There probably aren’t two general managers in the NFL more different than John Elway and Ted Thompson.
Elway was one of the NFL’s all-time great players, a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback with the big personality to match. And he might be the most aggressive GM in the league in acquiring players via free agency and trades.
Thompson, on the other hand, was a fringe NFL player who sweated out final cuts for 10 NFL seasons as a special-teams player and backup linebacker. He leans introvert and is the most free-agent averse GM in the NFL.
Yet here they are this week, Elway’s Denver Broncos and Thompson’s Green Bay Packers, both 6-0 and considered among the handful of Super Bowl favorites heading into their teams’ matchup Sunday in Denver.
“You have those two guys approaching it from different perspectives,” said a front-office executive from an AFC team who knows and has observed closely the work of both men. “Ted was more, ‘I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m going to build an organization.’ Elway got in with the idea that, ‘I’m going to be the top dog ASAP, so I’m going to be real aggressive with it.’”
Just how different are their approaches? The raw numbers over the last five years and names on their depth charts today tell the same story.
Elway took over the Broncos’ football operations in 2011, and in his five seasons he has signed 35 free agents of significance – that’s using the term “free agent” generically, not in the specific NFL meaning of unrestricted free agent. So it includes significant players who were cut by their teams for salary cap or other reasons. He also has made nine trades that involved at least one player (and not just draft picks).
During that same time, Thompson has signed nine free agents and made one trade that wasn’t of draft picks only.
Or look at the team’s current rosters.
Elway has 20 players on his 53-man roster and injured reserve who have been on another team’s 53. Thompson has ffive (Julius Peppers, Letroy Guion, James Jones, John Kuhn and Scott Tolzien).
Or look at the starting lineups.
Elway has 10 starters who were free agents, including several of his best players: Peyton Manning, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Evan Mathis, Louis Vasquez, Owen Daniels, Ryan Harris and Darian Stewart.
The Packers’ only starters who weren’t Thompson draft picks or undrafted signings are Peppers and Guion.
“It was like (Elway) looked at it almost from a coaching standpoint or a player standpoint,” the scout said, “‘This is where we’re lacking. We’re going to spend money to get these guys, and these guys are going to get us over the hump.’”
Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns GM, said, “The only thing really equal in the NFL are personnel evaluations, and the Packers have always trusted their people and built from within, on and off the field.”
As to which approach is superior, you’re likely to find most executives in the league at least saying draft and develop, though in practice no one does it to the extreme like Thompson. And for all the millions of dollars wasted on the free-agent market, at least some aggressive teams have been successful. Besides Elway, New England’s Bill Belichick is among the most active GMs in the league in all avenues of player procurement, and he has won four Super Bowls, including last season's.
“Personally, I favor the Packer way,” Savage said. “Of course, when you hit on the QB it allows that type of approach. For Denver, they knew the window was short with Peyton Manning so they have accelerated everything free-agent wise to try and keep it open as long as possible. The Broncos are going to have more peaks and valleys in upcoming seasons, while Green Bay will have a more consistent ride, in my opinion.”
And in fact the quarterback for each franchise has been critical to the way their GMs have built around them.
With Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are almost guaranteed to be a playoff contender going into every season, just as they were with Brett Favre.
Rodgers still is young enough – he turns 32 in December – that Thompson figures to have at least six and perhaps more years with him leading the team. So Thompson doesn’t need a go-for-broke mentality in any given season and instead can play a longer game.
But really, would Thompson operate much differently if he didn’t have Rodgers? I doubt it.
Thompson’s way obviously has worked well. The Packers’ .630 winning percentage since he took over in 2005 is third best in the NFL, and in that time they’ve won five NFC North Division titles, made two trips to the NFC Championship Game and won a Super Bowl.
But he has hit big on enough of his infrequent trips into free agency to wonder why he doesn’t use that avenue at least a little more. Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson and Peppers all were excellent signings, and Guion proved to be an important one last year after B.J. Raji’s season-ending torn biceps in training camp.
Surely, there’s room between almost never using free agency and spending desperately. Even team president Mark Murphy several years ago told Thompson that the team has the financial wherewithal to sign more free agents if he wants.
But Thompson has a strong argument himself based on his record. He never has had to let a good, young player leave the team in free agency because of salary-cap issues, and the more swings he takes in free agency the more often he’s going to miss, which could affect his ability to retain players. He also places a priority on the locker room, where bringing in free agents at inflated salaries can create problems.
“He plays the percentages,” the scout said. “He says, ‘Sure, I could be aggressive and do all those things, but that’s a little bit feast or famine.’ He likes to do his due diligence in the draft, research all these guys and (say), ‘We’ll just build, that’s how we’ll reload.’ He does leave a little bit on the table (in free agency), but as far as the percentages go he feels like he has better odds of continuing to be competitive because he reloads the right way.”
That reloading will show up this offseason, for instance, at cornerback. Casey Hayward will be a free agent and likely get a contract in the range of $5 million a year or more on the open market. But Thompson won’t have to pay it because he appears to have hit on two draft picks at cornerback this year, first-rounder Damarious Randall and second-rounder Quinten Rollins, plus on an undrafted rookie, LaDarius Gunter.
Elway, on the other hand, forced himself to play for the here and now when he signed Manning (36 at the time) as a free agent in 2012. But it bears reminding that in ’11, his first year running the team, Elway signed six free agents, so aggressive appears to be his mindset.
Since signing Manning, though, Elway has gone all in. In ’13 he added seven free agents, including receiver Wes Welker, Vasquez to start at guard and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a one-year rental at cornerback.
Last year he made his biggest haul by bringing in Sanders at receiver and adding three of perhaps his top four defensive players: Talib at cornerback, Ware at outside linebacker and Ward at safety.
With those signings and a couple good draft picks – most notably outside linebacker Von Miller – Elway has built a premier defense. The Broncos are tied for No. 2 in the league in scoring defense and rank first in fewest yards allowed. If they get to the Super Bowl this year, it will be because of that side of the ball.
It came at a cost, though. Last offseason Elway didn’t have the cap room to re-sign his talented tight end in his prime, 27-year-old Julius Thomas. Thomas went to Jacksonville for a five-year deal that averages $9.2 million and includes $21 million fully guaranteed.
Elway replaced Thomas with a free agent, Owen Daniels, who’s cheaper ($4.75 million in 2015 pay, $4.1 million average over three years) but also not nearly as dynamic for a struggling offense that ranks No. 29 in yards and No. 14 in points.
And Elway faces a possible reckoning this offseason. Based on the drastic drop-off in Manning’s play, it’s hard to see him returning for another season. The Broncos’ No. 2 is Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in ‘12 who will be a free agent in the offseason.
Has Elway seen enough of Osweiler to project him as Manning’s successor? Will he make a marquee move by acquiring another team’s quarterback? Or is he willing to start over by drafting one this year?
“There will be situations where (Elway) has to cut people loose because the cap will mandate it,” the scout said. “That’s what Ted has tried to avoid. He’s not going to make that deal with the devil. He’s just going to keep sustaining with the draft.
“The trick for Elway now is, when you have to reload, will he be able to do it with the draft, or is he always going to be a free-agency guy? When you have to rebuild and cut loose players, that’s where you have to make up the difference, drafting well.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.