Eleven games into the 1996 season, the Green Bay Packers were 8-3 but taking on water.
They’d lost their best receiver, Robert Brooks, to a season-ending knee injury in Game 7.
Tight end Mark Chmura and No. 2 receiver Antonio Freeman were out temporarily because of a foot injury and broken arm, respectively.
And they’d just lost back-to-back games at Kansas City and Dallas.
Then good fortune shined. The Jacksonville Jaguars tired of gifted but mercurial receiver Andre Rison and put him on waivers. Desperate Packers general manager Ron Wolf made the $100 claim, and while Rison hardly was the primary reason the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, he indisputably helped the cause.
Rison caught 13 passes in five regular-season games and another seven in the postseason, including a touchdown in the divisional round against San Francisco and another against New England on the second play of the Super Bowl.
Now here we are, 20 seasons later, and the Packers again are a primary Super Bowl contender. They’re 6-1 but taking on a little water themselves because of some unexpected shortcomings on offense the past month.
They lost their best receiver, Jordy Nelson, to a season-ending knee injury in August. Two other receivers, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery, have missed time because of ankle injuries.
And they’re coming off their first loss of the season, a humbling 29-10 blowout at Denver in which they put up only 140 total yards.
Good fortune shined again because a talented if aging pass catcher, 31-year-old tight end Vernon Davis, still was available. The parallel isn’t exact because it would have taken a trade with the 49ers rather than a waiver claim. But it was a fire sale, so at least in terms of trade cost, it was on the cheap.
But unlike Wolf in ’96, GM Ted Thompson wouldn’t bite at this week’s trade deadline. The steady-as-she-goes captain of the Packers’ ship no doubt considered the cost of a draft pick, even a late rounder, and the remaining $2.5 million of Davis’ 2015 salary as too high for what might end up a being half-season rental. Davis, after all, will be a free agent after the season.
Thompson’s hoarding of draft picks and discipline in sticking to his beliefs are smart and admirable. They’ve served the Packers well over the last 10-plus years.
But every once in a while discipline can cross into rigidity and come at a greater opportunity cost. That’s my suspicion here.
The Denver Broncos, also desperate to add a dynamic element to their offense, traded for Davis on Monday. The deal: The Broncos received Davis and a 2016 seventh-round draft pick for two sixth-rounders (one in ‘16 and another in 2017). In essence, they got Davis for a sixth-round pick.
“Absolutely stealing,” said an assistant coach for a 49ers rival in the NFC West Division. “They gave up nothing, really and truly. It was really one pick, and for a sixth-round pick to get (Davis) – believe me, he’s not 21 years old anymore. But can he help them immediately? Absolutely.”
The guess here is that Thompson could have landed Davis for a fifth-rounder. If the cost went much higher, there’s a better case for balking. But considering the Packers will get a late-round compensatory pick, and maybe two, for losing Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, that would have been worth the cost, even for a half-season rental.
Yes, Davis’ remaining salary is high, but not prohibitively so. And yes, trading a draft pick, even a late-rounder, for only a half-season player is the epitome of short-term thinking and generally an unwise way to conduct business in the NFL.
But there’s always room for exceptions as long as they’re rare, and this cried out for an exception. Without Nelson, the Packers haven’t been able to stretch the field. And that’s what Davis does best.
“If the Packers would have done that (trade) I would have said somebody’s got a gun to Teddy’s head,” said the aforementioned assistant coach. “I have to be honest, even for the Packers – listen, they’re doing OK. It’s easy to second guess.
“But to get that player for virtually – you’re talking about getting Vernon Davis for a (sixth)-round pick, somebody who can help your team right now. You put him in a uniform the next week and he plays for you and can help you win games. And for sure by the time you get to the playoffs, when you really need him, he’s going to be acclimated to your offense. For a (sixth)-round pick basically, that’s a no-brainer.”
To be sure, Davis is not the same game breaker who averaged 16.3 yards a catch and scored 13 touchdowns in 2013. Last season he caught only 26 passes for a 9.4-yard average and two touchdowns in 14 games. This year he has 18 catches for a 10.8-yard average in six games. He also missed Weeks 4 and 5 because of a low-grade MCL knee sprain.
He’s also not the same physical specimen drafted No. 6 overall in 2006. Measuring at 6-feet-3 ¼ and 254 pounds at the time, he put up the numbers of an elite wide receiver at the NFL scouting combine: 4.38 seconds in the 40 and a 42-inch vertical jump.
But if his numbers are way down, at least some responsibility falls on the decline of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaeprnick. And even if Davis is past his prime years, he’s still an explosive athlete at age 31 (he turns 32 in January).
“He can still run well enough to separate,” said a scout from a 49ers rival in the NFC West Division. “He’s very limited in what he does. He runs (deep post routes), he runs (go routes), and he checks down. He doesn’t have command of the whole route tree by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not like you just plug him in and have him do everything. He’s not that guy.”
But that’s what the Packers need more than anything, a downfield threat defenses neglect at their peril.
For the past month, Packers' opponents have adopted a similar strategy: Crowd the line of scrimmage to take away Eddie Lacy in the run game and some of the short, quick-rhythm passing game. Emphasize containing Aaron Rodgers in the pocket more than sacking him, so he can’t make big plays on scramble throws.
They’re basically daring the Packers to beat them deep.
If it’s worked better for some than others – the Broncos have maybe the best defensive personnel in the league and held Rodgers to 77 yards passing – it is the best approach. Over the last four games, the Packers are averaging 19.5 points and 298.5 yards, well below the 30.4 and 386.1 they averaged last year.
The Packers can expect to see more of the same the rest of the season. Without Nelson as a deep threat, defenses are slanting coverage toward Randall Cobb, which has neutralized him (8.3-yard average on 16 receptions the last four games). The Packers haven’t punished them for it.
Thompson and his scouting staff no doubt discussed the possibility of acquiring Davis, whose availability was well known publicly the last few weeks. But according to an NFL source with contacts in the 49ers’ front office, San Francisco GM Trent Baalke never heard from the Packers about a possible trade.
So Thompson is counting on coach Mike McCarthy and his current roster to find a way. Maybe scheme adjustments will help. Maybe McCarthy will turn to receiver Jeff Janis (6-foot-3, 4.42-second 40) as an occasional field stretcher. And maybe the return of Adams last week and rookie receiver Ty Montgomery in the next game or two will make the difference.
Also, Denver probably has the best defensive personnel in the NFL, so last week was as tough as it gets. It’s hard to see McCarthy's offense limping along like this the rest of the year.
But good defenses loom down the road, including this week against Carolina. The road to the Super Bowl could include rematches with Seattle, Carolina and even the Broncos. And there was a player available, Davis, who could have mitigated the Packers’ greatest offensive ill.
The trade would have gone against everything Thompson believes in. It would have meant thinking only of the now. And it would have carried nothing close to a championship guarantee. But the cost would have been worth the risk. As they put it in the movie “Risky Business,” sometimes you just have to say, "What the … heck."
“(Davis) definitely would have added some dynamic (element) to that offense,” the aforementioned scout said. “The one thing he does, no question about it, he stretches the field vertically from the tight end position. I think he can still do that. He’s not what he once was, but he’s still good enough. He’s still physically able to run. It would have been another something to think about (when defending the Packers), for sure.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.