The Packers enter the 2013 offseason with, as usual, a laundry list of issues to address, and the man in charge of the Packers is still the man who engineered the rebuilding of a Packer team that won the 2010 Super Bowl. No problems, right?
But unlike past years, this offseason could easily represent a crossroads for Ted Thompson and the Packers playoff arc: will it continue, or start a steady decline that will increasingly necessitate more drastic measures to reverse? Since the Super Bowl victory two years ago, the Packers have gone 26-6 in the regular season, but suffered two humbling early playoff losses.
And moreover, the Packers’ hand has been forced to dedicate a large amount of salary cap space to just a few superstar players. This action will coincide with the departure of anywhere from a few to several longtime veterans likely getting contract renegotiations or sent packing. And it is nothing the NFL has never seen before.
It’s the nature of the best. There are two “empire paths” a Super Bowl winning team can take: the path of Bill Belichick and the Patriots, and the path of every other NFL team in history, particularly since the advent of free agency and the salary cap in the early 1990′s. The deck is stacked against the successful: eventually, drafting late in each round and watching your talent get picked off by other teams in free agency will bring about the decline of the empire.
It will happen someday. Of that there is no doubt. The Packers have had an unprecedented run since 1992, with only two losing seasons in 21 attempts. Thompson’s regime can lay claim to both of those seasons, but he capitalized on the draft position to bring into the fold the very three high first-round draft choices ready to cash in.
What impact those three bloated salary cap figures will have on the Packers’ organization will be up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this falls right into the path we saw early on with the dynasty teams of the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in the 1990s, when superstars with most of the cap space were surrounded by lesser and lesser talent. Those teams held on for as long as they possibly could, trying to milk one more year out of their stars before being forced to rebuild from scratch in order to contend again.
Obviously, much has changed since those days. The rookie salary cap has made those high draft picks not as much as a risk, but the other shoe is that the overall cap isn’t increasing with the same vigor it was prior to the lockout. And Thompson has been a master of his roster, willing to part with the Mike Sherman holdovers, even if they were still good players, if they weren’t going to be worth the coin for what they contributed on the field. His eschewing of the free agency market and dedication to scouting and drafting good players has kept this team under the cap and competitive on the field over his entire career.
But this is the offseason that will test Thompson’s mettle. In order to keep his prized first-round hits Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and BJ Raji, other veterans will be let go. Greg Jennings is as good as gone, a #1 receiver for any team in the NFL. But other names may also be departing this year, ranging from Charles Woodson to Jermichael Finley to AJ Hawk to Ryan Pickett. The question is whether the Packers have the talent in place to not suffer a drop-off without them.
In today’s NFL, you don’t need superstars at every position like you did when the Packers won in 1996. In fact, you can make the case that Green Bay’s fourth Lombardi Trophy was won in 2010 by having just enough talent where it was needed, right at the moment the team gelled in time for the playoffs. Every team that wins a Super Bowl nowadays is flawed somewhere in its starting lineup–there are no complete teams anymore. But those teams are able to compensate properly for those weaknesses.
The problem is that the Packers have already lost some of the key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. In retrospect, the loss of Cullen Jenkins, one of those high-priced veterans that, like Jennings, had to be considered expendable has never been replaced. The lack of a pass rush on the defensive side of the ball has given opposing quarterbacks ample time to survey the field the past few seasons, particularly in playoff games. And losing Nick Collins may have been the keystone getting pulled out. He was the glue at free safety, the quarterback of the defense, and since his departure the Packers’ secondary (despite having some of the best talent in the league) have been flawed.
In other words, if the Packers already have lost key pieces, and are bound to lose more key pieces this year, and are paying out major money to simply maintain the talent they already have. How will the Packers continue to have enough talent to truly compete in playoff games? While we can look at the roster and say, “How can we NOT have enough talent with Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers??”, the reality is that their talent hasn’t been enough against the Giants in 2011 and the 49ers in 2012. And while we know Thompson can draft, can he really draft well enough to not only cover the holes the Packers already have (offensive tackle, running back, outside linebacker), can he draft well enough to also cover all the positions that become needs when Jennings, Woodson, Pickett, and Hawk all potentially leave?
On the season-ending “Heat of the Moment” podcast, I was somewhat concerned when co-hosts Colleen and Chris petitioned that we needed to keep the team together to “win one more Super Bowl for Aaron Rodgers”. No, I wasn’t somewhat concerned, I was stunned. Isn’t that the mentality we had with Brett Favre for all those years, that we had to trade for Randy Moss so Favre could get one more Super Bowl? Yet he never won another one, Randy Moss or not. The Packers were good under Mike Sherman and the first few years of Mike McCarthy, but not good enough to get to the Super Bowl. It took a virtual rebuild around Favre (setting the stage for Rodgers when it was done) to get the Packers back to the Super Bowl.
And to a degree, Thompson may need to look towards Bill Belichick’s unconventional moves if he wants to keep this momentum going. No one saw the release of Lawyer Malloy or the trade of Richard Seymour coming. Most would say it would have been smarter to keep them on the roster. But he didn’t take the safe route, and as a result, the Patriots have continued to be Super Bowl contenders for over a decade with nary a lapse in their playoff appearances.
“Winning one for Aaron”, with the present roster conditions, has the odds stacked against it. The Packers pick 26th this year, after picking at #28 last year and, of course, #32 the year before. Picking at the end of every round dilutes the talent coming in, and eventually catches up to you. The large contracts likely going to Rodgers, Raji, and Matthews not only limit what players you can keep, but even if Thompson were to dip into the free agent market, his hands are even more tied unless he creates more cap room by releasing more veterans.
Now, all that said, I do have faith in Ted Thompson. But he’s going to have to approach this roster the same way he approached Mike Sherman’s roster: if you’re not earning the coin you’re getting paid, you’re not going to be around for long. The question is whether he can face an underachieving player the he drafted and helped win a Super Bowl with the same cold and rational nature he did in 2005. Can he look at Tramon Williams with the same critical risk-reward eye that he did Darren Sharper? Can he afford to lose a veteran leader like Charles Woodson the way he could afford to lose Mike Wahle? And can he be as objective with Mason Crosby as he was with Ryan Longwell?
In letting some players leave via free agency, he can hope for a couple of late draft picks to bring in more project players that might develop in a season or two. But he might be better off trading a solid veteran, like Williams or Finley, for a second- or third-round draft pick. Or, he might have to be willing to trade away that third-rounder for a solid player, like the opportunity he had when he passed on Marshawn Lynch. He might be tempted to let a number of underachieving players go in order to gain cap room to sign a free agent or two that, while expensive, would make a bigger impact. In the end, he needs to have just enough talent in place that, when the team gels, is good enough to win playoff games and Super Bowls, just as his team did in 2010.
But Thompson may have to break his mold this offseason in order to continue his success and avert the decline that comes to punish your success. Ted Thompson may have written the book on how to build a Super Bowl team through the draft, but he may want to read Belichick’s book on how to maintain that team after you’ve won it.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer for CheeseheadTV. He is also the co-host of Cheesehead Radio and good cop over at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.DM him for a Cliff’s Notes version of this article.