I've noticed a recurring theme coming up again and again when reading about and discussing the Packers season and, more importantly, theories as to why they are not still playing. Many arguments made both by fans and media alike seem to place the blame for the struggles on the defensive side of the ball squarely on the shoulders of Ted Thompson. (I recognize the offense is just as much to blame for the Packers' early exit from the playoffs, but most criticism I've seen has centered on the defensive struggles the Packers had this season. I touch on the offense a bit later on.)
True to form, the comments section on this post about Thompson being named Executive of the Year by the Sporting News quickly devolved into a match pitting the "Blame Thompson" crowd versus the Thompson defenders.
But it's not just fans who are blaming Thompson - both Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press Gazette and Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have gone-in pretty heavily against Thompson for his part in the defense's collapse. (To be fair, McGinn is a bit more judicious about spreading the blame around, but he certainly lets Thompson have it.)
While I understand, as I'm sure Thompson does, that more could have been done last summer to bolster the defense, to say Thompson "failed" to address the defense is a narrow way of thinking and one that no general manager should get caught up in. Remember when Ron Wolf, reeling from the pain caused by a rookie wide receiver in Minnesota terrorizing his defense, went out and drafted three defensive backs with his first three draft picks the following year? One out of three of those picks worked out. Meanwhile, his offense continued to deteriorate for lack of playmakers to help out his superstar quarterback. Oh, and that receiver in Minnesota kept right on terrorizing the Packers' defense.
Thompson trusts his draft board and took players in last April's draft that he felt were good value for where they were picked. We can play "He should have drafted Brooks Reed" until the cows come home. The fact remains that the Packers won 15 games in 2011 because they had an incredible offense and an opportunistic defense. No, Thompson didn't do much to bolster the pass rush, but he also didn't reach for anyone or throw picks away needlessly in a vain attempt to manufacture help for Clay Matthews. That's what you want from a general manager, someone who sticks to his board and collects good football players. Save for the rare exception (see: Elmore, Ricky) Thompson did that last April and will most likely do the same thing in a few months.
Look, I understand people are mad and need to blame someone, but as I wrote shortly after the Packers lost to the Giants, the championship window remains wide open for the Packers. This is due not only to what Thompson has done but also what he has NOT done. People point to his letting Cullen Jenkins go - what he did not do was overreact to the loss by going out and signing some washed up veteran. Last year, when everyone and their brother was screaming for Thompson to trade for Marshawn Lynch, Thompson held firm with what he had, signed Dimitri Nance off Atlanta's practice squad and didn't waste a valuable draft pick. Oh, and his team ended up winning the Super Bowl.
One other thing that bothers me when talk of Thompson's "failure" to address the defense is the complete lack of acknowledgement of how badly many of the defensive players regressed in 2011. Yes, the team missed Cullen Jenkins. But Jenkins' absence did not make Tramon Williams regress harshly. Jenkins' absence did not render Howard Green an ineffectual blob. And yes, B.J. Raji missed Jenkins' presence inside - but it certainly didn't lead to his close-to-constant inability to win one-on-one matchups on early downs. Jenkins leaving town didn't cause Sam Shields to shy away from contact almost every time it was on offer.
No one Thompson would have drafted or signed would have fixed those issues.
What's interesting to me is how people are so quick to blame what Thompson "should" have done, with the complete benefit of hindsight - which we all know is 20/20. Many seem to completely absolve defensive coordinator Dom Capers of responsibility, the popular phrase being "he just didn't have the players."
Heading into the Divisional playoff game, I called for Capers to go into attack mode against Eli Manning and the Giants' offense. Everyone and their uncle knew the Packers defense was porous heading into that game. My thinking was simply: If you're going to go down, go down fighting.
As we all know now, Capers went the exact opposite way.
Dom Capers apparently figured he might as well rush just four and often times just three in hopes Manning would become impatient and throw into crowds. But given time to pat and then pat the ball on dropback after dropback, he drilled accurate shots to gifted, sure-handed wide receivers.
The problem was that after the receivers caught the ball, the Packers proved true to form and were the lousy tacklers that they had been all year long.
I understand wanting to "play coverage" against an experienced quarterback, but Capers went to an unacceptable extreme against the Giants. And I wonder if Desmond Bishop's near interception on the first drive of the game, when Manning did exactly what McGinn suggests above by becoming impatient and trying to fit a ball into a tight end who was well covered, led to some false hope on Capers' part.
What distresses me more about Capers' approach against the Giants is that the lone turnover his defense did produce came, you guessed it, on a blitz, when Desmond Bishop sliced through the middle of the offensive line and laid a lick on Manning which caused his pass to sail into the arms of Morgan Burnett.
But despite that promising turn of events, Capers rarely went back to that type of pressure call, settling instead on his completely ineffectual four and three man rushes.
Is Capers or the defense completely to blame? Of course not. The defense held the Giants without a single first down for the entire third quarter of that game and the offense was never able to capitalize, due to fumbles and dropped passes - which, incidentally, had nothing to do with Capers or Thompson. You could, as some fans have done, point the finger of blame at McCarthy for how he chose to sit players the last week of the season, but last I checked John Kuhn and Ryan Grant, whose fumbles absolutely killed the Packers' chances against the Giants, didn't sit out that Week 17 game against the Lions. Sometimes, teams just don't show up and the Packers' offense certainly didn't that January Sunday.
All of which is to say I have a hard time with the argument that Ted Thompson "failed" the Packers in 2011. No general manager is going to build a perfect team, let alone a perfect team from year to year, in today's NFL. The best ones build a contender and make the moves they deem prudent from offseason to offseason, always with the longterm good of the team foremost in their mind. That's what Thompson does, and Packers fans should be thrilled that's the way he operates.
Teams like the Steelers, the Patriots and, up until this year, the Colts figured this out some time ago. The trick is not to load up for "a run." (see: The Eagles) You want to be consistently good with a chance to win a championship every year, and that is where Thompson has brought the Packers. Sure, you'll have seasons where you exit early from the playoffs or even lose in the Championship game, but overall the team has a chance to get to the Super Bowl each and every year. Look at the Patriots for an example of this. The Belichick and Brady combo had started taking a lot of heat for their early playoff exits the last two years and now, lo and behold, they are back in the Super Bowl.
That's what you want. A consistent winner who has a chance to win a championship every year. Yes, Thompson has holes to fill and he will do so, mostly using the draft and by having his coaching staff develop the guys already on his squad. Maybe this is the year he takes a look at a second-tier free agent or two, but I'm not holding my breath.
I don't care how you spin it, a man who constructed a team that went 15-2 isn't a "failure." The season did not end the way we would have liked, but many coaches, players and front office folks played a part in that disappointing end.
Blaming Thompson alone is shortsighted and misguided.
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