Q & A with Ted Thompson
By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson has plenty to say. But first, he needs a Kleenex.
“I think it’s a seasonal thing,” the Green Bay Packers general manager says, wiping his nose as he sits down in a leather office chair in a third-floor conference room at Lambeau Field, where he’s about to do one of his least favorite things in this job – talk to the media.
“I don’t have allergies, but we’re meeting right now and you get that many people in a room …”
Thompson’s voice trails off. Enough small talk. He has a couple of these Q&A sessions lined up for this morning, and he wants to get back to what’s really important to him – talking about players with his scouting staff, figuring out how to make a Super Bowl contender even better.
“I’m not sure why you guys do these,” he says with a wry smile, referring to his well-known commitment to not telling reporters much of anything. Of course, this is not entirely accurate. There are certain things the close-to-the-vest GM will discuss, as he did during a 25-minute interview last week. A transcript of that conversation follows:
ESPN Wisconsin: So, this is your eighth year of doing this now …
Ted Thompson: It is?
ESPN Wisconsin: It is. How do you think you’ve improved at this job over that time, and how has the personnel game changed during that time?
Thompson: In terms of whether I’ve improved or not, I would hope that we’re all improving. That’s sort of our mantra among the scouts – that we’re always going to be scouts, no matter what, and we’ve always got to try to improve our craft. Experiences, mistakes, successes – as you go through, as long as you want to continue to grow, I think you never stop trying to get better. That’s what we ask our players to do, so we try to do the same thing.
I think the evaluation part of the job is still similar. As you go through changes in your scheme, what you’re looking for might change a little bit, but the evaluation of a player has never changed. Some of the machinery we have to do that is better now. The digital video, being able to get it very quickly, I think that levels the playing field for most teams.
ESPN Wisconsin: So when Ron Wolf locked you in that film room in 1992 to do your evaluations and see if you could do this job, what did you use? Film? Tape?
Thompson: It was on a Beta machine. And now, if we wanted to see all of Aaron Rodgers’ plays from the preseason, all we have to do is hit a button and it’ll show all the plays. It’ll go from game to game to game and show all his plays. Back then, I was looking for Plan B free agents, so none of these guys played in the regular season, they only played in the preseason, and you had to hunt and find when they’d come in the game and try to evaluate them that way.
ESPN Wisconsin: What about the changes in your staff? You’ve lost two of your right-hand men over the last couple years in John Schneider (Seattle’s GM) and Reggie McKenzie (Oakland’s GM). You promoted some guys like John Dorsey, Eliot Wolf, Brian Gutekunst and Alonzo Highsmith – do those changes reinvigorate you? Do you welcome the challenge of continuing your group’s success with different people in different roles?
Thompson: I think it’s kind of bittersweet. No. 1, I’m very proud of the guys that have left and are going to do great jobs at those places. But there also becomes this vacuum, this hole, because they took up a big footprint here. We’ve promoted from within, which we like to do. We’ve given people more responsibility. And I think the group is working very well. They’re mad at me right now because I told them I had to go do some interviews.
ESPN Wisconsin: Wolf and Gutekunst are 30 and 39, respectively. Do you like the idea of putting younger guys in those roles, and is this a change for you to maybe mentor them the way Ron mentored you?
Thompson: To some degree. I think it’s more an issue of, if you have good people, then you try to promote them. There are other good people around that we could’ve hired, but we like the idea of promoting from within.
ESPN Wisconsin: When we did one of these five years ago, before the 2007 season, and again in 2008, in the throes of the Brett Favre saga, the only personal thing you ever said during that time was that you just wanted people to feel that the Packers were in good hands. Do you think people believe that now? And was that a difficult time for you, for so many people to not just question you but attack you?
Thompson: Like I said then, and I say it now, I do want people to think the Packers are in good hands. I don’t need accolades or anything like that. But as an organization, we’d like for the people that care about this place to know that it’s in good hands. … There were some dark times. But that’s … that’s part of the business. Especially here, because people care so much. There are places you could go to and ham it up a little bit and maybe not get in so much trouble. But here, it’s watched. Grandmothers watch it. Little kids watch it. And if the consensus is that I’m nuts, then they get mad at me. That’s just the way it works.
ESPN Wisconsin: Did it mean something to you, then, that at the last two shareholders, you got a standing ovation and there were people chanting “We love Ted!” and “In Ted we trust!” when you were introduced?
Thompson: I think it’s nice, (but) I think it’s a reflection of the fact that all these players that have come in have done a good job. Our coaching staff, the personnel guys, the whole organization is designed to try to help this football team win. And from a personal thing, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to take too many accolades because there’s so many people doing all that work.
ESPN Wisconsin: During that summer of 2008, someone told me that when you were in all those meetings trying to figure out what to do with Favre, you were the one who kept saying, “It can’t be easy for Brett, you guys have to think about what he’s going through.” I don’t think a lot of people understand that or know that. Do you think at any point while you’re still working here that that relationship could be mended and Favre could come back, or do you think the feelings are so strong on the other side toward you that it won’t happen?
Thompson: I don’t know. There hasn’t been any real contact, so I don’t know what people are feeling. But I think with time, I think things tend to work out OK. Or so I hope.
ESPN Wisconsin: You’ve made some funny references about doing out-of-character things this offseason, from “Opposite George” to not being your father’s son anymore. But you really have broken from your modus operandi a lot – trading up in the draft multiple times, diving into the unrestricted free-agent pool, adding veterans like Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in camp to positions where you appeared weak. Is the team in a different place that you’re doing these things? Or do you insist that you’re more than the draft-and-develop, anti-free agency GM we see you as?
Thompson: I think it’s easy to say that because that’s my tendency. I do believe in drafting and developing, and I do believe it’s the best way. But we have never shied away from trying to sign free agents. It hasn’t always worked, but we have a number on our team now. And we have traded up to get a specific player that we felt could do something for us. But I think my tendency and conservative nature is what it is.
ESPN Wisconsin: How difficult was the way last season ended, with the loss to the Giants in the playoffs, and how has that influenced your approach this year?
Thompson: Not a lot. It was disappointing, but unless you win the whole thing, if you’re in the playoffs, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to have that feeling that we had. But I was very proud of our team last year, and I still am. And I’ve tried to defend it a little bit. I think people have been a little hard on it. I know everybody was kind of in this mode of, ‘Here we go, we’re going to win a second one,’ but this is a hard, hard business, the Giants are a great, great football team, had a remarkable run in the playoffs. And we just got caught up in it.
ESPN Wisconsin: Dom Capers put together back-to-back top-5 defenses in 2009 and 2010. What do you think happened to the defense last year, and how much do you feel is your fault? Did you give him the personnel to be better than the 32nd-ranked defense in the league?
Thompson: I think as a whole, the entire organization, we were disappointed we didn’t play better in certain aspects of defense. At the same time, I think our defense led the league in turnovers, which is a huge catalyst for our offense. I think statistics can sometimes be misleading, but it’s really, literally, if you go back and do the study, it’s a question of, “On this play in the second quarter, if we get off the field, we save 90 yards of offense and blah blah blah.” It’s stopping the guys on third down, things like that. But yeah, we’re going to try to be better there. But I don’t want to say that the reason we didn’t win the Super Bowl last year was our defense. We were 15-1, we had a pretty good team.
ESPN Wisconsin: You could argue that your offense was just so good that it overcame the defense’s struggles, though. You have the NFL MVP at quarterback in his prime, you have a ton of skill-position players you’ve surrounded him with, you have four of the five young offensive line starters tied up for the next several years, how much of a priority is it when you have an elite quarterback to make sure you give him everything he needs to be great?
Thompson: Well, it’s important to have a really good player at quarterback. The quarterback position is hugely important. But you’re always trying to get better. It doesn’t matter what position, it doesn’t matter what you have there, you’re always trying to push the envelope. We’re trying to be as good as we can be at every position. And obviously the better we are at those skill positions and the offensive line, the more that helps Aaron. But it’s hand-in-hand. It’s not, “We’ve got this, now let’s go do this.”
ESPN Wisconsin: I just always got the impression that one of Ron Wolf’s biggest regrets was not getting Favre more elite receivers, that he relied on Brett to make receivers better instead of using higher draft picks on them. I just wondered if that was a philosophical thing with you.
Thompson: I mean, yeah, we like to have really good players at the skill positions, and yeah, this is an offensive league and you have to score points and move the ball. But it’s done in concert with everything else.
ESPN Wisconsin: Speaking of Rodgers, are you a genius for taking him at No. 24 in 2005 and not trading that pick or are you the luckiest GM in football that he fell to No. 24 and you didn’t trade that pick?
Thompson: I never really entertained trading that pick. I think it’s luck. To get the best player of that draft – I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never gone back and studied that draft, but I’ve got to believe he’s pretty close to being the best player from that draft – at the 24th spot and have all those teams already be set at quarterback or decide the best thing for them to do was not to take him? It’s luck. But you have to be prepared sometimes to use that luck.
ESPN Wisconsin: He admits that when you signed him to the extension in 2008 after seven starts that he was overpaid based on his experience to that point. And now, he appears to be legitimately underpaid by NFL quarterback standards. How important is the structure of a franchise quarterback’s contract as it relates to the salary cap? How important is having that cost certainty of knowing how much it will cost you to keep him? Because while he’s signed through 2014, you’re not going to wait until then to redo his deal.
Thompson: Well, I won’t speak to that individually, but any player that you deem to be a core player, you want to try to factor that in – not only the now, but in the future. And we’re always doing that. We’re always trying to identify the core players that we want. Because even if you had 53 great players, you can’t keep ‘em all. The system is set for some of those fellas to go elsewhere. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them all. It’s just the nature of the beast. But you’re always trying to identify core players, and obviously he’s one of our core players.
ESPN Wisconsin: Ron Wolf used to complain about how hard it was before his retirement to improve his teams through trades or getting guys off the street as the game changed. This year notwithstanding, did those frustrations you saw from him shape your draft-and-develop philosophy? Did you feel that you had to build from within because going outside was just too much of a crapshoot?
Thompson: I believe on a couple levels it’s the best way to go. But certainly, as it applies to the business side of the thing, the draft and development is the best way to go. Because everything fits better.
ESPN Wisconsin: It would seem there are two key parts to making a draft-and-develop philosophy work: Drafting well, drafting the right guys, and then being able to keep those right guys with contract extensions, those core players. When you have some fairly significant core players’ contracts coming up on the horizon – Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, Rodgers – how challenging does that make your job? How confident are you that you’ll be able to keep most if not all of them?
Thompson: Well, I think we will. Russ (Ball, the team’s chief contract negotiator) work on this all the time. This doesn’t just happen. These discussions sometimes last years. But there can be frustrations as you go along. I’m sure it’s frustrating for the players from their point of view, and it’s frustrating from the organization’s point of view because you can only do so much as you go along. You can have this brilliant plan and say, “In March we’ll do this, and in April we’ll do this, and then June we’ll do this,” but sometimes all the dance partners aren’t dancing in the same step. So it takes time, it takes perseverance. Thank the Lord I have Russ Ball to do that with, because there’s a lot of work involved in things like that. You can do good things, you can also make mistakes. And you can’t erase the mistakes.
ESPN Wisconsin: How many times have you seen a guy change when he changes teams? I’m thinking about Cedric Benson – it would seem that this is a place where he could succeed, but what makes him a good fit for you?
Thompson: We think so. We think we have a good environment here, we think we have a good locker room. Our locker room is what it is – you know, you’ve been in it: One person is not going to come in and take over that locker room because it already belongs to other people. I think it’s a good opportunity for him. We have some very young backs. We felt like adding one with a little more experience was a good thing. We think we’ll need those backs as we go through the season. He has been productive at the places he’s been, and we’re going to give him an opportunity to help our group out. I don’t know how this is going to go. I don’t know that it’s going to be all him and none of the other guys or some combination. We’ll see how that works out.
ESPN Wisconsin: When you have to sign him, when you have to add Reggie Wells to the offensive line mix, is that in any way saying that you left those positions a little light, or that you put your faith in some young players who aren’t ready?
Thompson: No, I think it’s more a process of, sometimes you’re going along and you realize that it only takes a sprained ankle to be pretty darn thin at some spots. I think you try to dress those things up as you go along. I think we’ve always done that.
ESPN Wisconsin: There’s been a lot of talk about your backup quarterback situation and reports that you could trade for Cleveland’s Colt McCoy or Seattle’s Tarvaris Jackson. Since you’ve done some other out-of-character things this offseason, do you have any inclination to make some trades here down the stretch, or do you feel pretty good about the guys that you have already?
Thompson: It’s very hard to predict. As a rule, we haven’t really done a lot. We’ll usually claim a guy or two, but in terms of making trades, I would think every year we make one.
ESPN Wisconsin: How important do you think the backup quarterback position is in today’s game, given the new concussion rules and other factors?
Thompson: I think it’s an important spot, sure.
ESPN Wisconsin: But you feel good about the one you have?
Complete Q & A here