The Masterminds Behind the Mayhem
The 2014 NFL season begins tonight with a matchup of two heavyweights, the Packers and the Seahawks. Behind the impressive array of talent on the field—including A-listers such as Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman—are the two men most responsible for assembling such talent. Ted Thompson and John Schneider are proficient talent evaluators who honed their skills under the tutelage of longtime Packers general manager Ron Wolf. And although they share some similar traits, there are stark differences between Thompson and Schneider in their personalities and team-building philosophies.
As someone who worked alongside both for many years, and as someone who was also hired by and worked under Wolf, here are insights into the two architects of the products we’ll watch in the NFL’s season-opening act.
Slow and steady
When I reported for work on my first day in Green Bay in February 1999, Wolf walked me down the hall to an office I would be sharing with one of his key scouting lieutenants: a quiet, white-haired man named Ted Thompson. We shared that office for a year, although Ted was out scouting much of the time. He left after the season to take a position with the Seahawks in 2000, only to return to Green Bay as general manager five years later.
Ted is most content watching, analyzing and scouting football players. He finds comfort in the process, and the dark room where he studiously watches tape of prospects is his sanctuary. He spends most of the NFL season scouting college practices and games, and then meeting up with the team on weekends for games. He accepts and dutifully performs the necessary administrative and managerial responsibilities of being general manager, but in his heart he is and always will be a scout.
During my time working with Ted, we never had a cross word; we just never had a lot of words. Ted prefers short private conversations and bland and unrevealing public comments, with his default topic always football players. In the rare times I was able to engage Ted on other subjects—the stock market, bike riding, or tales from his time playing for the Oilers—I usually sensed I was going too far and quit while I was ahead.
I especially remember our team psychologist, who would have annual meetings with all employees, emerging from a meeting with Ted clearly discouraged and agitated, saying in a huff, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen someone as closed and emotionally unavailable in my life!”
Ted’s cool demeanor can be frustrating, but I always sensed that it was 1) who he was, and 2) a demeanor he felt necessary for a job that requires constant separation from players. His lack of warmth certainly angered Brett Favre and his family, who were used to a more receptive and responsive tone from previous regimes in Green Bay. Ted would not court Brett to return as past team leaders had, always saying, “It’s his choice.”
As for philosophy, it is no secret that Ted is enamored with building the infrastructure of the team through the draft and always having a pipeline ready to replace older or underachieving veterans. The occasional forays into free agency—netting players such as Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers—occur only if the market for them is lower than had been projected.
Ted and I shared the trepidation about the dangerous waters of free agency. His concern was stunting the development of young players; I was wary of paying premium prices for players who were not wanted by their incumbent teams (meaning, most likely, that they were no longer premium talents). When Ted was brought back as Green Bay’s general manager, a colleague came into my office and said, “You are going to love Ted’s view of free agency, same as you!”
That colleague was John Schneider.
In contrast to Ted’s introverted personality and social shyness, John is extroverted and gregarious. He is quick to engage with either a disarming observation to lighten the mood or a direct remark to intensify it. While Ted avoids conflicts and uncomfortable conversations, John embraces them.
John’s youth belies his extensive NFL experience. He combines knowledge gleaned from mentors such as Marty Schottenheimer and Ron Wolf with his own principles and self-motivation. Like Ted, John is a scout at heart, spending countless hours on the road and in the film room trying to discover talent.
Both are highly respected architects of Super Bowl champion teams. And both are driven scouts at heart who remain unchanged by success, perfectly content to allow others to share or take credit.
Unlike Ted, however, taking big swings to improve the team energizes John. There were some times at the Packers when John would gently (or not-so-gently) push against Ted’s conservative nature to make more aggressive pushes for players. It is not surprising to see the Seahawks active in free agency (Zach Miller, Sidney Rice, Michael Bennett, etc.) and trades (Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin, etc.). John also tried to take a big swing and land Peyton Manning in 2012. Unable to even get into the batter’s box there, he ended up signing Matt Flynn.
Both Ted and John believe in “churning”—that is, constantly shuffling players through the bottom of the roster and the practice squad in the never-ending search for better talent. The Packers and Seahawks are always league leaders in number of players brought through their facility for Tuesday (the season’s off-day) tryouts.
The wisdom and impact of Ron Wolf is clearly found in both Ted and John. With Ron, it was all about the players. He would regularly recite our roster by position and compare the talent to other rosters—primarily our division opponents—to see where we needed improvement.
Ted exemplifies Wolf’s trust in the scouting process. I especially remember watching Ted in the co-pilot seat next to Ron during the draft one year. As Ron debated selecting one of two players, Ted simply said, “Well, what do we always say? Trust the board!" Ron nodded, and picked the slightly higher-rated player on the draft board. That was the first time I heard that phrase, a mantra of the Packers’ (and many other teams’) draft strategy. Ted, as Ron did, places great emphasis on college scouting and (even more than Ron) faithfully believes in a draft-and-develop team-building philosophy.
I see the more active side of Ron in John. Ron would “run,” as he called it, players from time to time, aggressively pursuing them in free agency (Reggie White) or through trades (Brett Favre). Ron, as both Ted and John continue to do, put great trust in the contract and salary cap management people (Mike Reinfeldt and then myself) to structure contracts that would not leave the team hamstrung in the future. And John, as Ron did, does not give up on players he desires and believes in without a fight.
Both general managers, of course, have been and are highly respected, successful architects of Super Bowl champion teams. And both have abiding traits that bode well for future sustained success: they are driven scouts at heart who remain unchanged by success, perfectly content to allow others to share or take credit.
Another NFL season begins anew tonight, a matchup of Super Bowl contenders with marquee talents all over the field. High above it all, the watchful and knowing eyes of Ted Thompson and John Schneider won’t miss a thing.