Ted Thompson discusses Packers' outlook
Ted Thompson has a new contract and a new outlook on life as he begins his 10th season as general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
The unspecified health issues that dogged Thompson in the recent past have subsided. He is back working out vigorously early each morning and says he feels better than he has in years.
This spring, Thompson surpassed Ron Wolf in time spent as GM in Green Bay. Wolf retired shortly after turning 62 in 2001, but Thompson, who is 61, told Packers President Mark Murphy during their recent talks that he intends to see his multiyear contract extension through to the end.
Only five men in the National Football League have been GMs or functioned as GMs with their present teams longer than Thompson.
The list includes Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who has been his own GM since 1989; Cincinnati owner Mike Brown, who assumed the president-GM role after his father, Paul, died in 1991; New England coach Bill Belichick, who has run the show since 2000; Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome, who was promoted to his current post in 2002; and New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis, who also was promoted to his current job in 2002.
Brown is the only one without a Super Bowl ring.
In an interview Thursday with the Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn, Thompson discussed his moves in the offseason, his future and the season ahead.
Q: Is there any reason the Packers shouldn’t be evaluated as one of the half-dozen leading contenders to win the Super Bowl this season?
A: To be a leading contender to win the Super Bowl says a lot. I think we’re going to have a chance to win games and be competitive. If we play well, we might have a chance to achieve those things, but I think it’s a little early to talk about.
Q: Examining its strengths and weaknesses, what kind of team do you expect to field this season?
A: I think a pretty competitive team. I like the makeup of it. The personality seems good. We’ve added some veteran guys, we’re getting some guys back that were nicked up.
Q: The Packers’ only playoff victory in the last three seasons was over the Joe Webb-quarterbacked Minnesota Vikings. Have the Packers underachieved in the postseason from 2011-13 considering you have a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers in his prime?
A: We would have liked to have won more, but that’s the way it worked out. The NFL is not an easy business. We’re aware of that, and when you get in the playoffs it gets turned up several notches. We’re hoping to do better this year.
Q: Given this franchise’s money, management structure, stadium, training facilities, fan support and tradition, has it reached the point here where the Packers should at least have a winning record every year?
A: I think people can get jaded when talking about the big picture in different sports. It can happen in college, baseball. Winning consistently, especially at the NFL level, I can’t imagine anything more difficult than that. When you start taking that for granted, if it’s all in or none, I think that’s a silly stance to take. I think it’s done by people that really don’t understand how difficult it is.
Q: In your mind, is Green Bay one of the few elite organizations in the league? If so, who should be cited for this?
A: It’s a marvelous place to work and ply your trade and try to be competitive because everything is set up for football. Everybody that works here does that. In terms of expectations, those things can get out of whack. But it’s a great place to play. I think it was the decision by Bob Harlan and the executive committee to go hire a football guy in Ron Wolf, who then hired a head coach. As I understand it, the executive committee at that time had been involved in some of the searches for coaches and hiring. I think it was the determination that you find a real football guy and turn it over to him.
Q: At midweek, you signed a contract extension to work for several more years when some friends of yours didn’t expect that you would go more than another year or two. How and when did Mark Murphy approach you? Were the negotiations formal or informal? Did you have representation or do it yourself?
A: Informal. Yes, I had some representation. An attorney friend of mine. It wasn’t very difficult. It was done over the course of the last few weeks. I think Mark did it (alone).
Q: Ron Wolf, your mentor, quit shortly after turning age 62, citing a lost edge and the desire to do something else. He has never looked back, traveling the world many times over while only dabbling in pro football on occasion. Have you discussed burnout and the demands of staying sharp with him?
A: Not specifically. I think everybody has their own threshold. Ron was very smart. What he’s been able to accomplish since his retirement in terms of traveling … he and his wife are in good health and have been able to do that … I think that’s marvelous. In my particular situation, I think if I can stay in good health and do this job, I think that’s a marvelous situation.
Q: You’re 61½, right about Ron’s age when he departed. Does money mean a lot to you? A bust in Canton? What motivates you? What more would you like to accomplish as GM of the Packers?
A: This game is like that. You’re playing and competing against the best in the world at such a high level. It’s scary because you know how far you can drop. If you lose a couple games then all of a sudden you’re going to drop. The ability to stay up high. To continue the chase of scouting and working with good people. All those things are important to me. My family back home in Texas is important to me. I am cognizant that I’ve spent a large part of my life away from them. I’m going to make a concerted effort to try to be more in their lives. If it’s a weekend every six or eight weeks, I’m going to try to do stuff like that. Money is just a byproduct of your business, and Canton is foolish.
Q: What do you see as your role, and how can you most help this organization?
A: The short answer is to be a leader. That encompasses a lot of different things. It’s making decisions, but it’s also the idea of being a good person and a servant to the people that work alongside me. The people that I work with have their own lives and their own families. It’s important to try to do this right.
Q: I know negotiating vice president Russ Ball, who is 54, has done everything that he possibly can to learn the personnel side of the business. How would he fare one day as your successor? Would you like to see that happen?
A: Sure. Russ Ball is outstanding. He’s one of those people I work so closely with and becomes part of your family. He’s a good man and certainly an asset to the Packers.
Q: Do you consider it important that your contract and Mike McCarthy’s be the exact same length? If so, why?
A: It’s just been generally the stance of the organization to kind of tie the general manager and head coach in lock step. It makes a little bit of sense in terms of, if the contracts would expire or be lengthened out, they’d be (done) all at the same time.
Q: It has been almost a decade since the Packers found themselves in a salary cap predicament. Presently, they’re about $12.5 million beneath the cap. How, under Andrew Brandt and now Ball, have the Packers been able to stay comfortably under the cap for so long?
A: Part of that is management and an understanding of what we will and won’t do on a contract. There’s a lot of angst when you get involved in negotiations. There’s a tendency by some teams to kind of maybe stretch a little bit beyond their reach. What we’ve always done, and what I think quite frankly is one of the secrets of this, is that we’ve always done it the same way. Meaning, we’ve looked at free agents and our own players the same way. We haven’t had four people sitting in my chair and three different head coaches. We’ve had the same people sitting in the chairs. I think when that happens, that changes your roster moves dramatically. It bodes well for me staying in place. I think it’s the continuity of having Mike and myself and our entire staff, coaching and personnel, they’re all the same.
Q: Do you really think the Packers should be proud of going 2-5-1 against a soft schedule (including five at home) when Rodgers was injured last year?
A: Well, I like the ‘2’ part where we won those two games. Did you say 2-5-1? I don’t know. It’s a hard business. I’m proud of us hanging in there. That was impressive, in my opinion.
Q: What was it like last season to see how the other 75 percent lives and not have your franchise quarterback? Were there benefits for the organization to have gone through that?
A: I suppose. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to friends. I suppose you learn as you go.
Q: Have you approached Rodgers or the offensive coaches in an attempt to make sure he gets the ball out of his hand as quickly as possible?
A: No. We have a fine coaching staff to work on things like that.
Q: You took the blame for basically mismanaging the backup quarterback position a year ago. In retrospect, what should you have done, and is the situation rectified now?
A: Well, you kind of push the envelope. You’re always trying to get better at that position, just like any other. It wasn’t like we didn’t bring different people in and take a look at them. It just didn’t work out. We feel pretty good about our (current) group.
Q: Why did you wait until April 15, the day before Matt Flynn had a visit set with the Giants, to re-sign him? Wasn’t that a tad risky, or did you have a tacit agreement with Flynn about returning?
A: No. It was just the way it worked out. In the offseason, there’s always some risk.
Q: How well do you think the Packers have been drafting in recent years under you?
A: I think we do OK. There’s guys that haven’t done as good as we hoped. For the most part, I think we do pretty good.
Q: You portray something of a Pollyanna image in your public appearances. Are you more pointed, demanding, even caustic with your people?
A: I’m not caustic. I’m not sure what Pollyanna is. We have a pretty good working relationship here. Our guys know what I want and what’s expected of them. I’m not a big believer in yellin’ and cussin’.
Q: Did you ultimately make the call to allow center Evan Dietrich-Smith to leave in free agency and replace him with JC Tretter? What went into that decision?
A: Well, ultimately, I have a hand in all the personnel moves here, so I guess you’d have to say ‘yes’ on that. It’s just the way it worked out, you know? He got a nice offer (from Tampa Bay) and we chose not to go there. I think (Tretter) has a chance to be a pretty good player. Working hard. Good kid. Smart.
Q: You control the football decision-making process. Will Jermichael Finley be offered a contract to play for the Packers again?
A: It’s hard to say. It’d be a medical decision, first and foremost. We’d have to cross that bridge. It’s hypothetical, so there’s really no reason to get into what-ifs.
Q: Has the team’s medical staff concluded that it would be too risky for Finley to return?
A: I wouldn’t characterize what our medical staff is saying.
Q: Is there enough talent and experience at tight end to make it a solid position this season?
A: I think so. It tilts toward the young, but we’ve got several guys that have been with the team for a number of years as well.
Q: Of the Packers’ top six offensive linemen, you drafted four in the fourth round and signed another as a rookie free agent. Is there personal pride in seeing this unheralded group of players jell? Is there hope this unit could be the team’s best in the last decade?
A: I didn’t know about where they were picked. I think we have a chance to be a pretty solid offensive line. At different times because of injuries there’s a lot of them in that group that have played. There’s going to be pretty good competition for the final five spots.
Q: The Packers took no financial risk signing tight end Colt Lyerla 10 days after the draft. Given the multiple character concerns that caused some teams to dismiss him entirely, why would you risk the reputation and image of the Packers by signing someone like that?
A: I’m not going to go too far into this other than we did our homework and did our research. We felt like it was something that was worth giving a try.
Q: After a very poor year, almost the entire defensive coaching staff and most of the top players return. What would you like to see more of from the defense this season?
A: More getting off the field on third down. I’m sure Dom (Capers) would say the same thing. Turnovers. Game-changing events. It’s a pretty nice-looking group out there.
Q: Do you defer to Mike McCarthy on coaching staff hirings and firings? If so, do you make your feelings known?
A: I defer and we have discussions.
Q: Julius Peppers, an old pass rusher playing a position in the base defense that he has never played before, was your major offseason acquisition. Do you think it’s going to work out?
A: I think so. I think that those that have doubted Mr. Peppers most of the time have been wrong. He is, as people have been able to see over the last few days, a gifted athlete despite being a little older than some. I look forward to watching him. He seems anxious to do it, too.
Q: Before signing Peppers, did you harken back to April 1993 and the free-agent signing of 31-year-old Reggie White? Is there a comparison to be made between them?
A: No, I didn’t harken back. That’s a good word. No, I didn’t put the two together. We had a couple conversations and there was interest on our part. There was genuine interest, we could tell, on his part. We were able to do it, and he flies in and signs the contract and was back home before anybody even knew about it. That’s the way we like to do business.
Q: How will B.J. Raji fare after turning down about $20 million guaranteed and coming back for one year and $4 million?
A: I won’t discuss the money part. I think B.J. is going to be fine. He understands his growth as a player and is looking forward to the challenge.
Q: It took both Darren Sharper and Nick Collins until their fourth seasons to become top-flight players. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a third-year junior from Alabama, is 21. Where is he at in his development and ability to contribute substantially as a rookie?
A: Well, we’ll see. We have other players that are going to be vying for playing time there. I’m sure it’s going to be like it always is in our secondary. We’re going to be playing multiple guys at multiple positions. I’m sure he’s going to work into the mix of that.
Q: Morgan Burnett got a lucrative contract extension before last season and didn’t play well. Have you seen any improvement? What level of play would you expect from him this year?
A: Morgan’s a good player. He might have had an off year last year. He’s been practicin’ good and had a really good spring. I think he’s going to be fine.
Q: Are there areas of injury prevention that you’d like to see McCarthy stress or implement but haven’t been able to convince him?
A: No. We’ve implemented everything one could think of. We’re still evolving and working on that in terms of GPS monitoring, dietitian, rest during practices. There isn’t a stone that we’ve left unturned, and we’re going to continue to do that until we figure it out. You’re not going to eliminate all the injuries in the world. But so far this year, it looks a little bit promising although I hate to say anything (raps on wooden table).
Q: What are moves made by the organization toward slowing the rash of injuries that you regard as particularly meaningful?
A: The education of your players in terms of their diet and intake. Whether it be fluids, water, Gatorade, the type of food they eat. The education we give them to pick out the red, pick out the green, that sort of thing. Then Mark Lovat’s weight training and conditioning. It’s just an ongoing thing. And sometimes it comes down to luck. It’s frustrating at times because sometimes it feels like you’re not making any hay. I think our players have bought into it.
Q: You’ve said many times you don’t get involved in scheme. How strongly do you make your voice heard on who plays and who doesn’t?
A: We have discussions. Those are rare because … you’re talking about Mike and myself … we kind of think alike. Even if we decided to keep it to ourselves and think, ‘Can we move this guy above this guy?’ the other person has already thought of it. We’re both trying to win. That includes our coaching staff and personnel guys. Everybody’s got an opinion, I’ll say that. Mike and I, we work that out.
Q: During your long playing career with the Oilers, I’m sure players didn’t have energy snacks brought to them during practice, equipment men ferrying their shoulder pads after practice and an abundance of amenities everywhere you turned. Do you support an environment in which Green Bay players get the best of everything and might become pampered as a result?
A: I don’t necessarily support in the manner that you said it, but I do support doing everything we can to help our players reach their optimum playing ability. It is harder to play in the NFL now than it’s ever been in the history of mankind. These guys are unbelievably trained. The violence and the collisions that occur are remarkable. In the ’70s when I was playing, I mean, it was football, but it was different than it is now. These guys are more dynamic, more explosive. The collisions are unbelievably more dynamic. It’s impressive that these guys can do what they do. I don’t believe in the word pampering; I don’t think that’s what we’re doin’. We’re trying to equip these guys with the knowledge and the facilities to do their job well.
Q: When Badgers linebacker Chris Borland slipped in the draft, did you try to move up from pick No. 85 in the third round (Khyri Thornton) and select Borland before he went No. 77 to San Francisco?
A: I liked Chris Borland quite a bit, but I would never discuss whether I was going to try to move up or back. I’d rather wait until he goes to the Pro Bowl like six times and tell you, ‘Yeah, I was trying to trade up for him.’ Like most of the guys you talk to.