Nice Piece on How Packers GM Ted Thompson Built The Team
Green Bay's Quiet Football Mastermind
Ted Thompson's reclusiveness and unorthodox player moves once prompted Packers fans to call for his head. Now it seems he was ahead of his time.
By RUSSELL ADAMS
January 12, 2008; Page W1
In a year when New England Patriots executives are being hailed as football geniuses for engineering an undefeated season, Ted Thompson, the reclusive general manager of the Green Bay Packers, has achieved something equally remarkable.
Before this season, fans were calling for Mr. Thompson's head. While the Packers had won just 12 of their last 32 games, he did not seem to care. No matter how loudly the fans complained, Mr. Thompson, who avoids publicity and rarely explains himself, continued sending away popular veterans and replacing them with untested college players, some of whom weren't highly regarded by other NFL teams.
This year, led by a core of players that helped make Mr. Thompson a pariah, the Packers won 13 games and made the playoffs. What's more, the players he's brought into the league during his career are having an exceptional year -- as the playoffs resume Saturday, nearly 10% of the active players on the remaining eight teams were signed out of college by Mr. Thompson.
"If he's not the executive of the year, there needs to be an investigation," said former Packers GM Ron Wolf, who first hired him in 1992.
His emergence points to a new formula for success in the NFL. Like Bill Belichick, New England's famously taciturn coach, Mr. Thompson doesn't seek the cameras. The ex-player and former financial planner has never married, has no children and lives in tiny Green Bay, which is the smallest market in the NFL. When he's not on the road scouting college players four or five days a week, he spends as much time as he can in darkened rooms studying film. Other than reading thrillers and playing some golf, football is his life. "He probably needs more hobbies," says Mike Reinfeldt, the GM of the Tennessee Titans.
Packers fans haven't taken to Mr. Thompson's style. Unlike his predecessors, who regularly discussed their decisions in public forums, Mr. Thompson generally declines to share his reasons for personnel moves. His reluctance to spend on free agents and his proclivity for supplanting popular (though expensive) veterans with recent college graduates have spawned several Web sites dedicated to getting him fired (one has 519 signatures). When Mr. Thompson failed to sign veteran All-Pro receiver Randy Moss last year, Brett Favre, Green Bay's longtime quarterback, stopped talking to him.
While pro football is the nation's most popular sport, the brutal economic structure of the league -- where all 32 teams are effectively given the same resources -- has made winning and losing largely a function of management. Winning not only requires ruthless cost control, but it also seems to reward people who are able to make decisions in a hermetically sealed chamber without worrying about what the fans, the media or their own players will think. "I try to keep my eye on the ball, so to speak," Mr. Thompson says.
This reclusiveness is a departure for the NFL, which has long been dominated by outsize personalities like New York's Wellington Mara, Pittsburgh's Art Rooney and Oakland's Al Davis. In 1993, NFL owners granted players the right to become free agents in exchange for a cap on the total amount teams can spend on player salaries. The players' right to auction their services, coupled with the salary cap, made it difficult for teams to retain star players as long as they used to -- which in turn, created a much tougher job for executives. With no way to spend themselves to the top, NFL teams commonly turn over a third of their rosters each year and struggle to stay competitive for more than a few years at a time. The only way to keep winning is to replenish the roster with rookies who perform well immediately -- which is what Mr. Thompson has done.
The 54-year-old son of a Texas rancher, Mr. Thompson is tall and trim with a thatch of white hair. He played linebacker for the Houston Oilers from 1975 to 1984, where he often spent nights during training camp evaluating other players to determine his chances of making the team. "At the end of the day we'd cut the team down to see if there were scenarios where we could both make it," says Mr. Reinfeldt, who was Mr. Thompson's Houston teammate.
From 1985 to 1991, Mr. Thompson worked as an investment adviser in Houston before taking a job with the Packers as a scout in 1992. He later became the head of all talent evaluation, where he was part of a team that showed a knack for spotting players who hadn't yet gotten the most out of their physical talent. With its 12th and final selection in the 1999 draft, the Packers took an unknown wide receiver from Alcorn State named Donald Driver, who is now a three-time Pro Bowl player. In 2000, the Seattle Seahawks hired Mr. Thompson to run their football operations, and he began assembling the core of the team that advanced to Super Bowl XL two years ago. (Six of the eight playoff teams have key players that Mr. Thompson brought into the league.)
When he returned to Green Bay as its GM, the Packers had wrapped up a 10-win season in 2004, had made the playoffs and, to many observers, were well positioned for 2005. Mr. Thompson, however, saw a dead end. To keep that team intact, he thought he would have to saddle the franchise with big contracts that would kill its chances later. So he started letting popular players like linemen Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leave as free agents while stockpiling draft picks to use to replace them.
By this past off-season, the fans were steaming. When Mr. Thompson let star running back Ahman Green sign with Houston as a free agent without acquiring a big-name replacement, the situation got worse. On draft day, when Mr. Thompson used his first pick to select a defensive tackle rather than a running back, many fans considered it the last straw. One post on a Packers' blog read: "Fire Ted Thompson."
That tackle, Tennessee's Justin Harrell, was sidelined by an injury for most of his senior year at Tennessee. Not expecting to hear his name called so early on draft day, Mr. Harrell says he was outside his home in Martin, Tenn., talking to friends when the pick was announced. Later, in Green Bay, Mr. Thompson headed downstairs to the atrium at Lambeau Field to talk to fans who'd paid $25 to watch the draft. "I got booed," he says.
Mr. Harrell, 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, fit one of Mr. Thompson's first principles: that teams should be built around huge, athletic linemen who can clog up the middle of the field, particularly when the weather gets cold and teams rely more on running the ball. The Packers spent 49% more this season on defensive linemen than the average of the eight teams in the playoffs.
The move didn't pan out right away. Mr. Harrell showed up at training camp 15 pounds above his college playing weight and was inactive his first four games. He played in the next two, got hurt and didn't come back until November. But in the team's final four games, he helped make 13 tackles while filling in for injured players. Mr. Thompson said he would see a lot of playing time in Saturday night's game.
No playoff team spent less on running backs and wide receivers than Green Bay. Packers fans watched in disbelief last April as the Patriots acquired Mr. Moss, the star receiver, for a fourth-round draft pick. They then watched the Packers acquire a receiver from San Jose State that a top scouting service said was only the 24th-best available. That player, James Jones, wound up third in the NFL among rookies in receiving yards.
"There's a tendency to say, 'Yeah, I knew that all along,' " Mr. Thompson says. "Oftentimes, it's a pleasant surprise."
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