Ted Thompson was always a tight poker player. When he bet, you knew he had something, and he’d wait you out, anticipating his move when he had pocket queens and could attack. To borrow a phrase from Marshawn Lynch, Brian Gutekunst is much more about that action, boss. He’s not exactly a riverboat gambler, a guy who splashes the pot raising 10-7 off-suit, but he wants to be in more hands. He’s said as much in his opening press conference as general manager. He wants the Green Bay Packers to be in on every major piece out there.
Thompson excelled playing the long game with the roster, though he inherited a Hall of Fame quarterback and some excellent pieces from an underperforming team. His ability to draft players and Mike McCarthy’s staff’s ability to develop them held the cornerstone of the team’s ability to sustain success over the last decade-plus.
But Thompson rarely, if ever, went “all in,” according to observers. His biggest foray into free agency netted the Packers Charles Woodson on what turned out to be a below market deal, while getting tremendous value for Ryan Pickett. Thompson snagged Julius Peppers in free agency after his prime to supplement the roster, and had Thompson been slightly more successful in drafting players later in his career, Green Bay would be staring at far fewer roster holes in 2019.
His plan would have worked had he sustained his drafting success. The premise of focusing on the draft should be celebrated. Thompson’s unwavering insistence that be not just the primary but at times only way to improve the team, however, held the Packers back.
There’s a strong case to be made Gutekunst went all in last offseason, paying above market deals to aging veterans, believing Jimmy Graham and Tramon Williams would be more valuable to them than anyone else. He was wrong about that. But the moves he made on the margins were beyond reproach.
Stealing Bashaud Breeland was a stroke of luck thanks to a freak injury, but 31 other teams could have signed him. Muhammad Wilkerson could have more than earned his money had he been able to stay healthy, a fault that can’t be laid at the feet of the front office. Likewise, blame McCarthy and Joe Philbin for Marcedes Lewis’ criminal underuse. Byron Bell looked like the kind of veteran offensive lineman Thompson refused to consider, and Bell demonstrated one of the reasons: he was horrid. That’s on Gutekunst, but the idea was the right one.
Gutekunst made a splashy free agent move to bolster a position of need when he signed Jimmy Graham. He overpaid for Williams, a mistake in retrospect, but one easily overturned by cutting Williams and saving $5 million on the cap this spring. It was always a one-year deal if the Packers wanted it to be. The rest of the moves are on the margins, to add depth, and provide the kind of veteran resources Thompson teams often lacked.
His failure to properly identify high-quality players should be considered a mark against Gutekunst and the front office, though McCarthy should likewise receive plenty of blame for his deployment of Graham. But what the team tried to do was add a blue chip talent and supplemental pieces. They tried to add a second with the Khalil Mack trade, a fiasco whose truth may never be fully revealed, though it seems the reports that the Raiders only truly engaged the Bears are accurate and the Packers never fully had a shot.
That is the best way to go all in. Identify one or two blue chip players who could elevate the team in a meaningful way and add smaller, value pieces around them. If they miss out on those blue chip players, that’s OK so long as they don’t overpay secondary guys to fill the void. That’s what teams like Washington and Oakland do. That’s how bad teams stay bad.
The fear of going all in is rooted in the idea of short-term gains at the risk of long-term success. Generally, that means overpaying for players who aren’t worth the money, or paying a big-money contract to a play who may be worth it in Year 1, but by Year 3 is an albatross. The extra years are what often sells deals like this, which is why teams are willing to engage in that kind of negotiating.
Chasing short-term success with short-term pieces shouldn’t be a deal-breaker though. Tramon Williams was a fine signing if they cut him or renegotiate. He had value for this team last year beyond what he provided on the field. One or two-year deals aren’t the enemy. Bad deals are. Long-term contracts shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand either, so long as they’re for good players at a reasonable price.
Front offices don’t work with perfect information. Every general manager thinks he’s giving a contract to a good player if they’re paying him what a good player costs. It’s just that GMs are often wrong about who is good and who isn’t.
The Packers have the coffers to aggressively add a blue chipper or two this offseason. They should be trying to do that. Rodgers needs help and one blue chip player at the right position is often worth more than two or three rotational guys. Green Bay has the financial flexibility to add both, adding top-end talent along with tertiary players. Couple that with three top-50 picks and Gutekunst has the tools to buoy the talent of this team in a single offseason even without having to overpay free agents.
We know Gutekunst is willing and able to follow the prudent blueprint; the team did it last season. Some slightly better injury luck, better coaching, and a wider talent pool at need positions provide the Packers an opportunity to excel this year where they came up a little short last year.
Finding the marginal players helps, and forgetting to do that part of it undercut some of the positive moves Ted Thompson made in his time as GM. Gutekunst’s dexterity in finding quality players on the edges eases the team building burden a bit, allowing the front office to narrow in on finding the one or perhaps two blue chip players who can take this team to the next level. But much like Thompson and his drafting, they can’t miss two years in a row. It would be better to sign no star than to sign the wrong one.