCS rate (23.1%) was more than double McNolan's (9.5%).  Again, this difference isn't statistically significant, but it is a practically important difference nevertheless.

STRATEGY #5

We're Goldilocks (aka Vanilla McNolan).

As this strategy is more about attitude than statistics, it's not surprising that this is where McNolan and Pioli I seem to differ the most. Remember that my Goldilocks argument was based on the fact that McNolan has had perennial needs that it continues to leave unaddressed (i.e., pass rusher and QB). Essentially, once McNolan thinks it has addressed a position in the draft, say, by taking Alex Smith with their 1st pick, it doesn't feel an urgent requirement to reassess whether, perhaps, they adequately addressed the need. Pioli I was the exact opposite in this regard.

The dirty secret about NE's 2000 draft is that it was pretty (site decorum) bad. Their 2nd-round pick, OL Adrian Klemm was a certified bust. Their 3rd-round pick, Redmond, was basically a strikeout swinging. Their 4th-round pick, OL Greg Randall, only ended up being a regular starter for 1 season. Of their remaining 7 picks, all Pioli I got out of them in terms of starters and/or Pro Bowlers was Brady; granted, he certainly makes up for the rest of the Day 2 garbage. Essentially, only the Policy regime's 1995 and 1997 drafts are in the same solar system in terms of being bad from top-to-bottom.

The difference, though, is that Pioli I realized really quickly the enormity of his 2000 disaster. After failing with his OL picks in 2000, he took another 2 OL with his first 4 picks in 2001. After failing with his DL picks in 2000, he took a DL with his first pick in 2001. This trend continued in subsequent drafts, as Pioli I took a TE with his first pick in 2002 after missing on 2 TEs in the previous 2 drafts. You get the idea. The point here is that there seems to have been an honest reassessment of previous draft failures at need positions. In essence, you don't just wait for a pick to be what you thought he would be. Rather, you quickly say, "he sucks," and address the need again immediately.

The second example of Pioli I not being "vanilla" is something I mentioned earlier. Namely, he didn't settle for mediocrity after NE went 9-7 in 2002. Rather, that 2003 draft ended up being what took the Patriots to the next level, allowing them to escape the mire of mediocrity. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. With their first 6 picks, NE found 4 starters (DL Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Samuel, and Koppen), the latter 2 of which made the Pro Bowl with NE. And what did the Patriots do in 2003 and 2004? They won two championships, of course. So the point here is that, whereas McNolan looked at a 5-win team and made a few changes to get back to 7-9, Pioli I looked at a 9-7 team and made a whole host of changes to get back to the Super Bowl. If this isn't the difference between vanilla and mint chocolate chip, I don't know what is.

Here's one last thing about this. Although I'm focusing on Pioli I here, his commitment to excellence (rather than mediocrity) is an identifiable trait because of how consistently he's acted on it. Specifically, not settling for mediocrity continued well into the Pioli II regime of 2004-2008. Here are a few examples:

  • He amassed 10 picks in the 2006 draft after a Divisional Round exit in 2005.
  • Despite being minutes away from reaching another Super Bowl in 2006, he traded for WR Randy Moss and signed WR Wes Welker after realizing that NE's mediocre WRs were holding them back.
  • He realized that a certain Bay Area team was not as good as they thought they were, and traded NE's late-1st-round pick in 2007 in exchange for that team's earlier 4th-round pick and sure-to-be-earlier 1st-round pick in 2008. All this trade produced was NE having the #7 pick in the draft coming off of an undefeated regular season.

This last example was the difference between vanilla and mint chocolate chip in a nut shell.

GENERAL ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

To wrap things up, below is a table summarizing ways in which Pioli I's draft strategy was similar to and different from McNolan's:

MCNOLAN STRATEGY

PIOLI I SIMILAR?

Stockpile picks when your team sucks, but trade away picks when (you think) your team is good.

Throwbackpatpatriotpinhalf__small__medium 

Draft for need on Day 1, especially when your team sucks.

Throwbackpatpatriotpin__small__medium 

Use Day 2 to take a lot of bites at the apple.

Throwbackpatpatriotpinhalf__small__medium

BCS or die!

Throwbackpatpatriotpin__small__medium

We're Goldilocks (aka Vanilla McNolan).

 X

As I said during the introduction, what I found out in my regime comparisons was not what I expected. The first thing that surprised me was that McNolan and Pioli I have been pretty similar. More accurately, though, I was shocked that McNolan's drafts have been most similar to a regime that won 10 more games and 1 more Super Bowl in the same context and period of time. This revelation implied an unexpected finding that was even more shocking to me. Namely, that NE's success during Pioli - and Pioli II for that matter - was minimally attributable to their draft success. Rather, from a personnel perspective, NE won in 2001 for 2 reasons:

  1. Tom Brady
  2. Free agency

Although this is certainly arguable, I'm sure the vast majority of you - and a plurality of Patriot fans - would agree that there is no Patriot dynasty without NE discovering what NFL Network deemed the greatest "diamond in the rough" in NFL draft history. It's pretty clear that their other draft picks in 2000 were pretty useless, so it stands to reason that, without Brady, NE's upset over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI never happens (p.s. I'm ignoring the Tuck Rule here). Same goes for all those free agent acquisitions following the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Where the draft has helped NE the most has been in sustaining their success past 2001. Without that 2003 draft supplementing a few free agent acquisitions (e.g., DB Rodney Harrison), I'm pretty sure the Patriots don't win rings in 2003 and 2004.

The bottom line is that, whether through free agency or the draft, NE hasn't sat on its laurels and accepted mediocrity. Basically, 9-7 has meant "we suck." That is the lesson that Donahue never learned, and it seems to be the modus operandi for McNolan thus far. Simply put, Pioli I was mint chocolate chip, not vanilla.

So, based on everything I've discussed in this article, here's the way forward for our beloved 49ers if they truly want to emulate NE's recent success:

  1. Solidify the QB position once and for all. If that means hiring a shaman to do a good-luck "diamond in the rough" dance, so be it.
  2. Use free agency a little more, and perhaps replace Director of Pro Personnel Tom Gamble, who only seems to target false hopes (e.g., WR Bryant Johnson, OL Jonas Jennings, DL Justin Smith, and LB Tully Banta-Cain) and old fogies (e.g., FB Moran Norris, WR Isaac Bruce, OL Larry Allen, OL Marvel Smith, LB Takeo Spikes, DB Walt Harris, and DB Michael Lewis).
  3. Quit being vanilla! Honestly reassess your failures, and correct them immediately. Don't think a 5-win team only requires a little nibbling around the edges. Hell, as it relates to this year, the same goes for a 7-win team.

That's it for the series. I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for sticking around through 7 (lengthy) parts. At the very least, I hope you learned a couple of things about 49er draft history that can be assimilated into your opinions of current and past 49er regimes.

 

 

1 DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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