The conflict of Ted Thompson « Ol' Bag of Donuts

The conflict of Ted Thompson

AN ADDENDUM: Another good Favre/Thompson piece by former Packers capologist Andrew Brandt, who consistently delivers unique and compelling insight on the Packers over at Brandt’s story discusses many of the issues we’re talking about below.

Gene here. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since I read this long ESPN feature on Ted Thompson yesterday. Pretty good story, and it delves deeper into Thompson’s background — with more sources close to him — than most of what we’ve read about the Packers’ GM. But I still walked away from it feeling like I don’t really know Thompson at all.

And I left with this question: What is it about Ted Thompson that bugs Packers fans so much?

I don’t think it’s the trade of Brett Favre. I honestly don’t. The story says, “Thompson and his biggest supporters know this: No matter what he does, his career will always be linked to Favre and the decision to move on without possibly the biggest legend in Packers history.” But as well as Aaron Rodgers has played, and as silly as Favre has made himself look since last summer, I think we’re in a much better spot with the decision than we would have been if Rodgers stunk. Yes, this decision will probably define his career. But quick: Who was the GM that traded Joe Montana to the Chiefs?

Yeah, I can’t remember either. I think it was Carmen Policy, or maybe it was Eddie DeBartolo, but I couldn’t tell you for sure without looking it up.

Now, here’s the caveat with that example: In the second season without Montana, the 49ers won the Super Bowl and continued to contend for several more years with Steve Young (who I’m convinced would’ve been one of the top three or four QBs of all time had he not gone to the USFL, sat behind Montana or had the concussion problems. But that’s for another time). If Rodgers and Thompson win a Super Bowl in the next couple years (or even continue to play well, because it’s not like Favre left a Montana-like shadow in terms of championships), the Favre specter will start to go away somewhat.

But I think it would also take a Super Bowl run for Packers fans to be OK with Thompson. And while there are elements of his personality that play into the reasons why, it’s still Favre that brought them out for everyone to see.

First, let’s think back to when Thompson took over. The Packers were coming off a 10-6 season and a third straight NFC North title. Favre had just had one of his best seasons, directing a passing game that was absolutely lethal that year with Donald Driver and Javon Walker (remember the sideline bows at the Metrodome on Christmas Eve?). And the first thing Thompson did was draft Rodgers. Now, it looks like a great decision. But at the time, it was unpopular. Maybe it’s because we wanted to believe Favre would play forever, but I think it’s more because Thompson came in acting like the Packers were in need of a major overhaul.

The next fall, that looked like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thompson did little to get the defense in better shape, Walker went out in the first half of the season opener against the Lions, Samkon Gado was the starting running back by midseason, and when things went south, Favre looked like he’d completely checked out, heaving the ball downfield out of sheer disinterest or perhaps misplaced hope he could make something happen. The Packers finished 4-12, Mike Sherman was gone and the overhaul was on.

Ever since then, Thompson has stockpiled draft picks in a seemingly endless effort to field the youngest team in the league. He’s used free agency only sparingly, albeit with great success (Charles Woodson has been an absolute home run, Ryan Pickett and Brandon Chillar have been solid additions, Marquand Man–OK, there are exceptions). This is the same way Thompson’s mentor, Ron Wolf, built the Packers. But there are two major differences. Wolf went for the home run when he needed to (Reggie White, Sean Jones Keith Jackson, Santana Dotson, Andre Rison…man, I loved that team!), and Thompson hasn’t (he passed on Randy Moss when he could have put the Packers over the top in ‘07). And when Wolf took over, he had a young Favre. Thompson didn’t.

So here’s why I believe we waffle on Thompson: He took over a team that was 10-6 and had a great quarterback in his final years, and he behaved like none of that was pertinent. Worse yet, he did it in a reserved, taciturn manner that made reporters and fans feel like they had no basis for knowing what’s going into these decisions. That’s a PR mistake in every market, but in the NFL’s smallest market, when the fans own the team, there’s a need for greater accountability than anywhere else. Thompson provided none of that. Instead, he failed to supply Favre with the weapons that could have gotten him to one more Super Bowl. As we at OBOD like to say, he drafted like he’s the smartest guy in the room, taking Justin Harrell too early, with no explanation, and offering little candor in the times where he bypassed a chance to add a playmaker to the roster. Maybe Thompson wanted to do it the way Wolf did all along–build a young team around a young quarterback, which is why he treated 2007 like an aberration and ignored pleas to try and win now.

But he didn’t start with a young quarterback. He started with Favre, which admittedly put him in a tough situation, especially after the 29-interception season in 2005. However, Mike McCarthy was able to get Favre to play within some constraints in 2006 and 2007, and Thompson still sat by as the Packers improved, offering little insight into his plan.

The great irony in all of this is, Thompson gets under our skin for the same reasons he got under Favre’s! All Favre wanted was another shot to win now, and that’s ultimately where fans come down, too. We don’t like rebuilding. It’s not fun, it’s a slow process and it tests our patience. And Favre didn’t like it because he didn’t have much time. So these two men, both of considerable ego but diametrically opposed personalities, butted heads. Favre acted like it was his place to make football decisions, and Thompson failed to understand he was in a PR war with the most popular man in Wisconsin. It was obvious to everyone all along that Favre and Thompson didn’t see eye-to-eye, and when Favre finally got in a position where he could take off the muzzle, everything came out. That’s ultimately why we’re in this ugly situation this weekend, preparing to boo Favre as he returns to Lambeau Field in a Vikings uniform — because Favre and Thompson sowed the seeds for a conflict long before the 2008 retirement saga.

And it’s an odd situation for fans, too, because we’ve turned our backs on Favre to support a GM we’re not sure we really like. We do it because we believe you support the team over one player, especially one who’s made it clear he’s got plenty of liter fluid to burn all the bridges he ever built. Maybe, as Jerry Seinfeld famously said, it means we’re only rooting for laundry. It’s certainly strange where it’s caused us to put our allegiances.

Is Thompson a solid football man? Yes. Has he put the Packers in position to be successful for a long time? Yes, although it’s tough to pass judgment on that before he gets through this offseason, with a slew of free agents and an uncapped year. Has he done it in away that’s endeared him to the fanbase? No.

On top of all that, he’s only gone to the playoffs once in four seasons in Green Bay. That’s got to change soon, or Thompson’s legacy will go down with Favre. Winning is ultimately what counts, especially in Titletown USA. If Thompson’s grand rebuilding project ends with Aaron Rodgers holding up the Lombardi Trophy in the near future, this entire conversation changes.

Until then, we’re stuck trying to figure out how we feel about a GM who shows little emotion, yet is putting us through the most emotional weekend we’re ever likely to see as fans.

–Gene Bosling

3 comments to The conflict of Ted Thompson

  • Steven

    I usually feel you’re spot on, Gene, but the notion that Ted came in to ‘overhaul’ the Packers after a successful season is not accurate. Let’s focus on what he didn’t do that was GOOD: He didn’t get the team into salary cap hell by overpaying for a couple of aging and injury prone guards. Also, there was no depth on that 10-6 team, the drafting was poor in the later rounds (an area that TT has excelled at). Rodgers was easily the best player available on the draft board, wasn’t even close. Any GM pulls that trigger when your 35 year old QB looks long in the tooth come the latter half of November – January, not to mention his terrible playoff record at that point. Discuss 10-6 all you want, fact is the QB play was terrible in the late months of the year and the playoff performances were putred.

    I’m critical of TT’s ability to build the offensive line and running game at this point in his tenure and little else. Please, reference another GM that shows emotion? Can’t huh? It’s like getting Bill Belicheck to disclose the specifics of an injury, “it’s somewhere on the body……”

  • winters52

    Steven–thanks for reading and for the comment. Obviously, at this point, the Rodgers pick looks great. We all love him, and I understood the reason for it at the time (though somebody like Lofa Tatupu or Luis Castillo could’ve helped, too). But that was everyone’s first impression of Thompson, and rightly or wrongly, it left an image in fans’ heads.

    I’ll grant you the fact that the Packers are in much better cap shape now than they were previously (when Andrew Brandt had to do some gymnastics every year to get everyone signed, usually by going to Favre and asking for a couple million back). In this day and age, that’s huge, and Thompson should be commended for it. But I think it’s a stretch to say Favre’s numbers were bad at the end of ‘04. Yes, everybody remembers the playoff game. But look at the two weeks before that: He led that comeback win over the Vikings and was sharp when he played against the Bears before they pulled him. The Packers were 6-2 after the bye week to win the division. Now, they were stuck in a pattern of 10-6 teams with bend-but-don’t-break defenses. All I’m saying is, Thompson chose to address it strictly with a build-young approach, rather than making a move or two where needed. Has it rebuilt the defense? Yes, although I’m still not completely sold on Atari Bigby, Johnny Jolly, A.J. Hawk and some of their other inconsistent performers. But that’s the conflict with Thompson. He’s got his approach, he sticks with it and rarely defers from it. This isn’t a referendum on his football acumen. It’s more a look at why Packer fans are so conflicted about him.

    And I wouldn’t say the late-round drafting under Sherman was awful: Corey Williams and Scott Wells in ‘04, Aaron Kampman in ‘02. The bigger problem was an inability to get long-term playmakers at the top of the draft (some of which was caused by picking late every year). But of Sherman’s first-rounders, only Nick Barnett is still with the team, or even a consistent performer anywhere in the league.

    As far as emotion, or candor, or openness, or whatever you want to call it: No, you’re not going to see Bill Belichick opening up much. Most NFL executives don’t. I just think in Green Bay (especially with Ron Wolf), we were used to a different standard. As I said, Thompson has his way of doing things. He believes in it, and he sticks with it. But he’s also found himself in some situations where a little more openness probably would have curried favor with fans. This is a unique market from anywhere else in professional sports, and I think you have to behave a little differently there.

    Again, none of this is a referendum on Thompson. I think he’s a solid football guy, and he’s set the team up well financially. At some point, though, you have to take a shot to get over the top. It doesn’t do any good to be the youngest team in the league, have oodles of cap room and make an early exit every year. Did that chance come and go in ‘07? We’ll have to wait and see. But if this approach doesn’t get Thompson a ring, that year (and Favre) will be a bigger part of his legacy that what he wants.

    We’re just trying to look at why Thompson gets such different reactions from Packers fans. Sure, all GMs will; it comes with the territory of making uncomfortable decisions. It just seems with Thompson, there’s something different there. And my point is, though the Favre decision doesn’t define his reputation, the Favre situation was a major factor in legacy from Day One.

    Love the back-and-forth, so if you’ve got more thoughts, keep ‘em coming.

    –Gene Bosling

  • Z

    As long as you have ted, you will be second tier. I must say that I enjoy that and hope you keep him so we can continue to laugh at the packers.

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