There is one negative that pushes its way to the surface almost every time anyone writes about or discusses Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. This argument basically asserts that any idiot could win with Aaron Rodgers, and that Thompson had Rodgers "fall into his lap" or something along those lines. Yes, drafting any superstar will always involve a bit of luck, and it was certainly lucky for that Packers that Rodgers fell to 24th after being passed over by the 49ers, Dolphins, Browns, Bears, Buccaneers, Titans, Vikings, Cardinals, Washington, Lions, Cowboys, Chargers, Saints, Panthers, Chiefs, Texans, Bengals, Vikings again, Rams, Cowboys again, Jaguars, Ravens, and Raiders. I am in no way arguing that luck wasn't involved.
What I am arguing is that Ted Thompson's draft and develop strategy, especially with respect to quarterbacks, is a continuing, well-functioning strategy held over from the Ron Wolf era. The drafting of Rodgers wasn't a lucky event so much as the result of a rigorously considered, planned, and targeted strategy that the team has employed for as long as they have been successful. Yes, Rodgers still being on the board was lucky. The decision to select him, and the work that went into transforming him into the all-world player he is today, was anything but.
The developmental aspect of player acquisition is frequently ignored, and if you are a quarterback prospect, there is no better place to for you to end up than Green Bay. This has been true since the early 1990s when the Packers' coaching staff featured Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, and Steve Mariucci, and it is still true today under Tom Clements and Mike McCarthy. The QB School has been written about ad nauseum (I especially like this detailed analysis by Chris B. Brown in Grantland), as well as this piece by Greg Bishop in the New York Times, which contains the following excerpt:
Between Rodgers's second and third seasons, Quarterback School consisted of 10 hours in the film room and 3 hours on the practice field a week, an offensive study conducted in "painstaking detail," Clements said.
Eventually, Rodgers focused less on learning the Packers' offense and more on clarifying why defenses ran certain coverages, schemes or fronts. Now, when Rodgers drops back to pass, he does not look for his receivers. He looks for defenders, where they are, where they might move, what that means or could mean. Then he throws for receivers headed toward open space.
I am sure that every team has some kind of quarterback training, and just as sure that it does not work as well as Green Bay's. The Packers have had some form of rigorous quarterback development since the early 1990s and it has not lost its effectiveness - not one bit. Everyone agrees that Rodgers improved a thousand times over from his college days, and everyone agrees that said improvement is apparent in almost all aspects of the game, from a conceptual understanding of defenses to small mechanical adjustments to core strength.
The school's effectiveness isn't just limited to Rodgers either. Matt Flynn may not be an every down starter, but not just any quarterback is capable of the occasional brilliance he has shown. By most accounts Scott Tolzien has grown leaps and bounds as well. The thing about QB school is that for it to have its maximum impact, the developing player really can't be a starter. Rodgers is, I'm sure, still learning his craft all the time, but it is also true that football practice involves a lot of matchup-specific work, and every hour you spend preparing for the Seahawks is an hour you cannot spend learning the philosophy of defensive football as a whole. To some extent, a young quarterback must not be playing in regular-season action if he is to get the full benefits of the program.
Fortunately, the Packers' system is adept at putting talented backups into the fold on a routine basis. The Packers are the best at developing the position, but none of that would matter if there was no one to develop.
The level of quarterback play in Green Bay since Brett Favre (and arguably since the tail end of Don Majkowski's career), is unprecedented in the history of the league. The Packers have been led by two Hall of Fame level players in succession, but it doesn't end there. The backups to Favre and Rodgers have also been wildly successful. Matt Hasselbeck was one of the best in the game for years after leaving Green Bay and led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl. Mark Brunell was wildly successful as well. Even lesser talents like Matt Flynn played well enough in spurts to become millionaires, thanks to the tutelage and eye for talent of the Packers.
The level of scouting success from the organization is quite simply amazing. Yes, they are not perfect (Brian Brohm), but the Bears basically always draft Brian Brohm. To only have it happen occasionally is almost unbelievable. I will not pretend to be able to tell you what exactly they look for in a quarterback prospect, but I have a few guesses. I suspect that physical measurables are simply not that important. Yes, they probably move you down the board if you have a substandard arm, but I suspect as long as you can make the throws you need to make, that this is good enough. What I suspect truly is important is certain aspects of demeanor and intelligence*, and however they go about making these determinations, it seems to work.
* I mean football intelligence, NOT the Wonderlic. That is a test that tells you nothing.
When they drafted Brett Hundley last year, what I was most impressed with was his apparent coachability. Scouts were very critical of certain aspects of his game, and of his role in the system at UCLA. His numbers were good, but he was criticized for not having to make many hard throws. In a way, the numbers, which look great on paper, were lying to everyone; but in another way, I think they were telling us a bit about what the Packers do look for.
Hundley may have been in a simple system in college, but he improved every year he was in it, especially in limiting turnovers. That kind of improvement tells you a lot about his thinking. Brett Hundley learned from his coaches, he applied that knowledge, and he improved, year after year. In short, he looked like the kind of player you want in a QB school.
One of the things the Packers liked about Hundley was his intelligence, and they could tell he had the capacity to handle their offense. Director of player personnel Eliot Wolf called Hundley "a football nerd" after the Packers drafted him.
The Packers spent a 5th round pick on Hundley, which isn't a hugely valuable resource, but it's also not inconsequential. The Vikings took Stefon Diggs just one pick before Hundley, and was certainly a valuable player for them last season. So far, early reports are that Hundley has taken well to school.
Aaron Rodgers is hardly close to the end of the line and some might consider spending a pick on a quarterback a waste of resources, but the Packers have never subscribed to that line of thought under Rodgers or Favre. Matt Hasselbeck was taken in the 6th round of the 1998 draft, an almost Tom Brady-like 187th overall. Mark Brunell was taken in the 5th round in 1993. Aaron Brooks was taken in the 4th round of the 1999 NFL draft. Craig Nall was a 5th-rounder in 2002. Matt Flynn was a 7th rounder in 2008. Brian Brohm was a 2nd rounder, also in 2008, both of those picks coming in the year when Rodgers was thought to be taking over. And of course Rodgers was a late 1st in 2005.
This doesn't even come close to covering every quarterback who has been through Green Bay. Someone with an eye for talent brought in Kurt Warner even though he didn't stick, and while many thought it was crazy, they brought in Vince Young just to have a look at the talented but troubled player. When the Packers play the Bears it is almost inevitable that someone puts up a graphic of all of the Bear starters that have cycled through during the Favre/Rodgers era, but while the Bears have cycled through a bunch of garbage, it's important to remember that it hasn't just been Favre and Rodgers in Green Bay. The Packer front office maintains a constant churn of quarterbacks beneath the surface as potential backups, trade chips, clipboard holders, and occasionally heir apparents. If you wait until the last minute to fix your quarterback situation, you have already failed.
Ted, the architect
There is one more important aspect to this entire philosophy of quarterback acquisition and development that we need to cover. Quarterback is the most important, and valuable (or if he is bad, costly) position in all of sports. If you have a good one, you have a huge advantage over the rest of the league. People like to hold this against Thompson as if he has somehow taken the easy way out, but the fact is that Thompson, like his predecessors, is well aware of this fact, and budgets for it.
Rodgers was selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. In that draft, Tampa had the most picks with a total of 12. The Packers had 11. The Bears and Lions each had 6 and the Vikings had 7. If you are the Bears' front office with only 6 picks, you might feel the need to address certain roster holes instead of spending a pick on an unsure lottery ticket. If you are the Packer front office, with 11 picks, you can afford to take whatever the draft gives you, firm in the knowledge that you can stack depth later on.
In the Thompson era, the Packers have had the most draft picks in a given year three times, in 2006, 2007, and 2013. They have made double-digit selections five times. The Bears have reached double-digits just once since 2005, with 12 picks in 2008. The Lions have reached double digits just once since 2005 with 10 picks in 2009. The Vikings on the other hand, seemed to have learned their lesson recently. From 2005-2010 they averaged 6.5 picks per draft. Since 2010, they average 9.8 picks per draft, falling under double digits just once.
Overall, the Packers still dominate their division rivals in sheer number of picks, even over the reformed Vikings. In the Thompson era they have made 104 selections, or 9.5 picks per draft, while the Bears, Lions, and Vikings have made 79 (7.2 picks per draft), 83 (7.5), and 88 (8.0) picks respectively. If a team had led the draft in selections every single season since 2005, that team would have made 130 picks, or 11.8 picks per draft. The difference between the Packers and that optimal team (26 picks) is essentially the same as the difference between the Packers and Bears (25 picks).
Not all picks are created equal, of course, but having them allows you to take a Brett Hundley or an Aaron Rodgers instead of needing to fix some other issue. Thompson's draft and develop strategy creates the freedom to take a chance on high leverage lottery tickets at the position. His (and Ron Wolf's) previous success allows the coaching staff the freedom to truly develop these projects behind the scenes, and their success in turn gives the front office the stability they need to make the most of their drafts.
So yes, luck made Rodgers fall down the draft board, and a bunch of teams that could have benefited from having him passed on him, but if the 49ers, or Bears, or Dolphins, or etc., would have selected him, he probably would not have become the player he is. In many potential scenarios he would have played immediately, and in all other scenarios he would have entered an inferior development program. Furthermore, the Packers were able to pick him in large part because they had so many picks to work with. A different team, perhaps in need of a safety, would have reached at that spot for Brodney Pool out of Oklahoma (34th overall to Cleveland), or Josh Bullocks out of Nebraska (40th overall to New Orleans). Instead they took Rodgers at 24, and then used a 2nd-round pick acquired from New Orleans for Mike McKenzie to select Nick Collins.
Ted Thompson did not luck into Aaron Rodgers any more than he lucked into any other star player on the roster. Opportunity doesn't just show up and knock at the Green Bay front office. They send out a lot of invitations, and their house is filled with quarterback gurus.