-- Text message from Brett Favre to me, referring to Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, July 28, 2008.
DALLAS -- A National Football League general manager needs to know players. He needs to know when to make a deal, and when to hold the line a little bit longer. He needs to know when to build for the long term, and when to build for the short. He needs to know not to be a slave to free agency, because free agency as a predominant team builder doesn't work. He needs to know he has to sometimes make a decision that will benefit the team two years down the road though it may hurt the team today. But the most important trait a general manager can have sometimes -- lots of times, actually -- is a thick-skinned patience.
Ted Thompson, perhaps wisely, shies way from talking about the end of his days with Brett Favre. What can be gained from rehashing the most sordid of divorces between star and team? When I asked Thompson two weeks ago about whether he'd ever questioned himself over choosing Aaron Rodgers over the waffling but all-time-great Favre as the Packer quarterback in 2008, he thought for a moment, shifted in his chair a bit and said, "I never touch this anymore. But no. We never questioned ourselves.''
How Thompson handled the Favre situation, in retrospect, should be the centerpiece in the textbook studied by all young personnel men in the GM 101 curriculum. And it's a huge reason the Packers stand on the precipice of their first world title in 14 years.
Thompson knew when to say when with Favre; he was tired of being on the will-he-play-or-won't-he seesaw every offseason. Thompson knew he had a first-round quarterback he trusted, Aaron Rodgers, who'd sat for three years and was bursting at the seams, ready to play. Thompson knew if Rodgers got held back one more year, he'd likely do everything in his power to get traded and not want to sign another contract again, ever, with Green Bay.
Thompson knows he had faith in the coach who'd told him time and again not to worry about the quarterback transition -- Rodgers could play. And though he saw the billboard BRINGBACKBRETT.COM as he drove the streets of Green Bay, and knew the "Bring Back Brett'' T-shirts were doing a land-office business in Wisconsin, and felt the "Thompson's over his head'' fan reaction all over the place ... Ted Thompson, personnel man at his core, team architect from the tree of the unemotional Ron Wolf, knew it was the right thing. He had to stand his ground. He had to go with Rodgers.
Two weeks before the thing exploded, for the only time I recall in the entire Favre drama, Thompson spoke on the record about it. The Packers were getting bashed locally at the time, because Favre wanted to return, and the court of public opinion was loud in his favor. I'll never forget it, because I was on vacation at the time, in a pool in Los Angeles, when my phone rang with the offer to talk about it with Thompson and McCarthy. The story fascinated me, so for two-thirds of a day, I came off vacation, talked to them, and wrote about it. Keep in mind there were few people around the league at the time who, once Favre said he wanted to return, thought Thompson should stick with his guns, keep Rodgers, and let Favre sit. As I wrote at the time:
"I talked to one GM the other day who told me, 'Ted's got no choice. If he doesn't take Favre back, he's an idiot.' Oh, really? And what if Favre plays one season, retires, and Rodgers tells the franchise to go fly a kite, and he's never signing another contract with the Pack? What kind of an idiot would Thompson be then? The village idiot, I'd say.''
So that was the environment Thompson was in that day, that week, that month. As we spoke, a crowd of about 100 fans were said to be half-demonstrating/half barbecuing in the Lambeau Field parking lot. Occasionally chanting, "Bring back Brett! Bring back Brett!''
"Well,'' Thompson said that Sunday in July 2008, "we're going to cross this river, and this is what we have to do right now. We're in a unique situation, obviously. I don't know who's ever had to face a situation like this before. We don't have the answers. I wish someone would call me with the right answer.''
But he knew the answer then. He'd held a conversation before ours with Favre, and told him where the thing stood. "Ted told me, 'Aaron's our starter,' '' said Favre. "I asked if I could compete for the job. He said, 'That is not an option.' He said, 'Coming up there obviously is not good. Things have changed. We've moved on.' ''
So, Favre said, give me my release. That was not an option either. He knew Favre wanted to go play for his old quarterback coach, Darrell Bevell, the Minnesota offensive coordinator. That wasn't going to happen. Thompson had to take the slings and arrows from Favre, and from his public, and -- anonymously -- from his peers. He knew they thought he was a rube for not welcoming Favre back. You don't know what you have with Aaron Rodgers. Favre just had a great season. Wake up, man!
Rodgers has thrown for 4,000 yards three years in a row. The passing totals of his first three years, in fact, are comparable with Favre's totals in his three-year MVP run in 1995 through 1997. Thompson doesn't gloat. He doesn't even comment. He doesn't need to. We all see it.
Postscript: When Thompson traded Favre to the Jets, Green Bay ended up getting a third-round pick in return, the 83rd pick in the 2009 draft. The Packers, on draft day 2009, had already taken B.J. Raji in the first round, and now, late in the round, were calling around, trying hard to find a pick to take one more player in round one. They began talking to New England, sitting at 26, and could give second- and third-round picks, the 41st and 73rd overall, but that wasn't quite enough. They needed to sweeten the pot with one more good pick. So Thompson threw in the 83rd pick ... the pick acquired from the Jets for Favre.
"There has been a trade, and with the 26th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft,'' Commissioner Roger Goodell said moments later in New York, "the Green Bay Packers have selected Clay Matthews, linebacker, USC.''