Comparing Cap Space vs. Winning Percentage – Which NFL Front Offices Get the Most Bang for their Buck

A general manager’s ability to find good players at good prices is essential to NFL success. Moreover, if a team is spending more money on players (compared to other teams) they should be winning more, and vice versa if they are spending less. Simple enough concept, right? Yet, our analysis (over the past five years) of a team’s cap space rank and their W% (winning percentage) rank show multiple anomalies. Below, we will present this data illustrating four different categories that a team’s front office can fall into.

To clarify, a low rank (e.g., 32, 31, 30, etc.) in cap space means that a team had a small amount of cap space (and vice versa for a high rank). A low ranking team (e.g., 32, 31, 30, etc.) in W% had a low W% (and vice versa for a high rank).



High cap space Low cap space
Low W% Yellow Red
High W% Green Blue

*If the table was unclear, a list version of it can be found here

A reasonable assumption to be made from this classification is that the front offices of teams who were in the green or red quadrants were performing better than or worse than, respectively, what was expected of them. The front offices of teams falling into these categories will be explored in following. And for the sake of excluding teams with highly variable rankings over the five year range that data was collected from, only teams with a standard deviation in cap space ranking below 7 in these quadrants will be looked at.

Green Quadrant – High W% rank, high cap space rank

Cincinnati Bengals  

General Manager: Mike Brown (1991-Present)

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (2003-Present)

Stable management is a common thread in both Cincinnati and Green Bay, but you will find no stronger association between coach and team than the Bengals and Marvin Lewis. When Lewis took the post in 2003, the Bengals were a dumpster fire. Nevertheless, he manufactured success with the help of up-and-comers Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, and a plethora of other prospects. This drive for success has manifested itself throughout Lewis’ tenure, as Cincinnati has only had a losing record in 3 of his 13 seasons as head coach. Savvy drafting is the most obvious reason why the Bengals have gotten so many wins on a lower budget. This has shone through in today’s iteration of the Bengals, led by homegrown stars, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.


Green Bay Packers

General Manager: Ted Thompson (2005-Present)

Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (2006-Present)

Even though Green Bay, like Cincinnati, has had the same people at the head of their coaching and executive department, the success of the Packers has more to do with their quarterback – Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers epitomizes the importance of building a team around a quarterback. Rodgers boasts a godly arm (also great acting in the State Farm commercials) and his ability to involve his entire receiving core is reminiscent of recently retired NFL great Peyton Manning. With Rogers at the helm of the Packer offense, everything else is secondary to team success. Green Bay’s string of seven straight winning seasons should continue until Roger is no longer in his prime.


Red Quadrant – Low W% rank, low cap space rank

Chicago Bears:  

General Manager: Jerry Angelo (2001-2011); Phil Emery (2012-2014), Ryan Pace (2015-Present)

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (2004-2012); Marc Trestman (2013-2014), John Fox (2015-Present)

The stability that characterized teams that were efficient with their cap is something that, predictably, is lacking from the Bears and Chargers. In the five years that data was collected, there have been three switches in both the head coach and general manager position for Chicago. All the while, the elite talent (and hefty salaries) of players like Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Charles Tillman, and Jay Cutler were being squandered away. Marc Trestman’s 2014 Bears squad is a prime example of this. An offence with Cutler (Pro Bowl, 2008), Forte (2 x Pro Bowl), Marshall (6 x Pro Bowl), Alshon Jeffery (Pro Bowl, 2013), and Martellus Bennett (Pro Bowl, 2014) finished 5-11 and 23rd in the NFL in points per game.


San Diego Chargers: 

General Manager: A.J. Smith (2003-2012); Tom Telesco (2012-Present)

Head Coach: Norv Turner (2007-2012); Mike McCoy (2013-Present)

The San Diego Chargers could have had similar outcomes to the Packers during these five years – they also had an elite quarterback, which they built a solid team around. The main difference in the two teams is, in my opinion, incompetent coaching. Norv Turner (“coached more games than any other head coach in NFL history with a sub-.500 record”[1]) began his tenure with the Charger’s rather successfully, winning the AFC West from 2007-2009. Following the 2009 season, San Diego failed to return to the playoffs for the rest of Turner’s 3 years as Chargers head coach. Similar to Chicago’s foibles, San Diego wasted the prime years of Antonio Gates (8 x Pro Bowl) and Philip Rivers (5 x Pro Bowl). A coaching change to Mike McCoy produced success in the 2013 season but this was followed by a return to mediocrity and unrealized potential in the following seasons.


Adam is a student at McGill University. You can follow him on Twitter @adam_m3318.

Published June 3rd 2016


All data used for this article can be found here.

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