Three Cups Deep: Winning Like the Packers

>> 2.08.2011

Green Bay Packers QB and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers #12 holds up the Lombardi Trophy with former NFL QB and Fox Sports broadcaster Terry Bradshaw after the Green Bay Packers defeat Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 to win Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.Congratulations to the Green Bay Packers. Congratulations to Aaron Rodgers, MVP. Congratulations to Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, a great coach and a fantastic franchise architect. Congratulations to all the awesome Packer bloggers, through whom I’ve been living vicariously throughout the playoffs. Most of all, congratulations to the Packers’ owners: their fans.

Last season, I wrote a post called “Winning Like the Saints.” In it, I talked about how the NFL is a copycat league—but they often copy wrong. When the Dolphins deployed the Wildcat, they were wildly successful; most teams in the NFL spent the next summer experimenting with some sort of Wildcat or Pistol formation. The Dolphins’ use of the Wildcat, though, was an intelligent response to a desperate situation: they weren’t winning games, and needed a way to maximize their only talent advantage: two strong tailbacks. The reason they went to the Wildcat is because most teams don’t have two strong tailbacks.

The way to copycat the Dolphins was not to “run the Wildcat” with whoever was on the roster, but to have smart coaches who’ll schematically maximize the talent they have. The Saints were a perfect example:

Think about it. What did Drew Brees do so well at Purdue? Pick defenses apart with short-range passes out of multi-WR sets. As a conventional quarterback in San Diego, he was at best inconsistent and at worst a failure. In New Orleans, Sean Payton asks him to do only what he’s excellent at; people think Brees is now “better” than Peyton Manning, which flatly isn’t true.

Sean Payton figured out that Reggie Bush is Kevin Faulk, not Marshall Faulk, and employs him in only in that role—to great success. Payton figured out that Robert Meacham is a short-yardage monster, and employs him in that role—to great success. Payton knew that with his fast-scoring, high-powered offense, he needed an aggressive, blitzing defense that could protect a lead. He hired hyperaggressive DC Gregg Williams to install such a defense, even though he had to give up $250,000 of his own money to do so!

Ironically the Dolphins, having found a way to maximize their talent, latched onto it as their offensive identity. They began reaching for marginal players that fit the scheme, rather than continuing to adapt and respond. This season, their powerful offense fizzled out, as the no-longer-novel Wildcat failed to surprise—and the relative lack of talent prevented the Dolphins from running a conventional offense well. Head coach Tony Sparano was nearly replaced by Jim Harbaugh as a result. Sparano’s eventual extension came hand-in-hand with the departure of Dan Henning—the offensive coordinator who implemented the Wildcat to begin with.

Don’t this next bit wrong: I don’t mean to demean the Packers’ coaching staff. Mike McCarthy is respected schemer, instrumental in getting the most out of both Favre and Rodgers—and, we’re now finding out, he’s a gifted motivator as well. Further, DC Dom Capers’s long track record of innovation and success is well-known, and his defense was magnificent this year. However, this Super Bowl belongs to Ted Thompson.

Thompson, the Packers’ GM, has long been a target of criticism—not least of which from Packers fans—because he approaches team-building in an unconventional way. His first major moves as GM were to let perennial All-Pros Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, and Darren Sharper walk. His first draft pick was Aaron Rodgers, after the top quarterback prospect fell all the way to the 24th pick. Thompson continued to draft for value, build slowly, refuse to re-sign aging veterans for a penny more than he valued them at, and—with a notable exception in Charles Woodson—eschew free agency almost entirely. It was a long, slow process, that was successful in maddening fits and starts: 4-12, 8-8, 13-3, 6-10, 11-5.

It must be (and has) been said: Thompson had the temerity to sent Brett Favre packing when it was time. Thompson had the confidence in McCarthy and Rodgers to make the correct move for the franchise. When the first season of the Rodgers Era ended with a 6-10 record, and he was asked about coaching staff changes, Thompson replied, “That’s not my bailiwick.” When the Packers’ offensive line again struggled badly to protect Rodgers at the start of 2009, the tide of public sentiment fully turned. Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV, up until then one of his most faithful supporters, vehemently outlined Thompson and McCarthy’s failures.

Of course, the very next game, Daunte Culpepper "led" the Lions into Lambeau, and the slaughter that ensued kicked off a 9-3 run to the playoffs. However, a notable undercurrent of anti-Thompson sentiment still ran through the Packers’ fanbase. I repeatedly encountered Pack fans on blogs and Twitter and elsewhere who were convinced McCarthy was the right guy—but successful in spite of Thompson’s lackadaisical talent management. “” was registered in March of 2010 . . .

. . . now, all that’s hosted there is a picture of Thompson, overlaid by the words “I’m not afraid to admit it. I was wrong. Congrats Ted.Thompson’s vindication comes not only in the winning of a championship with Aaron Rodgers, while Favre sits at home, disgraced, but in the Packers doing it with the bottom half of their roster. The Pack’s stunning injury losses, and subsequent triumph, proved the top-to-bottom quality of the house Thompson’s built.

So, how do you win “like the Packers”? It’s not by having a #1-overall-pick-caliber quarterback fall into your lap at the bottom of the first, making him wait three years to play, or pushing his veteran superior out the door. It’s not by having a raft of intelligent, talented, hardworking receiving targets. It’s not by deploying a multiple-look 3-4 defense,  or having two great complementary cornerbacks. You win “like the Packers” by building the roster through the draft. You win “like the Packers” by refusing to compromise your long-term vision with stopgap solutions. You win “like the Packers” by refusing to pay a player more than he’s worth, for any reason. You win “like the Packers” by meticulously building a championship-caliber roster, that rolls 53 men deep.

Martin Mayhew is not Ted Thompson. He lacks Thompson’s public idiosyncrasies. He’s been slightly more cognizant of immediate need—see Foote, Larry—and is okay with stopgaps for the right price. Thompson has been judicious in signing players, while Mayhew has churned the roster with incredible vigor: literally hundreds of players have been a Lion for at least a day since Mayhew took over. Then again, Thompson didn’t start with a truly talentless, 0-16 team—who knows what Ted’s approach would have been in Martin’s place?

On the whole, though, Mayhew’s strategy has been much like Thompson’s: the Lions have built their current roster almost entirely through the draft. When they’ve reached into free agency, they’ve been swift and decisive; as in the brilliant all-in move for Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Lions have also refused to pay more than they feel a player is worth. Foote’s arrival was delayed because the Lions refused to part with any more than a seventh-rounder for him. When the Steelers insisted on more, the Lions called their bluff—and got Foote for nothing when the Steelers released him.

Over this offseason, look for both men to stay the course: drafting the best player that fits a need, making judicious moves when the value is there, and being willing to part with unneeded parts. Between the Packers’ injured players coming back, and the Lions’ third full offseason of reconstruction, both teams will be in position to win several more games than they did this year—and both teams will be built to last.

Strap yourselves in, folks--this is going to be a hell of a ride.


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