Dougherty: Stability has upside for Packers

Pete Dougherty
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There’s plenty to question about the way Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have run the Green Bay Packers.

That goes for every NFL team that’s not the New England Patriots over the last 16 years.

But now that the Packers’ 2016 season has been finished for nearly a month, it's time for perspective, too. And here’s some food for thought about front-office and coaching stability in the NFL.

Since 1992 the Packers have had only three general managers – Ron Wolf, Mike Sherman and Thompson. They’ve also had only four coaches – Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Sherman and McCarthy.

Theirs hasn’t been mindless stability. Wolf fired Rhodes after only one season, and former president Bob Harlan stripped Sherman of his GM duties when it became clear the coach-GM role was too much. But it’s a stability that has served the Packers well.

In the 25 years since Wolf’s first full season, 1992, the Packers have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage (.636), behind only New England, and just ahead of Pittsburgh (.631).

Since Thompson’s first season as GM, 2005, the Packers rank No. 4 (.617), behind New England (.771), Indianapolis (.656) and Pittsburgh (.635).

Since McCarthy’s first year as coach, 2006, the Packers’ rank No. 2 (.651), behind New England and ahead of Indianapolis (.636) and Pittsburgh (.631).

And going back to Aaron Rodgers’ first year as starting quarterback, 2008, the Packers also are No. 2 (.649), behind only New England, and just ahead of Pittsburgh (.646).

Notice the three teams that show up on all those lists: the Patriots, Steelers and Packers. What do they have in common? Quarterbacks, and stability in the front office and at head coach.

Bill Belichick is the Patriots’ fourth head coach since ’92 and the longest-tenured active coach in the league after just finishing his 17th season. He’s also GM.

The Steelers’ Mike Tomlin is famously only the team’s third head coach in the last 48 years, and Kevin Colbert is the club’s second GM (in title or fact) since ’92. Colbert, in fact, is starting his 17th season as GM.

Now compare that with the Packers’ NFC North Division rivals.

Starting from ’92, the Detroit Lions are on their ninth head coach, Jim Caldwell. Last year they hired Bob Quinn as their sixth GM in that time.

The Minnesota Vikings are on their fifth coach, Mike Zimmer, since ’92, and their GM history is a mess of power sharing and coach-GM dual roles that there isn’t time to detail here.

And the Chicago Bears are on their fifth head coach, John Fox, and sixth GM (in name or fact), Ryan Pace, since Wolf took over the Packers.

Then there are franchises like Cleveland (ninth coach, eighth GM since ‘95), San Francisco (seventh coach since ’03), Miami (ninth coach and seventh GM since ‘00) and Tampa Bay (fourth coach and third GM since ‘09). Once on the carousel, they can’t get off, and their franchises have paid for it.

So what does it say? That stability matters for an NFL franchise, and when you find a GM or coach who’s winning you a lot of games, be wary of making a change.

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Of course, it also highlights the importance of quarterbacks. Tom Brady has been the Patriots’ starter since 2001. The Steelers have had Ben Roethlisberger since ’04. And the Packers have had Brett Favre and then Rodgers since ’92. That’s four current or future Pro Football Hall of Famers.

But the Patriots and Steelers went to the Super Bowl before Brady and Roethlisberger. And even if a great quarterback gets you three-quarters of the way there, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll always win big.

Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl and had a four-year stretch in his prime where he went 29-31 with no playoffs; John Elway in a three-year stretch in his early 30s went 24-22 and didn't win the Super Bowl until his final two seasons; Troy Aikman had a four-year span in his early 30s where he went 24-28; and Drew Brees is 21-26 the last three seasons.

So by all means, call out Thompson’s weak spots and errors. He can and should use more than the draft to build his team. The current GMs who trained with him under Wolf – that’s John Schneider, John Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie and Scot McCloughan – are doing well using their mentor’s more panoramic approach.

And if you believe Thompson should think more in the short term as Rodgers gets further into the second half of his career, count me in.

But there’s a reason Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy has ignored the calls among his fan base for Thompson’s firing. If you’re going to upset sustained stability, you better be sure you can find someone better. Are you so sure?

And spare me the “Thompson apologist” tripe. I hardly know the guy, rarely talk to him, and he doesn’t help me do my job other than in news conferences that are available to everybody.

In the 12 years Thompson has been with the Packers, he has shared a lone – that’s one – insightful comment one-on-one. I also could criticize every move he makes and he couldn’t revoke my credential. The NFL has rules about that.

So yeah, Rodgers gives the Packers a chance to do something special, and it’s time for the GM to explore every avenue possible to improve his roster. Even if it ends up only nibbling at the edges, with a team this close to winning a championship, you never know which nibble might help win a postseason game. Rodgers’ clock is ticking.

But let’s keep some perspective. You can always justify change in the NFL, and sometimes circumstance demands it. But stability is worth plenty, too.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and president Mark Murphy share a smile as they visit with each other inside the war room during an NFL Draft.
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson (left) and head coach Mike McCarthy.
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