Super Bowl season validates Packers GM Thompson
Since taking over as the Green Bay Packers' general manager in 2005, Thompson has been a popular target for fan criticism. His conservative approach to building a team through the draft wasn't popular with those who wanted splashy big-name free agent signings.
Then Thompson became the guy who traded Brett Favre.
Now the Packers are preparing to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, Favre is gone — presumably for good — amid a cloud of injury and embarrassment, and Thompson's approach looks like football genius.
But Thompson prefers to work quietly behind the scenes and let others enjoy the spotlight, so you won't catch him gloating to a quickly dwindling crowd of critics.
"There's a lot of Packers fans, and you'd like for all of them to think that the organization is being run well," Thompson said recently. "But you can't worry about that. You have to do your job. And quite frankly, I don't speak on those things anymore. We've moved on."
So have Packers fans.
As Aaron Rodgers blossoms into one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, you'll hardly hear anybody in Wisconsin pining for Favre to come back these days. It's a dramatic shift since 2008, when Thompson made the difficult decision to build around Rodgers instead of indulging yet another round of Favre's dizzying indecision on retirement.
In a rare moment of Internet civility, one fan website, firetedthompsonnow.com, even posted an apology: "I'm not afraid to admit it. I was wrong. Congrats Ted."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy applauded Thompson for sticking to his beliefs when he resolved one of the most tumultuous times in franchise history by sending Favre to the New York Jets in 2008.
"I think it truly shows the strength of Ted to stick to his guns, stay the course," said McCarthy, who also played a key role in the decision. "We stayed with the plan. We made the decision based on what we felt was the best interests of the Green Bay Packers, and we never budged off of it. It wasn't popular, and it wasn't fun at times, but we felt it was the right decision. And I think why we're standing here today talking about it proves it was the right decision."
To McCarthy, it was another sign of Thompson's steady personality.
"He's the same person every day," McCarthy said. "He doesn't make emotional decisions. Has a plan, sticks to his plan. Has the strength to stick to the plan even through the storms. ... He's why this team is in the shape that it's in and why the future looks so bright."
After playing college football at SMU, Thompson went on to play 10 years as a backup linebacker with the Houston Oilers. Thompson generally speaks in self-deprecating terms about his playing career — although he is proud that as an emergency kicker, he once converted four extra points in a game.
Now 58, Thompson is all business, spending much of his time on the road scouting players.
"I don't know if there's another GM that's on the road as much as Ted," McCarthy said. "He's out there every week."
While choosing Rodgers over Favre is a career-defining moment for Thompson, the job he and his staff have done this season is more impressive. Going into the Super Bowl, the Packers list 16 players on injured reserve.
The Packers wouldn't be where they are today unless Thompson and his staff had unearthed players such as running back James Starks, a sixth-round pick; nickel cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent; and outside linebacker Erik Walden, who was out of football when the Packers signed him in midseason.
"What's impressive is when new guys come in and step in and play and do well and our coaches take them in and they're not nervous about it," Thompson said. "Because sometimes that doesn't work too well. It's like, 'Oh, woe is me.' And that's not the way our guys approach it."
Thompson doesn't want to take credit for finding those players, instead deferring to one of his mentors, former Packers general manager Ron Wolf. Thompson worked under Wolf in the 1990s, went to Seattle, then returned to Green Bay.
"I don't take any personal satisfaction with the way we do things, because we do things the way Ron Wolf taught us to," Thompson said. "Everybody that works in our personnel department, I think, was tutored under Ron Wolf, including myself. So we're just doing our job."
Veteran receiver Donald Driver said Thompson deserves credit.
"He believed the people he's got in the locker room, the free agents and the draft picks, he knew that those guys would step up and fill the shoes of our injured guys and they did," Driver said. "And you have to take your hat off to him because not too many people would have did what he's done."
Thompson's approach to building a team — draft players, develop them, and reward them with new contracts when warranted — isn't as flashy as signing big-name free agents.
Driver said Thompson might take grief from fans, but his approach sends the right message to the team.
"So many people are wondering why he didn't go out and get this guy, that guy," Driver said. "That wasn't his mindset. His mindset is he can build within this locker room. And that shows you what type of character he has to trust in the players that are already here."
Even some players have said in the past that they wished the team was more active in free agency, but this year's results validate Thompson's approach.
"I have seen what he's done over his career, and I think it's tremendous," Driver said. "If you go back and look at all the things, certain guys he brought in, certain guys he let go, and these guys go to other teams and play for other teams. And you go, 'Wow, why we didn't keep him? Why'd we let him go?' And in all due respect, Ted made the best decision for this organization, and that's what you have to live with."
Thompson doesn't think his draft-first approach is anything unorthodox, calling it "pretty normal."
And if the hidden gems he and his staff uncovered help the Packers win the Super Bowl, expect Thompson to continue to spread the credit around.
"I'm proud of our staff, I'm proud of our coaching staff and proud of our leader guys that took these guys in," Thompson said. "A lot of credit goes to these players. They didn't know they're not supposed to be able to play well. So they just played. Our coaches got them ready, and they did a good job. We've got some more work to do."