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Steelers, Packers built with similar philosophies

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Feb. 05, 2011 @ 3:02 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

DALLAS — The purists are smiling at the Super Bowl XLV matchup.

Oh yes, Steelers and Packers represent two of the NFL's historic franchises. They also represent the heartland and are the flag-waving frontrunners of the small-market NFL contingent.

But that's not why they're smiling.

Back before free agency was born, there was one tried-and-true way to build a team: through the draft. It was the only way, really. And with these two teams, that's still the thrust.

"The way the NFL is set up, (the draft) is the way you continue to get better," Packers GM Ted Thompson said.

Ten of the 11 Packers' offensive starters on Sunday were homegrown, drafted by the team. On defense, their only big-name free-agent signing was CB Charles Woodson, but he came to Green Bay when his value was severely diminished.

Nine of the Steelers' offensive starters were either drafted by the team or, in the case of ORG Ramon Foster, signed as an undrafted free agent. On defense, eight of their 11 starters were draft picks; the other three — James Farrior, James Harrison and Ryan Clark — were unheralded free agents.

That method of team building is the common thread between Thompson and Steelers director of player personnel Kevin Colbert. They used to run into each other on the road throughout the 1990s, when Colbert was the director of college scouting for the Lions and Thompson was the Packers' director of pro personnel under Ron Wolf. They often would sit next to each other at games and workouts and came to become friends along the way.

"Kevin is a good friend of mine," Thompson said. "I think in a lot of ways we look at teams in the NFL and how you get to where you want to go in the same way. He's certainly been more successful at it than I have, but in a lot of ways we've tried to pattern ourselves in the way they do their business."

It's no line. When Thompson was named the general manager six years ago, he looked at the model the Steelers built and wanted to use that as his template. The progress was at times slow and frustrating, but in time it paid off. The defense was remade into the 3-4 unit it is now, and the transition on offense — the difficult, trying process — was executed away from Brett Favre and toward Aaron Rodgers.

"It's very impressive to watch now for five years, and it's a big part of why we select the right people," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "We have to give our personnel department a lot of credit for our season."

Thompson caught heat for his moves — and his non-moves. Fans targeted Thompson as the source of their ire, even as recently as midseason when they went apoplectic that Thompson wouldn't trade a fourth-round pick to the Bills for RB Marshawn Lynch when Ryan Grant went down. There's even a Web site that has been devoted to taking Thompson down: firetedthompsonnow.com. Although Thompson takes no public joy in it, the administrators of the site have changed their message. The only thing it reads now is a clear admission that the Packers' direction, often difficult, was worth it in the end: "I'm not afraid to admit it," it reads. "I was wrong. Congrats Ted."

Not all of Thompson's picks have hit, but he has had great success in finding contributors near the bottom of the draft. C Scott Wells in Round Seven. OG Josh Sitton in Round Four. TE Andrew Quarless in Round Five. RB James Starks in Round Six. ILB Desmond Bishop, who just received a nice extension, in Round Six. CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields were college free agents. It goes on and on ...

Thompson said that success is born from hard work, long nights and lots of grunt-work scouting.

"It's just doing a lot of tape study, turning over rocks, seeing what's under there and bringing guys in to work them out and be prepared," Thompson said.

If anyone can relate, it's Colbert and the Steelers. He looks over at the Packers and sees something very familiar.

"I don't know what they do on a daily basis, and they don't know what we do, but I think there is a common thought process in both of our organizations," Colbert said.

Of course, Colbert came into something that was bigger than him. In the chicken-or-egg theory, you could argue that the Steelers have had this approach for as long as the team has been in existence. The Rooney family has preached a measured approach but have done so while being some of the NFL's best innovators.

"I think it goes back to the late '60s," said Steelers president and co-owner Art Rooney II. "My dad and uncle, Art, started to become the guys running the franchise. When we hired Chuck Noll, I think they all believed that building through the draft was the right way to do it. That was kind of the point where the formula of having the draft be the foundation — everybody agreed that was the way to make it work."

Well, not everyone. Quick-fix teams of the 1990s and 2000s often couldn't resist the allure and lure of free agency and the marketing potential of adding big-name stars without giving up anything but, well, money. (Hello, Washington Redskins.)

The Steelers figured this out long ago. The Packers have caught on in recent years. Thompson won't say it's the only way to do things, but he clearly favors the gradual climb of working the draft process, trusting yours and your scouts' instincts and developing talent in your system, year after year.

"It's not the end-all, be-all. There are different ways of doing it," he said. "It's just the way that I personally (like to do it)."

Though not always with fans, patience is a virtue, and taking the long road has gotten the Steelers and Packers here. It's likely what will keep both teams relevant beyond Super Sunday. So it's often the under-the-radar signing, the fourth-round pick or even the not-in-the-transactions scouting hire that wins a title or at least puts a team into championship contention.

"There are ups and downs in any sport, but if you have the right people in place, you'll always have a chance to be successful, and that's what we do," Rooney said. "Every year, we have a single goal, and that's to try to put a championship team on the field, and everybody in the organization understands that is the goal. We don't try to make it too complicated."

Pure and simple: Just the way it should be.

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