Ted Thompson stood in a hallway inside Lucas Oil Stadium doing something he never particularly enjoys: Answering reporters’ questions. The Green Bay Packers general manager had work to do at the annual NFL Scouting Combine, and this was the last place he wanted to be.
At one point, the conversation turned to talk that the league was considering rejiggering its offseason schedule, pushing the Combine to March, veteran free agency to April and the NFL Draft to May.
“I am historically a person who doesn’t like a lot of change, so my guess is I might not like it too much,” Thompson replied. “But it also won’t matter. The NFL will do what they think is best for the NFL and the process. We’ll change and adapt with it.”
Thompson might as well have been talking about his scouting staff, which has changed drastically in the last 36 months, even though he wishes it hadn’t. But as much as he would have loved to have kept his crew together, he knew change was inevitable and has been planning for it all along – and thus is ready to adapt.
First, John Schneider left to become the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks in January 2011. Then, Reggie McKenzie left to become GM of the Oakland Raiders in January 2012. And just last month, John Dorsey departed – with the official announcement coming during the Packers’ 45-31 season-ending playoff loss at San Francisco – to become the Kansas City Chiefs’ new GM.
All three of those men held the title of director of football operations at the time of their departures, and now, Thompson finds himself without three “very good friends.” His is also without three extraordinary talent evaluators, a skill paramount with the Packers because of Thompson’s draft-and-develop approach to roster-building.
Thompson, who got his first scouting job in 1992 under then-Packers GM Ron Wolf, left the Packers in 2000 to run Mike Holmgren’s personnel department in Seattle, then returned as to the Packers as GM in 2005 after coach Mike Sherman was stripped of those duties. When Thompson left, it opened the door for Wolf to bring Schneider back to the organization, and it also allowed McKenzie’s role to expand.
“We’ve had some losses in terms of guys taking really good jobs around the league. We encourage that, we foster it,” Thompson explained. “It’s something Ron Wolf started back in the day. That’s the reason I was able to go out to Seattle and work with Coach Holmgren.
“It’s next man up. You try to train your players (to have that mentality), and you try to train your personnel staff and coaching staff to take the next step and be able to grow and evolve. The NFL is all about evolving. … I think our players do a good job of that. They’ve had to do it because of injuries and things like that a little bit more than normal. I think our personnel staff does the same thing. We put some people in position to take on more leadership, and it’s the next man up.”
Those next men up are Brian Gutekunst, who took over as director of college scouting last May when Dorsey was promoted to director of football operations after McKenzie’s departure; Alonzo Highsmith, who’d been an area scout in the Southwest but now serves as a senior personnel executive; and Eliot Wolf, who is the team’s director of pro personnel and is the son of Ron Wolf. Eliot Wolf turns 31 next month; Gutekunst is 39; and Highsmith turns 49 on Tuesday.
Dorsey said Thompson, just as Wolf had before him, made it essential that older staffers mentored and helped younger scouts to grow as talent evaluators. For a time, the Packers were flush with scouting talent with Thompson, Dorsey, Schneider and McKenzie all on the same staff; for some, it was surprising that the foursome was able to stay together for as long as it did.
Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey were in Green Bay together under Wolf, Sherman or Thompson from 1993 until Dorsey’s departure 1999 and again from Schneider’s 2002 return through his departure in 2011.
“We will all talk,” Thompson said of his ongoing relationship with Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey. “You’re always bouncing ideas off of people and trying to figure out the right thing to do because sometimes it gets lonely when you’re the person making that pointed decision.
“The NFL is a tough business. Everybody knows it, and the higher you get, the tougher it gets. But they’ll do a good job. That’s a good group.”
So good, in fact, that with the Packers’ success through the draft – of the 68 players currently on the roster, 46 are completely home-grown as draft picks or rookie free agent signees immediately after the draft – and Super Bowl XLV title two years ago, it was only a matter of time that Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey would get opportunities to run their own personnel departments.
That’s why Thompson, using the Ron Wolf model, was planning again. Before they left, Thompson wanted them to help prepare the next generation, teaching the subtleties and intricacies of scouting to those who would replace them. And Dorsey believes they did just that.
“It’s our responsibility to teach and let guys grow and have no closed doors and let guys grow and learn. Because really, that’s the only way you’re going to be productive as an organization, is if you allow people to see how good they can be,” Dorsey explained. “I think Ted’s done a wonderful job of leading men and teaching them the total part of football from an operations standpoint – how to evaluate college, how to evaluate pros, do the whole thing.
“None of us like change, but change sometimes is inevitable, and he’ll do fine. He’ll adapt. You guys have always underestimated Ted. Ted’s pretty good, now. Ted’s very good.”
That’s exactly what Schneider said earlier in the week at the Combine – “The Packers will be fine, man,” he said confidently – but Thompson did acknowledge that the departures create new challenges. While he said his workload doesn’t necessarily increase, responsibilities have to be shifted. While McKenzie’s expertise was in pro personnel and Dorsey’s was in college scouting, they and Schneider scouted all levels. With no one having been promoted at this point to the director of football operations role, everyone will have to do more. Highsmith would be a logical choice to take on some of the crossover duties, even if he doesn’t change titles.
“It changes as you realign and you’re assigned responsibilities,” Thompson explained. “Because, the exact same thing that John Dorsey does might be different than the exact stuff that we have Eliot or Alonzo or Brian do. We’ll play to each other’s strengths like we always have. When John and Reggie and John were all there, we played to each other’s strengths, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
That said, Gutekunst and Wolf especially need to grow into their roles. Dorsey, having scouted colleges for so long, became particularly effective at getting maximum information about college prospects as both players and people. Schneider and McKenzie, having worked in personnel and developed contacts throughout the league, were terrific point men on free agency and prospective trades, even if Thompson seldom acted on such potential moves.
“You’ve gotten a lot better since you started your job, right?” Dorsey said. “With age and experience and patience comes (improvement). The one thing i can actually say I’ve begun to acquire is I’ve gotten patient. I’ve really gotten patient.”
With Gutekunst, Wolf and Highsmith having moved up, they’ll now pay it forward to others. While some of the Packers scouts have been with them for quite a while (Sam Seale, Lee Gissendaner, Tim Terry most notably), Thompson has also hired young, up-and-coming scouts like Chad Brinker, Glenn Cook, Jon-Eric Sullivan, Mike Owen and Richmond Williams in recent years.
In the end, it’s essentially the same system that’s been in place since the elder Wolf first took over as GM in November 1991, and that – more than anything – provides stability.
“Really, you have to look at Ron and Ted,” Schneider said. “I think they were both very different personalities, so I think we were all blessed to work for guys who were extremely thorough and had a wide range of philosophies and opinions.
“That’s a great organization. They’ll be good.”
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.