Aaron Rodgers on former Packers GM Ted Thompson: 'He stuck his neck out for me'
GREEN BAY - Aaron Rodgers was glad the Green Bay Packers were picking 24th in the NFL draft.
He had just returned from the NFL scouting combine, where a general manager named Ted Thompson preparing to run his first draft grilled one of that year's top quarterback prospects. When Rodgers' college offensive coordinator, George Cortez, asked how the combine went, one team stood out.
It wasn't exactly for a good reason.
"I said, 'Man, it was a lot of fun,'" Rodgers recalled. "I said, 'That Green Bay is pretty tough, though.' I said, 'You know, general manager Ted Thompson. ... They were grilling me on a bunch of stuff, and there was a camera in my face.' I said, 'I don't know, man. Boy, I'm glad they're picking 24th, because I doubt I'll be there.'
"And, of course, famous last words."
Rodgers had no way of knowing at the time he would become one of the most famous draft-day slides in NFL history. That his future would lie with the team that grilled him at the combine, even if it had no reason to think it would get a chance to actually draft him. That he would forever be linked with Thompson, the general manager who opened his Packers tenure making a draft decision so controversial fans would boo him for it.
Thompson died Wednesday night, three days after turning 68 years old. His death elicited an overwhelming response of tributes on social media Thursday, Rodgers among them.
As the Packers prepare to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game Sunday, a game they might not be in if not for Thompson, Rodgers underscored how much his former GM meant to him.
"It's always going to be personal," Rodgers said, "because I was his first draft pick, and he wanted badly – whether he would admit it or not – for me to have success, I think. Because he stuck his neck out for me. Also a great opportunity for him to kind of share his philosophy on the draft, which was always best available. And I'm fortunate that he did pick me.
"I enjoyed our relationship, I really did. I think we had a special relationship, as special as you can have with Ted, because Ted was a very private person. But I always enjoyed our conversations."
Thompson was reserved, and not just with the media members whom he famously avoided unless NFL rules mandated him to speak. Even in private, those who knew Thompson best describe him as quiet, calm.
Rodgers indicated Thompson wasn't always overly verbose in his praise, but it was always clear what he thought. Thompson would offer a handshake, seldom more, as a gesture of a job well done.
"You just knew what that meant," Rodgers said. "He was a man of few words. When he spoke, it was powerful."
Rodgers said he saw Thompson "a couple times" last year, after the former GM announced he was suffering from an autonomic disorder. It was apparent, Rodgers said, that Thompson was struggling with his health.
"That's when it really hit me that we were kind of losing him," Rodgers said. "Not losing him passing at that point, but just losing the essence of what Ted was. That kind of wry sense of humor, that inner strength. Just that life force that he had that was kind of hidden down in there, but you knew it was there, and every now and then he would really show it to you. And that made me really sad at the time."
Rodgers said he made a decision then to leave nothing unsaid between him and the GM who had his back.
He didn't divulge details of those conversations, but Rodgers made clear he will forever be connected with Thompson. He acknowledged how much it meant for him to justify the pick.
"I definitely wanted to prove that he made the right decision," Rodgers said. "And I think he was really proud of what I achieved."
Kevin King status uncertain
At Friday’s practice, the Packers were missing a key piece of their secondary – cornerback Kevin King.
King, who was not on the injury report Wednesday or Thursday, sat out of practice with a back injury. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said he will give King time to heal through the rest of the week before making a decision on his availability for Sunday. King is listed as questionable on the final injury report.
The fourth-year cornerback missed five games earlier this season, including Week 6 against the Buccaneers, with a quadriceps injury. Cornerback Josh Jackson started in King’s place during that stretch. Both Jackson and recently signed cornerback Tramon Williams could chip in if King isn’t healthy enough to play.
Defensive lineman Kingsley Keke also did not practice Friday as he works his way back from a concussion sustained Week 16 against the Tennessee Titans. He has been ruled out against the Buccaneers.
Everyone else that had been listed on the injury report throughout the week, including kicker Mason Crosby (shoulder), has been removed and is available to play.
Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea has been activated from injured reserve and returned to the active 53-man roster. He is eligible to play against the Packers.
Vea was placed on injured reserve after the Buccaneers’ Week 5 matchup against the Chicago Bears after sustaining an ankle fracture. Through five games at the start of the season, Vea registered two sacks, three quarterback hits and 10 tackles.
“He's a big man and he was probably having his best season up to date,” LaFleur said. “Certainly losing a guy like that has had an impact on them. Now, they've got great players across their whole, really their whole defense. So the other guys have picked up that slack. But we anticipate seeing him on Sunday, for how many snaps that may be I don't think anybody really knows. But he's a great player, just a big man that can move and certainly will be a great challenge for us.”
Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) was ruled out Friday. Brown injured his knee in the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints. Safety Antoine Winfield (ankle) did not participate in practice Friday and is listed as questionable on the final injury report.
Packers coaching up XPs
The original problem had nothing to do with JK Scott.
When he went to field Hunter Bradley's long snap on an extra point in the first half against the Los Angeles Rams, the football was behind him. Bradley's snap gave the extra point no chance. Scott's only recourse was to abort.
How Scott aborted was worse than the snap.
Instead of throwing the football away, Scott got up from his holder's position and effectively ran an option to the left. He pitched the football to Mason Crosby, who had no chance to make a play and was tackled awkwardly by Rams starting defensive lineman Michael Brockers. The tackle injured Crosby's left shoulder, keeping him on this week's injury report.
"In that situation," special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said, "really I've got to do a better job coaching JK up. Really just throw the incomplete pass and not risk getting hurt at that point, because the 'fire' call and things like that weren't going to work. So you're really just throwing at the heels of the eligibles (players to receiver a pass) right there and be an incomplete pass."
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Crosby was limited in practice because of the shoulder but is expected to play Sunday. Mennenga said that also includes handling kickoffs over Scott. Crosby's experience gives him a kickoff edge.
"The leg swing right now for JK is different," Mennenga said, "and just devoting the practice time to that. He still works on those things and stuff, but I just feel like right now Mason is our best option as far as being able to move the ball and kick in different directions and things like that, and maybe not give away which way we're kicking it and things and be able to mix that up."
Smith forcing a smile
Za'Darius Smith wore a face covering with his own smile to his Zoom call Friday, one day after he said the Packers' defense watched last year's NFC championship game in a meeting.
The timing, he said, was not a coincidence.
"After watching that video from that game last year," Smith said, "I'm so upset, I said, 'I've got to put on my mask just so I can have a smiley face.'"
On last year's title game, Smith said: "It's just not sitting right with us. We know what we've got to do as a team and as a defense."
The Packers especially know what it must do better this week against a Bucs offense they struggled containing in their previous matchup in October. For all the attention Tom Brady will get this week, it's the Bucs' running game that gave the Packers fits in Week 6.
Ronald Jones led the Bucs' offense with 113 yards on 23 carries. Leonard Fournette did not play in that game, but he gives the Bucs a formidable tandem in their backfield.
That fact is not lost on a Packers defense that allowed 285 rushing yards in last year's NFC championship game, something that was drilled into them again this week.
Smith said the lesson from the Packers' game in Tampa earlier this season was to shore up the run defense.
"We didn't hold up as we were supposed to in the run game," Smith said, "and that's been going on for a while. Practice makes perfect. We've been going in and out throughout the week practicing on our fits and where we're supposed to align at, and meeting with the defensive coordinator. He had us to where we're having more meetings after work now, too. So it's all a team effort, man."