The purists insist the way to build an NFL champion is to do it through the draft, to lay that foundation with young and home-grown talent that in four or five years will pay dividends at games like this 50th Super Bowl. And there’s nothing wrong with that thinking because teams such as the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have had great success building primarily through the draft.
But I look around at Super Bowl 50, and Green Bay, a team that hasn’t signed a free agent in a couple of years, isn’t here. Neither are the Ravens nor the Steelers.
The two teams playing Sunday — the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos — didn’t adhere exclusively to the long and formal construction project that is the NFL Draft. No, instead they both went out and collected talent, and lots of it, through every other avenue they could travel.
They went to free agency.
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They went to the waiver wires and made claims.
They went to practice-squad rosters and poached players.
They brought players out of retirement.
Young guys. Old guys. They added both.
The Broncos and Panthers are here because they rummaged through the talent dust bin and plucked contributors and starters alike.
And that is why this Super Bowl is like a Toy Story sequel. This is the Super Bowl matching teams comprised of forgotten and discarded toys.
General manager and executive vice president John Elway in Denver and general manager Dave Gettleman of Carolina are more about finding good players than just finding good players to draft.
“We have a system and a philosophy,” Elway said. “We know what we want to do on offense and defense, which is our system. And we know for the most part our philosophy is to play great defense and run the ball as much as we can on offense. So we go out and try to find players that fit our system and philosophy, and it doesn’t matter if they come through the draft or free agency or off the street.”
And so when the Broncos wanted a good starting quarterback, they focused on a 36-year-old reject from the Indianapolis Colts. You might have heard of him? Peyton Manning?
The Broncos chased him in free agency, as did a handful of other teams hoping to land an elite quarterback. They did so knowing Manning had undergone multiple neck surgeries and had nerve problems leading from his neck through his shoulders and down his throwing arm.
Everyone knows that.
What people don’t know is that when they won the Manning derby, the Broncos then discovered their quarterback still didn’t have feeling in his throwing hand. And he didn’t have feeling in his fingers during the early part of the 2012 season — his first with the team.
Did that deter Denver? Nope.
The Broncos got Manning in ’12 and wanted to upgrade the defense after that so, yes, they drafted for defense. But they also signed starting outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Dolphins spent $144 million on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency in 2015. The Broncos spent just over $100 million on Ware, Ward and Talib a couple of years earlier.
“When I saw Talib on the plane with me and I saw T.J. in the meeting with us when we got to Denver, it was really big to see how important it was to build that defense,” Ware said. “[Elway] really wanted it, and his formula worked. It’s been phenomenal to see how the conglomeration of guys have come together and play to a standard that is hard and unmatched.”
The Broncos start six players that they signed from other teams on offense. One of those — guard Evan Mathis — wanted to sign with the Dolphins before the ’15 season but the team and his agent could never agree on value.
The Broncos defense, which has been strengthened greatly by drafting talent, still starts six players that were plucked from other teams.
And all these are not stars, by the way. Starting left defensive end Vance Walker is on his fourth team in four seasons. Safety Darian Scott is on his third team in three years.
The Panthers offer a similar team portrait. Yes, quarterback Cam Newton was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, and he is the heart and soul of the offense. And linebacker Luke Kuechly was drafted No. 9 overall in 2012 and is one of the NFL’s best defenders at the ripe old age of 24.
But Newton’s blind side is protected by Michael Oher — yes, from the movie The Blind Side — who came to Carolina after Baltimore let him walk in 2013 and Tennessee cast him off after one season in 2014.
Newton’s leading pass catcher is tight end Greg Olsen, who came from Chicago via trade. “Best thing that ever happened to me was being traded,” Olsen said last week. And Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn Jr. are veterans who have been with multiple teams.
The Carolina defense that is so impressive includes Jared Allen, who came via trade midway through this season, safety Roman Harper, who came to Carolina at age 31 after eight seasons in New Orleans, and safety Kurt Coleman, who is playing for his third team in three seasons.
Did I mention Cortland Finnegan, who retired after playing (poorly) for the Dolphins in 2014 but was snatched out of retirement when the Panthers needed help in the secondary?
In all, the Panthers start 10 players on offense and defense they did not draft. And how do they make it mesh?
The culture helps. When Finnegan walked in the door of the Carolina locker room, he was immediately included and accepted. He talks of how he was suddenly getting group texts from all the other defensive backs.
“Again, a great example is when we brought in Cortland Finnegan in the middle of the year, and the first guy to take him to dinner was Luke Kuechly,” coach Ron Rivera said. “When the guys come into our locker room downstairs, they’re accepted quickly, and I think our guys see the value of bringing players in and trying to get them assimilated very quickly.
“It’s not just in the locker room, but it’s on the playing field. I think what’s important is the guys in the locker room have taken the ownership of wanting to get these guys into the fold very quickly.”
That’s how Super Bowl teams can come together. Even when they are plucking talent from what other teams think is a scrap heap.