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Decision looming for Packers on Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 3, 2014

GREEN BAY—A few days from now Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy will sit in adjoining seats at the close of their ninth draft together for the Green Bay Packers.

No National Football League team can match the Packers for consecutive years of service in the jobs of general manager and coach. Nine years is an eternity in the fickle business of pro football, but Mark Murphy apparently wants to sustain Thompson-McCarthy for as long as he can.

Murphy, the team’s president, has been working on a contract extension for McCarthy during the off-season, according to sources.

McCarthy and Thompson each signed new five-year deals in spring 2011. McCarthy’s deal runs through the end of the 2015 season; Thompson’s would expire after the 2016 draft.

It isn’t known if Murphy has approached Thompson about a new contract, or if he planned to wait until after the draft before feeling him out. In an interview Saturday, Thompson said he wouldn’t discuss such matters, but did commit to the coming season and draft.

Asked if it was important for him to finish out his contract, Thompson replied, “I don’t look at it like that. It’s important for me to try to do a good job today.”

Neither man was hired by Murphy, who replaced Bob Harlan 6 years ago. But from all outward appearances he is pleased with their individual performance and harmonious working relationship.

The key is how much longer Thompson wants to labor in the stressful, time-consuming realm of an NFL GM.

The assumption is that Murphy wouldn’t have entered negotiations with McCarthy without having some assurances Thompson plans to work beyond the final two years of his contract.

Otherwise, it would make little or no sense for Murphy to re-do McCarthy with two years remaining on his deal and potentially undermine the organization’s effective delineation of authority when it comes time for the next GM.

Frankly, it’s unclear just where the Packers are intending to go with the McCarthy negotiation.

McCarthy, 50, has had three contracts in Green Bay.

His initial three-year deal averaged about $2 million per year. After advancing to the NFC Championship Game in his second season, McCarthy signed a new five-year contract in February 2008 that averaged about $4 million. It was one of Murphy’s first major decisions.

After using agent Gary O’Hagan to negotiate his first two contracts, McCarthy switched to agent Trace Armstrong, a former NFL defensive end. He still had two years left in February 2011 but, within weeks of victory in the Super Bowl, Murphy ripped those years up and gave the coach a five-year deal averaging about $6.5 million.

It was regarded as a blockbuster deal among industry analysts.

Sources said New England’s Bill Belichick is the highest-paid coach at about $11 million per year. Seattle’s Pete Carroll, with a new deal averaging about $9 million, is second followed by New Orleans’ Sean Payton at about $8.5 million. Saints owner Tom Benson went higher than he probably needed to assist Payton, who wasn’t paid during his year-long suspension in 2012.

After that, McCarthy is in a pack of five coaches earning between $6.5 million and $7 million. The others are Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, Jeff Fisher of St. Louis, John Harbaugh of Baltimore and Andy Reid of Kansas City.

Six of the eight coaches on the list have won at least one Super Bowl, and Fisher and Reid have coached Super Bowl losing teams.

Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, the other active coach with a Super Bowl ring, makes about $6 million.

Given what McCarthy already is averaging and what other coaches with one Super Bowl victory are making, it’s unclear where McCarthy and the Packers think his contract should fall.

There’s no need for the team to touch the contract for another year. In a way, the Packers are just bidding against themselves.

One source familiar with the situation said Murphy’s decision to begin working on a new contract for McCarthy was met by some grumbling within the team’s board of directors.

The larger issue is what effect a new four- or five-year contract for McCarthy would have on the Packers’ ability to attract another GM should Thompson decide to quit when the coach still had time left on his contract.

The football renaissance in Green Bay began in November 1991 when Harlan made a dramatic change in the organizational structure. That’s when he hired Ron Wolf as GM and gave him total control of the football operation, including the authority to hire the coach and fire the coach.

Wolf used that authority in short order to fire Lindy Infante and hire Mike Holmgren.

When Wolf retired in February 2001 with three years left on his contract, he had just turned 62. Wolf informed Harlan no one on his staff was ready to succeed him. Harlan turned to Mike Sherman in the role as coach-GM from 2001-’04, a decision the Packers would come to regret.

Upon being named GM in January 2005, Thompson waited several weeks before deciding that he could make it work with Sherman and retained him as coach. In the end Thompson found out that he couldn’t, then fired Sherman after one season and hired McCarthy to get us where we are today.

No one seems to know how much longer the taciturn Thompson intends to work. When he does depart, it would be critical for his successor to be able to name his own coach.

Signing McCarthy to a long-term contract now could cause all kinds of problems later.

Thompson, who turned 61 in January, is a football lifer with no family. “What would he do if he didn’t have video to look at or a team to scout?” one of his close friends said last week.

On Thursday, some of those in attendance at a pre-draft briefing didn’t think Thompson looked particularly vibrant. Many NFL personnel men are blurry-eyed right about now after endless months preparing for a draft that can’t get here soon enough, and he also appeared to be a bit under the weather.

Several times over the years Thompson has talked about settling in his native Texas and serving as an anonymous area scout for some team, maybe even the Packers. Others wonder if he really could do that after having had what might be the ultimate personnel job with no owner around to interfere.

“Ted’s in a very secure place financially and knowing who he is and what he wants to do,” another longtime friend said. “Don’t be shocked if Ted doesn’t just get up and walk away.

“He’s a football guy through and through. At some point, sooner than later, he’s going to say, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough of it.’ He’ll stay in football but as just a scout. Let him get on the ranch. He’ll be a happy camper.”

That friend made those remarks in September 2010. Five months later, Thompson was on a podium accepting the Lombardi Trophy.

If Murphy doesn’t know the inscrutable Thompson’s future, he owes it to the organization to remain vigilant trying to find out.

Fortunes in the NFL change dramatically each year, but for now there would appear to be a long list of legitimate candidates to succeed Thompson.

John Schneider, 42, left the Packers in January 2010 to serve as general manager in Seattle. He grew up in De Pere, has deep ties and connections within the organization and city, and just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl.

Schneider hasn’t had the opportunity to wield the power that he would in Green Bay because Carroll has final say on everything in Seattle. It’s considered almost a foregone conclusion among his colleagues and friends that Schneider regards the Packers as his dream job.

It’s possible that Seahawks owner Paul Allen, one of the richest men in the world, would offer Schneider more money than almost any man could turn down.

It’s possible that Schneider might be able to opt out of his Seattle contract because of the increased authority a jump to Green Bay would mean.

It’s possible that Allen, stung a decade ago when the Packers snatched Thompson away from his neglectful eye, would play hardball and demand draft-choice compensation.

And it’s possible that Schneider has a clause in his contract enabling him to return home as Packers GM.

John Dorsey, 53, was given ultimate power a year ago when he left the Packers for the GM post in Kansas City. His many successful moves transforming the Chiefs from 2-14 to 11-5 and the playoffs earned him NFL executive of the year honors.

Dorsey also has a deep affection for Wisconsin and the Packers built during six seasons as a player and 21 years as a scout and scouting director.

Friends say Dorsey is extremely happy in Kansas City, which is little more than two hours from where his wife grew up. But there’s also a sense among colleagues that returning to the Packers would have tremendous appeal.

Trent Baalke, 50, has run the show as GM of the once-again powerful San Francisco 49ers for four years, and his tiny hometown of Rosendale isn’t much more than an hour’s drive from Lambeau Field.

Although Baalke has never worked with Thompson, they are tight. For years, the two of them have sat apart from others almost side-by-side observing workouts at the combine. Before his meteoric rise to the top spot with the 49ers, it was known that Baalke coveted the GM job in Green Bay.

The NFL exec of the year in 2011, Baalke’s contract runs through the 2016 season.

Russ Ball, 54, replaced Andrew Brandt in February 2008 as a vice president and contract negotiator. In his understated but vital role, he has long been a trusted confidant and voice of reason for Murphy, Thompson and McCarthy.

In the last few years, Ball has done everything that he possibly could to learn the personnel end of the business. He tries to attend every practice, sits in almost every draft meeting and constantly watches video with Thompson.

There’s no question that Ball hopes to be interviewed for the GM job in Green Bay or elsewhere. He also could be a viable candidate one day to succeed Murphy, who is 58.

“I have told a number of people that Russ should already be a GM,” Saints GM Mickey Loomis, Ball’s boss for six years, said in 2011.

Just as Thompson, Schneider, Dorsey, Baalke and Ball have worked for more than one NFL team, Eliot Wolf probably would have to as well before he’d be regarded as a serious candidate for the GM post in Green Bay.

Wolf, the 32-year-old director of pro personnel and son of Ron Wolf, has served internships with the Falcons and Seahawks but his 10 years of full-time employment have all been in Green Bay.

Scot McCloughan, another Wolf disciple with an almost savant-like reputation as an evaluator, had served as Schneider’s right hand in Seattle since 2010 before losing his job two weeks ago because of personal reasons. He did an excellent job beginning the 49ers’ rebuilding process from 2005-’09 as vice president and later GM.

Now, with his career in jeopardy at age 43, McCloughan no longer could be regarded as a candidate in Green Bay.

Murphy also could consider other candidates, particularly if he continues to rely heavily on the search firm Korn/Ferry International and Jed Hughes, its vice chairman, on major hires. Hughes was responsible for getting Murphy connected with the Packers’ executive committee in 2007.

Hughes also led the organization to hire marketing vice presidents Laura Sankey (2008) and Tom Connolly (2010), both of whom sources said were let go. The Packers still haven’t replaced Connolly four months after his departure.

One might think a new long-term contract for McCarthy wouldn’t affect the process of finding Thompson’s successor if Schneider, Dorsey or Ball got the job.

Schneider, who introduced McCarthy to his wife, and the coach were described as “like Frick and Frack” by a colleague.

Dorsey and Ball also appear to have strong relationships with McCarthy.

Still, it’s paramount the next GM, with his neck squarely on the line, be permitted to select his own coach and not be encumbered by a contract. McCarthy might have an enviable record, but there’s no telling what might happen between now and then or what the new man would prefer.

As Ron Wolf has said on more than one occasion, “Never hire a friend.”

There would seem almost no chance that McCarthy would seek to add the GM role even under the unlikely chance that Murphy and the executive committee would consider it.

All this week fans will be in a frenzy trying to predict the Packers’ selection in the first round of the draft. A better debate might be what to do about McCarthy’s contract and, when the day arrives, who should be the team’s next GM.



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