Fair or not, it seems that the Vikings and Packers will be compared until future Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre decides to hang up his jersey. We all know that Favre played 16 illustrious years with the Packers before retiring in March 2008 and deciding to return in August 2008. The Packers went with the young QB Aaron Rodgers and Favre was traded to the New York Jets, where he played for one year before retiring again. In August 2009, Favre returned to the Minnesota Vikings and is currently playing his second year there.
The part of the story that is talked about quite a bit is that Rodgers has emerged as one of the top NFL quarterbacks. In 36 NFL starts, he has already thrown for 9,412 yards passing, 66 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, and has posted a career QB rating of 97.1. He is only 26-years-old, turning 27 this December.
The Packers have a quarterback that has shown he can put up the numbers, and the only thing he needs to add to his resume to join the elite quarterbacks like Favre, Colts Peyton Manning, Patriots Tom Brady, and Saints Drew Brees is a Super Bowl ring. The Packers made the right call going with the younger Rodgers and, barring serious injury, have secured their quarterbacking future for the next decade.
The part of the story that is not addressed as much as it should be is Favre’s frustration with the Green Bay Front office in terms of bringing in veteran players and being more aggressive in free agency. In Ted Thompson’s defense, he did break the bank to sign CB Charles Woodson in 2006 and Woodson has gone on to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and has probably secured a place in Canton with his career resurrection in Green Bay. However, Thompson has not signed a meaningful free agent the last four offseasons.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings have been very aggressive in free agency. In 2006, they broke the bank by signing All-Pro G Steve Hutchinson. In 2008, they broke the bank again by trading a first round pick and two third round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs for All-Pro DE Jared Allen. Last year, they signed Favre out of retirement. Those moves have been the heart and soul of a team that has won the last two NFC North titles and were the runner up in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. The Vikings have clearly been the more aggressive team in free agency and trades.
These two teams are interesting to study, because they began building their Super Bowl hopeful teams at the same time. Thompson was hired to be the Packers GM in 2005, and Rick Spielman became the GM of the Vikings in 2006. Both teams hired new coaches in 2006 with the Vikings selecting Brad Childress and the Packers selecting Mike McCarthy. Both teams missed the playoffs in 2006 with the Packers going 8-8 and the Vikings 6-10. Both teams have been the class of the division since 2007.
Both teams have had their share of postseason success and failure. The Packers have made the playoffs twice since Thompson took over (2007, 2009), going 1-2 in the postseason. They won the NFC North in 2007 and lost in the NFC Title Game. The Vikings won back-to-back NFC North titles in 2008 and 2009, going 1-2 in the playoffs and losing in the 2009 NFC Title Game. The results could not be more similar.
This year, that philosophy is going to be put to the test. The Green Bay Packers have been one of the early season favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl and are currently 3-1. However, they have not looked impressive the last two weeks, losing in Chicago 20-17 and barely beating a Lions team that had lost 22 games in a row on the road by a score of 28-26 at Lambeau Field.
One reason for their struggles has been the running game, which took a serious hit when RB Ryan Grant was lost for the season. They also have lost veteran LB Nick Barnett and rookie S Morgan Burnett for the season, which leaves them very thin in the secondary.
RB Brandon Jackson has not looked impressive filling in for Grant. In a game against the Detroit Lions, who have allowed the most yards rushing per game heading into that game (over 140 yards per game), Jackson had only nine rushes for 33 yards. Yet, when Buffalo Bills RB Marshawn Lynch was available on the market and many people speculated that the Packers might make a move for him, they would not give up a fourth round pick. That is what the Seattle Seahawks gave up, with an additional 2012 pick based on production.
The Vikings were in a similar boat at the receiver position. They lost one of their best weapons in Sidney Rice for at least half the season with a hip injury. They made three moves to try to shore up that position. First, they signed veteran Javon Walker in training camp, who they eventually released. Next, they traded CB Bennie Sapp to the Miami Dolphins for Greg Camarillo.
When the passing game struggled the first three games (struggling being a very kind term), they tried to trade for San Diego Chargers’ Vincent Jackson. When that deal fell through, they pulled off the blockbuster of blockbuster trades by dealing a third round pick for New England Patriots’ Randy Moss.
It is two competing philosophies. The Vikings are clearly trying to make every possible move they can make to win the Super Bowl this year. The Packers believe in their system and that by staying committed to the draft and saving their draft picks, they will be able to win Super Bowls in that manner. The Vikings have had slightly more success by winning two divisional titles, but the score is going to be settled this year.
If the Packers win the division and the Vikings fail to resurrect their slow start, it is going to show that quick fixes often backfire. If the Vikings comeback to take the division and the Packers either miss the playoffs or have an early playoff exit that is plagued by a bad running game, the fingers are going to be pointed at Thompson not doing enough to save the Packers’ season.
Where this comes back to the Favre controversy is that many people talk about the Packers wanting to move on from Favre and his retirement antics and going with the younger Rodgers. That is a fair point, and even if the Packers had been more aggressive in free agency, there is no indication based on how Favre has behaved in Minnesota that it would have stopped the waffling or made him want to attend training camp. Favre made a lot of mistakes in Green Bay that made his departure inevitable.
However, Favre is not alone in that most NFL veterans do not trust rookies to come in and help the team win right away. They are unknown commodities, and the majority of them are out of the NFL in three years anyway. NFL veterans want to go to war with players that have had success in the NFL, especially if they believe the team is close to a Super Bowl run.
Andrew Brant of the National Football Post who used to work in the Green Bay Front Office wrote an article http://bit.ly/bUT4b7 on September 15, 2010 called Randy’s Rant; Was Almost a Packer (Twice). He talked about how the Packers failure to trade for Moss infuriated the Packers future Hall of Fame quarterback and the role that played in Favre wanting to leave the Packers.
Both philosophies have worked and both have failed across the league. The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys have been notorious for spending money, and the Redskins have not played in a NFC Championship Game since 1991. The Cowboys have one playoff win since 1996. Conversely, the New York Giants and New England Patriots do not shy away from trades or free agency and they have played in six Super Bowls between them since 2000, winning four of them.
Conversely, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts rarely dive into free agency and they have won three Super Bowls since 2005 on the strength of their solid drafts. On the other hand, small market teams like the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars tend to rely on the draft, because they cannot break the bank on big contracts. Neither of those teams makes a big splash most years.
At the end of the day, it is about finding good players and assembling a team that plays well together. If you draft bad players or sign bad free agents, the product on the field is going to be bad.
However, looking at it from Favre’s perspective as a 38-year old in the twilight of his NFL career, he did not have the time left in his career to wait for draft picks to pan out. Making the “draft first” philosophy more difficult to accept was the front office not going after a player of the caliber of Moss. He has to wonder if he has time to wait for the young talent of the Packers to payoff.
While playoff appearances and building a team gradually the right way may work for Thompson, it does not work for Favre at this point in his career. Anything less than a Super Bowl at this point in his career is a wasted effort, and the Packers have not had the team to deliver that in 2008 or 2009. Injuries could prevent them from doing so again in 2010.
I believe Favre had every right to be frustrated with the Packers Front Office for not having a greater sense of urgency and how they have handled that Ryan Grant injury illustrates that frustration three years after Favre left the Packers. The Minnesota Vikings approach of win now at all cost is more in line with where Favre is at this stage of his career. The part that people like to focus on is the waffling on retirement and playing for revenge with a division rival, but at this point in Favre’s career the Minnesota philosophy gives him the best chance to win the Super Bowl this year.
My opinion is that this is going to be a turning point in the NFC North. As long as Favre’s ankle is healthy, and as long as he can hold up for a 16-game season, he has more weapons around him than any quarterback in the NFL, especially if Rice comes back healthy in the second half of the season. The Packers are going to have no running game against the Vikings, and their pass protection still has issues, which could cause the same sack problems it did last year.
The Vikings also have line issues, but the difference is that they also have RB Adrian Peterson, arguably the best back in football, which will help them offset those issues.
The Packers have a chance, because Rodgers has a very dangerous offense as well and can score a ton of points. However, by the Packers failing to trade for Lynch and the Vikings trading for Moss, the NFC North became a lot more interesting today. Thompson’s commitment to the NFL Draft will be put on full display for the entire league to see. We will see if the Packers' decision to hold onto their fourth round pick was the right decision, but I would be lying if I did not say I have my doubts.