GM Ted Thompson has seen enough to know Packers can compete in 2013
By Mark Hoffman for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
~GREEN BAY — Ted Thompson’s employment with the Green Bay Packers began with little fanfare and no promises.
His commitment to an entry-level job on general manager Ron Wolf’s scouting staff in 1992 was for six months.
“Ron said that after six months, ‘If we don’t like you, you leave,'” Thompson said last week. “And he said, ‘If you don’t like us, you leave. No feelings get hurt. Everybody goes home.’
Wolf never looked back, and neither did Thompson.
Thompson earned his spurs during eight years under Wolf, scouting for teams that went 92-50 (.648).
Then it was off for five years to run the personnel department in Seattle, where the Seahawks went 41-41 (.500).
And now, at age 60, Thompson begins his ninth season as general manager of the Packers with an eight-year mark of 84-54 (.609).
Add it up and the 21 teams Thompson have been a part of own a 217-145 (.599) record, including 13 playoff appearances, three Super Bowls, two championships and just four losing seasons.
In an interview Friday with the Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn, Thompson talked about expectations, the opener in San Francisco, the importance of size and toughness for a football team, various players and his future.
Q. Since the Wolf-Holmgren-Favre renaissance began in the 1990s, the question at the start of each year in Green Bay is whether the Packers can or will win the Super Bowl. You’re the architect. What say you?
A. Well, we’ll see. This is a tough business, as I’ve said over and over. You never know. You have to try to focus on the first game.
Q. You do have Aaron Rodgers, right?
A. We do. Very happy about that. We’re prejudiced towards him, but we think he’s a really, really, really good player. That’s three reallys in a row.
Q. Let’s go back to mid-January 1992, when Ron Wolf took a shot on a 39-year-old ex-NFL linebacker who had never scouted a day in his life. Entering that first season of seismic change, the Packers had almost no impact players, severe questions at quarterback, no established running back, three new starters in the secondary and possibly the least talented D-line in the NFL. Back then, the hope among fans was for .500, maybe even a winning season. Should fans be reminded at times of what it was like and what it could be like again?
A. We love our fans. They’re special. They’re a different group. Sometimes league-wide, you get the perception of fans that they can be pretty callous at times. I think our fans pull for us no matter what. We’ve had some tough seasons, and even at the end of those tough seasons we still had everybody in the stadium and the crowd was into it. As a big body, you can get a little jaded sometimes. That’s the reason, and I do this all the time, that I remind people this is a very difficult task we have. Lot of good people in this business.
Q. The Packers hadn’t won a championship in 25 years and hadn’t even posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1967. The franchise was at a low, low ebb. What was it like working for the Packers then, and how would you characterize the expectations now compared to then?
A. I’ll tell you, it was a really cool thing. I think we lost our first two games and then we won a very exciting game against Cincinnati. Kitrick Taylor scored that touchdown, and we released him a couple weeks later. And then we started winning, you know? Sometimes it wasn’t pretty but we were winning. (Brett) would throw it to Sterling (Sharpe), and Sterling would pick up first downs. It was almost like we were a runnin’ team but we were throwing the ball. I remember talking to an old coach of mine that was coaching for the Rams at the time, and we had won four or five in a row. We’re talking before the game and he says, “You know, you don’t want to win too many too quick because everybody will expect it from then on.” I said, “What are you talking about? We’re having the time of our lives.” In that first year we actually could have made the playoffs but we had to beat Minnesota at Minnesota, and we couldn’t do it. It was (exciting), because nobody saw it comin’. Certainly the acquisition of Brett Favre was instrumental.
Q. You spent eight years scouting in Green Bay, went away to Seattle for five and now have been back for 8½ more as GM. So you’ve worked 16½ years for the Packers, or 6½ more than Wolf. What level of pride and satisfaction do you take from your involvement with a pair of championships and all that winning?
A. It’s everything. Everything is working with all these people every day and new players and old players and secretaries down the hall. This is a pretty neat place to work. So I take a lot of pride in that. The fact we were able to be competitive when a lot of people at the start of the new free agency (in 1993) didn’t think the Packers would be successful because they didn’t think people would want to come and play here. Then to come back here when the organization kind of went out on a limb to hire me and put it in my hands. And we worked together and were able to win another championship. And we’d like to win another one.
Q. Since the schedule came out showing opening day in San Francisco, that game surely has been your focus. It’s against a team that soundly defeated the Packers twice last year, played in the Super Bowl and should be very good again. Having spent so much time on the 49ers in the off-season, does it appear to you that the Packers have closed the gap?
A. Well, we’ll see. They’re a very fine team and a very well-run organization. Trent Baalke and his guys do a great job, and their coaching staff is obviously very inventive. In terms of me saying we’ve closed gaps or anything like that, I don’t think that makes any sense. We’re not going out there to lose. We’re going to try to win the game.
Q. The Packers said goodbye to more veterans than usual this off-season in addition to drafting 11 players and signing more than 30 street free agents. What are some areas that appear to be improved and what are some areas that seem to need work?
A. I never get too specific about this stuff, as you well know. But I think we’ve got a good mixture of veterans and youth. You’d like to keep everybody. That’s not the way the NFL works now.
Q. At the Super Bowl, Brad Seely, the unassuming assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator for the 49ers, remembered watching the Packers during warmups last year and thinking to himself that they were smaller and squattier than the 49ers and might not be able to hold up very well against the 49ers’ offensive line. If you know Seely, and I imagine you’ve crossed paths, you know he’s the farthest thing from arrogant. He was just sharing an observation, the kind most people are reluctant to make in the NFL. As it turned out, the 49ers played bigger and better with their O-line in both meetings. Did you sense that type of power was a critical difference between the two teams?
A. After the fact, yes. I’ve always been impressed with their personnel department and their ability, especially in the offensive and defensive lines, to have really quality big people. Yeah, they did a good job.
Q. In 2010, when the Packers won it all, they ranked 10th in average weight on opening day at 250 pounds per man. Last year, those numbers had fallen to 27th and 243. I assume you think it’s a big man’s game. Did you let the Packers get too small?
A. No, we don’t think so. That’s just a statistical number. We don’t look at our team and say we’re too small.
Q. As a player you were an undersized linebacker. Having played 10 years, you would understand better than anyone that a good big man usually beats a good small man. Do you subscribe to that theory, and have you tried to get back to it this year?
A. Yes, we’ve always subscribed to that theory. Big for the sake of big is not any good, just like youth for the sake of youth is not good. If you get good big and good youth, that’s good stuff. And we understand that.
Q. Since the Super Bowl, you drafted a 6-2 tight end, a 5-10½ inside linebacker, a 6-2½ defensive end in the second round and a 6-0½ inside pass rusher. Was this a case of drafting too many exceptions and losing size and length?
A. Quite frankly, I don’t remember all those players … the names. But we try to pick good football players. And if we made mistakes drafting small, then that’s my responsibility. But I don’t think the story’s been told yet.
Q. In this draft, you selected a prototypical-sized 3-4 defensive end and another thick inside player, the biggest running back in the draft, another big cornerback and two big wideouts. Did you enter the draft constantly reminding yourself to make the Packers longer, taller and heavier?
A. We always enter the draft trying to do that sort of stuff, even in the past years where you said that I’ve erred. There was no more emphasis on it this year. Coach (Mike) McCarthy talks about it all the time. He says, “I want these big guys that walk out there and everybody turns and goes, “Oh, my gosh.” We think we’ve addressed that some. We hope this group can help us.
Q. In free agency, you added a brawny, tenacious blocker in Matt Mulligan, the type of tight end the Packers haven’t had in years. Were you trying to get bigger and stronger with Mulligan?
A. We like his ability to block in-line and hold his own against defensive linemen. He’s a physical, aggressive player.
Q. You made the decision to bring back Johnny Jolly, another enormous man. Was this another case of adding more bulk?
A. Johnny, of course, was with us before. He’s a good football player. Obviously, there’s questions regarding his time away and how that will affect his play.
Q. You played football at the highest level for a decade. I’m sure when someone like me offers the opinion that the Packers haven’t been a physical team since the Super Bowl, you get your dander up and dismiss the criticism because a writer can’t possibly know anything about toughness. But if you would put aside those feelings, do you honestly think the Packers fit the NFL description of a physical team the past two years?
A. Yes, I do. I said something the other day in the press conference that probably was over the top. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I think me being a little bit closer to the game I think I have more of an appreciation for what these guys go through. I don’t think you can win games on a consistent basis like we’ve done over the last two or three years and have an un-tough team. I think that’s too simplistic. You can get into games sometimes, like the San Francisco playoff game, where they get the upper hand and it just goes the wrong way. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re not tough.
Q. In 18 games last year the Packers forced one running back to fumble. On offense, the ground game seldom was there, especially in short-yardage. Mike McCarthy indicated in February that the Packers fell somewhere in the middle on the NFL physicality scale. The 49ers and Seahawks kind of just run around and hit people. Green Bay hasn’t. Is this an issue for you?
A. I don’t think so.
Q. When you weigh road games against San Francisco, Baltimore and the New York Giants in the first 10 weeks, do you think you can win throwing the ball around and just being OK on defense?
A. No. I think we’re going to have to be an improved team. Every year you have to get better. We’ve made some steps to do that. We’ll see how this team comes together during the next several weeks.
Q. We’re talking here about things an outsider might think you need to win another Super Bowl. Some fans like to say, “In Ted we trust.” Do you ever feel like blurting out something to the effect that this is my life, I’m the expert, I’ve got the pelts on the wall and why should I explain this stuff?
A. No. I was raised better than that. The one thing I will always do is defend this team and the players who have played on this team over the last several years. It hurts my feelings a little bit when you talk about non-toughness or non-physicality. You’re almost challenging them as men. And I don’t know that that’s fair.
A. I understand. I appreciate the difficulty of this game and the fact these other teams have players that are good, too. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But you can’t consistently win in this league without doing something right. I think maybe that’s overlooked a little bit.
Q. It was said by some personnel people that Eddie Lacy can make a team tough almost by himself. Is there truth in that?
A. We’ll see. He’s a young man, he has pretty good pedigree in terms of what he did at Alabama and what he did in high school, for that matter. He looks good so far.
Q. You traded down in the second round from 55 to 61 even though Lacy still was on the board. Wasn’t your grade that high on him at 55, or did you think the league would continue passing on him?
A. We just felt it was a prudent thing to do. Sometimes it’s just on gut feelings that we can do as good a little bit later on. We didn’t move very far. We felt pretty good about what was available on the board.
Q. If you would have lost Lacy there, would you have kicked yourself?
A. Maybe, but that’s part of the business. You have to take chances sometimes.
Q. Jermichael Finley ranks second on the roster in cap charge at $8.75 million. You and Russ Ball seldom have salaries out of whack. Was it wise to bring Finley back at that number? Could he still become a great player?
A. Well, we never discuss salaries or contracts or anything like that. We think he’s a good player and we think he adds an ability at that position that’s hard to find.
Q. You’ve been described as a willing listener by people you work with. Does it often happen that you start out with an opinion consistent with the majority and get won over by a staffer in the minority?
A. Our discussions are fairly inclusive about personnel. I don’t mean this in an egotistical way. The job is set up that it’s my call. So I will make the call on what I think is best for the Packers, in both the near and long run. But I won’t necessarily disregard somebody else’s advice. You’re not always right.
Q. After the playoff game at Candlestick Park followed the defensive calamity in 2011, why didn’t you clean house on defense and just start over?
A. I never even thought about it. We think we have a good defensive staff. Yes, San Francisco got the best of us that day. But again, you can’t win all the games we’ve been winning without being pretty good.
Q. Were you concerned that Desmond Bishop wouldn’t be the same player at 29 that he was at 27 due to his injuries? Or would you have brought him back were it not for the six-man depth chart at inside linebacker?
A. It’s probably more of the latter. Desmond’s one of our guys. He helped us win a Super Bowl. We drafted him. We developed him, and he developed himself. But at the end of the day you get in positions where you realize you can’t keep everything. We have a number of inside backers that we feel are on the come.
Q. It has been said by some of your friends that you’ve always had a fondness for A.J. Hawk. Was it hard asking him for a pay cut last winter, and how would you evaluate his career?
A. I think A.J.’s an underrated player. I think the fact he was drafted so high maybe has people with expectations that are a little high. But he plays every week. He does do the hard stuff for us. I like him as a player.
Q. Some teams in free agency regarded Brad Jones as a top backup for a good linebacking corps but not a starter. Why did you believe in him to the point where you felt it was appropriate to move on from Bishop?
A. His growth over the past several years, and certainly last year when he had an opportunity really for the first time to play that position. His leadership among his peers on defense. His ability to run the show, to be athletic enough to get out in space and do the things he can do. We just thought for the whole package he was worth trying to keep.
Q. What was your relief factor when the extensions for Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews were completed? Did you ever harbor fears that perhaps they wanted to try free agency and play elsewhere?
A. We were in discussions with those players for a while. We’ve been in discussions with other players for a while. You never know when the final click is going to get in place. Those are complicated discussions. We always felt, and I think they would admit, they wanted to stay. Neither one of them were anxious to move.
Q. Next year, when the bulk of their deals kick in, those two players will eat up an estimated 23% of the Packers’ salary cap. Would you anticipate more cap casualties in 2014 and beyond because of a tighter cap?
A. Not necessarily. Russ does a great job of managing that sort of thing. We have to make good decisions. It can’t be based off one game, the excitement of doing something in a particular game or one play. You’ve got to make sound decisions for the long haul. Injuries enter into that. I think it’s good policy to draft, develop and then judiciously do a good job picking out the ones we want to go forward with.
Q. You and Mike McCarthy have been in the same jobs longer than any duo in the league except for Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak in Houston. What are the advantages of continuity at the top of an organization, and how do you keep it fresh?
A. Mike does a great job of keeping it fresh with our players. We want to be consistent, honest and forthright with people. You demand excellence. You can’t get complacent. I do think there’s an advantage to continuity because you’re not always changing over. Some teams get caught up in this thing of every couple years they change general managers and head coaches. They never quite catch up on the personnel end, or you have to be very lucky to do it. But because we’ve been here, at some point we have to make harder decisions.
Q. Do you now feel as comfortable with Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman backing up Rodgers as you did with Matt Flynn?
A. We feel pretty good about it. They’re in good competition now and we’ll see how it works out.
Q. Why didn’t you sign a veteran safety in March to compete opposite Morgan Burnett?
A. Well, we like the guys that we have. Sometimes the group that you’re looking at doesn’t necessarily inspire you to do that. We’re not afraid of signing free agents from other teams, but we try to do that very carefully.
Q. When you watch Nick Perry, what type of impact, if any, do you think he will make in the second year of his conversion to outside linebacker?
A. This will be a wonderful time for Nick in terms of his development. He had never done some of the stuff we were asking him to do last year. Part of that was my fault. But he seems much more comfortable now. What he can do he does very, very well. He’s worked very hard on the things he needed to work on. He’s got a great coach.
Q. The side switches at tackle makes a lot of sense. But why did you take the risk and move the guards, especially an established Pro Bowl-caliber player such as Josh Sitton?
A. You’d have to ask the coaching staff that. I think it was because they had played side by side for all this time and they wanted to keep them side by side. Josh was always a left-side player in college. He was a left tackle his entire career [actually, he played right guard at Central Florida as a freshman and almost exclusively right tackle his last three seasons] so we knew that wouldn’t be a struggle for him. To keep them together was the idea.
Q. Are you confident that with all the work in the off-season and training camp so far you’re prepared to handle the 49ers’ zone read running game and Colin Kaepernick’s scrambling?
A. This will be a big game. You can’t put too much emphasis on it. It’s a long season. But we’re going to go out there and try to win the game.
A. I hope so. I hope that I’m growing all the time. When all the scouts meet, my whole theme is always to get better, work on your craft. I have our college guys go back and look at guys who are playing in the pros now that they scouted in college. We’re always trying to get better.
Q. In the last three years you’ve seen John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey depart for GM jobs. Late in your career, did that get your blood flowing just a little to show Ted Thompson still has his fastball?
A. No. I’m no different than when I first got here in 2005 and we had all of those guys together. They’re really good personnel people. Ron taught us all well. But it doesn’t add any more juice to me.
Q. Do you actually enjoy or just tolerate the travel? Why do you go to some of these obscure all-star games in January when your people could have them covered?
A. I think it’s important for me to see as much as I can see because ultimately I’m making the call on these things. Sometimes you see something that grabs your attention. Several years ago I was at an all-star game in Houston. I think it was called the InstaJuice game. I saw James Jones running routes and the way he caught the ball strongly. It was just practice. It was, like, “This guy can do it.” Now you don’t always get lucky enough to find a James Jones. In this day and age I kind of tolerate (the travel). It’s not as much fun as it used to be.
Q. Would you retire before becoming a stay-in-the-office GM?
A. I don’t know, with the technology and video that’s available today. I did go to fewer pro days this past spring just because of the amount of video we were getting. I could watch 10 pro days in a day or I could be at one and see one guy that I was looking at. You still want to make sure that’s covered, and we do with our scouts.
Q. You turned 60 in January. There are three seasons left on your contract. If your health remains good, do you intend to fulfill your contractual commitment to the organization before riding off into the Texas sunset? Can you foresee yourself working beyond the 2015 season?
A. To all that … I suppose. You don’t know what’s around the corner. I have no plans to retire. There are times when you think, boy, you’d like to put your feet up in the air and relax in a nice beach setting somewhere rather than do all this, especially when you have bad days and you get people nicked up, that sort of thing. But I work with a great group of people. They count on me and I count on them, and I think it works OK. I’m not quite as spry as I used to be, but my health is good.
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