Dougherty: Why Packers can win without joining Buccaneers in going all-in
GREEN BAY - Last year at this time, after the Kansas City Chiefs’ fourth-quarter comeback beat the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, it was clear the best way to be NFL champion was with an overwhelming offense.
The year before, New England beating the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 was proof that defense still wins championships.
The year before that, the Philadelphia Eagles’ win over the Patriots behind backup quarterback Nick Foles showed that using the savings at that position to upgrade the rest of the roster was the way to go.
And now, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the league’s newly crowned champs, the way to do it is to go all-in for the here and now, the future be damned.
The truth is, looking to the most recent Super Bowl winner for a championship blueprint is a fool’s errand. There are many ways to build a champion, as the last four seasons show.
Going all-in worked this one time for the Bucs, though even before signing Tom Brady they had a talented roster that included the league’s best inside-linebacker duo (Devin White and Lavonte David), two quality outside rushers (Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul), an ascending young defensive tackle (Vita Vea), a talented young secondary that included two second-round picks (Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy Bunting) and two third-rounders (Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards), one of the league’s best receiver duos (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin) and a top-10 running back (Ronald Jones).
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On the other hand, the only meaningful free-agent signing for Bucs GM Jason Licht in 2020 aside from Brady was tight end Rob Gronkowski ($12.9 million guaranteed).
Still, the Packers had every opportunity to beat the Bucs in the NFC championship game, including having their top-scoring offense go three-and-out twice after getting the ball early in the fourth quarter down only five points. Really, the Packers must have felt a little sick watching Tampa Bay rout Kansas City 31-9 on Sunday.
And when you talk all-in, what team has been more all-in the past four years than the New Orleans Saints? What has that gotten them? Nary a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a win. Now they’re in the worst salary-cap shape in the league (about $74 million over the projected cap according to Over The Cap) and without a quarterback with Brees’ assumed retirement.
Less than simply going all-in – whatever all-in means – is that the lesson from watching the Bucs (and for that matter, the Packers) this season is the difference smaller moves can make if you already have a good team.
The Bucs, for instance, got a lot of mileage from signing former first-round pick Leonard Fournette for only $2 million a few days after the Jacksonville Jaguars had cut him on the roster cutdown to 53. With Jones injured and playing only part-time in the playoffs, the Bucs might not be Super Bowl champs without Fournette.
For that matter, the Packers made two relatively small moves in free agency last season that helped them earn the top seed in the NFC: signing tackle RIck Wagner ($5 million cap charge) and linebacker Christian Kirksey ($4.68 million cap charge). Both players helped them – Wagner more than Kirksey – without a big cash outlay.
And those are the kind of signings the Packers should be aiming for this offseason, only more so. They have cap issues of their own – about $28 million over if the yet-to-be-determined cap is $180 million – but also an uncommon opportunity.
Front offices around the league are planning for an unprecedented purge of rosters because of the pandemic-induced cap and revenue decline. The Packers, with a strong roster and MVP quarterback, are in position to take advantage of some of the relative bargains that should be available, even if they’ll have to do a lot more cap manipulation than they’re used to.
“I think this year there’s going to be more quality players available than ever before because of the cap situations,” said Randy Mueller, a scouting consultant and three-time general manager in the NFL. “There will be good players on the street.”
Brian Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager, is particularly free to do more now after drafting his insurance at quarterback, Jordan Love, in the first round last year. That, as much as anything, is where Gutekunst is getting ripped for not doing enough to win the Super Bowl in 2020. But that’s one pick that deserves defending regardless of how things turn out. Because if Gutekunst was convinced Love has a good chance of being a keeper, then he absolutely did what he had to do in moving up and spending a first-round pick on a quarterback of the future.
So Love won’t get on the field as long as Rodgers is healthy and playing well. So what? That position is too important to not pounce on a guy you especially like when your star quarterback is in his late 30s. Imagine where the Packers would have been the past decade if Ted Thompson had buckled to the all-in pressure in 2005 and not drafted Rodgers with Brett Favre still on hand.
No doubt, Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball have extensive work to do in the next five weeks to clear enough cap space, maybe $60 million or so, to sign a few mid- to lower-level free agents who along with another draft class can immediately upgrade their roster.
It will cost major cash and future cap room on restructures and extensions (Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, Za’Darius Smith and Davante Adams) as well as cuts (maybe Preston Smith, Kirksey, Wagner). But the Packers have the financial resources after a just-finished season in which they ranked in the middle of the league (No. 15) in cash spent.
“From afar, it looks like (the Packers) have been somewhat conservative, and that’s smart,” Mueller said. “But you do have a window that you’d be crazy not to mortgage a little bit to take advantage of, and that’s obviously with Aaron. … I think the Packers are one of the best teams, so why not go all-in? But that has to be done with a little bit of hesitation as well. You can’t go crazy. If you’re talking about spending $25 million (in free agency), that’s not crazy at all.”
After watching the Super Bowl, team president/CEO Mark Murphy and Gutekunst should be more motivated than ever to do what they can to win a title. Their team was as good as any last season.
They don’t have to go big-game hunting in free agency, like they did a couple years ago in rebuilding their defense. But this could be the ultimate offseason for bargain shopping, and the Packers have a lot to gain by being big-time bargain hunters.