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Pete Dougherty column: Careers of Thompson, Reinfeldt swing on QB

Dec. 21, 2012
 
Tennessee Titans 2011 Headshots
Mike Reinfeldt
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In early November, after a 31-point loss to the Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams put his team on notice. That included senior vice president Mike Reinfeldt, a former player for the organization who is close to Adams.

“At this time, all aspects of the organization will be closely evaluated, including front office, coaches and players over the next seven games,” Adams told The Nashville Tennesseean at the time. “If performance and competitiveness does not improve, I will look at all alternatives to get back to having the Titans become a playoff and championship football team.”

Perhaps Adams spoke for effect. Or maybe he’ll seriously consider changes at the top of the organization after this season. Either way, it was hard not to read his postgame outburst and think about how differently the careers of Reinfeldt and his close friend, Ted Thompson, have gone since each took over the football operations for their respective NFL franchises in the middle 2000s.

It’s also hard not to wonder if their careers will come together one more time before they retire. The two are close friends going back to their time as teammates with the Houston Oilers from 1976 to 1983. Reinfeldt opened the door for Thompson to NFL scouting in 1992 when he arranged a tryout with former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, which led to his hiring with the team. And they worked together when Mike Holmgren took both to the Seattle Seahawks, Reinfeldt as his contract negotiator and Thompson as his top personnel man.

As for their teams, Thompson’s Green Bay Packers in his eight seasons as general manager are 77-49 (.611 winning percentage) with five trips to the playoffs (including one clinched this season) and a Super Bowl title. He’s running one of the handful of NFL teams that harbor serious Super Bowl hopes this season and probably for several years, if not more, to come.

In six seasons running the Titans’ football operations, Reinfeldt’s teams are 51-43 (.543 winning percentage), have made two one-and-done trips to the playoffs and have a .500 or worse record in three of the last four years (including this season). They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008.

Their backgrounds and strengths differ — Thompson came up as a scout, Reinfeldt as a salary cap manager. But general managers have succeeded in the NFL with both backgrounds, and Reinfeldt played in the NFL. In the end, what separates them more than anything is their quarterback.

Thompson had the combination of foresight and good fortune to draft Aaron Rodgers, who replaced Brett Favre in 2008. Reinfeldt inherited a seemingly promising Vince Young, but after Young’s career yo-yo’d and then flamed out, Reinfeldt turned to a short-term solution in the aging Kerry Collins, and then in 2011 hung his future on first-round pick Jake Locker, who’s in his first season as a starter.

So here we are, six years into Reinfeldt’s tenure, and he hasn’t replaced the Titans’ last true franchise quarterback, Steve McNair, who retired after the 2005 season. And the Titans’ prospects remain on shaky ground. Locker, the No. 8 pick overall in the 2011 draft, is a superior athlete, but whether he’ll develop into a winning NFL starter is in doubt because of his shortcomings in throwing accuracy and field vision.

In other words, Thompson replaced one future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback with another well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

“(Locker) has a lot of talent,” a scout said this week. “But the things he can’t do are things you need to be able to do.”

After five seasons with general manager part of Reinfeldt’s title, Adams promoted him to executive vice president and chief operating officer this year. Reinfeldt elevated Ruston Webster from head of player personnel to general manager, and by all appearances, Webster decides on players and goes to Reinfeldt for approval.

Together, they overall have acquired a decent talent base. But they have only five wins because of their young quarterback, who may or may not pan out, and a decimated offensive line that has lost five starters at four positions to injured reserve.

Two scouts who discussed the Titans’ roster this week said they have a solid receiving corps, one of the league’s best running backs (Chris Johnson) and a defense that has more talent than its No. 23 ranking in yards allowed and No. 30 ranking in points allowed would suggest.

“They don’t have a quarterback,” one scout said. “Their offensive line is beat to (crap), most teams couldn’t come back from that. Their talent at a lot of other spots, their defense in particular, they’re better than what they are (ranked).”

But is Reinfeldt’s job really in jeopardy? Or was Adams just motivating the troops?

Both scouts see the owner as a wild card. That’s based in large part on Adams celebrating a win over Buffalo in 2009 by flipping the double-barrel bird at the Bills’ sideline. Adams, who made his money in the oil business, also has a reputation in scouting circles for intervening in personnel moves regularly when the team was in Houston, though he’s also believed to be behind the Titans’ drafting Young, a former Houston high school standout, with the No. 3 pick overall in 2006.

Adams also turns 90 in January, which could make him more impatient for a Super Bowl.

“They’re at a crossroad,” one scout said. “They’ve had some embarrassing losses this year. I’d think next year they’ll have to show pretty good improvement.”

But a high-ranking source with an NFL team who has known Adams for years says the owner is more level-headed than it might appear and more loyal than most in the NFL.

“Bud’s not one to make a rash decision,” the source said. “He’s pretty cautious. The way the season has gone, I know he has to be upset. But he’s not one to jump off (a cliff). He’s very patient and loyal with his employees, especially guys who played for him.”

Regardless of Reinfeldt’s fate in Tennessee, there’s also the question of whether he’ll ever become Packers president, the job that chairman emeritus Bob Harlan was preparing Reinfeldt for when he hired him as chief financial officer in 1991.

Reinfeldt, who had been the Los Angeles Raiders CFO from 1986-88 and then an associate athletic director at USC in 1989 and ’90, was on track to succeed Harlan until Holmgren left to coach and run the football operations of the Seattle Seahawks in 1999.

Sources say Reinfeldt took the job as the Seahawks’ top administrator and salary cap manager because the team kept upping the salary to the point where he couldn’t say no. It needn’t have been a deal-breaker for Reinfeldt’s eventual return as Packers president, but when John Jones was unable to replace Harlan in 2007 because of a heart condition, the team’s executive committee never seriously considered Reinfeldt.

Regardless of whether Reinfeldt would have left the Titans after Adams had hired him earlier that year, two sources said that a couple members of the Packers’ executive committee would have blocked him because they were unhappy that Reinfeldt left for Seattle in the first place.

The Packers used a search committee and hired its recommendation, Mark Murphy, to replace Harlan. The Packers have determined that the presidency is about a 10-year job, and Murphy is in his fifth year with the team. But while there’s no indication he’s looking for another position, there’s always the chance he could leave well before the 10-year mark.

Larry Weyers, the lead director of the executive committee, told the Press-Gazette earlier this year that the committee probably will hire a search firm again to find the team’s next president. But depending on when the job opens, Reinfeldt could be an attractive candidate, maybe close to a no-brainer.

The biggest concern is his age, because Packers by-laws force the president to retire at 70. Reinfeldt is 59 and has a May birthday. If Murphy leaves at about 10 years or thereafter, the committee might not be inclined to hire a new president who can serve only three or four years.

But if Murphy leaves before then, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a better resume than Reinfeldt. He grew up in Baraboo, played football at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and worked in the Packers’ administration from 1991 to 2008, so he knows the Packers’ place in Wisconsin’s culture and how the franchise operates internally.

He played safety in the NFL from 1975-83 and has been a high-ranking executive for the Packers, Seahawks and Titans, so he knows the NFL at all levels, from the field to negotiating contracts to understanding internal league politics.

His weakness as a president is public relations, where his tendency toward being an introvert means he’s not a natural spokesman and glad hander. That’s an important part of the job, because on big-picture issues the president is not just the guiding force but the face of the franchise.

But a source who’s worked with him over the years said Reinfeldt’s handling of public functions and especially the media has improved dramatically in his time with Tennessee.

There’s also every reason to think Reinfeldt would want the job. Besides being from Wisconsin and having worked for the Packers, his wife’s family lives in Green Bay, and his wife and children spend much of the summer here. He also has a vacation home in Door County.

“I think if he could come back to the state, he would,” said a source who has known Reinfeldt since his time with the Packers.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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