Six years ago, the Green Bay Packers had yet to finish with an over-.500 record on his watch. They hadn’t won a playoff game, much less Super Bowl XLV. And the ugly Brett Favre affair of the summer of 2008 was still months away.
Two years into his tenure as the Packers general manager, Ted Thompson was acutely aware of how some folks felt about him.
“I would like for the Packer fans to think the Packers are in good hands, quite frankly. Not necessarily everybody patting you on the back, but to kind of there be a little trust with the Packer fans (in) me,” Thompson said in an interview in the fall of 2007.
“But at the same time, this is a big boy place, and if I get criticized, I'm OK with it. Personally, I can take it from an ego standpoint, but I would prefer it if it was more of a positive message, just because of the people out there who are getting up and reading that at the breakfast table or watching it on the nightly news at night. It might make them have a bad day thinking, 'Oh my gosh,' that sort of thing. I'm not immune to that. But I'm fairly thick-skinned about other things.”
Here we are, six years later, and the Packers have gone 78-50 in regular-season play in Thompson’s eight seasons as general manager. They won Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season and are 6-4 in postseason play. His teams have won 10 or more games each of the last four years.
And even if it’s simply a vocal minority with Internet access and Twitter accounts, his tried-and-true, draft-and-develop approach to building a team is again being questioned by portions of the team’s passionate fan base.
As he sat on a cushioned wicker chair on a patio outside the tony Arizona Biltmore resort Sunday afternoon, chatting with a small group of reporters, Thompson sounded no different than he had six years prior. He understands why folks may feel the way they do, but he’s not changing his approach – for anyone.
“I don’t think fans are unruly or harmful or mad at me. I think they want the Packers to do good,” Thompson said after arriving at the annual NFL Meetings a few hours earlier. “It means so much to the state of Wisconsin and Packers fans everywhere for the organization to do well, and I think they want us to do right by the organization and right by the players. And we try to do that.
“I don’t think you can get too worked up about being criticized.”
Even when, in the opening days of NFL free agency, a portion of the league’s only fan base/ownership group is apoplectic.
It began with outside linebacker Erik Walden signing with the Indianapolis Colts, although his departure drew little notice, other than perhaps surprise at the size of his contract. Then free-agent defensive end Chris Canty signed with the Baltimore Ravens (after the Packers didn’t like what they saw in a physical exam during his visit).
Then, free-agent running back Steven Jackson picked the Atlanta Falcons over the Packers (three years, $12 million), followed by Packers free-agent wide receiver Greg Jennings spurning his old team’s offer to sign with the rival Minnesota Vikings (five years, $47.5 million). By the time fan favorite Tom Crabtree, who hadn’t been tendered as a restricted free agent, came to terms with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night, the grumbling on social media and sports-talk radio was hard to ignore.
All the while, of course, fans saw three division rivals (the Vikings, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions) and two NFC conference rivals (the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers) improving their teams while Thompson was seemingly doing nothing.
In reality, it was simply Thompson being Thompson. Even coach Mike McCarthy, who used to pay keen attention to the free-agent market and have a wish list of players in his mind, knew better than to worry about who wasn’t coming. Instead, McCarthy has been focused on revamping his offseason program and practice schedule and diving into various studies and reports that he used to not have time to read.
“I have a depth chart board (in my office) just like Ted does. Mine’s nicer than his. Mine has pictures and bigger numbers,” McCarthy joked, sitting in the same patio chair Thompson had a half-hour earlier. “It’s the same process every year. I kind of tilt to free agents, but really, I don’t spend as much time talking with Ted about it as I have in the past.
“I’m sure there are things you don’t get consumed (with) that you probably said five years ago, ‘I spent a lot of time on that.’ That’s kind of where I’m at. I know what I’m going to use when the players are back. Are you going to consume yourself (with) 70 players when maybe three of them are going to be in your building? Or are you going to consume your time in player acquisition more toward the draft, which you know you have a better chance of? Opinions are heard and given, but I think I’ve done a much better job of keeping our coaching staff focused on our guys. That’s the group we know we’re going to train and we know we’re going to help get better.”
Calling free-agent signings “major, macro decisions you make,” Thompson insisted that he’s not afraid of diving into free agency if need be – as he did in 2006, when he hit a home run with defensive tackle Ryan Picket (four years, $14 million) and a grand slam on cornerback Charles Woodson (seven years, $39 million) but whiffed on safety Marquand Manuel (five years, $10 million).
Thompson’s cautious free-agent approach could pay dividends this year, with a relatively flat salary cap and a glut of veteran players being released by their teams, flooding the market with even more free agents. Signing running back Cedric Benson for the league minimum last August turned out to be a solid move, even though Benson’s season ended with a Week 5 foot injury.
But Thompson also said he’s not gun-shy about making a mistake in free agency, even though veteran center Jeff Saturday didn’t really work out last year and every year brings more cautionary tales courtesy of other teams.
“It seems like that always happens. Guys get on the wrong side of a contract and they get released,” Thompson said. “That’s part of the balance of being aggressive in free agency. Because you get these contracts at the time, they look really good for the team and the player, and then three years later, it looks good for the player but it doesn’t look quite as good for the team.
“But at the same time, a person in my position, you can’t be so afraid of that or so concerned about not having a bad deal sometime that you become comatose and don’t do anything. But there are very smart people around the NFL and you’ll see a lot of these guys this week. We all make mistakes, and most of us have been in that position where it doesn’t work out.
“If opportunities arise, then we certainly would be willing to look into it. Just because free agency that usually stays hot and heavy for a week or 10 days, there’ll be a lot of roster moves, including for our team, over the course of the spring and summer.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.