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Mike Vandermause column: Best GMs learn to deal with failure

May 3, 2014
 
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson shares a smile as he speaks to the media Thursday at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson shares a smile as he speaks to the media Thursday at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
FormerPackers General Manager Ron Wolf / File/AP

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Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf recalls sitting at a World Series game two years ago with University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez when a stranger walked up and asked him a pointed question.

“Who’s the worst player you ever drafted?”

Wolf, who had been retired for more than a decade, didn’t take long to respond.

“I told him we don’t have enough time for that because there aren’t enough hours in the day. I said I can’t tell you because I don’t keep those things, I don’t remember. I’ve erased those things. I’m trying not to remember who was. Remember the good, not the bad.”

Such is the life of an NFL general manager, who — like a baseball hitter — is having a good day when he goes 1-for-3 at the plate.

DRAFT ANALYSIS: Ranking Thompson’s picks by position

Wolf used to say that if a draft produced three starters, he considered it a good year. But that also means there are a lot of whiffs, and personnel men worth their salt learn to deal with failure.

“You have to put that out of your mind,” Wolf said during a telephone interview this year. “It’s kind of like playing cornerback. You don’t have a chance playing corner today in the NFL. You just have to put everything out of your mind. Every play is a new play, every day is a new day, every second is a new second. ... You can’t dwell (on the bad picks). You’ve got to put them out of your mind.”

Current Packers general manager Ted Thompson honed his personnel evaluation talent under Wolf, and it shows.

Both GMs landed franchise quarterbacks (Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers) early in their tenures.

Both aggressively pursued and acquired a defensive difference-maker (Reggie White, Clay Matthews).

Both led their teams to a Super Bowl championship five years into their jobs.

Packers draft preview: Things to know before Thursday

Thompson speaks of Wolf with reverence, and there is no question the pupil learned from the master, especially when it comes to the draft.

“Ron was marvelous with this in terms of projecting leadership,” said Thompson, describing the draft room. “I think you have to understand the chair you sit in. In terms of my chair, I’m the leader in there. I have to project a certain confidence and a certain understanding and a certain amount of wisdom to try to do the right thing, and I pray every day that I have that wisdom.”

There is tremendous pressure during the draft, with the future of the franchise in the hands of Thompson’s decision-making prowess. And yet like Wolf, Thompson won’t let the draft overwhelm him.

He has come to enjoy the process, from staffers shouting across the war room, to banter on the phone with potential trade partners, to the relentless ticking of the clock and looming deadlines.

“The actual draft itself is a fun thing,” Thompson said. “It drives you nuts because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but the whole to and fro and are you going to trade and is this going to happen? And all along making sure that whatever you do, you’re making the team better. It’s just a fun thing.”

By Wolf’s standard, which says you should generate three starters per draft, Thompson is holding up pretty well.

Thompson landed 19 starters in his first five drafts, or nearly four per year, which is outstanding and a big reason the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010.

The last four drafts have not been nearly as fruitful, with Thompson selecting only six total starters in that span. However, the jury remains out on the 2012 and 2013 drafts because players like Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Micah Hyde, JC Tretter and Josh Boyd are still developing and could make Thompson look like a genius.

Unlike Wolf, Thompson refuses to live by a specific formula to gauge the success of his drafts.

“(If) you can rest at night and go to sleep, I think you know you’ve probably done OK,” is about all Thompson would say on that topic.

In nine drafts, Thompson has picked eight players who earned Pro Bowl recognition, with the cream of the crop including Rodgers, Matthews, Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Eddie Lacy and Josh Sitton.

Thompson has endured some clunkers, too, such as first-round bust Justin Harrell in 2007. There always will be examples like that to prove the draft is an inexact science.

But of Thompson’s 87 overall draft picks, 25 became full-time starters and another eight were part-time or situational first-teamers. That means anywhere from 29 to 38 percent of Thompson’s draft picks since 2005 have been starting caliber, a pretty solid record.

Thompson’s roster building looks more impressive when you consider six Packers starters last season were signed as undrafted free agents.

“There’s always college free agents that make teams and wind up being good players, so nobody drafts those guys,” Thompson said. “And there’s always the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round guys that wind up contributing. So keep your eye on the ball, take good players, make sure they’re good people in the locker room and you give yourself a chance.”

But then, perhaps remembering what Wolf taught him, Thompson quickly added: “It doesn’t always work out.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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