Ted Thompson has boldness to spare. Just not the kind that many fans want him to have.
There is no shortage of fans who will tell you that Ted Thompson is not bold enough to be a successful GM. If you define “bold” as “doing what the angriest and most outspoken fans want you to do” (i.e., trade up in the draft and sign as many expensive free agents as possible) then Ted is guilty as charged. But isn’t that really the opposite of bold? Isn’t it actually much more bold to stick to one’s philosophy regardless of outside pressures? The real question, I think, is not whether Ted is or is not bold, but whether his philosophy will lead to success. And the answer to that question is not yet clear.
The driving force behind Thompson’s team-building strategy is supreme confidence in his ability to find young talent. This is why he trades down in the draft. If you believe that at least one of the players you covet will fall to a lower spot, why not trade down to that spot? Then you still get one of the players you wanted, plus you get an extra pick for making the trade. Thus, this strategy that is dismissed by many as overly conservative is really more like the strategy employed by a hotshot businessman who is not afraid to wheel and deal, on the assumption that he will have more hits than misses and will therefore come out ahead in the end. Again, it is open to debate whether this strategy is actually working. But it is not a timid strategy. It would be much easier, at least in the short run, to stand pat in the draft and pick the best-known players.
In fact, contrary to his reputation in some circles as a shrinking violet, Ted Thompson’s tenure as Packers’ GM has been full of gutsy decisions. Let’s take a look at some of them:
LETTING WAHLE AND RIVERA GO
When Thompson arrived in Green Bay, everyone knew that at least one of their veteran guards was bound to leave, as the team could not afford to sign both of them to the lucrative free agent contracts they were due to receive. It was expected that Thompson would at least make a push to keep one of them. But much to the displeasure of many fans (and a certain QB), he let both of them walk.
RESULT: In itself, this has to be judged a good move. Marco Rivera did nothing for the Cowboys and was out of the league after a couple years. Mike Wahle had a couple of decent years in Carolina, but was not a difference-maker and has now moved on to Seattle. What complicates the picture, though, is the fact that Thompson did a poor job of replacing these players when they left. The first year he brought in vets who were terrible, and the next year he drafted some guards who have thus far performed erratically.
DRAFTING A QB WITH HIS FIRST PICK
In his first draft, Thompson stunned almost everyone by taking Aaron Rodgers in the first round. Of course, Rodgers had already fallen farther than expected, but many fans (as well as Brett Favre) wanted an impact player. Clearly, a backup to the most durable QB in NFL history was not going to be an impact player.
RESULT: With Rodgers finally getting a chance to start in his fourth year, and playing very well, this is looking like a very good pick, and possibly a great one.
FIRING MIKE SHERMAN
Bob Harlan did Ted Thompson no favors by bringing him here as GM while retaining deposed GM Mike Sherman as head coach. Although technically the team was in Thompson’s hands, the pretext of him coming here was that he and Sherman would try to become an effective duo. When it became clear that it just wasn’t going to work out, Thompson fired Sherman the day after the 2005 season ended.
RESULT: See next section.
HIRING MIKE McCARTHY
McCarthy was a young unknown with a less-than-stellar track record as an assistant. Almost nobody expected him to be hired over the higher-profile candidates who were available in 2006. But Thompson hired him anyway.
RESULT: The jury is still out on this one. In McCarthy’s first season, this looked like a solid choice, in his second season, it looked like a brilliant choice, and in his third season, it looked like a questionable choice. Stay tuned.
SIGNING CHARLES WOODSON
Thompson’s only headline-worthy free agent signing did not come about in the conventional way. Woodson was still available after a couple months of free agency, due to his high demands, recent injury history, and possibly some questions about his attitude. Thompson signed him to a huge front-loaded deal.
RESULT: This one has been a smashing success. Woodson has played in almost every game and has been one of the best CB’s in the league throughout his three years in Green Bay. He has also become a team leader.
DRAFTING JUSTIN HARRELL
Harrell had missed most of his senior season with an injury, causing him to slip way down on most draft boards. So it was a surprise when Thompson took him with the 16th overall pick.
RESULT: Harrell has been injured for most of his first two seasons and has made no impact when he’s made it onto the field. He is on the verge of becoming a bust and possibly the Packers’ worst first-round draft pick since Jamal Reynolds.
TRADING BRETT FAVRE
It’s not easy when your star player decides to come out of retirement two weeks before training camp, and then when you refuse to let him rejoin the team he publicly rips you and demands his unconditional release so he can play for your arch rival (on opening day on Monday Night Football, no less). But Thompson held his ground and eventually traded Favre safely out of the division.
RESULT: Although this move will always remain somewhat controversial, it looks like a winner in pure football terms. Aaron Rodgers showed a lot of talent and poise in his first year as a starter, while Favre’s aging body began to break down before the end of the season and he quietly retired.
The way I see it, the balance sheet on these moves is mostly in Thompson’s favor. But it all comes down to wins and losses in the end, and after last year’s 6-10 performance, fans have good reason to be skeptical.
My point is that I think fans misread Thompson when they cast him as overly timid. It is often forgotten that Thompson has earned the respect of Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren, two guys who know a thing or two about football. Thompson is a man of deep convictions. He is going to stick to his plan, and guess what? He doesn’t care what you think, nor should he. The 2009 season should tell us a lot about whether Thompson’s strategy will pay off in the long run.