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2023 Packers: A testament to axioms and history

It started with the search for a future quarterback before one was needed  

QB Jordan Love
QB Jordan Love

In this age when anyone living in fantasyland and with a keyboard can create an online feeding frenzy on any subject in pro football…

In a world where scouts will tell you it takes at least eight hours of studying video to get a good handle on a single player, yet columnists far removed from the scene and former players turned talking heads will readily spew judgment on a moment's notice about any of 32 teams and more than 1,600 NFL players…

And with human nature, which arguably never changes, playing its part as well, at least among a certain percentage of fans who only want to hear what they want to hear – presumably to reinforce their own groundless notions – rather than trust the expertise of people inside the game…

The consequence is that axioms and history get drowned out by all the noise. But that's why the accomplishments up to this point of this season's playoff-bound Green Bay Packers should come as no surprise.

They are currently a thriving testament to the axioms of the most successful general managers and coaches ever and the history of the game.

Exhibit A

"The worst time to look for a quarterback is when you need one. If you ever get to the point where you need something, you'll never get it."
John Madden, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Oakland Raiders and finished his career with the best regular-season winning percentage of any NFL coach in history with at least 100 wins, shared that adage with me more than 35 years ago. At the time I was working on a story about how the then down-and-out Packers were still in the market for a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl after more than 20 years into their search for the next Bart Starr.

Madden's wisdom is also why general manager Brian Gutekunst's much-criticized decision to grab Jordan Love with the 26th selection in the 2020 draft was ingenious.

The odds seemed stacked against Gutekunst.

Ted Thompson's choice of Aaron Rodgers in 2005 will at some point in the future mark the first and only time in NFL history that a team with a cinch Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback over the age of 30 and still playing at a high level spent a high draft pick on what would be another future Hall of Fame quarterback to be his successor.

To be clear, for me to try and predict today what Love's ceiling is as an NFL quarterback would be sheer folly.

But what were the odds when the Packers took him that Thompson's once-in-69-years draft pick could even come close to being duplicated by the same franchise just 15 years later, even if expectations were lowered for Love to simply emerge as a potential Pro Bowl quarterback?

Regardless, even if Love would have been a bust, Gutenkunst's reasons for drafting him should have been above reproach, considering Rodgers was 36 years old at the time. It still would have given the Packers a head start on finding his eventual successor before his career ended.

First, keep a couple of numbers in mind.

Forty-two of the 57 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were drafted by the team they led to the championship, if you count Eli Manning, whose rights were traded to the New York Giants in a draft-day swap of first-round quarterbacks, and don't count Nick Foles, who was drafted by Philadelphia but won a Super Bowl on his second tour with the team. And 31 Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks drafted in the first round.

Only seven winning Super Bowl quarterbacks, a little more than 10 percent, weren't first-round picks and/or homegrown, including Foles and Joe Theismann, who was drafted by Washington but started his career in the Canadian Football League.

What often happens to teams when they don't have a suitable quarterback – besides being shorthanded at the game's most critical position – is what happened with Lynn Dickey and the Packers.

They had invested so much capital in their search for one – 12 draft picks, including 10 in the first three rounds in Dan Devine's years alone – that when they acquired Dickey, who had the arm and intangibles to fulfill their wishes, the Packers didn't have the supporting cast for him to succeed.

Then, in his second year as their starter, with the second worst running game in the NFL, no wide receiver who caught more than 27 passes and stopgaps in the offensive line, Dickey suffered a serious leg injury on the final play of a game, where the Packers were trying to score nothing more than a consolation touchdown to save some face in what was a pathetic 24-6 loss.

When Dickey finally recovered, he was 31 years old and had lost the ability to turn a broken play into a big play, a gift that had become growingly important to consistently win big games. Five years later his career was over and in eight seasons as the Packers' starting quarterback, Dickey led them to a winning record only in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Look also at what happened to New England, run by Bill Belichick, who some tout as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. In Tom Brady's last season with the Patriots, fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham was his backup. The year before it was 33-year-old Brian Hoyer. In 2020, more than three months after Brady signed with Tampa Bay, the Patriots signed 31-year-old Cam Newton, and he started 15 games for them that season. The following spring, in desperate need of a young quarterback to rebuild around, they took Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick.

It's also worth noting that in 2020, New England owned the 23rd overall choice and could have drafted Love three spots before the Packers but traded out of the first round that night for two second-day picks and eventually wound up with starting safety Kyle Dugger and situational pass rusher Josh Uche.

The Minnesota Vikings have made the playoffs 31 times in the past 56 seasons but have yet to win a Super Bowl. The No. 1 reason might be that in only five of their 31 postseason appearances have they had a quarterback who was both homegrown and drafted in the first round: Tommy Kramer in 1980 and '82; Daunte Culpepper in 2000; Christian Ponder in 2012; and Teddy Bridgewater in 2015.

Not counting Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, who led the Vikings to the playoffs six times, starting at age 33, in his second tour with the team, they've gone to the playoffs 13 other times with a quarterback who was neither homegrown nor a first-rounder. Here's the list with their ages in their first postseason with the Vikings: Joe Kapp, 30; Gary Cuozzo, 29; Rich Gannon, 27; Jim McMahon, 34; Warren Moon, 39; Randall Cunningham, 35; Jeff George, 32; Gus Frerotte, 37; Brett Favre, 40; Case Keenum, 29; and Kirk Cousins, 31.

Exhibit B

"Teams have finally realized that they do a better job with younger people. It's the same thing the Marine Corps learned a long time ago. The best soldier is between 18 and 26."

George Young, who was general manager of the New York Giants when they won two Super Bowls and also winner of a record five NFL Executive of the Year awards during his 1979-97 stint with the team, gave me that quote late in the 1983 season.

At the time, it appeared likely that the Packers were going to once again finish with a .500 record, despite 13 of their 22 starters being 26 to 28 years old and at what should have been the prime of their careers. Included were almost all of their best players: receivers James Lofton, John Jefferson and Paul Coffman; tackle Greg Koch; backs Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis; defensive end Ezra Johnson; and linebackers John Anderson and Mike Douglass.

Plus, Dickey was 34 and showing the ravages of his position in a season where he threw for more than 4,400 yards and 32 touchdowns but was also sacked 40 times and threw 29 interceptions.

Time was about to run out on coach Bart Starr's rebuild and Young's point was two-fold. One that players should be showing their worth by their early 20s and then winning championships in their mid to late 20s. Two, for them to follow that cycle on your watch, you needed to draft them or sign them as rookie or first-year free agents.

Starting about six months or so ago, there was a daily barrage about how the Packers needed to acquire a veteran wide receiver, a veteran backup quarterback just in case and just about any other experienced player with a recognizable name. Still at the trade deadline, there was an outcry to do something, anything to save the season.

None of it made any sense unless you don't buy into the old saw that, "those who didn't learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

The reason being that with a good organization it's possible to uncover prospects like 23-year-old cornerback Carrington Valentine in the seventh round of the draft and then watch him grow given the opportunity to play. Or sign a player like 24-year-old wide receiver Bo Melton off some other team's practice squad without squandering a draft pick.

Who would you rather have today, Melton or Chase Claypool, a second-round draft choice in 2020 available on the trade market a year ago and acquired by the Chicago Bears for a second-round draft pick?
Claypool has caught 22 passes in 19 games since then. Melton has caught 16 in the five games that he's been active. But here's what's more often than not most damaging to a team when it takes the bite on such a trade. The draft choice that Pittsburgh acquired for Claypool was used last spring to select Joey Porter, who might already rank among the NFL's best cornerbacks, not just rookie cornerbacks.

Or with a good coaching staff, it's possible to groom a 23-year-old like Rasheed Walker, who didn't play a single offensive snap his first year and struggled for a time early in his second, into a more than functional left tackle for now and perhaps an ever-improving one in the future. And that's at the most difficult position for a young offensive lineman to play and one where no other team is going to trade you a good one if it has one.

That's also why it's almost always a mistake to hang on to your own aging and declining players because often all they do is stunt the growth of a young receiver like Dontayvion Wicks, for example, or a young tight end like Tucker Kraft.

Here again, anybody else think those pundits who spent all of last season criticizing the Packers for not drafting a wide receiver in the first round in 20 years are obliquely admitting their ignorance by not uttering a peep about it this year, although they still don't have a first-round wide receiver on their roster?
As Bill Walsh, winner of three Super Bowls in his 10 years as coach at San Francisco, told me in the late 1970s when I was working on a book on the history of the NFL Draft: "The best way is to develop your own talent. There are trades that can be made to fill a specific need, but if you think you are going to make a number of trades to build a team, you're probably mistaken."

Or as Tom Landry, winner of two Super Bowls and 250 regular-season games in Dallas, put it in an interview with me at about the same time: "You seldom get a player who can be the nucleus of a championship, a Super Bowl winner, unless you get them through the draft. Nobody is going to trade those players to you." 

Exhibit C

"Football is a hardheaded cold business. No matter what a player did last year, he must go if he can't do it this year."

Those were the words of Vince Lombardi, the only coach in NFL history to win three straight league championships under a playoff format and also the only one to ever win five in a decade, stated before his third season as Packers coach. According to Pat Peppler, his personnel director, and Norb Hecker, his defensive backfield coach, Lombardi believed that getting rid of players at the right time was as at least as important as acquiring them.

"Vince followed an old formula," Peppler told me in a 2002 interview. "There was a guy named Jack Adams (winner of seven Stanley Cups) who ran the Detroit Red Wings for years. He was famous because he was always getting rid of his older players while they still had some value and replacing them with younger players. That was what Vince had in mind."

Anyone puzzled about how the Packers could lose the services of arguably their three best players and three of their best ever in Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and David Bakhtiari over just the last the two seasons and somehow this season improve on their record and make the playoffs when they didn't in 2022, can likely find the answer in Lombardi's philosophy.

Exhibit D

"Players play, coaches coach, scouts scout, GMs manage and owners own."

Those were the famous words of the late Jim Finks, the builder or rebuilder of three successful franchises in Minnesota, Chicago and New Orleans, and one of the first two general managers to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also someone I'm forever indebted to because he was one of my most helpful and insightful sources as a young reporter.

The football side of the Packers' operation has been essentially free of interference over the nearly 35 years that Bob Harlan and Mark Murphy have served as president; there's no indication that either the current general manager or head coach overstep their bounds in their relationship; and ditto for the coaching and scouting staffs.

Perhaps most importantly this season, the players played – as Finks would put it. They bonded as a team, created hardly any distractions and performed with the hunger of youth.

Oh yes, one last quote to ponder as far as what the future might hold for this weekend, next season or whenever. It's from Bud Grant, Hall of Fame coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and it addresses why there are never any certainties about any team or player in the NFL.

"There are coaches who spend 18 hours a day coaching the perfect game, and they lose because the ball is oval and they can't control the bounce."