Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Singing the Effusive Praises of Ted Thompson

You know, sometimes I can go quite a while without any feedback on any articles that I write, but I have found a sure way to get it: write articles critical of one of two people---Aaron Rodgers or Ted Thompson.

Now, the whole Aaron Rodgers thing I get, really. After last summer, there are people who (rightfully so) want to circle the wagons around him and protect him a bit. And, I have no problem with that. I actually like Rodgers and want him to succeed. But, I realize it is hard fror some people to digest any criticism when so much negativity has been spewed between the the Favre fanbase and Rodgers fanbase.

But ol' Ted Thompson? For some reason, there is never a shortage of people who are willing to take a fine-toothed comb and find a minor factual error in any article I write that offers criticism of TT. In fact, it is usually when I get people pointing out grammatical errors, too. And, naturally, if folks can't find an incorrect year or draft round I've cited or find a double negative or a dangling participle, we all come back to the old favorite:

Thompson Hater.

Now, that one always bothers me...it's a way to discredit anything I've said by placing an extreme bias that must underscore everything. And, while I will never admit to "liking" Ted Thompson, I do have respect for him and what he's brought to the team.

But, going through my articles, I do see that many of them are critical of him. So, in this article, I will sing nothing but my effusive praises of what I see as the things Thompson has done right in his tenure as Packers' GM (think "fair and balanced").

Now, there are probably many things folks would like to see listed, but I am going to list only those that I feel are pure. I don't want to commit the journalistic sin of offering positives with qualifiers. For example, while I could say Thompson made a great move in allowing Marco Rivera to move on, I would then counter it by saying "BUT I was disappointed he didn't have a better plan in place to replace him."

No buts.

So, without further ado, behold the effusive praises of Ted Thompson:

1) Ted Thompson has integrity. I will be the first to admit that I'm not a fan of Ted Thompson's plan and approach, but there are few traits out there that I respect more in a leader than integrity. I define integrity as "doing the right things for the right reasons, because you know they are the right things and reasons." And, Thompson has never wavered in his approach to how he intends to build this team.

And mind you, there have been naysayers, ranging from critics like myself to the "braying mules" that panic every time a free agent gets signed elsewhere. Face it...we got a little spoiled with the free agent season under Wolf and Sherman. But Thompson stands boldly against any storm, and forges ahead with his plan.

It would be easy to try and placate the masses. After all, this is a game dedicated to the greatest fans on earth, and in fact, Packer fans are the owners of the team. Keeping the season ticket holder base would, for many general managers, be a high priority.

But not for Ted. He is going to go to the mountain with his plan, or into the depths of the Marinas Trench. And there is a lot to respect about that. If you are going to be judged, be judged for who you are and what you are, not what you are trying to do to impress others with.

In particular, following a 6-10 record that was a free-fall from a Cinderella 2007 season, it might be easy to justify a panic move (oh, like firing all your assistant coaches and switching to a defense you claim you wanted all along). Not Thompson.

2) He has restored proper GM-Coach relations. Obviously, this has as much to do with the firing of Mike Sherman and the ill-advised dual role he played, but Thompson has played his part to a T, and allowed Mike McCarthy to shine in his role as coach.

The problem with the dual role of GM/Head Coach is that you not only control playing time and how players are used on the field, but you negotiate their contracts, too. That puts you in the role of being both the good cop and the bad cop, and in order to pull that off, you have to have a godlike presence in the eyes of your players. Mike Sherman did not have such a presence, and the chaos of Mike McKenzie, Javon Walker, and others pervaded his final years.

Thompson's very personality exudes a very stand-offishness with nearly everyone. He doesn't come off as personable or a guy you can flatter or cajole into buying swampland in Florida. Meanwhile, McCarthy is all bluster and energy and nuts and bolts. He's relatable, and he plays virtually no role in negotiating player contracts. In fact, you get the idea that he really doesn't have a huge say in a lot of personnel moves (if he did, you would think he might have pushed harder for some of the more high-priced free agents to make his transition to the 3-4 a lot easier).

This places McCarthy is a position of trust with his players, something essential for proper team management. Thompson isn't afraid to play the bad guy, if needed. And that allows McCarthy to do his job and be respected for it.

3) Thompson has established a healthy climate in the locker room. Again, Mike Sherman's dual role helped build animosity in the locker room, and his habits of rewarding players with big contracts came back to haunt him, especially when another player would try and hold out to get "their share" of the salary cap. Summer holdouts seemed to be commonplace in Sherman's latter years--McKenzie, Walker, Grady Jackson.

What Thompson has done in getting the salary cap under control is he has flexibility to reward players when he feels it is necessary. And the best part is that he tends to reward good players entering the final year of their contract with front-loaded extensions that keeps them off the free agent market.

Other than Ryan Grant last year (which was a joke), Thompson has had little issues with players wanting to hold out. In fact, it seems to rarely be on anyone's mind. You get the impression that players go play the game and know if they perform, they will get rewarded in time.

4) Thompson has done what Ron Wolf wished he had always done--built a great WR corps. I was going to head this one "Ted got rid of Robert Ferguson", but it is so much more than that.

Robert Ferguson, to me, became the epitome of what was wrong with our receiving corps in the mid-2000's. Yes, he was coming off a career-threatening injury, but he had always played passively. While Brett Favre was certainly capable of throwing his own interceptions, Ferguson led the charge of poor wideouts that seemed to try to catch the ball at its lowest point, falling backwards while defensive backs leaped to make the grab.

Thompson has invested in a first day wide receiver in every draft he's had. And what he has as a result is one of the deepest corps in the league, but not just that....he's brought in guys who play like #1 receivers.

My first memory of Greg Jennings was going to the Family Night game his rookie season. Directly in front of where I was sitting, I watched a timing pass go outside instead of inside into the endzone. I watched Jennings look at the ball, and twist his body around in the air 180 degrees and catch the ball at its highest point. And, come down in the end zone.

At that point I was hooked on Jennings. But, if you look at all the receivers on this team, they all play like that. There are no passive catchers. They go to the ball and catch with their hands. Yes, they drop some, but so do most WRs. The point is, if the quarterback puts up a shanked pass or a jump ball, you can rest assured that most of the time the ball will be caught by one of our guys or batted down. Donald Driver, James Jones, Ruvell Martin, and Jordy Nelson are as good a set of #2-#5 receivers as any in the NFL.

5) Thompson picked and chose carefully from Sherman's holdovers. When Ron Wolf took over from Lindy Infante, he boldly stated that there was virtually no players from Infante's squad that he felt was worth keeping around. And, true to his word, only one player who played under Infante ever made a Pro Bowl as a Packer--LeRoy Butler. Wolf approached his team as doing his best to replace essentially every player he could with someone else that was better.

Thompson, on the other hand, is a GM in a different time, working under different rules. It isn't easy to bring in Plan B free agents or even cut players without rapid signing bonus acceleration. That stated, 2005 was an unstated cap-clearing year that saw the departure of several longtime Packer faces: Darren Sharper, Ryan Longwell, Mike Wahle, Marco Rivera...

But all you have to do is look at the 13-3 2007 season, a season in which Thompson was honored as GM of the Year in the NFL, to see the shrewdness of his evaluation. People claimed he had built a great team in just three years, but in actuality, he kept the right guys...the right guys who led that team.

In the 2008 Pro Bowl following that great year, the following Packers were represented:

QB Brett Favre
WR Donald Driver
T Chad Clifton
DE Aaron Kampman
CB Al Harris

Every one of those players were holdovers from a regime that technically ended following the 2004 season...and it was those players who led the charge for the Packers' 2007 season. Furthermore, Favre, Kampman, Harris and Nick Barnett (another holdover) were named All Pros for that season.

Now, let it be stated that Thompson acquisitions like Charles Woodson, Ryan Grant, and Atari Bigby all played their roles that year, also. However, when it came to decide the best of the best, it was the holdovers from the last regime that got the recognition.

True, that is a tip of the hat to Mike Sherman, but also a pat on the back for Thompson. In spite of the accusations that he came in to clean house, he actually kept the right guys around.

6) And along those lines, he did introduce us to "Packer People". As much as that term gets waylayed and mocked, you must admit...many of the whiners (Ryan Longwell), underperformers (Sharper, Ferguson), and attitude problems (Reynolds, Cletidus Hunt) were pared away along with some of the too-high priced free agents (Wahle, Green).

Invariably, while you can nitpick things like draft position or even talent, the guys that Thompson has brought in have been team guys. Certainly, you are going to get your occasional Ryan Grant or Tramon Williams trying to cash in during the offseason, but in the locker room and on the field, they have been team-oriented guys.

As corny as "Packer People" sounds, you have to realize that even if you are critical of the guy sitting in the big seat in the front office, you are proud of the men that suit up and play on the field each Sunday. After going through James Lofton, Mossy Cade, Charles Martin, Javon Walker, and even Brett Favre this past season, it is great to have players that you can actually have your kids look up to as role models.
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So, there you have it...a self-proclaimed Thompson Critic's sincere praises of the guy that I often question. Not once have I ever asked for this guy to be fired, and you've just read some of the reasons why he deserves a chance to see his game to the end. I am not going to stop offering criticism, and like Thompson, I have been consistent and stuck with my approach to how I offer that criticism from Day 1.

While there are decisions made I haven't liked, and sometimes have difficulty putting a stamp of approval on his approach to how to get a team built or how he deals with people, he's done some good things that deserve the respect of all Packer fans.

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