Packers draft appears to be masterpiece
By Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel
If the optimists are right and the Green Bay Packers really are becoming a National Football League juggernaut, their stunning harvest of talent in the 1995 draft is ample evidence of just how formidable the organization has become.
Finding good players, the blueprint for building any football team, still is just one portion of the winning equation. The other part is fitting players into the intricate web of coaches and systems that seems to change at least every other year even in the most stable of franchises.
For 25 years, the Packers blissfully kept giving away the house key to the head coach in hopes of finding the next Vince Lombardi. They never did.
Finally, club President Bob Harlan turned the franchise over for the first time to a football general manager, Ron Wolf, who in turn selected Mike Holmgren as coach. Then Harlan watched from the shadows as the two men steadily built the Packers from a patsy into a heavyweight.
Without the trade for and development of Brett Favre and the $17 million signing of Reggie White, the Packers probably still would be caught in the NFL undertow.
As great as those two players are, however, every team that wins a Super Bowl usually can look back and say a specific draft was what put it over the top.
The '95 draft looks to be the one in Green Bay.
Two months ago, it didn't seem so special. Cornerback Craig Newsome was the only starter among the 10 players chosen.
Then, in an overwhelming explosion of potential becoming performance, four others -- linebacker Brian Williams, fullback William Henderson, wide receiver Antonio Freeman and guard Adam Timmerman -- earned starting jobs. A sixth pick, defensive tackle Darius Holland, plays extensively off the bench and could be a starter in the future.
Based on opening-day lineups, the Packers are the only team in the NFL with five starters out of the '95 draft. The average is 2.3 starters per club. Don't waste time again reading someone's post-draft grades. That year, even the respected Dallas Morning News gave Green Bay's draft a D.
The Packers, of course, were not a weak sister with positions going for the asking. And it wasn't the case of having multiple first- and second-round choices to skew the results. These newcomers can play.
Green Bay hasn't faced a real quarterback yet, but Newsome is emerging so fast that he has a shot at the Pro Bowl. Several scouts have marveled at how well Williams is playing. Henderson is one of the NFL's top young fullbacks. Freeman has made enough plays to suggest he might be for real. Timmerman has been good enough and brings an appealing measure of nastiness to his game. And Holland, despite his many inconsistencies, flashes what every team desires at defensive tackle.
One day before the '95 draft, Wolf owned the 22nd pick of the first round, two thirds and three other choices. Then he made three trades in two days, picked up four extra picks and turned a tenuous situation into a bonanza.
As outstanding as the seventh-round selection of Timmerman was, it really didn't signify much on a larger scale. He was just about the last offensive lineman on the Packers' board. Both offensive line coach Tom Lovat and scout John Math had seen Timmerman and vouched for him. Credit them.
The other four players and Holland reflect many of the Packers' abundant strengths: Wolf's skill as a trader and talent evaluator, the clear vision of the type of players Holmgren wants and the almost unrivaled continuity and job security throughout the scouting and coaching staffs.
This is the fifth season that the Packers have used Holmgren's offense.
It is the fifth season they have used the defense first coached by Ray Rhodes and later adopted with variations by Fritz Shurmur.
And it was the fifth draft in which Wolf's grading system and standards for reports have been used by the scouts.
In those five years, Dallas has fired its head coach and lost several coordinators, San Francisco has had to change coordinators, Detroit has had numerous coordinators and entirely different systems, Tampa Bay has fired a head coach and replaced him with Minnesota's defensive coordinator, the Vikings elected to change offensive coordinators and Chicago has lost its top personnel man and changed head coaches.
"All the way down from the top it's run so damn smooth now," said Dave Hanner, who retired in May after 15 years as a Packers scout and more than 40 years with the organization. "The scouts study film with the assistant coaches. The scouts know what type of player to look for."
Hanner knows, perhaps better than anyone else, that this almost Utopian situation in Green Bay still is relatively new.
Under Bart Starr, there was constant shuffling of systems and assistant coaches and a misguided chain of command in the draft room that should have started with personnel director Dick Corrick but instead began with the overextended and inexperienced coach.
Under Forrest Gregg, the firing of offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker led to offense by committee and failure, while Corrick kept losing personnel battles to the domineering coach.
Under Lindy Infante, the 50-50 arrangement with vice president Tom Braatz reduced the role of the coach in the draft, but the inherent weaknesses of his system and a general reluctance to play rookies helped bring collapse.
Wolf-Holmgren opened in April 1992 with Terrell Buckley. He couldn't play, although Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett and Mark Chmura from the same draft sure could.
A year later, sandwiched around the choices of Wayne Simmons and Earl Dotson, the pair traded up and made a mistake on George Teague.
And, as recently as '94, Wolf-Holmgren still was trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole with the horrendous selection of LeShon Johnson.
All along, though, Wolf and Holmgren were learning about each other and respecting what they discovered. And it all came together in '95.
After Buckley, Wolf-Holmgren desperately needed a cornerback but never again a midget. The Carolina Panthers didn't mind and so, in their anxiety to draft diminutive cornerback Tyrone Poole, they traded an extra third-round pick to Green Bay and moved up 10 places in the first round.
Newsome lacked a step of speed but otherwise fit the Packers' now-established model for cornerback: big, tough and able to cover.
Holland, obtained with the pick from Carolina, was exactly the type of defensive tackle Shurmur told the staff he coveted: big and fast.
The choice of Henderson on the pick directly after Holland came through the pre-draft trade of quarterback Mark Brunell. Again, it was a collaborative effort with an ultimate goal in mind: Find a blocking fullback.
Hanner and Wolf went to North Carolina early but weren't impressed. Later, according to Hanner, scout Shaun Herock cross-checked through Chapel Hill and saw tapes of Henderson in the last few games throwing crushing lead blocks that he hadn't been previously. Many teams rated Henderson as a late pick and felt the Packers jumped prematurely, but when the Packers became convinced he was the player for them, no one else's opinion mattered.
Williams' size and ability to take on blocks were a bit suspect, but his speed and play-making skills weren't. Obtained with a compensatory pick the Packers got from Seattle for the free-agency loss of cornerback Corey Harris, Williams gave Wolf his dream set of linebackers: None of them ever has to leave the field.
Freeman had the size, elusiveness after the catch and courage inside that the Packers demand from their wide receivers. Now the holes in his game that concerned other teams are disappearing fast.
Across the NFL, owners dabble in football decisions, personnel men come and go and coaches panic under the pressure to win.
In Green Bay, Wolf-Holmgren is under contract through 1999 while Harlan safeguards the duo's autonomy. At long last the Packers have the better idea.