It could have been the Seattle Seahawks, and not the Green Bay Packers, that were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February 2011 if not for some good fortune, sage wisdom and quick action by former Packers president Bob Harlan.
Somehow, the Seahawks allowed Harlan to steal Ted Thompson, one of the best personnel evaluators in the NFL, right out from under their noses in January 2005.
After helping build a solid contender in Seattle, Thompson took his talents to Green Bay and constructed a Super Bowl champion.
Things might have been vastly different for the Seahawks, who haven’t produced a winning record since 2007. Losing Thompson to the Packers was a major reason for Seattle’s decline.
It’s a credit to Harlan that he identified Thompson as a personnel man on par with former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who also was hired by Harlan and built a Packers Super Bowl champion in 1996.
But it took a perfect storm of events in Seattle for Harlan to get Thompson out of the Pacific Northwest and bring him to Green Bay.
If not for a power struggle between former Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt and coach Mike Holmgren that hit the boiling point following the 2004 season, it’s possible Harlan never might have been able to land Thompson.
If Holmgren hadn’t been in Arizona on a family vacation on the day Harlan asked the Seahawks for permission to speak to Thompson, there’s no telling how it would have turned out.
If Harlan didn’t have a private plane at his disposal compliments of then-Packers board member Ron Sadoff to get Thompson out of Seattle quickly, who knows what would have happened?
Harlan determined in October 2004 that Mike Sherman couldn’t handle both the general manager and head coaching duties in Green Bay. He waited until the season ended to fax a request to the Seahawks to speak with Thompson about becoming the Packers’ general manager. At the time, Thompson served as the Seahawks’ vice president of football operations.
By then, Whitsitt knew his days in Seattle were numbered and some say that as a way to stick it to Holmgren, he gladly granted Harlan’s request. Harlan said within 20 minutes of sending the fax, he was given permission to talk to Thompson.
“Whitsitt was let go a couple days later,” recalled Harlan during an interview Friday. “Somebody from Seattle said he was taking his last shot at Holmgren before he left.”
Harlan knew he needed to act quickly before Holmgren returned from his vacation. So he made the unconventional move of offering Thompson the job without an in-person interview.
“The reason I didn’t need a face-to-face meeting with him was because I watched him here for eight years,” Harlan said, referring to Thompson’s personnel job in Green Bay from 1992 to 1999 under Wolf. “I’d been around and I worked with him and I knew what I was getting when I went after him. And then I watched what he did when he went out to Seattle.
“I was as sure about him when I hired him as I was about Ron Wolf, quite honestly.”
It didn’t take long for Thompson to accept the Packers’ job offer, but Harlan was still worried things could fall apart.
“I heard from another source that this thing was really heating up in Seattle and you better get him out of town,” Harlan said. “And we got a plane from one of our board members and sent it out to Seattle immediately and got him out of there as quickly as we could.”
The concern was that Holmgren would get wind of the Packers’ plan and somehow twist Thompson’s arm or make him a better offer in order to keep him in Seattle.
“I think he was in Arizona on a little vacation,” Harlan said of Holmgren. “The word I got was, when Holmgren’s gone, get (Thompson) out of there.”
It almost had the look and feel of a covert Navy SEALs rescue operation.
“I would have never gotten (Thompson) out of there if (Holmgren) had been there,” Harlan said. “That was another reason why we needed to get that plane there in a hurry.”
Holmgren and Harlan remain on good terms, but the former coach said losing Thompson was a big blow to the Seahawks.
“Mike and I have talked about it,” Harlan said. “He admitted, he said, ‘We went downhill once we lost Ted.’ He told me that to my face. He said, ‘We were really hurt once we lost Ted.’”
In a way, NFL justice was served when Thompson returned to Green Bay. After Holmgren left the Packers for Seattle in January 1999, it seemed only fair that Harlan should return the favor. Even Holmgren seemed to understand that.
“He understood what I was doing (in hiring Thompson),” Harlan said. “He took a lot of people out of here when he went to build his franchise in Seattle.”
Back then, Harlan couldn’t compete with the kind of money Seahawks owner Paul Allen was throwing around. Holmgren was lured to Seattle with an $8 million-per-year contract and the promise of full authority over the football operation.
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, and Holmgren took prominent Packers employees with him, including Thompson and Harlan’s right-hand man at the time, Mike Reinfeldt.
“That hurt us. It was a big concern to me,” Harlan said.
“(Seattle) was a well-paying organization and they had the revenue to do it. It would have so disrupted our pay scale at that particular time. We were paying what I thought was good money for both Holmgren and Wolf, but we couldn’t keep up with what Paul Allen could offer.”
In the end, Harlan and the Packers got the last laugh when Thompson came back, thanks to a bit of good planning and good luck.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.