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Obama Meets With Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers At The White House

Embracing the NFL’s new competitive window paradigm

Or: ‘Why I learned to stop worrying about cap space and love the boom/bust cycle’

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Thirty years of relevance is hard to argue with. Since trading a first round pick for Atlanta Falcons backup quarterback Brett Favre in February of 1992, which had to seem asinine at the time, the Green Bay Packers have been a relevant franchise in the NFL. In those twenty-nine seasons, the team has been to the playoffs twenty-one times. They have won either the NFC Central or NFC North in fourteen of those years. They have two Lombardi trophies, one Super Bowl loss, and nine trips to the NFC Championship Game. A big part of that run — in fact, the real driver of that sustained winning — has been the team’s two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Almost any franchise would take that past thirty years. In that time frame, the only team that has a more preferable situation is the New England Patriots, which similarly went from struggling franchise into Super Bowl contender in the 1990s and hit new heights under a better quarterback in the 2000s and 2010s.

Something is changing, however. NFL teams are starting to model less off the Packers/Patriots models of sustained success and begin to target competitive windows. In fact, even the New England Patriots did this during the last few years of their time with Tom Brady. Brady was fortunate enough to essentially get two separate “last chances,” first in his final few years in New England and then this current era in Tampa Bay.

On a recent episode of The APC Podcast, Justis Mosqueda brought up the idea that all of these quarterbacks want to be John Elway. They all want to ride off into the sunset with a couple of Super Bowls and finish their career at the top of the mountain, preferably doing so for the same team with which they have spent the bulk of their careers. They look at their situation and see a perceived lack of urgency to get them there, and thus conflict ensues. While not everyone can be John Elway (in fact, John Elway is the only John Elway so far), quarterbacks by nature are overly-confident and not fully self-aware.

If you’re a fan of another major sport, the NBA, this type of “championship or bust” mentality is standard operating procedure among the league’s biggest stars. An era of player empowerment, rings culture, and shorter contracts has ushered in a new era of competitive windows instead of the long-sustained success that was the hallmark of prior decades.

How Basketball Crossed the Paradigm

Basketball was like football but even more so for a very long time. The 1960s were dominated by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. After a flurry of different competitors during the 1970s, the 1980s were dominated by the Showtime Lakers and the Celtics once again. The 1990s had the sustained dominance of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The 2000s saw the re-emergence of the Lakers and the emergence of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty.

Starting in 2008 though, the windows for the contending teams stopped being a decade, and began shrinking to just a few years. The Boston Celtics assembled a “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. “The Decision” sent LeBron James to Miami to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for a four-year run. The Lakers tried to create their own version of a super-team with late career Kobe Bryant, old Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard, but that crashed and burned as Nash was unable to perform to the level he had with the Suns in the prior decade and Howard was not a fit in Los Angeles.

LeBron returned to Cleveland and the Cavaliers leveraged almost every future asset in existence to maximize their title window from 2015-2018, coming away with an improbable victory in the 2016 Finals. At the same time, the Golden State Warriors had created what may have been the best team in the modern era.

What has happened to those teams in the aftermath of these runs? Boston underwent a pretty sizeable rebuild that was expedited by fleecing the Brooklyn Nets in a trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Miami spent several years retooling themselves into a legitimate competitor. The Lakers spent almost the entire 2010s wandering in the darkness until LeBron James’ affinity for LA, and his friend/agent’s rampant tampering with then-Pelicans star Anthony Davis, swooped in to save them .

Cleveland went from contending for titles as one of the legitimate juggernauts in modern basketball history to finishing with winning percentages below 31% in each of the past three years. Even Golden State, who has probably come out the best of these teams simply because of Steph Curry’s presence, is a shell of its former self through injury and a lack of assets from their title run.

While the aftermath is painful, the payoff can be immense. Since 2008, only the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, and perhaps the 2019 Toronto Raptors could be described as teams that hadn’t leveraged everything for a specific competitive window. Even in those cases, those teams were at the end of their prime competitive windows. In the case of the Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki entered his post-prime years, and Jason Kidd would be retiring soon. The 2014 Spurs were effectively a last hurrah for the trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the increasingly hobbled Tim Duncan. The 2019 Raptors took a calculated risk in acquiring Kawhi Leonard and then losing him for nothing (besides a championship trophy).

The pace of this type of leveraging has only increased in the past two years. The Los Angeles Lakers sent away an entire cascade of young talent and draft picks for Anthony Davis to leverage their window with LeBron James. The Los Angeles Clippers sent a treasure trove to Oklahoma City for Paul George and, to some extent, Kawhi Leonard. Closer to home, the Milwaukee Bucks sent out a plethora of first rounders out for Jrue Holiday.

Teams across the league aren’t trying to build out decade long windows of competitiveness anymore because in order to truly compete, you need to leverage years 5-8 to get the talent you need in years 1-4.

Bringing it Back to Pigskin

I’ve written before about how the Eagles, Saints, Patriots, and now Buccaneers have used this type of window concept to maximize their title chances. While football does not necessarily have the plethora of first round picks trading hands, except for the Los Angeles Rams’ aversion to ever making a first round selection, there are other ways teams are leveraging their future for the now.

And football players aren’t blind. They see what is happening in the NBA, where star players have more power than ever to determine their destinies. In the NFL, this will never work for most players, but star quarterbacks share a similar level of power and importance to the best players in the NBA. There is a reason that this off-season there has been some discontent among some of the quarterbacks, who have witnessed Tom Brady effectively get two leveraged runs. And I think this is probably part of Aaron Rodgers’ discontent. Rodgers has been a better quarterback than Tom Brady, both in the regular season and post-season, from an individual perspective. Despite this, he has seen himself let down time and time again by teammates, many of whom have been out over their skis in roles they weren’t qualified for.

As Justis Mosqueda talked about in his recent Julio Jones post, the way NFL teams are doing this now is through contract re-structures and void years. Instead of the traditional asset leveraging we think of, like trading draft picks for players, in recent years teams have become more aggressive with borrowing from future cap years for the present. COVID-19 has thrown a major wrench into this with a major blunt to the cap space, but this has actually only accelerated the use of these cap maneuvers.

The two primary competitors for the Packers in the NFC this year, according to Vegas odds, are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Rams, both teams who are leveraging their futures in a variety of ways. The Packers have already begun to do this, mostly out of necessity, with a bunch of re-structures utilizing void years, something they almost never did before.

They still have some bullets left in the gun when it comes to movable money. Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers, and Za’Darius Smith all are potential extensions that can push money out into the future and create more space for the team to add talent this summer via trade. The team appears committed to this particular core of players running it back for at least 2021. What I would argue is that running it back for 2021-2023 and dealing with the consequences of that in 2024+ would make the most sense to maximize what you have now without actually giving up that much of value in the future.

The reason I say this is because it is quite possible that Jordan Love will be either bad or mediocre. He might be good, and if he is, it’s unfortunate that Green Bay would have to burn a year or two of his career digging themselves out of a financial mess, but then they can start the cycle over with him. We should not assume he is good, however, because most quarterbacks taken in the late-first or second round (both where Love was taken and where he was seen as a prospect) are either bad or mediocre.

Late First or Second Round QBs Since 2006

Year Player Team Pick Quality
Year Player Team Pick Quality
2006 Kellen Clemens NYG 49 Bust
2006 Tarvaris Jackson MIN 64 Low End Starter/Backup
2007 Brady Quinn CLE 22 Bust
2007 Kevin Kolb PHI 36 Low End Starter/Backup
2007 John Beck MIA 40 Bust
2007 Drew Stanton DET 43 Bust
2008 Joe Flacco BAL 18 Solid Starter
2008 Brian Brohm GB 56 Bust
2008 Chad Henne MIA 57 Backup
2009 Josh Freeman TB 17 Bust
2009 Pat White MIA 44 Bust
2010 Tim Tebow DEN 25 Bust
2010 Jimmy Clausen CAR 48 Bust
2011 Andy Dalton CIN 35 Solid Starter
2011 Collin Kaepernick SF 36 Solid Starter
2012 Brandon Weeden CLE 22 Bust
2012 Brock Osweiler DEN 57 Bust
2013 EJ Manuel BUF 16 Bust
2013 Geno Smith NYJ 39 Bust
2014 Johnny Manziel CLE 22 Bust
2014 Teddy Bridgewater MIN 32 Solid Starter
2014 Derek Carr OAK 36 Solid Starter
2014 Jimmy Garoppolo NE 62 Solid Starter
2016 Paxton Lynch DEN 26 Bust
2016 Christian Hackenberg NYJ 51 Bust
2017 Deshone Kizer CLE 52 Bust
2018 Lamar Jackson BAL 32 Franchise QB
2019 Drew Lock DEN 42 Probable Bust
2020 Jordan Love GB 26 TBD
2020 Jalen Hurts PHI 53 TBD

Green Bay has already mostly committed to an all-in team, but there’s no need for partial measures here. The Packers have the capability to turn themselves into a full-fledged short-term juggernaut if they so wish. The major wrench in the plan would be the most important part of it: Aaron Rodgers. With that, you leave him with the following pitch:

It’s not the way the Packers have operated for the past thirty years. It goes against almost everything Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson stood for in terms of sustained success. But as the league changes, teams must change or be left behind in a state of “good but not good enough.”

The Packers are a pretty old team right now. Aaron Rodgers is back at his historically elite level, but is in his late thirties. David Bakhtiari is now on his third contract. Davante Adams and Za’Darius Smith are due for third contracts. Adrian Amos will soon be in line for a third as well. Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark are hitting their primes. The time is now. It’s worth taking a harder hit in 2023/2024 to increase the team’s championship odds in a meaningful way in 2021/2022 with someone like Julio Jones.

Andrew Brandt, who worked for the Packers for a long time as a negotiator, has maligned the idea that these re-structures and void years are creative or even good, instead seeing them taking place out of necessity or poor cap management. I view that as an outdated way of looking at the salary cap in this new paradigm. Teams are intentionally leveraging their future to maximize their today. A rising cap with a new TV deal might make the pain less than what it looks like today, but the teams are fully aware of the consequences. It’s no longer about sustained competitiveness, it’s about rings, just like in the NBA. Brandt is correct that in the traditional Packers view, this maneuvering is detrimental to long-term success, but long-term success is no longer the name of the game. It’s all about championship rings.

Welcome to the new paradigm. The weather is chaotic.

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