The reclusive Ted Thompson opens up about his 10-year tenure as Green Bay's general manager, pulling back the curtain on why he drafted Aaron Rodgers, how he signed Julius Peppers and what he first saw in a Falcons third-string QB named Favre
GREEN BAY, Wis. — In 1992 the Green Bay Packers hired a former Houston Oilers linebacker, Ted Thompson, to be a scout. Thompson was working in Houston selling stocks and bonds for several years, hating it. Then a good friend and former teammate, Mike Reinfeldt, called with this chance to work in Green Bay grading film for new general manager Ron Wolf. Thompson really wanted to be a coach, but he figured he’d take this job, and maybe it would lead to coaching.
Wolf gave Thompson a job: evaluate all the Plan B free agents Green Bay had some interest in. At the time the league allowed each team to protect 37 players and expose the others to this so-called Plan B free agency. Thompson was two weeks into that when Wolf walked into his dark office one day at Lambeau Field, handed him a couple of tapes and said, “Tell me what you think about this guy by the end of the day.”
Thompson hadn’t heard of the guy, a third-string quarterback for Atlanta. His name was Brett Favre. But Thompson didn’t have his head in football before coming to Green Bay, so he didn’t know Brett Favre from Snidely Whiplash.
Thompson looked at the tapes, and near the end of the day Wolf came back and asked what he thought. Thompson asked Wolf what he thought. Wolf said, “I think he’s damn good.” Thompson said, “I do too.”
Back in his dark den the next day, Thompson heard the news: Wolf had traded a first-round pick to Atlanta for this wild-horse quarterback Thompson had never heard of. Thompson’s not the kind of guy to be taken aback by much, but this was a Whoa! moment. The GM who just made an incredibly bold trade had wanted his opinion on the player, and maybe he took that opinion and stirred it into the pot with his own and others and made the trade … but whatever the case, Thompson learned a lesson that day: You love a player, you pay the price for him.
He’s learned, and imparted, quite a few lessons in the 22 years since. Thompson, 61, a transplanted Texan (“a Texan, loyal to the death,’’ he says) enters his 10th season as Packers GM on Thursday night, when Green Bay opens against the Super Bowl champions in Seattle. I wanted to write about Thompson on the eve of the season for several reasons. He’s one of the most interesting people in football, and he’s monk-like, one of the most the most private men in this increasingly public business. These 2014 Packers have the fingerprints of Thompson all over them, and they wouldn’t be in the showcase game of the first week of the season without him.
The reason Thompson is a good modern GM—at least one of the reasons—is that he doesn’t care what other people think. Lots of football people say they don’t. Thompson truly doesn’t. When you’re the GM in Green Bay, the scrutiny is intense, maybe even more intense than in a big market, because it’s unrelenting. At least 364 days a year, the locals are telling you what they think of the job you’re doing, because your team is all they have. And the legacy of championships is there, with the expectation that any year could be the next one. And should be the next one.
It takes a man who, in his first year running the Packers’ draft, in 2005, doesn’t care about the outside voices—in the media, in the league, from the populace—when he picks a quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in first round, knowing Rodgers would have to sit for three or four years, and maybe never play, behind the indestructible Brett Favre.
It takes a man who doesn’t care about the outside voices when he draws a line in the sand and tells a waffling Favre, who’d retired four months earlier, that he wasn’t going to get his starting job back if he stayed, and that the Packers wouldn’t release him; the team would trade him, and only to a team outside the division. Favre was furious at what he viewed as a lack of loyalty. Thompson didn’t budge.
It takes a man who doesn’t care about the outside voices to commit big free-agent contracts to players who seem in decline—Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers come to mind. Woodson was a key to Green Bay’s Super Bowl win four years ago. Peppers? We’ll see what he has left in the tank. Thompson is confident it’s a lot.
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It takes a man who doesn’t care about the outside voices reminding him of his high draft failings (Justin Harrell, Brandon Jackson, Derek Sherrod) to ignore a veteran who desperately wants to be a Packer in free agency—accomplished Rams running back Steven Jackson, in 2013—and instead take a shot on a rookie runner, Eddie Lacy, in the second round of the draft that year. He knows backs with lots of mileage on them sound good but most often aren’t durable. Sure looks like a good decision now.
I remember standing with Thompson in the locker room at the Super Bowl, after the Packers beat Pittsburgh, and asking him two or three different ways if deep down, very deep down, he had some strong feelings about all the criticism he’d taken in his first five championshipless seasons as GM. He looked a little perplexed. You know how sometimes public figures are asked, in moments of great success, if they have anything to say to their critics, and very often they might take deep breaths and answer with some sugary-sweet piece of nobility, and you know they don’t mean it? I was convinced that evening in Texas that Thompson actually meant this:
“People have a right to their opinions, and it’s one of the things that makes the game so great—so many people care. So no, I have no problem with people criticizing me. Kind of shows they care.”
* * *
Let’s start at the beginning, in those dark days selling stuff he hated.
“Mike Reinfeldt was the savior,” Thompson says one morning this summer in a conference room at Lambeau Field. “After my last year playing in Houston , I had to do something, and I got my Series 7 license to sell stocks and bonds. I called people and tried to sell them stuff they didn’t need or want. I wasn’t any good at all. I never sold anything. Lucky for me Mike called. He knew I was floundering, and we said, let’s give this a six-month try.”
Wolf would often walk into Thompson’s small office, see him there in the dark watching a player, and ask him a few questions. “The guy knew how to work, which I liked,” Wolf recalled this summer. And as Thompson recalled, he never knew exactly where he stood with Wolf, because, “Sometimes he’d just grunt and get up and walk out of the room.”
The Favre story was a great early lesson for Thompson. “Ron had so much confidence in his ability to pick players,” Thompson says. “He’d been on the job for three months and now he was trading a one for a third-string quarterback who flunked his first physical with us—he had a hip problem, and he had to take another physical so we’d pass him. Ron was defiant about it. He believed in Favre in his heart and in his core, though not many other people did. It was a pretty courageous move. I learned from that. If you have a conviction on a guy, if the guy has the desire to compete, if you trust yourself as a personnel guy, then you believe in what you do and you do it. For Ron, being a scout was a weapon for him.”
After the Favre experience, Thompson changed his mind about his future. He didn’t want to be a coach. He wanted to be in personnel. Promoted to director of pro personnel in 1993, Thompson joined Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren on the sidelines early in free agency when the prize of all prizes, Reggie White, was being courted by big teams (Dallas, the Jets, Washington, San Francisco) and by a profligate one (Art Modell’s Browns). White said he wanted his own Baptist ministry wherever he played. Uhhhh, in Green Bay?
“We just said, ‘Why don’t we call him?’” says Thompson. “We got him here in a blinding snowstorm, and you just figure, ‘Well, that’s it.’ But you know what? He gets here, and he likes it. We had a few things on his list: We had a chance to win. We had a quarterback—he played against Favre the previous year in Milwaukee and we won, and Reggie really liked him. So we actually were in the game with him. It was like a tennis match. One minute we thought we were in it, one minute we were out. One minute we were getting him, the next minute no. But we got him.”
Moral of the story: You can’t get a hit if you don’t swing the bat.
Now for Rodgers.
“Three or four days before the  draft,” Thompson says, “we’re doing our research, going down the board, and I’m looking, and I think, ‘None of these teams are taking a quarterback.’ I couldn’t find one, after San Francisco. We hadn’t really paid attention to Rodgers because we just figured he’d be gone. Plus, we didn’t have that big a need there, obviously. So I just buried myself and went to look at all the Rodgers tape—from games, from the combine, from his pro day. After a couple of days I just felt he was too good to pass. So I said, ‘If he falls to us, we’re taking him.’”
Rodgers fell. The Packers picked him, at No. 24 overall. He sat for three years, and the move looked very anti-genius whenever he played in the preseason; Rodgers was raw and unsure of himself. Good thing he was able to sit for three years; if he had to play, say, in year two, Rodgers might be on his second or third team right now. Instead he’s the league’s model quarterback, the centerpiece of a team that will be a Super Bowl contender for as long as he plays.
Thompson didn’t need to have Wolf’s lesson reinforced there. But he believed in Rodgers and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain and take a quarterback when Favre still appeared to have some prime seasons left.
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As for Peppers, Thompson knew he needed a bookend rush threat for Clay Matthews this season. He knew Peppers had played well against Green Bay over the years, and he felt that, at 34, Peppers still had enough left to come in and play well. And there was one other thing: Peppers is almost as private a man as Thompson. “In this day and age of huge publicity and player egos and media leaks,” Thompson says, “that was a pretty extraordinary negotiation. We made the deal [three years, $27 million], and he and his agent flew in. He took the physical, we shook hands, signed, and the deal was done. We don’t announce it right away, and two days later, when we announce it, it was a surprise to everyone. I was thinking, I love this. Today, that’s almost impossible to do.”
So Thompson has put a team in place he thinks can contend. Peppers was the final piece, an important one. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But Thompson the scout feels good about it. And that’s good enough for Thompson the GM.
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One postscript to the story, and it comes from one of Thompson’s closest peers in football, Seattle GM John Schneider. In 1993, when Wolf promoted Thompson to director of pro personnel, he made a former Packers intern, Schneider, his assistant. Thompson and Schneider got close, and remain that way to this day, two disciples of Wolf who were taught to trust their own scouting eyes.
In his Seahawks office Tuesday, Schneider told a story about pursuing free-agent pass-rusher Jared Allen this past spring. While on Allen’s trail he heard some team was going to pay Peppers, and pay him well. He thought that seemed wasteful, paying big dough to a 34-year-old rusher coming off a down year.
Then he heard the news: It was Green Bay. It was Thompson doing the deal.
“I just figured, ‘Ted knows something,’” Schneider says. “I trusted the signing then.”
* * *
Thompson is a bachelor. Before he signed a contract extension this offseason, he says he thought long and hard about returning to Texas. His mom is gone. His father is still alive, 96 now, and slowing down significantly. “But he did change a tire this summer,” Thompson says.
“My family’s really important to me, back in Texas,” he says. “That’s one of the sacrifices you make in this business—you sometimes sacrifice family for the job. That’s tough for me. But they like the fact I like doing what I’m doing. I never thought when I came up here I’d stay this long, but it’s worked out, and I’ve been happy.”
And the job, on so many days, is the same as the job he started 22 years ago as an apprentice to Ron Wolf. The work fit Thompson then. Still does.
“I’m in a dark film room, sunup to sundown,” Thompson says. “And I’m still here.”
Coming Thursday on The MMQB: Andrew Brandt’s personal perspectives on Ted Thompson from having worked alongside him in the Packers’ front office.