No-one knows exactly when Geelong's slide down the ladder was meant to be. Perhaps it was 12 years ago after making three consecutive Grand Finals? Maybe 10 years ago after losing to Fremantle in the elimination final? In 2015, when the Cats went 11-9 and missed the finals series we all thought they were human after all and were about to start a rebuild.
But the rebuild never came.
They skipped that part.
The following two years Geelong made consecutive preliminary finals. Then, of course, there's last year. After a seven-year period of qualifying for finals where they flirted with more premierships, making four preliminary finals and losing the 2020 Grand Final to Richmond, they finally carved their name back on football's ultimate prize with their 12th premiership. That title proved to the football world and showed many critics who called them old and "aging" that they have mastered the art of being a great football club over a long period of time: four premierships in 16 years and missing finals once.
Watching them perform consistently at a high level year after year has felt a bit like watching a magic show, which has us all mesmerized at how they can achieve it all for such a long time. And what we know now is that Cats aren't alone. There's a number of teams trying to emulate what they do in order to stay great. They're not looking for the "Geelong way" per se, they're just looking for ways to keep their successful periods reign longer. And they just do it in different ways.
The Swans, for example, created "bloods culture" in the early aughts where they established player-driven values with a "no d---heads" recruiting policy. It's helped lead them to an era of staying good.
"You had to look your team-mates in the eyes the next day and answer to them," former Swan Luke Ablett once in that piece for The Guardian. "It takes character to be the person who shakes things up a bit and potentially makes a few people unhappy in order to make a positive change. Success is also about the way a group of players fit together and complement each other."
Helping them level up, though, was head coach John Longmire. Having a coach that experienced success as a player (premiership with the Roos in 1999) has added credibility, stability, and belief that the vision -- Longmire's vision -- isn't just stuff conjured up from dated coaching manuals.
Things started to really click for the Swans when he joined in 2011. In 283 games as coach he's taken the team to four Grand Finals, winning the premiership in 2012, only missing finals twice in 12 years. Longmire has not only been able to unite the Swans, but he continues to develop his list and continue to create a culture and system that makes it appealing for players to want to be a part of.
What we saw in last year's 81-point Grand Final drubbing against Geeong was that the Swans still had gaps. They were inexperienced. But the fact they made it to the big dance with a mix of youth and veterans with a win-now mentality, says a lot about how adaptable they've been each year under Longmire's brand of football.
There's a string of teams like the Swans that have stable coaches with high football IQ and people-first mindsets. It's like one of the check boxes now for teams looking to win and not only just win, but stay winning.
Richmond has Damien Hardwick. The Lions have Chris Fagan. And Melbourne has Simon Goodwin.
All of those clubs at one point drew a line in the sand after years of failed leaders and went for a specific type of person that would connect with the playing group and because of that this has created stable, driven, player-led teams that are now annual contenders.
But there are also teams like Collingwood. Much has been said about their year in 2022 season and how they went from 17th to a preliminary final under Craig McRae. File this under ""unplanned" success. It's hard to say if they can replicate what they did last year but remember when Nathan Buckley stepped down, and the turmoil surrounding the club? The chat was more about how this would affect Collingwood for years to come. It hasn't. McRae has turned things around sharply. And teams like Essendon have joined the party, adding Brad Scott as their head coach and potential saviour that could be part of the path to enduring success.
The question most clubs ask themselves: can we hunt the flag with a veteran group and develop at the same time?
If you look at Geelong you'll find they are one of the best at doing both which is why they have stayed strong for so long.
Last year they had three of the best seven forwards. Yes, they had veterans Tom Hawkins (67) and Jeremy Cameron (65). But among them was Tyson Stengle who kicked 53 goals. They poached him in 2022. The 24-year old played 16 games in three years prior to moving to Geelong. Then he played 25 games and won a premiership. That doesn't just happen. They had a role in a system for him. He fit. And he flourished.
And their list is littered with value. It doesn't stop there.
Five years ago, Tom Stewart was working as a carpenter and now, he's a Carji Greeves Medallist, three-time All Australian, and premiership player. This year he's Geelong's vice-captain.
They paired brothers together like the Guthries and the Henrys. They place importance on keeping the family name in the football family with Jed Bews - just like they did with the Abletts.
Then there's mature talent they seem to find every year like Sam Menegola (2015), Brandan Parfitt (2016), Gryan Miers and Mark O'Connor (2017), and Tom Atkins (2018).
And when they recruit from other clubs they go after champion players or players that have been part of premierships: Cameron from the Giants and Isaac Smith from the Hawks come to mind.
You'll see the Lions have adopted a similar attitude to player pick ups. This season they've added the likes of Josh Dunkley and Jack Gunston from the Bulldogs and Hawks. Previously they added a Brownlow Medallist in Lachie Neale and former Coleman Medallist Joe Daniher.
But it's been their value picks in some of the youth like: Jaxon Prior, 21, Deven Robertson, 21, Cam Rayner, 23, Keidean Colman, 22, Zac Bailey, 23, Brandon Starcevich, 23 and Jarrod Berry, 25. They have meshed in with their veterans and have been damaging and key drivers toward their success. With transitions like what the Lions have built, who needs to rebuild?
Tonight's match up with Collingwood will be Geelong's season opener, as they embark on one mission only: to defend their title and go back-to-back.
Chris Scott. Tom Hawkins. Jeremy Cameron. Tom Stewart. Patrick Dangerfield. All of them are back for another tilt at greatness but as far as they're concerned, they've been doing it for years.
Expect subtle shifts in personnel, game play, strategic load management, competition research, and brand new football IQ.
Expect Geelong to throw the kitchen sink at this year, playing smarter, harder, faster - just like they have been doing for the past 15 years.
It's all the little things. And all the big things. These teams get it right. It's how they stay good.