Q&A: Ted Thompson on continuity, staying fresh

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Change most assuredly will not be in the air this season when it comes to the Green Bay Packers.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson watches training camp practice.

Ted Thompson, the general manager who sets the course for the team’s football operation, remains as consistent as ever in his 12th season.

None of the nine men in franchise history who held the actual title of GM were at it as long as Thompson.

According to the Packers, Vince Lombardi is next with 10 years (1959-68), followed in years of service by Ron Wolf (1992-00), Bart Starr (1975-80), Verne Lewellen (1954-58), Dan Devine (1971-74), Curly Lambeau (1946-49), Mike Sherman (2001-04) and Phil Bengtson (1969-70).

Thompson also places a premium on continuity, part of the reason the Packers have had the same coach, quarterback and systems of offense and scouting for years.

He has said winning begets winning, and the Packers own a 116-74-1 (.610) record, one Super Bowl title and eight playoff appearances during his 11 seasons.

Besides owners-de facto general managers Jerry Jones in Dallas and Mike Brown in Cincinnati, just three others have served as NFL GMs with their present teams longer than Thompson.

The list includes Bill Belichick in New England, Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore and Mickey Loomis in New Orleans.

Thompson, 63, has multiple years left on his contract and the support of team president Mark Murphy.

In an interview Saturday with the Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn, Thompson discussed the challenges of staying fresh, some of his decisions in the last eight months and his affection for an organization that in many ways has become his life.

Q. The Packers have had the same scouting system, basically the same offensive philosophy and only two quarterbacks for the last 25 years. The general manager is in his 12th season and the head coach is in his 11th. In this most volatile of industries, how does so little seem to change in Green Bay?

 A. I don’t know it’s just Green Bay. I think it’s just happenstance with the people that are here and the tenure that one had once they got here. I was here a year before Mike (McCarthy). I think that probably got Mike started because I was already in the process of it. I just think it’s the way it works out.

 Q. What are the advantages you have seen in staying the course with the same people and the same practices?

 A.  Just on the surface, I like continuity. If you have good people, and we try to tell our guys that all the time, if you’re good people and do what’s right and work hard and do your job and represent the Packers, then you’ve got a pretty good chance of having a job here. But it’s all predicated probably on how we do. If we don’t do, then I get whacked, and if I get whacked other people get whacked.

Q. Some successful institutions slip without a vigorous, healthy critique of leadership and the introduction of new perspective. Do you worry about the organization being stale? What have you done to ensure that the Packers stay fresh?

 A. No. We are cognizant of that all the time. Mike on his end, the people that he directly supervises, and me on the other end and the people that I directly supervise, we’re both cognizant of that. We both talk about it all the time. You keep challenges in front of your people. Nobody’s sitting around the office with their feet up on the desk. We’re pretty busy here.

Q. A year ago the Packers won 10 games before losing in the divisional playoffs. What’s different this year from last year?

  A. There will be several differences just from the personnel side. Some of the things that Mike does will be a little different. It’s not all because we won too few games last year. It’s just that we’re always looking to try to get better. Whether that means we went 16-0 or the other way.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson, right, watches training camp practice.

Q. McCarthy said in February that he didn’t have a championship-caliber defense in 2015. What was missing a year ago, and do you think the Packers have a championship defense now?

A. I don’t know what was missing. I don’t know what Mike was referring to. I think we have a pretty good defense. We were playing some young guys but we played some good ball. There were little things throughout the season that maybe weren’t up to par with what we’ve done in the past. Sometimes that just happens.

Q. It’s a little hard to fathom the undoing of the offense last season. After months of review and study, what happened?

 A. It doesn’t take a lot. Playing in the NFL is a high-level business proposition. You get some guys hurt. You can do this, you can do that, you can drop a pass. Any of that can lead to the ultimate devastation, which is losing a game. After a good start last year it tailed off a little bit. For whatever reason, we just weren’t quite as successful. It’s not an easy league.

Q. McCarthy, regarded by some of his peers as a premier play-caller, relinquished the assignment for the first 12 games before taking it back. Did he make a mistake in judgment? Should you have dissuaded him from giving up the play-calling?

 A. On the last part, I don’t think so. He’s got a lot on his plate. He’s not going to do something that he thinks is going to be bad for the team. Obviously, he thought that was going to work out. In hindsight, he decided to revert back to the way it was before. I trust Mike with this football team. I don’t second-guess him or me.

Q. The Packers have enjoyed a tremendous run of success in the regular season but have one Super Bowl berth in the last 18 years. Do you believe all that winning in the regular season is enough for Green Bay to rank as an elite franchise?

A. I don’t know about that. People can rank people the way they want to.  I don’t know if I’m going to get involved in a contest of who said what and whose daddy is bigger than the other daddy. I think we’re a competitive football team with talented players at the superstar level. That’s a combination that gets you a little bit ahead in this league to start with. The playoffs are the playoffs. It’s not an easy league.

Q. In today’s society winning a championship tends to breed increased expectations. Transcendent sports figures like LeBron James, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, Sidney Crosby and even young Jordan Spieth have multiple championships. Your quarterback is regarded by some as the greatest ever to play the position. Shouldn’t it be expected of him that he should win multiple titles as well?

 A. This is a team game and we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to get to the promised land. I’m not sure what your point is.

Q. Shouldn’t it be expected of Aaron Rodgers that he also should win multiple titles?

A. I think it should be expected of us. It’s a team game. If it was just Aaron (Rodgers) he’d be out there playing tennis, and that’s when they’re not playing doubles. Andre Agassi.

Q. The game is set up for these quarterbacks to control things, isn’t it?

A. He’s done a pretty good job of controlling them.

Q. Have you sat down with Rodgers to discuss what some would regard as his poorest season? What do you think was going on with him last year?

A. No. There’s a lot of things that went down probably that caused us not to finish the season as strongly as we would have liked. But that doesn’t mean it’s Aaron Rodgers’ fault or Clay Matthews’ fault or my fault. It’s just the way it went down.

'Just one of them fellas that everybody liked'

Q. The foundation of the Packers’ extended prosperity was your decision to draft Rodgers when Brett Favre still was playing well and the manner in which you’ve been able to assemble good rosters. What principles are near and dear to your heart when it comes to putting together a team?

 A. We’d like to have good players on that team, good people on that team. We’d like to have energetic, enthused guys on that team. All of which we have. So far, so good.

Q. With another title or two, Ted Thompson would be a distinct candidate for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You must have thought about it, or are you just too private of a person to admit it?

A. I don’t think of those lofty goals like that. That’s a little bit high for a working boy like myself. Honestly. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh anything but I look at things a little bit more from a scouting-edge viewpoint than from an executive viewpoint. My way to help this team is to try to put them in the best position I can to win the game. To find help, to find players that can infuse the roster.

General manager Ted Thompson, right, and Mark Murphy, president and CEO, lead the board of directors onto the field Thursday for the shareholders meeting.

Q. After last season, several people with intimate knowledge of the situation have said McCarthy was fed up with your unwillingness to take chances and not reinforce the roster with veteran players from other teams that have the experience and talent to contribute. I’ve heard McCarthy met with you and team president Mark Murphy to discuss his frustrations. Did you hear Mike out, and if so where did the conversation lead?

A. That sounds like that might have been some conversations that we had on the big picture from an organizational standpoint, and I’m not going to talk about that. Mike and I have never had any problem about the way we work here or the setup. We’ve never had a conversation like that.

Q. When you review who was available and who did what in 2015, do you fault yourself for looking too much inward and not bringing in more players who had been with other teams?

 A. No. We’re not perfect, but we do the best we can.

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Q. Eddie Lacy admitted having problems with his diet, he reported out of shape a year ago and later missed curfew in Detroit. Did you sense there was a maturity issue with Lacy that needed to be addressed by the organization?

 A. I’m going to take the fifth and be like everybody else. I’m not going to talk about Eddie Lacy or his weight.

Q. Did the Packers conduct an internal investigation of the Al Jazeera report regarding performance enhancers and other drug use or just accept the denials of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers at face value?

 A. Well, I’m not going to be talking about that.

Q. Would you like Matthews and Peppers to cooperate with and speak to NFL investigators?
. That’s their business, and I’m not going to discuss other people’s business. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.

Q. Mike Pennel and Demetri Goodson were suspended four games each for drug-policy violations this year while Letroy Guion (three games) and Datone Jones (one game) were suspended last year. Is this a big red flag for the organization, and what type of education does the team offer players when it comes to banned substances?

 A. We’re disappointed. We don’t think it’s endemic. It’s not all the way through the roster or anything. There’s a couple of guys that made some mistakes. That’s the way we look at it. We do that (educating players). The league does that. The players association does that. Everybody does that.

Q. Some of your friends on other teams can hardly believe how hard you still work on the road all fall scouting the draft. Because of it, however, one personnel man said all that emphasis hurts the Packers on the pro side of the business and in free agency. Is there some truth to that?

A. I don’t think so. We work pretty hard to make sure that everything’s balanced. I don’t, in fact, scout as much as I used to scout. I don’t know if that helps our pro side or not. We’ve got things covered we think very well. We’ve got some very talented people.

Q. Is your hesitancy to participate in free agency more the case of you not having enough hours to spend on pro and therefore getting cold feet when it comes to signing outsiders during the season and in the offseason?

A. I’ve been pretty consistent on this whole thing and how we run the organization. So I would suggest you go back and look at what we did 15 years ago or 10 years ago and see how that meshes up with now.

Q. Aren’t you still more college than pro?

 A. Both. When you get to be an executive like me you do both.

Q. Although you haven’t signed an unrestricted free agent in four years or traded for a player in six, you have added some veterans who were released. What led you to sign Jared Cook and Lerentee McCray this spring?

 A. We thought those were pretty good opportunities to help our depth and overall roster. We’re looking forward to seeing what they can add.

Q. There were at least half a dozen inside linebackers available in March that now are starting for new teams. Looking at the current depth chart, would it have been smart to add a veteran?

A. Well, you can always second-guess yourself about what happens in free agency. We felt pretty good about the decisions we made at the time and we feel good about them now.

Q. One person close to the situation said the GM job in Detroit that went to New England pro scout Bob Quinn in December would have been Eliot Wolf’s for the taking. Why did you prevent Wolf from interviewing?

A. I’m not going to answer that.

Q.  Has Wolf reached the point in his development where you would recommend him to Mark Murphy and the executive committee to be your successor?

A. Well, I don’t think anybody is going to ask me what my opinion is. But we have some very talented people here and Eliot’s one of them.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson leaves the field following the annual Green Bay Packers shareholders meeting.

Q. You also denied Brian Gutekunst and Alonzo Highsmith interview chances with other teams in the last 1½ years. You’re known as a guy who won’t help your people get better jobs. Ron Wolf never held you or anyone else back. Where are you coming from on this issue? Is it that you just can’t stand the prospect of staff upheaval?

 A. You’re misinterpreting what happened and the facts. I’m not going to get into it because it’s private business between the club and those young men you’re talking about. You’re wrong in your interpretation of what happened.

Q. Many people over the years have said they like working for you. But aren’t hard feelings inevitable with these scouts, most of whom have families and perhaps different priorities than you, if they’re denied the chance to better themselves?

A. In the big picture, I’ll say this. My people understand exactly where I’m coming from. I’ve never, ever, ever kept any sort of secrets or that sort of thing. So everybody is well aware of what’s going on at any given time.

Q. Mike McCarthy has let go 14 assistant coaches during his tenure and prevented others from interviewing for jobs. Do you support the frequent firing of assistants and denying coaches the chance for career advancement elsewhere?

 A. I don’t know. Mike runs the coaching staff the way he runs the coaching staff.

Q. Doesn’t he discuss these decisions with you before they happen?

A. Oh, sure. But it’s still his job, it’s still his thing. You don’t want to go run roughshod and say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ If it’s something that he feels is important … that’s what I talked about. I trust him with this team.

Q. Do you support him on that?

A. I’m not going to answer a question the way you couch it. It is what it is. I support the fact that Mike McCarthy is the head football coach and he makes decisions based on the short- and long-term, and what’s best for the team.

Q. What is most right about this team and this organization?

A. We’ve got good people. Really good people. That goes to the people on the fourth and third floor, that second floor, the players downstairs and the support staff. It’s remarkable. You talk about me and Mike being together for a certain amount of time. Look at the support people. They’re raising families, graduating kids from college all because they’re able to work for the Green Bay Packers. I think that’s a great thing.

Q. At 63, have you or will you cut back on your travel? Given that you're head of a team that is always in the minds of state residents, it’s important to inquire about your health. You haven’t been flying off to see specialists for anything, have you?

A. No. What was the first part of your question? I don’t think I travel quite as much. I’m not going to go on those red eyes and stuff like that but I still get out and scout. I think it’s important to be part of the process.

Q. Your aging father lives alone in Texas and you have many other family members there as well. Does retirement cross your mind more than it used to?

A. Well, I don’t know. Maybe. It’s usually kind of in the offseason. You think about, ‘I could go sit by a pond and drop a line in the water.’ But I never fished. I’ve done this. I enjoy the people that I work with. So I don’t know. As time goes on I feel a little bit more attached to this place. I think as long as I can do quality work and feel like I’m contributing to the positive nature of this organization I’ll continue to do it. I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t. What am I going to do? If I had a lovely lady at home and children to go across country and see, it’s different. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh things. This is my life. I chose it. This building and the people that I work here with are huge parts of my life.

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