Friday, June 3, 2011

My Humble Opinion: Ted Thompson > Ron Wolf

We were doing the post-Super Bowl gushfest episode of Cheesehead Radio when we had a caller, the inevitable victory cry not only for the Packers, but a taunt for those who had doubted the master plan of the General Manager.

"So," said the caller, "what do all those Thompson Hater have to say now?  Super Bowl Champs, baby!"

In turn, Jersey Al, Holly, John, and Jayme all went around the table (truthfully) stating that they had never been overly critical of Ted Thompson, much less a Hater.  A silence settled on the broadcast as they waited for my response.  If we were all live in the same room, I have a feeling that five sets of eyes (including those of the caller) would have been squarely on me.

And, I gave my mea culpa...with qualifiers.  I said that I had never been a "Thompson Hater", but had been a pretty consistent Thompson Critic over the years.  Now, someone could do a little history, whether it be here on the blogs or on the Packerchatter forums and might have found the "not a Hater" claim a bit dubious (and, thanks to a couple server crashes, some of my most venomous Thompson criticisms from 2005 no longer exist in cyberspace).

But I have been a critic of Thompson for quite some time.  Some of it stemmed back to my disapproval of how he handled certain situations, such as leaving lame-duck head coach Mike Sherman in the lurch until late August before signing him to an extension.  I thought it further eroded his credibility after having just been stripped of his GM duties to begin with, and was further inflamed when he was fired just five months later.

I stated that summer, that following January, and still state now:  he should have let him go right away. Clean break, let Sherman get a fresh start somewhere else.  Instead, he became the fall guy for a miserable 2005 campaign which we now recognize as a cap-clearing year.

And I criticized him for stating he was "in it to win today" in 2005, when a certain quarterback was essentially running for his life behind "starters" named Klemme and Whitaker, while handing the ball off a guy named "Gado" and throwing to a guy named "Taco".

I also criticized him for Favregate, and while I completely supported his decision to "move on" in March of 2008, I thought he unnecessarily created a schism among the Packer fan base by allowing the story to drag out throughout the summer instead of finding a quick and quiet end to it all.  Not to say The Quarterback Formerly Known As #4 was clear of any blame, completely the opposite.  But Thompson had the ability to pull the pin, grant a release right away, and let the chips fall where they may.

While many disagreed with me then, and still do today, it's pretty clear that giving Favre his release when he first requested it likely would not have added any Lombardi Trophies to the Vikings' display case, nor removed the one the Packers just won this past season. And the momentum from 2007 might have carried over to 2008 instead of imploding.

And, of course, I criticized Thompson's approach to building a team.  I questioned the draft-only mentality, the eschewing of free agents, and the proclivity to sign people off the street...rather than invest a draft pick in trade for known value.  And I thought I was right.

And I was wrong.

Oh, I still won't cry defeat on how Ted handled some in-house personnel moves, and I think even he would be gracious enough to admit that he probably wishes he could go back in time and do some things differently.  But when it comes to building a team, I have to admit that Thompson broke the mold...specifically, the mold that I had set as the ultimate measuring stick that should obviously equal a Super Bowl victory:  the measuring stick of Ron Wolf.

And I'm here to tell you that I believe, despite all of my previous ambivalence towards the job he's done, that Thompson not only lived up to the long shadow cast by Wolf, he may have exceeded it.  What irony, when so many of us thought the longest shadow was going to the one left by Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers.  In the end, I was far more accepting of Rodgers not being Brett than I was forgiving of Thompson not being Wolf.

And in the end, Thompson may actually have accomplished more in getting his Super Bowl ring.  Oh, time will tell the final tale in a decade or so, but in my opinion, Thompson changed the rules and succeeded in a far more difficult set of circumstances.

Looking back on the great Ron Wolf, there is a reason his name is emblazoned on the stadium wall at Lambeau Field.  He was the mastermind who brought together some of the biggest Packer Legends Of All Time via trade and free agency, and built a solid core through the draft.  A Lombardi Trophy sealed the culmination of his five-year plan.

But...

...what if Wolf actually underachieved, given the hand he had been dealt.  Oh, I know, this is heresy, but I have long been of the opinion that if it weren't for the dastardly Dallas Cowboys choosing that exact moment to have a dynasty in the early 1990's, the Packers might have more than doubled their Lombardi Trophy count.

You see, Wolf was a great GM, but he took over the Packers during the perfect storm. [If I ever write a book about Wolf's dominant GM skills, that would be the title of it: The Packers' Perfect Storm].  Green Bay had, for decades, been the Siberia of the NFL, in a league without free agency, a salary cap, or revenue sharing.  The Packers would draft players in the top ten of the first round who would jump to the CFL rather than play with the unlovable losers of Green Bay.  The Packers were long chided for sitting on a pot of money, refusing to break the bank to bring in top-notch talent.

The shifts in fortune actually started with the 1987 NFL strike, which ended with a favorable ruling for the owners that would have kept the Packers in their cycle of being the NFL's AA farm club.  But, subsequent decertification of the players union and class action lawsuits brought the two parties back to the table in 1989.  The two sides agreed to fundamentally change the structure of the league, allowing free agency after a delay of a few years.  They also agreed to revenue sharing, a salary cap, and perhaps most importantly for the Packers, a salary floor.

Plan B free agency started right away, but soon evolved after litigation by players and became full unrestricted free agency in 1992.  And, as we all know, this was the first year Ron Wolf took the reins for the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers were forced to spend their money now, and with revenue sharing, had the cushion to open the coffers and do it.  Wolf was an expert at finagling his draft picks and attracting free agents, but with a clean salary cap (and few big contracts), they were in prime position to make a run for the biggest name in free agency:  Reggie White.

Within a few short years, Wolf put together a team that never missed the playoffs after his first season.  But, it was the Cowboys who ended the Packers' playoff drives in 1993, 1994, and 1995.  The Packers continued to sign veteran free agents to get them over the "Cowboy Hump".  In 1996, the Cowboys finally declined, and the team that Ron Wolf built to beat the former dynasty easily ran roughshod through the regular season and through the playoffs.

In a way, that time period from 1992 (the beginning of unrestricted free agency) to around 1997 (when salary cap hell began decimating teams) was the perfect time to be a smart general manager for the Packers.  Wolf had the capital, the salary cap room, and was able to sell the storied tradition to potential free agents.  The question is, could the Packers have done even more?

When you look at the 1995 team that lost to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game, you see a team that was on the verge, that (without Dallas in the way) would have likely beaten the Steelers in the Super Bowl.  Conversely, the Packers could of (and in many of our minds, should have) beaten the Broncos in 1997, too.  Both the 1995 Dallas loss and the Denver Super Bowl loss were very winnable games, with a late Favre interception setting up the game-sealing Dallas touchdown.  And, some questionable strategy in  in the Super Bowl allowing Terrell Davis to score late in the game was a hole the Packers couldn't dig themselves out of.

Who knows what might have been if the Packers had selected Barry Sanders instead of Tony Mandarich.  The Packers had at least a three-year window from 1995-1997 and took one Super Bowl trophy out of it.

Now, on to Thompson.  For years, I evaluated Thompson by what he didn't do as Wolf had done.  He didn't sign a huge free agent to build the team around.  He didn't trade away draft picks for stars of the future.  And most of all, he traded down in the draft to bring in quantities of players that were supposed to compete and allow the cream to rise to the top.

All it is going to do, I said, is turn the Packers into a team that would never do particularly poorly, but would never have what it takes to get over the hump and go deep into the playoffs.  And had you asked me about six months ago, I would have repeated it again convincingly.

But Thompson matched Wolf in what would have to be considered the most imperfect storm.  He took over a bloated roster from Mike Sherman that, while not in salary cap "hell", didn't allow much wiggle room.  The league has normalized unrestricted free agency through trial and error, resigning the best of the best to cap-friendly deals, while allowing only flawed players to actually reach the market, making them far greater risks for the money.

But, most of all, the league has far more parity.  While you can win a Super Bowl with far less talent than the dynasty-level teams of the past, it's a lot harder to get there (and often requires a bit of good fortune along the way).

Hey, you put the 1996 Packers up against the 2010 Packers, who do you honestly think would win?  Reggie, Gilbert, Sean, and Santana going up against our offensive line without a consistent running game?  The 90's were the last of the dynasty teams: Dallas, Green Bay, Denver, and New England.

In retrospect, Thompson didn't have nearly the tools Wolf did, yet he won a Super Bowl in his sixth season just the same.  Wolf wrote the script.  Thompson reviewed it, kept just the parts he wanted, and then rewrote it to make it contemporary with the times.

Wolf took advantage of free agency and cap space.  Thompson avoided the risks that modern-day free agency came with and built a team almost purely through the draft.  Just when you thought you had him pegged as a conservative glorified scout, he blew your mind by trading the farm to take Clay Matthews in the first round in 2009.  No, not every pick or move has worked out, and the number of times he left positional groups woefully understaffed has been the cause of some justified consternation over the years.

But, in the end, and despite overwhelming odds, Ted Thompson matched Ron Wolf's Lombardi Trophy total.  No matter how you slice it, you can't emphasize how much more difficult of a job this was in today's times, that in an era designed to prevent dynasties, the Packers now appear to have the makings of one.

The years leading up to Ron Wolf's Super Bowl were a slow build, each year improving on the last until 1996 hit with a fever pitch with expectations so high anything less than a Super Bowl would be a disappointment.

Ted Thompson's prelude to a Trophy was anything but a slow build, with amazing highs and disappointing depths.  While the Packers may have come in to this season with predictions of "Super Bowl or Die", they were quickly muted when a slough of injuries decimated the team.  Super Bowl teams were supposed to dominate their games against mediocre opponents, not win or lose them by single-digits week after week.

But the team that Thompson built was designed for this era:  a flexible, fluid team with interchangeable parts and a coaching staff willing to redraw the schemes week-to-week to accommodate the players filling the roles.  In the end, season-ending injuries were compensated for with a long bench of talented young players once overlooked.

If the 1996 Packers had, early on, lost their starting playmaking tight end (Keith Jackson), their starting MLB (George Koonce), their starting strong safety (LeRoy Butler), their starting running back (Edgar Bennett), their veteran starter right tackle (Earl Dotson), and starting weak-side linebacker (Brian Williams), would they have persevered to the end with backups?  And having to win all their playoff games on the road?

It's hard to say, because these are two different teams, from two different eras.  But in the end, both teams brought impassioned fans a trophy (though it was more of a pleasant surprise this past year).  It's a testament to the foresight and planning that Thompson had to break the mold and traditional road map the many Packer fans had in our heads, and created a team that could survive parity with depth.

The Packers are poised with the return of many injured players (and a strong draft) to come back even better than they were last year.  But, as we've done with Ron Wolf, we can't evaluate a man's legacy until we can look back on it with an unbiased eye a decade or so later.

But I will put it on paper now:  even if Thompson's Packers don't win another Super Bowl, he achieved the same outcome against far greater odds than Wolf had.  I may never admit to "liking" Thompson, but I have a ton of respect for what he's done as the GM of the Green Bay Packers.

8 comments:

Packerhq said...

Great Post ! I really believe that Wolf and Thompson can't be compared.
They were GM in different eras of football. Both served GB well and both rebuilt a mess and brought home the hardware.
The amazing thing to me is that Green Bay has found 2 top notch GM in that time period.
Some teams (cough cough Vikings) went the whole time never having that kind of leadership.

PackersRS said...

Great article CD. Never thought about the differences in FA nowadays from back then... I agree with the point. It is harder to win a SB now than it was back then. And, evaluating hits and misses, Thompson wins again. How many big misses has he had? Harrell, and...? Brohm? Wolf got Reynolds, Buckley, Michels, Aaron Taylor... Quite frankly, Wolf was a very average drafter.

BTW, are you gonna be like the ex-girlfriend? Calling up occasionally for one-night stands just to never talk again for a long time?

C.D. Angeli said...

HQ, agree completely. It was two different eras, which was kind of my point. I can't help but wonder if the Packers woulda/coulda/shoulda had three championships in that time period, though.

RS, I would agree he's had fewer losses in the draft, though you also have to remember that he has drafted more players in his seven drafts than any other team. You're bound to have successes based on pure quantity, which I think was his plan all along.

And yes, I'm doing my best to reintegrate myself into Packer talk, all the time. Needed a break for a bit, but I'm back. :)

John Rehor said...

Outstanding post CD.

While Wolf was no doubt a very very good GM, i will repeat what RS said and say that he did have a number of misses in his drafting. We will never know whether these misses perhaps helped prevent the Packers from multiple SB wins, but I will say that the teams of the 90's did underachieve BECAUSE they did not win more than 1 Super Bowl. Those teams were built for long term success, and to come away with one Super Bowl win, one loss, and a number of crushing playoff defeats is disappointing in retrospect.

Thompson has this team primed to be the next "dynasty" in the NFL if he can keep the parts in tact for 3-5 years. After years of eyebrow raising wondering what he will do next, i have no doubt any more that at least one more Lombardi Trophy will come home to GB. That alone will justify his being better than Wolf.

PTherapy Dave said...

If it wasn't for DeSean Jackson and Detroit beating the Bucs, we would still be critizing Sleepy Ted for his decisions and an underachieving season. His decision to leave the RB hole in place for half the season, gambling on Starks, almost cost them the playoffs. The line between genius and moron is very thin.

PackersRS said...

@PTherapy Dave

Coulda Shoulda Woulda.

If the Packers didn't have 15 players going down with injuries, maybe they wouldn't even need those plays. If they had Grant and Finley, one could make a case that this team was poised to go 14-2.

Bottom line, TT built a championship team, that is poised to win many more.

Ginger said...

The student has become the master!

The Delivery Guy said...

If there's any greater testiment to TT's success, its that Dan Snyder appears to be starting to emulate TT.