INDIANAPOLIS - The NFL scouting combine was an odd setting for Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson to defend his extreme draft-and-develop philosophy.
There he stood on a podium at the same venue where the 40-yard dash gathered cult interest. Where broad jumps are scrutinized. Where hand size is measured to one-eighth of an inch. If the NFL draft were a religion, this is its Christmas. The draft is revered every February inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Didn’t matter Thursday morning. Thompson, leader of the draft disciples, has agitated Packers fans with his resistance to signing unrestricted free agents from other teams. It’s a reputation Thompson doesn’t want, but can’t shake. Over time, his track record earned it.
Since Thompson was hired in 2005, no NFL team has as many games played by drafted players after their first four seasons than the Packers with 922. Only one team is within 200 games: the San Francisco 49ers with 823.
Games played after four seasons is a long-winded way to show how many drafted players teams re-sign to a second contract. The data suggests Thompson, far more than any other general manager in the league, chooses to re-signed his own and eschew free agents from other teams. Thompson begged to differ Thursday.
“We sign free agents,” Thompson said. “We look at free agency. We’ve been doing it for the last several months about prospective free agency. (But) we’re not going to chase ghosts because we think the clock is ticking.”
And yet, that sound is clear. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Aaron Rodgers is getting older, turning 32 near the end of next season.
So is Clay Matthews, who turns 30 in May.
In the fall, it will be six seasons since a young Packers team won Super Bowl XLV. They haven’t returned since.
The window is closing, ever so slowly. No one in the Packers' personnel department wants to think about life without Rodgers, but it’s coming someday. No one plays forever.
With limited time, personnel decision is critical. Within the Packers' organizational structure, those choices are Thompson’s to make. Thompson said coach Mike McCarthy’s opinions are “involved” with his process, but he has total control.
When Thompson hired Mike McCarthy as his head coach in 2006, he made a promise. Never, Thompson told him, would he force a player onto the roster despite McCarthy’s disapproval. A decade later, McCarthy said, his boss has kept his word.
What happens when the situation flips? It’s no stretch to think there have been times McCarthy wanted his general manager to sign a player, only for Thompson to decline. McCarthy compared his boss to a parent whose job is to decline requests when the situation warrants. Naturally, it can be frustrating.
“I mean, yeah, we’re all competitive,” McCarthy said. “We all have opinions, but at the end of the day, that’s why you have structure. That’s why you have chain of command. I have to say ‘no’ a lot in my job. I’m sure if you find a guy at the right time or a weak moment, he’d tell you, ‘McCarthy’s a (expletive). I can’t believe he doesn’t run my short-yardage passes.’ It’s all part of it.
“Someone has to say, ‘No.’ That’s why they have a chain of command. That’s why you have responsibilities. Someone has to be the bad guy. You guys who have kids, you know what I’m talking about.”
For now, the Packers remain among the handful of teams with legitimate championship aspirations. They’re early Super Bowl favorites for next season. They’ll retain that status in 2017, 2018 and a few years beyond.
How long the Packers’ window will remain open, nobody knows. The biggest factor will be how long Rodgers can ward off the inevitable erosion of his talent.
Until Rodgers retires like Brett Favre before him and Bart Starr before him, it would seem tempting for the Packers to plug holes on their depth chart through free agency. A signing or two can make all the difference. Just ask the Denver Broncos, who won Super Bowl 50 with a defense fortified with the free-agent acquisitions of edge rusher Demarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
The Packers are not far from where the Broncos were a couple years ago. They’re close to catching a title, but not home. Regardless, Thompson gave no indication he’s ready to change course this offseason. He said there’s no more urgency to use the other side of player acquisition, despite landing on the Super Bowl’s doorstep two straight years.
“I think you have a philosophy,” Thompson said, “and I think you stick with that philosophy. It doesn’t make sense to me. Everybody is talking about how we’ve been in position to be fairly successful for some time. You can’t do that if you’re changing all the time.
“I don’t necessarily ascribe to the theory that we’re one-sided and the only thing we do is try to draft. I’m a big believer in trying to help our team in free agency as well.”
Thompson helped the Packers through free agency two years ago. Before the 2014 season, he signed outside linebacker Julius Peppers and defensive lineman Letroy Guion. Both became defensive starters, though Guion has missed games because of injury (2014) and suspension (2015).
At a glance, their success provides a good argument for the benefit of using free agency. It would have been easy to expect Thompson to sign a free agent or two last spring after the Packers were five minutes from a Super Bowl trip before collapsing in the NFC championship game.
Instead, Thompson remained the only general manager in the league who did not sign a player from another team until receiver Jordy Nelson’s injury forced his hand. In an emergency one week before the regular season, Thompson turned to his former third-round pick when he signed street free agent James Jones.
That’s the Packer Way. Draft and develop. It’s how the organization operates. Maybe this year will be different, but there were no signs of change Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“This is a result business,” McCarthy said. “I think when you look at activity, our personnel guys work. Trust me, they’re active. They work the process and so forth. At the end of the day, the decision-maker has to say yes or no. A lot goes into that. For all of us to sit here and judge yes or no, that’s really not realistic or fair.
“It’s a process. This is a big week. There’s obviously a lot going on right now on all fronts, just with the new roles and the agents and the conversations I know for us and a number of people are happening right now. We’ll see how it shakes out. We might shock you this year.”