Michael Lombardi: The NFL mistake of One Player Away Syndrome


Before the 1983 draft, former Raider owner Al Davis was convinced he was going to get Stanford star quarterback John Elway.  He knew the price would be steep; he knew he needed to make several moves to get the first overall pick (I write in detail about this in my new book Football Done Right). He also knew he had an ace up his sleeve.  Baltimore’s owner Robert Irsay wanted cash—and Davis had cash, lots of cash from a huge preseason gate.  Davis believed with Elway on his team, the Raiders would dominate the NFL for the next 15 years.  As he famously would say to me when watching a great player making a difference, “Just put that player on my team.”  


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Davis also understood the need for more than one great player and that championship-caliber teams had to come together.  He hated anyone in his organization to talk glowingly about his team or offering stupid predictions.  He never wanted the pressure of someone running their mouth to be placed on the players, which is why the Raiders never had introductory press conferences for any draft picks.  When Jets head coach Robert Saleh spoke before the team’s first OTA day, having acquired Aaron Rodgers, I thought back to Davis and how he would have reacted to Saleh’s words—spoiler alert—not well.    

Saleh went into full television commentator mode (watch out Danny O) with this statement.  “So acknowledge the noise, acknowledge the positivity, be excited about it because there’s… in my opinion, 32 coaches stand in front of their teams every year, talk about winning a championship, and then realistically, there’s maybe six or eight teams that have an actual chance to do it, and I do think we are one of those teams,”  Saleh said, via Nick Shook of NFL.com.   When did Saleh become a handicapper?  How can the Jets be one of the 6-8 when Saleh has only won eleven games over the last two seasons as their head coach? 

Why is Saleh talking Super Bowl when winning the AFC East might be his hardest challenge? The Bills, the Dolphins and Patriots all had to laugh at this comment, especially considering Saleh is 2-10 against the East, never beating the Patriots and winning one game in two seasons against the Bills and Dolphins.  

Another reason not to jump to Super Bowl conclusions is the Jets have not been to the playoffs since 2010 and have only been 13 times since they won the Super Bowl in 1968.  Thirteen times in fifty-five years is a 23% playoff percentage—which might be one of the lowest in the NFL.  No wonder why Jet fans are so angry and emotional.  Saleh is acting as if he were coaching a franchise that dominated the NFL, one immersed in understanding how to win championships.   The Jets are far from that.  

For any great culture to succeed, you can never airbrush the past—good or bad.  This isn’t to say the Jets cannot win a Super Bowl this year, but since they haven’t been to the top of the mountain for a long time, there will be a huge learning curve that one star player cannot offset.   You don’t become an instant champion on paper. There are obstacles few can imagine that must be dealt with in a correct fashion before any trophy can be held. 

What’s funny about Saleh’s comments is there are only 6-8 teams with organizational culture to win the Super Bowl each season.  Talent alone guarantees nothing; talent on paper is worthless—it’s how you play the game when it matters most.   The Packers had Rodgers for two MVP seasons and got beat at home both times in the Divisional round, so even with Rodgers, Saleh should be more aware of the difficulty that awaits him and his team.  Yes, the Jets have expectations—but why discuss them openly?  Don’t say all that matters is what happens today when you have already discussed the future.  Saleh cannot preach work hard today and then claim his team is ready to win it all. 

Saleh will be challenged as a head coach to bring the team together, to create a WE mentality instead of an I which allows him to fight off the dreaded: “We Are One Player Away Syndrome.”  The OPAS bit Denver in the ass last year—as they believed adding Russell Wilson and letting Russ cook would be their savior.  Russ was the answer—until he wasn’t.   The OPAS is one of the biggest downfalls for most teams. It’s the prevalent factor in most bad trades, as teams believe that one player will get them over the top and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.  Rarely does this occur—which is what Saleh must first recognize, then eliminate—which he didn’t.  He is all in on We Are One Player Away Syndrome.  Turning a blind eye to this problem shows his lack of awareness and understanding of NFL history. 

In 1989, the Minnesota Vikings thought they were one player away—trading for Herschel Walker.  The Packers in 1974 thought John Hadl was the one player they needed and that failed.   History can teach us valuable lessons, and through all the mistakes made when believing the OPAS, there are lessons to learn.  When the Bucs went all in for Tom Brady, it didn’t start well.  They were 7-5 heading into the bye week. They didn’t look explosive, and Brady appeared uncomfortable in the Bucs’ offense.  Even then, head coach Bruce Arians publicly threw Brady under the bus for making critical mistakes in his offense.  Once they came to an understanding of how to incorporate Arians’ offense around Brady’s skill, they came back from the bye and never lost another game.  The point is one player can help; one player cannot solve all the problems. 

The success of the Jets will be if Saleh can understand how to create a total team, not relying on “we now have Aaron,” so we will win.  According to the New Zealand All Blacks rugby coach Wayne Smith, “Creating a championship team is a spiritual challenge.”  The definition of spiritual has two branches.  First, an individual connects to something greater than their own.  The other is profound emotional communion between people.  Until Saleh can create this dynamic, he won’t be one of the 6-8 teams competing for a title; he will be like the other teams with no chance of winning.  

The addition of Rodgers places the pressure on Saleh to blend all three phases of his team together in perfect harmony.  Since they are the fan favorite and “on paper” talented team, no one will take them lightly.   Every game will be a big game, and every team will bring their A-game—there will be no easy games.  Can he handle the big role?  Can he lead the team when Rodgers wants to take over and lead?  Can he instill confidence into his team during rough patches? Most importantly, can he become a head coach that bonds the team, understanding how to play each opponent in the style that gives them the best chance to win?   Those are serious questions.  We always talk about how players must raise their level of play. We never discuss the coach in the same manner, yet it is vital to any success.  If Saleh doesn’t raise his game—become a better planner, strategist, adjuster, and hold players accountable, then adding Rodgers won’t be enough.

Davis would have read Saleh’s comments and immediately given him a profanity-laced, well-constructed verbal onslaught.  Saleh would not have gotten a word in, and when Davis was done, the call would have ended without a goodbye.  And if Saleh doesn’t win it all, he will be saying goodbye to the Jets.