Why Packers get it right, and Lions don't

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mike McCarthy

Allen Park — In the languid western Pennsylvania twang that wraps itself around Mike McCarthy’s words, you could hear Wednesday a tinge of ire.

It seems everybody likes to credit the Packers’ hot-take personnel people for Green Bay’s annual football magic. Ted Thompson, the general manager, and Eliot Wolf, the 33-year-old hotshot director of player personnel who might be a Lions target as Detroit looks for new leadership, are mentioned always as the secret to the sauce in Green Bay.

“I’m not trying to blow horns,” said McCarthy, the Packers coach whose team has a Sunday date against the Lions at Lambeau Field. “But it’s a two-step process.

“It’s really a combination of drafting the right kind of player. And this coaching staff here has been outstanding in getting them ready to play.”

Well, now. That felt better.

Because of recent firings at Allen Park, which saw president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew pink-slipped, a division rival’s coach was being pumped by Detroit media for insight into his front office and its supposed wizardry.

And while McCarthy wanted it known that talent Thompson and Wolf and their scouts have regularly brought to Cheese Land wasn’t winning games in a vacuum — pardon the Packers for two consecutive defeats — he also acknowledged the obvious.

The Packers have been a consistent billboard team the past two decades because they tend to do a splendid job of building 53-man rosters.

Aaron Rodgers was drafted in 2005 and developed behind Brett Favre before becoming a star.

Most of that construction consists of do-it-yourself projects. Unlike the Lions, who have had decades of issues on the personnel front, the Packers use deep drafts and an eye for the unemployed or under-appreciated in crafting seasons that often feature deep-running playoff teams.

Only five players on the Packers roster have played for another NFL team. Not a single player has come via trade.

The Lions have spent on unrestricted free agents (Golden Tate, Glover Quin, Stephen Tulloch, James Ihedigbo, Rashean Mathis, etc.), traded for help (Haloti Ngata, Manny Ramirez, Tim Wright), raided a waiver wire or two, or signed help from another team’s practice squad (Joique Bell).

Like the Packers, they also have brought aboard undrafted free agents (Don Muhlbach, Bell, Cornelius Lucas, Zach Zenner, LaAdrian Waddle, etc).

But the Lions don’t compare to the Packers in collecting the so-called homegrown player Thompson believes makes a difference in winning football games.

“The more you know about people and the more I’m comfortable with them, you know you can count on them,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in September.

Thompson is entrenched in his Packers job. But it isn’t certain Wolf, son of retired Packers general manager Ron Wolf, will be sticking in Green Bay past this season.

He is considered nationally to be a particularly gifted scout in the fashion of his super-skilled father, who brought aboard Brett Favre and others as an old dynasty returned to some old habits.

The younger Wolf is viewed as one voice, and as one of many reasons, why Thompson and McCarthy have been able to forge a playoff giant in Green Bay.

And, of course, that happens to be the kind of NFL sharpie the Lions are hunting as they work to replace their roster architect, who, primarily, was Mayhew.

Clay Matthews was drafted in 2009 and has become the anchor of the Green Bay defense.

McCarthy wasn’t interested in discussing Wolf’s candidacy during Wednesday’s conference call. Nor did he steer clear of saying all the right, and authentic, things about a Packers colleague.

“He’s a fine, fine young man — an excellent co-worker and he does a great job,” McCarthy said. “He’s a real asset to our organization.

“Like all good people personnel-wise, he knows the league well, and he stays on top of his opinions and on the grades of his personnel.”

That’s as far as McCarthy cared to go in any assessment of Wolf and his capacity to help Detroit. McCarthy, though, understands the Lions and Detroit beyond yearly visits to Ford Field.

He was interviewed a decade ago when Steve Mariucci was Lions coach and was in the market for an offensive coordinator. It didn’t work out, perhaps for the better, since McCarthy in 2006 was hired to lead the Packers.

“I’m the wrong person to ask,” he said when asked about the Lions vacancies and another bout of football turmoil at Allen Park. “I’m pretty boring when it comes to these types of things.

“It’s the tough part of our business,” he said, referring to last week’s firings, and to uncertainty ahead. “I have a lot of respect for the history of the Detroit Lions and the Ford family, and the tradition of our games together.

“I don’t think any staff wants to see another coaching staff go through transition. The first thing you think about is families and the people involved.”

Or, as McCarthy seemed to make clear during Wednesday’s conversation, the first thing a coach thinks about in any football context is winning. The Packers have lost back-to-back games. They’re home Sunday where they haven’t lost to the Lions since 1991.

They are big favorites to win again. With, of course, a handsome, hand-crafted roster the Lions someday hope to match.