Approximately 16 years ago, John Elway broke the hearts of the Green Bay Packers and their fans when his Denver Broncos upset them in a 31-24 victory in Super Bowl XXXII.
That loss has gone down as one of the bitterest defeats in the history of the Packers and the failure to win that game hastened the departure of head coach Mike Holmgren from Green Bay. Holmgren coached only one more season before leaving to become both the head coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks.
Elway meanwhile won his second straight ring the following year before retiring from pro football. In 2011, not soon after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the Hall of Fame quarterback was hired by Denver to run their football operations. It was a move that was criticized by many as Elway didn’t have much front office experience, aside from owning Colorado’s arena football team.
Much like in his playing days, Elway silenced his critics. In his first year at the helm, he picked up the pieces from the disastrous tenure of Josh McDaniels as head coach and the Broncos won the AFC West title with Tim Tebow (TIM TEBOW!) at quarterback. Denver even upset the then-defending AFC champion Steelers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Patriots.
Elway then of course signed Peyton Manning the following offseason and the rest is history. With the Broncos on their way to Super Bowl XLVIII, many teams around the NFL will be looking at how Elway built his roster. Despite a recent run of success, the Green Bay Packers should be one of those teams.
While a full roster rebuild is not necessary in Green Bay, Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be wise to look at exactly how Elway has built the Broncos and how that could serve as a blueprint to get the Packers back in contention for a Super Bowl.
The common excuse for Elway’s detractors is “Oh, he has Peyton Manning.” That’s true, but remember this team won the AFC West in 2011 with a quarterback whose throwing style resembles loose Jell-O. There is plenty of talent on the team even if you don’t count Manning.
Thompson of course has Rodgers. While the Packers’ quarterback is not in the twilight of his career like Manning is, Green Bay definitely does not and cannot let Rodgers’ prime go to waste.
Elway has built his team through a mix of both the draft and free agency. He hit a home run with Von Miller in 2011 despite the linebacker’s off-field issues. 2011 second round safety Rahim Moore has shown promise and tight end Julius Thomas, a tight end taken in the fourth round that same year, experienced a breakout season in 2013.
The Broncos traded out of the first round in 2012 but their second round selection defensive tackle Derek Wolfe had four sacks before an illness derailed his season this year. They drafted quarterback Brock Osweiler as the heir apparent to Manning and he showed promise in mop up duty this season.
This year, Elway drafted running back Montee Ball who has come on strong late in the season and into the postseason after struggling early.
Elway doesn’t stick exclusively to the draft however, and one can argue that’s what has put Denver over the top this season. Aside from signing Manning before the 2012 season, Elway signed Wes Welker away from New England this year as well as cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie in particular was considered “washed up” by many but thanks to an injury to Champ Bailey, Rodgers-Cromartie was a godsend for the Broncos this year.
Thompson, meanwhile, has stuck with his “draft and develop from within” from philosophy and it has generally served the Packers well. Thompson’s shrewd drafting made the Packers one of the deepest teams in the league and their run through both 2010 and 2011 showed that. The past two seasons however have exposed some glaring holes on the roster, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Thompson tried to fix this with linebacker Nick Perry in the first round in 2012 and defensive end Datone Jones in 2013. Both have shown promise, but have been nowhere near the immediate contributors many fans, and possibly Thompson himself, hoped. The team still has a gaping hole at safety since Nick Collins was lost with an injury and Thompson chose not to address the need with a high pick in either draft.
With Rodgers officially in the prime of his career, the Packers can no longer afford to sit and watch players develop while asking Rodgers to carry the whole team (not just the offense) on his back. Thompson would be wise to take a page from Elway’s book and add some talent via both the draft and free agency.
Thompson has said that free agency is a crapshoot, but the draft perhaps even more so. Just because a player has succeed in college is by no means a guarantee of success in the NFL (Tebow, anyone?). With free agents, you at least have an idea of how they perform at the speed of the professional game.
The past few seasons have seen “In Ted We Trust” become a popular mantra amongst Packers fans. Thanks in large part to a failure to fix the issues on the Packers defense that trust is beginning to be shaken. While the team is still very well positioned to compete for the next several years, adding a free agent or two to allow some of these young players to actually watch and learn instead of just being thrown into the fire would benefit the Packers immensely.
Sorry Ted, but it’s time to evolve.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke