GREEN BAY – At the beginning of every training camp coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t mince words in setting forth the objective for the Green Bay Packers.
Each year, he always says, the Packers are shooting to win the Super Bowl.
That doesn’t make McCarthy’s job any easier, but it’s probably the only thing he can say after a generation of almost non-stop winning in the National Football League’s smallest city.
By the same token, we in the media should hold every executive, coach and player to the highest standard for a litany of reasons that have been apparent for many years.
When you coach and play football in Green Bay, you have advantages many other teams can only dream of having.
Since Brown County taxpayers voted to help finance the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field in September 2000, the stadium, atrium and other development has been an absolute cash cow for the Packers.
With millions pouring in from national, regional, state, local and even global sources, cash flow is never a problem as it is with other franchises where ownership has debt service and other interests to support.
The president of the team, Mark Murphy, needs only executive committee approval to spend and spend some more on facilities and football necessities or amenities that rival any in the league.
Ted Thompson, the general manager, knows he has virtual carte blanche to sign off on any negotiation with one of the Packers’ own players or an unrestricted free agent.
At the same time, McCarthy can hire and fire coaches with little regard for financial considerations. He has released 14 assistants in 10 years, and most of them probably had contracts for at least another year.
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McCarthy is given an annual budget for his staff. Yet, if firing two coaches at the cost of $1 million might exceed the budget, his superiors aren’t likely to stand in his way.
McCarthy ranks near the very top of coaches with compensation in the $8 to $9 million range. The Packers don’t overpay their coaches and staff by any means, but the cost of living in Brown County is relatively inexpensive so they still attract top talent.
Lambeau Field, which was most recently expanded in 2013-’14, seats 81,435. Only five teams have a higher capacity, and together with the accompanying noise factor the Packers know every game is a sellout and the no-show count won’t exceed 2,000 to 3,000.
On the road, the Packers benefit immensely from thousands of Cheeseheads that find ways to procure tickets and provide almost cult-like support. Sometimes the din from 10,000 to 15,000 green-and-gold clad fans in a far-flung venue creates a level of boisterousness that approximates the home-field advantage at Lambeau Field.
Interest in the team never seems to wane, and almost every decision made by the Packers seeks to insure that it never does.
Coaches and personnel people who have been employed by the Packers often have indicated there’s no better place to work than Green Bay. That’s largely because of the hands-off policy of management coupled with the facilities, the money and the pure football environment.
Murphy, like Bob Harlan before him, and their executive committees value continuity. Thompson has been McCarthy’s boss since January 2006, and Murphy was hired to oversee the entire operation two years later.
As the years have rolled by, my coverage of the team has changed as well. Every reporter is shaped by his or her experiences. It’s unavoidable.
Growing up two hours north of Green Bay, thee five championships in seven years during the 1960s played out on our television set. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, however, that I began to cover the Packers, and they didn’t become my full-time assignment until mid-1984.
A once-proud franchise had lost its way. The Packers, an also-ran on the field, struggled to make ends meet off it.
It became almost my obsession to find out what it took to win in pro football.
Obviously, the answers weren’t available from most of those people in Green Bay at the time. Some of my fellow beat writers would discuss the winning organizations that they covered, and it seemed utterly foreign.
Executives in personnel for playoff teams that participated in the NFL draft series each year probably got sick of all my questions regarding how franchises did it.
Covering the Super Bowl was like an out-of-body experience. Super Bowl? The Packers were a million miles away.
During the mid-week interview sessions, I’d get coaches one-on-one and pepper them for explanations how they got there. Super Bowl participants always are proud to be in the game, and some of those most generous with their time and expertise were Bobb McKittrick and Sherm Lewis of the 49ers, Larry Peccatiello and Joe Bugel of the Redskins, Bruce Coslet of the Bengals and Bruce DeHaven of the Bills.
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Among the Super Bowl GMs and scouts, the Redskins’ Bobby Beathard and Mike Allman, the 49ers’ Alan Webb and Tony Razzano, the Giants’ Tom Boisture and Tim Rooney, and the Bills’ John Butler and A.J. Smith all took pains to point out how their teams became successful.
When veterans from winning or Super Bowl teams were signed by the Packers, it didn’t take long for me to approach with queries on what it was like elsewhere. Billy Ard, Blair Bush, Harry Sydney, Tunch Ilkin, John Spagnola, Dave Brown and Clint Didier, among others, were especially revealing.
In those days, media access to the players wasn’t an issue. Every practice was open to reporters in its entirety, and there were hours in the locker room that could be spent really understanding players. Don Summers, a tight end in 1987, had played with John Elway on some strong Broncos teams, and I wanted to know what he knew.
It became almost a running joke between us. After almost every practice I’d ask Summers to compare and contrast how a good team did things and how a bad team did. He answered as best he could amid the losing and depressed surroundings.
One year, the Raiders’ staff put on a clinic for fans and media at a small college gymnasium. Afterward, I button-holed Al Davis and badgered him about how to go about finding a quarterback.
For seven or eight years, it seemed like every other story written on the Packers had to do with filling the most important position.
Before the 21st Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl, Giants GM George Young drew a parallel between the post-Lombardi Packers and post-Napoleonic France. He argued neither was the same after losing their great leader.
After Lombardi, management tried the same structural formula to replace him. Coaches Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg were invested with full authority to make football decisions, and from 1988-’91 coach Lindy Infante and vice president Tom Braatz operated in an amorphous sharing of power.
In an interview, Young provided a pearl of wisdom that proved to be the most trenchant of all.
“Hey, the whole key is getting good people,” said Young, a keen student of history. “Hey, this is a very simple business. You’ve got to get good people whenever you can get one.”
You know the rest of the story. Harlan hired Ron Wolf in November 1991, who hired Mike Holmgren in January and traded for Brett Favre in February.
In a matter of three months, everything had changed and my quest had been answered. The Packers were brought into the modern age with Wolf in charge of football, Holmgren in charge of the players and Favre solving the void at quarterback.
In the last 24 years the Packers have won one Super Bowl as a prohibitive pre-season favorite and another as No. 6 seeding in the NFC playoffs, and lost a third.
Under Starr, Gregg and Infante, the Packers posted a 102-154-4 record for a winning percentage of .400. Under Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman and McCarthy, they’re 267-158-1 for .628.
Once the Packers beat the Patriots in New Orleans, it was clear what the standard was for winning an NFL title. With Wolf, Holmgren, Favre, Reggie White and a few others, you were covering the best.
Unlike younger reporters who have known nothing but winning, I remember when the Packers were a forlorn franchise and even a winning season was cause for a parade through downtown. Those memories have increased my appreciation for what this organization has accomplished.
As the years went by and the Packers kept winning (18 playoff berths, 11 division titles in 24 years), at some point I made the decision to evaluate players based on the championship standard. Every team does that, and after my experiences being around greatness at GM, head coach, quarterback and others levels of the organization it was the only way to go.
For example, the standard at left guard is Mike Wahle and Josh Sitton, not Daryn Colledge; Desmond Bishop and Nick Barnett at inside linebacker, not A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington; Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji at nose tackle, not Letroy Guion; William Henderson at fullback, not John Kuhn, and Donald Driver at slot receiver, not Randall Cobb.
The assistant coaches in Green Bay have never complained about being held to the higher standard. Players haven’t groused, either, at least after an explanation was offered.
Besides, in the meeting rooms at 1265 Lombardi Ave., you can bet it’s what most players are hearing daily from the head coach and his assistants in the most direct language imaginable.
Some readers never have and never will approve of my approach, which is fine. It took me years to discover what it took to win, and I have thanked Wolf, Holmgren and Harlan personally for showing me the way.
The object in Green Bay is to win, and win big, and win the Super Bowl. It has been a realistic goal here for years. And excuses fall on deaf ears.