Winning with ‘ham-and-eggers'

Last week, the Green Bay Packers worked out the Canadian Football League's championship quarterback, Ricky Ray of the Edmonton Eskimos. After a decade of Brett Favre wingin' it, it's hard to get excited about some impostor filling his shoes. After all, unless the Packers were to somehow acquire Peyton Manning or clone Favre, whoever lines up under center in 2005 or 2006 or 2000-and-whatever will be a downgrade in talent, charisma and Southern drawl.<p>

But that doesn't mean the Packers can't win once Favre moves permanently to the Never Frozen Tundra of Mississippi. If the first few years of this millennium have taught us anything, it's this: The teams that win are the teams with a roster full of modestly paid good players, not teams with a roster of a few highly paid stars and a bunch of decent players.

The Packers fall into the latter category. With Favre, Ahman Green, Donald Driver, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and, perhaps, Chad Clifton, on the roster next season, a huge chunk of the Packers' salary-cap pie will be devoured by a handful of players.

Now, turn to the Super Bowl XXXVIII combatants. The closest thing the Patriots have to a star is quarterback Tom Brady. I'm a huge Brady fan because he wins games, including two Super Bowls, but his statistics aren't overwhelming. The defense is one of the league's best, but, outside of Ty Law, there isn't a player on the roster that causes other teams to drool like Pavlov's dog. The thing is, while there are no stars, there are no weak links, either.

The Panthers have a few star players, but, until last week, you hadn't heard of them. Their defensive front four is tremendous, but Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins haven't been around long enough to be rewarded with salary-cap-busting, multimillion-dollar signing bonuses. If you're wondering what the point is, it's this: The Packers should be commended for staying among the league's elite teams for going on 10 years. That Green Bay has managed to remain championship contenders for so long defies the odds. But it's one thing to stay a contender; it's another thing to become champions.

And that's what the Packers have failed to do since winning Super Bowl XXXI. While coach-general manager Mike Sherman, and GM Ron Wolf before him, have managed to pull enough rabbits out of their hats to give Favre a decent supporting cast, they lacked the financial flexibility to get the players needed to push the team over the hump. The Packers are fighting their way upstream in a leaky canoe. No matter how much bailing they do, the canoe continues to fill with water, and they are getting no closer to their desired destination.

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to Favre. You'd have to be Howard Dean-in-Iowa crazy to think the Packers would be better off without Favre as quarterback. His talent and heart and guts and everything else make him irreplaceable.

But the argument can be made that the Packers can - and may be better positioned to - take the next step without Favre. Just a quick peek at yesterday's thrilling game and recent Super Bowls will tell you that you don't need a Hall of Famer at quarterback to win big. On Sunday, it was Brady battling Jake Delhomme. Last year, it was journeyman Brad Johnson against journeyman Rich Gannon. The year before it was unheralded Brady against supermarket stockboy Kurt Warner. Before that, Trent Dilfer, of all people, quarterbacked the Ravens to the championship by beating troubled former Carolina Panther Kerry Collins of the Giants.

Back in the day, wrestling commentator Bobby "The Brain" Heenan used to call mediocre wrestlers "ham and eggers." Teams reaching the Super Bowl with ham-and-egger quarterbacks has happened too many years in a row for it to be anything but a trend. That's not to say Favre won't lead the Packers to the Super Bowl next season, but the odds are against that happening. When teams invest a lot of money in an elite quarterback, that doesn't leave much money for the rest of the roster. Meanwhile, there always seems to be some team coming out of nowhere with a young nucleus and the salary-cap freedom to acquire the missing pieces, such as what Carolina did by landing Washington's Stephen Davis.

With the draft and free agency on the horizon, Sherman and the rest of the Packers' brain trust would be wise to recall these trends when plotting the team's future. It's no secret the Packers need to replace Favre at some point. This is supposed to be a stellar draft class for quarterbacks, and the Packers could use the 25th pick in the first round to grab one. But why? Not when Brady was a sixth-round pick, No. 199 overall. Not when Delhomme wasn't even drafted. Not when Gannon was selected in the fourth round way back in 1987. Not when Johnson was a ninth-round pick, No. 227 overall, in 1992.

In the last five drafts, 14 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round. Of them, only Donovan McNabb of the Eagles and Chad Pennington of the Jets have established themselves as worthy of their first-round status. Michael Vick, taken first in 2001, likely will be the best of the bunch if he ever stays healthy. It's too soon to say what will become of the 2003 first-rounders, Carson Palmer of Cincinnati (first pick), Byron Leftwich of Jacksonville (seventh), Kyle Boller of Baltimore (19th) and Rex Grossman of Chicago (22nd).

Meanwhile, the Class of 1999 has had five years to establish themselves. The Browns' Tim Couch (first pick) looks like a bust. The Bengals' Akili Smith (third, behind McNabb) is a bust. Daunte Culpepper (11th) needs to lead the Vikings to the playoffs before you can say he was worth the pick. And the Bears' Cade McNown (12th) is a bust. So, what do you do to replace Favre? Maybe Ray, the CFL star, is the guy.

Don't compare Ray to scrambling former CFL stars Jeff Garcia or Doug Flutie. Ray is 6-foot-3, has a strong arm, and a longtime CFL executive compared him in an e-mail to Joe Montana with his pocket awareness. He led Edmonton to the championship game in both seasons, winning it this fall. There is plenty of speculation the Packers will trade for Drew Henson. Henson split time with Brady at Michigan before signing with the New York Yankees. Henson couldn't field nor hit and is spending his winter throwing footballs rather than taking batting practice, even though the Yankees have a Gilbert Brown-sized hole at third base. The Houston Texans, who have David Carr as their quarterback, wisely drafted Henson in the sixth round last season. It is believed Henson, a big, athletic, strong-armed passer, will fetch at least a first-round pick. But is he worth it, considering he's been out of football for three years?

Otherwise, you can go the retread route. The Chargers likely will draft a quarterback in the first round and then get rid of Drew Brees. While Brees seems a laughable option, who would believe a guy like Gannon could lead a team to a Super Bowl and win league MVP honors 15 years after he was drafted?

If I'm Sherman, my mindset is Super Bowl or bust. The pieces are in place on offense, with the line and Green at their peak and Favre still dangerous. Sherman needs to think defense, defense, defense in this draft and in free agency, and only think quarterback if he sees something glistening over in the trash heap.

Huber is a copy editor for The News-Chronicle. Contact him via e-mail at

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