You can’t do it without the triggerman.
If he’s in place ahead of time, all the better because it gives the head coach a head start, but eventually all coaches need that guy around whom they can mold a championship team, and the Packers’ three Super Bowl-winning coaches – Vince Lombardi, Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy – will be inexorably linked to the quarterbacks who won titles for them.
At this time of year, it’s incumbent upon Packers fans to remember that the franchise used the draft to acquire all three.
Bart Starr was a 17th-round pick in 1956, the 200th overall selection. Brett Favre came in a trade for a first-round pick in 1992. Aaron Rodgers was a first-rounder in 2005. Would the Packers have won a single Super Bowl, let alone four, had none of those three ever donned green and gold? Maybe not. Opposing quarterbacks such as Don Meredith, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger weren’t going down to just anybody.
It does take more than just the quarterback, of course, to develop a winner. It’s a process and an analysis of the draft picks that helped make all three Super Bowl-winning coaches successful reveals three coaching tenures that began at different stages of that process.
Lombardi had the strongest core in place when he arrived in 1959, while Holmgren would seem to have had the least to go on beginning in 1992 and McCarthy might have had something in between the two in 2006.
Starr arrived three years before Lombardi as the diamond in the rough – taken one spot after the spot New England used to select Tom Brady at 199th overall in 2000, for a modern-day comparison – found by personnel guru Jack Vainisi, who conducted a series of successful drafts throughout the 1950s that became the foundation for the 1961-62 championship teams, the first two of Lombardi’s five.
Over the course of seven drafts, Vainisi brought in defensive tackle Dave Hanner in 1952, center Jim Ringo and linebacker Bill Forester in ’53, end Max McGee in ’54 and tackles Forrest Gregg and Bob Skoronski, in addition to defensive back Hank Gremminger and Starr in ’56, plus halfback Paul Hornung and end Ron Kramer as two of the top four overall picks in ’57.
Then Vainisi hit the mother lode in ’58 in what is generally considered to be the Packers’ greatest draft ever and one of the best in NFL history. Within the first four rounds, he nabbed linebackers Dan Currie and Ray Nitschke, fullback Jim Taylor and guard Jerry Kramer, and the following year Lombardi came to Green Bay with a wealth of young talent in place that belied the 1-10-1 record in Ray “Scooter” McLean’s one and only year as head coach.
Only two draft picks after Lombardi’s arrival – end Boyd Dowler in ’59 and cornerback Herb Adderley in ’61 – had an impact on Lombardi’s first two title teams comparable to that of the numerous prior selections. Interestingly, other than Starr at 200, no player among those mentioned was drafted after the 80th overall pick.
Building three straight championship teams from 1965-67 (without Vainisi, who died in 1960) required using the draft as a replacement vehicle to maintain the team’s talent and depth, amidst the natural attrition of the roster. This group of important selections was more a mixture of high hits and late gems.
Linebacker Dave Robinson and defensive back Tom Brown were Green Bay’s first two picks in ’63, while end Marv Fleming was found in the 11th round at 154th overall that year. Robinson took over for Currie, Brown for Gremminger and Fleming for Ron Kramer.
In ’64, centers Ken Bowman and Bill Curry, who both moved into Ringo’s spot, were taken in the eighth and 20th rounds, while another offensive lineman in Gale Gillingham was a first-rounder in ’66 and eventually took over for Fuzzy Thurston at guard. In the backfield, Donny Anderson in ’65 and Jim Grabowski in ’66 were both first-rounders, while Elijah Pitts was found in the 11th round back in ’61. Anderson and Pitts took Hornung’s place and Grabowski took Taylor’s role on the final title team in ’67.
Fast-forwarding to the Holmgren years, far less of a foundation was in place upon his arrival in ’92, which coincided with GM Ron Wolf’s swap for Brett Favre, perhaps the most significant draft-pick trade in team history.
It wasn’t just the quarterback that was missing before Holmgren got here, though. Only two members of the 1996 championship team were drafted prior to ’92 – kicker Chris Jacke in the sixth round in ’89 and safety LeRoy Butler in the second round in ’90. It should be noted, though, that two of the pass-catchers who helped develop Favre into the franchise quarterback he became were also drafted pre-Holmgren. Wideout Sterling Sharpe (first round, ’88) and tight end Jackie Harris (fourth round, ’90) were two of Favre’s leading receivers in his early years as a starter, though neither was around for Super Bowl XXXI.
Unlike Lombardi, Holmgren didn’t have a Vainisi to load up the roster ahead of time, but Wolf sure worked fast and furiously once he had a head coach and future quarterback in the fold.
In addition to Favre, the ’92 draft produced a trio of Favre’s weapons in receiver Robert Brooks in the third round, running back Edgar Bennett in the fourth and tight end Mark Chmura in the sixth. Next in ’93 came linebacker Wayne Simmons in the first round, tackle Earl Dotson in the third and cornerback Doug Evans in the sixth, followed in ’94 by guard Aaron Taylor in the first round and running back Dorsey Levens in the fifth.
Then Wolf came probably as close to Vainisi’s ’58 draft as he could in ’95, drafting cornerback Craig Newsome in the first round, fullback William Henderson, linebacker Brian Williams and receiver Antonio Freeman in the third, and guard Adam Timmerman in the seventh. All five of those picks started in Super Bowl XXXI to conclude just their second NFL seasons.
A few additional pieces that helped fuel a repeat as NFC champions in 1997 also trickled in the next two years, as Wolf drafted cornerback Tyrone Williams in the third round in ’96, plus tackle Ross Verba and safety Darren Sharper in the first two rounds in ’97.
As for McCarthy, his draft cupboard was a little less bare than Holmgren’s but not as stocked as Lombardi’s.
A handful of key players on the 2010 roster had been drafted, both high and low, before GM Ted Thompson’s arrival in 2005. Receiver Donald Driver was a seventh-round find in ’99, tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher were picked in the second and seventh rounds in 2000, linebacker Nick Barnett was a first-rounder in ’03, and center Scott Wells a seventh-rounder in ’04.
Then in his first year, Thompson made his first two draft picks long-term keepers in Rodgers and safety Nick Collins. The choice of McCarthy the following year as head coach fit perfectly with the drafting of Rodgers, as McCarthy was already known in league circles as a developer of quarterbacks, and the post-Favre era was inevitable, even if its actual start wasn’t known at the time.
Every draft since then produced multiple contributors to the Super Bowl XLV champions. The number of contributors is especially high because of the inordinate number of injuries the team suffered throughout the season, but it highlights just how valuable Thompson’s drafts have been for both the top and bottom of the roster.
The ’06 draft brought linebacker A.J. Hawk in the first round, plus guard Daryn Colledge and receiver Greg Jennings in the second. The next year came running back Brandon Jackson in the second round, receiver James Jones in the third, and then fullback Korey Hall, linebacker Desmond Bishop and kicker Mason Crosby with three consecutive picks in the sixth.
Thompson traded his first-round pick in ’08 but still found receiver Jordy Nelson in the second round, tight end Jermichael Finley in the third, guard Josh Sitton in the fourth and backup quarterback Matt Flynn in the seventh.
The ’09 draft, coinciding with the transition to Dom Capers’ 3-4 defensive scheme and coming off a 6-10 season, launched the Packers back into championship contention with the selections of nose tackle B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Clay Matthews – two linchpin positions in the 3-4 – in the first round. The latter rounds of that draft brought additional depth in fullback Quinn Johnson in the fifth round, defensive end Jarius Wynn in the sixth and linebacker Brad Jones in the seventh.
Even from last year’s draft, all but one of the seven picks played in a game as rookies in 2010, most notably first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, who took over for an injured Tauscher at right tackle one month into the season, and sixth-rounder James Starks, who emerged as a go-to running back in the postseason.
Like every draft, the upcoming one will play a role in Green Bay’s future. That’s a given.
The question is whether the 2011 draft will have the kind of impact that could put McCarthy on the path toward another Lombardi-like dynasty of the ’60s. One thing is for sure: The triggerman is in place.