The conversation is seven years gone now, but if you close your eyes, you can still hear Jimmy Thompson’s thick Texas drawl at the other end of the phone line. The temperature is 100 degrees in the shade down there, he says, and it hasn’t rained in weeks.
When the conversation turns to his son, Ted – the Green Bay Packers general manager, the third of Jimmy and Elta’s four kids – and all the criticism he’d been enduring up north about his philosophy on building an NFL roster, Jimmy has a confession to make: He, like many of his son’s critics at the time, has his doubts.
“I don't know how they're going to come out," Jimmy says of the Packers. “I thought for a while that he ought to be spending more money on some of these high-priced fellas. But he's taking the approach with these young players, and I kinda think it may work out.
“Ted says a lot of these big-name free-agent players, they're on the decline but they still rank a big salary. He thinks the better way to go is to build.”
That conversation, for a lengthy Wisconsin State Journal story on the oft-criticized Thompson, was in 2007. That year, the Packers hosted the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, where they lost in overtime after a Brett Favre interception to the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants. After an ugly divorce from Favre the following summer, his replacement, Aaron Rodgers, and the rest of Thompson’s home-grown talent won Super Bowl XLV, the franchise’s 13th world championship and first since 1996.
Seven years later, as the 2014 NFL league year opened with the start of free agency Tuesday, Thompson’s approach hadn’t changed a lick. Nor had some fans’ reaction to it.
There’s an old NFL adage that you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, that you never stay the same. And no team should rest on its laurels after a Super Bowl title three seasons ago, even if that team did follow it up with three consecutive NFC North division titles, including one improbable one last season, when Rodgers missed basically eight games with a fractured collarbone. The goal each year is to win the title, and with one postseason victory over the past three years, the Packers haven’t done that.
At the same time, it’s clear that for whatever the Packers have accomplished in Thompson’s first nine seasons, it doesn’t buy him the benefit of the doubt with a vocal portion of the fan base.
So, if you were among the poor, unfortunate souls who thought Thompson would suddenly do something he’s never done before and do a cannonball into the deep end of free-agent pool on the opening day, you came away quite disappointed.
But if you’re among those who think Thompson may still delve into the market once the dust settles from the Monopoly money thrown about on Tuesday, well, at least you can still hope.
But on Tuesday, Thompson was – predictably – nowhere to be found among the free-agent frenzy. Consider some of the deals being reported in the first few hours of the market being open:
> Safety Jairus Byrd was the day’s big winner, agreeing to a six-year, $56 million deal ($28 million guaranteed) with New Orleans.
> Defensive ends Lamarr Houston (five years, $35 million with Chicago), Michael Johnson (five years, $43.75 million with Tampa Bay), Arthur Jones (five years, $30 million with Indianapolis) and Tyson Jackson (five years, $25 million with Atlanta) all received significant first-day deals.
> Left tackles Jared Veldheer (five years, $37.5 million with Arizona), Branden Albert (five years, $47 million with Miami) and Eugene Monroe (five years, $37.5 million with Baltimore) all got big, new contracts.
> Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million with Denver), Alterraun Verner (four years, $26.5 million with Tampa Bay) and Vontae Davis (four years, $39 million to stay in Indianapolis) signed deals, one day after the Packers’ deal with Sam Shields (four years, $39 million) became official.
> And in addition to Byrd, safeties T.J. Ward (four years, $23 million with Denver), Antoine Bethea (four years, $26 million with San Francisco), Donte Whitner (four years, $28 million with Cleveland) and Malcolm Jenkins (three years, $16.25 million with Philadelphia) all signed.
None of the Packers’ remaining 16 unrestricted free agents came to terms on Day 1, although an NFL source confirmed multiple reports that tight end Jermichael Finley will visit the Seattle Seahawks Wednesday and center Evan Dietrich-Smith will visit Tampa Bay. The Packers, meanwhile, did not have any visits schedule with outside free agents as of Tuesday night, according to a league source.
That’s hardly surprising, since the Packers’ limited forays into free agency have never been early on. The year Thompson was most active in the market was 2006, when he signed safety Marquand Manuel, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson. The Packers signed Manuel on March 13, Pickett on March 15, and Woodson on April 26.
Free agency began March 3 that year.
So while Packers fans wait for Thompson to do his bargain-hunting – and make no mistake, the Packers do have holes that could be filled with veteran free agents who won’t break the bank – Thompson will continue to draw harsh criticism from some precincts, just as he did seven years ago.
“I think the people I work with understand how I go about my business and why we're doing certain things,” Thompson said then. “Yeah, from an organizational standpoint, I would like for the Packer fans to think the Packers are in good hands, quite frankly. Not necessarily everybody patting you on the back, but to kind of there be a little trust with the Packer fans (in) me.
“But at the same time, this is a big boy place, and if I get criticized, I'm OK with it. Personally, I can take it from an ego standpoint, but I would prefer it if it was more of a positive message, just because of the people out there who are getting up and reading that at the breakfast table or watching it on the nightly news at night. It might make them have a bad day thinking, 'Oh my gosh,' that sort of thing. I'm not immune to that. But I'm fairly thick-skinned about other things.”
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.