Published November 20, 2014
NFL executives always talk about building the core of their club through the draft, then using free agency to fill in some blanks.
They might be saying it more after this Super Bowl.
Look at the breakdown of the starting lineups for the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. It's as if these old-school franchises were using the same throwback playbook because the numbers are identical:
— Sixteen of the 22 expected starters are homegrown players, draft picks who've never left.
— Two more are the next-best thing, guys who were signed after nobody drafted them and have never left.
— The remaining four were signed off the open market. But even those additions were made through scouting acumen rather than winning bidding wars.
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson and Steelers linebacker James Farrior are valuable players now, both team captains. However, both joined their clubs for the simple reason that nobody else wanted them.
"We made a bunch of phone calls, my agent did, with no success," said Woodson, who left Oakland with the reputation of being more interested in fun than football. "For some reason, Green Bay kept calling him. I kept trying to blow it off, blow it off, blow it off. Finally, I took a visit to Green Bay and the rest is history."
Farrior was a 'tweener for the New York Jets, too slow to be an outside linebacker, too small to be an inside linebacker. But the Steelers saw him as a perfect fit for their scheme. He now says, "I was born to play inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers."
"I felt like I was wanted there," he said. "I think they do a great job of getting people to fit within their system. That's one thing about the Steelers: They've always been able to do that. They've always been able to judge good people, good character, good players. That's why the Steelers organization has been so successful over the years."
Pittsburgh and Green Bay are franchises built on tradition and a clear sense of how things should be done. They must be. Neither is a high-profile destination for free agents, nor are their owners the deep-pocketed types who are willing to overpay a player or two or three to help generate headlines.
They have to get it right if they are going to succeed. Sometimes, that requires patience and trust. The Packers exhibited both by sticking with general manager Ted Thompson despite moves that rattled the fan base — spending a first-round pick on Aaron Rodgers when they already had Brett Favre.
"The principles are in place of how you evaluate a player," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "So when you're in a personnel meeting prior to the draft and discussions are going around the table about a player, you know when the final decision is made that Ted has probably had his eyes on him and definitely has done his due diligence. It's very impressive to watch now for five years, and it's a big part of why we select the right people. We have to give our personnel department a lot of credit for our season."
Thompson learned how to build a club from Ron Wolf, who was the architect of the teams Favre led to two Super Bowls. This is the first Super Bowl on Thompson's watch, but there's no reason to think it will be the last. The majority of the starters are in their 20s and Rodgers is a blossoming star who's turned Favre into old news.
It's also worth noting Green Bay has 16 players on injured reserve, meaning Thompson and his staff have had to dig even deeper to keep the club going. Among the gems they've uncovered: running back James Starks, a sixth-round pick; nickel cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent; and outside linebacker Erik Walden, who was out of football when the Packers signed him in midseason.
"I really like our structure, our program," McCarthy said. "We have drafted players, we have developed them and have been successful in doing that. We need to continue to do that because every year is a new year. This year for us is a great example of that. There are challenges in front of you that you don't know you're going to hit, and when they hit you have to be prepared. ... I think the future is bright for our football team."
As a Pittsburgh native, McCarthy knows where to look for inspiration.
The Steelers are in the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons, thanks mostly to replenishing their system with wise draft picks. The mastermind is Kevin Colbert, the director of football operations.
Eight of Pittsburgh's last 10 first-rounders are starters, which is even more impressive since the Steelers usually pick late in the first round. Other draft coups include guard Chris Kemoeatu and receiver Antonio Brown in the sixth round, and defensive end Brett Keisel in the seventh.
Then there's James Harrison, a rookie free agent in 2002 who was cut three times before becoming the AP's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 — a year before Woodson won it for the Packers.