Q&A WITH TED THOMPSON
Packers' GM discusses '08 season, team's future
'I think clearly a 6-10 record is not acceptable to us'
Posted: Jan. 10, 2009
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson's fourth season at the helm was a disappointment, as the Packers suffered their second losing season under his direction. Thompson preferred to wait until the last game was played before he tried to assess what happened in the Packers' 6-10 season. Recently, Thompson sat down with Journal Sentinel beat writer Tom Silverstein for a half-hour question-and-answer session to discuss the season and assess where things went wrong. The interview was conducted before coach Mike McCarthy had purged his defensive coaching staff.
Q. This is certainly not where you expected to be after the 2008 season. Is it going to take a long time to determine what exactly happened this past season?
A. Well, we're going through our process just like we did last year, just like we do every year, trying to evaluate and see what we did good and see what we need to improve on. I think clearly a 6-10 record is not acceptable to us. I think you could have seen that in our locker room (after the Detroit victory), even before you guys (reporters) got in. We were glad we won, but I think every person to a man was disappointed in the finality of it. I think there were a lot of things to look at. We can break it down in terms of playing close games, doing this or doing that. It just comes down to executing at the right time, finishing. And sometimes finishing doesn't have anything to do with the fourth quarter, sometimes it means if you have a chance to go up by two scores at the end of the third quarter, you pretty much put the game out of reach rather than keep a team in the game and all of a sudden you lose it at the end. There are a lot of things involved there. I do think as a whole, it's my responsibility. I also think, like I said last year, what you look for in the NFL is try to have a team if we play well, we'll have a chance to win week in and week out. I still think we have that kind of team. Unfortunately, we didn't have the kind of record we wanted.
Q. The Packers did not have a losing season from 1992 through 2004, and now you've had two in the four years you have been general manager. Once you start losing like that, it can become a habit. Are you concerned that losing is becoming acceptable?
A. No. I don't think we have that sort of attitude in this building or amongst our players. I do think during the course of the season like we just had, if you're not careful you can let that evil person that's on the left shoulder start talking to your ear, saying, "How are we going to lose this game?" as opposed to the really good guy that's on your right shoulder that always said last year during the 13-3 season, "It doesn't matter what the score is, we're going to win this game." There's a subtle thing.
Q. Does it pain you personally that this organization has had two losing seasons in the last four? Does it reflect on the job you've done?
A. Well, yeah. It certainly should. It's my responsibility. I'm the head of the football operations and the buck stops here. And we're not happy here.
Q. In retrospect, do you think either consciously or subconsciously you sacrificed the 2008 season for the betterment of the long-term future of the organization knowing you were going to a new quarterback and figuring you were going to have to go through some growing pains?
A. No. I don't think any of us ever dreamed that we would end up with the record that we ended up. We expected to win just like I said before the start of the season, and it just didn't turn out the way we wanted to. I think life's too short to sacrifice a season, and I wouldn't do that to the people who work here, the fans out there, and I certainly wouldn't do that to our players.
Q. Before the season started you made a decision not to re-sign Corey Williams, and traded him, didn't replace him, signed just one free agent and traded away your first-round draft pick. Do you think you got arrogant after the high of going 13-3 season? Do you think you overestimated what you had?
A. No, I don't. In the Corey Williams instance, that was a thing we thought that at the end of the day was the best thing for the Packers, was the best thing for Corey. We were not prepared to enter into a long-term deal that he wanted very much. We would have preferred to have him for a one-year period and see how it goes after that. The fact we were able to make a trade to Cleveland and they were able to accommodate Corey is just the way the business works. Is he a good player? Sure. Would we have liked to have him? Yes. That's just the way it worked out. We didn't get as much contribution in some other spots in the defensive line that we had anticipated. But it was never a case of being arrogant and thinking we're all set. That's not the way we go. In terms of the draft, there are all kinds of reason you would drop out of the first round and pick three or four picks later (actually). In terms of our draft, we didn't anticipate all those guys coming in and starting right away based on our current roster. We do see in the future several of those guys being big-time players for us.
Q. Sometime in March or early April, you knew that defensive tackle Justin Harrell had injured his back. At that point, why didn't you cover yourself more, knowing the guy has a history of injuries? Shouldn't you have covered yourself more with him?
A. We certainly didn't anticipate him having trouble as long as he did. That's no fault of Justin, either. I think it's easier for people away from here to say, blah, blah, blah, but he's trying as hard as he can to be a good player. It's my responsibility. I made the pick. I'm the one who put a lot of emphasis on him taking up some of the gap. So I don't mind me taking the responsibility, but I think it's disappointing to see people criticize Justin. It's not his fault. Having said that, we thought we were strong in the defensive line going into the season because of the group. Like I've always talked about, I thought the ability to play with multiple combinations works very well. We did not get as much production in the pass rush as we thought we would.
But I thought as a whole there were games, as much as weve been criticizing the defensive line, like the last two games, I thought we completely controlled the running game. Johnny Jolly is really coming on as a player; we think (Ryan) Picketts a really good player. And Aaron Kampman is Aaron Kampman. So I dont know. I dont think you ever have enough big guys. I think the criticism that we dont create enough pass rush, I think thats a valid criticism.
Q. You knew when you drafted Harrell that he had missed time with a torn biceps and an ankle injury and had some issues even as far back as high school. Did you overlook his injury history and do you need to rethink how you will assess injured prospects in the future?
A. I think, sure, we evaluate that. We have a number grade we put on a risk factor based on a persons history. We calculate all that in, in terms of what we do at the time. Certainly, defensive linemen, certainly premier defensive linemen, which we think Justin was coming out, you have to weigh that. You weigh that against everything else. Theres also the practicality that you could take a guy that has never been in a training room and goes to training camp and gets hurt and never plays a down. But I think thats fair to criticize me in regard to Justins performance because he hasnt been able to perform.
Q. It's convenient to say that losing Cullen Jenkins for the season after four games greatly affected the pass rush, but in 2007 he was banged up a lot and didn't offer much pass rush. So what happened this year with the pass rush?
A. Injuries happen and we don't use injuries as an excuse. Do we think Cullen is a good player? Absolutely. And he presents some problems to opposing teams because of his versatility. But you had the loss of KGB (Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila) where he wasn't as effective as in the past; there are a lot of things. It's a cumulative effect. It just kind of keeps going. But we do need to generate more pass rush.
Q. Teams like New England, the New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts have had significant injuries this year and all had winning seasons this year. Why do you think your team didnt deal with injuries as well as those teams did?
A. I dont think injuries were the end all and be all. Were still in an evaluation process about why our record was what it is. I dont think weve ever said injuries were what did this. If we did, we misspoke. In my opinion, injuries were not a factor in us being 6-10.
Q. You made a decision to reject Brett Favre's request to come back for another season and go with Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback. Did the way Favre struggled in his final five games with the New York Jets vindicate you?
A. We're not looking for that. We've never been in the business of trying to vindicate decisions. We like Aaron and we like Matt (Flynn) and Brian (Brohm) going forward. We think our quarterback position is very solid, very strong. We thought Aaron played well, especially given his limited playing experience in the NFL, and again, in terms of what happened with Brett or New York, we don't go there. It didn't have anything to do with us being 6-10. That's our problem and that's my responsibility.
Q. Youve had about five months to separate yourself emotionally from the whole Favre soap opera this past summer. Is there anything more that youve learned what you could have done better or what could have prevented it from becoming such a huge drama?
A. No. Not much. I just think at the end of the day, we were 6-10 and thats my responsibility and I have to figure out how we can not do that again.
Q. In 2007, Favre was instrumental in winning games in the final minutes against San Diego, Denver and Kansas City. Rodgers had seven chances at or near the end of games to put it away or win it and wasn't able to do so. What do you take out of that?
A. Other than to say that it's not about one person or one position, it's an orchestration of the team. Sometimes that has to do with the defense getting off the field one more time and if we do that the game is over and it's not even going to be close. Or it means scoring and making it a two-possession game at the end of the third quarter instead of letting it get into the fourth quarter still a tight game. I think a little too much is put on the (quarterback). This isn't a baseball game like (C.C.) Sabathia going out and shutting down the opposing team. The quarterback position is an important position, but it's part of the group.
Q. But there's a credibility and legitimacy factor when a quarterback takes a team down for a winning score. I don't think you'd argue that the quarterback is the most important guy on the field because he has the ball in his hands more than anybody else. Favre gained that credibility in his second game as a Packer in the famous Cincinnati game. That type of play earned him instant credibility. Isn't that what Rodgers has to do to gain legitimacy with his teammates?
A. I think the team follows him pretty good. I think he commands a lot of respect. But at the same time, do we need to get better, does Aaron need to get better in those situations? Sure. But that's part of the growth process.
Q. Even Rodgers admitted this season that he was not able to fill Favre's shoes when it came to being a leader because of the experience factor. Favre didn't offer that much in locker room leadership in his latter years, but on the field he had a presence, and I don't think many people would deny that. Was this team missing that presence and do you think you did enough to make up for the leadership void he left?
A. I think it's a little simplistic. We had two guys, I think Mike (McCarthy) alluded to this, we had Rob Davis and Brett who were well along in years and well along in experience and it's natural for people to look at those two as leaders and now they're not on the team. But I think as we go forward, we examine where we are, but you can't as an organization create leadership; it has to be earned over time. I think we have guys who lead and are excellent example leaders. Do we have the bell-cow who stands up? I'm not sure that's there yet. I have no concerns about it. We've been around professional sports and team sports a long time and that will come. We have that type of character on this team.
Q. But this season you didn't.
A. I don't know about that. Could we have been better? Sure.
Q. Just as an example, Bill Belichick always seems to have a certain number of veteran players on his roster who are past their prime but still offer a lot of leadership, guys like Rodney Harrison, Troy Brown and Junior Seau. You had the youngest roster for the third straight season. Isnt it logical that youre going to be missing leadership when you subtract Favre and Davis from the roster? Isnt it important to have those kind of guys around?
A. Sure, that might be the case. Thats part of the stuff were kind of going through right now to see how it was we got to where we did.
Q. Did this season convince you that you need to use more tools than just the draft to build your football team? You reached a new height with the season you had in 2007, but you weren't able to carry it over to this season. They always say if you're not getting better you're getting worse. Did you get worse?
A. Everybody talks about free agency as though it's fantasy football. Free agency is part of the thing we've used. We think it's a tool to address particular needs. We did that in Ryan Pickett's case and Charles Woodson's case. We think Brandon Chillar came in and did exactly what we would have expected him to do, come in and play if something were to happen and vie for a spot on the team. It kind of depends on the makeup of your team. I don't think we did anything in free agency - or didn't do anything in free agency - that caused us to be 6-10. I think there are other reasons beyond that.
Q. What do you think happened to A.J. Hawk this season? Why was his production down?
A. I think he was hurt earlier in the year. I don't know toward the end of the season whether there was anything. We had to move positions around when Nick (Barnett) got hurt. That's always difficult. I think as a whole the linebacker position, and I think Winston (Moss) has alluded to this, we weren't as productive as we needed to be. It's another area we're looking at.
Q. Do you still see in him what you saw when you drafted him? He was a big-play player at Ohio State and he hasnt been here. Was it the way he was used?
A. I think hes a good player. I dont have any questions about him being a good teammate and that sort of thing. It just hasnt all come together yet. What we do early in the off-season is kind of figure out how we can get more production of guys.
Q. At the end of the trading deadline in October, you were in talks to obtain Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez, a proven leader and a Pro Bowl talent who went on to have a very good year (96 receptions for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns). It's been reported that you thought you had an agreement to send a third-round pick, but at that last minute the Chiefs raised the price to a second. A little more than a decade ago, Ron Wolf sent a second-round pick to Miami for Keith Jackson not even knowing if he would report. Why not pay a premium price for a player who could have arguably been the difference in you going to the playoffs?
A. I can't get too specific because he's a player who's on another team, but during that particular time, there were some discussions. We were involved in those discussions. We actually thought we were in a good spot to conclude that. It didn't work out.
Q. But you stopped at a third and they asked for more. Wasn't he worth more to you than a third given what he could have brought to the team even if it were only for a year or two?
A. I'm not going to get into all that.
Q. Do you think it was a mistake not to make that trade?
A. No. I think we did exactly what we needed to try to do to help our team get better.
Q. McCarthy made it clear that youth was not an issue with the teams record this year, and I assume you agree with that. But wasnt inexperience a part of the problem?
A. I think relatively speaking, under a lot of different statistics, we would be considered older than we were 13-3 sans two players who were 39. I think we were an older team and more experienced team actually this year than we have been.
Q. Losing Favre and losing Davis stripped you of two veteran leaders, and then in the middle of the season you cut linebacker Tracy White, who by most accounts was a really good leader on special teams and was someone who took younger players into the film room to show them how to study tape. Was that a big error? Did that affect your special-teams play?
A. Tracy, I liked Tracy quite a bit. We had him in Seattle and then we brought him here. He is an excellent special-teams player. It was a roster move we felt we had to make at that time. Special teams is an area we feel we underperformed and we're going to address all those spots.
Q. But you sacrificed veteran leadership in cutting him for Danny Lansanah, a practice squad player who took part in five games and had two special-teams tackles.
A. I don't know how much to pin all this on leadership. We're not there yet. I understand your questions. I don't have a definitive answer yet.
Q. Were you comfortable with the way McCarthy handled the team this year and his game management?
Q. Do you think McCarthy became better as a coach this year or was he the same?
A. Mike is always pretty consistent. He's pretty steady. I think he has good command of the locker room, good command of the team. He understands people, players. I think he's a good coach.
Q. What do you think his strength is?
A. I don't know. We're not going to get into a whole critique of Mike McCarthy. I think he's a good judge of character and he's also a very sound football mind. I think he's the same coach he was when we were 13-3.
Q. One thing that is obvious is that fans have a very strong feeling about you. Either they support you or they can't stand you. I'm sure you realize that from all the e-mails you receive. Why do you think there is such a polarization in the way you're perceived?
A. I've said this before. I care very deeply that Packers fans would think that this place, the football side, is in good hands, and we're good people and trying to do the right thing. You can't necessarily please all the people. Certainly, winning more games would help and when you lose more games than you win, you're going to get more criticism thrown at you. I guess that's part of the gig. Everyone wants to be liked and everyone wants people to think, "Yeah, he's a good guy and he's doing what he can."
Q. Do you think the criticism you receive is too personal? Do you think that's out of line? Do you want people to know more about you or are you OK with being low-profile? Is that something you haven't been able to communicate, that you do hear the criticism?
A. I guess it's just part of the thing. I think the fact that people care so much about this place and whether we're successful or not, I think that's important. It would be different in a lot of places. I wouldn't receive this sort of scrutiny because they just don't care. I think we're blessed to be in this place and that's part of the gig, that you're going to be looked at and say, "Maybe he doesn't know what he's doing." That's OK. For the most part, I fly a lot, I go through airports, I'm out in public and the people who come up to me are friendly and very supportive. And I appreciate that. But I understand the other side of it, that people might disagree with us. I understand that there is a lot of information out there and people think he should do this in free agency or should draft this guy. I understand all that. I would like most of the people to understand that we're trying to do the right thing. It's not rocket science. There are things in this business because they're complicated and you're talking about relationships and how somebody fits in the locker room and salary caps, but most of it is about people and trying to get good people, trying to be a good person.
Q. It's possible that much of the fans' distaste for you is related to you being the guy who said no to Brett Favre. Do you think there will be a time when this thing will be smoothed over between you and him and him and the Packers organization and he can go into the Hall of Fame as a cherished member of the Packers?
A. Well, I think he is from our standpoint. And he always will be. That whole situation, I'm not going to go down that road again. That doesn't affect what he's meant to this place and what he's meant to all the fans out there.