clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Anatomy of a Winner: Green Bay Packers

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles begin their quest to build the Jets into a consistent winner, we are going to look at some of the best run franchises in the NFL. We want to see what makes them tick. What are their philosophies? What specific strategies set them apart? Above all, consistent winners have two important pieces, a head coach and a quarterback. How did these teams get these moves right? Today we look at the Green Bay Packers.

The Green Bay Packers are one of the NFL's most storied franchises. Green Bay's 13 NFL Championships ranks first in league history. In the decade Ted Thompson has been general manager of the Packers, the team has moved beyond the Brett Favre Era and remained at the top of the league. How do the Packers do it? Let's take a look.

Describe the organization philosophy in one word: Homegrown

Teams often pay lip service to the idea of building through the Draft, but Green Bay buys into it on a level unlike almost any other team. The Green Bay opening day roster in 2014 had just six players who had ever spent time on the active roster of another team.

The Packers focus on finding and developing their talent. They hit on early round picks. They find contributors in the middle and late rounds. They find contributors off the scrap heap. The key is they want players they can bring up and develop in their own system and culture.

Because the Packers take this approach, they have to develop their talent from the top down. They need to develop their stars. They need to develop their starters. They need to develop their role players. Since teams get a limited amount of early Draft picks, this means hitting on late rounders and finding hidden gems. There is pressure on every facet from scouting to player development. The Packers do it well too.

In their Super Bowl win over the Steelers five years, ago there were thirteen Packers defenders who played at least 29 snaps. From those thirteen were two undrafted rookies signed by Thompson, a Thompson sixth round pick, and three undrafted free agents signed by other teams that Thompson claimed off waivers when they were rookies. Almost half of a defense that won the Super Bowl was found off the scrap heap. That included a star in Tramon Williams.

It seems at times like the Packers have two simultaneous operations going. The first is coaching up the regular starters to win games. The second is developing the backups who aren't playing to eventually take on bigger roles.

Next man up has become something of a cliche in NFL circles, but it actually applies in Green Bay. Their focus on player development regularly leaves somebody ready to step up when a key contributor is lost.

If you want a big picture example, look no further than the 2010 championship team the Packers had, which had 16 players go on injured reserve. Injuries are a convenient excuse for a team to struggle, but depth can help overcome that. In a league with a salary cap, most depth has to be developed internally with cheap young players. The Packers did that.

If you want a small picture example, we can look at Green Bay's evolving wide receiver corps through the years. During that 2010 Super Bowl season, Green Bay's three leaders in receptions were Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones. Over the next few years, the Packers would lose all three. Driver retired, and Jennings and Jones left in free agency. By 2014, the Packers had replaced the trio with a trio of homegrown talent, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Devante Adams. All three were second round picks. Nelson and Cobb in particular were drafted when the Packers had no great need at the position.

This was an example of a team understanding long-term value of a player is more important than short-term need. Needs change from year to year. Having an in house replacement when an incumbent free agent wants too much money prevents a team from overspending. Like many good teams, the Packers have too many good players to keep. It is a salary cap league, which forces teams to prioritize. Because Green Bay has a steady stream of replacements ready to go which make it easier to say goodbye to a veteran. Plenty of bad organizations overvalue their own talent and do whatever it takes to keep a homegrown talent. The good organizations prioritize. If there is a young, cheaper alternative, the team can get the same level of play at that position and have extra resources to fortify another area. In the years to come, the Jets will hopefully be able to take advantage of situations like this. If Devin Smith can produce at a rate reasonably similar to Brandon Marshall, the Jets can save money at wide receiver. The same goes at cornerback if Dee Milliner can replace Antonio Cromartie. The same goes at nose tackle for Deon Simon and Damon Harrison. This is one example of why developing homegrown talent is so key. It saves money at positions.

Thompson puts it this way.

Thompson argues there is only so much money to go around, and when it's time to pay players like Rodgers, Matthews, B.J. Raji, Sam Shields and Randall Cobb, you want to have as much money as possible to keep them. Sometimes you choose not to pay as was the case with Greg Jennings, Scott Wells, Daryn Colledge and Nick Barnett.

"If you've done a good enough job of drafting and developing, you're going to have more of those at that stage than you can keep," Thompson said. "But that's, relatively speaking, a good problem to have. You have to try to make good decisions in every deal that you do.

Being able to develop young talent has helped Thompson stay out of the crapshoot that is free agency. Free agency for many teams is about filling needs, but it can be risky to bring in a player who had success in totally different circumstances. The teammates, system, and locker room in which that player had success are not there with a new team. Thompson notes the inherent risks.

"You get these contracts at the time, they look really good for the team and the player, and then three years later it looks good for the player but it doesn't look quite as good for the team," Thompson said. "Or vice versa. And somebody has to break that contract, and then you have to pay the consequences of that.

Players in football play their best young and then decline. They are cheap when they are young and expensive as they age. Teams that binge in free agency pay more for less results. Thompson's strategy keeps the Packers young, cheap, and productive.

Green Bay's average age from 2006 to '14, in order, was 25.57, 25.74, 25.57, 25.70, 25.91, 25.70, 25.70, 25.66 and 25.75.

Getting the Head Coach Right:

One of the things I have found doing research is good teams are not swayed by popular opinion. They find the right fit, even if it does not appear to be a great move on the surface. Take Green Bay's hiring of Mike McCarthy as head coach in 2006.

McCarthy was coming off a one year stint as offensive coordinator of one of the least effective offenses in the league. He helmed the 2005 49ers to the lowest average yardage per play in the league. Number one overall pick Alex Smith barely completed half of his passes and had an incredible 1-11 TD-INT rate under McCarthy's mentorship. Before that, McCarthy was the offensive coordinator of the Jim Haslett Era Saints, a perennial underachieving disappointment after a surprising NFC West title in the staff's first season in 2000.

I think it would be fair to say that on the surface this hiring would have similarities to a team hiring Marty Mornhinweg as head coach immediately after his stint with the Jets and Geno Smith. It just sounds crazy when you look at the resume.

Yet it has worked. McCarthy has won 65% of his games, five division titles in nine years, and a Super Bowl to go with two additional trips to the NFC Championship Game. He has developed perhaps the best quarterback in the league and has assembled a staff that has implemented Thompson's vision. On good teams, finding unheralded talent by the front office and developing that talent with the coaching staff go hand in hand.

McCarthy totally buys into Thompson's program of largely forsaking free agency and focusing on developing the next set of great Packers.

In McCarthy's case it means ignoring the temptation to imagine Goldson in his secondary or Ellerbe next to Desmond Bishop at inside linebacker. He said he used to follow the comings and goings in free agency more closely but has decided his time is better spent focusing exclusively on the young players he has and the ones he's going to get.

"Are you going to consume yourself on 70 players when maybe three of them are going to be in your building," McCarthy said of free agents. "Or are you going to consume your time in player acquisition more toward the draft, which you know you have a better chance of.

"Opinions are heard and given, but I think I've done a much better job of keeping our coaching staff focused on our guys. That's the group we know we're going to train and we know we're going to help get better."

Every year we hear about the hot coordinators as the lead NFL head coaching candidates. These folks typically have gaudy resumes, but many of them fail when they eventually land a head coaching job. Like in any field, a candidate can look great on paper for a promotion but not be suited for the job. Sometimes the right person does not have as great of a track record. When it comes to running an NFL team, it is critical a head coach buy into the general manager's philosophy and be able to effectively implement the pieces that fall under his domain. These traits are not always evident in past work. It behooves a team to dig deep and find the right person, even if it is not a hire that will immediately fire up the fanbase. The right guy can sometimes be under the radar. The best head coach choices are frequently hidden gems that some smart team uncovers thanks to due diligence and the conviction to hire the right person for the job rather than the most popular among the fanbase. This thought process led the Packers to McCarthy.

Getting the Quarterback Right:

A disproportionate amount of success the best franchises in the NFL have is due to two decisions, finding the right head coach and finding the right quarterback. The other stuff matters, but without these two it is next to impossible to win. The Packers are one of those rare teams like the 49ers going from Montana to Young or the Colts going from Manning to Luck that have two consecutive Hall of Fame level talents at the position. The story of how they got Aaron Rodgers and how they inserted him into the starting lineup show how good process begets good results, though. In the case of Rodgers, finding the right quarterback was about how the team approached difficult decisions.

In recent NFL Draft history, there have been numerous instances where a player has painfully had to endure a long wait in the green room on Draft day. Brady Quinn in 2007 and Geno Smith in 2013 come immediately to mind. Rodgers' long wait, however, was singular. Entering Draft day, there was a chance Rodgers was going to be the top overall pick and go to the 49ers. They passed on him in favor of Alex Smith. That began a long wait that saw him slide all the way to 24. Remember, these were the days when teams had fifteen minutes to make their pick in the first round. Rodgers sat in the green room for over four hours. Team after team that has subsequently spent the last decade unable to solve the quarterback position passed on him.

In retrospect, it sounds like Green Bay had a simple decision. The soon to be best quarterback in the NFL fell into their lap at 24. Of course they would take him.

It was not that simple. In the NFL, there is a tendency to view the team's record from a year ago as the floor for the upcoming season. I would say this is something fans do, but judging from their actions, it seems like a lot of front offices feel this way. It doesn't really work this way. Every season presents new challenges. There is a different slate of opponents that present different matchup issues. There will be injuries. Certain players will improve. Others will regress. There is also the role of pure luck. Around half of all NFL games are decided by one scoring play. These games typically turn on a handful of plays. Sometimes victory doesn't have to do with skill. Sometimes it is just about the opponent making a dumb mistake, somebody committing a silly penalty, the ball bouncing a certain way. In baseball, there are 162 games in a season. Over the course of a schedule that long, the luck will usually even out. Football only has 16 games. A few bounces here or there can mean everything in making or breaking a season. The difference between a division title and picking in the top ten can be a few plays.

Fans and teams still emphasize the previous season's record. Think back to the Jets a year ago. They had plenty of issues at cornerback and wide receiver. There were some scary matchups early in the season against teams that could exploit these deficiencies. What was the common refrain? "Everybody said the Jets would stink last year, and we went 8-8. Now we added Eric Decker and Chris Johnson." The actual construction of the roster and matchups to come were less important than the fact the team won eight of sixteen games played in 2013. The additions on the roster seemed to imply the win total would automatically upgrade. Given the way the front office approached the offseason, one could given forgiven for thinking this was the thought process the team had. As we all know now, things did not pan out that way. Even though we put a ton of emphasis on the previous season's record, it means nothing once the next season starts.

For whatever reason, though, teams still think this way. Heading into the 2005 Draft, the Packers were coming off a 10-6 season with a division title. What would most teams think in that situation? "We are close. We won the division. Now we just need to add a few pieces to put us over the top."

The Packers would eventually need to find a solution at quarterback for an aging Brett Favre, but there was no urgency. Favre was returning for at least one more run at glory in 2005. The Packers would have at least one more year to find a replacement. This was the backdrop of Thompson's first Draft as general manager.

When Rodgers fell to 24, the Packers took him and never look back. It is only through the lens of the things mentioned above that we can understand how unobvious this decision was. The Packers passed on a chance to improve their team for what might have been Favre's last run. They used their most valuable asset not to put a division championship club over the hump. They used it on a player who had virtually no chance of playing a meaningful snap in year one. This was not even your typical backup quarterback situation. Favre was the NFL's iron man. He had played through a broken thumb on his throwing hand a few years earlier.

The Packers were not simply refusing to give their franchise quarterback extra help for his last run. They were forsaking that chance to find his replacement.

It would not be accurate to say Green Bay's selection of Rodgers was universally panned. Many analysts praised the foresight the Packers showed and noted Rodgers was entering a good situation, where he would not immediately be thrust into the starting lineup needing to be a franchise savior.

This still did not make Rodgers an obvious pick. It cut against the grain of the idea that a first round pick should be used to immediately upgrade a roster weakness. As is frequently the case with successful franchises, the Packers valued long-term production over filling a need in year one when drafting.

It was also a gutsy selection because of the potential it had to undermine the front office's relationship with Favre. Favre was royalty in Green Bay. In many ways, his popularity had made him bigger than the franchise by that point. How would he respond to the front office thinking only about the future at an age when he only had the present? There was some degree of risk involved with alienating a franchise quarterback. The most obvious doppelganger to this situation was the Broncos drafting Tommy Maddox in the first round in 1992 as the eventual successor for then 32 year old John Elway instead of improving Elway's supporting cast. This was part of the foundation of a deterioration of trust between Elway and Dan Reeves that led to Reeves eventually being fired. Maddox only lasted two years in Denver, although he would later be the MVP in the XFL's only season of play.

It is one thing to have the parallel processes we discussed above, coaching the current team on one track and developing future contributors on a second. It is quite another to have the discipline and patience to invest a first round pick on a player who will be on the developmental track for at least a year.

Andrew Brandt worked for the Packers' front office at the time of the selection. He has written about what went into the decision.

The best decision-makers, in my view, "trust the board." Players have been poked, prodded, analyzed and discussed for seven months. It's time to let the board do the work.

The biggest downfall of decision-makers is becoming impulsive and emotional, straying from the board. Nothing deflates the morale of scouting staffs faster.

This is easy to say but tougher to do.

A true trust The Board moment came in the drafting of Aaron Rodgers. In 2005, we had approximately 20 players rated above the first-round line. When we arrived at our pick, at No. 24, the only name left above that line was Rodgers, who played the same position as one of the most durable players in NFL history: Brett Favre. (I always had a hard time signing a backup quarterback, as they wanted to have at least the possibility of playing.)

As we stared at Rodgers’ name, there were murmurs in the room from those concerned with the short-term, realizing we may well use our first-round pick on a player who would probably not get in a game that year (or perhaps the next, or even the year after that … or possibly never in a Packers uniform).

A minute or so after we were on the clock (it was 15 minutes then), Ted Thompson asked me to call Rodgers’ agent, Mike Sullivan, who had been sitting with Rodgers under the glare of TV lights for the past six hours, and keep him on the phone as we decide.

I called the number I had and got a terse "Hello…" "Mike?" "No, this is Aaron." I felt for him, and now I had to keep him waiting more. "Hi Aaron, it’s Andrew Brandt with the Green Bay Packers. Can I talk to Mike?" It was surreal as I watched Mike on television talking to me. I could not really tell him anything, as Ted wanted to see if an offer for extra picks would come while we were on the clock. The room and the phone lines were eerily silent—with all eyes on Ted and on me holding the phone—as everyone waited for the decision.

Finally, after 10 minutes that seemed like 10 hours, Ted gave the go-ahead: We were taking Aaron. We heard the faint sound of boos from the draft party going on below us. Our room was a mixed bag. Some celebrated; others were muted knowing while they would be judged on the short-term, this was a long-term play.

It was a long term play that we now know was successful beyond anybody's wildest dreams. We did not know it at the time. Draft day was also not the end of the drama of the Favre-Rodgers saga.

By Thompson's third year, he had built a Packers team that was at the top of the league. Green Bay went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship Game, losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Giants.

The Packers seemed like a team on the rise but for one thing. Their quarterback retired in early March. This left a squad expecting to compete for a championship with a total unknown for a signal caller. Favre decided in July he wanted to return to the league.

Green Bay was coming off a big season. Their Hall of Fame quarterback wanted to return to finish the job. To that point, Rodgers had only played meaningful snaps in one game in his career, a loss in Dallas the year before when Favre hurt his elbow. Wouldn't it seem like a good idea to go back to the Hall of Fame quarterback under the circumstances?

The Packers had moved forward, though.

Favre told ESPN he asked Thompson if he could compete for the starting job, knowing that he can beat out Rodgers, only to be told that was not an option.

Favre had asked for a release, presumably to sign with either division rival Minnesota or Chicago to make the Packers pay. The Packers didn't grant it and eventually sent him to the Jets in a trade for a Draft pick.

It is impossible to overstate how popular of a figure Favre was in Green Bay. The Packers decisively cut ties with him to go with an unknown in Rodgers because they were comfortable with what they had. They did not panic and release Favre to avoid a media circus. They acted deliberately and tried to get the best of all worlds, sending the legend out of the conference and getting a pick in return.

The Favre-Packers relationship had been crumbling. The quarterback was upset a year earlier the team did not trade for Randy Moss. The Packers wanted Moss to rework his contract into a two year deal. Moss wanted a one year contract so he could put up big numbers and become a free agent. New England gave it to him so Moss ended up with the Patriots much to Favre's dismay.

Thompson took some heat for his handling of the matter. One petition netted over 1,500 signatures calling for his firing. Many Packers fans were furious. Running a legend out of town under any circumstances can contribute to the end of a front office. In this case, the Packers were taking the quarterback off a winning team for an unproven. These are the kinds of decisions that get front offices fired if they prove to be poor. It was another "trust the board" moment for the Packers. Their evaluation was that Rodgers could handle the job and play at a high level. Within three years, Rodgers delivered a championship.

Many front offices probably would have catered to the fans and the star.Had the Packers done that, it is impossible to say how things would be different. Would Rodgers have felt like he was jerked around and requested a trade? Would the Packers be searching for a quarterback again after Favre retired?

The two decisions the Packers made with Rodgers were franchise-altering. They got both right because they didn't bow to pressure. They trusted their evaluations rather than playing it safe and letting outside forces dictate what they did.

Other Thing)s) of Note:

Hedging Bets:

One thing that sticks out about the Green Bay philosophy is the team's humility. I don't mean that as a character trait. I mean that as the way they manage resources. In the NFL, it seems like the smart general managers are smart enough to know they aren't smart enough to get everything right. The dumb general managers are dumb enough to think they're smart enough to get everything right.

Thompson hedges his bets by consistently trading down in the NFL Draft. He wants a lot of chances to get players. This is because Thompson understands picks are ultimately lottery tickets to some extent. We frequently talk about a player's floor. This is taken to mean that a player with a high floor will definitely be a solid player. That isn't true, though. We might say Leonard Williams has the floor of a quality starter, but it is possible he will be a zero in the NFL. Maybe he will get hurt a lot. Maybe his skills just won't project. What we really mean is that we believe the odds of this happening are low, but anything is possible with these players. The graveyard of failed NFL general managers is filled with people who took high floor players who ultimately proved to be total flops.

NFL teams start out with seven Draft picks each year. In the eleven Drafts Thompson has run as Packers general manager Green Bay has finished selecting 11, 11, 11, 9, 8, 7, 10, 8, 11, 9, and 8 players respectively. If you are scoring at home, that makes it 10 out of 11 times Thompson has finished with more picks than he started and 0 out of 11 he has finished with less picks than he has started.

Why is this important? The website recently took a look at the second round picks from Thompson's first nine years. Here is what they found.

As shown above, in 14 overall picks, Thompson has picked 5 busts and 5 Pro Bowl players. With 36% in both categories, Thompson’s bust rate and Pro Bowl rate are significantly better than the NFL average, which again are 50%/20%.

That is impressive, but rate only matters so much. It is ultimately about the number of players a team gets. If I have two second round picks because I traded down, I only need to go 50% to get a player. If you only have one, you have to go 100%. At the end of the day, we end up in the same place. We both got one player. I just built in extra margin for error. Under the criteria they used, even though Thompson's average was an excellent 36%, he actually found a quality player 88% of the time of the second rounds in which he worked.

If you just go by the measure of drafting a quality player in Round 2, regardless of number of picks, then Thompson’s success rate is 8 of 9, or 88%.

The Draft is an uncertain beast. Even the smartest teams miss on evaluations. Hedging your bets can pay dividends. Take a trade the Packers made in 2007 with the Steelers in the fourth round. They moved down nine slots and got Pittsburgh's fourth and sixth rounders in return. Now they just needed to hit one out of two to get the pick right. They actually missed with the fourth rounder, selecting Allen Barbre, but they found a contributor in the sixth round with the pick they got in Desmond Bishop. Had they stayed put and taken Barbre, they would have lost by not hedging their bets.

There are always exceptions to the rule such as when the Packers moved up for Clay Matthews in 2009. It's just like how playing in free agency worked out in 2006 with Charles Woodson. The Packers pick their spots and do these things sparingly, though, because no team should be too sure of its own evaluations. The team that constantly goes all in is going to get a lot wrong and do a lot of damage to itself.

When the Jets traded up for Shonn Greene in 2009, they gave up three picks. They essentially said they believed so much in their evaluation of Greene that they believed those three picks would turn into one good player, a specificplayer. They were wrong and cost themselves lottery tickets that could have been used to hedge their bets. Instead of taking three shots at finding one player, they decided to use their resources to go for one. That evaluation came on the heels of investing another two picks in Mark Sanchez the day before. In some ways the Jets still haven't recovered from the missteps of that Draft, and they came from overconfidence.

An interesting example of how the Packers hedged their bets came when they gave Rodgers the starting job in 2008. That year they drafted two quarterbacks, Brian Brohm in the second round and Matt Flynn in the seventh. Were the Packers confident in Rodgers? Of course they were. They let Favre go to give Rodgers the job. They just were not so full of themselves to avoid making contingency plans in case they were wrong.

Thompson didn't care about media reports of a controversy or the team lacking faith in Rodgers. He didn't care about Rodgers feeling pressure in camp or having to deal with distractions. Thompson knew that if Rodgers was good enough, he'd play well and take a firm hold of the job. He wanted to have two extra chances in case things didn't pan out. Of the three, Rodgers did turn into a franchise quarterback. Flynn developed into a quality backup. Brohm didn't amount to anything, but the Packers hedged their bets in the second round that year. When we think back to the 2008 second round, nobody remembers it as "the second round when the Packers wasted a pick of Brian Brohm." They remember it as "the second round when the Packers landed Jordy Nelson."

Next team we will examine in this series: New England Patriots