Well, a lot of fans got their wish (kinda) with Ted Thompson out as the GM.
A lot of people were upset with Ted Thompson during the part of his GM career when he wasn’t winning the Super Bowl, but I think that most if it is born out of ignorance.
Now don’t go flying off the handle, I don’t mean stupidity, I mean ignorance – a lack of knowledge on a topic by a otherwise smart person.
I think people just don’t get it, so I’m going to attempt to explain.
Here is what I believe Ted thinks based on his (rare) interviews and (more importantly) his actions. Each of these sections could probably be an article unto themselves, but I’m going to try to distill it to the core idea.
As you read this, you will most likely find things you don’t agree with. That’s ok, the purpose of this article isn’t to convince you that everything Ted did is right, it’s to help people understand how he works, how his approach is holistic, and better understand what happened, so we can have more productive discussions when we look at the approach of the new guy. Ted Thompson is a fascinating case study on a premier NFL GM who built Super Bowl rosters with two different franchises while maintaining a consistently competitive team and a healthy cap.
There are no other GMs that can claim that.
Let that sink in.
Now, just because there’s a reason behind Ted’s actions and they made logical sense doesn’t mean the approach is fool-proof – no approach is – but it’s proven to be pretty successful.
You don’t have to believe he’s right, but if you understand how he works, it might make you less disappointed in how he acted. If you can use this lens to understand how the next guy works, instead of just assuming that everything that ends up not working out in hindsight was stupid at the time, you might call for his firing less, you might even enjoy football a little more.
So here are The Tenets of Ted:
Football is a team game
You can’t just isolate stats and say “look, I win the argument” because football is too complex and too many things are too interrelated. A team gives up very few passing yards? Maybe it’s because it’s easy to play ball control run offense against them or maybe their offense turns the ball over so much that teams don’t have to do down the field. A team has cornerbacks with low opponent QB ratings? Maybe they had a schedule against bad QBs or played a lot of backups or maybe they have a great pass rush that hurries passers and lets DBs play press all day.
At the end of the day, you have to put together a complete team and the missing pieces aren’t always easily identifiable by stats (example: John Kuhn). Ted didn’t make knee-jerk decisions related to an isolated stat, he took into account the entire broad context over a long period of time when making decisions.
Football Players are Human Beings
They have emotions. They stay stupid things. They tick each other off in the locker room. They drive around with guns and trunkfulls of weed. All of these things go into deciding how to build the team. You want a player that could get a drug suspension during the bye? You want to take that risk? It depends – are they really good? Is it a starting QB or a rotational DL? If you’re going to take them, you better have a backup plan. Oh, and fans never have any ideas – no one knew what was up with Ray Rice, then boom.
Fans don’t know about these things, but GMs often do… but that doesn’t mean fans won’t call GMs stupid when they don’t know what they’re talking about. Wisely, Ted doesn’t pay attention to any of the fan noise. Ted made pretty solid decisions when deciding where to risks on character guys without risking the entire locker room or on-field team (example: Johnny Jolly).
The draft is a crapshoot. These guys are going from playing against kids fresh out of high school to playing against fully developed men, the most freakish athletes in the history of the world who’ve spent years perfecting their craft with the best resources in the world.
These kids are also playing in schemes made for guys who will only be there 2 or 3 years – they aren’t as complex as pro systems. This means you’re judging their ability to make the jump and their willingness to learn and be coached just as much as you’re judging their on-field performance.
That’s not an easy nut to crack,
Most draft picks flame out and never see a second contract. This underscores how difficult it is to draft, meaning that the more swings you have, the better your odds of improving your team (example: trading down to get Kevin King and Vince Beigel instead of just taking TJ Watt).
Some fans don’t like that and say the teams need quality over quantity, but it’s not that simple. Guys that are drafted higher or that you think are better at the time don’t always end up better (example: David Bakhtiari). They need to grow and develop before you know what they will be. There are very few teams that got as much talent out of the last 13 NFL drafts as the Ted Thompson-led Green Bay Packers. You can take individual picks and tear them apart, but if you look at the amount of talent drafted over his tenure, few – if any – teams can rival it.
Undrafted Free Agents
Because there is such a big difference between playing in college and the pros, making it difficult to tell how players will grow, Ted uses UDFAs to get more attempts an finding players.
Players show the most growth in their first couple of years. So if someone hasn’t shown growth or at least more potential, Ted will let them go in favor of more young guys to take a look at. It’s a super cheap way to look for talent (and ensure you can afford your core guys) rather than paying more money for a mid-level veteran with very little growth potential.
This is why the Packers often had one of the youngest average rosters in the league. Ted also keeps the practice squad churning to get more looks at guys. Although fans think it shows that he focuses on unimportant things, it’s actually him looking at as many guys as possible to try to find players (example: Sam Shields, Lane Taylor).
Depth and the Practice Squad
Some teams use the practice squad as a short-term auxiliary roster when they have injuries. If a couple receivers go down, they’ll sign a guy to the squad, then get rid of him when the injuries clear up.
Ted uses the practice squad to develop talent, keeping guys on it for years to see how they progress, then, when they are ready, put them into action. With a draft and develop approach, this ensures you have a pipeline of talent ready to step in (examples: Justin McCray, Reggie Gilbert). It’s a great way to build depth.
Depth is important because injuries are inevitable (even for teams besides the Packers). Instead of making big trades or “splash moves,” Ted focuses on building internal depth for the next-man-up approach, which ensures you have players that know the system and have practiced with the team and teammates so they can have familiarity on the field when the time comes (examples: TJ Lang, Geronimo Allison, Jamaal Williams).
Stability is Important
Coaches and staffs take time to gain traction. If you are getting a new coach and staff every time you have a bad year or two, you are going to be throwing away good options and signing up for more churn. For more information, see: It’s Never Just ‘Time For A New Voice.’
The Playoffs are a crapshoot. You see it every year, teams come out of nowhere and pull off upsets – just look at 2010. Actually, look at 2017 – 5 of the 6 playoffs teams from the NFC in the previous year failed to quality for the playoffs… that’s a lot. Football, by nature, is a fickle game where the best team rarely wins the championship. One missed play can mean a game and in the playoffs, it means the season.
The goal for Ted is to make sure the team gets to the playoffs each year. That’s something a GM can push for. By that time, a GM has no influence over things, it’s up to players, coaches, and fate. Ted pushes for a playoff-quality roster to give his team a chance and he’s done a spectacular job at getting his team to the playoffs.
As a result, the entire organization has making the playoffs as a goal. Sure, the Super Bowl is another goal, but you’re not gonna get there if you don’t make the playoffs. Once you’re there, anything can happen (example: 2010).
There are two kinds of free agents: the kind from your team and the kind from other teams. When free agents come from your team, you have seem them on and off the field in practice, seem them in the locker room for years, and you know exactly how they fit into your scheme and play off the other guys on the team.
When free agents come from another team, you have no idea how they will work in your scheme, you haven’t had the opportunity to see their work ethic in practice, you don’t know how they respond to coaching or get along with others in the locker room. You also don’t have a basis to understand how they will respond as a person after getting a big payout (examples: Joe Johnson, Albert Haynesworth).
Because of these reasons, Ted values signing free agents from his team more than from other teams.
Another thing to consider is that free agents are older than rookies and the older you get, the more likely you are to get hurt and miss games. This weighs into the decision to sign a free agent from another team or save a roster spot for some rookies to compete for. Things like health, cost, and locker room presence all enter into the decision-making (example: keeping Lane Taylor over Josh Sitton).
If you are a team that signs guys to big free agent deals and then cuts them before their contract is up, players notice… ok, players don’t notice, agents notice and tell the players. Who wants to sign with a team that does that? The Packers have a history of locking up their best players and paying them well – this sends the message “if you show up and play well, you will be taken care of – we always have enough cap space to sign our best players.”
When you ask players to take pay cuts, you are going back on your deal and basically saying that you don’t know how to manage the cap. Who wants to go somewhere when you don’t know if they are managing their finances well enough to pay you what they say they will? Or who wants to sign a contract when you’re not sure the team even plans to honor it? Who wants to stick with an employer that says “You’re not as good as we thought you were and we’d like you to give us money because we mis-judged you and made a promise we don’t want to keep any more.” This is the stuff agents notice and it affects how they do business.
On the flip side, when you have a history of paying your guys what you say you’re going to pay them, that’s a good thing. It also allows the team to send the message “when we sign a contract, we honor it – we expect you to do the same; we won’t back out on your deal and we expect you won’t holdout after you sign a contract.”
For the most part, Ted’s teams have avoided such drama.
Ted’s number one goal in managing the cap is to make sure that he’s never in a position where he can’t retain a young core player that he wants to keep. There’s only so many dollars, so you can’t waste them – signing contracts that won’t be finished will accelerate cap hits and wastes cap dollars.
A lot of people don’t seem to know this, but you don’t have to spend every dollar under your cap – you can actually roll over unused money, so it’s not “wasted” and Ted doesn’t get to keep it. When you roll over dollars for years and years, you have enough to extend a guy like Aaron Rodgers without killing your cap like the Saints and Redskins have done in recent years to keep their QBs.
There’s a belief that the more expensive a player is, the better they are, but that’s just not true (example: the entire NFL).
When players come into the league, their rookie deals are very manageable (i.e., young talent is cheap). After rookie deals are up, players want to cash in as free agents. Ted knows you can’t afford to sign everyone – you’re building a team, not assembling expensive players. He is pretty tight when it comes to second contracts – only players who really fit the team (or are a good value) get those.
Third contracts are another story. Unless you’re talking about QB, K, P, or LS, you have to be something special to get a third deal with the team. Why? Because by the third contract, players are past their physical prime. That means their play will diminish and by the time they have been in the league that long, it also means their reputation is really high (and teams are more likely to pursue them).
Third contract are rarely a good deal – players want a final payday and they usually aren’t worth it by the final year (if they even make it all the way through the contract). Plus, overpriced guys like this net good comp picks. Ted would much rather get a free draft pick than over pay a guy at the end of his career on a contract that probably won’t be finished – which will accelerate a cap hit (example: TJ Lang).
The best example of this process was Cullen Jenkins. Fans wanted to keep him after 2010 and he went on to have a productive 2011, but at age 30, he was definitely on the downside and the contract he got from the Eagles was large enough to get the Packers a 4th round pick… a pick they used on Mike Daniels. It would have been nice to keep Jenkins around for another year or two, but I’d rather have a rookie Mike Daniels join the team.
Those are the hard free agent decisions that Ted makes.
Fans Don’t Know What They’re Talking About
I mean this in the most literal way possible. I love talking about the team and what they should do – lots of fans do – but we’re just speculating. We are doing what this column is doing: look for trends and patterns and try to understand why and what should come next. Even in the information age, we don’t have the same access and perspective that these guys do when they make the decisions.
Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Let’s look for the logic and reason behind the decisions and have constructive, realistic debates instead of shouting for firings.
When the new guy gets here, let’s pay attention and try to understand his approach before we call for his head.