ARLINGTON, Texas – After the glitter had rained down and covered much of the turf at Cowboys Stadium Sunday night and president Mark Murphy accepted the Vince Lombardi Trophy on behalf of the Green Bay Packers, there was Ted Thompson standing poker-faced once again on the podium.
Unlike during the trophy presentation following the NFC championship in Chicago when he stood on the stage looking as inconspicuous as a stage hand, Thompson actually clapped his hands in celebration a few times, spoke a few words and helped hoist the trophy from Tiffany’s with Murphy and coach Mike McCarthy.
True to his public persona, at least, Thompson let others bask in the spotlight. And, typically, he gave much of the credit to others.
But the world champion Packers were his work of art, his football team.
He created the blueprint. He built the roster. He hired the many other able people that helped bring it all to fruition.
So placid exterior or not, Thompson’s emotions had to be running through him like a Rocky Mountain river. And if he was feeling a wee bit smug about it all – that he had finally silenced his critics and done it his way – well, who could blame him?
The Packers’ performance in Super Bowl XLV was not only one of the most gallant ever after their defense had been shredded by injuries to cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Sam Shields just before halftime, it also was vindication for every important decision Thompson has made in his six years as general manager.
His decision to hire Mike McCarthy as head coach over Sean Payton and others. His decision to push Brett Favre out the door so Aaron Rodgers could play. His refusal to chase more big name free agents. His unwillingness to pay for Randy Moss, Tony Gonzales and Marshawn Lynch.
Heck, he even deserves a pass on Justin Harrell. Who needed him when you can find a Howard Green on the NFL’s scrapheap?
As for the question that persistently and fairly hung over his head like a dark cloud – Does Thompson have enough gambler in him to win the big one? – that’s no longer valid, either.
Super Bowls are hard enough to win in today’s 32-team NFL that capturing just one gives any general manager or coach lifetime credibility.
So much was made last week about the tremendous challenge that Aaron Rodgers faced in replacing Brett Favre, and how he was now forging his own legacy.
Maybe following in Ron Wolf’s footsteps as a general manager wasn’t as imposing a task – Mike Sherman’s reign helped – but it was close. After all, Wolf undertook one of the biggest reclamation projects in NFL history in 1991. The Packers had been perpetual losers for nearly 25 years, and a lot of people thought they’d never win again.
Just as Rodgers has little chance of breaking Favre’s many career passing records, Thompson will never be given the same credit as Wolf for turning around a downtrodden franchise.
But the outlook is promising for both Rodgers and Thompson to surpass their predecessors in the most important category of all: Super Bowl victories.
Before the Packers even finish popping the champagne corks over this one, it’s hard to not to start talking about possible multiple championships. Even though no team from the NFC has gone to back-to-back Super Bowls since the 1996-’97 Packers, these Packers have the look of a team that should be in the thick of the hunt for years to come.
To put it simply, they’re loaded with talent. For sure, their future looks much brighter than those Packers teams that won Super Bowls I, II and XXXI.
Vince Lombardi’s final two championship teams were already in decline. Bart Starr was 34 years old. Three starters on the offensive line were over 30. Five defensive starters, including four future Hall of Famers, were over 30.
The outlook seemed somewhat brighter for the 1996 Packers because their bell cow, Brett Favre, was just 27 years old. But Reggie White, their defensive standout, was 35. And while those Packers made it back to the Super Bowl the next year and were heavy favorites to beat Denver, they weren’t the same team.
Tight end Keith Jackson, probably their second most explosive offensive player in ‘96, had retired. Kick returner Desmond Howard, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI, had left in free agency. And by the time Super Bowl XXXII arrived, White had hit the wall for that season, Gilbert Brown was on his way to eating himself out of the league, Gabe Wilkins had replaced Sean Jones and was about to flunk his litmus test, and Eugene Robinson couldn’t tackle a dummy much less a moving target.
White rebounded from that game and No.2 defender LeRoy Butler continued to pile up sacks and interceptions for another season, but once their games slipped there was no defender who could be counted on to make big plays in big moments and what followed was years of run-of-the-mill defenses fraught with such disasters as Terrell Owens’ improbable catch amid four defenders and fourth-and-26.
The current Packers have no glaring weaknesses, and almost all of their elite players are in the prime years. Rodgers is 27. Clay Matthews is 24. Greg Jennings is 27. Jermichael Finley is 23. Their next tier of players is young, too. Tramon Williams and Nick Collins are 27, and B.J. Raji is 24.
As long as their stars stay healthy and under contract, the Packers have a legitimate shot at playing next year in Indianapolis, the year after in New Orleans, then maybe in New York and who knows where else? And the person who deserves perhaps more credit than anyone for Sunday’s victory and the promise of the future is Thompson.
Cliff Christl is a retired Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist who covered the Green Bay Packers for the Press-Gazette and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for more than 30 years.