The Man Who Made the (Right) Wrong Decision

Former Packers Vice President of Football Operations Tom Braatz passed away this week.  For many fans Braatz was a minor character in the franchise’s history, but I would argue that he made a decision that has had the most-profound effect ever not only on the team, but on the City of Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin as a whole.


In the 1989 NFL Draft, the Packers had the number two overall pick.  When the Dallas Cowboys took UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman with the number one pick, that left Braatz with the choice of Heisman Trophy running back Barry Sanders out of Oklahoma State or Michigan State offensive lineman Tony Mandarich.  Mandarich had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the draft–labeled “The Incredible Hulk” and touted as potentially the greatest o-lineman in football history.


Braatz went with Mandarich with the number two pick–and the Detroit Lions took Sanders.  Mandarich would turn out to be a creation of steroids.  He would struggle in the NFL, was often hurt and eventually was discovered to be a cheater.  Mandarich was gone from Green Bay in four years and is now considered one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history.  Sanders would turn out to be a Hall of Fame running back and one of the greatest ever in NFL history.  But he never parlayed that amazing talent into post-season success.  In fact, Sanders and the Lions won only one playoff game in his ten year career–in five trips to the post-season.


What if Braatz had selected Sanders–and he had the same exact career in Green Bay?  Five trips to the playoffs and 15-thousand yards rushing may have saved Braatz from being fired mid-season in 1991.  That would have meant Team President Bob Harlan doesn’t hire Ron Wolf that off-season.  That means Wolf doesn’t fire Lindy Infante and hire Mike Holmgren.  That means Wolf doesn’t trade for Brett Favre during the 1992 draft.  That means Wolf doesn’t sign free agent defensive tackle Reggie White in 1993.  And that means the Green Bay Packers likely don’t win Super Bowl XXI in 1997.


And that lack of playoff success would have meant a much more difficult road for the team to get approval of the Brown County referendum that levied a half-percent sales tax to transform Lambeau Field from a utilitarian facility used ten times a year to a year-round business and tourist destination–which in turn fueled the growth of first the Stadium District to the east and then the Titletown District to the West–not to mention the dozens of other hotels, restaurants, sports shops and bars that have sprung up in the Green Bay area since 1989.  “The Green Bay Packers” are now as much of a regional industry as papermaking is in the Fox Valley–and all because Tom Braatz didn’t draft Barry Sanders–and set the team on a course of mediocrity for another decade.


Think of him as the man that made the (right) wrong decision.