Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thompson's Defining Decision

February 10, 1992: Newly-hired Packer GM Ron Wolf trades the team's first round draft choice to the Atlanta Falcons for a second-year quarterback that was only a second-rounder in 1991 and showed little sign of progress his rookie year.

April 24, 2004: HC/GM Mike Sherman trades up in the third round of the NFL Draft to take BJ Sander, a punter.

These dates and these decisions, for better or worse, ended up defining the tenure of these two Packer GMs, who had far more executive powers than their predecessors, such as Ton Braatz.

Ron Wolf is looked at not only as one of the most successful GMs in Packer history, but is very highly respected in terms of NFL history. He made many great moves over his tenure as Packer GM and had many productive drafts. Like any GM, he also had his share of clunker decisions, such as drafting Terrell Buckley, John Michels, and signing TJ Rubely.

But those plusses and minuses are minuscule compared to the Big Decision, the one that essentially defines your savvy as a GM. And, even when we turned the calender to the new millennium, when pundits spoke of Ron Wolf and his managing acumen, he was always regarded as "the man who traded for Brett Favre."

Certainly, at the time, the idea of trading a first-rounder for a guy who missed the team photo his rookie year didn't sit well with a lot of fans. I remember vividly having a conversation with my uncle, who told me "this kid better be the next Dan Marino."

Even Ron Wolf talked this past weekend about his accountability as a general manager, referring to his Defining Decision as a huge risk, one that could have easily cost him his job. But, as it turned out, that decision ended up being one of the most genius moves in recent NFL history, and Wolf's legend all starts spinning from that one trade.

That decision gave him a Teflon coating over his career, one that even Jamal Reynolds couldn't penetrate.

On the other hand, Mike Sherman had been going through several seasons as a head coach/general manager, and people were already lining up on both sides as to whether or not he was doing a good job in that dual role. Some folks, like myself, were less critical at that point of whether or not he was doing a good job, but were more critical of the dual role itself.

Sherman had his plusses and minuses, like Wolf, but didn't have the benefit of a historically advantageous trade before his team actually hit the field, tipping the scale in his favor. Critics balanced the trade for Al Harris versus the free agent signing of Joe Johnson, the drafting of Javon Walker and Nick Barnett versus Kenny Peterson and Jamal Reynolds. Even at the time of the 2004 draft, Sherman's reputation as a GM was already in question.

But the selection of a Day One punter sent shrill screams through the rafters of the Atrium, especially when he traded up to get that punter. He had already made two shaky picks in that draft with Ahmad Carroll and Donnell Washington. But Sander closed the book on Sherman's GM abilities in the eyes of nearly anyone who followed football.

It didn't take long for Sherman to be held accountable for that Defining Decision, and at the end of the 2004 season he was relieved of his GM duties, replaced by Ted Thompson.

These are two decisions that, despite all the other positive and negative decisions made over the course of a career, remain to this day the Defining Decision of that particular GM.

I hereby predict that Ted Thompson has just made his Defining Decision.

The decision is not, as you might suspect, the one to go on without Brett Favre, at least not directly. Many people will make that assumption, but it is incorrect.

Ted Thompson's Defining Decision will be the one he made to christen Aaron Rodgers his starting quarterback for 2008. Period.

Thompson certainly has the right. Rodgers was his first draft pick as Packer GM and has been watching him develop for three seasons. When Favre announced his retirement, Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy declared Rodgers ready for the job, and gave it to him.

This has come with other repercussions that will play out in time, the recent drama with Favre just one of them.

Thompson avoided adding any veteran quarterbacks to the roster this offseason, despite having a selection of experienced guys that would be able to fill the "#2 and ready to go in a pinch" role you would think Rodgers would need. Instead, he added two draft picks, neither of whom are expected to develop enough to seriously challenge for the starting job, much less make it through the season as starter, if needed.

Amusingly enough, despite the well-deserved criticism of Favre for not being open to competition for the starting job, Aaron Rodgers is effectively being given the starting job de facto, with no real discussion of the competition at the position Thompson has been so noted for desiring on his team.

It makes you contemplate why Brett Favre would presume that he would be given the starting job if he returned. It appears that the starting quarterback position on the Packers is one that is assigned, not competed for.

The pressure that Aaron Rodgers is going to be under this year is going to be coming from a lot of places, most notably the media, who will be looking for any comparison that can be made to the old media favorite, Favre.

But, with Favre's recent request to return to the Packers, the pressure has shifted from the "Spectre of Favre" to the Defining Decision of Thompson. It is indeed admirable that Thompson and McCarthy have so much faith in Aaron Rodgers, and certainly, we all hope it is well-placed.

But Thompson has now eschewed the services of not just one, but many veteran quarterbacks in christening Aaron Rodgers the starter. Rodgers will enter this training camp without any true competition, and all talk is that he is now "the guy".

Whether or not you feel he is deserving or even able isn't the point. The point is that Ted Thompson has decided to make 2008 the year to enter the "next phase" of Packer history by pinning his hopes on Aaron Rodgers. The fact that Favre is available this season only adds to the level of commitment that Thompson has made to Rodgers.

This is reminiscent of Mike Holmgren and Favre. When Favre was young and undisciplined, Holmgren considered benching him. But, in that famous story, the coach took the young mustang and said, "You and I are attached at the hip. We are either going to the top of the mountain together, or we're going to wind up in the dumpster."

That proved true, and was perhaps Holmgren's Defining Decision, too. When you think of it that way, this also places a lot of pressure on Mike McCarthy to make Rodgers successful. Certainly, Wolf put Holmgren in an unenviable position with a unbridled gunslinger as his quarterback. What is Thompson putting McCarthy in the position to work with?

Rodgers, a second-rounder, and a seventh-rounder.

Thompson is no stranger to leaving position groups young and inexperienced. His approach to the offensive line in 2005, the safety position in 2006, and the running back position in 2007 all attest not only to Thompson's belief that competition makes better players, but that the most likely remedy for a lack of production is to wait until next year's draft.

But, this year we don't have that competition. We have Aaron Rodgers as the anointed starter, and precious little in the way of a Plan B.

Aaron Rodgers will, hopefully, live up to the pressure and Thompson's belief in him. Maybe he will be the next Joe Montana or Tom Brady and lead the Packers to a new era of success.

Or, maybe Rodgers will get injured in the pre-season and leave the Packers in a lurch, a revolving door at the position. Of course, it will leave Thompson open for criticism as to how he handled it.

Certainly, he's had many good decisions before this, thus earning his GM of the Year award last year. He's also had some brow-raising mistakes, just like any other general manager. For every Charles Woodson, there's a Marquand Manuel. For every AJ Hawk, there's a David Clowney.

But, one way or another, when we look back on the career of Ted Thompson, we will likely look back on the offseason after he won the GM of the Year award as his Defining Decision.

Thompson may be remembered as the man who had the foresight to move ahead with a guy he believed in, despite the questions and doubts of those around him.

Or, he may be remembered as the man who put all his eggs in one basket, rebuffed veteran leadership, and paid the price.

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