“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir” – John Maynard Keynes
There’s a fine tightrope that people walk when standing in support of their ideals. Heck, you only need to go as far as today’s political discussions to see the lengths folks will go to in order to defend their stance on topics. In the past several years, there’s been some pretty polarized and heated debates in Packer Nation, too.
One of my drafting tenets is that when you reach you selection, your strategy should focus less on your position in the round as much as who you highly value and believe will be the best pick for your team. You can err by trading up for better quality and sacrifice picks in the process. You can trade down in the hopes you’ll still get a desired player and gain quantity, and mess up. Heck, you can screw up by standing pat and taking the best player available.
But a few years ago, that wasn’t the case. There was a strong wave of folks who, placing themselves firmly in the Ted Thompson camp (during a time period where that wasn’t necessarily the majority position), believed (and preached) voraciously that trading down was always the best way to go. After all, Thompson had done that in every single draft thus far, with success. In contrast, using the comparatively short measuring stick of Mike Sherman, trading up was always bad. Always.
So, Thompson was smart by trading down, Sherman was an idiot by trading up. And during debates, I was indeed critical of Thompson for not taking the occasional trade-up for a player that might have been a difference-maker. Instead, we came away with at least ten draft picks each year.
This continued steadily for many years, right up until the 2009 draft, when even I expected nothing less than Thompson but to trade back. We know what happened then: Thompson completely flipped the script. He traded seventeen draft picks (exaggeration) for Clay Matthews III (not an exaggeration). Packer fans watched this unfold before their eyes, stunned.
Those “always and only trade-back” folks were sure quiet, but not for long. I engaged a fellow Packer fan whom I had varied draft debates with over the years. The revised theorem was presented: “It is wise to trade back when in rebuilding mode, but once you have your nucleus set, then it is genius to trade up.” He smiled smugly, and I believe that he actually began to float a couple of inches off the ground.
“But, that’s not what you said last week,” I reminded him.
“But I am more enlightened now,” he replied. “I understand the genius that is Ted Thompson, and this is the time to trade up.”
“In the draft following a 6-10 season and the firing of most of your defensive coaching staff?”
“Verily, I say unto you, it is so.”
Now, as we know, this was a completely different time. Packer fans were far more polarized in those days, and my friend was citing Keynes’ quote to me. The “facts” had changed, more information had been uncovered, and therefore, his opinion had been appropriately modified to fit his argument.
Nowadays, following a fantastic Super Bowl season in which He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was vanquished twice; and Ted Thompson’s master plan came to fruition, things are a little different. Packer fans have been reunited in a way we can only dream our national political scene could emulate. We know Ted’s plan worked, even in the face of overwhelming injuries. So maybe, now is the time we can admit that the facts never actually changed. Teams trade up and trade down every draft, and some of them are rebuilding, and some are reloading. And some of them are steals of a deal, and some of them leave egg on the face of the GM who pulled the trigger.
And in the end, we don’t really care three years later if we traded up to get Matthews, or traded down to get Jordy Nelson. You want to come out of every draft with at least two solid starters and two contributing players. Other than the 2008 draft, Thompson has hit that target pretty well. But it wasn’t because he traded up or down. It was because of the players he scouted and drafted, and he was willing to move (or not move) in order to get them.
So (long segue here), this brings me to the crux of my piece, wondering if there’s another long-held perceived Thompson/McCarthy tenet that might have some cracks. I’m referring, of course, to the now-admitted failed experiment of Derrick Sherrod at guard. Mind you, I have nothing against Sherrod. I have a ton of hope that he’s going to he our heir apparent to Chad Clifton and will be a permanent bookend with Bryan Bulaga, a Mark Tauscher and Clifton for the next generation.
I thought that when he was drafted. I thought that all through the lockout. And, I thought that all the way into training camp. But apparently, McCarthy thought Sherrod’s talent was interchangeable and he’d be able to use him at guard this year. Didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I wouldn’t doubt if it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Sherrod, who didn’t play much inside over his high school or college career. This kid is a tackle, pure and simple.
Now mind you, I’ve been a bit of a critic of the Zone Blocking Scheme from the start, but what I’m focusing more on McCarthy’s early penchant for interchangeability among his players, an approach often backed by Thompson in his player acquisition. For a traditionalist like myself, I had difficulties accepting it. The two safety positions were basically interchangeable in Thompson’s eyes, despite my constant calls for the LeRoy Butler-esque strong safety and a Eugene Robinson-like free safety. I’ve grown to accept that, but I’ve never bought into it along the offensive line. And I think now we’re seeing why.
I worried about the “quantity over quality” conundrum (illustrated by the trading-back debate above), how Thompson’s now staggering fourteen offensive linemen in seven drafts had failed to unseat three Sherman holdovers. But it didn’t matter that we only drafted one first-day offensive linemen in TT’s first five drafts: McCarthy told us he highly valued the flexibility of his players to step in anywhere along the line. And having a plethora of players would create competition and make those players better.
And thus began a long series of “Offensive Line Shuffles“, as players were bounced around from season to season, and often, mid-season, to find a combination that might work. And, while Ryan Grant did have a couple of moderately successful seasons statistically, the offense has never been able to establish a consistent running game over the course of an entire season.
The bellwether of this era of interchangeability was the 2006 draft, bringing us Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll. Instantly, we penciled each of them in along the interior line as starters for the next ten years. Colledge played both guard positions and even played tackle for a while. Spitz played center and guard, and Moll was also moved back and forth from guard to reserve tackle.
And five years later, all three are gone. Moll has been gone for years, Spitz had been a seldom-used backup for the past few seasons, and even last year’s starter, Colledge, is getting some stones thrown in his direction from BJ Raji, as if his departure to the Cardinals was good riddance.
“Even going against Colledge this year he was trying to reach me or finish me with a cut. Going at my legs. Dummy calling me. Just things that don’t show much confidence. He’s not really strong and doesn’t have too much confidence.”
But, as the Packers fought their way through the roller-coaster of the Championship Season, one thing was pretty consistent: the offensive line. The weakest link of that line was none other than another first-round rookie tackle, Bryan Bulaga, who had spent an inordinate amount of preseason trying to replace Daryn Colledge at guard. In the end, he played most of the season at the tackle position he was drafted for, with certainly some growing pains along the way. In the end, I wonder why we were so hell-bent on jamming Bulaga into so many first-team reps at guard when we were grooming him to be our tackle of the future.
(Yes, yes, I know the reason: we had established tackles and we wanted him to play somewhere as a rookie starter. My point is, it didn’t work.)
In the end, you wonder if Bulaga might have had fewer ups-and-downs last season if he had worked primarily at tackle in the preseason. Perhaps it was lucky for him that he was injured, handing the job (once again) back to Colledge before the season started.
But in 2011, it’s deja vu all over again: our top pick penciled in as a starter at a position out of his comfort zone. And once again, it was a failed experiment. Sherrod, like Bulaga, is a tackle. He’s a top-notch offensive tackle, like a Joe Thomas or a D’Brickeshaw Ferguson that you don’t move inside, hoping he’s flexible or “interchangeable”.
The lesson we may take here is that the Three Amigos (Colledge, Spitz, and Moll) were indeed interchangeable, but such flexibility might be attributable to the “jack of all trades, master of none” label that haunted them out of Green Bay. There’s a reason that Thompson drafted so many offensive linemen in the mid-rounds of the draft, hoping that the quantity of interchangeable players would create competition and allow the cream to rise to the top.
But out of all those mid-round picks, only one (Josh Sitton) was able to win a starting spot outright. So when the aging tackles truly seemed to be on their last creaky knees (despite several attempts to replace both over the years), Thompson stopped taking those jack-of-all-trade mid-rounders and took a couple of first-round studs.
And what those studs have proven is exactly the opposite of what we once thought was the ideal situation: flexibility created competition, and competition created talent. Well, along the offensive line, it appears that Thompson learned if you want a monster tackle, you need to go get him; not hope for him to develop among middling-quality players.
Likewise, McCarthy may have learned over the last two preseasons that actual quality along the offensive line is created through consistency: players who can shuffle along the line seamlessly usually aren’t Pro Bowl caliber. They’re what we used to call “backups”, a role Moll and Spitz were quickly regulated to, and what McCarthy kept trying to turn Colledge into. Bulaga and Sherrod came in as bona fide tackles, masters of their domain….not part-time guards.
Perhaps interchangeability can work out at many other positions on an NFL team. Safeties may be interchangeable, Dom Capers may have success playing a shell game with his front three defensive linemen, and our fullbacks and tight ends may all be just H-backs in this offense pretty soon.
But interchangeability and shuffling people back and forth along an offensive line doesn’t create a Super Bowl-caliber front five. Consistency and talent win out over flexibility and soft skills.
And in the end, that was a “fact” we knew all along. Right?