Packers face tough call with Thompson, Wolf

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, left, speaks with director of football operations Eliot Wolf during the team's Family Night practice July 31.

GREEN BAY – No matter what happens this offseason, the Green Bay Packers organization owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to general manager Ted Thompson.

Since former president Bob Harlan chose him to run the football operation in January of 2005, the Packers are 116-68-1, have made the playoffs eight times, played in three NFC championship games and won a Super Bowl.

Thompson’s winning percentage over 11-plus years (.630) is a sliver behind Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf’s over nine years (.639). Thompson will go into the Packers Hall of Fame having presided over one of the most successful eras in team history.

It would be hard to fire him because of one bad stretch of football.

But there are many factors at work that could lead to changes in the front office and they aren’t all related to the Packers’ disappointing 4-6 season. Some are the reality that the NFL is a young man’s game and if president Mark Murphy waits too long to bring in fresh leadership, he could be left empty-handed.

Thompson, who will turn 64 in January and reportedly has two years left on his contract after this season, said in an interview in August he would stay on as long as he felt he was contributing positively to the organization.

The Packers have hit hard times and their streak of seven straight postseason appearances – tied with New England for the active lead – is perilously close to ending. The Packers are 9-13 over their last 22 games and in danger of finishing below .500 for the first time since 2008.

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This extended period of mediocrity and the embarrassing performances during a four-game losing streak have brought to light the weakness of the roster, the questionable distribution of players by position and the lack of veteran leadership.

Murphy, and the executive committee he serves, are at a crossroads. They have invested millions of dollars in the development of their so-called “Titletown District” and it would be disastrous for them if the team suddenly slid into a 1980s-style funk.

Thompson’s conservative style, his unwavering commitment to building the team only through the draft, may have run its course. The teams that have won Super Bowls over the past decade, including his own, have used free agency, the draft and in some cases trades to stock their rosters.

Among them, Denver (Peyton Manning, Aqib Talib), New England (LaGarrette Blount, Darrelle Revis), Seattle (Michael Bennett, Percy Harvin), Baltimore (Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin), the New York Giants (Chris Canty, Antrell Rolle) and Green Bay (Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett) all received huge lifts from players not acquired through the draft.

Murphy did not hire Thompson and if he has tired of the draft-only approach, he and the executive committee might be thinking this is their chance to bring in their own man. Murphy has given Thompson free rein to run the football operation, rarely sticking his nose into his general manager’s business, but not since 2008 has the team been this bad.

There is only one member of the executive committee, John Bergstrom, who was around when Harlan hired Thompson. Everyone else has retired and been replaced. The new committee has focused on building the Packers into a corporate powerhouse with interests way beyond fielding a great football team.

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They may feel empowered to gut the front office and start over.

It would then be on Murphy to pick the right man for the job. If he stayed in house, his top two options for filling Thompson’s spot would be vice president of football administration/ player finance Russ Ball or director of football operations Eliot Wolf.

If he chose to go outside the organization and start anew, he’d risk losing both of those talented employees along with many of Thompson’s excellent scouts if he didn’t hire someone from Ron Wolf’s scouting tree. Maybe he could get Seattle GM John Schneider to return, but that’s not a guarantee. Such a hire would allow the scouting system to remain intact, but Schneider might not feel comfortable taking a job from which one of his mentors was fired.

If Murphy decides that he’d like Thompson to stick around, he has another problem. There is continued frustration within the personnel department over Thompson’s unwillingness to take a chance on free agents and his devotion to draft picks.

This isn’t anything new.

All you have to do is see what former Thompson underlings did when they landed general manager jobs of their own. Schneider has made Wolf look like a nickel slots player with all the chances he’s taken in building a Super Bowl-contending roster in Seattle.

Reggie McKenzie played it Thompson’s way until he got the Oakland Raiders out of salary-cap purgatory and then laid out big bucks to help supplement his success in the draft. John Dorsey hasn’t hesitated to spend money on free agents during his run in Kansas City, although he hasn’t really needed to.

All of the scouts who come out of the Wolf-Thompson tree believe in building teams through the draft and have accepted that Thompson refuses to spend in free agency unless it’s a blue-light special. But frustration gets highest when teams lose and that’s what the Packers are doing right now.

Thompson allowed Schneider and McKenzie, in particular, to pursue free agents and see what they could come up with. They persuaded him to sign Woodson and Pickett and it resulted in the team winning a Super Bowl.

Since Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey left, Thompson has ignored unrestricted free agency completely: He hasn’t signed one since 2012. He did invest in Letroy Guion, Julius Peppers and Jared Cook, but only after they were cut and the price was reasonable.

The Packers are always one of the youngest teams in the NFL and two non-productive drafts have meant devastating consequences for the current team’s depth. They have not created a free-agent safety net for their draft selections.

Murphy and the executive committee probably have an appetite for a free-agent splash or two since a Super Bowl would greatly enhance the chances of their playland succeeding. Time is running out with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the higher ups might be getting antsy.

Murphy’s toughest decision is whether to tab Eliot Wolf, Ron’s son, to lead the football operation into a new era. At age 34, Wolf would be the youngest general manager in the NFL, a year younger than Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman was when he became the youngest general manager in the NFL in 2010.

But Wolf is talented, has learned under some of the best in the business and his reputation continues to grow in NFL circles.

Last season, a surrogate for the Detroit Lions inquired about Wolf’s interest in the Lions job after general manager Martin Mayhew was fired at mid-season. An NFL source said the Lions wanted to interview Wolf during the season, but NFL rules state that no executive can interview for a job in the middle of a season when he is under contract.

Once the Lions were made aware they were overstepping their bounds they backed off. After the regular season ended, they turned their focus to New England director of pro scouting Bob Quinn, who took the job. But they thought enough of Wolf to seek an interview.

If Murphy wants Wolf to wait two years before succeeding Thompson, he’ll have to risk the possibility that Wolf will leave to take a general manager’s job somewhere else . There aren’t expected to be a lot of general manager jobs open this offseason and the ones that are open probably aren’t that attractive.

San Francisco has meddling owners; Chicago doesn’t have strong ownership; New Orleans had a dispute between owner Tom Benson and his children over Benson’s mental competency. But Los Angeles has a strong, bold owner and might be a suitor.

Wolf is young enough that he can wait for the right job to open.

But if Murphy is convinced Wolf is the future, he’s going to have to commit to him soon, probably this offseason.

One way he could keep Wolf is to do what the Milwaukee Brewers did when they hired 30-year-old David Stearns to replace Doug Melvin as general manager. Stearns was given full authority on personnel moves, but Melvin was kept on in an advisory role as president of baseball operations.

The Packers could do the same thing with Wolf and Thompson. Wolf would get all the authority a general manager normally gets and have one of his mentors, Thompson, there to advise him. Wolf would be able to open new doors in player acquisition and still have Thompson there to be the voice of conservatism.

Wolf would want the authority to decide on the fate of coach Mike McCarthy and his staff – any general manager would. This has not been McCarthy’s best year, but if Wolf were able to deliver him a few more impact players, McCarthy might be reinvigorated and able to revive this moribund team.

Wolf may turn out be as conservative as Thompson when it comes to building through the draft, but he has grown up in a system in which people like Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey have examined every avenue for building a team. It’s unlikely anyone could match Thompson’s stubbornness when it comes to a draft-only policy.

Even if the Packers find a way to turn things around this season, it does not change the fact the front office needs to modernize its approach to acquiring talent. It seems unlikely that Thompson is capable of doing that and so Murphy is headed toward the toughest decision of his tenure.

It should be an interesting offseason.

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