Monday, March 31, 2008

What If: Barry Sanders Was A Packer?

Reflecting back on the career of Brett Favre, I sometimes have to begrudgingly admit that when trying to compare him amongst the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Favre Detractors will often point out he only won one championship in his long career.

First of all, let’s set the record straight. The Packers only won one championship during Favre’s career. As much as the media has hyped Brett Favre as being the only reason the Packers are in existence, reality reminds us that it takes a team to win a Super Bowl.

So, if the Packers could have won another championship, when would it have been? The Sherman tenure had a lot of potential, but even Lee Remmel, long time Packer historian, characterized Mike Sherman as an overachiever. With the exception of 2003, I’m not sure if there was a season that might have come together for a deep playoff run and actually beat the AFC champion Buccanneers (2002) or Patriots (2003).

I like to look back, however, at the early 90s, when the Packers were on the rise. It took them all the way until the 1996 season to finally break through, with powerhouse teams like the 49ers and the Cowboys always thwarting their playoff runs. The Packers were an innovative team with a great coach, a solid defense, a GM with a Midas touch, and of course, a quarterback with all the potential in the world, going through his own growing pains.

Often cited by Favre’s Detractors was the 1989 draft, in which by virtue of winning the last game of the 1988 season, the Packers fell out of the #1 pick overall and missed out winning the Troy Aikman sweepstakes. We all know how that one win affected the draft, and in effect, the future of the Packers. The Cowboys picked Troy Aikman, considered one of the top 20 quarterbacks of all time, and the Packers took perhaps the biggest draft bust of all time, offensive lineman Tony Mandarich.

There are those who propose that had the Packers ended up with Aikman, there would have been no Favre in green and gold, and that the Packers might have been the superior team in the early 90’s, when Aikman was truly in his prime.

I make a counter-contention, and one that doesn’t rely on changing the results of the 1988 season in order for it to happen. Troy Aikman was gone when the Packers went to pick at #2, so there’s no way to get around that. But Troy Aikman wasn’t the biggest piece of that Cowboy dynasty. He was a steady, accurate quarterback, but benefited greatly from perhaps one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history, excellent receivers at both the WR and TE positions, and of course, a fantastic defense.

The Cowboys, as we know, had built a lot of that team from the windfall of players and drafts picks afforded them by the fleecing of the Vikings for Herschel Walker in 1989, and the biggest bonus was the first rounder they got from Minnesota in 1990: running back Emmitt Smith.

Aikman benefited from having one of the greatest running backs (by some accounts, the greatest running back) in the backfield with him, accompanying a solid defense and efficient passing game with a back who started making the Pro Bowl his rookie year, and didn’t stop for six consecutive seasons after that.

Aikman in Green Bay would have had some of the workman-esque (pun intended) corps of Packer running backs Don Majkowski and Brett Favre had to work with until 1995, when Edgar Bennett became the first 1,000 rusher since 1978.

If you’d like to know what that might have looked like, take a look at Aikman’s rookie year with the Cowboys, a year that many started thinking of Aikman as a bust on a horrible team, when he went winless in 11 starts.

So, what is my contention? Instead of thinking about what we couldn’t have had anyway, think about what we could have had. Right behind Tony Mandarich at #2 was Barry Sanders at #3, taken by the Detroit Lions. He was right there for the taking. Now, let’s imagine a Packer team throughout the early 90’s with Barry Sanders as our running back, instead of Brent Fullwood, Vince Workman and Darrell Thompson.

Starting in 1993, the Packers started making the playoffs every year, clearly a team on the rise, with an exciting quarterback on one side of the ball, and an exciting defensive end on the other. During Favre’s first three seasons as the Packers’ QB, he went through some clearly painful growing pains. I still remember the time when fans started applauding when he finally started to throw the ball out of bounds instead of to an opposing player.

But those seasons, including 1995, always saw us match up against an opponent that managed to take us out of the playoffs, usually the Cowboys. Barry Sanders ran for a minimum of 1,100 yards every season from his rookie year on, and during those 1993-1995 seasons, he averaged over 1,400. Imagine that running attack paired with a young Brett Favre at quarterback, taking on the Cowboys on their home artificial turf.

Now, I know what you are saying. Barry Sanders might not have been as effective on grass as much as on the turf he used so well in Detroit. It also would guess that the Packers might have used him differently, too, and not been the same player as he was with the Lions.

I say that Sanders might have been even more effective than he was in Detroit. The Lions’ big mistake was so centralizing their offense completely around his ability to make his own plays, running an ill-fated run-and-shoot offense, knowing he could make a good run with only five blockers in front of him.

Mike Holmgren wasn’t going to break from the offense he knew and trusted…the WCO in its heyday, before defenses learned to play it effectively. Barry Sanders would have been in a pro set more often than a single-back set. If you ever watch a highlight of Barry Sanders, you will see that he utilizes his blockers as well as any of the great running backs (you just don't notice it because he blew by them so quickly). Now, add to that the passing threat of Favre (something the Lions never had), and you would see not only a running back that would gain 1,000 yards in a season, but also catch another 1,000 yards in receiving yards to boot.

Sanders may not have won as many rushing titles as he did, but the screen passes he would have caught from Favre would have been just as electric and effective as any of his runs.

Oh, what might have been. Instead of struggling to play with the big boys for so many playoff seasons in the years before 1996, they might have been the big bully on the block. Imagine the Packers with what most consider a top-ten quarterback of all time teamed up with a consensus top-five running back of all time?

It’s not just a pipe dream. It was all possible, with just one pick in the 1989 draft, and perhaps, the Team of the 90’s would have been same as the Team of the 60’s.

Troy Aikman was a very good quarterback, but he was far from the only cog in the Dallas machine. Had he been selected by the Buccanneers instead of the Cowboys, he might have been the next Tim Couch or Jeff George. And, you give the Packer offense Barry Sanders as a weapon, and not only might we have won the Super Bowl in 1997, we might have won in 1995, too. Maybe, even another before that.

In 1995, despite Edgar Bennett's 1,000-yard season, the Packers finished a woeful 24th in rushing offense. Barry Sanders finished with more rushing yards that season (1,500) than the entire Packer backfield combined. The Packers lost to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game that season by eleven points, but actually led by three going into the fourth quarter. It took Emmitt Smith's running attack in that quarter that put the Cowboys over the top: two touchdowns in the 4th quarter, plus 50 yards to boot.

What if the Packer would have had a running back that could take over a game like that? Troy Aikman sat back as almost an observer in that fourth quarter, as his defense and running back ground it out.

This is to take nothing away from the Super Bowl team of the 90’s that we’ve all grown to love, or from the legacy of Brett Favre, who still numbers among the best of all time at his position.

But, football is a game of inches, and that pick in the 1989 draft was perhaps the difference between a championship team and a dynasty, right here in ol’ Green Bay.


Anonymous said...

Nice article, but VERY painful to consider. I always thought of Sanders and Walter Payton the same way... hated playing them, but loved watching them. Wish we had a "way back" machine to go way back to that draft and grab Sanders. It's also very possible that Sanders would have played past 1998, and the Packers SB runs could have continued into the 2000's.

LosAngelis said...

You know, as much as I salivate over the idea of us having truly hit the jackpot over Sanders, it is monumentally more important that when you get those top 5 picks, you absolutely can't afford to miss.

Mandarich cost us a lot. I mean, he was literally the ONLY miss in the top 5 that year (Aikman, Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders).

When the Packers had the #5 overall a couple years ago, I was a huge advocate for AJ Hawk, not because I thought he was going to be the best linebacker ever, but because he had the least amount of downside. Vince Young, Vernon Davis, D'Brickeshaw Ferguson all had perhaps more "potential", but they also had far more potential to be busts.

Best draft pick THompson has made thus far.