Dougherty: Timing right for Packers to part ways with Ted Thompson
The Green Bay Packers don’t need an overhaul, but they do need a jolt.
They’ve flourished under general manager Ted Thompson’s guidance the last 13 years, and his steady-as-it-goes managerial style has imbued the franchise with a sense of stability and competence that has been to its advantage in the volatile NFL.
But in the last seven years, the Packers have failed to escape a kind of no-man’s land: They’ve been among the handful of best clubs in the league but there always has been a team or two better.
The window for Aaron Rodgers, while not yet small, is closing with each passing year. And Thompson, who turns 65 in January in a high-burnout business, is about to enter the final, lame-duck season of his contract in 2018.
So the time is right for change at the top of the Packers’ football operations. It would shake up the football side of the franchise from any complacency that subconsciously has crept in. It also would send a not-so-subtle message of urgency throughout the building, including the locker room.
And with several qualified candidates in house, it could be done without overhauling an operation that retains the solid bedrock built by Ron Wolf and maintained by Thompson. Just because the Packers haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 2010 season doesn’t mean the franchise hasn’t done plenty of things right.
The question is, if Thompson isn't ready to walk away on his own accord after the season, will Mark Murphy, the Packers’ president and CEO, make the big move and replace a man he likes and respects?
It’s surely not easy to push out a GM who has won as much as Thompson – besides the Super Bowl, his teams have been to three other NFC Championship games, including two in the previous three years. In Thompson’s 13 seasons, the Packers have the fourth-best winning percentage in the NFL (.606). Explain it away as you will, but those are facts.
We’ll never know what this year’s Packers might have accomplished had Rodgers not sustained a broken collarbone in Week 6. Maybe this would have been their breakthrough year, their first Super Bowl since ’10. They sure looked like bona fide contenders after a come-from-behind win at Dallas put them at 4-1. Rodgers’ injury the next week blew that up.
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Nevertheless, the last few seasons viewed from 30,000 feet have had enough of a same old, same old feel that Murphy has to consider a new approach at the top of the football operations while Rodgers still has six or eight good years left in him. I don’t know if Murphy will make a change, but he should. Thompson has had a good, long run. Rodgers’ clock is ticking. Now is the time.
The Packers have come up short of the Super Bowl the last seven years for a combination of reasons. Rodgers has been outplayed by his counterpart in some of the playoff losses. Their defense has melted down multiple times.
But at the top of that list, in my mind, is that Thompson hasn’t drafted as well as he did in his early years and bears at least as much responsibility as the defensive coaching staff for the annual shortcomings on that side of the ball.
To be sure, Thompson’s early drafts were outstanding. By the time the Packers won the Super Bowl in ‘10, it looked like Thompson was on his way to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
The string of great picks started with Rodgers, a quadruple grand slam if there ever was one. No one knew it then, but that selection alone set up the Packers for perennial title contention into the 2020s.
Following Rodgers were Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Clay Matthews. Difference makers all. Add in the rare and outstanding free-agent signing of Charles Woodson, and you have a group of players who tilted the field in the Packers’ direction. When Matthews, Woodson and Collins were going good, the Packers had a top-five defense.
Include Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and Thompson drafted as well as anyone in the league at that time.
But since 2010, Thompson, the league’s most draft-dependent GM, hasn’t hit big often enough, especially on defense. He has had some good picks – Mike Daniels and David Bakhtiari stand out, Davante Adams has panned out and Kenny Clark in the first round of 2016 is looking better and better by the week.
But Thompson hasn’t added enough playmakers on defense to make up for Woodson getting old, Collins’ career-ending neck injury and Matthews’ eventual decline. The GM has spent a lot of prime picks to get better on that side of the ball – 10 first- and second-rounders in the last six drafts – but made little progress.
He also has neglected the outside pass rush for too long. Outside linebacker is the key position in the Packers’ defense, yet since 2010 he has used a first- or second-round pick at that position only once (Nick Perry in 2012). Pass rush has been this team’s greatest weakness the last two years.
Now, in suggesting to move on from Thompson, let’s not kid ourselves. Change doesn’t always bring improvement. You never know how the next guy is going to perform in the captain’s chair until he sits there.
But the time is right to give someone else a shot. Someone who will bring a different perspective on player evaluation and the draft. Someone who has grown up in the league watching teams get smarter in free agency, and who will use that as another avenue for building the roster.
The Packers have three great candidates in-house in Eliot Wolf, Brian Gutekunst and Alonzo Highsmith. By all indications, team vice president Russ Ball, who has a hand in almost all aspects of football operations, would get serious consideration as well.
There also are plenty of candidates from other teams, but I’m not seeing that as the way to go. To a man, everyone from the Ron Wolf tree who has become a GM has performed well: John Schneider, John Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie and Scot McCloughan.
Some will point to their departures as the reason Thompson’s drafting decline. But the final call on players always has been Thompson’s alone. And McKenzie (’10 and ’11 drafts) and Dorsey (through ’12) were on board when Thompson’s drafts started to slide.
There’s no guarantee for success no matter who succeeds Thompson, but if you’re the Packers do you really want a GM retread? And is there good reason to think somebody else’s up-and-comer is any better than your own? I’d play the odds of past success and go with one of the candidates already on hand.
For most of this season, I’ve thought there’s no way Murphy would move on from Thompson. His public comments have been so supportive – at last summer’s shareholders meeting Murphy said, “At a point (Thompson) decides he doesn’t want to do it anymore for whatever reason, then we would do a search,” – that Murphy parting with his GM seemed a non-starter.
But after a rough 2017, regardless of Rodgers’ injury, I’m not so sure. This season, on top of the past six, has to have forced Murphy to take a hard look at the organization and GM he inherited 10 years ago.
If Murphy surprises and makes the change, or Thompson decides on his own it's time to step down, the organization will owe Thompson a huge debt of gratitude just for drafting Rodgers alone. On top of that, Thompson has run the organization with class and dignity, and regardless of what his detractors say, he has run it well.
But he also has run it for a long time, and steady-as-it-goes has run its course. This franchise needs a change at the top.