- The Green Bay Packers are a franchise known for being resistant to change. So how will the front-office re-shaping—Brian Gutekunst taking over as GM and Ted Thompson moving into a senior advisor role—impact the team? Only time will tell.
Change is rare inside the Packers offices at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in the frigid air of Green Bay, Wisc.—something I know well from my nine years. In some ways, both for the good and the bad, the franchise and region both seem stuck in the Lombardi Era, as wheels of change move slowly. I will never forget, after arriving there in 1999, trying to change our phone system to allow callers to leave messages after working hours, at night and on the weekends. Our office manager and others asked, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
Now, however, comes some change in Titletown, albeit more re-shaping than upheaval. Coach Mike McCarthy’s staff of assistants will look different, especially on the defensive side of the ball (fun fact: Dom Capers almost bought my house in Green Bay but decided to rent instead, already owning two homes from previous stops along the way). More importantly, there will be a new leader in the football operations side. I will get to that below, but first some words about the longtime architect of the Packers product, Ted Thompson, as he transitions to a senior advisor role with the team.
Man of few words
I met Ted on my very first day with the Packers in 1999 when then-general manager Ron Wolf, not yet having an office for me in the then-cramped facilities, told me to share space with a white-haired man with a Texas drawl named Ted Thompson. We shared that office for a year, prior to Ted leaving for the Seahawks (he returned five years later as general manager)—although Ted wasn’t in the office much due to his peripatetic scouting life. I talked to Ted often over the years, mostly about players, but on a rare occasion I was able to get him to open up on non-football topics; the stock market or riding bikes were a few of the things he enjoyed discussing, albeit briefly.
In this age of hyper-coverage in the NFL, it is astounding that Ted, the ultimate introvert, was the public face of one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. He was both uncomfortable and uninterested in public speaking, which, of course, is part of the general manager’s role. We talked about it a few times; he saw no value in being more open and honest, and spoke only in platitudes. I disagreed, arguing that we were stewards of a public trust and a need for some modicum of transparency in an appropriate way. Not under his watch, however.
Ted’s life is refreshingly simple. In Green Bay he was early to bed, early to rise, and when he wasn’t at the team facility, he was quietly passing time in his home on the Fox River. When I was negotiating contracts into the night I would usually have to make the call on where to go with the deal, knowing Ted went to bed early and did not answer his phone. That was OK because I knew he trusted me with the financial aspects, as he trusted his scouts to do their job with minimal interference.
Ted had an admirable ability to exist in the high-pressure NFL world without taking things too seriously. When asked about a player’s performance, he would always say something like “We think he’ll be fine.” When constantly pressed about Aaron Rodgers being Brett Favre’s successor, he would simply say: “Well, that’s the plan.” In those tense moments on draft weekend, he would be the calmest guy in the room, telling us, “Boys, this is the easy part; the work’s been done.” And in analyzing players that were not what we thought they were, he would invoke the simplicity of Wolf: “Well, he can’t play.”
Much is made—probably too much—of Thompson’s aversion to free agency. Yes, the draft was paramount and we “trusted the board” religiously, a philosophy that yielded Aaron Rodgers in 2005, going against all need-based decision making. Yet while Ted talked often of the “dangerous waters in free agency,” we were active, just not in the “stupid money” phase of the first 24-48 hours when emotions ran high. An example of this was our pursuit of Charles Woodson in 2006, when we noticed no one chasing him after a couple of days on the market. I then initiated a month-long recruitment and negotiation to secure Woodson (to say he was reluctant to come to Green Bay would be an understatement).
Thompson now transitions to do what he does best and, in my mind, what he always wanted to do: scout. He is in his element watching and evaluating players, whether at college campuses, on the Packers practice field or in his usual perch: in the darkened War Room. He will, we assume, continue to do so and add his valuable insights to new general manager Brian Gutekunst, who has often referred to Ted as his mentor.
It has now been a decade since I moved on from my position at the Packers. I had advanced as far as I thought I could on the football side, and threw my hat in the ring for the CEO position. When the position eventually went to Mark Murphy after a search—don’t get me started on search firms and their value—I knew it was time to go, personally and professionally. Even when I sought the job above him, I never had a cross word with Ted. In my final meeting with him, a man of very few words, told me something that I will cherish: “Andrew, you left us in a much better place than before you got here.”
Packer Nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ted, who will continue to do what he probably wanted to do the entire time he was general manager: just scout players.
Now there is a new voice in the Packers’ catbird seat, Brian Gutekunst. I know “Gutey” well, a likeable and talented evaluator from the Ron Wolf tree who cut his teeth scouting the fertile Southeast region. And speaking of Wolf, despite the appearance of upheaval and change—Gutekunst and McCarthy will now report to Murphy—my sense is that things will largely be the same since Bob Harlan hired Wolf in 1991: a cultural deference to the football operations. Having served in Green Bay with three different coaches and three different general managers, I have seen the culture remain the same and suspect it will be so here.
Murphy will continue to represent the team at league meetings and on the business side. The Executive Committee, a group of local business people, will continue to meet monthly and the larger Board of Directors will continue to meet quarterly, in gatherings that are often more social than business. Even at board meetings attended by McCarthy or Thompson, there would be scant few football questions, mostly common ones about the ascension of Aaron Rodgers, how a top draft pick was progressing, etc. Indeed, my most vivid memories from our board meetings were seeing board member Bud Selig ruefully shake his head hearing me describe our positioning under the salary cap, a competitive balance tool that Major League Baseball lacks.
On the field, it is hard not to believe this team will continue to contend for a Super Bowl with a certain quarterback returning from injury. Aaron Rodgers’s exorbitant value was illustrated throughout the past season, and it has extended to the rest of the team. Pending free agents Devante Adams and Cory Linsley chose to sign extensions rather than go market, and I have to believe that their willingness to lock in before free agency is in large part, due to the presence of Rodgers, as it has been in recent years with players such as Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb. There will be a new general manager, a new reporting structure, new coordinators and assistant coaches, but the franchise’s fortunes will continue to rise and fall around Rodgers. And Rodgers impact is not only on the field, he will continue to be the most introspective, transparent and thoughtful public voice representing the team.
Franchises need to evolve, and that is harder in places that have been set in their ways and experienced a level of success as in Green Bay. The Packers haven’t really had an evolution inflection since the move from Favre to Rodgers a decade ago. Now there is a new leader on the football side and a new reporting structure. Time will tell if there is a different tone inside 1265 Lombardi Avenue, a place where change usually looks like more of the same.
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