Tom Lynn/AP
Tom Lynn/AP

Ted Talks

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.

Thompson worked in personnel for the Packers from 1992-99. He left to become the Seahawks' VP of football operations from 2000-04 before returning as Green Bay's GM in 2005. (Morry Gash/AP)
Thompson worked in personnel for the Packers from 1992-99. He left to become the Seahawks’ VP of football operations from 2000-04 before returning as Green Bay’s GM in 2005. (Morry Gash/AP)

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.

People have a right to their opinions, and it’s one of the things that makes the game so great—so many people care,” Thompson says. “So no, I have no problem with people criticizing me. Kind of shows they care.

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.

ANDY BENOIT: Packers are betting on Julius Peppers

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.

Ted Thompson played 10 seasons in the NFL as a backup linebacker and on special teams. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Thompson played 10 seasons in the NFL as a backup linebacker and on special teams. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)

“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 [1984], 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 [2005] 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.’”

After sitting on the bench for three seasons, Aaron Rodgers has since gone 58-29 and led the Packers to the playoffs the past five years. (Mike Roemer/AP)
After sitting on the bench for three seasons, Aaron Rodgers has since gone 58-29 and led the Packers to the playoffs the past five years. (Mike Roemer/AP)

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.

PETER KING: Aaron Rodgers sweats the small stuff

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.

PACKERS PREVIEW: There’s not a deeper, more talented team in the NFC

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.

Thompson and Mike McCarthy lifted the Lombardi following the 2010 season. (Kevin Terrell/AP)
Thompson and Mike McCarthy lifted the Lombardi following the 2010 season. (Kevin Terrell/AP)

“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.

new-end-slug 

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32 comments
Kevin1
Kevin1

nice job changing the subject peter....it aint gonna work though...we all know you covered for Godell in the Ray Rice scandal...and now you're white-washing AP's beating of TWO helpless four year-olds..friggin pathetic

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Jim C1
Jim C1

It just hit me: OF COURSE THERE IS A VIDEO CAMERA IN THE ELEVATOR! Anyone doing the slightest bit of investigation would figure that out--it is the most dangerous place for sexual or physical assault (next to a secluded, dark parking garage.). Especially in a modern casino--that has cameras in the hallway. Why the f would they have a camera in the hallway and NOT the elevator??? I predict that Goodel is gong DOWN.

tritipisgood
tritipisgood

Peter King,


Enjoyed reading your articles for a long time until Ray Rice.  Time for a self imposed exile if SI's too weak to do it.  Done with PK.

wlewisiii
wlewisiii

Nice hagiography of an utter incompetent. Going to pretend MM knows how to coach his way out of a wet paper bag next or will you wait till they're 8 & 8 on the season and scapegoating the DC again? 

vicbritpii
vicbritpii

my Aunty Kendall just got a fantastic gold Toyota 4Runner only from working part-time off a pc. go now....


================>>> w­­­w­­­w.­­­n­­­e­­­t­­­j­­­o­­­b­­­7­­­0­­­.c­­­o­­­m­­

BY
BY

I'm a lifelong Packer fan and I was so glad to see Thompson stand up to Favre. I was going to puke over Favre's waffling and need to be courted. I loved that decision and right when Thompson made it, not just with the gift of hindsight.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

....and we resigned him to another tenure....better to be a team manager/exec than a player eh?! 

jshawaii22
jshawaii22

The Seattle Seahawks take their hats off to the Packers and their management.    


Coach Holmgren

Hass

John Schneider  (the new, best GM in the NFL)


and I'm sure others... well, except for Matt Flynn, anyway.


This was a nice Article MMQB.  


js

packfan91387
packfan91387

Ron Wolf wrote a book titled, "The Packer Way". In it he says that it is better to release a player a year too sooon than a year too late. That sounds like TT is following some sage advice.


Nice article Peter King.

BobBell
BobBell

If the Packers were smart, they'd try to get Reinfeldt back.  Didn't have much success as a GM, but the man is a salary cap savant.

GameBeforeMoney
GameBeforeMoney

Fantastic article.....didn't know Favre failed his first physical.....maybe I'm crazy, but I remember Rodgers in a preseason game vs Seattle long before he was a starter and thought, "He's going to win a championship." I always thought Rodgers looked good.... 

moxie160
moxie160

Nice piece by Peter on a great GM who is definitely his own man.  I agree that "genius" is a misused term. For the unwashed and obtuse: TT cannot control the plethora of injuries that have intermittently hamstrung this team during the last four years. The Packers have invested a lot of thought and money in trying to minimize the problem. If they stay relatively healthy, they will be there at the end of 2014. Go Pack Go!

EricVonHollen
EricVonHollen

Wouldn't call him a genius...that D has been terrible for quite some time

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

A "genius (TT)?" Ahh, anyone who gives a pay-cut to his best defender (AJ Hawk '13) on a defense that was (is) already taking on the look of Swiss cheese, and handed the biggest thing in Wisconsin since Vince Lombardi his hat before his time (Favre), might be just a brain-cell or two shy of brilliance, Mr. King. As for California's Aaron Rodgers, he was a blue-chipper all the way. But I can go with...'successful.' 

Crapahoola
Crapahoola

Hey Jarrrry Jonez . . . you got a great GM that loves Texas.  Um, resign and sign this dude.

bobdevo
bobdevo

Note:  "Genius" refers to someone who cures cancer or finds the Higgs Boson or paints the Sistine Chapel.  We're talking frickin' football . . ..  here are NO geniuses in football.

Ray66
Ray66

Awesome insight....we need more of this from SI.......thank you

"In Ted We Trust"

DavidTrepanier
DavidTrepanier

Good article-love TT-we are lucky to have GM of his quality

PackerBacker1966
PackerBacker1966

My first comment ever on MMQB - and it is to thank you for a fascinating, insightful article about our Mystery Man. Really enjoyed it.

puddnhead2
puddnhead2

@BY I agree it was good he went with Rodgers over Favre. But why he reneged on the deal to trade Favre to Tampa which he had told both Favre and Gruden in Tampa that he was willing to do, and both Favre and Gruden had accepted (they were even talking over the phone about the playbook) is beyond me.  Yes he got a slightly better draft pick from the Jets than he might have gotten from Tampa (we'll never know, he didn't give Gruden a chance to match it), was a shame.  It showed a lack of respect for Favre, and fueled the anger which led to such a PR mess & ultimately Favre almost singlehandedly keeping the Packers out of the playoffs in 2008.  This is the downside of Thompson, he has that analytical ability to see the small technical differences that rank choices (he said that he backed out of the Tampa trade as much for the reason that the Packers would play Tampa once that year, while wouldn't play the Jets for two more years, but he misses the forest for the trees (the bitterness that learning about the Jets trade from ESPN (!) not the Packers created in Favre, only boomeranged on him when Favre saw his chance to "stick it to Ted" the next year), is a major failing.  That is a holistic "vision" that Wolf had but Thompson apparently does not.

bredd10815
bredd10815

@GameBeforeMoney I hardly remember preseason games, but I remember him looking good in the few regular season games he came into. Especially the one against the Cowboys where he couldn't throw an incomplete pass.

Go_Niners!
Go_Niners!

@KeysSteven AJ Hawk's play sure didn't deserve a raise.  And when he sent Favre packing, it was CLEARLY time for Rodgers to take over, particularly in retrospect.  I don't know about genius, but you're not giving TT enough credit.  

puddnhead2
puddnhead2

@bobdevo Hear ya.  He is more like an "diot savant" in my book.  Incredibly insightful at the analytical process of ranking players and personnel options, but completely misses the forest for the trees in a lot of things outside that sphere, even things important to his own job.

bryon999
bryon999

@bobdevo Genius could apply to football, just like it could apply to chess.  I think it gets used way too often though in the sports world.  Ted Thompson is probably not a genius, more likely a smart guy with a great attitude who has found a way to make a big impact the NFL and Packers over his twenty year career.

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@bobdevo Geniuses find ways to solve complex problems. Why does it matter what genre that the problem happens to be in?

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

@Go_Niners! @KeysSteven Who wrote about "a raise (Hawk)," though, trending-up from 5th ('11), 2nd ('12) to 1st in team-tackles ('13) shouldn't go un-rewarded, especially from a GM who roamed the middle, himself (LB).


Frank Lloyd Wright (Richland Ctr), Vince Lombardi (NYC), Curly Lambeau (GB), Bob La Follette, Liberace (West Allis), Les Paul, Georgia O'Keeffe, Misters Blatz, Miller, Schlitz & Pabst, those cats & kitty were "genius." But I press the point too hard. Ted's a skillful hombre, but with one (GM) ring, "successful" oughta' suffice. And there is, or will be, the boulevard, too. That'll put a smile on his face. 

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