GREEN BAY—Proponents of free agency often point out that the Packers’ two Super Bowl teams in the last two decades have included pivotal players acquired on the open market.
They are certainly correct.
Conveniently forgotten, however, are the significant misses in free agency during those same periods of player acquisition. The Packers didn’t bat 1.000 in free agency in contributing to their championship rosters. Nobody does.
In short, the Packers took a number of swings in order to connect on a few hits and home runs during those times free agency provided valuable help to the team. It’s the type of approach the Packers have all but abandoned now – they haven’t signed more than one notable free agent in any year since 2006, and signed none in 2010 and 2011 – for a number of reasons.
For one, it’s an expensive way to do business, but it was necessary during the eras new general managers were, in essence, rebuilding the roster.
More to the point, the Packers have become so entrenched in their draft-and-develop philosophy now that they get the vast majority of the swings they need without free agency, which produces the hits and misses in a more salary-cap friendly way.
To recap, unrestricted free agency began in 1993, and the Packers jumped in right away, as GM Ron Wolf landed the biggest fish in the pond in defensive end Reggie White.
Along the way to their 1996 title, the Packers also acquired the following as unrestricted free agents: role player and defensive back Mike Prior (1993), defensive linemen Sean Jones (’94) and Santana Dotson (’96), plus receiver Don Beebe and returner Desmond Howard (also ’96).
All told, that’s three-quarters of the defensive line, plus a solid special-teamer, a polished veteran receiver and the Super Bowl MVP. Not a bad haul.
During that same time period, however, the Packers made some headlines with other big-name free agents who ultimately didn’t pan out. Receiver Mark Clayton (’93), running back Reggie Cobb, guard Guy McIntyre and linebacker Fred Strickland (all ’94), among others, produced minimal impact at best, and none was even around on the title team.
Perhaps that’s why the Packers would have come out on the positive side of the free-agency ledger under Wolf, even without two Super Bowl appearances. He admitted his mistakes and didn’t prolong them. Of the four aforementioned free-agent duds, only Strickland lasted more than one season (he was around for two), and he was still gone by ’96.
Fast forward to 2005, when Ted Thompson took over, and there are similarities in his track record. Free-agent signees Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett (both ’06) were veteran leaders in the 2010 championship season, but guard Adrian Klemm (’05) and safety Marquand Manuel (’06) lasted just one season apiece.
Thompson’s only other significant free-agent signings since 2006 were linebacker Brandon Chillar (’08) and center Jeff Saturday last year. Chillar was a solid contributor on defense and special teams for three seasons but was one of more than a dozen players on injured reserve when the Packers won it all. Saturday was needed as a stop-gap at center and was replaced in the starting lineup before his one season with the Packers was complete.
In between Wolf and Thompson, of course, was Mike Sherman’s tenure, and free agency wasn’t kind to the dual coach/GM.
Sherman’s biggest whiff, and the player who probably ranks as Green Bay’s biggest free-agent bust of all time, was defensive end Joe Johnson (’02), a two-time Pro Bowler from New Orleans. Signed to a six-year, $33 million contract, Johnson suffered season-ending injuries in his two seasons in Green Bay, played in just 11 games and recording only two very expensive sacks.
The Packers tried to plug a number of holes in free agency during Sherman’s time but never found a Dotson or Pickett, let alone a White or Woodson.
Defensive linemen Russell Maryland and John Thierry (’00), fullback Nick Luchey, linebacker Hannibal Navies and defensive end Chukie Nwokorie (all ’03), and safety Mark Roman (’04) all contributed during Sherman’s string of four consecutive playoff appearances, but their contributions haven’t exactly been remembered.