INDIANAPOLIS - For as close as the Green Bay Packers came to reaching the Super Bowl earlier this year, the throttling they absorbed from the Atlanta Falcons suggested the chasm between the final four and the final two was wider than it seemed on paper.
Sure, they had roared back from a dismal 4-6 start to reach the NFC championship game, but the buzz saw waiting for them in the Georgia Dome had more speed, more explosiveness and more depth at key spots on the field.
All of which lent credence to the idea that a postgame comment by quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of general manager Ted Thompson, whose job is to assemble enough talent for the Packers to win the Super Bowl.
“We've just got to make sure we're going all-in every year to win,” Rodgers said after the 44-21 loss to the Falcons. “And I think we can take a big step this offseason.”
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Thirty-eight days later, Thompson addressed the media for the first time since training camp during a news conference at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. When the conversation shifted toward his team’s level of talent — and the star quarterback’s assessment of that talent in Atlanta — Thompson offered what felt like a fairly pointed response defending his methodologies, even if his interpretation of Rodgers’ comments differed from what everyone else heard.
“We’re getting ready for one thing and it’s to try to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl,” Thompson said. “We don’t try for anything else. Every year that’s exactly what we’re going to do every time is try to win the Super Bowl. And we understand it’s hard to do. We understand that there’s twists and turns on the road. It’s unbelievable how difficult that is, but we try to do it every single year.
“We’ve come up short a few times but we’ve also done some battling, and it’s not an easy thing to walk away from. It wasn’t easy for any of us, and certainly our players, to walk away from Atlanta because it’s too much heartache, too much pain that’s gone into trying to do something. And this is something special that people are trying to do.”
Many believe the remark by Rodgers was designed to prod Thompson into the free-agency market, a place he typically avoids like a puddle in a parking lot. He broke from the pattern last March to sign tight end Jared Cook, a street free agent released by the then-St. Louis Rams. Cook proved to be an influential move for both Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, who tailored his offense to the team's newest weapon.
But Thompson stayed true to form Wednesday and emphasized the desire to re-sign his own free agents before looking at the rest of the league. With the free-agent window opening March 7, the Packers are working as much on contract negotiations as they are prospect evaluations in Indianapolis this week.
(For the record, Thompson said he did not view Rodgers’ comment as a challenge to be more active in free agency. He viewed the quote as a star player reminding his teammates that a Super Bowl is the ultimate goal.)
“I stand on this podium I think every year and say the same thing,” Thompson said. “Our best intention will be to sign as many of our own players as we can and keep it together.”
While Thompson declined to discuss specific free-agents-to-be, McCarthy, who also addressed the media Wednesday, was asked repeatedly about three primary subjects: running back Eddie Lacy, right guard T.J. Lang and outside linebacker Julius Peppers, all of whom will become unrestricted free agents when contracts expire next week.
The short version is that McCarthy spoke fondly of all three players and would like to see them return to the Packers next season. When it came to Lacy, who is still recovering from ankle surgery, McCarthy labeled him one of the team’s “core players” and said he is intrigued by the possibility of pairing Lacy with running back Ty Montgomery. In the case of Peppers, who McCarthy labeled a “valuable asset,” the coaching staff would welcome him back if he decided to play a 16th season.
“We want all of our free agents back,” McCarthy said. “They’re our guys. That’s the way we view it from our program to them. But this is a business. It’s never easy.”
Which is why McCarthy likely played the role of lobbyist Wednesday in hopes of influencing the negotiations to come. Of all the unrestricted free agents the Packers might lose, nobody had the kind of backing McCarthy showed Lang during various interviews throughout the afternoon.
“He’s as fine an offensive lineman as I’ve had an opportunity to coach in 20-plus years in this league,” McCarthy said. “His leadership is significant in our locker room. Once again, I hope to get T.J. back in Green Bay.”
To do so, McCarthy may have unfurled something of a smokescreen to aid the Packers' chances. He told reporters more than once that Lang, who underwent hip surgery after the NFC championship game, is unlikely to participate in football activities until the start of training camp — a possible deterrent for teams contemplating his worth in free agency. It’s a risky game spending millions of dollars sight unseen.
Ruse or not, McCarthy toed the party line and reinforced Thompson’s desire to prioritize in-house free agents before turning to the open market. Perhaps Thompson will dip his feet in foreign waters at some point down the road.
Until then, Thompson is going to do things his way. It’s his own version of going all-in.
“I think our players over the course of the years — and now we’re talking about players who’ve retired and moved onto other things in life — I think our players appreciate the fact that the organization tried its best to keep their own players,” Thompson said. “I think our former players and current players appreciate it.”