Next men up: The GM
He is serious.
He is not trying to be self-deprecating. He’s not trying to be folksy. And he certainly isn’t amused by your reaction – C’mon, really? – the first time he answered the question.
Ted Thompson is standing around the corner of the cramped visitors’ locker room of the soon-to-be-demolished Metrodome. He has just watched his Green Bay Packers win their fourth straight game, dismantling the rival Minnesota Vikings on national television with a collection of unknowns filling in for the team’s biggest-name players.
During the broadcast, NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth have told theirSunday Night Football viewers two things that folks around Lambeau Field have known for a while: That some players call the silver-haired general manager “The Ghost,” and that 50 of the 53 players on the team’s current active roster – backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, run-stuffing defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and fullback John Kuhn are the outliers – have never played a single regular-season snap for another NFL franchise.
There are other astonishing factoids about the roster: That 32 of the 53 players were drafted by the Packers and 42 of 53 have never worked for another team; that almost half the roster – 26 players in all – entered the league as a sixth- or seventh-round pick or as an undrafted free agent; that only 14 of the players were taken in the first three rounds of the draft; that, with 14 rookies, only nine players on the team have celebrated their 29th birthday.
Just in case building the 2010 team into Super Bowl XLV champions despite an unprecedented rash of injuries wasn’t enough – and for some fans on the lunatic fringe of the team’s passionate fan base, it isn’t – this should be Thompson’s moment of validation. While the ultimate goal remains winning the big game in February, staying afloat during this portion of the schedule is incontrovertible evidence that the guy knows how to build a team.
Four of the team’s last five first-round draft picks – four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (2009), left tackle Bryan Bulaga (2010), tackle Derek Sherrod (2011) and outside linebacker Nick Perry (2012) – are sidelined by injury. (Only defensive tackle B.J. Raji, drafted with Matthews in 2009, played against the Vikings.) And three of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ top four pass-catching targets – wide receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jermichael Finley and wide receiver James Jones – didn’t suit up, either.
On the other sideline was a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver whom Thompson chose not to pay big bucks and let walk as a free agent (Greg Jennings) and an inside linebacker who was a key cog in the title team but was released and has since suffered another season-ending injury (Desmond Bishop).
And yet, despite the Packers entering Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears with an 89-56 record – including 6-4 in the postseason and 85-44 under his hand-picked coach, Mike McCarthy – and that Super Bowl title, Thompson still has people who doubt him and his approach.
Chief among them: Ted Thompson himself.
“Every day,” Thompson replies as the locker room starts to clear out. “You do. You wonder every day if you know what you’re doing. Because sometimes, you have bad days.”
So, he is asked, you don’t feel like you’ve proven that you know what you’re doing?
“Not particularly,” comes the reply. “But we feel good about the guys who have come in and helped us out, and hopefully we get some guys back.
“I mean, our (scouting) staff has experience with kind of knowing the things we look for, but all 32 teams are doing the same thing – they’re trying to find guys that fit in, fit in in their locker room, that sort of thing. But you never know. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Ron Wolf begs to differ. He has seen how it’s worked under Thompson.
Wolf was the architect of the Packers’ renaissance, the guy who hired coach Mike Holmgren, traded for quarterback Brett Favre and signed defensive end Reggie White. He’s also the guy who got Thompson into this business by hiring him in 1992 – after Thompson had worked in the Houston financial sector following a 10-year NFL playing career – and the man who quit as Packers GM in 2001 in part because he was so frustrated with the salary-cap induced challenges he faced in trying to improve his teams when injuries struck during the season.
Having moved back to the Green Bay area with his wife Edie, Wolf has kept his distance from the Packers – he visited in training camp, as he does every year – and has watched from afar while being close by. He isn’t surprised by what Thompson, who was Wolf’s right-hand man in Green Bay until Thompson followed Holmgren to Seattle in 1999, has done with this year’s team because it’s not new to him.
“I think he’s demonstrated he’s at the top of his game. I think he’s already demonstrated that,” Wolf says. “He leaves Green Bay, goes to Seattle, builds a team that goes to the Super Bowl (after the 2005 season). Comes to Green Bay and does the same thing and wins a Super Bowl. I mean, so many people jockey for some form of publicity for how they do this and how they do that. Here’s the guy with the pedigree.”
Wolf’s GM tree has produced four current NFL GMs: Thompson, Seattle’s John Schneider, Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie and Kansas City’s John Dorsey. Their teams had a combined 23-7 record entering the weekend. And while Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey all worked under both Wolf and Thompson during their tenures in Green Bay, none of them has been as strident about building through the draft and developing from within as Thompson, who hasn’t signed a noteworthy free agent since adding Charles Woodson and Pickett in 2006.
“The great thing he has done, he’s done the way he wants to do it,” Wolf says. “I have never sat down and gone over that with him, but he obviously prefers to do it through the draft and not bring people in from the outside.”
Asked why Thompson might not take credit for his approach, Wolf’s response is simple.
“You can say what you want to say. I know I walk around with my chest stuck out because of Brett Favre,” Wolf says. “But if we didn’t have Brett Favre, I wouldn’t have had done diddly-squat. He probably feels he’s in the same situation with Aaron Rodgers. Without a key component like that, particularly in professional football, you don’t have a chance.”
While Thompson deflects the credit, saying it’s the coaches and the players themselves that make his approach work, Rodgers believes it all starts at the top. Thompson likes to say that he and the rest of the employees at 1265 Lombardi Ave. are “stewards” of the Packers tradition, and Rodgers believes it’s the culture Thompson has not only upheld but advanced that the coaches and players have embraced.
“It’s the kind of guys that Ted likes – guys that really care about it, guys that enjoy football. I think it’s the environment that we’ve created, in the locker room and in the organization,” Rodgers says. “There’s an expectation for greatness, and there’s a tangible appreciation and care for the guys that work here and the guys that play here and the people who work here. I think you can feel that. You can feel it as a fan, when you visit the stadium, and you can feel it when you’re a player in that locker room.
“When you talk to guys that come in, it’s not instant, but there’s a very quick assimilation into what we’re doing. We want guys to feel comfortable, we want guys to be able to be themselves, but we’re going to demand a lot from them and expect them to play well.
“I think that, paired with the type of personalities Ted’s brought in and the way Mike does things, has allowed us to have guys step in and play well.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.