Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return iced the game for Green Bay.

Pack to the Future
January 26, 1997

By Paul Attner, The Sporting News

Originally printed in The Sporting News, February 3, 1997

Certainly, all of you understand the emotional significance of the Packers' Super Bowl triumph. In a league damaged too frequently by bad characters and bad acts, the Packers have provided the NFL with a much-needed chance to celebrate something corny and bright. This is a team filled with mostly good guys playing in a city full of giddy cheeseheads whose very identity stems from their relationship with the Packers. Now, Green Bay, the most unlikely franchise holder in all of sports, is back on top, an accomplishment that, at one time, seemed almost unattainable as the post-Lombardi years piled up.

But as you share the good vibrations produced by this 35-21 romp over the Patriots, as you watch replays of Desmond Howard's enthralling 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Brett Favre's two quick scoring passes and Reggie White's three overpowering second-half sacks, you also would be wise to do something else. You should cut through the applause and pay close attention to how this team rose in five years from ineptness to glory.

The brilliant work of coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf has produced the first league champion truly developed within the Brave New World of unfettered free agency. You are surely aware that the Cowboys and 49ers, who combined to win the previous four Super Bowls, relied substantially on stars and complementary players residing on their rosters before the start of free agency in 1993. But the Packers have only two players who were on their roster before 1992, when Holmgren and Wolf took over. Green Bay has given you a blueprint showing how to climb to the top in this still-evolving era, which has become so defined and disrupted by the presence of free agency and salary-cap restrictions. Now, the question begs, how many of you will be smart enough to mimic the Packers?

"A lot of people are going to model themselves after how they have done it," Eagles coach Ray Rhodes says. "I know as far as the Eagles are concerned, we are going to develop ourselves after how they built it. They are now in a position where they can fine-tune the pieces every year; you are looking at a powerhouse for lots of seasons. They have taken their time, the way they put it together, but it shows you if you do it right, you can be a champion now in four or five years. I've had two years; I want to be where they are within another two or three years."

The Packer Way has these principles:

- A clearly divided front-office structure that gives on-field authority to the coach and personnel power to the general manager.

- The development of a gifted offense anchored by a top-level quarterback.

- The substantial reliance on the drafting and improvement of your players and not on building a winner through numerous free-agent signings.

- An as-needed use of free agency to provide the last parts of a championship team.

- The willingness to be bold, especially in trades.

Yet in the days preceding the championship game, too many of your peers demonstrated they do not share Rhodes' vision of the Packers' blueprint. Incredibly, they instead are ignoring the very foundation of the Packer Way -- the sharing of power between the coach and general manager. In Atlanta (Dan Reeves), St. Louis (Dick Vermeil) and Detroit (Bobby Ross), new coaches were introduced as the sole power brokers, undeniably in control of both X's and O's and personnel, including the signing of free agents, drafting and overseeing the salary cap. Evidently, too many of your brethren feel like the Smith family in Atlanta. They are so sick of losing that they want to pull back from direct involvement in team matters and let a respected figure such as Reeves take over. A thousand times no.

These clubs would have been far wiser to have held off from making their selections. Instead, they should have studied the Packer Way as well as the warning signs raised by the tumultuous events that tore at the Patriots during Super Bowl week. The basic cause of the ugly conflict between owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Parcells that, in all likelihood, will lead to Parcells' departure from the franchise this week centered on this most basic of questions: What is the most effective way to run a team in this era? Even given the Patriots' mercurial rise during the Parcells era -- he took over four years ago -- Kraft is convinced the investment of total control in a coach is ultimately wrong. Parcells, who was hired a year before Kraft bought the team, is a control freak who doesn't want to share authority with a personnel man. And Kraft feels so strongly that this one-man approach is misguided that he is willing to risk losing a coach of Parcells' stature.

Their dispute became public and embarrassing after a report in the Boston Globe said the Super Bowl would be Parcells' last game with the Patriots, citing his agent as the source. Parcells never denied the story, allowing it to dominate every other aspect of the days leading up to the game. Kraft publicly said all the right things about wanting his coach to stay, but privately he was furious -- while all the time apparently making plans to replace the volatile, power-hungry Parcells. And should Parcells wind up with the Jets, they mistakenly will give to him the control he saw reduced with the Patriots. Go figure.

You surely remember that Parcells was brought to New England in 1993 by then-Patriots owner James Orthwein, who promised his coach the unchallenged reins of the football operations, the one stipulation Parcells demanded to bring him out of self-imposed exile. But Kraft, a much more hands-on owner than Orthwein, intruded on Parcells' space once he decided he didn't want his coach also determining salary-cap expenditures and free-agent choices. So Kraft eventually gave substantial power to Bobby Grier, who carries the title of director of pro personnel. And that angered Parcells.

It would be smart to listen to Kraft's reasoning behind dividing the power: "A coach's mentality is what is best for me this week, this month, this year, (but) if you are trying to build a system that has to look five and 10 years down the road -- our objective is to be among the best five or 10 teams in the league every year -- how can you give your strategic planning to someone who may not be there in 10 years? And how can one man also be a full-time personnel guy, a scout who gets around to all the colleges? He can't.

"Coaching by itself is such a draining process to do well, and not many people have the set of skills to accomplish that job. But to also have the set of skills to do the personnel work is a substantial request. Because I am not so sure that the skill set that a coach has is the same skill set necessary to run the front office and do personnel and do contracts. Besides, everyone in the world, including coaches, needs checks and balances."

Even the men who now have organizational control aren't so sure it's needed. Well, sort of.

"Look, I am not saying a coach must have control over everything to make this work," says Ross, who parted ways with the Chargers after conflicts with G.M. Bobby Beathard. Ross, now coach and head of football operations with the Lions, did not have any personnel say-so in San Diego.

"I see what the Packers have done, and I admire them for their accomplishments," Ross says. "I didn't have to have complete control before I would take another job. I'm just saying that I know I have to rely heavily on other people for their advice and help to get this done. But coaches feel better (about more authority). Coaches having a little more say in things helps you; you are controlling your own destiny this way instead of not having an influence over a large part of the operation."

But the Packers simply are world champions because president Bob Harlan made the decision not to let a coach be czar. To win a Super Bowl, the Packer Way is the best way. If you want an NFL champ in your city, here's how to build one:

Hire a top-notch personnel guru. Wolf's role in the organization is clear-cut; he doesn't need approval from his coach before he can draft a player or sign a free agent. The Packers' success finally has brought Wolf, who has been a talent scout for 33 years, the recognition he so richly deserves. "He's simply great at what he does," Redskins general manager Charley Casserly says, "but he has never sought publicity, so not a lot of people have understood how really good he is."

Wolf is a tireless, dogged individual who spends the substantial part of most in-season weeks on the road scouting. His work with the Packers has been scintillating. Once Holmgren and he evaluated the talent they inherited from former coach Lindy Infante, they chose to be incredibly aggressive in their drive to remake the club. In assembling Green Bay's roster, Wolf drafted 22, traded for four, picked five off waivers, signed 13 on-the-street free agents and acquired just six unrestricted free agents. The most notable free-agent acquisition was White, who gave the new regime instant credibility and showed black players that Green Bay might not be so bad after all.

That is one of the most intriguing elements of the Packers' charge to a championship. Not so many years ago, the franchise hardly was being viewed in the nostalgic light that now illuminates it so affectionately. Instead, it was then considered a second-class citizen, unattractive to free agents and black players and wounded by the fallout from the Lombardi era, which seemingly made it impossible for any subsequent coach to measure up to the Great One. A woe-is-me attitude hovered over everything Packer.

Now those days are buried under an avalanche of stories casting Green Bay as the ideal example of how a sports franchise should be. Credit Wolf and Holmgren with the determination to not allow the sins of past Packers administrations to prevent them from changing the mentality surrounding the team and the community.

Be aggressive -- and find a quarterback. Not every move by Wolf has been inspired -- he missed on first-round draft choices Terrell Buckley and George Teague -- but his willingness on draft day to maneuver for more picks or to change spots on the board to obtain players he really wanted has served the Packers well. They've had 49 picks in his five drafts brought about by 14 draft-day trades.

"You just can't sit still anymore and expect to get better," says Randy Mueller, the Seahawks' vice president of football operations. "It used to be you could be more conservative and not trade or do anything and still be good. But I can see where football will become more and more like baseball or basketball; we'll have a substantial number of trades."

Of course, Wolf's most notable personnel decision was the peddling of a first-round pick to Atlanta for Favre, who had been a Falcons second-round pick in 1991. Favre's emergence as an elite quarterback obviously jump-started the Packers' development. But at the time, the deal was considered a foolish move by Green Bay, considering Favre's reputation as an out-of-control party boy who would rather drink than train. Anyone in the NFL could have gone after Favre; Wolf had the guts to pull off the deal.

Kraft says his study of recent NFL powers convinces him that you win in this league now with offense; that's why he signed quarterback Drew Bledsoe to a seven-year deal two seasons ago. He wanted to make sure his quarterback spot was secure long-term. Wolf reflected that thinking in two ways: by hiring Holmgren, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, as coach and by aggressively obtaining a quarterback rather than sitting back and hoping he could get by with incumbent Don Majkowski. The quarterback spot always has been pivotal, but its importance is even greater in this free-agency era. It is essential to find a young quarterback, develop him quickly and commit the right amount of cap dollars to secure his future with the club. If you overpay at that position and miss, it has major negative cap implications.

"And that doesn't necessarily mean you have to find an all-pro quarterback," Seahawks executive vice president Mickey Loomis says. "But you at least need a guy who isn't going to lose games for you. You can be competitive in this system that way, too." (This offseason will be a good measure of how some teams handle this quarterback problem. Either through trade or free agency, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Jeff George and Elvis Grbac appear to be available; they all represent a potential upgrading of the position for many clubs. "Your program is dead in the water without one who can lift you," Wolf says.)

"What (the Packers) have done is build a system, especially on offense, where there is long-term continuity," Casserly says. "That system has become bigger than the players. What that means to their success is this: They might lose a guy, but they now can go find a replacement who fits their exact requirements within the system and the productivity of the team continues.

"They've also been great at finding and developing players, guys who have gotten better after they've gotten there. It's given them flexibility, so when they lose someone to free agency or injury, they can plug in a young player and still play well. With our free-agency system, it's getting a lot like college. You better have great schemes and then you better have coaches who can coach the hell out of the players."

Wolf jokes that much of what has happened "has been blind luck. We pushed real hard in free agency when we first got here: 'Let's go out and build our team quickly with free agents.' But then we saw that, with free agency, it was better to work hard to keep your own players and develop them and try to minimize how many you lose to other teams. I'm serious when I say this: If you hit over .200 in this business, you belong in the Hall of Fame. If you hit .225, you are really special. Me? I'm at .180."

Unlike Beathard and Ross in San Diego, Holmgren and Wolf have been able to work out their disagreements, which occur occasionally in any two-man operation. "You have to communicate, and you have to work hard at it," Holmgren says. "Typically, when you have a head coach and general manager, they are men who are really very sure they have the right way to do things. So, to push some of that ego aside and blend things in a straight line toward a goal, that is not easy to do all the time. But it can be duplicated; we have done it in Green Bay. It's a big, big job (for one power person) to do in this day and age."

Use free agency judiciously. To become successful in free agency, your organization must be able to absorb free-agent losses, then move on without retreating in talent. In the past three years, the Packers were unable to keep linebacker Bryce Paup, linebacker/defensive end Tony Bennett and tight end Jackie Harris. They signed end Sean Jones to replace Bennett, traded for tight end Keith Jackson and never adequately filled the gap left by Paup. Yet the unanticipated improvement this season of second-year linebacker Brian Williams became pivotal to the club's defensive improvement. And that helped to somewhat reduce the fallout from the loss of Paup in '95.

Wolf also used free agency and trades to finish upgrading the defense last offseason. The Packers were not as strong up the middle in '95 as they needed to be, so he signed former Buccaneers tackle Santana Dotson and former Bears middle linebacker Ron Cox and acquired safety Eugene Robinson from the Seahawks. "You want to get to a point," Seattle's Mueller says, "to handle free agency like the Packers did. You see needs and you upgrade by adding people. Otherwise, what free agency has become is really the trading of players. You lose a guy and then you sign someone else and hope he is as good if not better."

Holmgren and Wolf also have long memories. They wanted to draft Howard in '92 but lost out when he was picked instead by the Redskins. So when he became available last offseason, they decided to bring him to camp. They also had courted receiver Andre Rison as a free agent two years ago but lost out when Rison decided he didn't want to play in a city as small as Green Bay. But when the team was in desperate need of receivers at midseason, the Packers brought in Rison off the street to shore up the weakness.

You certainly noticed the contributions of Howard and Rison against New England. Howard, who has become the league's most dangerous return man, shredded the Patriots' talented coverage teams for 154 yards and that decisive touchdown on four kickoff returns and 90 yards on four punt returns. His work earned him the game's Most Valuable Player Award, as he beat out Favre. And Rison caught a 54-yard scoring pass on Favre's first throw of the game to give the Packers a quick lead.

But virtually all of Holmgren and Wolf's handiwork was on display during the Super Bowl. The Packer Way has produced a superbly balanced team that, if you study it closely, isn't top-heavy with superstars. Unlike the 49ers or Cowboys over the past four years, Green Bay depends more regularly on second-tier players. Still, the Packers are so difficult to beat because they have no glaring weakness. Their offense is always dangerous because of Favre's abilities; their defense is not overwhelming, but it stubbornly gives up points; and their special teams might be the most impressive of any NFL champion in memory. Remember, not since the 1972 Dolphins has a league champion led in points scored and fewest points allowed.

"You are under pressure to play a nearly perfect game when you go against them," Patriots defensive coordinator Al Groh says. "I'd say they showed everyone who watched this game exactly why they have been the best team in the league all season."

In beating the Patriots, the Packers showed a proper mix on offense, running for 115 yards and passing for 208 and they were good enough on defense to limit New England to 43 yards rushing, which allowed them to switch their attention to a pass rush that forced four Bledsoe interceptions and led to the three sacks by White. And when the Patriots closed to 27-21 in the third period, Howard destroyed their comeback hopes with his stunning touchdown.

In the days before the game, Parcells had talked repeatedly about his team's need to prevent big plays from the Packers, and the special need to control Howard. It figured that Parcells' past Super Bowl experience would serve him well in his game planning, yet Green Bay did exactly what he had feared. One of the most intriguing aspects of the pregame buildup was how Holmgren's talents were overshadowed by Parcells' reputation. Holmgren did his best to act unaffected, but it was obvious his ego was hurt a bit. Yet by the end of the Super Bowl, he had distinguished himself in this coaching duel. His team and his schemes clearly were sharp.

"I knew going in I would have to play at a very high level against them for us to have a chance to win," says Bledsoe, who finished off a mediocre postseason with a very shaky showing in New Orleans. "We had to step it up and play at our very best. They demand that of an opponent; that's how good they are."

What's frightening is that the Packers could be even better next season, particularly on offense. Their No. 1 receiver, Robert Brooks, was lost to a knee injury in midseason but should be healthy in 1997. If they also sign Rison to a long-term contract, their receiving corps will be the deepest in the league and could enable Favre to make a run at Dan Marino's season record of 48 touchdown passes. Plus, the playoff emergence of running back Dorsey Levens gives them the potential of an even more powerful rushing game. And their offensive line is generally young with lots of room to mature. Look for Wolf to add some youth to his secondary and search for an eventual replacement for the aging White.

For a while, though, the Packers will bask in the glow of their Super Bowl work. You should be aware that they accomplished one of the most difficult feats in sports. Favored in preseason to win the title, they dealt with the pressure of being the front-runner, never allowing it to interfere with their goals.

"Green Bay has been starving for so long to win another championship," Eugene Robinson says, "and we wanted to make sure we gave them what they wanted. It's astonishing to live there and feel what this team means to our fans. That's why all of us are so happy about what we have finally accomplished."