Lately there has been a lot of hand-wringing amongst Green Bay Packers fans. Another early playoff exit can do that to a fanbase.
Fans are mad about the injuries that seem to plague the team every year, the continued employment of defensive coordinator Dom Capers and some are even beginning to wonder just how good a general manager Ted Thompson is.
But the main issue – the one that hovers over all of these various gripes – involves the Packers main competition in the NFC, namely the San Francisco 49ers and now NFC-champion Seattle Seahawks. Most fans, and some beat writers, think those teams have lapped Green Bay and a lot of fans seem to think the situation is fairly hopeless.
Well, fear not, because I’m here to let you know the situation is not hopeless at all. In fact, if you examine the Niners and Seahawks a little closer, you’ll see that – while they are clearly ahead of the Packers for now – both are headed for territory that could make them a lot more vulnerable, as soon as next season.
The following is a step-by-step guide that will show you where these teams have been fortunate and where they will likely experience some drop-off in the years ahead. When you’re done reading this, you’ll see that Green Bay can absolutely catch up to these teams.
- San Francisco and Seattle are both loaded with good, young players. In other words, cheap players. But not for much longer.
If you watch these teams play and find yourself marveling at how many good, young players each has, well, you’re not alone. The general managers – Trent Baalke in San Francisco and John Schneider (we all remember that name) in Seattle – have done marvelous work in the draft. Each has culled together a roster that is loaded, seemingly at every position on the field. Your fantasy football team probably had at least one Niner or ‘Hawk on it somewhere.
Every G.M. aspires to put together a squad like these teams have right now.
There’s a drawback to that, though – a significant one, because while these players are performing on the cheap now, many are going to require big paydays. And soon.
For starters, look at San Francisco. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, guard Mike Iupati and outside linebacker Aldon Smith all have contracts expiring after next season. Not one of those Pro Bowl-level players has a cap number over $5 million for next season and all may ask for new deals within the next couple months. You think Kaepernick will be willing to play for just over $973,000 ($1.63 million cap hit) after what he’s done the last two postseasons? Doubtful and his extension alone will likely hover around the magic $20 million per season mark.
San Fran still has to worry about some core vets, too. Center Jonathan Goodwin, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Donte Whitner are all set for free agency in March. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Frank Gore follow the year after (Crabtree might want an extension before camp, however).
The Niners are $2.6 million under the cap now. That number will increase once numerous other contracts come off the books and obviously they’ll be able to keep some of these players. But if you’re tossing in the new cost of paying your quarterback $20 million per year, how many can you really keep? Oh and don’t forget to factor in the big deals for linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks and left tackle Joe Staley that are already on the books.
And if you think it’s looking rough for San Fran, I’d like to introduce you to the situation for Seattle.
Wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, cornerback Walter Thurmond and right tackle Breno Giacomini (remember him?) are all important pieces who have come cheap. All four are also set for free agency in March.
It gets even messier. The two key pieces in Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary are safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, arguably the best in the league at their respective positions. And both have contracts that are up a year from now. Might they want extensions this offseason? Considering Sherman’s base salary, for example, is $645,000 in 2014 (the cap number is just under $700,000) – no, those aren’t misprints – you can bet on it. Thomas is better compensated, with a base salary of $4.625 million (the cap number is just over $6 million), but he’ll want to break the bank sooner rather than later, too.
These deals would all be easy enough for Seattle to fit under the cap – it has $2.9 million of cap space right now and, again, that number will grow – until you factor in the situation with quarterback Russell Wilson. The most recent CBA does not allow draft picks to renegotiate their contracts until after their third season in the league. Well, next season will be Wilson’s third in the league. Think he, too, will want a brand new, $20 million per year contract at that point? I bet he will. And if you’re already paying big money to the likes of wide receiver Percy Harvin and left tackle Russell Okung, can you pay Wilson, Sherman and Thomas in addition to all those other names? Nope. You probably can’t.
All these cheap contracts have also allowed these teams to add solid veteran free agents on relatively low-rent deals, San Francisco with nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and Seattle with defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Once they begin to pay their own players, though, those three names listed above will be long gone and they won’t have the ability to keep doing this as much, if at all.
- Seattle and San Francisco have front offices and coaching staffs that have remained largely intact. That won’t last.
Look at the list of key front office personnel the Packers have lost over the past four years.
Schneider, of course. John Dorsey to Kansas City. Reggie McKenzie to Oakland.
That’s a powerful trio right there, men who all played crucial roles in helping Thompson turn the Packers back into a perennial contender. Schneider and Dorsey have done good work in their new cities. McKenzie, now that he’s freed up a mountain of cap space, could very well do the same. Have their absences hurt Thompson, both in scouting and on draft day, in a major way? Of course they have.
Green Bay hasn’t dealt with as much turnover in its coaching staff, but has still had to endure some tough losses. The biggest, of course, came when Joe Philbin left his offensive coordinator job for Miami’s head coaching position. Some believe the offense has never recovered fully from that. And Ben McAdoo is looked at as a rising star and he recently left his quarterbacks coach gig to become offensive coordinator for the New York Giants.
Look at the situations in Seattle and San Francisco.
Now, the Seahawks have already dealt with some of this. The biggest instances came when John Idzik, Jr. (former vice president of football administration) left to become G.M. for the New York Jets and Gus Bradley (former defensive coordinator) left for the head coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both of those just happened a little over a year ago, though, and really, that’s not even close to what Green Bay has had to endure.
Even less has happened with the Niners. They’ve kept the same coordinators throughout head coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure and, unless I missed something in my research, they have yet to produce a G.M. anywhere else. They’ve remained pretty much intact.
But eventually that will change – really, really change – as teams from around the league will start to clamor for their own piece of that Seahawks/Niners magic.
The losses Harbaugh and Pete Carroll will have to deal with will be numerous and, likely, will occur multiple times a year. Will they always make the right replacement hire? And when Schneider and Baalke have to re-shuffle their departments, they’ll see what Thompson has had to go through. Will their scouting be as good? Will their drafts be as good, with new personnel and lower picks that come from all their success? Probably not, or at the very least there will be some significant growing pains.
- These teams have been remarkably fortunate on the injury front. History tells us that will change.
This is not to say these teams have been perfectly healthy during the last two or three seasons because no team ever is. In 2013, Harvin missed most of his first season in Seattle and Crabtree missed a large chunk of time, as well. We can’t forget all the injury troubles wide receiver Sidney Rice has had since signing with Seattle, either.
But outside of Harvin and Rice, Seattle’s other two key offensive pieces – Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch – haven’t missed a game in two years. The Seahawks have had to do some juggling on the offensive line, but nothing too major. For the most part, the story is the same with the majority of its key defensive players, outside of maybe a PED suspension here or there (sorry, I had to).
San Francisco? The song remains the same. Since Kaepernick took over as the starter midway through the 2012 season, he, Gore, Vernon Davis and Boldin have all been incredibly healthy, combining to miss just one start between the four of them (Boldin wasn’t with the team in 2012, however). San Fran’s offensive line, widely considered to be the best in the game, has missed just four starts – all from Iupati this past season – in the past two years. That is incredible.
Defensively, it’s pretty much the same thing, minus the time Aldon Smith missed due to his off-field issues during this past season.
As painful as this might be, let’s compare that to how things have been for the Packers. Over the past two seasons, Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Bryan Bulaga have all missed at least four games each. Defensively, Clay Matthews, Sam Shields and Nick Perry have all missed at least eight games each.
This will really illuminate the issue (or make you sick, I’m not sure). San Francisco’s linebacking trio (excluding Smith) of Brooks, Bowman and Willis have missed a combined two games in the past two seasons. Matthews has missed nine games alone in that span.
The injury pendulum is wildly unpredictable from year-to-year, of course. Packers fans have spent most of the past five years wondering if it was ever going to swing in our favor, with mostly disappointing results. And there is always a chance San Francisco and Seattle will just continue to receive good luck and have most of their key players stay healthy throughout their primes. But that seems unlikely. Eventually these teams will be forced to endure seasons like Green Bay has had over the past five years. Think a 10-13 win season will be likely then? And even if they can hit that mark, will their teams have enough in the tank then to go deep in the playoffs?
- Conclusion: Don’t panic, Packers fans
When you add it all up, it’s easy to see how the Niners and Seahawks got to where they are now and how they are a good distance ahead of most other NFL teams. But it’s also easy to see how that distance will shrink.
There’s a price that comes with running a successful franchise. And they haven’t paid it yet.
But that day is coming. Soon.
The Packers already paid that price and largely survived it. In fact, they came out of it with a team that – as stated here previously – just needs good health and a couple more defensive playmakers. If they can get those things, they’ll rise a level or two and become a team capable of winning it all.
Will Seattle and San Francisco be able to survive paying theirs? Plenty of teams thought they could in the past, only to never be heard from again. We’ll find out soon enough.