GREEN BAY – It wouldn’t have taken much.
Add one player here, another player there. Win home-field advantage and it’s easy to picture an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field turning out much differently than the one played last Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Only the Green Bay Packers under general manager Ted Thompson would rather sit on their hands than procure players … at least veteran players. Now they’ll be sitting home once again as another more aggressive franchise, this time the upstart Atlanta Falcons, represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Of course, Thompson is correct when he says the way to win in the National Football League is through the draft. Ron Wolf said the same thing.
No team, however, can win it all without significant player acquisition outside of the draft.
The Packers don’t win the 31st Super Bowl if Wolf doesn’t trade for Brett Favre and sign Reggie White, among many others.
They also don’t win the 45th Super Bowl if Thompson doesn’t sign Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett.
This is brought up because the Packers have squandered still another realistic chance in the era of Aaron Rodgers to capture their 14th NFL championship. They’ve had enough talent to win the Super Bowl nine times in 11 seasons under Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, and just once have they claimed the Lombardi Trophy.
Thompson’s aversion to signing players that have been with other teams is holding hostage McCarthy and his coaches, Rodgers and his teammates and members of his own personnel department. None of them like it but they can’t do one thing about it.
Packers President Mark Murphy, the one man who can do something, goes about praising Thompson whenever the opportunity presents itself for the wonderful job he has done and the wonderful job he is doing.
Thompson is a good general manager with a long list of admirable qualities. If he were a great general manager, the Packers would have been in the Super Bowl more than once in his 12-year tenure, especially considering his quarterbacks have been Favre and Rodgers.
How could Thompson, after watching the defense get ripped apart by the Falcons, even look McCarthy, his coaches and his players in the eye?
The Packers had six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster at the end of the season. Only two, LaDarius Gunter and Josh Hawkins, have a long history at the position.
Damarious Randall played safety in his two years at Arizona State. Until late September, Micah Hyde had been a safety since 2014.
Quinten Rollins was a basketball player at Miami (Ohio) before giving football a shot in 2014. Herb Waters, a collegiate wide receiver, was converted to cornerback in September as a practice-squad player.
On injured reserve were Demetri Goodson, another basketball player for the majority of his college days, and Sam Shields, who played two seasons at wide receiver for Miami.
“Hats off to the coaching staff,” one general manager said last week. “For keeping it together playing with that crap for the last seven or eight weeks.”
Losing Shields to a season-ending concussion in the first game turned out to be a killer because a depth chart laden with young players wasn’t nearly good enough. Not only did Thompson draft Randall in the first round and Rollins in the second round, he did next to nothing to alleviate the mess at cornerback.
On Sept. 7, a few days after the final roster reduction, the New England Patriots probably were no better or worse than the Packers at cornerback. New England’s depth chart showed Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan as starters followed by rookie Cyrus Jones, a second-round draft choice, and free agents Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones.
The Patriots were interested in Eric Rowe, a cornerback that the Eagles had traded up to draft in the second round of the 2015 draft. The two teams agreed on a trade in which Rowe went to New England for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 that could improve to a third based on performance/playing time clauses.
Rowe, 6 feet ½ inch and 205 pounds, had been the 47th overall selection. At No. 30, the Packers’ pick had come down to Randall or Rowe.
For some reason, new Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn’t like Rowe. Maybe Bill Belichick knew that; he was the one who gave Schwartz his first NFL job 25 years earlier in Cleveland.
As the rest of the league slept, Belichick stole a first- or second-round talent for possibly a fourth-round pick.
Rowe, who has 4.41-second speed and a 39-inch vertical jump, turned out to be a valuable addition. Used primarily as a nickel back in his 452 snaps, his size and speed have helped produce the league’s No. 1 scoring defense.
No team ever can have enough corners, especially one like Green Bay with a No. 1 (Shields) that had four concussions, a No. 2 (Randall) who had gone straight downhill late in his rookie season, a No. 3 (Rollins) who looked raw but somewhat promising as a rookie and a No. 5 (Goodson) who was starting a four-game suspension.
Even though the Packers really liked Rowe before that draft it was Belichick, not Thompson, who made the trade.
By the time Chicago’s Matt Barkley got done passing the Packers silly (362 yards) on Dec. 18, it should have been apparent to the personnel people in Green Bay that a Super Bowl probably wasn’t going to happen with those cornerbacks.
Two weeks earlier, the Packers shifted cornerback Makinton Dorleant from injured reserve to the 53. On Dec. 17, they promoted No. 3 quarterback Joe Callahan from the practice squad.
Dorleant, a slender rookie from Northern Iowa, appeared to be on about the same level as Hawkins in training camp. Hawkins was so bad early in the season that McCarthy was afraid to play him again. Callahan filled a third roster berth that should have been utilized for immediate defensive help.
In a cornerback room filled with so many shell-shocked young faces, why in the world wouldn’t Thompson sign a veteran or two who in the not-too-distant past had played well?
Antonio Cromartie, a four-time Pro Bowl player, was cut Oct. 4 by the Colts. At 32, Cromartie wasn’t playing well, but at least he had started the first four games. In 2015, he played 86% of the snaps for the Jets, performing best in a press-man scheme much like the Packers employ.
Perrish Cox, 29, started nine of 11 games for the Titans before being released Nov. 29. He struggled against the Packers on Nov. 13. His résumé included 45 starts and a checkered off-the-field record.
Dorleant, Hawkins and Callahan are dime-a-dozen free agents that might never be heard from again. They’re replaceable.
Give defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Joe Whitt, the veteran cornerbacks coach, a week with both Cromartie and Cox in a fresh environment for a Super Bowl-contending team and there’s a reasonable chance Matt Ryan wouldn’t have thrown for 371 yards in the first three quarters.
Thompson’s response was to promote from within, get even younger and, in effect, tell McCarthy to go win it all with Gunter, Randall, Hyde, Rollins, Hawkins and Waters.
“We all make mistakes,” said one former GM. “Maybe you can’t get better. Maybe the guy you want you can’t get, but at least you’re trying. I always felt obligation to the head coach to try.
“But that’s their (the Packers’) philosophy, and it’s worked for them because they’ve had 25 fricking years of great quarterbacks. Of course it works. Try it without a special quarterback.”
Every 12 months there are thousands of transactions in the NFL, and each one has a story. Here are six in which the player certainly could have helped the Packers. Odds are, Thompson never seriously considered any of them.
Running back Matt Forte went from the Bears to the Jets on March 9 for $9 million guaranteed. He gained 1,076 yards from scrimmage before his season ended in December with knee cartilage damage.
Tight end Vernon Davis went from the Broncos to the Redskins on April 1 for $1.1 million guaranteed. He caught 44 passes for 583 yards (13.3) and two touchdowns.
Running back LeGarrette Blount re-signed with the Patriots on April 12 for $100,000 guaranteed. He carried 299 times for 1,161 yards (3.9) and 18 TDs.
Pass rusher Dwight Freeney signed with Atlanta on Aug. 4 for $500,000 guaranteed. He might be the Falcons’ second-best rusher with 20-plus pressures.
Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel was awarded to the Falcons off waivers from the Browns on Sept. 4. He has 41 catches for 674 yards (16.4) and six TDs.
Versatile linebacker Jamie Collins was acquired by the Browns in a trade with the Patriots on Oct. 31 for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018. In eight games, he had 69 tackles and two sacks. Last week, he signed a four-year extension with $26.4 million guaranteed.
Those are just a few of many possibilities, and don’t tell me it’s second-guessing.
Thompson has incredible financial and analytical resources, a large staff at his beck and call and dossiers on all players both on and off the field. It’s his job to make fewer mistakes than the competition and build a better team than the rest.
It should be remembered, too, that cash wasn’t always so plentiful in Green Bay. When Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren and Packers President Bob Harlan won their Super Bowl, Lambeau Field wasn’t the cash cow that it is today.
The Packers were far down in profit margin back then. For fiscal 1995, their bottom line of $5.4 million was chump change compared to the $48.9 million it was last year.
“Wisconsin has some big business here,” Wolf said in a July 1996 interview. “We could use some assistance from these people to enable us to keep our good players. Maybe name the practice field for a certain amount. We keep a Bryce Paup. Little things like that.”
Those Packers persevered through Wolf’s pragmatic approach and ever-bold roster-building practices, Holmgren’s keen intelligence and cutting-edge offensive mind and Harlan’s courage to break from the Lombardi organizational structure and rare gifts in public relations.
When’s the last time cash flow limitations ever crossed the lips of a Packers executive? It’s an issue in some cities but not Green Bay.
The men in charge today, in effect caretakers of a franchise that was reborn before their arrival, should never forget how good they have it and the built-in advantages of working in Green Bay.
McCarthy, presumably Murphy and probably Thompson can bury their heads in the sand and label a 12-7 record and annihilation in the NFC title game as success for a team that opened the season as the Super Bowl co-favorite and had Rodgers play nearly every snap.
That’s just noise from a podium from people hoping their loyal fan base forever and always keeps the faith and doesn’t judge 2016 for the missed opportunity that it was.
It wouldn’t have taken much to put the Packers over the top this season. It won’t take much for them to get over the top next season.
So the ball rests squarely in Thompson’s court. For Packers fans, it must be depressing to know it’s likely little or nothing will change in the way he puts the team together.
Hint: maintaining status quo isn’t the way to the Super Bowl.