GREEN BAY, Wis. — Ted Thompson was a teenager growing up in Dallas Cowboys country the last time the team visited Lambeau Field for a playoff game: the 1967 NFL Championship, better known as the Ice Bowl.
The 61-year-old architect of the current Green Bay Packers — who are in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and host the Cowboys on Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff contest — doesn't recall watching the Ice Bowl. But Thompson does recall a highlight from his own playing career that also ended in a Cowboys loss.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports on Thursday morning at Lambeau, Thompson discussed how the NFL missed on Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, the ascent of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the pressure to play young passers, why rookies need to watch their words, what winning another Super Bowl would mean and more:
Q: The last time we talked up here, you were musing about becoming an area scout and watching games on the beach. Then you signed a contract extension in July. The dream's on hold, huh?
A: The beach keeps getting farther away.
Q: You strike me as someone who needs a lot to do.
A: You get compartmentalized in a job. You do this and do this. You have a certain structure — I do — just to make sure I get through the day and finish everything I'm looking for. But at the end of the day, what I enjoy is the chase — of the scouting, the craft of going somewhere and finding something that maybe not too many people know about. In baseball scouting, you have the Latino places that you can go scout, the high schools you're scouting, the colleges you're scouting. There's more chance of finding some gem that nobody knows about. In football, it's very hard to find some gem that nobody knows about. But you can still find things that people don't know enough about. Tony Romo was a free agent coming out of college. That's a pretty darn good free agent when you look at it from a long-term standpoint.
Q: Do you remember being in the draft room that day, when Romo goes undrafted and you're throwing around names?
A: I remember the year that he came out and he was at the combine as one of the guys that threw to the extra clubs. He was one of those guys. I was out in Seattle (as vice president of football operations). That's the kind of chase that you're all looking for — the guy that kind of falls through the cracks and nobody's looking at, right? And for some reason he falls to you.
Q: With all the resources that teams put into scouting, how does that happen? How does Tony Romo fall through the cracks?
A: It's remarkable. Tom Brady going in the sixth round. Go figure. There are free agents, and we spend a lot of time on college free agents. But people also remember that there used to be 17 rounds in the draft, and there were guys that were getting drafted in the 17th round that wound up making it.
Q: This job is so all-consuming. Do you have hobbies?
A: Yes. One of my hobbies before I took this job was playing golf. Since I took it, I play less and less, and that's why I'm worse and worse as a player. As you get diminishing returns, you wind up deciding you don't want to play anymore. So, I play maybe once a year. But I had some things I had to get taken care of, and now I think I'm going to play a little bit more golf. We're limited the time of year that we can play. I like other sports — not necessarily to participate so much anymore as to watch. I like baseball.
Q: What do you do to unwind at night? Watch movies? Go sing karaoke?
A: I don't do karaoke. Movies. I like to read. If I can find a good book based on some historical event, I think that's pretty cool stuff.
Q: You were born and raised in Atlanta, Texas. Is that Cowboys country?
A: Yes, it was, and yes, it probably is. Arkansas and Louisiana are all tight, but we're firmly established in the great state of Texas.
Q: So, were you rooting for the Cowboys?
A: As a child? I can't — I don't know. I'm not sure how much of a professional football fan I was. Professional football wasn't quite the same as it is now, because the Southwest Conference with Texas and A&M and SMU and all those schools were part of that. I think maybe I kept up with that a little bit more. But you knew about it. The neighbors down the street and everybody that goes to McDonald's for coffee in the morning are all Cowboy fans, and my dad and my younger brother still fight it out when I'm there. I played in Houston. I played for the Oilers and one of the highlights of my career, just based on my hometown, was the fact that we beat (the Cowboys) on Thanksgiving Day with Roger Staubach playing quarterback once (in 1979). That was a long, long time ago.
Q: You were 14 years old when the Ice Bowl was played. Do you remember watching it?
A: I don't. Like I said, I'm not sure how big a fan I was growing up. But we obviously knew of the (former Cowboys general manager) Tex Schramms and all the legends there, the way they put that team together and all that. It's always been there, and I've always been connected to football, but for some reason, there's never been a connection.
Q: How does this year going into the playoffs feel different from last year, which was a very unusual season for a lot of reasons, namely Aaron's collarbone injury?
A: I think we've been pretty solid this year. Last year, we had the dip in the won-loss thing (to 8-7-1). But I think we've been pretty solid. We lost two games in the first three weeks this season, and we wound up being 12-4 — that's a pretty good run. That's hard to do in the NFL.
Q: I'm sure you heard about Aaron going on his radio show and telling Packers fans to relax after the 1-2 start. What was your reaction when you heard that?
A: I was fine with it. I think Aaron does a good job of projecting what he wants to put out. He's not one of those guys from a public relations standpoint that we have to have one of my guys standing over him, making sure that he says the right thing. I don't know how to say it other than he's very bright, and he understands where he is in the world and that sort of thing. Some of our guys, especially some of our rookie guys who don't know whether it's pumped or stuffed yet, you don't really want them saying a whole lot.
Q: You probably cringe reading some of those quotes in the media.
A: Oh, all the time. There's some beauties. You see it all around the league, but you're a little more sensitive when it's one of your guys.
Q: In your time as GM, what's the line that has made you cringe the most?
A: (laughs) I would never go down that road.
Q: Consistency is so tough to achieve in this league. Your team has made the playoffs six straight years, matching New England for the longest streak in the league. Besides having Aaron, what do you look at as the most important factors?
A: I think our continuity in terms of our coaching staff and the way we go about getting players, the kind of players that we get, that sort of thing. There's no secrets in this league, but I think the consistency of coaches taking guys and developing them, getting them to play and play a particular role. Some guys do that, and they become really good players. Some guys do that, and they're OK players. But either way, they make up part of the team, and you go forward. Certainly, having a top-tier quarterback helps you win. It's hard to win when you don't have that.
Q: It's been almost a decade since you drafted Aaron at No. 24 in the 2005 draft, while you still had Brett Favre on the roster. What is your primary memory of that day?
A: Leading up to it over the course of the last couple of days, you kept seeing mock drafts where all of a sudden he's not going, because he was going in the top two or three all along. All of a sudden, he's not going. It didn't have anything to do with him — it was nobody was picking a quarterback. Everybody had other needs. So I went back and put myself in a dark room, and I watched all the tape I could watch. And then I got comfortable. I still didn't think there was any way he was going to even get to us, or we'd work it out where we could take him. But lo and behold, he came right to us.
Q: You always want to think that the guys you use first-round picks on will end up being stars, or at least core players. But could you have foreseen him being this good: an MVP winner, a Super Bowl winner, probably another MVP this year at what he says is the midpoint of his career?
A: I don't know if you could ever predict that. I think you have high hopes for all the young men that you bring in. Aaron's was going to be a different road than most in this day and age. Most people are not taken with the idea that, 'OK, you're going to not play for a couple of years,' or something. Usually, they have to go play. We were fortunate to have a team with a quarterback that was established, and we didn't have to throw him to the wolves. Who knows how it would've turned out? I think he would've still been a good player either way. There are other people that think if we'd have thrown him to the dogs, it might've ruined him. Who knows? But as it turned out, the way we did it, I guess I'm glad we did it, because it worked.
USA Today Sports' Tom Pelissero discusses the injury status of the Packers quarterback.
Q: That's changed even in the last 10 years, hasn't it?
Q: I feel like a lot of guys drafted around that time still got a chance to sit. Maybe it's social media, but it seems like something has ramped up the pressure to do everything right now.
A: I'm not saying media and public relations drives decisions in NFL teams, but there seems to be, when you take a guy high and you don't get him out there with the first unit right away, then 'something's wrong' or 'how come they're waiting on this guy?' And you've seen it this year. There was a couple teams where the public was clamoring for these people to get in the game. 'Play him! You have to play him!' And all of a sudden you play him, and now the people are clamoring: 'Get him out!' I think you have to be careful with the quarterback. In the olden days, you never played the quarterback right away. You'd always wait. And there's guys that can do it. (Indianapolis Colts quarterback) Andrew Luck came in and has done very well — but he had a pretty good team. They didn't have a good season (the year before), but they were a much better team than their record indicated, than a first-pick-in-the-draft kind of record.
Q: One of the hallmarks of your program is this unique balance between being patient and being willing to put those young guys on the field and grow through some of the pains. How do you go about striking that balance when you're seeing rough moments on tape but you also know what you project him to be?
A: Yeah, I think you just kind of grin and bear it. I think it's different at other positions, as I view it, than at quarterback. The quarterback position is a little more — you've got to kind of think it through and 'what are we doing' and that sort of thing. I'm a big believer, and I think most personnel people will tend to leans towards the 'let's get younger, faster, better guys out there. We've got this guy over here running down on the kickoff team. Why can't we put this young guy in there to do that?' I have a bit of that in me. But at the same time, I understand how the team has to be balanced and that sort of thing.
Q: And that's where the coach and the GM have to be lockstep for the relationship to work, because coaches are always going to want the guys they can trust.
A: Sure, there's always going to be that. But I will say this: Our coaching staff have an understanding and a trust of our personnel guys and our scouts, and I think it works pretty good.
USA TODAY Sports' Lorenzo Reyes breaks down the Cowboys-Packers game.
Q: You've lost a lot of really good scouts in recent years, including several guys who are now GMs elsewhere. Do you have to take the same philosophy to filling those jobs as you do with players on the roster?
A: Yeah, it's the next man up thing. It works the same way as players. Obviously, it's a different set of circumstances. But we go about our personnel department and college scouting, pro scouting exactly the same way that (former Packers GM) Ron Wolf taught us all to do it. You've got your 20 guys, counting your college scouts and pro scouts and whatever, and then you give them particular assignments. And if one leaves, then somebody else takes that chair and you go on. And normally, you're adding young guys to train as you go along there, so you've got that cycle of guys coming through. We have had quite a number of them go through and become very successful.
Q: Is it even possible to think in terms of a succession plan, when any guy you might be thinking could take your chair someday is probably getting plucked? That's what happens to any successful program.
A: People have asked me that. I never think much about that. Maybe you don't want to think about it. But there will be people that will want to sit in this chair, I'm sure.
Q: Do you see other guys on your staff now — whether it's Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith, Brian Gutekunst — you think are going to be GMs eventually, whether here or somewhere else?
A: Oh, I would think so. There's several guys, and some of the young guys — it'll be a longer time before they reach that point. But yeah, I think they will. It's the same way Ron taught us all, and what I mean is in the draft meetings — because you go through 17, 18 days before the combine, and it's just a grind all the time — but it's a remarkable learning tool for everybody. Then you have to be put in a position where you have to make a decision like 'boom, boom,' right now. And that's a different thing. That's something that needs more work.
Q: I remember talking to Aaron in training camp last year, and he told me the standard in Green Bay is two Super Bowl wins, because that's how many Bart Starr had. Brett didn't get two. Ron didn't get two. What would be the meaning, if any, for you to get a second?
A: Well, I hadn't thought of it like that. But another one would be nice. It'd be really nice. And it would be in and of itself, all by itself, too. It wouldn't be 'now we've got two.' For me, I would have an appreciation for both, because it's hard to do.
Q: Do you still do like 20 college trips a year?
A: Yeah. I still get out.
Q: What do you do with yourself now? It's January. The season's pretty much over.
A: Well, I just got back from Charleston, South Carolina, where they're having a Medal of Honor (Bowl) all-star game. So, I was watching those practices for the last few days.
Q: Still trying to find that gem.
A: Still trying to chase the chase.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero
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