— It takes time to build the most talented team in the NFL. For Packers general manager Ted Thompson, it took six seasons of unpopular decisions and steadfast belief in his way of doing things.
The new Packer Way wasn’t always easy for fans to understand, but they get it now.
Above all, Ted Thompson is a scout.
“I don’t know if there’s another general manager that hits the road as much as Ted Thompson does,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
While the Packers readied for the Super Bowl in Dallas, Thompson was in Mobile, Ala., scouting the Senior Bowl. Thompson’s organizational structure, work ethic, and evaluation system all comes from the man that built the last championship in Green Bay, Ron Wolf. Thompson says he’s just following the blueprint that the former G.M. provided back in the '90s when Thompson was cutting his teeth as an evaluator.
“[Wolf] taught me passion, he taught me work ethic, he taught me believing in yourself, to have confidence, to write down what you see, not what other people see, and to trust yourself,” Thompson said.
Thompson brought his eye for talent and commitment to drafting and developing players to Seattle. From 2000-2004, he helped Mike Holmgren build the nucleus for their eventual NFC Champion team.
Thompson and Holmgren occasionally clashed because Thompson felt so strongly that he could find better players through the draft than the players Holmgren wanted in free agency. Some teams don't have the patience for it. But Green Bay did.
“I know this: [Thompson] believes in the draft,” Holmgren told Green Bay Press Gazette last week. “He believes that’s how you build your team, and he’s proven it now.”
This Packers team recalls a different time in the NFL: when the nucleus of a squad grew up together, and stayed together. It was a time when teams had the patience to sit a first-round quarterback on the bench for three seasons before playing him.
Everything you need to know about Thompson came with his very first draft pick as Packers G.M. When Aaron Rodgers slid to the No. 24 spot of the 2005 draft, Thompson trusted his eyes, his evaluation and nabbed the talented QB.
He didn’t think about the sea of Brett Favre jerseys that covered Lambeau Field every Sunday or the talk show radio callers that inevitably thought Thompson lost his mind.
First-round quarterbacks make or break personnel men. If we are going to kill general managers for taking Ryan Leaf or Akili Smith, we should reward them for being right when they make an unpopular decision. Thompson was so right.
“It was very difficult for the organization,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said Tuesday regarding the decision to trade Brett Favre in 2008. “You don’t have many players that have that kind of impact on an organization that Brett did. It tested us.”
Thompson was right even when the Packers didn’t immediately win games with Rodgers as a starter. He was right in October of ’08, when he handed Rodgers a contract extension that now looks like a bargain. He was even right in ’09, when Brett Favre nearly reached the Super Bowl as a member of the hated Vikings.
If it didn't work, Thompson would be out of a job by now.
“I think we all knew that we were at a moment in history, that this doesn’t happen often. Nobody wants to be known as the one that traded Brett Favre away, but we all had the confidence in Aaron.”
The Packers should enjoy a terrific young nucleus for the next five years, but Rodgers is the one that makes it go. Just four years after the Packers considered sending Rodgers to NFL Europe after his rookie year, Rodgers’ mental game has caught up with his incredible physical gifts.
The Packers only have Rodgers because Thompson took a quarterback when Green Bay didn’t “need” one. Thompson had the patience to let Rodgers develop, the foresight to see Favre’s drama on the horizon, and the football smarts to find the right coach to develop the future franchise quarterback.
Drafting Rodgers in 2005 was controversial. Hiring Mike McCarthy the following year just seemed bizarre.
McCarthy coordinated the absolute worst offense in football in San Francisco when Thompson hired him. McCarthy was part of the brain trust that selected Alex Smith over Rodgers with the No. 1 overall pick, and Smith endured one of the most painful rookie seasons in NFL history.
It’s not like McCarthy was a hot coaching name during his run as offensive coordinator in New Orleans from 2000-2004. Those Aaron Brooks-led teams had good, but hardly great offenses that didn’t stand out in box scores or the standings.
Thompson looked past the middling results and identified with McCarthy's steadfast nature. Thompson liked the toughness inherent in McCarthy’s Pittsburgh roots, and the inventive play-calling from a pass-first, West Coast offense.
“You would never want to have a better partner for a GM/head coach relationship, in my opinion, because you know what you get every day,” McCarthy said. “That's important. He's very gifted at personnel evaluation. I think that's obvious. He stays true to that.”
McCarthy hasn’t always been a perfect coach. He can struggle with game management, and used to get too cute with his play-calling. But McCarthy treats his players with fairness and honesty. It’s a straight-shooting organization. Like Rodgers, he’s improved his craft immensely over the last year few years and is just now hitting his prime.
Thompson saw something in McCarthy that no one else did in 2006.
Thompson set a tone early in his run as G.M. by knowing which veterans to release, and who to keep. He let popular, high-priced guard Marco Rivera leave via free agency and cut guard Mike Wahle. The moves were panned locally at the time, but proved wise.
It’s not that Thompson hates keeping the right veterans. Donald Driver is entering his 12th season in Green Bay, while left tackle Chad Clifton is entering his 11th. Thompson cut high-priced offensive line talent back in 2005, but spent big bucks to bring Clifton back this year to protect Aaron Rodgers. Clifton responded with a strong season.
The free agents
The beating heart of the 2010 Packers comes from their draft picks, but a pair of strategic free agent signings early in Thompson’s tenure helped build the team’s underrated defense.
Thompson gave cornerback Charles Woodson a sizable deal at a time when Woodson’s stock was low coming off a few injury-plagued seasons.
“It was kind of decided for me,” Woodson said. “Nobody wanted me coming out of Oakland. I tried to go to a few other places and tried calling … Some teams returned calls, some didn’t.”
The contract proved to be a bargain; Woodson was one of the best signings in NFL free agency history. When you consider his five years of Packers service, Woodson has nearly made the same impact as Reggie White with the organization. (Heresy in Green Bat, but it’s true.)
Thompson also signed defensive tackle Ryan Pickett to a low-cost deal back in 2006. Like Woodson, Pickett did such a good job that he got another long-term contract in 2010. I can’t overstate how rare it is for a veteran to sign two long-term deals with their second team.
While the Packers don’t make a habit of pricey free agent signings, Thompson makes his deals count.
Thompson has a gift for beating the bushes for talent other teams gave up on. He was asked Tuesday if his NFL career as a player who struggled for survival helps him to find diamonds in the rough.
“Who says I struggled?” Thompson asked to laughter. “You’re right. I was a borderline player. I was a special teams player. I was the one of the last people on the 40-man roster. I don’t know if that gives you any special insight. I think I have an appreciation for guys that come up the hard way ... but I like our first-round players too.”
Cornerback Tramon Williams is a player who came up the hard way. Once cut by the Texans, Williams is now a Pro Bowler who has terrorized opposing quarterbacks in the playoffs. Thompson says an “extraordinary” workout convinced him to sign Williams off the street.
“They just know talent,” Williams said. “With all the guys they have brought in, I can’t see how they didn’t make it on other teams.”
Thompson and his staff knows what McCarthy’s staff wants and they find it. With injuries testing the team’s depth this year, midseason pickups like defensive tackle Howard Green and Erik Walden have seamlessly joined the team’s playoff run.
Walden was cut by the Dolphins in September. Green was cut by the Jets in October. Now should both be starting in the Super Bowl.
Thompson’s long-term vision was realized with the 2010 Packers. With six years of Thompson drafts on the books, they have premier talent at all the right positions. They have continuity, versatility, and intelligence. They have the depth to withstand 15 players on injured reserve, including six starters.
BusinessInsider.com noted that only 13 percent of Green Bay’s playoff roster was drafted by another team. That was easily the lowest percentage of the four Conference Championship teams. (For reference, 32 percent of the Bears roster was drafted elsewhere.)
Thompson has endured plenty of busts over the years, like every talent evaluator. Some of them didn’t work because of injuries (Justin Harrell, Terrence Murphy). Some were just duds (Brian Brohm, Abdul Hodge.)
The overall track record, however, is outstanding. Thompson finds quality role players in the middle rounds like receivers James Jones and Jordy Nelson. A relative “miss” at the top of the draft like linebacker A.J. Hawk still contributes plenty.
Then there are the hits: Defensive tackle B.J. Raji, linebacker Clay Matthews, tight end Jermichael Finley, receiver Greg Jennings, guard Josh Sitton, safety Nick Collins, tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back James Starks, and, of course, Rodgers.
That nucleus, replenished each April, helps explain why so many NFL talent evaluators believe the Packers are the most talented team in the NFL. They could stay that way for a while considering they're one of the league's youngest teams.
A green and gold future
“Ted built this house. He is responsible for everything that goes on. He is our leader, and he is our point man,” coach McCarthy said after the NFC title game win. “He's why this team is in the shape that it's in and why the future looks so bright.”
Uncomfortable with the media, Thompson is not a guy that wants to reflect on his success. Or reflect on much of anything. Heck, he’s only watched two Super Bowls in a life built around striving to reach the big game as a player, scout, and personnel man.
Super Bowl Sunday is still days away, yet Thompson can’t help but think about what comes next. Preparations for the NFL Scouting Combine begin two days after the Super Bowl.
“There’s a lot of different times you go through and you just kind of try to make honest decisions and look forward to the next stage. Because there’s always a next stage,” Thompson said Tuesday.
The next stage for the Packers, built from Thompson’s vision, may be defending a world championship.