McGinn Wrap: The Green Bay Packers' A players, 1991-2021
The first of Bob McGinn's multi-part series reviewing his 43 years of covering the Packers begins today. First up? A look at every single player who earned an "A" in his annual grades.
Note: Our resident Hall of Fame NFL writer is recapping his 43 years covering the Green Bay Packers right here at GoLongTD.com. Originally, this series was going to last eight parts. But you all know Bob McGinn by now. He told me this will now last “at least” 10 parts. We’ll be stretching the series out over the course of the 2022 football season.
Today, Part I: The “A” players….
It was 1991, not long into my first season covering the Green Bay Packers for The Milwaukee Journal, when the directive arrived from my boss. Sports Editor Chuck Salituro, who previously had been The Journal’s beat man in Green Bay, told me at season’s end I’d be expected to assign a letter grade to every player on the roster as well as eight categories of overall team performance.
If memory serves, I offered mild resistance. It was a battle I had no chance of winning.
As the lead man on the beat at the Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1984-’90, I had never done season-ending grades. After the first two seasons, we didn’t have a player-by-player wrap-up. For the next five seasons, I wrote an approximately 15-word summary of each player’s performance and future.
Grading was a serious challenge but one I can only hope readers looked forward to at the The Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, BobMcGinnFootball.com, The Athletic and, for the last time, a year ago at Tyler Dunne’s GoLongTD.com.
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The grades might have had my name on them but the truth was they were the result of intensive consultation with football people. An essential requirement for anyone covering a team is having knowledge how well or poorly every player is performing. In 1991, knowing what awaited me at season’s end, I privately consulted countless assistant coaches, personnel men and players for the Packers as well as assistant coaches and scouts across the NFL.
The league then wasn’t as monolithic as it is now. More club employees talked to the press. Newspapers were king when it came to presenting the best coverage, and everyone recognized it. Stemming in part from the fact newspaper coverage had and, in some markets, still helped the NFL sell tickets, a feeling persisted within the industry of “we’re in this thing together.” Commissioner Pete Rozelle championed the approach. If an eager-to-learn reporter wanted to learn the game so his readers could as well, an appreciable share of coaches and scouts, in a strange way, felt something of an obligation to help. And, unlike today, many of the scouts had experience dealing with the press as either players and/or assistant coaches and were comfortable sharing their expertise amid the give and take.
Throughout 1991 and for the next 31 years I was constantly talking to football people regarding the Packers. I directed many of the conversations to how players were playing which, in turn, would explain why the team was winning or losing.
For years starting in 1984, in February and March I would write long analyses of the five teams in the NFC Central Division (four in the NFC North) for Don Heinrich’s Pro Preview Magazine (it eventually became Ultimate Sports). The Pro Football Annual for the Serious Fan! was its motto. For me, it offered the chance to conduct lengthy background interviews with maybe the defensive line coach in Tampa Bay or the wide receivers coach in Detroit or the defensive coordinator in Green Bay, or the pro scouts for all five teams. In the back of my mind, always, was to gather expert, unvarnished opinions regarding the Packers.
My interest in personnel expanded in 1994 with the all-division team as selected by scouts thjat I sold to The Journal. The format last season was changed, but in the 27 years before that, with few exceptions, a personnel man for the five NFC Central teams and later the four NFC North teams usually took great pains ranking the players at each position. Bias was impossible because they couldn’t either vote for or even discuss their team’s players. But seeing that the interviews, normally an hour long, were conducted a few days before the final regular-season game, it gave me exceptional information to carry over into my end-of-season grades. I’d have been a fool not to ask the three non-Packer scouts about the Green Bay players at virtually every position.
Mike Dodd, the Bengals beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the early-to-mid 1980s, offered a suggestion at the time that I would adopt for the rest of my career. Elias Sports Bureau handled official statistics for the league then as now, but Dodd did more. He told me to start keeping a Packers addenda notebook with stats that could be kept from each game and then recorded. I’m looking now at my 60-page Steno Notebook marked Packer Addenda from 1986-’90. I have all 15 of these notebooks in the bookcase behind me.
In 1986, that first year of Packer Addenda, I recorded Dropped Passes (halfback Kenneth Davis had the first of the four in the opener against Houston), Touchdown Passes Allowed (safety John Sullivan was responsible for a 29-yard TD pass to Oilers halfback Butch Woolfolk) and Sacks Allowed (tight end Ed West got beat by Oilers defensive Lynn Madsen).
As the years went on, I added many additional statistics for the Packer Addenda books. Starting in 2001, I had room for only two seasons per notebook.
Here is a list of the start year for other statistics, all of which carried through 2021.
1990: Quarterback knockdowns allowed.
1991: Pass-receiving targets; quarterback knockdowns (by the defense); tackles for loss.
1992: Yards after the catch.
1993: Hang times on kickoffs and punts.
1994: Time of sacks (snap to passer being neutralized); responsibility for plays or 20 or more yards allowed; dropped interceptions.
1995: Games missed by starters due to injury.
1998: Quarterback hurries allowed; quarterback hurries (by the defense); snap counts for defensive linemen; number of pass rushers on each pass play for both the Packers and their opponent.
1999: Missed tackles; balls batted at the line.
2000: Responsibility for “bad” runs (gains or 1 or less in non-short yardage or kneel-down situations.
2001: Number of blockers faced by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on each pass rush (through 2008).
2008: Individual blitzes by defensive players.
2010: Number of blockers faced by Clay Matthews on each pass rush (through 2018).
2011: Chart of where the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs lined up on each play; snap counts for virtually every position.
2014: Offensive linemen that pulled, and the result of the play.
2017: Gunners and hold-up blockers on punt and punt return.
2019: Individual jet motions; number of blockers faced by Za’Darius Smith on each pass rush (through 2021).
The year 1987 marked the debut of Packers Critique in the Press-Gazette. Later, in Milwaukee, it came to be known as Rating the Packers. In each case, I would view the tape on the day after the game and then then write a position-by-position summary followed by a football award (one-half football minimum, five footballs maximum).
The problem in Green Bay, as the only full-time beat man, was I had to write a story or two the same night I was doing the critique. When The Journal and the Sentinel merged in 1995, my colleague Tom Silverstein covered the team the day after so I could spend many additional hours on the tape and then writing more completely in the Rating.
It would be one thing to fill the Packer Addenda with guesswork. It’s another to find the best version of the truth regarding statistics such as dropped passes, responsibility for 20-plus plays and touchdowns passes allowed, sacks allowed and “bad” runs. All I can say is thank you once again to all the assistant coaches, scouts and players that took the time three, four, maybe five days, even a month later, to help make these archives as accurate as possible. OK, I was being a bit anal on this stuff, but if so at least I was learning the intricacies of the game and accumulating invaluable insight leading to the final grades.
Now, in roundabout fashion, let’s get back to the topic of end-of-season (not regular season, the entire season) individual and team grades.
My three great kids will vividly recall how I would go over their report cards line by line using a blank sheet of paper to focus on each grade. The longer I was removed from my own education, the more and more surprised I was by grade inflation. As a freshman at the University of Michigan, I never worked harder for a grade than a C in Physical Geography, which fulfilled the dreaded science requirement.
Over the years readers would ask about the criteria for my grades, the grading curve and why my grades seemed so low. Some became rather outraged how I could some player a D.
I admit grade inflation in America’s schools annoyed me. To my thinking, an A required special work, a B was damn good, there was nothing wrong with a C, D’s usually went to run-of-the-mill players on special teams that didn’t play much from scrimmage, and an F was failure no matter how it was sliced.
Before the grading, I would spend almost a full week adding up all the data from the Packer Addenda notebooks and my game-by-game tape charting. Then I’d do the grades. One thing I never did was look back at what a player’s grades were in the past. That had no bearing on the just-completed season. A player’s past didn’t factor.
In Part 1, you’ll find the 49 individual seasons since 1991 that received an A. I have all the grades in newsprint arranged in manila files. I wondered if comparing players over 31 years might be skewed because my grading changed over time. Fortunately for this exercise, my review showed it never did.
In the 31 years, no player ever earned an A more than four times. Aaron Rodgers (2010-’11-’14-’20) and LeRoy Butler (1993, 1996-’98) led with four.
Six other players received an A three times: Sterling Sharpe (1992-’94), Reggie White (1994-’96), Brett Favre (1995-’97), Donald Driver (2005-’07), Aaron Kampman (2006-’08) and Davante Adams (2018-’20-’21).
I didn’t recall ever having an A-plus on my scale. To my surprise, the clippings showed two players did get an A-plus: Sharpe in 1992, Rodgers in ’11.
OK, the following are the 49 A seasons and excerpts from the grade since the exercise began in 1991:
Sterling Sharpe (+), WR: “One of the great individual seasons in team’s 74-year history … Accounted for 30.7% of team’s yardage … Outstanding blocker.”
Sterling Sharpe, WR: “Another record-shattering year … Warhorse played hurt and well … Had game-winning catches against Saints, Buccaneers and Lions.”
LeRoy Butler, S: “In 18 games he had seven interceptions, 24 passes defensed, seven tackles for loss and 124 total tackles. His intangibles almost matched his production.”
Sterling Sharpe, WR: “Career in jeopardy following cervical neck injury in December … Only one player in NFL history, Jerry Rice in ’87, ever had more touchdown receptions than Sharpe’s total of 18 … Tumultuous year included mid-August return from turf-toe surgery, brief walkout, nagging hamstring injury, ordinary production through 10 games and fantastic finish.”
Reggie White, DE: “Career lows in sacks and tackles … Totally dominant in about six games … Unlike ’93, didn’t fade down the stretch … Earned every cent of the $12.15 million he has collected in two years … Phenomenal player, leader and locker-room presence.”
Robert Brooks, WR: “Made way to the head of the class after earning a D in 1992, C in ’93 and B-minus in ’94 … Big plays, big heart, small ego … Can run all day and hates to lose.”
Brett Favre, QB: “Rifle-armed. Industrious. Street smart. Rugged in the pocket. Charismatic, Resourceful. Fearless. Cocky. Accepts coaching. Mischievous. Fun-loving … Pre-eminent leader of the offense.”
Reggie White, DE: “Had 8 ½ of his 13 sacks in the first nine games before knee and hamstring injuries turned him into a one-legged player … Still, his refusal to submit to leg surgery helped inspire his teammates to another level of achievement.”
Brett Favre, QB: “Overcame painkiller addiction and the death of a close friend in a car-train accident to win the most valuable player award again … At 27, he is the hottest commodity in the game … Possesses a rifle arm, rare feel for the rush, the guts of a burglar and unbelievable competitiveness.”
Reggie White, DE: “When fresh, the 35-year-old still is an unstoppable force … Strictly a left end at this point … Mainly a bull rusher, too … Only two or three teams all season challenged him in the running game.”
LeRoy Butler, S: “Great leader, great player, great 19-game numbers: Team-leading 102 tackles, 16 passes defensed, 7 ½ sacks, seven quarterback knockdowns, 5 ½ tackles for loss, five interceptions, two 20-yard-plus plays allowed, one TD pass allowed and one penalty … Knows no fear.”