Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Need vs. BPA: Can We Afford a Luxury Pick Again?

It’s happened before, it may well happen again.

Last year, Ted Thompson spent his first draft pick on a position that many would say was rather stacked. Jordy Nelson added to a squad already stocked with Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Ruvell Martin was considered by many to be a luxury pick. Furthermore, the first pick ignored what appeared to be severe needs at running back, quarterback, tight end, and defensive line.

This year, with the switch to the 3-4 defense, many pundits are predicting that the Packers are going to take one of the DE/LB hybrids, almost all of whom project to an OLB spot. Everette Brown, Brian Orapko, and Aaron Maybin are common names being touted for the #9 pick, seemingly good fits for the 3-4, and good talents all around.

But the question, like Nelson last year, comes with whether or not it is wise to draft at a position at which you are already “loaded”. Of course, since the linebackers were often cited as the most underperforming position group last season, we might question whether or not the linebacking coprps is indeed loaded.

I would guess that there was a drop in performance that somehow related to the apparent schism that rose between several of the defensive coaches, including linebacking coach Winston Moss. I often wondered why the guy who was the official assistant head coach would be the coach of the least productive unit on the field, but it is pretty clear that ousted defensive coordinator Bob Sanders may have contributed to it.

So, I offer that the defense is likely better than last year showed, and that our linebacking corps is as talented as they showed in 2007. In the hands of Dom Capers, I think our defensive players are going to be put in better positions to make plays, as well as having more clear leadership and communication.

So, looking at the players we presently have, do we really see adding another OLB as a need?

Nick Barnett
AJ Hawk
Brandon Chillar
Brady Poppinga
Aaron Kampman
Desmond Bishop
Jeremy Thompson

All of these players are signed and paid some good coin, but the transition to a 3-4 has placed some of the contributions of these players into some question. Can Kampman convert to a rushing linebacker role? Can Hawk take on the responsibilities of an inside backer?

Problem is, with these guys (and other players like Havner) and the coaching of Dom Capers, you have the think that the talent has to work out somehow. And, if the Packers are going to move forward with a hybrid 3-4/4-3, they likely won’t need to keep more than these seven on the roster.

Do you add a high draft pick to this group, simply because he’s the best talent on the board at the time? Do we take Everette Brown and hope he can take the other OLB spot opposite Kampman? Where does that leave our remaining four starting-level linebackers?

It seems like a luxury pick, but it feeds into the long polarized debate: do you draft for need or do you take the best player available? Like most issues, I like to find a middle ground: I think you should draft the best player available at a position of need.

And, there’s no shortage of needed positions that we could expend a first round pick on: TE, OT, DE, DT, CB…but I don’t see linebacker as one of them, especially if we are going to be transitioning slowly.

Which position seems most needy? I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree that not only is our defensive line shaky for the traditional 4-3, it is even more disjointed when switching to the 3-4 scheme. Ryan Pickett is the only name of note at NT, and most agree he’s far from the ideal stout player needed at the position. Cullen Jenkins, Michael Montgomery, and Johnny Jolly are all candidates on the outside, but Jenkins is coming off of injury and both Jolly and Montgomery are role players at best.

You would guess that if B.J. Raji is still on the board at #9 that Thompson would swoop in take him, as he is the best true NT in the draft and can play in both defensive schemes seamlessly. The chances of Raji still being there don’t appear likely at this juncture.

So, other than a bunch of quarterbacks and wide receivers, you would think the decision comes down to the aforementioned OLB hybrid players, Andre Smith (OT), Tyson Jackson (DE), Malcolm Jenkins (CB). The idea of trading back to pick up Michael Oher (OT) or Brandon Pettigrew (TE) isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Thompson, either.

But after the Justin Harrell selection, it isn’t hard to imagine that Thompson might take a reach for a player he really wants at the point, too. Tyson Jackson, an overall five-technique DE might be the ticket for swapping back a couple of slots in exchange for another third round pick. But, he might be the smartest pick even at #9, even if no one else might take him until pick 15.

Again, you balance that need pick versus the best talent available.

But, I am hoping that we do not continue to feed a rich position while starving another one that is in need. While I am certain, like Jordy Nelson, that any of the OLB guys available would be truly Packer People and solid players, there comes a point where you need to put you best talent in the neediest of places. I’m hoping for Raji if he is available, and Jackson, Smith, or Jenkins after that.

And, dare I say it, if we trade down, we trade down.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Results of Draft Board Poll: Everette Brown

You're the Man with the Plan in the draft room when pick #9 comes up. The following players are the top players still available when the Packers pick. Who do you take?

Aaron Maybin, DE/LB
4 (5%)
Andre Smith, OT
14 (20%)
Everette Brown, DE/LB
18 (26%)
Tyson Jackson, DE/DT
10 (14%)
Michael Oher, OT
6 (8%)
Malcolm Jenkins, CB
5 (7%)
Trade down
10 (14%)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Could The 3-4 Follow The Path of the ZBS?

Mike McCarthy threw me for a little bit of a loop at Fan Fest this past weekend, a loop that almost made my heart sink. While sitting next to Ted in an interview with Larry McCarren, he was asked if he had any concerns about the switch to the new 3-4 scheme.

“Nah,” he said, “I expect it to go as well as the Zone Blocking Scheme did.”

I repeated this to myself, as well as the Zone Blocking Scheme did. This raised a couple of red flags for me in regards to how this transition may be taking place. The first and foremost concern has to be whether or not McCarthy has a clear, objective view of how successful his zone blocking scheme really is.

Of course, he’s not going to come out, at Fan Fest, following a 6-10 collapse last year, and publicly claim that the Zone Blocking Scheme was a miserable failure. And, it isn’t a miserable failure, though sometimes, you wish it was.

If it was a failure, it would be far easier to change it up and move on. But the ZBS has been a struggle, an ongoing work in progress, a search for positives amidst a flood of concerns. The Packers don’t even run a pure ZBS, utilizing sweeps and pulling guards…compensating for the lack of success the pure ZBS showed early on.

It is now 2009, and we are entering Year Four of the ZBS. Draft picks have had time to mature and develop, and the scheme has had more than enough time to ferment. You must remember we are now only five years removed from perhaps one of the most dominant offensive lines and running games the Packers’ organization has ever had.

Remember the U-71? Big, bruising, straight-ahead blocking that opened holes for a special runner named Ahman Green…a relative unknown before being acquired in trade from Seattle, and went on to become one of the best backs in Packer history.

The problem with McCarthy’s comment is it makes me think that the switch to the 3-4 isn’t going to be a monumental success or a complete failure…just a continuous mediocre process complete with catchphrases like “pad level” and “gap control”.

Since it was Mike who brought up the comparison, here is my list of parallels between the ZBS and 3-4 that I am nervous about.

The schematic change is a reactionary move made to a once-successful squad that had an off year due to injuries and departures.


As stated above, the Packers’ offensive line was second to none in the first half of this decade. Ahman Green rushed for 1000 yards every season from 2000 to 2004, and at its pinnacle, rushed for 1,883 yards in 2003, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Mike Flanagan claimed that they would come to the line of scrimmage and tell the defense exactly what play they were running and where Green would be running it. And then, they would execute it successfully.

This was a squad that didn’t need a lot of tinkering, just proper replacement of parts.

In 2004, there was a slight drop-off (the rushing game finished 10th overall in the NFL), but was still one of the more respected and feared in the NFL.

Amidst all the furor of the Mike Sherman demotion and Ted Thompson’s cap clearing efforts, the running game all but disappeared in 2005. But, this was not due to the scheme no longer working. Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were let go in free agency and not adequately replaced. Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and Tony Fisher all suffered injuries. The offensive line was rightfully seen as a concern. While it did fall to a bottom 10 unit in 2005, it wasn't the scheme that made it so.

However, when new coach Mike McCarthy entered 1265, he made the call to switch to a trendy scheme that would require a skill set that wasn't exactly the trademark of the guys on the roster. The media and fans clamored for a free agent or an otherwise upgrade in talent, particularly among the guards. Instead of replacing the parts and continuing what had worked previously, the entire scheme was changed.


In a similar vein, the Packers’ defense wasn’t all that bad before last year. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’ve been critical of how the defense has played and been utilized for several seasons now. But the stats don’t make the case that it has been a poor defense.

Starting in 2006, McCarthy’s first year, the Packers have fielded some pretty respectable defensive units. In 2006, the Packers finished with the 12th-ranked overall defense in yards allowed, but 25th in points allowed. In 2007, however, the Packers improved those rankings to 11th overall (yards) and 6th overall (points).

If there were concerns going into 2008, defense wasn’t likely to be one of them. Oh, certainly, we were a little thin on the defensive line and we hoped that we would find a safety ready to step up, but this was a strong defense. In fact, McCarthy stated in August that he wasn’t too concerned about any potential struggles Rodgers might face at the quarterback position because “this team is predicated on the defense”.

Well, we all know how that worked out. A free-fall to 20th (yards) and 22nd (points) and the derision of a fan base praying for Rodgers to outperform Brett Favre in New York, repeatedly let down by his defense.

But was this a schematic issue, or like the offensive line in 2005, a squad hurt by departures and injuries?

The departure of Corey Williams might seem insignificant, but as thin as the defensive line quickly became, Williams would likely have been a rather welcome teammate last year. The cutting of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila also was a loss of veteran leadership along that line.

But the injuries? Count them up: Atari Bibgy, Nick Barnett, and Cullen Jenkins were all critically important players out much of the year with injuries. Al Harris missed a series of games mid-season. Players expected to provide depth also missed extended time: Aaron Rouse, Justin Harrell, Kenny Pettway, and Jeremy Thompson. Three other starters, AJ Hawk, Ryan Pickett, and Charles Woodson, each played through the season with painful injuries that, at times, affected their play on the field.

But, even more important than that, was the coaching schism that appeared to be dividing the coaching staff and the players. With the elimination of Bob Sanders and much of that staff, it would appear that such a schism should now be over.

So, again, the problem with last season’s defense wasn’t with the scheme, but like the ZBS, with missing players from the previous season’s strong squad.

The 3-4, like the ZBS, is a scheme predicated on the talent available, not the other way around.

Like the Zone Blocking Scheme, the Packers are implementing a scheme without having the talent on the roster that traditionally makes that scheme successful. This is a major coaching concern on my part: good coaches look at the talent that they have on the team and tailor their schemes to maximize what they can do. And this is how schemes end up getting started.


The Zone Blocking Scheme, made up of typically smaller offensive linemen, is designed to maximize the talent of "tweeners". When it was popularized by the Denver Broncos in the late 1990's, it was in defiance of the status quo in the NFL at the time.

In the 70's, 80's and early 90's, the typical offensive line called for huge fact, I can recall article after article citing how much bigger offensive linemen were getting each year. These huge hogs opened the running lanes for the power running backs and provided protection for the expanse of the passing game over this time period.

Bigger was better. If you were an offensive lineman coming out of college in the 1980's and you were less than 300 pounds, you better be planning on eating a lot of KFC and spending a lot of time in the gym. By the mid-90's, you needed to be pushing 320.

Perhaps the apex of this was the dynasty Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990's: the huge offensive lineman opening the door for Emmitt Smith, giving oodles of time for Troy Aikman to pass the ball.

But Mike Shanahan found something to do with all those not-so-huge guys and make it work. He
implemented a scheme that didn't require huge, sustained blocks, pulling guards, or anything else that was dependent on having more mass than the guy in front of you. It was simple. Quickly block all one direction, have the extra lineman lay down a cut block, and instruct your running backs to aim one direction and make one cut.

Thus, the zone blocking scheme was born: a scheme born out of necessity, given the talent that the Broncos had. Shanahan found a scheme that worked with the lighter, less massive lineman that he had. He coached them well so they could execute it consistently, and utilized running backs that also had the particular gifts to make it work: they didn't have to have Barry Sanders' elusiveness or immense power. They just had to find the crease, make one cut, and keep running.

But, the Packers (like several other teams, including the Falcons) looked at the scheme and felt that if they implemented it, they would be able to take street free agent running backs and turn them into All-Pros. But, they didn't have the talent on the roster that was be considered prototypical for running it. Chad Clifton has struggled with the ZBS, and the guys drafted by Ted Thompson are still struggling to turn this unit into anything near as dominating as the Broncos unit.

So ineffective was the ZBS in its first season, that Coach McCarthy started running a hybrid with pulling guards and extra blockers in the backfield, plays he continues to run today.


The rebirth of the 3-4 is, in essence, a mirror of the ZBS, if not in response to it. When most NFL teams phased out the 3-4 in the early 80's, it was because of the size of the offensive linemen and the opening up of the passing game. Defenses needed to keep their lines large, but also able to place more pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers needed to spend less time as regular rushers and more time in run support and in coverage.

And so it went for over a decade. Defensive linemen also grew, and defensive ends grew more athletic. Rushing specialists were invented, as guys like Charles Haley and KGB became disruptive presences on third down.

But, as offenses began to use the WCO, it took away the advantages those prototypical 4-3 linemen had over traditional offensive schemes. The misdirections a West Coast Offense used took defensive linemen out of the play. Add into that the Broncos use of the the WCO and the ZBS, andthe traditional 4-3 needed to adjust. Defenses looked for ways to get their front four smaller, more athletic, and the word "tweener" began to creep more and more into Draft Day discussions.

The 3-4 was adopted by several teams as a way to create that way to battle the short passing game and zone blocking schemes adopted by more and more teams, but oftentimes, it was done by teams who had the talent already on the roster. The need for stout defensive lineman took those rush specialists and moved them back to the linebacker roles.

It makes sense that if you have that kind of talent on your team that you would make such a change to a 3-4. The transition would be relatively painless, because you are taking the talent you have and maximizing it with the scheme. But to simply switch to a scheme without having the talent places the cart before the horse.

I can't help but concern myself with the number of soft spots we have on our roster. Aaron Kampman is going to be out of position at OLB. The other linebackers are going to have to figure out who can play the stout run stoppers on the inside versus the power rusher at the other OLB spot. Where does AJ Hawk fit? How about Nick Barnett?

And the line has Ryan Pickett trying to play the very stout NT position when he was, by most appraisals, not nearly as stout as he should have been in a 4-3 last year. And nearly all the other DE's are too light for the needed size that a typical 3-4 DE will need.

If you are glass-half-full, that the Packers will have a lot of evaluation to do and try to get everyone in the right spots to make this scheme work. If you are glass-half-empty, you could almost make the case that the Packers need to upgrade (or, perhaps for a better term, switch) the talent at nearly every position spot along the front seven to make the scheme work at its best.

And if you are in the middle, you have to admit, one way or another, the 3-4 scheme is far from any guarantee of success if the talent isn't already there.

We can't count on Ted Thompson for any infusion of talent to accelerate the scheme change.


This isn't necessarily a cut on Thompson, but it is quite simply a matter of fact. If Thompson isn't going to break the bank to bring in Steve Hutchenson to help the transition along the offensive line, he certainly isn't going to break it to bring in Chris Canty or probably even Julius Peppers.

I wonder how McCarthy feels about that sometimes. I mean, he makes a switch to a new scheme that really requires some specific talent to make it work, and he gets nothing more than a slough of mid-round draft picks to work with instead of veteran talent and leadership.

We saw it with the ZBS. After the cap-clearing year in which Rivera and Wahle were replaced with guys named Whittaker and Klemm, the Packers did not invest in any veteran talent to come in during 2006, instead bringing in three linemen in the draft, and supplementing with more draft picks in subsequent seasons.

This is not to say that building through the draft is a bad idea. Certainly, stockpiling good players is a smart way to go. But when you are trying to build towards a schematic change, it is a good idea to have some folks who have had experience playing in it at an NFL level, even if they are backups. The Packers have been shuttling Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll around for three seasons now, and while the three can't be classified a collective failure, neither are they solid successes.

Mediocrity. Rookie offensive linemen usually take three years to even see if they will even develop into NFL starters, often even first-rounders. Last year, it appeared that had he not been injured in the preseason, a rookie taken in the sixth round (Josh Sitton)would have started over all the veterans previously drafted at guard.


Now, as McCarthy announced his switch to the 3-4, I should have known better than to think he was going to invest in a player like Canty or Burnett to come in and provide an immediate infusion of talent that would accelerate the transition. As huge names turned into big names, and big names turned into sort-of-familar names, Thompson has continued to lead us to believe that there will be no immediate veteran upgrades.

This means we will likely be looking at the draft again to get any scheme-specific talent. Listening to Thompson speak at Fan Fest, he emphasized that he felt that the guys on the roster should be able to play within any scheme.

"Football players are football players at the end of the day," Thompson said. "The 3-4 is a basic scheme alignment in our base defense but our good football players will be good football players in this. That's the whole thing, whether it's drafting or free agency or trades or retaining your own guys, you just want to get as many good football players as you can and that will take care of itself."

If you accept that teams adopted the ZBS or the 3-4 defense to maximize the talent they had on their teams, then you have to question Thompson's statements just a little bit. Pickett is a good player, but is likely to be exposed when you ask him to essentially do the job of two men in the middle. The flaws of AJ Hawk and Brady Poppinga have to be considered when placing them in a new role that might make them more prone to glaring errors.

Thompson also mentioned that he doesn't want to sign players just to simply throw them on a pile, just to say he has more players. This must mean that in the free-agent pool, there were no players worth the money that would then be a "good football player" for this team.

It means that the infusion of talent will likely come from the draft. And we only have one first round draft pick, so you can probably guess that we will need to wait several seasons before we know if the mid-round picks will even develop into that upgrade of talent.

The Dom Capers Factor

The difference, some folks have mentioned, is that we have Dom Capers. And, perhaps even more importantly, we do not have Bob Sanders. And I will be the first to admit the following:

* From what it is looking like, the Sanders-led coaching staff last year was splintered and not at all a good work environment.

* Dom Capers brings instant credibility, and if you are going to be transitioning to a 3-4, I can't tell you how happy I am that we at least have a veteran coach with head coaching experience.

That stated, we also have to use caution and remind ourselves that Dom Capers is not God. We have no idea how well Winston Moss and Capers will get along. We have no idea if Nick Collins and Tramon Williams are going to raise a huge stink about their contracts. And we have no idea of all the players will return at full strength from injuries, or not be suspended for having a ton of codeine in their car, or not get suddenly old over the offseason.

Yes, it sounds pessimistic on my part, but that's not my point. Look, I love the Packers, like McCarthy, and am excited about Dom Capers. But I'm not excited about a scheme switch that seems trendy and that we have to shoehorn our present talent into positions, hoping it works out.

And if it works out like the ZBS, as McCarthy suggests, we may be waiting several years before we see whether or not the 3-4 actually was a good idea.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Which Season is the Aberration?

You often hear the debate going on, when it comes to the success of the Thompson/McCarthy regime, that 2008 was an aberration in the direction of the team. A misstep, if you will. Others point out that perhaps 2007 was the season out of character for the Packers, that in all actuality, the Packers were never and are not that great of a team…certainly not one that should regularly be going deep into the playoffs.

So, I thought I would invite some discussion in these lean weeks between Fan Fest and the draft…what year is the most likely aberration of the Thompson regime?

2005: Thompson’s record without 2005: 27-21

There are many folks who would definitely say that the 2005 season was a skewed poor year in the middle of a lot of success by the Packers. Face it…the Packers went 10-6 in 2004 and 8-8 in 2006. That 4-12 record in the middle does appear out of place.

And there was a lot of reasons for it. The decision to keep Mike Sherman on as coach was an ill-devised one, and likely set up a season of divisiveness. Sherman already had his legs cut out from under him when he was demoted, and was kept on as a lame duck until August. By most accounts, Sherman was pretty peeved by how he was treated, and contributed to the chasm between the coach and GM.

And, the year was a cap-clearing year, with what Ron Wolf called “NFL-E talent and stumblebums” brought in off the street to fill roster spots vacated by high-priced free agents allowed to leave. The slate was being cleared for the new regime to come in and essentially start with a skeleton crew from the old regime.

I remember doing a study of number of games missed by starters due to injury, and while that data is lost due to a server crash, 2005 was historic in the number of players who ended up on the IR.

If 2005 is the aberration, the Thompson tenure looks pretty good…a winning record over the remaining three years, all of which are the ones coached by Mike McCarthy.

2007: Thompson’s record without 2007: 18-30

As the 2008 season rolled along, it is quite possible that this 13-3 season that brought so many accolades to the team might have just been a blessing of staying healthy, a string of good luck and momentum, and strong leadership from a veteran quarterback in his swan song.

Thompson, by his own admission, suggested that the team may have over-performed that year, and that they had overestimated the talent on that squad.

The packers sent five players to the Pro Bowl that season, all of them holdovers from the Sherman regime, and led by quarterback Brett Favre, who had one of his most productive seasons of his long and storied career. And around him, all the pieces seemed to fall into place. But there were issues all along that season. In the beginning of the 2007, the Packers couldn’t find a running back, and relied excessively on the pass. The offensive line continued to struggle. Defensive gaffes were commonplace, and yet the Packers still managed to start out with a 10-1 record.

It was around that time, however, that Ryan Grant emerged as a running threat and the defense seemed to stiffen. Despite what would be considered improvements to an already very good team, the Packers finished 3-2, then went 1-1 in the playoffs.

Some might say that the wins the Packers had early on were meeting good teams at opportune times. The win over the eventual 11-5 Chargers was in the middle of their 0-3 road slump. The win over the eventual Super Bowl winning New York Giants was a far different team than the one they faced in the playoffs. The only other team the Packers faced all season that finished with a winning record was the Dallas Cowboys, who beat them.

After Game 10 of 2007, Brett Favre was on pace to throw over 625 passing attempts for the season, a rate that would have broken his own personal record and been the fourth highest in NFL history…and the Packers were winning. Following that game, Ryan Grant found his footing and became a feature back. But as the offense became more balanced, so did the win-loss record.

So, was the 2007 season a Favre-led sugar high that fizzled out at the end? Was the 4-3 record to finish the season more indicative of the talent of the team than the 10-1 start?

If so, the Packers may be little more than a mediocre team. Take out 2007, and this team has never finished with a winning season under Thompson’s watch.

2008: Thompson’s record without 2008: 25-23

Considering 2008 as the aberration has a much different feel to it than 2005 or 2007, because we’re not just dropping the lowest or highest number from a set of data. But if we do remove 2008, it does make us look harder at the trends from 2005-1007.

And in those years, you will see a very definite trend of improvement. 4 wins to 8 wins to 13 wins. Even if that 13-win season was slightly inflated, it still demonstrates that was a team on the rise.

Can we remove 2008 from consideration? Time will answer that better than me. It’s easier to look back on 2005 as a cap-busting year filled with inner conflict, but it wasn’t so easy at the time. In fact, if you were posting on any forums in those days, much discussion was had over whether or not 2005 was a season committed to winning or a season committed to gain draft position.

But, there are some similarities that 2008 and 2005 share that give cause for consternation. Winston Moss implied at Fan Fest (hattip: CHTV) that the Sanders defensive coaching staff was having a lot of their own inner turmoil that may have spilled over onto the field. And certainly, the injury bug hadn’t hit the Packers this hard since the 2005 season, when it seemed nearly everyone was on the IR by the end of the year. 2008 wasn’t as bad as 2005 when it comes to injuries, but it was far worse than the charmed year of 2007.

So, if 2007 may have been slightly inflated, it is just as easy to hypothesize that 2008 was deflated, and that a healthy team charged up by a coaching staff free of infighting will put this team right back into double digit wins in 2009…back on track with what we saw the previous three seasons.

No aberration at all: Thompson’s overall record: 31-33

Obviously, the idea that any season is an aberration is abhorrent to those who worship at the Altar of Statistics. After all, stats are facts, and facts never lie.

But if there were no such things as aberrations, there would be no need for such concepts as standard deviations to communicate how inconsistent the data set is, nor would be ever talk about how data could be skewed.

And when it comes to skewing data, the NFL has a system in effect that is designed to create parity. As a side effect, there are often “rags to riches” stories each year, as well as “penthouse to outhouse” sagas.

The draft, in place for decades, was designed to reward poorer teams and penalize the powerful teams. However, it was a slow, methodical process that created decades of dynasties and lovable losers.

The advent of free agency and salary caps, however, sent that process into overdrive. Not only did the best teams draft late, but their best players would be pillaged by teams flashing money at them. Poor teams could buy their way back into respectability. It no longer took years and years to build a winner or gradually decline…it began happening from season to season.

So, the Packers’ Cinderella season could be just as legitimate as last year’s dramatic disappointment. After all, the design is to create parity, which I don’t think any other league in the world has created as effectively as the NFL.

While many of the Statistic Idolaters will accept this willingly, it does pose an uncomfortable feeling for next season: if we had three years of improvement, does that mean we are in for three years of decline before we rise again?

2009 is already somewhat of a watershed year for the Packers. New defensive schemes, the “five-year plan” typical of NFL leadership should be coming to fruition,and several draft classes are able to be legitimately evaluated. The idea of finding what direction this team is heading from this point out is also under the microscope, and if last year was the aberration in the plan...the small detour on the way to the promised land.

Or, we'll find out if two seasons ago was merely a lucky strike, and 6-10 wins is what we should be expecting from here on out.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Defensive Line Has Reason to Feel Defensive...

Just read Dan Arkush's bit from PFW, and have to admit it gave me cause for concern as we get closer to the draft. The thinness has to be acknowledged by even the most optimistic of Packer fans.

For starters, the Packers currently don’t have an experienced 3-4 end on the roster. All three projected D-line starters — DEs Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly and NT Ryan Pickett — enter the offseason waving red flags, with Jenkins expected to miss much of the offseason while recuperating from ankle surgery, Jolly facing a potential league suspension stemming from his arrest last summer for possession of codeine, and Pickett coming off a campaign in which he clearly appeared to wear down late in the season.

Now, if I look at the Packers scheme change from the most simplistic point of view, it almost makes sense. If you are short at defensive line, but have four decent linebackers, switch to a 3-4! After all, if that was the situation when playing Madden, you'd play the 3-4, because you'd get your best players on the field!

But we know that the NFL isn't Madden, and that players are going to be asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The move of Aaron Kampmann (who once played DT) to an OLB spot is going to be a experiment filled with trepidation . And we know that AJ Hawk and Brady Poppinga already have their issues with pass coverage.

But it all starts up front, and if you are going to be able to play the 3-4, you need to have strong and stout up front. And the Packers are looking dangerously thin going into minicamps.

And if the line looks thin in the 3-4, it looks even thinner in a 4-3 , so please spare me the "Packer aren't going to run the 3-4 exclusively" line. This isn't about hiding our weaknesses. The offseason is about trying to get rid of our weaknesses.

The article goes on to let us know that the reserves (namely, Harrell, Montgomery, and Malone) really aren't doing much to reassure us that we have guys waiting in the wings to take over if Jenkins doesn't recover, Jolly is suspended, or Pickett continues a drop-off.

Most pointedly, the reach for Justin Harrell in the 2007 draft is a large cause of consternation for Packer fans (and likely, the Packer coaching staff, despite their apparent public support for him). When you whiff on a first-rounder, it often sets that position group back for a while. Remember Tony Mandarich? Terrell Buckley? Jamal Reynolds?

So, in a worst-case scenario, Pickett drops off, Jenkins struggles to return to form, Jolly is suspended (and not exactly a barnburner to begin with), and Harrell completes his bust melodrama. Yes, it's a glass-not-only-empty-but-broken-into-a-million-pieces outlook, but not one that is improbable. And, this is assuming Montgomery even signs back on with the Pack.

So, where do the Packers look to shore this area up this year?

Free agency is always a sticky proposition with Ted Thompson, who treads so carefully into free agent waters that you think he might be hydrophobic. There are still a couple of players out there that might be able to come in and help out. Shaun Cody, a UFA from the Lions might be a good option. The former 2nd rounder has already visited the Saints and is looking at some other teams. Dewayne Robertson of the Broncos might be another DT able to come in, though would be expected to be out of Thompson's price range.

The rumors are still abounding for a trade for Julius Peppers to come in and play defensive end, probably the biggest question mark along the line. This doesn't seem likely, as the price for Peppers would be a high draft pick, but the rewards could be quite considerable if he would end up working out as well as the optimists hope he would. The problem arises in that Peppers wants to move back to OLB, a la Aaron Kampman, which isn't all bad (a difference-maker like Peppers can upgrade the entire defense). But after Peppers, the defensive end pool gets older drastically (Vonnie Holliday, Kevin Carter, Bertrand Berry) and the chances of finding a FA that upgrades the present talent lessens.

In the draft, B.J. Raji and Brian Orakpo are a tackle and end (respectively) rumored to be taken by the Packers at #9. However, you also have to remember that this is Ted Thompson, who is likely to take the best talent available at that pick, and other positions on the team (cornerback, linebacker, offensive tackle) are just as needy as the defensive line. Raji likely won't fall to the Packers, and Orapko and many of the other DE projects, like Kampman, project to a OLB in a 3-4 (Aaron Maybin and Everette Brown are good examples).

Tyson Jackson is more of a prototypical 3-4 DE, a five-technique guy that has good athleticism. However, he is predicted to go 6 picks or so after the Packers. Do you reach and take him early? Or do you trade down and hope to get him?

While I know there are other good linemen available in the second and third rounds, I'm not going to count on them to come in as impact starters right away.

So, the question is: will the thinnest and most unstable position group on this team get an upgrade this offseason?

The answer will depend on whether or not Thompson takes a glass-full approach, that Jenkins will be back, Pickett will be fine at NT, and Jolly will not only avoid suspension, but develop into a starter to boot. And, of course, oft-injured Harrell will finally justify his draft selection. In that scenario, the Packers should be in reasonably good shape.

But, we all know that reality rarely follows the glass-full view, just as it doesn't follow the glass-empty view. Reality will end up being some shade of grey in between, and as that is the case, the defensive line is still going to need at least one major acquisition this offseason.

If I were GM (which I am not), I would do what it takes to get that difference-maker on the defensive side of the ball that fits the 3-4. I'm not sure what the asking price is for Peppers, but I'd sure consider meeting it. If he can be convinced to play hybrid DE/LB, it might be the best of both worlds. It couldn't be any worse than drafting Justin Harrell, even if it costs us a second rounder.

If for some reason Raji falls to #9, I'd certainly take him. He's a solid DT that will be a great player in any scheme, but particularly the 3-4. If that fails, I'd be looking for Tyson Jackson as a true 3-4 lineman, even if we have to trade down (or reach) to get him.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Singing the Effusive Praises of Ted Thompson

You know, sometimes I can go quite a while without any feedback on any articles that I write, but I have found a sure way to get it: write articles critical of one of two people---Aaron Rodgers or Ted Thompson.

Now, the whole Aaron Rodgers thing I get, really. After last summer, there are people who (rightfully so) want to circle the wagons around him and protect him a bit. And, I have no problem with that. I actually like Rodgers and want him to succeed. But, I realize it is hard fror some people to digest any criticism when so much negativity has been spewed between the the Favre fanbase and Rodgers fanbase.

But ol' Ted Thompson? For some reason, there is never a shortage of people who are willing to take a fine-toothed comb and find a minor factual error in any article I write that offers criticism of TT. In fact, it is usually when I get people pointing out grammatical errors, too. And, naturally, if folks can't find an incorrect year or draft round I've cited or find a double negative or a dangling participle, we all come back to the old favorite:

Thompson Hater.

Now, that one always bothers's a way to discredit anything I've said by placing an extreme bias that must underscore everything. And, while I will never admit to "liking" Ted Thompson, I do have respect for him and what he's brought to the team.

But, going through my articles, I do see that many of them are critical of him. So, in this article, I will sing nothing but my effusive praises of what I see as the things Thompson has done right in his tenure as Packers' GM (think "fair and balanced").

Now, there are probably many things folks would like to see listed, but I am going to list only those that I feel are pure. I don't want to commit the journalistic sin of offering positives with qualifiers. For example, while I could say Thompson made a great move in allowing Marco Rivera to move on, I would then counter it by saying "BUT I was disappointed he didn't have a better plan in place to replace him."

No buts.

So, without further ado, behold the effusive praises of Ted Thompson:

1) Ted Thompson has integrity. I will be the first to admit that I'm not a fan of Ted Thompson's plan and approach, but there are few traits out there that I respect more in a leader than integrity. I define integrity as "doing the right things for the right reasons, because you know they are the right things and reasons." And, Thompson has never wavered in his approach to how he intends to build this team.

And mind you, there have been naysayers, ranging from critics like myself to the "braying mules" that panic every time a free agent gets signed elsewhere. Face it...we got a little spoiled with the free agent season under Wolf and Sherman. But Thompson stands boldly against any storm, and forges ahead with his plan.

It would be easy to try and placate the masses. After all, this is a game dedicated to the greatest fans on earth, and in fact, Packer fans are the owners of the team. Keeping the season ticket holder base would, for many general managers, be a high priority.

But not for Ted. He is going to go to the mountain with his plan, or into the depths of the Marinas Trench. And there is a lot to respect about that. If you are going to be judged, be judged for who you are and what you are, not what you are trying to do to impress others with.

In particular, following a 6-10 record that was a free-fall from a Cinderella 2007 season, it might be easy to justify a panic move (oh, like firing all your assistant coaches and switching to a defense you claim you wanted all along). Not Thompson.

2) He has restored proper GM-Coach relations. Obviously, this has as much to do with the firing of Mike Sherman and the ill-advised dual role he played, but Thompson has played his part to a T, and allowed Mike McCarthy to shine in his role as coach.

The problem with the dual role of GM/Head Coach is that you not only control playing time and how players are used on the field, but you negotiate their contracts, too. That puts you in the role of being both the good cop and the bad cop, and in order to pull that off, you have to have a godlike presence in the eyes of your players. Mike Sherman did not have such a presence, and the chaos of Mike McKenzie, Javon Walker, and others pervaded his final years.

Thompson's very personality exudes a very stand-offishness with nearly everyone. He doesn't come off as personable or a guy you can flatter or cajole into buying swampland in Florida. Meanwhile, McCarthy is all bluster and energy and nuts and bolts. He's relatable, and he plays virtually no role in negotiating player contracts. In fact, you get the idea that he really doesn't have a huge say in a lot of personnel moves (if he did, you would think he might have pushed harder for some of the more high-priced free agents to make his transition to the 3-4 a lot easier).

This places McCarthy is a position of trust with his players, something essential for proper team management. Thompson isn't afraid to play the bad guy, if needed. And that allows McCarthy to do his job and be respected for it.

3) Thompson has established a healthy climate in the locker room. Again, Mike Sherman's dual role helped build animosity in the locker room, and his habits of rewarding players with big contracts came back to haunt him, especially when another player would try and hold out to get "their share" of the salary cap. Summer holdouts seemed to be commonplace in Sherman's latter years--McKenzie, Walker, Grady Jackson.

What Thompson has done in getting the salary cap under control is he has flexibility to reward players when he feels it is necessary. And the best part is that he tends to reward good players entering the final year of their contract with front-loaded extensions that keeps them off the free agent market.

Other than Ryan Grant last year (which was a joke), Thompson has had little issues with players wanting to hold out. In fact, it seems to rarely be on anyone's mind. You get the impression that players go play the game and know if they perform, they will get rewarded in time.

4) Thompson has done what Ron Wolf wished he had always done--built a great WR corps. I was going to head this one "Ted got rid of Robert Ferguson", but it is so much more than that.

Robert Ferguson, to me, became the epitome of what was wrong with our receiving corps in the mid-2000's. Yes, he was coming off a career-threatening injury, but he had always played passively. While Brett Favre was certainly capable of throwing his own interceptions, Ferguson led the charge of poor wideouts that seemed to try to catch the ball at its lowest point, falling backwards while defensive backs leaped to make the grab.

Thompson has invested in a first day wide receiver in every draft he's had. And what he has as a result is one of the deepest corps in the league, but not just that....he's brought in guys who play like #1 receivers.

My first memory of Greg Jennings was going to the Family Night game his rookie season. Directly in front of where I was sitting, I watched a timing pass go outside instead of inside into the endzone. I watched Jennings look at the ball, and twist his body around in the air 180 degrees and catch the ball at its highest point. And, come down in the end zone.

At that point I was hooked on Jennings. But, if you look at all the receivers on this team, they all play like that. There are no passive catchers. They go to the ball and catch with their hands. Yes, they drop some, but so do most WRs. The point is, if the quarterback puts up a shanked pass or a jump ball, you can rest assured that most of the time the ball will be caught by one of our guys or batted down. Donald Driver, James Jones, Ruvell Martin, and Jordy Nelson are as good a set of #2-#5 receivers as any in the NFL.

5) Thompson picked and chose carefully from Sherman's holdovers. When Ron Wolf took over from Lindy Infante, he boldly stated that there was virtually no players from Infante's squad that he felt was worth keeping around. And, true to his word, only one player who played under Infante ever made a Pro Bowl as a Packer--LeRoy Butler. Wolf approached his team as doing his best to replace essentially every player he could with someone else that was better.

Thompson, on the other hand, is a GM in a different time, working under different rules. It isn't easy to bring in Plan B free agents or even cut players without rapid signing bonus acceleration. That stated, 2005 was an unstated cap-clearing year that saw the departure of several longtime Packer faces: Darren Sharper, Ryan Longwell, Mike Wahle, Marco Rivera...

But all you have to do is look at the 13-3 2007 season, a season in which Thompson was honored as GM of the Year in the NFL, to see the shrewdness of his evaluation. People claimed he had built a great team in just three years, but in actuality, he kept the right guys...the right guys who led that team.

In the 2008 Pro Bowl following that great year, the following Packers were represented:

QB Brett Favre
WR Donald Driver
T Chad Clifton
DE Aaron Kampman
CB Al Harris

Every one of those players were holdovers from a regime that technically ended following the 2004 season...and it was those players who led the charge for the Packers' 2007 season. Furthermore, Favre, Kampman, Harris and Nick Barnett (another holdover) were named All Pros for that season.

Now, let it be stated that Thompson acquisitions like Charles Woodson, Ryan Grant, and Atari Bigby all played their roles that year, also. However, when it came to decide the best of the best, it was the holdovers from the last regime that got the recognition.

True, that is a tip of the hat to Mike Sherman, but also a pat on the back for Thompson. In spite of the accusations that he came in to clean house, he actually kept the right guys around.

6) And along those lines, he did introduce us to "Packer People". As much as that term gets waylayed and mocked, you must admit...many of the whiners (Ryan Longwell), underperformers (Sharper, Ferguson), and attitude problems (Reynolds, Cletidus Hunt) were pared away along with some of the too-high priced free agents (Wahle, Green).

Invariably, while you can nitpick things like draft position or even talent, the guys that Thompson has brought in have been team guys. Certainly, you are going to get your occasional Ryan Grant or Tramon Williams trying to cash in during the offseason, but in the locker room and on the field, they have been team-oriented guys.

As corny as "Packer People" sounds, you have to realize that even if you are critical of the guy sitting in the big seat in the front office, you are proud of the men that suit up and play on the field each Sunday. After going through James Lofton, Mossy Cade, Charles Martin, Javon Walker, and even Brett Favre this past season, it is great to have players that you can actually have your kids look up to as role models.

So, there you have it...a self-proclaimed Thompson Critic's sincere praises of the guy that I often question. Not once have I ever asked for this guy to be fired, and you've just read some of the reasons why he deserves a chance to see his game to the end. I am not going to stop offering criticism, and like Thompson, I have been consistent and stuck with my approach to how I offer that criticism from Day 1.

While there are decisions made I haven't liked, and sometimes have difficulty putting a stamp of approval on his approach to how to get a team built or how he deals with people, he's done some good things that deserve the respect of all Packer fans.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Dan Snyder Fallacy

On Friday, Mike Vandermause went back on his "stumping for Ted Thompson" campaign, rising to Thompson's defense as criticism has mounted against him as he has not changed his approach to offseason moves.

(Incidentally, the use of the word "approach" in regard to Thompson and free agency is a pretty liberal use of the definition. But, I digress.)

With the signing of a backup safety in Anthony Smith from the Steelers (who did not even offer him a restricted free agent tender), it appears that once again any upgrades of the primary talent of this team is going to be coming from within or from the draft.

Last year, people seemed okay with that. After all, the Packers were coming off of a 13-3 season and a deep playoff run, and only lost two starters from their lineup in the offseason. Steering clear of the free agent market and stockpiling much cheaper draft picks seemed like a logical thing to do.

But this offseason, the Packers are not only coming off a 6-10 free-fall from grace, but are implementing another major scheme change that leaves a lot of questions at to whether the talent we already have is suitable. You would imagine that this might be the year to make a Ryan Pickett or Charles Woodson-type signing.

But, Vandermause plants facetious argument Number One on us, by protraying anyone who suggests that Thompson isn't making the right moves not only as incorrect, but as complete idiots.
Dealing with the lingering effects of the Brett Favre trade last summer followed by the Packers’ disappointing 6-10 record was bad enough. But when Thompson failed to land any players in the early stages of free agency, his critics began braying like rented mules.

The rallying cry from a restless fan base went something like this: “Do something — anything — to upgrade the roster and appease us.”
Now, I don't consider myself crying about not getting Haynesworth, Peppers, and Canty (as some in the Packer Blogosphere were wont to have). It wasn't sensible for even a moderately aggressive GM, and completely alien to one like the very conservative Thompson.

But whiffing on the one guy reports have stated they definitely wanted (Chris Canty) is concerning, whether that makes me a braying mule or not. The guy on the next tier that was highly rumored to come to Green Bay, the Chargers' Igor Olshansky, signed on in Dallas without even an apparent contact made by the Packers. Now, reserve linebacker Kevin Burnett is one of the only starting-capable guys left out there, and again, Thompson's pursuit is reported as "unclear".

In the immortal words on Mike Sherman, "it is what it is". We shouldn't be shocked at Thompson's moves (or lack thereof), but we should consider that his free agent splurge in 2006 didn't set the team back a dozen years and actually had two very good payoffs in Pickett and Woodson. We should also consider that it is the GM's job to provide his coaches with the talent that they need to win football games, and like the zone blocking experiment, throwing unproven draft picks at a scheme is far from any guarantee that it will work.

But Vandermause then uses his second fallacious argument, one that I've seen for several years by Thompson's defenders in the blogs and forums, but was rather surprised to see it used by a professional journalist.

The old "Well, do you want Ted Thompson to turn into Dan Snyder?" argument.
Thompson never will let the urge for a quick fix get in the way of common sense, and that drives his critics nuts. They want instant gratification, which is in stark contrast to Thompson’s measured approach to building a team.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder might be considered the anti-Thompson in NFL circles.

He grew up a staunch supporter of the Redskins, and when he bought the team a decade ago proceeded to act out like a fan. That is to say, he threw millions of dollars at the most attractive free agents in a quest to achieve immediate success.

In the eyes of many Redskins fans, no one is smarter or more popular than Snyder in the spring. But when the Redskins consistently flop in the fall, no one looks more foolish.
The one thing that I agree with Vandermause on is that Snyder is the anti-Thompson. For every deal Thompson seems afraid to make, Snyder goes out and not only makes the deal, but offers double everyone else's offer. While you can count all of Thompson's free agent signings on one hand, you would need to use all your appendages to count up Snyder's, and you'd probably still not have enough digits.

But, this doesn't make Thompson=Smart/Snyder=Foolish. It makes them mirror images of each other, each reaching the farthest poles of conservative and liberal use of the salary cap. One sacrifices today to live for tomorrow; the other lives for today, ready to sacrifice the future.

It's like coaching a basketball player who is afraid to foul, afraid of contact, afraid to be aggressive, and suggesting that they step up their intensity a bit. That player points to "Bruno", another player on the team that always fouls out by the end of the first quarter of every game, usually with a couple of technicals to boot. "You want me to play with more intensity," he asks, "but if I do, won't I be just like Bruno?"

"Ah," you say, "I see your point. I sure don't want two Bruno's on this team." And the player continues to play scared.

You see, there's a middle ground, a balance that a GM can take towards offseason moves. Even an ultra-conservative GM like Thompson can afford to break out some bucks for players...not the super high-priced players like Haynesworth, but for a guy who can truly come in and improve your team (like Woodson and Pickett did three years ago). It's not signing someone for the sake of signing someone, it is recognizing that your coaches need to make this defense work and they need an infusion of talent to make it happen.

I may be wrong on this, but my feeling is that if the talent you had in a 4-3 couldn't generate a pass rush or stop the run, do you really think making those same players take on new, unfamiliar positions in a new scheme is going to improve that?

Vandermause chortles at Snyder and his lack of success in the postseason:
The Redskins have qualified for the playoffs just twice in the last nine seasons under Snyder and never have advanced past the divisional round.

But that didn’t stop the free-spending Snyder from doling out $171 million in contracts last week for Haynesworth, cornerback DeAngelo Hall and guard Derrick Dockery.

In stark contrast, the only unrestricted free agent Thompson signed in 2007 was cornerback Frank Walker, yet the Packers went 13-3 that year and advanced to the NFC championship game.
Yes, recent memory is usually the most vivid, but if you are going to play the "Snyder never makes the playoffs" card, let's apply the same rules:

If the Packers do not upgrade the talent among the starters on a team that went 6-10 last season, and in addition, do not bring in any veteran starting talent familiar with a 3-4 defensive scheme, do you really believe that the Packers will improve by at least four games and make the playoffs in 2009?

Because if they do not, it means that Ted Thompson's Packers will have only made the playoffs once in five seasons. Statistically, how does that compare to Snyder's Redskins making the playoffs twice in nine seasons (by the end of this season, perhaps twice in ten seasons)?

The ratio doesn't lie. That would be batting .200 versus batting .200 (maybe even .300). Just because Thompson isn't Snyder doesn't make him more successful. Thompson needs to make the moves necessary to make this team successful, regardless of what those moves might be. Vandermause hits that nail on the head to finish his article: "Thompson should ultimately be judged on the Packers’ record this season, not how much money he spends on free agents."

Exactly. And given Vandermause's own comparison with Snyder, he may have just set the bar for how he should be judging Thompson if the Packers do not make the playoffs this season.

Unfortunately, that bar is limited to Dan Snyder. It's funny how Vandermause and others that find it necessary to mock anyone critical of Thompson never use the front office of the Patriots, the Steelers, or the Giants as the measuring stick.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Ironies of Vonnie Holliday

Both Greg Bedard and the boys over at CheeseHeadTV made mention today of the possibility of bringing in former Packer Vonnie Holliday, recently cut by the Miami Dolphins and looking for a job at the ripe old age of 33. The idea of bringing back ol' Vonnie seems to be intruiging, if for no other reason, because we just lost Colin Cole and missed out on Chris Canty.

My guess is we have the roster spot available.

Taking two other players into consideration are Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Justin Harrell. Harrell, of course, is Ted Thompson's own Jamal Reynolds, an apparent reach and bust in the first round. But, even more interesting is that Harrell's roster spot this past season was made available by cutting KGB.

The timing has some irony.

At the end of the 2002 season, the Packers were gearing up to sign Holliday, but didn't want to buck up as much as Vonnie was hoping for. He had a very strong 2001 season, and an injury-plagued 2002 finished with a surge for Holliday. New GM Mike Sherman didn't meet the offer of the Chiefs, who gave Holliday a $21.3 million, 5-year contract with $4 million guaranteed.

(sidebar: compared to the deals signed by Haynesworth and Canty, that almost seems laughable, doesn't it?)

Where does the irony come to all of this? We can debate whether or not Holliday might have been worth that huge of a contract, and we know that such contracts later became the bane of Mike Sherman's tenure as GM. But, Holliday's departure led directly to a number of other events that have affected the Packer defensive line all the way to this day.

The Packers turned around and gave a pass-rush specialist, Kabeer Gbaja Biamila, a ton of cash. The $37 million dollar, seven-year deal forced KGB to become a full-time player, and painfully exposed him as a one-dimensional player for the next five seasons. Expensively so.

He also signed an underachieving defensive tackle named Cletidus Hunt to a six-year, $25 million dollar contract. I really don't have to remind you how that situation turned out for the Packers.

Sherman then also turned around and signed another inconsistent defensive linemen in Grady Jackson, another couple-of-plays-a-game guy that struggled with his weight.

The investments made previously in Joe Johnson and Jamal Reynolds quickly proved to be failed plans, leaving the Packers even further behind in the 2003 season. KGB made the Pro Bowl that year based purely on his sack statistics, but was a liability on most of the defensive snaps not involving those 10 sacks. The depletion of the line with the departure of Johnson and failure of Reynolds to develop left the Packers defensive line very vulnerable.

Now, looking back on that contract that Sherman wouldn't match for Vonnie Holliday, it does make you think how much different our line may have been if he would have shelled out. The line reached perhaps its lowest point in the 2005 season. It was during these years that Holliday was having some of his best seasons playing along the interior for the Chiefs and the Dolphins.

Interestingly enough, with the exception of a guy named BJ Sander, it is Mike Sherman's swings-and-misses along the defensive line that spelled the end of his days as GM of the Packers. The ill-advised selection of Jamal Reynolds, the free agency pickups of Grady Jackson and Joe Johnson, the overpaying (and subsequent overuse) of KGB and Cletidus Hunt, draft picks Kenny Peterson, James Lee, Donnell Washington, Corey Williams, ...the list goes on.

And now, the idea that Vonnie Holliday could return to the Packers to finish out his career, just months after KGB was cut from the team, makes you almost wonder if there wasn't some sort of curse hovering over this team since 2003. For years, things just haven't seemed to work out along that line, whether it be injuries, lack of production, or just plain failure to launch.

Would the signing of Holliday have changed some of the subsequent moves, like Hunt or KGB? Would the Packers have been set at DE for years with Kampman and Vonnie, allowing Cullen Jenkins to remain inside with Ryan Pickett? Would KGB have remained in his destructive role as a pass-rush specialist, instead of becoming a full-time mediocre defensive end?

Those are questions we'll never know the answer to. But, if you are looking to improve our DL, bring in some veteran leadership to a new scheme, and add "Packer People" to the roster, you could do worse than bringing back Vonnie Holliday.

And if there's a chance that signing him will break a six-year jinx along the line...?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Thompson's Passive Approach Whiffs Again

Today, Chris Canty signed with the New York Giants. Big money, too. A big free agent signs with a team that is not the Packers.

You might expect me to begin the ranting and raving that has become commonplace the past few seasons, the knee-jerk "we didn't get the free agent that I said that I wanted Ted to sign a few weeks ago" panicked wail that the Thompson defenders have become so adept at defusing. Because, as we all know, free agency is the devil.

No, I gave up crying about Thompson's avoidance of free agency several seasons ago. I remember making this little Free Agent Nazi banner, and then accepted the inevitable. And believe it or not...I'm okay with it. We hear all those pie-in-the-sky bloggers and posters who predict we'll end up signing Haynesworth, Peppers, AND Canty once free agency begins, and we see them all collect their paychecks elsewhere.

Then we move down a tier, from the superstars of this year's free agent pool to the serviceable starters...and they all sign a contract somewhere else, too. Eventually, we sign a Frank Walker or a Brandon Chillar, almost as if it were a token pickup to prove that Thompson is actually aware free agency actually exists.

And I'm okay with it. Really. I give Thompson credit for sticking to his guns. He wants to build with the draft and reward guys from within. I get it. I'm glad to see him, for the most part, sticking with the plan he said we was going to go with from the beginning, instead of panicking himself and doing something drastic just to save his own arse. Like, say, firing most of his assistants and completely changing his defensive philosophy, claiming that was what he had actually wanted all along.

Now, given this sudden defensive philosophy shift (since I subtly brought it up), it has been a pretty general consensus that the Packers are lacking in prototypical talent for a 3-4 defense. Guys like Aaron Kampman are going to be shoehorned into a linebacker spot, after starting his career as a defensive tackle. Even the most optimistic proponents of the shift have to admit we are going to have a couple of square pegs trying to fit in round holes.

In allowing Canty to sign elsewhere, it is a sign that Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers can't rely on any instant infusions of talent to jump-start this transition. McCarthy has already lived through this once, when he implemented the transition to the Zone Blocking Scheme, and was handed a stable of unproven rookies to make it work.

Again, if bypassing expensive free agents is Thompson's shtick, bully for him. Mike McCarthy may end up being a fall guy for this delayed acquisition of talent, but that's the way it goes.

However, this doesn't excuse Thompson for failing to get his bid in on a player that he allegedly really wants, and according to SI, it looks like he was willing to make Canty a cornerstone of the new defense.
Canty was prepared to leave the Giants complex and fly to Green Bay for a free-agent visit Sunday night -- if New York didn't hit the $7 million per year average that he was seeking. According to a league source I talked with, the Packers weren't scared off at all by the $7 million average salary and would have likely topped New York's offer. But Green Bay, which is switching to the 3-4 defense this year, wanted Canty to come to town and meet the coaching staff before negotiations began in earnest. link
If Thompson wants to pass on free agents simply because they are too big of a risk, or they will eat up too much of the salary cap, that's one thing. But to be so passive and conservative that the players you actually want to acquire end up slipping through your fingers is inexcusable.

We can all tell ourselves that missing out on Albert Haynesworth was a great move on Thompson's part. He is always hurt, and the amount of money he took was something only Daniel Snyder would do. Ha ha! We were geniuses for not signing him.

Well, as far as we know, we (the bloggers and forum rats) were the only ones who really thought signing him was an option, and we've learned over the years that Thompson isn't looking very hard at anyone who is going to his Joe Johnson.

But according to most reports, Thompson was interested in Canty. Very interested. And according to the SI article posted above, he was prepared to outbid the Giants for his services. But he never got the chance.

This is inexcusable. If this is the guy you want, you need to go get him.

It is remarkably reminiscent of the Randy Moss debacle. Bob Harlan said that on the evening of the first night of the 2007 draft, that he fully expected Moss to be a Green Bay Packer the next day. The trade was on the table. The man was targeted. All we had to do was wait and the deal will eventually happen. Wait and see.

But it didn't. The Pats came in and made a slightly better offer to the Raiders, and ended up with Moss. The Packers didn't even get a chance to counteroffer.

Now, I can't stand Randy Moss. I think it would have been a mistake to have acquired him. But it doesn't change the fact that the Packers ended up not getting the guy they planned to get, and they lost him by being passive and waiting around. Why wait until Day 2 of the draft? If the deal is on the table, what can you expect to happen in the meantime that would be an advantage? The Raiders would have countered with an offer asking for a 5th rounder instead of a 4th rounder?

Another team was more aggressive, and ended up making it look like the biggest steal since the Packers acquired Ahman Green for some scrubby cornerback.

Look, I have no idea if Chris Canty was going to be The Chosen One for the Green Bay Packers. I can't tell you that this is the make-or-break decision that will dictate how the season will go for the Pack in 2009. Maybe he's a clown and the Packers are better off without him.

The point is, however, that the Packers are losing their ability to choose what players they can bring in by being so passive in their pursuit of them. If the Packers truly believe that Chris Canty was worth enough to outbid the Giants for his services, then they need to get that deal on the table ahead of time, or they need to get on the phone and make sure that his agent knows that there's a better deal in Green Bay.

It's not a criticism of who Thompson picks and chooses to chase in free agency, its a criticism of what he does (or doesn't do) once he has targeted them. And I'm sure Mike McCarthy is hoping that Thompson gets a little more aggressive, for his sake. I don't think he has three years to wait for mid-round rookies to develop into solid starters along the defensive line.