Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson watches a practice during 2009 training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette
Shortly after Bob Harlan hired Ted Thompson as general manager of the Green Bay Packers in 2005, he received a word of caution.
“Somebody said, he’s not real good with the media,” said Harlan, the team’s president at the time.
Harlan, a former public relations man himself, understood more than most in the NFL the value of a favorable public image. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but chuckle at the assessment.
“I said, I’m not hiring him to be good with the media,” Harlan recalled with a laugh.
Then, he turned serious.
“I’m hiring him to build us a football team,” Harlan said emphatically.
So it was with a considerable degree of satisfaction that six years later, Harlan could say that his hire has the Packers back in the NFC championship game for a second time in four seasons. That the degree of difficulty this time around was far greater than in 2007, considering the myriad injuries the Packers sustained and the fact that they were the final team in the NFC to qualify for this year’s playoffs, makes Harlan all the more certain that he left the football side of the Packers’ organization in strong hands when he retired in 2008.
Harlan’s last major acts as president were the hiring of Thompson after stripping Mike Sherman of the GM duties following the 2004 season and then signing Thompson to a new, five-year contract shortly before Mark Murphy was sworn in to replace him as president on Jan. 28, 2008.
Between the Packers’ two conference championship game appearances under Thompson, the GM took considerable criticism for jettisoning legendary quarterback Brett Favre after the 2007 season to go with the player he took with his very first draft pick in 2005, Aaron Rodgers.
“He’s like every GM, he’s going to get criticized and make moves that aren’t what you want them to be,” Harlan said this week as the Packers prepared for today’s NFC championship game against Chicago at Soldier Field. “I mean I got as many bad calls and letters asking why we took Aaron Rodgers as we did asking why Ron Wolf traded a number one (draft pick) for a quarterback we’d never heard of from Atlanta. But Ted’s very sound in his approach, and he doesn’t ever waiver from that. When he does the draft board, he really does take the top man on the board. He told me, ‘Bob, I’ve got to build the whole team; I can’t just build one position.’ And he’s done a heck of a job putting this team together.”
Thompson’s work with this team was constant. With 15 players on injured reserve, his challenge grew more difficult with each injury. Seven players who started the season opener at Philadelphia on Sept. 12 sustained season-ending injuries. Three of them – Brandon Chillar, Nick Barnett and Brad Jones – were among the four linebackers who opened that game.
“Where they are speaks volumes for the job he’s done,” Wolf said from his winter home in Florida. “They’re getting ready to play in the championship game, and they’re not playing with all their cards, so I think the fact that they were able to cut and paste and put the thing together, and the quality of players that they have and the depth that they have speaks volumes for the job he’s done.”
Two players who will either start or play keys role on defense – outside linebacker Erik Walden and defensive end Howard Green – weren’t even with the Packers until the last week of October. Two other key special teams players – Diyral Briggs and Matt Wilhelm – also were mid-season pick ups. Thompson and his personnel staff also uncovered some rookie gems such as undrafted free agent cornerback Sam Shields, who is the team’s nickel defensive back.
“Ted brings in guys, and you’re like, ‘Who?’” starting left guard Daryn Colledge said. “He scouts, and he works his butt off. We didn’t go searching for a bunch of big names. We stuck with guys we had in this locker room, and somehow we unified and have gotten ourselves in a situation that 28 other teams would love to have.”
Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff deserve just as much credit – if not more – than Thompson for salvaging a season in which the Packers’ best offensive weapon (tight end Jermichael Finley) and best running back (Ryan Grant) were lost before the season was one-quarter completed.
If Thompson takes special pleasure in the success of this season, it’s hard to tell. All season long, he has maintained a business-like approach, saying he just tries to find the best players available when roster moves are necessary. That fits with his even-keel personality.
Wolf, who gave Thompson his start in the personnel business in 1992 as an assistant director of pro personnel after a 10-year playing career with the Houston Oilers, admitted this week he doesn’t know Thompson well enough to have a feel for how bothered he was by the criticism over his decision to ditch Favre and go with Rodgers, but believes Thompson’s even-natured temperament can serve a general manager well, even if Wolf approached the job seemingly with more emotion.
“I think it reflects where he came from, a free-agent rookie from SMU who played on one of the better teams for 10 years, every year having to fight to get a spot on the roster, and every year making it and performing at an above-average level,” Wolf said. “So yeah, he certainly has the make-up.”
Thompson’s was Harlan’s choice from the moment he decided to strip Sherman of the general manager job. He made that decision early in the 2004 season after watching the Packers fall to 1-3 with a listless 14-7 loss to the New York Giants at home. That week, Harlan noticed that Sherman had become so preoccupied with cornerback Mike McKenzie’s holdout that it got in the way of his game preparation.
“We happened to have an executive committee meeting the following week, and I went to the committee and said, ‘I’ve got to take this job away from the guy, and I’d like your permission to go at the end of the year and get Ted Thompson,’” Harlan said. “They gave me permission. Then I had to bide my time and wait.”
Harlan was so sure he could land Thompson that he didn’t have a second choice in mind. He didn’t have to do much background work on Thompson, given that he had worked for the Packers for eight years before joining Mike Holmgren’s personnel staff with the Seattle Seahawks in 2000. But with more than three months until the season ended to wait and make the announcement about Sherman, he did make one more phone call.
He reached out to Wolf. He didn’t tell Wolf why he was asking but said: “If I wanted someone to come in here and do for me now what you did for me in 1991, do you have someone you’d recommend?”
Wolf’s answer was brief.
“He told me, ‘Absolutely. Ted Thompson,’” Harlan said. “He answered my question and we hung up. We didn’t talk about another thing.”
Harlan has said on multiple occasions that the Thompson/McCarthy leadership combination is the strongest at the top of the football operations since Wolf and Holmgren were the GM-coach combination in the 1990s. Without knowing who would replace him, Harlan wanted to make sure that before he retired, Thompson had job security, which was why he gave him a new, five-year contract in January 2008 and told him to do the same with McCarthy if he wanted.
Repeatedly during this season, Murphy has declined to be interviewed about the football side of the Packers’ operation and once again declined comment, through a team spokesman, when asked specifically about Thompson this past week, so it’s not exactly clear what the Packers’ new leader thinks of the job Thompson has done. There’s no reason to believe there’s any friction. The two celebrated together with an embrace in the press box at the Georgia Dome last Saturday after the Packers beat the Falcons in the divisional round.
Still, job security never can be certain when a subordinate works for someone who didn’t hire him.
“I know they can find something wrong with everything,” Wolf said. “But I don’t know what he’s done that he shouldn’t have.”