Pete Dougherty column: Separation of powers keeps McCarthy-Thompson duo intact

Dec. 2, 2011
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, left, and general manager Ted Thompson during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field Tuesday evening, August 18, 2009.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, left, and general manager Ted Thompson during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field Tuesday evening, August 18, 2009. / File/Press-Gazette

A good NFL coach-general manager duo can break up for any number of reasons.

The successful Mike Holmgren-Ron Wolf tenure with the Green Bay Packers ended in 1999, after two Super Bowl appearances, because the Seattle Seahawks offered Holmgren the chance to be a coach and GM.

Bobby Beathard left coach Joe Gibbs in Washington in 1990 after three Super Bowl appearances because the San Diego Chargers offered a huge raise to run their team.

The Packers don’t appear to have to worry about loftier ambitions or money breaking up the Mike McCarthy-Ted Thompson team that has won one Super Bowl and put the franchise in position to contend for several more. McCarthy, unlike Holmgren in the ’90s, has expressed zero desire to become a coach-GM, and it’s hard to see the modest-living Thompson leaving the idyllic autonomy as Packers GM for more pay.

What could break apart the McCarthy-Thompson team before its time is an erosion of their relationship over matters such as personnel. The highly successful Bill Parcells-George Young pairing with the New York Giants reportedly ended in part because of such differences.

But nearly six full years into the McCarthy-Thompson partnership, all evidence suggests they’ve avoided such problems by staying within the boundaries of their jobs even after achieving success.

A general truth in the NFL is that scouts lean toward wanting to get their draft picks and young players on the field sooner rather than later to see what they have and accelerate their development, whereas coaches lean toward keeping veterans in the lineup out of a sense of security.

In a healthy coach-GM relationship, the GM, who’s the boss, makes his case for a particular player but doesn’t exert undue pressure if the coach thinks the player isn’t ready or better than the alternative. In a less healthy relationship, the GM might, if not order the player on the field, be forceful enough that the coach feels obliged. That can poison the relationship.

“What happens is, if there’s disagreement you run the risk of creating, not overt problems, but creating some distrust,” said Holmgren, who lived through such issues in Seattle after the Seahawks gave his GM duties to Tim Ruskell. The rift ultimately contributed to Holmgren leaving the team.

With the current Packers, three or four times this season Thompson would have had a decent argument for urging McCarthy to play a rookie instead of a veteran, but if Thompson has brought it up, he obviously hasn’t pushed McCarthy, because in each case the veteran still is getting the playing time.

For instance, second-round draft pick Randall Cobb showed playmaking talent from the start of training camp, and there was reason to wonder whether he would have surpassed 36-year-old Donald Driver in playing time by this point. There was a plausible argument earlier in the year that playing Cobb, even if it would have meant living with a few mistakes Driver wouldn’t have made, would have yielded the better playmaker by the end of the regular season.

But Driver has played more than Cobb all year, and though Cobb’s snaps are going up as the season progresses, the two still are playing about equally. Last week against Detroit, Driver played 27 snaps and Cobb 23; they played together only one snap.

Just this week a potential case study for the coach-GM dynamic cropped up with right guard Josh Sitton’s knee injury. If McCarthy were starting first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod this week against the New York Giants, it would have been hard not to suspect Thompson’s hand in the decision, based on the natural tackle Sherrod’s struggles at guard during training camp. But McCarthy is going with Evan Dietrich-Smith, who was with the Packers in 2009 and part of last season; Sherrod is his backup.

At outside linebacker, there was a decent case that undrafted rookie Vic So’oto should get regular playing time to see if he could jolt the Packers’ lagging pass rush, but aside from a few snaps against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, he’s played only in garbage time and was inactive last week.

Even at No. 2 running back, there’s at least a case that undrafted rookie Brandon Saine, promoted to the 53-man roster a month ago, could be playing as much as or more than Ryan Grant, who turns 29 next week. But Saine took his first snap from scrimmage only last week and had only three touches to Grant’s nine.

Thompson may have preferred to see any of those young players on the field more. Only he and McCarthy know that. But the evidence — that is, who’s been on the field — speaks well of the coach-GM relationship. Thompson is sticking to the same boundaries that his mentor, Wolf, set up with Holmgren when they teamed beginning in 1992. The GM has final say over the draft, free agency and the 53-man roster, but the coach decides who plays.

“As far as playing guys,” McCarthy said this week, “Ted’s my boss, he does personnel, he still travels more than any GM I’ve been around. He gets out there and knows the players, so when he talks about somebody you really respect his opinion. But as far as weekly inactives, we talk about it, but he’s never once walked in the room and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play that guy.’ We’ll talk about where a player is development-wise, we think he’s ready, I don’t think he’s ready, things like that.”

That’s most teams’ set-up in theory, though it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s safe to say Thompson handles these matters like his mentor, Wolf. Holmgren this week said Wolf occasionally asked him to play a younger player, then gave his reasons. Holmgren recalls talking through the issues and always agreeing, though also never feeling pressured into it.

“Knowing Ted very well and Mike a little bit, I would think that’s exactly what goes on,” Holmgren said. “Knowing Ted very well, he hires the coach — Ted gets the players, and he trusts the coach to make good decisions that way. That’s how it is, that’s how Ted was raised and how he’s going to do things. Look at — you can’t dispute (the results) at all, look what they’re doing.”

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