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- Dec 12, 2004
- Reaction score
- Green Bay, WI
By Pete Dougherty
The Green Bay Packers are riding a small wave.
Under first-year coach Mike McCarthy, they finished the 2006 season with a four-game winning streak that gave them an 8-8 record, a four-game improvement from 2005.
Then just more than a week ago, quarterback Brett Favre announced he’s returning for his 17th NFL season.
But while the 37-year-old Favre gives them their best chance to win in 2007, it also might make it harder to judge just how much progress General Manager Ted Thompson has made in rebuilding the team since CEO Bob Harlan hired him two years ago.
Favre probably is down to his final season or two, and, as the 31 years between Bart Starr’s retirement and Favre’s arrival suggest, a team is lucky if a Hall of Fame-type quarterback comes along once in a generation.
So even though Favre’s no longer an elite quarterback, he’s still a good one, and when he retires, where will Thompson’s Packers be then? Without Favre, how much progress has Thompson made in two seasons as GM, a short time in which he’s changed over three-quarters of the roster with his build-via-the-draft philosophy?
“I was here in the ’70s and ’80s, and I saw how often we were looking for a quarterback,” Harlan said in a recent interview. “What you have to hope with what Ted Thompson is doing with the draft and the free agents he’s brought in, we’re strengthening ourselves defensively and the rest of the ballclub, including special teams, to the point where you can make up a little for the absence of that great quarterback once he leaves.”
As Harlan said, Thompson appears to be building the Packers as a defensive-oriented, cold-weather team. Last year, his top draft pick (A.J. Hawk) and three main free-agent signings (Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Marquand Manuel) were defensive players.
“You have to be able to play defense, and you have to be able to run the ball,” Thompson said. “Normally, those teams are the ones that - even though other teams are kind of successful in the playoffs - can hang in in the playoffs.”
Both Harlan and team President John Jones pointed to the Packers’ record and strong finish as tangible proof that Thompson’s roster makeover and rebuilding philosophy are on the right track. Though Harlan hired Thompson, the GM’s fate rests with Jones, who takes over running the franchise at the team’s board of directors meeting in late May. Harlan then will receive emeritus status.
Harlan said though the decision won’t be his and there’s no set formula for judging a GM, he’d give Thompson at least four drafts to show he can build a quality program. Jones, who will make that decision, wholeheartedly endorsed Thompson in an interview this week and characterized Thompson as an “excellent” talent evaluator whose work is “meticulous” and decisions “are well thought-out.”
Building through the draft can take time, and Jones has the call on how much time Thompson gets. Thompson is entering the third year of a five-year contract, and Jones at least suggested he’ll likely give Thompson the time similar to what Harlan espoused.
“I don’t know that there is a so-called standard of any kind,” Jones said when asked about the standards on which he’ll judge Thompson. “If you know someone as well as I know Ted - we’ve both been in this organization before Ted left, and in terms of the respect I have (for him) and the respect Ted has in this building, it’s very significant, and then around the league as well.
“We’re definitely, in my opinion, on the right track, and Ted is giving us what we need in terms of talent and direction, along with Coach McCarthy, that we’re going to be a factor in this (NFC North) division for years to come.”
Thompson is heading into his third offseason with total control over the Packers’ football operations, and he’s run with his mandate to rebuild the team.
Besides firing former coach Mike Sherman last year and hiring McCarthy to replace him, Thompson has remade the team’s roster: Of the 74 players who were on the active roster, injured reserve and practice squad at the end of the 2004 season, right before Thompson became GM, only 19 remain. That means 75 percent of the players have turned over.
Also, McCarthy’s starting lineup for the final game last season contained 12 different players than Sherman had in his final game as a dual coach-GM in ’05: receiver Greg Jennings (for Robert Ferguson), guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz (for Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera), center Scott Wells (for Grey Reugamer), defensive tackles Pickett and Corey Williams (for Grady Jackson and Cletidus Hunt), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (for Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila), linebacker Brady Poppinga (for Hannibal Navies), linebacker Hawk (for Na’il Diggs), cornerback Woodson (for Ahmad Carroll), and safeties Nick Collins and Manuel (for Darren Sharper and Mark Roman).
“It was time to make some changes and add some new core players to the team,” Thompson said.
By the end of last season, the results looked favorable because McCarthy held the team together and finished with four straight wins. The young offensive line improved steadily, and moving Jenkins to the primary right defensive end for the final four games seemed especially helpful for the run defense. The Packers also finished 5-1 in the NFC North.
However, their 1-7 record against teams that finished .500 or better raises questions about how far along this unusually young team has come. The only win was against a Chicago Bears team that had clinched the best record in the NFC, though it was a convincing 26-7 win. Also, among the losses were embarrassing blowouts at home to the Bears (26-0 in the opener), New England (35-0) and the New York Jets (38-10).
“Yeah, that concerns me,” Harlan said. “But on the other hand, look what we did in the division, where we were very strong. The team was a much different team in December than it was back in September. That’s a good sign, because the team made progress. You hope you’re going to be stronger at the end of the year than you were at the beginning; we certainly were that.
“I compliment the coaches, because they kept the team together. When you’re sitting there at 4-8, a lot of these young guys start to hit the wall because they’re just out of college, and yet these guys didn’t hit the wall, they hung in there and did improve themselves. That’s a great sign.”
Thompson heads into an offseason in which he’ll try to build on last year’s personnel upgrades on defense while adding some playmaking talent for what could be Favre’s final season.
The Packers’ lone unrestricted free agent of note is halfback Ahman Green, whom Thompson already has said he wants to re-sign. Green will be one of the best halfbacks available in free agency, but the combination of age (he turns 30 on Feb. 17) and a serious quadriceps tendon tear in 2005 will hurt his value on the open market and improves the odds he’ll re-sign with the Packers.
With a little more than $25 million in salary-cap room, Thompson also is looking to make long-term deals with defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who’s a restricted free agent, and linebacker Nick Barnett, who has one year left on his contract. Plus, it appears Thompson is amenable to upgrading cornerback Al Harris’ contract. Whether all three get done this offseason remains to be seen, but the Packers can retain Jenkins regardless by offering him either a first-round contract tender or perhaps a second-rounder, and Barnett hasn’t threatened to stage any holdouts if his deal isn’t redone.
Thompson then will have the draft, which includes the 16th pick overall in the first round, and free agency to augment the team. Thompson is early enough in his rebuilding that he could draft or sign players at almost any position, and the chances of filling all holes with quality players are slim, if they exist at all. But in no particular order, he’ll be looking to:
# Upgrade from Manuel at starting safety;
# Find a No. 3 cornerback;
# Find a receiver for a spot in the top-three rotation;
# Find a running back good enough to share time with Green or be the starter if Green doesn’t re-sign;
# Find a tight end who’s a quality receiving threat.
Thompson has proven he’ll rely mainly on the draft to rebuild, but last year he showed he’s not averse to free agency when he surprisingly paid $10.5 million in first-year money to sign Woodson; signed Pickett to a four-year deal that averages $3.5 million and included $5 million in first-year bonuses; and signed Manuel as a lower-tier free agent with a $1.5 million bonus.
“If (Thompson) sees somebody he thinks definitely can help the ballclub and make a major contribution, and is in a price area he’s comfortable, he was going to do it,” Harlan said. “He would say to me last winter, ‘I’m not going to spend money just to say to people, “We’re spending a lot of money on players.”’ That’s the proper attitude to take. I wouldn’t argue with that all.”