Pete Dougherty column: Lynch deal was a missed opportunity for Thompson

Dec. 30, 2011
Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch scores on a run as San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown defends in the second half of an NFL football game Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011, in Seattle.
Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch scores on a run as San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown defends in the second half of an NFL football game Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011, in Seattle. / Kevin Casey/AP

Ted Thompson’s greatest strength as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager probably is his temperament.

He’s incapable of making a personnel move out of panic and appears immune to allowing even a hint of desperation to creep into his decisions.

So unlike many NFL GMs, who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, Thompson doesn’t reach for positions of need on high draft picks. He doesn’t always hit, but he won’t reach.

He also hasn’t wasted money in free agency. Every GM says he likes to draft and develop, but only a few actually have the patience and nerve to never, ever overpay for another team’s players.

Alas, that calm and discipline, which has served the Packers exceedingly well in Thompson’s seven years as GM, comes with an occasional price. In this instance, we’re talking about Marshawn Lynch.

You’ll remember early in the 2010 season, the Packers were badly in need of a starting-caliber running back. Ryan Grant’s season had ended with a broken ankle in the opener, backup Brandon Jackson wasn’t cutting it and sixth-round draft pick James Starks was an unknown no-show stuck on the physically unable to perform list with a bad hamstring. The running game looked bad for a team with legitimate championship hopes.

Then in early October, the Bills put Lynch on the trade market. The 2007 first-round pick was a noteworthy talent with a shaky personal |history. He’d rushed for 2,151 yards and a 4.1-yard average in his first two seasons and went to the Pro Bowl in ’08. Not great numbers, but not bad for a back on a mediocre team with weak play at quarterback.

But by ’10, Lynch had become a part-time player. The Bills had found another good runner in Fred Jackson and spent their ’10 first-round pick on explosive |C.J. Spiller. There wasn’t playing time for all three, and Lynch, who played hard on and off the field, was the most expendable. But even with his late-night reputation, he was only 24, and several |NFL scouts told the Press-Gazette at the time they still liked him as a runner.

Thompson went after Lynch. He |offered a fourth-round draft pick, but Seattle did the same. The Packers were 3-1 at the time and a strong playoff contender; the Seahawks were 2-2 and appeared headed nowhere, so their pick figured to be higher, maybe much higher.

Thompson drew the line and wouldn’t offer a third-rounder. Seattle got Lynch.

At the time, I argued that Thompson should have spent the third-rounder, that Lynch could be the missing piece to a Super Bowl. But late in the year, Starks finally got on the field, provided a viable run game and the Packers won the title. Some praised the steadfast GM for not making the deal. He’d won the title and saved the third-round pick.

Turn to this season. The Packers have the NFL’s best record at 14-1 and according to the oddsmakers at are 9-to-5 favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Now ask yourself this: How much better off would they be if they had Lynch?

The answer is, significantly better.

Consider this. There’s a good chance the NFC championship comes down to the Packers against the New Orleans Saints on |Jan. 22 at Lambeau Field. The two best offenses in football.

Two elite quarterbacks. Receiving corps that include at least one game changer (the Packers’ Greg Jennings, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham) and formidable talent from top to bottom.

Both also have shaky defenses. The Packers appear to be better — they rank tied for No. 12 in points and No. 8 in defensive passer rating to the Saints’ Nos. 15 and 23, respectively — but both have been vulnerable and given up huge yardage (the Packers No. 31, the Saints No. 26).

The Saints’ one edge, though, is running the ball. They have three quality backs in first-round draft pick Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and dangerous scatback Darren Sproles. Ingram and Thomas are probably a little better than Starks, and the Packers have no one as explosive and shifty on screens and swing passes as Sproles. Under any circumstances, but especially in winter at Lambeau, this difference in running games could be important.

But if the Packers had Lynch, different story. With him as the No. 1 back and Starks the No. 2, the Packers might be almost unbeatable.

Lynch quietly has been one of the NFL’s best halfbacks this year. He ranks No. 7 in the league in rushing (1,118 yards), has a decent 4.2-yard average per carry, and is tied for third in the league in rushing touchdowns (12).

Those numbers tell only part of the story. The Seahawks’ offensive line play was shaky early in the season with two rookie starters (John Moffitt at right guard and James Carpenter at left guard) and then injuries that left them with three new starters from opening day. But as the line’s play improved, Lynch has played at an extremely high level. In the last eight games he’s rushed for 855 yards and a 4.5-yard average. That projects to 1,710 yards over a full regular season.

Last week he gained 107 yards and had a 5.1-yard average against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, the San Francisco 49ers, and scored the first rushing touchdown the 49ers have yielded this season on an explosive run around left end.

At this point, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson has to rank as the NFL’s best halfback, at least before he sustained a torn ACL last weekend. And two scouts consulted this week said they’d still put Tennessee’s Chris Johnson at No. 2 because of his immense talent even though his numbers are down from last season after his contract holdout in training camp.

Lynch ranks in the group just behind them that includes San Francisco’s Frank Gore, Houston’s Arian Foster, Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Chicago’s Matt Forte, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew.

“People would have noticed (Lynch) more if he’d had a more experienced offensive line and they’d come together earlier, or he wasn’t taking hits in the backfield before he got started,” one scout from an NFC West team said. “He got all those kinks worked out, and he’s been productive the past seven, eight weeks.”

Sources in Seattle say Lynch, who is 25, has curbed his off-field lifestyle from his time in Buffalo and become a leader with the Seahawks because of his old-school approach to the game. His physical running style, best captured in his stunning 67-yard touchdown run that included eight broken tackles and the stiff-arm throw-down of cornerback Tracy Porter against New Orleans in the playoffs last year, has filtered down to his teammates, which has elevated the Seahawks’ toughness.

Granted, a trade for Lynch would have been shorter term than using the pick. Running backs have a short shelf life and by age 28 often begin to decline. Lynch doesn’t have many good years left.

Thompson used that third-round pick on halfback Alex Green, who showed some explosiveness but was playing only a bit role before his season-ending torn ACL in Week 7. If he hadn’t been injured, Green might have been more of a factor by now, especially with Starks’ lingering lower-leg injuries the second half of the year. But to think he’d have been as good as Lynch is a stretch at the least. Now Green is done for the year and trying to come back from a major injury.

It’s easy to dispense advice when you don’t have to live with the consequences, and I’ve been wrong before. In 2008, I predicted the Packers would regret dumping Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers because it cost them any chance of going to the Super Bowl that season. Couldn’t have been more wrong. Rodgers needed to get on the field to become the player he is today.

This also is probably just the price of having the unflappable, sometimes obstinate Thompson as GM. Overall, what’s not to like? His draft record stacks up with just about anyone in league history. He’s usually ruthless when it comes to moving on from aging players, and he manages the Packers’ money like it’s his own.

But every once in a while, Thompson is going to pass on a deal that could have helped his team. Don’t think for a second he wouldn’t love to have Marshawn Lynch for that third-round pick now.

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