|David Stluka / Associated Press|
|Charles Woodson is a rare example of the Packers signing an impact veteran free-agent player.|
They also have followed almost identical blueprints in building their Super Bowl rosters.
Both drafted top-flight quarterbacks. Both drafted elite starters at other positions. Both drafted solid depth that has been vital in allowing them to overcome key injuries.
Both drafted ... and drafted ... until they ended up with teams strong enough to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
In the case of the Steelers, they've been pretty much championship-ready for the last five years, a stretch in which they've won the last two of a record six Super Bowls. And the Steelers and Packers -- who have reached the NFC Championship Game twice in the last four seasons and are seeking a fourth Super Bowl crown and first in 14 years -- appear to be built to contend for several more than the one that will be decided on Sunday.
The rest of the NFL is watching on with great admiration, if not envy.
"When I look at both rosters, it's just striking what a terrific job that their personnel departments have done in identifying and drafting really good football players," St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "They've got tremendous evaluators, they've got really good decision-makers."
The primary architects are Ted Thompson, the Packers' general manager, and Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. Their approach isn't splashy or exotic, which suits the personalities of their teams from top to bottom.
The Steelers and Packers might be playing Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, the lavish creation of as high profile a team owner as there is in Jerry Jones. But there is nothing high profile about the Rooney family, which owns the Steelers. The Packers' one-of-a-kind community ownership says everything you need to know about where they register on the glitz-and-glamour meter.
Mike McCarthy, who was Green Bay's second choice to be head coach (after first-choice Sean Payton accepted the same job in New Orleans), offers very little in the way of electricity to go along with his considerable offensive play-calling prowess. Mike Tomlin, his Pittsburgh counterpart whose expertise lies in defense, tends to be more demonstrative, but his sideline demeanor will never be confused for that of a Rex Ryan or Jon Gruden. They are all about implementing sound offensive and defensive systems for which Thompson and Colbert methodically provide talent by scouring the college crop and filling other spots mainly with undrafted and street free agents. Generally speaking, it's a business model that makes for a relatively affordable payroll (at least in NFL terms) and sustainable success.
For instance, of the Steelers' 22 starters, 17 were acquired through the draft. Of their four unrestricted-free-agent signings on the roster only two -- free safety Ryan Clark, signed in 2006 from Washington, and inside linebacker James Farrior, signed in 2002 from the New York Jets -- start. The Packers, meanwhile, have just three veteran free-agent additions, two of which start: Cornerback Charles Woodson (2006, Oakland) and defensive end Ryan Pickett (2006, St. Louis).
"They focus on the draft, not frivolous spending, and they've put together two outstanding football teams," Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. "There is a very clear understanding of how their system will thrive with certain types of personnel. Both Kevin and Ted are very, very mindful of what their coaching staffs want and need to be successful. And it's something that both of these men are respected for across the league."
Said Colbert, "We will, occasionally, plug in that (unrestricted) free agent, be it a higher-priced player or the minimum (salaried) guy that we feel can help make our team better. But our free agency is really trying to keep our own players. If we draft the correct one and they develop like we think they should, then our (attitude) has always been, we'll spend as much as anybody, but we prefer to spend it on our own players."
Thompson's first draft pick after arriving in Green Bay in 2005 was quarterback Aaron Rodgers from Cal. It would prove to be the defining choice of his career, because three years later the Packers would part ways with the greatest and most popular player in their storied history: Brett Favre. And Thompson and McCarthy would oversee the excruciating transition from Favre to Rodgers.
Packer fans directed plenty of wrath at Thompson for the messy breakup with a legend -- who would go on to spend one season with the New York Jets and two with one of the Packers' fiercest rivals, Minnesota -- and for, in their estimation, relying far too heavily on the draft to plug holes.
"I believe I can speak for many general managers in this league who stated, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' in that whole decision," Dimitroff said. "And I think many, if not most, lauded Ted for his ability to stick to his guns as per this issue. I think he did a fantastic job with it, and look where they are right now. They have a quarterback that no one is hotter than at this point in the league. Aaron's really coming into his own, and we obviously had to face him when he was extremely hot (when Rodgers threw for three touchdowns, ran for another, and completed 86.1 percent of his passes in the 48-21 divisional-playoff triumph over the top-seeded Falcons) and there was no stopping him at that point."
It isn't Thompson's style to gloat, at least not in public. After the Packers beat Chicago in the NFC title game, he told reporters that he isn't affected by the "negatives or positives." He said he follows the advice he received from former Packers GM Ron Wolf: "You're never as stupid as they say you are and you're never as smart as they say you are. You're somewhere in the middle."
Colbert has seemingly flown under the radar for all of his 11 seasons in the Steelers' front office. He hasn't received much, if any, criticism, but he hasn't gotten a whole lot in the way of praise either.
Every year, there's a buzz about "hot" coaching candidates. Occasionally, there are general managers considered to be in high demand. But that never seems to be the case for Colbert.
"Ted deserves a lot of credit, but for the life of me, I don't know why nobody talks about Kevin Colbert," Devaney said. "This guy is incredible. The Steelers never miss a beat. They'll lose players, but they do a good job of earmarking the players they want to keep, and they just keep rolling. They draft well, they plug in players, they identify players that fit their system. It blows my mind that Colbert doesn't get the recognition that he deserves."
However, Colbert appears perfectly content to continue to do his job in relative anonymity.
"I really don't know if we're unique in the approach that we try to find good players that are smart," he said. "Really, that was something that was passed on from (late Steelers owner) Art Rooney, Jr., and Coach (Chuck) Noll. It's just been passed on through the different decades and it's something we've just tried to continue and maintain. But I think most teams try to strive for the same thing."
You can be certain Colbert's peers around the league have noticed the consistently strong work he has done, dating back to when Tomlin's predecessor, Bill Cowher, coached the Steelers. Colbert has had few misses, but one of his biggest hits was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, his first-round choice in 2004 from Miami (Ohio).
Both teams are well stocked with talented receivers whose skills are specific to the passing styles of their quarterback. Thompson inherited veteran Donald Driver, but added Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and tight end Jermichael Finley as game-breakers who can take full advantage of Rodgers' dynamic passing arm.
The Steelers' pass-catchers excel at adjusting to Roethlisberger's scrambling. Hines Ward has displayed those skills since joining the team 13 years ago. More recent additions Antwaan Randle El (who is on his second stint in Pittsburgh after four years in Washington), Mike Wallace, and rookies Emmanuel Sanders (third round, SMU) and Antonio Brown (sixth round, Central Michigan) don't just tail off at the end of a play; they're very good at getting open as often as Roethlisberger needs them to. The same is true for tight end Heath Miller, a first-round pick in 2005.
Thompson looked to have his running game solidified when he picked up Ryan Grant in a 2007 trade with the New York Giants. But Grant suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1 this season. The Packers did eventually find a strong replacement in rookie James Starks, a sixth-rounder from Buffalo.
Colbert put the Steelers' running game into the solid hands of Rashard Mendenhall, his first-round choice in 2008, and watched him become a difference-maker in Pittsburgh's AFC Championship Game victory against the Jets.
Thompson and Colbert have been masterful in helping the Packers and Steelers put together two of the NFL's stronger and most disruptive 3-4 defenses. It helps that those units are guided by exceptional coordinators Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau, respectively. However, finding quality 3-4 players is especially difficult because most collegiate programs employ 4-3 schemes. With that in mind, it's usually necessary to project prospects in the 3-4, such as 4-3 ends usually moving to outside linebacker because 3-4 defensive ends tend to be larger in the NFL.
Thompson found a dominant inside force and pass-rusher in a pair of first-round picks in 2009 -- nose tackle B.J. Raji, from Boston College, and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, from USC. The Steelers have some exceptionally talented defenders of their own in outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and strong safety Troy Polamalu.
No NFL player-personnel overseers have had to deal with the loss of as many starters as Thompson and Colbert faced this season. And few in their line of work did a better job of overcoming injuries.
The Packers have placed 15 players on their injured reserve, including six starters and five key reserves. Thanks to Thompson's drafting, they were able to find good enough replacements to help the team become the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl. Besides Starks, others who stepped up in a big way are rookie tackle Bryan Bulaga (for Mark Tauscher), linebacker Desmond Bishop (for Nick Barnett), rookie cornerback Sam Shields (for Al Harris), safety Charlie Peprah (for Morgan Burnett), and Frank Zombo and Erik Walden (for Brad Jones).
The Steelers have overcome something that easily could have effectively ended their season before it began: Roethlisberger's suspension for the first four games for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy after he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old female college student in Georgia (he never faced charges). Dennis Dixon, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, stepped in and led Pittsburgh to two wins before suffering a season-ending injury, and Charlie Batch was 1-1 in his place.
Right offensive tackle Willie Colon suffered a season-ending injury in the summer, and the Steelers were able to more than sufficiently plug the hole with Flozell Adams, whom they picked up after he was cut by the Dallas Cowboys. Adams wound up being one of only two Pittsburgh offensive linemen to start all 16 regular-season games. The other was sensational rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, a first-rounder from Florida. But the ankle injury he suffered in the AFC title game will likely sideline him for the Super Bowl, and the Steelers should be OK with free agent Doug Legursky in his place. Additionally, after left tackle Max Starks suffered a season-ending injury, the Steelers found an adequate replacement in Jonathan Scott, who helped with their 166-yard rushing performance against the Jets.
The Steelers got through five games without one starting defensive end, Brett Keisel, who returned for the postseason. They've been without their other starting end, Aaron Smith, since he suffered a torn triceps in Week 7, and aren't expected to have him in the Super Bowl. But Ziggy Hood, a first-round pick from Missouri in 2009, continues to perform well in Smith's place.
"It seems that they're always mindful to have someone to replace another player when the need arises," Dimitroff said of Colbert and Thompson. "I think they have a lot to do with how the teams are performing."
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.