After their followers' annual rite of angst and hand-wringing through yet another uneventful offseason, the Green Bay Packers open training camp right about where they’ve been the last five years.
They’re one of a handful of Super Bowl favorites.
In fact, according to Bovada.lv, their 17-to-2 odds for winning the Super Bowl are second-best in the NFL, behind only New England (6-to-1). Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is a 4-to-1 favorite to win league MVP.
This is the Packers as they’ve been for most of their 12 years now under general manager Ted Thompson. No sudden movements. Steady as she goes.
And there’s no denying the stability and consistency Thompson brings to the Packers. His personnel approach – he’s the most draft-oriented, free-agent averse GM in the NFL – has yielded seven straight trips to the playoffs. He has their salary cap in a virtuous cycle, carrying over significant room every year. And his team is poised to remain a contender for as long as Rodgers is quarterback, which should be for at least six years, and probably more.
Yes, Thompson is one of the reasons the Packers are a model NFL franchise.
But there are other ways to look at this team, too. And truth be told, it’s getting to the point where Thompson’s methods need to produce more than they have the last five years to justify continuing business his way.
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Thompson deserves all the credit in the world for drafting Rodgers in the first round in 2005. The move was a quadruple grand slam that set up this franchise for a decade and a half of success after Brett Favre. And beyond the Rodgers pick, Thompson’s drafts over time hold up fine against the rest of the league.
But when you have a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback – Rodgers already has done enough to warrant induction – the standards rise.
If Rodgers really is one of the two best quarterbacks in the game – it’s not easy to find a scout who doesn’t rank him and Tom Brady as the league’s best – the Packers need to make deeper playoff runs.
Over the last seven years, they’ve won a Super Bowl and been to a second NFC championship game. Even with a Hall of Fame quarterback, that type of success isn’t a given.
But better is more than possible, even if difficult.
Brady and the New England Patriots are the gold standard. In Brady’s 14 seasons as the Patriots’ starter, they’ve won four Super Bowls, lost two others, and lost four AFC championship games. In other words, they’ve advanced to at least the AFC championship in 10 of Brady’s 14 seasons as starter.
The Packers, on other hand, have advanced at least as far as the NFC championship twice in Rodgers’ eight seasons as starter.
For comparison, Peyton Manning went at least as far as the conference title game six times in 17 seasons as starter, and Favre went five times in 19 years at the helm. (Manning was 2-2 in the Super Bowl, Favre 1-1).
That puts Rodgers’ trajectory more or less in line with theirs, depending on what happens the second half of his career.
Maybe the Patriots’ record means Brady is just a cut above his contemporaries. But you also have to wonder if the Packers’ playoff record would improve if their GM took more calculated risks and signed a few more players from other teams. Passing on linebacker Myles Jack, injured knee and all, late in the first round of this year’s draft is the latest example there.
You get the sense from team president Mark Murphy that the GM job is Thompson’s unless things go unexpectedly badly a couple years in a row. The two now have a long history together, dating to Murphy’s arrival in 2007, and a relationship forged early on by the time they shared in the bunker in the summer of 2008 while the Favre-wants-to-return bombs were falling all around.
But you never know what kind of pressure the team’s executive committee might put on Murphy if the team has another early playoff exit this season.
Either way, while I wouldn’t call this a Super-Bowl-or-bust season for Thompson, it is time for more.
Luck, especially with injuries, plays a factor in how far teams go, so sometimes even the best plans don’t pan out. That can happen to any team in any season. But Hall of Fame quarterbacks don’t come along often, and when one does it gives you the chance to do something truly special. The question is, how do you make that happen?
Thompson’s low-risk, draft-and-develop-to-the-hilt approach has worked fairly well so far. His goal is to set up system where his team is always in the hunt. He’s done it. That’s no small thing.
But with Rodgers’ clock running, Thompson’s team needs to do more, and soon. If not, the Packers should give somebody else a shot at taking this franchise to another level.