Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Packer Leaders Struggle To Deal With Success

We've seen it a million times in the public eye over the years. Perhaps an actor or rock star, once used to living out of a van and working round the clock to prove himself, suddenly hits it big and is now surrounded by fawning, adoring fans. Instead of trying to impress others, the tables suddenly turn and everyone is trying to impress him. And, in that one instant, many of those people are put in a position of excess, not knowing how to handle it, and perhaps most importantly, losing that edge that got them to where they were in the first place.

And that's the worst part, because with sudden success comes sudden expectations to prove it wasn't a fluke, and why we get to see so many specials on E! covering all the train wrecks that came from such scenarios...young folks ill-equipped for having the world on a platter so soon.

It's this innate element of human nature that made me reflect on how successful the 2007 season was, and the impact it may have had on the leadership of this team. Sometimes, you believe your own hype, and hanging on to what got you there becomes difficult.

Ted Thompson: The Packer GM came into this job with a dark cloud surrounding the former GM, Mike Sherman, who stayed on as head coach in 2005. Thompson began his process of quietly rebuilding the team through the draft, spending cap money from within, and avoiding free agency.

I have always believed that Thompson was given more of a carte blanche than maybe he should have, as the anti-Sherman sentiments lingered among the media and fan base. When Thompson fired Sherman following a 4-12 season in 2005, many fans cheered Thompson as a hero. When Thompson approached his job (and his drafts) in a polar opposite manner as Sherman the GM did, he was praised. Any deficiencies seemed to always come back to a comparison with Mike Sherman, who could always be counted on as a short measuring stick for Thompson.

But, Thompson has been enigmatic over his career as Packer GM, quietly sticking to his plan that the Packers would be reborn through the draft, almost exclusively. His penchant for trading down in the draft to produce record numbers of picks have widely been praised by media and fans (despite not having any more evidence that quantity over quality would be any more successful than Sherman's penchant to trade up).

In four years, Thompson has drafted almost an entire game-day active roster of players, 42 to be exact in a seven round draft.

But last year, a 13-3 record and deep playoff drive had every corner celebrating what appeared to be a complete turnaround for a club that had gone 12-20 the past two seasons. Apparently, Thompson's plan was the perfect one (as the record could attest), and Thompson was awarded the coveted GM of the Year award by the NFL.

Mind you, the Patriots front office might have been more deserving with their 16-0 season, but it is doubtful the NFL wanted to reward a team they just punished by taking away a draft pick for the whole Spygate scandal. Thompson and the Packers were far more the feel-good pick.

But when you get praise mounted on you, as Thompson did last season, it can give you a false sense of security, or a sense that everything that you have done is perfect. I have long stated that Thompson would keep Brett Favre around just long enough to have built up a strong team around Aaron Rodgers, and following last season, Thompson believed that such a team must be in place.

Corey Williams would have cost the Packers a lot of money, and many note that he hasn't exactly been a barn burner in Cleveland. But, he was a starter on the team last year, a team that was far more stout against the run and generated a far better pass rush than the 2008 version. When Thompson traded away Corey Williams for a draft pick, he revealed what is becoming one of his notable faults: he places a lot of faith in his draft picks. Justin Harrell, the 2007 #1 overall pick, was expected to come off an injury-plagued rookie season and take his place in the rotation for Williams.

Would Williams have been the difference this year? That is a question that will go answered, and certainly, the impact of losing Cullen Jenkins to the IR can't be lost, either. But this line was having problems long before Jenkins was hurt, and I can't help but think that Thompson believed that he could trade away a starter and that his draft picks would be able to pick up the slack.

As of right now, the only player along the line making a semi-consistent impact is Aaron Kampman, who was a Sherman pick, not a Thompson pick.

Later in the summer, the Packers spurned a request from retired quarterback Brett Favre to return to the team. What followed was a two-month long debacle that centered on one thing: the Packers did not want him to return to the team.

Yes, you can make all the usual points: Favre had retired, it was his own fault; Favre was old and having problems in cold weather, Favre was acting like a diva and deserved to be punished. But, Thompson also made a clear statement: this team is ready to move on with a young quarterback. Thompson believed, especially following the successes of 2007, that the running game would be able to establish itself with Ryan Grant, that he had built a stable of receivers that would be the envy of the NFL, and that his young interior offensive line now had enough competition to produce a solid front five.

And, as Mike McCarthy stated, this team was built upon its defense. The pressure won't be on Rodgers anyway.

Now, I'm not saying Thompson should have kept Favre, or that I even wish he'd be back in Green and Gold right now. But, I do believe that Thompson severely whiffed on two major assumptions:

* Thompson underestimated the intangible impact Favre had on this team. The running game that finally emerged last season was as much a product of a highly successful passing attack that forced defenses to play back. He had a leadership quality that was special, one that allowed him to take a game on his back, as he had hundreds of times, and take the glory or the blame at the end. Favre made the team around him better, as we've seen him do with the Jets this season. he was and is a presence.

* Thompson overestimated the completeness of the team he would be placing around Rodgers. The offensive line continued to be shuffled around all preseason and the first part of the season, trying to find a competent starting five. The running game was all but absent the first part of the season, and continues to be an inconsistent part of the offense.

But most of all, the team that was "built on the defense" was built on awfully shaky ground.

Thompson felt confident that this team would continue the success it had in 2007, with little to no improvements made upon it, and subtracting two key veteran starters. But a charmed year of health in 2007 saw a return to a typical year of injuries, and now, the Packers are looking at a team that seems to need upgrades at multiple positions for 2009...which is ironic as Thompson has drafted 42 players over the last four years.

Mike McCarthy: The Packers head coach was hired in 2006 to replace the recently deposed Mike Sherman, who limped his way through a 4-12 season. It was pretty clear that Sherman was done, frustrated. He had spent a season trying to win games with a record number of injuries and starting street free agents on both sides of the ball. When McCarthy came in, it was clear this was a starting point near rock bottom, and the only way to go was up.

McCarthy was well-regarded by fans his first two seasons. Even in his first season, when he put up a mere 4-8 record through 12 games, we liked his hard-nosed approach, a gruff exterior that seemed to be infectious on his players. He had a knack for working with young players, and had a no-nonsense, straight-forward approach in his press conferences that gave you confidence even when the team was losing.

He possessed a knack for making between-games adjustments that I then called "spit-and-wire" and now call "McCarthyism". Admittedly, when you are rebuilding, you aren't going to have all-pros at every position, and McCarthy did his part to finagle the players, formations, assignment, and schemes to fit the personnel and make them as successful as they could be.

When it was clear that the Zone Blocking Scheme wasn't effective on its own, he began introducing sweeps and pulling guards into the running game, piecemealing together his own scheme. When the pass protection continued to fail, he put tight ends in the backfield, ran Favre out of the shotgun 30+ times a game, and introduced a five WR set.

They weren't fixes for the long haul, but fixes that I respected instead of relying on the plan or scheme, waiting for the players to fit it. He was willing to adjust the scheme to fit what talent he had (which at times, wasn't much).

Following the 2007 season, McCarthy was given a lot of praise. His gruff and ornery persona became somewhat "lovable", and his short leash of an initial three-year contract was given a hefty extension over this past offseason. McCarthy won the fan vote for Coach of the Year, and finished in second place behind Bill Bellichek in nearly every other such award. McCarthy was regarded as an up-and-comer.

But, perhaps even starting with the Favre debacle this offseason, we started seeing a different Mike McCarthy, one that bordered on a level of arrogance at times. He heaped praise upon his general manager, Ted Thompson, took a major role in anointing Aaron Rodgers and, apparently, letting Brett Favre know exactly where he stood.

Like Thompson, McCarthy also seemed to believe that this team was solid and set on both sides of the ball, and no longer needed Favre's humongous ego and leader to take the reins.

As the season has gone on, repeated mistakes have plagued the team: penalties have crippled the team at times, and has only shown marginal improvement from the beginning of the year. A lack of commitment to the ground game. A lack of consistency on the part of both lines. Giving up huge plays, both through the air and on the ground.

The difference this year is that these problems aren't getting fixed. In the past, McCarthy would figure out some way to solve the problems in between games. This year, McCarthy is sounding more and more like Ray Rhodes, telling reporters that he'll have to "go look at the tape" and giving us cliches like "pad level" and "cleaning up our house".

When asked if he sensed the team had a lack of consistency, he responded, "I think our team has been very consistent when we win."

Being the Packers have fallen to a 5-8 record, it is pretty clear such consistency is rather inconsistent.

McCarthy is coming off more and more frustrated at press conferences (kind of reminds me of the 1998 Mike Holmgren), and such is the cost of high expectations. Sometimes, once you've finally created something successful, you are afraid to mess or tinker with it anymore. It's possible that McCarthy had such success last season that he's been hesitant to get in and get his hands dirty with the team in trying to fix the problems. Is he more hands-off this season than he's been in the past? Are we seeing that infectiousness can-do attitude rubbing off on his players like it used to?

If McCarthy is going to be successful in 2009, he needs to find what made him successful before 2008.

Aaron Rodgers: I hate to bring up Rodgers in an article like this, but I think it also fits into the theme of how early success can rob you have some of the hunger you have to prove yourself when you are struggling.

Rodgers was anointed the starter in a chaotic offseason that essentially saw Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy commit to him over Brett Favre. Rodgers handled that situation as well as anyone, with humility and the attitude that he was going to win over his teammates and fans with his play.

He had a chip on his shoulder. He was going to prove himself to everyone, even the GM and coach that selected him over a Lambeau Legend.

And, Rodgers did. He led the Packers into the bye week with a 4-3 record, himself playing with a scintillating 98.7 passing efficiency rating, and only having thrown 4 interceptions. He threw for twelve touchdowns and ran for another four.

At that point, with seven starts under his belt, Ted Thompson rewarded Rodgers with a surprising $65 million contract extension, with $20 million guaranteed.

No one appeared more surprised than Aaron Rodgers, who apparently thanked Ted Thompson profusely for the extension.

“Just to be able to play the way I did starting the season definitely helped,” Rodgers said. “But this was still a little unexpected, so I appreciate the commitment they’ve made to me. I still had a year and a half on my deal left, but this definitely means a lot to me that they’re saying I’m going to be the guy, and not just for the next two years, I’m going to be the guy for the future.”

Since that signing, however, Rodgers has struggled more. The team has gone 1-5, and while many will tell you that Rodgers isn't the reason they are losing, he's not the reason they are winning, either.

The early reward for a short sample of play may have had an impact on Rodgers. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who had a chip on his shoulder, who felt he had to prove himself to the world. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who wasn't afraid to sneak for a first down or a touchdown. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who had to fight and struggle and claw to get out of Brett Favre's shadow.

Does that make me sadistic? To a degree, I suppose, but I think that such pressure was making him a better quarterback. There's no better way to quiet your critics than to prove them wrong, and that is what Rodgers was doing.

Even in this 1-5 slide, Rodgers continues to put up good statistics. He's still throwing at an 85.1 efficiency rating over that time. However, as I said many times when people were clamoring for a more efficient quarterback that threw less interceptions, efficiency and not throwing interceptions doesn't always equate to winning games.

One thing that Favre did when the running game or the defense faltered is he often took the game on his shoulders to win or lose. And, in essence, that is what he did...he won the game or he lost the game, at least in the eyes of many. But he did it because he didn't play it safe...he took chances that were often risky, but plays he knew he could make. Because of that, he often shouldered the blame in a loss.

That's the difference now...people are going out of their way to say that Rodgers isn't the reason the Packers are losing, because he has a mere 11 interceptions and a 92.1 efficiency rating. But, he also isn't the reason they are winning.

In the last game against the Texans, the Packers had ten third down conversions. For the game, Rodgers had a typically efficient game, with a 104.2 rating. But on those third downs, Rodgers went 2/7 for 13 yards, no first downs, one interceptions, and one sack. For those of you calculating at home, that is a 0.0 efficiency rating.

Other than a late drive against the hapless Lions in Week 2, Rodgers has been unable to generate a fourth quarter comeback, either.

This isn't a cut on Rodgers, just a simple statement of fact: Rodgers is not a quarterback who can take a game on his shoulders and win it for you. He is a human quarterback who needs the pieces in place around him for him to excel.

The fact that Ted Thompson, again, was overly loyal to one of his first-round picks and rewarded him after only seven games with the biggest contract on the team was a surprising call, and one that seems to have taken some of the edge off of Rodgers' game.

After all, if you've been given $65 million and the keys to the offense, what more do you have to prove?

Rodgers can be and should be a good quarterback in the NFL. He has the accuracy, but he doesn't have the moxie to be a Tom Brady, a Joe Montana, or a Brett Favre. He's a good quarterback who, right now, doesn't have the players around him to translate his efficiency into wins.

And that is why success is often more difficult to deal with than adversity. Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure. Let's hope that this season's adversity brings about a renaissance of success in 2009, and that our leadership regains the hunger that made them successful to begin with.


Aaron said...

Great post C.D. One quibble - Corey Williams wasn't a starter last year until Jolly got hurt. But you're right that they could have used him as the talent dried up on the defensive line this year...

C.D. Angeli said...

Granted, Aaron...and thanks for the correction. I always saw him as a major part of what was a pretty solid DL rotation the first half of 2007 (before those injuries to Cole and Jolly).

Funny how far the line has fallen, though, if you consider that Jolly, Cole, Kampman, and Jenkins were all still here.

Aaron said...

Agreed. It's clear now (as it always is when looking back) that banking on Harrell improving and KGB coming back to pre-injury form on top of losing Jenkins is what did the defense in this season.

Franklin Hillside said...

No one would have agreed he was worth $6.whatever he made with the franchise tag.

The misjudgment of the skill level of the LBs contributed to this downfall as well. As you said, Aaron, misjudgments are easy to see after the fact.

C.D. Angeli said...

Williams signed a 6-year contract with $38 mil, with $16 mil guaranteed.

With the cap space we had, and if TT would have cleared another $10M by cutting KGB over the offseason instead of waiting until the middle of the season, I think CW would have fit fine. In fact, he might have been willing to take less to stick around, and TT would have made it a front-loaded, cap-friendly deal.

But I agree, TT assumed Hawk was going to break out, Barnett wouldn't regress, and Poppinga would get better. Frankly, I think Chillar has been our best LB this season, and that's not good given how much we invested in the other three.