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In the last 2½ seasons, the Cleveland Browns are 4-35.
That’s right. Four wins and 35 losses, a .102 winning percentage. They’ve won one of their last 27 games and are winless (0-7) this season.
The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, have played in the NFC Championship game twice in the last three years. Just two weeks ago, they were 4-1 and had the second-best odds (9-to-2) to win the Super Bowl, according to Bovada.lv.
In the current NFL landscape, these teams couldn’t be further apart. The Packers are a perennial contender. The Browns are the most ridiculed team in the league.
But Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone, which will sideline him for a minimum of a couple months and could be season ending, shows that these teams also define today’s NFL. Because the gulf that separates them comes down mostly to one position, the quarterback.
That is the difference between the haves and have-nots of the NFL. You’ve surely heard it before. But to appreciate just how true it is, it’s instructive to compare the rosters of these two teams, leaving out the future Hall of Famer Rodgers and the collection of flops, journeymen and rookies – Austin Davis, Cody Kessler, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown and DeShone Kizer – who have led the Browns just since 2015.
To do so, I consulted a high-ranking executive for an NFL team who took time from his busy schedule to go through the rosters position by position and discuss the implications.
The gist of our conversation was this: The Packers have better players, but not by all that much. Yet they’re a perennial title contender, whereas the Browns are the NFL’s laughingstock.
“Tells you the state of the NFL,” the executive said. “It’s all about the quarterback position.”
Accompanying this column is a synopsis of the scout’s breakdown. The conversation was last week, before Brett Hundley’s first start as the Packers’ quarterback, and before Browns tackle Joe Thomas sustained a season-ending torn triceps.
For brevity, here we’ll include only the scout’s bottom line. Each position was judged as a big edge, medium edge, small edge or push.
The Packers had two big edges (receiver and safety) to the Browns’ one (running back).
Each team had one medium edge: the Packers’ defensive front (their outside linebackers included), the Browns’ linebackers.
Each had a small edge: the Packers’ offensive line, the Browns’ tight ends.
And two positions were a push: cornerback and specialists.
The Packers come out ahead, no question. But the difference is hardly overwhelming.
Another way to compare is by the color-coded ratings for each roster. That tells you which team has more difference makers and good players. Those are the guys that win games.
I asked the scout to identify the blue-red-gold players (there’s also black, green, yellow, white, brown), not including the quarterbacks. Here are those results:
BLUE (Pro Bowl)
RED (above-average starter):
Packers: Mike Daniels, Nick Perry (minus), Clay Matthews (minus).
Browns: Joe Thomas.
GOLD (average starter)
Packers: David Bakhtiari (plus), Bryan Bulaga, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Mason Crosby.
Browns: Joel Bitonio, Kevin Zeitler, Christian Kirksey, Jason McCourty.
Look at the blues. Those are the guys who change games. None for either team without Rodgers.
The Packers have three reds to the Browns’ one, and eight golds to the Browns’ five.
So the Packers again come out ahead. But it doesn’t come close to accounting for the difference between these two teams.
Some undoubtedly will see this as an indictment of Ted Thompson, the Packers’ general manager. His roster, with the exception of the quarterback, isn’t that much better than the league’s worst team’s.
And there’s truth there.
Thompson’s first five drafts were outstanding (Rodgers, Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Matthews, Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang). He signed a franchise-changing free agent (Charles Woodson) early in his tenure as well.
Since then? Painfully few big hits in the draft, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And he was much too slow to see that there’s such a thing as strategic free-agent signings. He deserves to be dinged for both.
But there’s a larger truth here as well. Namely, that not all that much separates most NFL teams, except for the quarterbacks.
Think about it. You swap quarterbacks between most teams in this league, and the franchises’ fortunes swap with them.
Put Aaron Rodgers on the Bengals and Andy Dalton on the Packers, and the Packers become the Bengals, and the Bengals become the Packers. Same with Rodgers and Philip Rivers, or Joe Flacco, or Eli Manning, Jacoby Brissett or Carson Palmer. You can go on.
Of course there are exceptions. Most years one or two defenses are a cut above. Seattle has been there for several seasons, though now the Seahawks are starting to decline. Same for Denver. The Jaguars are knocking on that door.
And Kansas City might have the best overall roster in the league. If you put Rodgers or Tom Brady on the Chiefs or Seahawks or Broncos or Jaguars, you’d have not just a contender but the Super Bowl favorite.
But those are the exceptions, and maintaining that caliber of a defense for more than a couple years is almost impossible. The draft, salary cap and free agency see to that.
Then look at what Carson Wentz has done for Philadelphia in only his second NFL season. The Eagles suddenly are as good as anybody, and it’s because of him. To think the Browns passed on drafting that guy. Wow.
So sure, there are differences between some NFL rosters. Coaching matters, too. But a lot more often than not, one player separates teams in this league.
At the end of our conversation, I asked the scout how many games the Browns would win with Rodgers at the helm. His answer? At least 10.
“It’s all about the quarterback,” he said. “You better get one or you ain’t going anywhere. The Packers have been spoiled for 20-some years.”
Roster rankings: Packers vs. Browns
Here is a synopsis of a high-ranking NFL executive’s position-by-position comparison between the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns. The conversation was just a few days after Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone but before Browns tackle Joe Thomas’ season-ending torn triceps. The categories are: big edge, medium edge, small edge or push.
Packers: Aaron Jones, Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams.
Browns: Isiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Matt Dayes.
Scout’s call: Big edge Browns.
The interview was done before Jones’ 131-yard game against New Orleans, which might have shrunk the gap.
“Johnson (32 receptions, 9.8-yard average) is a great third-down back,” the scout said. “I like Aaron Jones. He’s got vision, he’s got really good eyes. … I think (Montgomery) is a fraud. He’s not a real running back, he’s a bigger receiver. He can’t withstand 16 weeks (at running back).”
Packers: Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison.
Browns: Ricardo Louis, Rashad Higgins, Kenny Britt, Kasen Williams.
Scout’s call: Big edge Packers.
“Not even close,” he said. “(The Packers’) top three are better than anybody on the Browns.”
Packers: Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Richard Rodgers.
Browns: Seth DeValve, David Njoku, Randall Telfer.
Scout’s call: Small edge Browns.
The scout chose Bennett as the best of the group.
“The Packers have more experience, the Browns have more athleticism,” he said. “All three Browns are athletic, and in today’s football you need athletic tight ends. The rookie (Njoku) is the Browns’ best one. He’s talented.”
Packers: David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Jahri Evans, Bryan Bulaga.
Browns: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, Shon Coleman.
Scout’s call: Small edge Packers.
This is based on both lines being healthy. “Very close,” the scout said. “The Packers get it because Bulaga is a lot better than (Coleman).”
Packers (Includes outside linebackers): Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Nick Perry.
Browns: Myles Garrett, Trevon Coley, Danny Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah.
Scout’s call: Medium edge Packers.
“Mike Daniels is a disruptor, I like what he brings,” the scout said. “Myles Garrett has a future ahead of him, he’s got everything you want – size, length, athleticism. But he’s a rookie, you can’t just give it to him. Shelton is a pure run-stopping nose tackle.”
Packers: Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas.
Browns: Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins.
Scout’s call: Medium edge Browns.
“Athletically, the Packers don’t have anybody like (Kirksey),” the scout said. “Martinez and Schobert are a push. I like Jamie Collins.”
Packers: Davon House, Kevin King, Damarious Randall, Josh Hawkins.
Browns: Jason McCourty, Jamar Taylor, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Michael Jordan.
Scout’s call: A push.
“On the starters I have to go Browns,” the scout said. “On the four of them it’s a push because (the Packers’) third and fourth are way better than the Browns’ third or fourth.”
Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones.
Browns: Jabrill Peppers, Derrick Kindred, Ibraheim Campbell.
Scout’s call: Big edge Packers.
“Peppers isn’t a safety,” the scout said. “Packers by a lot.”
Packers: Mason Crosby (K), Justin Vogel (P), Taybor Pepper (LS), Trevor Davis (R).
Browns: Zane Gonzalez (K), Britton Colquitt (P), Charley Hughlett (LS), Jabrill Peppers (R).
Scout’s call: Push.
“I’d take Crosby, Colquitt and Peppers,” the scout said.