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Chasing fool's gold

2002 Packers: a prime example

2002 Team Photo
2002 Team Photo

Mike from Franklin, WI

During Aaron Rodgers' final years as a Packer a lot of fans clamored for the team to go "all in" to maximize their Super Bowl chances. Fans wanted to see big free-agent signings, wide receivers drafted in the first round, etc. The current run that these 2023 Packers are on seems to once again validate the front office's approach, that you don't sell out for the now and always keep an eye on the future.

One season in Packers history that I found interesting was 2002, because I feel Mike Sherman did try to go "all in" that year to win another championship while Brett Favre was still around. Many things that Packers fans had hoped for in Rodgers' final years happened in 2002. Sherman made a big free-agent signing in Joe Johnson, which at the time was considered one of their biggest moves since signing Reggie White. He traded for Terry Glenn, supposedly giving the Packers a true go-to receiver after years of subpar play from Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder. Sherman also traded up to draft Javon Walker, who was a big, speedy wide receiver, in the first round. Finally, he signed a few noteworthy veterans including five-time Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson and return ace Darrien Gordon.

For the first time since the Mike Holmgren years, I distinctly remember feeling in the summer of 2002 that the upcoming season could be a Super Bowl year.

My question is, why didn't Sherman's approach as GM work? Why did Johnson and Glenn flame out in Green Bay? From that point forward Sherman as general manager seemed to be on his heels the rest of his tenure. The erosion of his roster seemed to begin with that "all in" approach in 2002. Perhaps, if nothing else, that year serves as a cautionary tale for building for the now.

Good questions and thanks for providing the necessary background.

Now, do you want an honest answer? Sherman, still in his first 18 months as GM, was chasing fool's gold, and you, me and probably countless others bought into it. I was working for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time, and I know I wasn't completely sold on those moves and that the 2002 Packers were a bona fide Super Bowl contender, but I also wasn't critical of Sherman at that point, either. So, call me gullible, too. It was at least two weeks into the season before I came to my senses and realized all of those aging veterans were injury prone or over the hill or both.

The Packers still finished 12-4 and won the NFC North. But therein lies the other two lessons from that season.

One was that Favre was ranked as one of the top two quarterbacks in the league for the sixth straight year by Pro Football Weekly – he was No. 1 in five of the six – based on Joel Buchsbaum's annual survey of GMs and other personnel people. Therefore, like most years, the teams with the top three or so quarterbacks were going to be in the hunt as long as they stayed healthy. But how often does "all in" work? My answer would be hardly ever.

The other lesson was why it's almost always foolish to overpay for aging veterans. If you have a top-tier organization, you should have young players in your pipeline ready to blossom and be more productive than big-name free agents in decline.

And thanks to Ron Wolf's selections of Donald Driver in the seventh round in 1999 and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in the fifth round in 2000 that's what happened.

Whereas Glenn wanted nothing to do with crossing the middle to catch passes; Driver, who had started only four games and caught 37 passes in his first three seasons, was more than willing to do so and had his breakout year with a team-high 70 catches for a 15.2 average. And whereas Johnson lasted only five games and registered only two sacks due to a recurring triceps injury – yes, he was damaged goods when the Packers signed him to a $33 million contract – KGB replaced him as a starter and finished with a team-high 12 sacks.

There are rare occasions where teams trade or sign a veteran player, who is still performing at a high level, but almost every champion in the NFL since 1936 was built the same way: via drafting and developing. And that will be the case again this year.

Fourteen of Kansas City's 22 starters last Sunday were originally drafted by the Chiefs, and it would have been 16 if not for injuries to linebacker Willie Gay and defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi. Thirteen of the San Francisco 49ers' starters also were drafted by them.

To be frank with you, it's embarrassing that I was somewhat suckered at first by those 2002 signings. I should have known better from the teachings of people like Jim Finks, George Young, Dick Steinberg, John Madden, Ron Wolf, Bobby Beathard, Bill Walsh and countless others who were so helpful to me over my career as a sportswriter.

I'll never forget Young telling me in one of my first years of covering pro football, the most important advice that he could offer was this: "Whatever you think you know about players and personnel, forget it, because that's not how people who win in the NFL think." He elaborated by explaining that no matter how good you think a player might be, those inside the game were looking to replace him with someone younger and better– with rare exceptions.

Just two years before the Johnson, Glenn, Nickerson acquisitions, while on a trip east to visit Civil War battlefields, I remember being in historic Martin's Tavern in Washington's D.C.'s Georgetown District late in the summer, sitting at the bar next to two 20- or 30-something Washington football fans who were convinced their team was going to win the Super Bowl that season.

They weren't alone.

Before what was Daniel Snyder's second season as owner, he had spent $56 million on signing bonuses and his player payroll of roughly $88 million-plus was believed to be the highest in the history of the NFL. Snyder's signings included three future Pro Football Hall of Famers: 37-year-old defensive end Bruce Smith, 33-year-old cornerback Deion Sanders and 36-year-old wide receiver Andre Reed. Snyder also doled out a $15.9 million deal to 32-year-old former Pro Bowl safety Mark Carrier and $14.8 million to 33-year-old quarterback Jeff George as insurance behind 32-year-old starter Brad Johnson.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants' odds to win the Super Bowl that year were topped by the St. Louis Rams at 3-1 followed by Washington at 7-2. Stardust's Race & Sports Book favored Washington at 2-1. The Associated Press in its preseason predictions had Washington losing to Tampa Bay in the NFC finals. Two of four pro football writers at the Chicago Tribune and two of six at the Boston Globe picked Washington to win the Super Bowl on their pro football pages the weekend of the 2000 season openers.

As it turned out, Washington finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. And at Martin's Tavern that afternoon, I at least had the sense to tell those two young fans that I'd all but guarantee they were going to be disappointed. What's more, that 2000 Washington team should have taught every sportswriter and football fan a lesson for the ages.

Again, look at the lineups of the four teams in the conference championship games Sunday. Fifty of the 88 starters – based on the official NFL game summaries – were drafted by those teams – Chiefs, 49ers, Baltimore and Detroit – and never played for anyone other than their original team. One other starter entered the league as an undrafted free agent and also was still with his original team. Plus, if not for injuries to preferred starters – including such standouts as Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Geno Stone, Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay and Lions guard Jonah Jackson – that number likely would have increased by eight, or 69 percent of Sunday's starters.

Then there were the draft picks who weren't listed as starters but played a critical role in their team's success over the course of the season, including Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Lions defensive back Brian Branch, Ravens tight end Mark Andrews and several others.

On the other hand, 32 of the 88 listed starters (36 percent) were free agents: from veteran street free agents signed to practice squads who plugged holes for injured starters; to the likes of defensive lineman Michael Pierce and guard Graham Glasgow, who began their careers with the Ravens and Lions, respectively, briefly left in free agency and were re-signed in the last two years; to the more impactful free agents who were paid big money.

Keep in mind that list of 32 included ex-Packers and Chiefs starters last Sunday: Marquez Valdes-Scantling and well-traveled, 32-year-old defensive lineman Mike Pennel, a late-season addition who started because of injury.

But here were the numbers I found most instructive because they certainly raise questions about the value of free agency other than maybe paying for stopgaps when a team doesn't have a homegrown candidate to fill what could be a glaring weakness.

A total of 167 players received votes in this season's Associated Press All-Pro voting for just the offensive and defensive positions, not the six special teams positions. Out of those 167 players, a mere eight free agents played for one of the final four teams. That compares to 25 draft picks.

A total of 24 players were selected to AP's offensive and defensive first teams, including 13 from the final four teams. Of the 13, the only free-agent signees were Chiefs guard Joe Thuney, who missed Sunday's game with an injury; and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Seven of the 25 second-team picks played for the conference finalists and one was signed as a free agent: 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward.

Among the list of the other 118 players who received votes, here were the only free agent signings on the aforementioned four teams: Ravens offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Morgan Moses, and defensive lineman Jason Hargrave; 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson; and Glasgow, who was drafted by the Lions in the third round in 2016, started for them for four years, spent three seasons with Denver and returned to Detroit this season.

Numbers like that don't make the cost of doing business in the free agent market seem very enticing.

On the other hand, only five of Sunday's 88 starters were acquired in trades, but at least they had an impact: Detroit quarterback Jared Goff, Baltimore linebacker Roquan Smith and three 49ers: tackle Trent Williams, running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Chase Young.

Clearly, the McCaffrey deal has paid huge dividends for the 49ers, while all Carolina has to show for the trade so far is a No. 1 overall quarterback with an uncertain future, Bryce Young, and edge rusher DJ Johnson, who started three games as a rookie and had zero sacks. The Williams trade was an unequivocal steal for third- and fifth-round draft picks. The jury is still out on the Young trade. As for Baltimore, it certainly strengthened its defense by getting Smith for second- and fifth-round choices.

One could argue that the Los Angeles Rams came out ahead in the Matthew Stafford for Goff part of the Rams-Lions trade. But Detroit has turned the three draft picks it received into a windfall of young players, including Gibbs, tight end Sam LaPorta, wide receiver Jameson Williams and two contributing defenders, safety Ifeatu Melifonwu and defensive lineman Josh Paschal.

Also, Williams, McCaffrey and Smith all made AP first team.

If I didn't answer your question more directly, I guess it's because I addressed it in my post three weeks ago.

Barry from De Pere, WI
Brothers. Maurice "Rocket" Richard, 1942-60, and Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard, 1955-1975, with the Montreal Canadiens. Thirty-three years total, with overlapping, two years longer than Favre-Rodgers.

A much-needed addition to consider. I figured there had to be at least one or two possibilities from the Montreal Canadiens dynasty. But I didn't follow hockey closely enough to know who played exactly what position and whether line shifts would have to be taken into account. The Hockey Reference website lists the Rocket as a right wing and the Pocket as a center. It also lists Bernie Geoffrion (1951-64) and Guy Lafleur (1972-85) as right wings; and Jean Beliveau (1951-71) as a center. That would be my one question: Which run would it be?

Marc from Holmen, WI

I would propose the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux (1984-2005) and Sidney Crosby (2005-present). That's 40 years. They played 26 games together. Another similarity is Lemieux is part-owner of the Penguins, although Rodgers "owns" the Bears, not the Packers.

Like your humor and, again, a must consideration. But would a hockey run resonate with sports fans like DiMaggio-Mantle? Maybe this one because it's more recent.

Ron from Clifton, VA

Love your article every week, never miss it. I appreciate the depth in which you analyze each question, and provide such detailed answers. You are a gift for all Packer fans. For long consecutive runs, I immediately thought of the Penguins, with Jaromir Jagr, Lemieux and Crosby. I know there is some overlap there, but it spans 1990-present, or 34 years and counting.

Thanks for being a loyal reader. Again, Jagr (1991-2001) is listed as a right wing and the other two as centers. Does that matter? I don't know enough to rule in that debate.

Greg from San Diego, CA

Regarding your question today about other players that had a consecutive run in pro sports, I immediately thought of our beloved Braves teams. Knowing their reputation for quality pitching this may be another example. According to my research, which could be wrong, here's what I found: Warren Spahn (1942-64), 363 wins; Phil Niekro (1964-83, '87), 318 wins; Tom Glavine, 1987-2002, '08), 305 wins; John Smoltz (1988-2008), 213 wins; and Greg Maddux (1993-2003), 355 wins. Obviously both the Atlanta and Milwaukee teams were combined but it is the same franchise. Quite the run.

Quite the run is true. But do pitchers count with the large staffs and the days of rest? Also, there's a 1984-86 gap. Nevertheless, it belongs in the conversation, as well as mention of Spahn pitching for the Boston Braves (1946-52).

Ron from Madison, WI

I might be stretching a little here, but I have a couple of thoughts about long-running stars from the Dodgers. They had a 20-year run of catchers from 1948-67 Roy Campanella and John Roseboro, who is vastly underrated. Then Steve Yeager from 1972-85, albeit with a gap. Their No. 1 starters, however, may have one of the greatest stretches in the game. Don Newcombe's second stint with the team started in 1954, overlapping with Don Drysdale ending in 1969, followed by Don Sutton from 1970-80, Fernando Valenzuela from 1980-90, and he overlapped with Orel Hershiser, who played for four more years. So 41 years of a dominant top-of-the-rotation guy. Maybe there could be several other teams to boast that, so maybe pitching is the wrong place to look. However, the Dodgers didn't really have another dominant No. 1 again until Clayton Kershaw, a gap of 14 years.

I agree Roseboro was underrated. But would that combo be better than Yogi Berra (1947-63) and Elston Howard (1955-66)? Not sure. There were nine years of overlap there. Plus, Berra and Howard played a lot of outfield partly as a result. Another great run of pitchers. And you didn't mention Sandy Koufax. That has to be part of the conversation with pitchers: Who actually were the aces from year to year?

Jon from New York, NY
Another tidbit that might be of interest: The Yankees actually had three consecutive Hall of Fame centerfielders: DiMaggio and Mantle everyone knows about, but DiMaggio was preceded by Earle Combs, who was a Yankee outfielder from 1924-35, the year before DiMaggio began his career. Combs was the primary centerfielder for the team from 1925-29 and 1931-33, and a starting outfielder from 1925-33. So that covers the period between 1925-66 with some gaps: DiMaggio missed the war years between 1943-45 and played a few games less than half a season in '49, while Mantle played less than half a season in '63 and played left field in '65. Mantle's last two seasons, 1967-68, he played exclusively at first base.

Thanks for the fact-filled contribution. I never thought about Combs.

Tim from Greensboro, NC

These were not players, but the Steelers run with Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin is extremely impressive. Two Hall of Famers and a third that is a certainty once he retires. Fifty-five years and counting!

Shows the value of stability. But what about the Yankees? Miller Huggins (1918-29), Joe McCarthy (1931-46), Casey Stengel (1949-60) and maybe Ralph Houk (1961-63, '66-73). I guess the difference would be the three unaccounted years from Huggins through Stengel.