Former Packers GM Ted Thompson dies at 68; drafting Aaron Rodgers his defining move
GREEN BAY - For 13 seasons, he guided the Green Bay Packers with a quiet, unrelenting conviction that awed anyone around him.
Mark Murphy remembers soaking in the stress of Super Bowl XLV and seeing his general manager beside him, calm and confident. Brian Gutekunst remembers those draft nights, the mastery of uncovering gems nobody else saw, the courage of starting his tenure with a decision that would alienate an entire fan base.
Ted Thompson personified the first word in his job title. He was a general in the Packers organization, commanding unwavering respect inside Lambeau Field and throughout the league for his humility and kindness as much as his brilliance as a scout. His shadow is still felt three years after the team relocated Thompson to an advisory role, a decision Murphy said Thursday was made with health considerations in mind.
“We all owe a debt of gratitude to him,” Murphy said. “His stamp is on our team now.”
Thompson died Wednesday night three days after turning 68 years old Jan. 17. Murphy said the team is planning to install Thompson’s name on Lambeau Field’s façade next season, a decision he conveyed to Thompson and his family a month ago. Murphy said he was able to tell Thompson’s family of the ceremony that will be similar to what the Packers did for longtime general manager Ron Wolf.
Still, Murphy and Gutekunst said Thursday was a difficult day for the organization. That Thompson’s death came four days before the Packers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game Sunday at Lambeau Field felt especially bitter.
“This particular team,” Gutekunst said, “would’ve been one that he would have really enjoyed being around. The players that we have, and the spirit that it has, I think really fits him. He would have really enjoyed being around for this. That’s a tough thing to swallow.”
The Packers are not in this game, on the doorstep of Super Bowl LV, without Thompson. Start with that first major decision after being hired as GM in 2005. With Brett Favre atop his quarterback depth chart, Thompson stuck to his draft board and took the quarterback who would align the Packers with contention for the next 15 seasons.
There is no Super Bowl ring if not for Thompson’s courage in drafting Aaron Rodgers. No fifth trip to the NFC championship game since 2010. Fifteen years after that draft, Rodgers is still playing at the top of his game, poised to win a third MVP.
“I think at the time when he drafted Aaron,” Murphy said, “he said, ‘This is the kind of thing that five years from now people are going to say was a pretty good decision.’ Boy, was he right.”
“(Fifteen) years after that, people still say that.”
Thompson’s stamp on this Packers team goes deeper than quarterback. His final first-round draft pick was Kenny Clark, now the highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history. The last player he signed was an out-of-work free agent named Robert Tonyan, who this season tied Paul Coffman’s franchise record with 11 touchdown catches. Thompson drafted All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari in the fourth round. He drafted All-Pro center Corey Linsley in the fifth round. He drafted All-Pro receiver Davante Adams in the second round.
There were busts. There always are busts.
Few who have ever filled a GM’s chair got it right as often as Thompson.
“He, in my opinion, is the best talent evaluator – especially when it comes to the draft – that I’ve ever seen or been around,” Gutekunst said. “He had a very unique way of seeing what a player was going to become, and the greatness he could become.”
Four days after his Packers Hall of Fame induction on May 4, 2019, Thompson revealed that he had been diagnosed with an autonomic disorder. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the autonomic nervous system is “the part of your nervous system that controls involuntary actions, such as the beating of your heart and the widening or narrowing of your blood vessels. When something goes wrong in this system, it can cause serious problems, including blood pressure and heart problems and trouble breathing and swallowing."
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“I feel that it’s important to mention that based on the test results and opinions of medical specialists, they feel that I do not fit the profile of someone suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” Thompson said in a statement.
Thompson’s health had been a subject of rumors, especially during his final year as general manager. Thompson did not say whether a specific disease or illness caused the disorder or whether the many tests he underwent revealed a cause.
"His impact is still felt today," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. "I think it's felt all around the league. There's a lot of heavy hearts here today."
Thompson was notable in Green Bay for his reticence. He seldom talked to the media unless he had to, and at annual shareholder meetings, where he did have to speak, he never revealed anything about his football team.
"He was more comfortable when he wasn't in the public eye," said former Packers Chairman Bob Harlan. "He told me he wasn't comfortable behind the microphone. I told him don't worry about it. That's not why we hired you."
Mike Renfro, another longtime friend who played with Thompson in Houston, said Thompson was always reserved.
"He was a man of few words," Renfro said at the induction banquet. "But a few words meant a lot. Some people babble a lot."
If Thompson had something to say, he said it.
"I sat with him every Sunday in the press box," Harlan said. "He would sit through a whole game and hardly say a word. That's how much he focused on the game. He was very business like."
Randy Brice, treasurer of Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame Inc., said when former Packers president Emil Fischer, who died in 1958, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013, Thompson made an unscheduled visit backstage to meet Fischer's family.
"Ted went around to every member of the family, shook their hand, told them who he was, how proud he was to be part of the Packers organization and how thankful he was that Fischer led Packers through some tough times," Brice said.
Thompson, who was Packers general manager for 13 years, joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf as only the second person inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame exclusively as a general manager. Vince Lombardi was inducted as a head coach and general manager.
Thompson famously drafted quarterback Rodgers with his first pick as general manager in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. The decision was controversial at the time, with Favre established as the starting quarterback. Thompson never wavered in his commitment to Rodgers and the Packers’ future, even during Favre’s tumultuous exit from the Packers in 2008.
Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV victory in his sixth NFL season, his third as a starter. Rodgers wasn’t supposed to be available at the 24th overall pick, and history has painted Thompson’s decision as an obvious call, but it was far from certain at the time, and not just because 36-year-old Favre figured to have more quality football left on his odometer.
Harlan said Thompson called him into the hallway before picking Rodgers, who was initially expected to go high in the draft.
"He said if Rodgers is there, I’m going to take him. It’s not going to be popular," Harlan said. "I told him if that's what he wanted to do, it was his team. I got phone calls and letters. People were very critical. Ted was well aware he was going to catch heat, but he did what he thought was the best thing."
Harlan said the NFL is a quarterback's league and Wolf and Thompson made controversial choices, with Favre and Rodgers, that set up the organization for 30 years.
The Packers were led by head coach Mike Sherman, who’d just lost his general manager title and desperately needed to win the following season. Thompson, as the new guy in Green Bay, could have placated his head coach by drafting a player who would have more immediate impact. With Favre, it was clear Rodgers’ chances of playing early in his career were slim.
Instead, Thompson took the long view.
“I think we tried to put the interests of the Green Bay Packers first,” Thompson said after drafting Rodgers. “It wasn’t necessarily that comfortable taking that position maybe as some other things we’d like to have done, but you make draft choices and draft-day decisions based on the long-term best interests of your organization. I think that’s what we did today.”
In a statement Thursday, Rodgers said, "I'm really thankful for Ted. The fact that I was his first draft pick will always link us together."
A native of Atlanta, Texas, Thompson was a five-sport star, a student council president and class officer, an usher for senior activities and actor in a school play. He was remembered as someone who never smoked or drank, who led by example.
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Thompson graduated from Atlanta High School – a couple of years ahead of Ellen DeGeneres – where he was known as Teddy-Bear and Clarence. Former Press-Gazette editor Tony Walter wrote after a 2006 interview with Thompson that he watched "The Simpsons," voted conservative, read the Bible, drove a Cadillac Escalade, liked country and western music and was inclined to "step outside and yell at the darkness from time to time."
The life-long bachelor also was close to marriage twice, but blamed himself for it not happening.
Thompson didn't necessarily embrace the introvert description.
"I think I'm rather outgoing in some respects," he said. "I don't push myself in the press, but I'm not like Howard Hughes or anything like that."
A high school classmate, Danny Harp, said a group of track team members one time were talking about what they wanted to do when they grew up. “When it came to Ted, he said, 'When I grow up I'm going to be the general manager of the Green Bay Packers or the New York Yankees.' That's exactly what he said. We all laughed, and he looked at us like, 'I'm not kidding,’” Harp recalled.
Thompson played football for Southern Methodist, where he was a starting linebacker and team captain. He was not chosen in the NFL draft and signed as a free agent with the Houston Oilers, where he played 10 years, from 1975-1984. He started only nine times during his career but played in 146 of 147 games. In one game he kicked four extra points as an emergency kicker.
"Ted played 10 years in the league, which is a testament to anybody," Reinfeldt said. "Ted knew assignments of all 22 guys on the field, better than some of the guys playing the positions."
Wolf hired Thompson as a Packers scout in 1992. He moved to Seattle, where he was vice president of football operations from 2000 to 2004. Packers President and CEO Bob Harlan named Thompson general manager of the Packers on Jan. 14, 2005.
With him at the helm, the Packers advanced to a franchise-record eight consecutive playoffs. They played in four NFC championship games, losing three. Two were especially painful defeats: the 2007 overtime home loss to the New York Giants, and the 2014 collapse in Seattle.
The Packers had a 125-82-1 record in Thompson’s tenure, a .600 win percentage that ranked fourth in the NFL. Only the New England Patriots (.774), Pittsburgh Steelers (.649) and Indianapolis Colts (.605) had a better win percentage in that time.
Rodgers, a two-time MVP, was the biggest factor in getting the Packers their fourth Super Bowl title. But from 2005 to 2010, Thompson executed a series of championship-building draft choices. Six offensive starters and six defensive starters on the Super Bowl team, along with kicker Mason Crosby, were either drafted by Thompson or acquired as an undrafted rookie. Thompson also signed key defensive back Charles Woodson in free agency.
In his first six years, Thompson drafted nine players who would make at least one Pro Bowl roster. Five would be selected to at least one first- or second-team All-Pro list, including Thompson’s second-ever pick as Packers general manager, safety Nick Collins.
When Mike Holmgren left Green Bay for the Seattle Seahawks, Thompson was the first person he hired from the Packers organization.
"He went to Seattle and they won a Super Bowl. The man knew how to build an organization," Harlan said.
“Stellar,” was how Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian once described Thompson’s ability to identify talent in the draft. “He’s outstanding, and he’s outstanding not only in terms of judging talent, but of managing the draft.”
Analyzing talent was Thompson’s favorite task as general manager. He was self-deprecating about his other skills in that job during his Hall of Fame induction.
"You look at all the great players who've come through here, they are idols. I'm not one of those people. I'm just a scout,” he said.
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Thompson’s extreme draft-and-develop philosophy helped ensure the Packers were never in cap trouble, despite having a franchise quarterback’s salary on their books. His reluctance to dip into free agency also drew the ire of fans — as well as coaches and front-office executives — who interpreted his approach as too passive.
Starting in 2012, Thompson went five years without signing an unrestricted free agent. His only meaningful free-agent signing during that period was tight end Jared Cook, a “street” free agent who didn’t count against the Packers’ compensatory draft formula because he was released by the Los Angeles Rams. When Thompson finally broke that drought with the signing of tight end Martellus Bennett, the decision backfired. Bennett was released midway through his first season.
"I think people have been tough on him," Reinfeldt, himself a former general manager, said at the time of Thompson’s induction. "I think history will be kind to Ted Thompson.”
Thompson’s inactivity in the free-agent market was compounded by poor drafting in the second half of his tenure. From 2011 on, just six of Thompson’s draftees made a Pro Bowl roster while playing for the Packers. Only two received an All-Pro selection.
There were mid-round gems, such as left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round), defensive tackle Mike Daniels (fourth), defensive back Micah Hyde (fifth) and center Corey Linsley (fifth), but the Packers got little production from their first-round picks in his last years as general manager. Of the five eligible players Thompson drafted since 2011, only Nick Perry received a second contract from the team — and he was released midway through that deal.
Thompson also whiffed completely on his 2015 draft class. None of the eight players drafted that year received a second contract.
Thompson was eventually reassigned to a senior advisor position to his replacement, Gutekunst. Thompson’s legacy is strong, however. Before him, the only men to guide Green Bay to a Super Bowl title were named Lombardi and Wolf.
Many teams see their fortunes plummet immediately after a Hall of Fame quarterback retires. Because of Thompson, the Packers remained annual Super Bowl contenders.
“He’s had an awful lot of success,” Wolf once said. “He’s very good. I think all you have to do is see the career he’s had. He left here and went to Seattle to build a team that went to the Super Bowl. He comes back here, and he’s had a team that’s won the Super Bowl.
“If you just look at what he did the last 10 years, I’d say he’s exceptional.”