A word of warning: there's been a lot of consternation this week as to whether or not Packers GM has done enough to fulfill his part of the bargain of Super Bowl or Die. I don't think I have too many answers, but I can always provide more questions.
Since Ted Thompson took over in 2005 for a struggling Mike Sherman, his strategy for building a team has been crystal clear: build through the draft and develop from within. After being frustrated for years with Sherman's penchant for trading up in the draft and signing strike-out free agents, many quickly celebrated Thompson's trade-down, xenophobic attitude as the incredibly obvious way to do things.
Oh, sure, he's had a couple of exceptions: one offseason of second-tier FA signings (Pickett, Woodson), one draft pick traded away for a player (Grant), and one massive trade-up in the draft (Matthews), and it is hard to argue with the success of those exceptions.
So, if it is so blatantly obvious that it is the right way to go, why aren't the Vikings and Bears doing it?
As Packer fans, we know the obvious answer: because they're idiots.
But, from a business standpoint, from a management standpoint, from a strategy standpoint...it goes deeper than that. Both the Bears and Vikings spent a number of years looking up at the Packers in the division standings, as well as getting trounced year after year by the Holmgren and Sherman-led teams. Wouldn't you think that they would come around and at least try and emulate what Thompson is doing?
The fact of the matter is the Bears and Vikings have not been trounced around by Ted Thompson's Packers. Since 2005, the Bears actually hold the series 7-4 over the Packers, and the Vikings have split 5-5. Sure, you can discount the two losses each in 2005 in what was now obviously a rebuilding year if you like, but the Bears and Vikings won't. Why make excuses?
I predicted after the 2005 season (in print, mind you) that Thompson's stratagem of building purely through the draft would produce (as long as he drafted well) a long line of teams that would never be too bad, but would have trouble getting over that hump. If you look at 2007 as being a veteran-led team reaching its apex, and the 2008 team as being the hangover of FavreGate, that's pretty much what we've had.
In a nutshell, the Packers have been competitive, strong finishers, but haven't been able to get to the Big Game in six years of trying. In 2005, after listening to people complain endlessly about how Mike Sherman was only able to produce division winners that went one-and-done in the playoffs, I figured Thompson's approach would also not be good enough for Packer fans.
Yet, the conservative approach has paid off in the long run, and may pay off for many years. The Packers cannot afford, in their small-market and tough economic times, to be having a couple of losing seasons back to back...the usual result of the "sacrifice tomorrow to win today" approach we've seen recently from the Vikings and Bears.
Will that be good enough for Packers fans after, say, ten years without a Super Bowl trophy? From a purely fan/competition standpoint, it isn't and probably shouldn't be. But from a business standpoint, consistently putting out a winning product that fans will rally around is paramount for a small market team like Green Bay's.
The problem comes with the fact that the Vikings and Bears have used a completely different approach, investing heavily in free agents and trading away draft picks. And they haven't completely collapsed yet. In fact, the Vikings, after building almost 50/50 between the draft and free agency, lured Brett Favre out of retirement and went all the way to the NFC Championship game, knocking off the Packer twice along the way.
And last year, I scoffed and predicted years of the NFC North basement for the Bears after they traded away everything but the kitchen sink for Jay Cutler. Yet, it was the Bears who came up victorious over the Packers on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago, and it is the Bears who still hold the division lead despite being dismantled and bruised by the Giants last week.
The passivity of Thompson in the face of injuries is a known trait, but when you see the Vikings suffer dramatic losses at wide receiver, they go out and bring in the last guy you'd expect: Randy Moss. I have no idea how it will turn out for this team, but I have a strong feeling they will be a much tougher team than the tired and unfocused one we saw before their bye week. And the Bears still have pricey free agent Julius Peppers to hold down the fort while Cutler recovers from injury against the easiest part of their schedule.
All this rides in the face of the decimation of the Packers' starters, with a total of six preseason projected starters looking like their season is in real jeopardy, or already wiped clean (Nick Barnett, Al Harris, Atari Bigby and Morgan Burnett, Ryan Grant, and Mark Tauscher) with several others teetering on the brink (Brad Jones, Sam Shields, and Nick Collins). Building through the draft was supposed to make the Packers incredibly deep, as competition would bring out the best in players. However, the faith the Packer fans have in Brandon Jackson, Desmond Bishop, TJ Lang, Frank Zombo, and Charlie Peprah is far from solid at this point, much less Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood.
In the end, the Viking game is looking more and more like a serious test for the injury-riddled Packers, with the remote possibility that Sidney Rice may be back off the PUP list just in time to give Favre a pair of solid hands to throw to. If the Vikings return to 2009 form, that will be a tough row of five games for the Packers with two Minnesota games combined with the Cowboys, Jets, and Falcons.
So, the question becomes: will Thompson make that move to insure Super Bowl or Die doesn't die? The real question is whether or not he really believes it: after all, that was Nick Barnett's creation that the fans lit up like dynamite, not Thompson's. Is Thompson ever going to make such a move, or will be go from year to year, hoping our conservative approach yields enough talent to go all the way?
Troubling fact: in Thompson/McCarthy tenure, the Vikings, Bears, and Packers have all made it to an NFC Championship game, with only the Bears able to win it. For all the fans who bought in completely to the conservative approach being the only winning approach, the results have yet to back that up.