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Sherrod and Bulaga: Consistency > Flexibility

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Sherrod and Bulaga: Consistency > Flexibility

"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?

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (21) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Beep's picture

Verba/Michels to Clifton/Tauscher to Bulaga/Sherrod sounds like a good 25 years to me

Jay's picture

So the take away of this is that the "best five start" really means "best five at the position they were designed to play." Then again, why would it mean anything else?

retiredgrampa's picture

I've never figured out why it's smart to drag a player from a spot where he prospers and throw him into a spot where he can only feel new, untrained, out of familiar situations...can be a positive move. I pray TT now sees it as a step back and harmful. TT is so wise in so many things, but would not be so sharp if Murphy made him coach the team for a few weeks.

John from NOLA's picture

Football is two things: blocking and tackling. Sometimes we make it too complicated. Sometimes players blame the coaching for their own failures (Colledge). In the end when an NFL coach says its important to train an offensive lineman from the outside in, as MM recently said of Sherrod, I believe him.

And if Im not mistaken, we fielded a Super Bowl offensive line last season that neutralized the best pass rush in the NFL. Just sayin'.

Chris's picture

My thoughts on that:
The team did and does not expect those rookies to step in and be a direct contributer on the OLine at the tackle position. They still planned to play Tauscher last year, and they still plan to play Clifton this year. What do you do with those young new talents? You only dress 7 lineman on gameday, so why not give them reps in camp at guard positions? They might need to play it if the are the 6th or 7th lineman.
Plus I read in an interview (cannot remember exactly who ist was) that playing another OLIne position for some times gives you inside knowledge playing right next to the guy later in your career. You know which blocking responsibilities the guard has while playing tackle. You know at which point you are alone on an island and when the guard might be able to help you.

Nononsense's picture

I think you have to let a rookie learn one position first and get comfortable with it before making him learn a new position.

A rookie's head is already spinning trying to learn an NFL playbook and trying to adjust to the speed of the game.

Why on earth would you want to make it even more difficult for him than it already is? Especially in a lockout shortened offseason, it just doesn't make any sense.

Learn from the past MM and stop the musical chairs with the rookies. Let their heads stop spinning before piling on new responsiblities.

John from NOLA's picture

Do you feel the same way about Cobb and learning the 4 different WR spots? what about Burnett and the two safety spots? Were you sympathetic for Quarless last year, because we make our tight ends play from all over the field (wr to fb to tackle)?

PackersRS's picture

Great point.

One difference. A LT plays LT. Always. A WR plays all over the field. He HAS to learn how to play everywhere (on our scheme). A LT doesn't.

Bearmeat's picture

I am a trumpet player. If the orchestra director at my college came up to me and asked me to play the flute solo because our flutist sucked, my trumpet playing abilities would help me very little.
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Now I am a musician before my individual trade of trumpet player, and because of that I would be able to intellectually understand what the flute solo would sound like better than a non musician; however the fact that I am indeed a musician would make me certainly not make me more likely to be able to effectively pull off a flute solo.
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I think that the skill sets different between T/G/C positions might be similar to the situation I mentioned above...

BTF's picture

Been a long time since I played a musical instrument so if I make a mess of your analogy apologies but seems to me asking a trumpet player to play the flute is like expecting a OL to play WR...

More like asking a trumpet player to play a horn ? Similar skills but with subtle differences making swapping between the 2 tricky but not impossible ?

packeraaron's picture

Well put BTF.

tundravision's picture

No..not a shaky analogy....must...resist...cannot...relapse...

Okay, here we go. The key word in your analogy is "solo". If you extend the picture, the person selected to do the solo is usually the most talented person at that instrument...the "first chair", if you will. This is usually a person who has worked primarily at one instrument to be the very best at it.

School bands often have those jacks-of-all-trades, too. But it is rare to have a kid who can play many different instruments and would still be selected to be that soloist.

Yes, you can move over and play french horn from trumpet, and adapt some of your skills that you learned to get by...maybe even find some success at it. But the goal for most musicians would be to be the best at their position, be selected as first chair (through competition, of course) and get that solo.

CSS's picture

"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."

I've read this version of the narrative a few times now and it just doesn't feel accurate. As I recall, Bulaga WAS pushing college at left guard and even out-performing him on many, if not most occasions. The competition was abruptly derailed with a Bulaga hip injury, resulting in too much lost time. Colledge was then the 'winner.'

Tauscher grossly underperformed, insert Bulaga at RT where he's never played and let him grow during the regular season.

I've read on several blogs now that Colledge 'beat out' Bulaga, feels like revisionism to validate this whole narrative against the coaching staff philosophy of giving young guys reps, seeing what they can offer.

packeraaron's picture

You are absolutely correct CSS.

CSS's picture

Yet Dougherty (GBPG) is pimping the exact same premise in an article today. Just isn't accurate reporting.

tundravision's picture

I went through a pretty extensive Google search from 2010 looking for anyone who said that Bulaga was ahead of Colledge at any point in the competition. There was a lot of excitement at having a new face challenging an old face that always seemed to have a critical penalty at least once a game, but I found nothing that really suggested Colledge was struggling performance-wise.

I think there's something to be said for Bulaga NOT winning the job, to be sure. Had Bulaga won the job, Clifton would still have gotten hurt in Week 2, and Tauscher would have been out for the season in Week 5. Do you honestly think they would have kept Bulaga in at guard and moved Colledge back out to tackle (speaking of failed experiments)?

I agree: Colledge didn't "beat out" Bulaga...Colledge won back his spot due to injury, much like Walden isn't "beating out" Zombo. I would suggest, however, that even if Bulaga would have "beat out" Colledge, by Week 2 the lines would have looked exactly like they did last year.

packeraaron's picture

It wasn't that Colledge was struggling. It was that Bulaga was giving him a run for the job - and then got knocked out by injury.

CSS's picture

Which is why saying Colledge, 'won the job' isn't accurate.

CSS's picture

Bulaga was more physical and worked better in 'a phone booth' than Colledge. He was not only pushing Colledge, he was on the verge of taking his job if he remained healthy.

I can't blame the coaching staff for taking this tact. To me, Bulaga and Sherrod are apples and oranges to your case (where I agree and disagree).

Sherrod has the prototypical build, length, hands, arm-length and athletic abliity to play tackle. In particular, left tackle. He's finesse with the ability to add power with a good pro program. He's never played elsewhere in his career on any level, but there's no harm in seeing what you have on the interior. The footwork and premise of protection is no different, inside out.

But he's clearly at a leverage/learning curve disadvantage as a guard.

Bulaga, much different. He's more than adequate in his physical stature, though not the prototype. He's athletic enough, but not nearly as 'long'. Bulaga has played guard and functions great in limited space and and open space. Bulaga was legitimate competition at an interior position.

He was legit, and it wasn't a mere experiment. With Bulaga, you had/have legitimate flexibility. Sherrod, not as much. They're two seperate cases, neither of which should deter the coaching staff from giving either repetition at the interior.

Almost every organization will carry 8-10 offensive lineman. Almost every organization has at least 2-4 of those guys that are fringe players to make a roster, their emergent bodies and probably don't belong at the NFL level.

You give your best players, best prospects the repetitions in camp. Better than in regular season. Review your practice/pre-season tape and put them in a position to succeed and add legitimate depth.

MarkinMadison's picture

I agree with the general point that if you want a legit LT in this age of the NFL you need to go up high and get him. I think I made that argument here back in March. I also agree that hybrid guys can present a problem, and I think that Colledge is exhibit 1A for that argument. He was a day 1 guy whose lack of ideal qualities for either tackle or guard caused him to be a poor fit for either. On the other hand, maybe TT just made a mistake and he was really a mid-round talent who was over-drafted. With Bulaga I think that the slightly shorter arms and hand size created a question about what his ideal position would be. He had enough talent to succeed at either, but not all guys will . I don't think we have a position question at all with Sherrod. His longer body type is just built for tackle. He will get stronger, and he could adjust his technique and become a decent guard, but he will always be a better tackle than guard. So the bottom line to me is draft better talent. TT was not very good at identifying Oline talent earlier in his career, and wasn't willing to invest the 1st round picks to get the more obvious choices.

PackersRS's picture

I don't know the shuffling is MM's doing. Sure, he's the ultimate decision maker regarding the depth chart, but I'd bet money that he listens, and listens closely to what his position coaches have to say.

I've heard that MM always wanted Lang to be a LG, but it was Campen advocating for him at RT, so they tried him at RT. I'm not sure it's not the same thing with Sherrod, that it's not Campen wanting him at LG. If Campen is cut next year, I'll have my answer.

Regarding jack of all trades, I'm also not sure it's TT or MM looking for that kind of player, or if it's just a consequence of the type of players required to play the ZBS. Earlier TT wasn't looking for tackles, he was looking for interior olinemen. And maybe smaller interior Olinemen are more capable of playing multiple positions than bigger ones, due to more agility. I know it wasn't the ZBS, and it was a different era, but didn't Lombardi shuffled his guys quite often?

In the end I tend to agree with Mark, it's more about scouting talent than personel philosophy. TT and the scouts simply missed with players like Giacomini, Moll, etc...

One more thing: personel evaluators get too caught up in measurables and forget what is really necessary to play a position. Sure, a bigger arm lenght helps a LT, as much as a stronger arm helps a QB. But is it necessary? Is it that important? Quick feet, balance, intelligence, strenght, all play a much bigger factor into how good a tackle is than 3 inches of arm lenght...

Sherrod is a better LT than LG because he has incredible feet, and will learn how to play with better leverage and positioning. But, without proper leverage, he simply cannot play guard, and his quick feet don't help him as much in there.

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