At age 64, Ted Thompson is the second-oldest general manager in the NFL, behind only New England's 65-year-old Bill Belichick.
Thompson is also in his 13th season with the Green Bay Packers, which makes him the league's fourth-longest-tenured GM. He is the embodiment of Packers stability.
Both lists exclude the two owners who act as their own GMs (Dallas' Jerry Jones and Cincinnati's Mike Brown). No one can fire them.
Thompson, on the other hand, answers to Mark Murphy, the team's president and CEO. Thompson’s contract runs through the end of the 2018 season, but he has given no indication he’s planning on retiring then. And much like former Packers CEO Bob Harlan's stance with former GM Ron Wolf, Murphy has said essentially that the job is Thompson's as long as he wants it.
Thompson indisputably has fielded winning teams: His .617 regular-season winning percentage is fourth-best in the league over his tenure, behind New England (.771), Indianapolis (.656) and Pittsburgh (.635).
The Packers also are 10-8 in the playoffs under Thompson and have won one Super Bowl, in the 2010 season. If they qualify for the playoffs this year, they will tie the NFL record for consecutive seasons in postseason play (nine).
That’s also the rub. The quarterback Thompson selected with his first draft pick as Packers GM, Aaron Rodgers in 2005, is a sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Famer. And for all the winning that selection has brought, the Packers have been to the Super Bowl only once in the Rodgers era, and it has been six years since that championship.
That’s why Thompson’s future as GM has become an issue with his staunchest critics. Has he been doing enough to give the Packers their best chance? And is he still up to the demands of his high-pressure job as he approaches that landmark age of 65?
Thompson surely is among the least-quoted and most media-averse GMs in the NFL, but this week he agreed to a one-on-one interview that lasted 16 1/2 minutes. In it he discussed his health, his work duties, and some of his moves in building this year’s team.
Q: Mark Murphy has said essentially that the GM job is yours as long as you want it. You give no indication of when you’re thinking you’ll want to retire. For the record, you’re 64 and the second-oldest GM in the NFL (not counting the two owners who also are GMs). Three of the four GMs hired this offseason were 37, 40 and 47, and the other was hired as an interim GM. Like many businesses, yours skews relatively young. How’s your health and stamina?
A: I feel good. I’m aware of those kind of statistics, but Mark’s thing is, as long as I’m doing my job, as long as I feel good about doing it, as long as I get along with my co-workers, that sort of thing, then what’s the point of that? In this day and age, people are doing things longer and better because of the knowledge we have, the diets we have, the things we take into our body that are good for you or bad for you. But without getting on a preaching thing, yeah, I feel good.
Q: You used to run a lot to stay fit. Do you still, or have you had to stop since undergoing hip replacement surgery in 2014?
A: No. I had left-knee cartilage surgery when I was playing (in the NFL). Over time you lose some of your bounce. The doctors have told me I’m perfectly fine to walk and things like that, but there’s no reason to add the pounding of jogging. I used to jog a lot after I got done playing – the Blue Bell Fun Run in Brenham, Texas. But I don’t jog anymore because of that. I ride my bicycle in the summertime quite a bit, didn’t ride it as much this year. Been staying in reasonably good shape. I lift weights. I’m usually here early in the morning, one of those guys. Lift and do mobile stuff and flexibility stuff. We have good people that advise us.
Q: You’re on the road scouting college players for most of the regular season. Do you still enjoy that grind? Do you want to cut back and let your lieutenants handle more of that?
A: If you went by my schedule now as opposed to my schedule six or seven years ago, it would be pared back a little bit, for a couple reasons. No. 1, I thought it was more important in some cases for me to be more available here during the course of the season. Which meant maybe instead of not leaving on Monday night I’d leave on Tuesday night, something like that. No. 2, it just felt like it was time. I still get out and scout. I enjoy it. But we have a remarkable group of people in our personnel department, and it’s good to see them get out and put their name on a report or a scouting trip. When you have to put pen to paper, or typewriter to paper, however you call that, and say a guy is a first-round player or a third-round player, and differentiate between that, that’s a great teaching thing. So we like to get our guys out, even our pro guys, as much as we can.
Q: How many weeks are you on the road during the season?
A: Some portions of it, probably all of them. But I might drive from here to Iowa, visit Iowa for a couple days and come back. Or on the way back stop in Madison and do (Wisconsin) so I’d have a trip of Iowa and Madison. There are weeks when I have one school, there are weeks when I have a couple schools. And if I’m feeling frisky I might do three, on a bye or something.
Q: How much non-football administrative work do you still do? How much have you been able to farm out to Russ Ball, your vice president of football administration/player finance?
A: I wouldn’t call it farm out. When we first were able to get Russ here we set up a system so he was going to be in charge of some of the administrative stuff, most of the classic administrative stuff. Also within this organization there are certain things that come to me that I have to answer for or I have to make a decision on. Russ and I work together on those things, and he represents me at senior staff meetings – there’s a senior staff meeting going on right now. Everybody knows that, so it’s not that big a story. He does a great job of that, but I don’t take advantage of that, and I’m always involved in the decision itself, in that he and I are going to talk about it, whether it’s on the phone if I’m out scouting, or whether it’s here in the office because we can get together and talk about it before we decide on what’s the best way to go about it. But we always weigh in.
Q: Your contract expires after the 2018 season. Have you and Murphy talked about extending it? Do you want an extension?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever talked about that, and I don’t think I’m going to start. We’ll just leave it at that. It was a good try.
Q: If Murphy knows he wants one of your subordinates to be the next GM whenever you retire, and that guy gets a job offer from another team before you retire, what do you do? Would you feel obliged to step aside or take a different role so he could move up? Or is it up to the organization to secure that person until you retire?
A: This is purely hypothetical and I’m not sure how I would respond to that. I don’t think you can worry about what-ifs. You have to do your job that it is today. And today my job is this. It’s not speculating on something that might happen in three years, or something like that.
Q: At this year’s shareholders meeting Murphy acknowledged hearing from fans who think the franchise has failed by winning only one Super Bowl so far with a quarterback who’s a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Let’s acknowledge that winning a Super Bowl is very difficult. But with how important quarterbacks are and how good Rodgers is, is there merit to their criticism?
A: I think we all feel that way, that we’re disappointed that we haven’t done that, not just because of Aaron, but because of this team. It’s a tight organization, people care about each other, even those of us that aren’t directly involved in football or into the football thing. So it hurts when we don’t get to do what we want to do, which is win the Super Bowl. I think I said this at the (NFL scouting) combine, we’re not dodging this, that’s what we want to do, we want to try to win.
Q: You were more active in free agency last offseason than in the past. (He signed four significant players: tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, cornerback Davon House and guard Jahri Evans). What changed your thinking? Did Mike McCarthy influence you there? Your scouts?
A: Organizationally, I don’t know that we felt any change or anything. We went about our business the same as we always do. Opportunities to do things were more prevalent maybe than in the past. We’ve always said we’re going to take advantage, and any way we can get better we’re going to try to get better. In this year’s case we thought there were more opportunities to do that.
Q: Last year your team recovered from a 4-6 start to advance to the NFC Championship game, only to get beaten badly by Atlanta. What did you learn from that performance that you applied to putting together your team in the offseason?
A: I don’t think there was any one thing specifically. It’s a reminder of how difficult it is to accomplish this. It’s not like fantasy football. This is real stuff. You have real people and real competitors and real athletes all trying to get to the same place you are. When you slip up and have a bad day, that reminds you even more so, painfully so, it’s hard to do.
Q: Along those lines, you signed a starting cornerback in free agency (House) and selected defensive backs with your first two draft picks (Kevin King and Josh Jones). Why the heavy emphasis on coverage over other areas?
A: I think we always have a heavy emphasis there. We’re very keen on defensive backs and their ability to help you play the game in the National Football League. I don’t think our attitude toward that position has ever changed.
Q: On the flip side, the pass rush is commonly considered the best way to defend top quarterbacks. Your two best rushers (Clay Matthews and Nick Perry) have had nearly annual injury issues, and one of them (Matthews) is on the wrong side of 30. The most prominent addition to your rush was a fourth-round draft pick (Vince Biegel). Why not use a higher pick or more resources at that position?
A: First of all, I think our ability to put pressure on the quarterback is being a little bit underrated there based on that question. Secondly, during the draft you take the best players you can take. That’s the way it worked out. We don’t ever change from that.
Q: in the last six years, since winning the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, your defense hasn’t finished in the top 10 in either points allowed or yards allowed. Why has that side of the ball been an issue for so long? What’s going on there?
A: I don’t think anything is going on. This is a difficult business altogether, No. 1 just to simply play the game and line up with a jersey number, it’s hard to play. And to do it well is really, really hard. And to do it really well on defense, when you don’t know what the other team is doing, is impossibly hard.
Q: As far as media responsibilities, you do only the bare minimum required of an NFL GM. Why? With the Packers’ public ownership structure, do you ever think, or has anyone you work with ever suggested, that you have an obligation to communicate more often with the team’s fans via the media? Can’t you convey your thinking more often without betraying state secrets?
A: No, I’ve never heard that. What I think is important for the Green Bay Packers is for me to make sure I represent the Green Bay Packers well. Which means working as an honest person with integrity. For me to do a whole bunch of press conferences and things like that, put it out in public, when that’s not my cup of tea, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Q: Do you ever talk with Mike McCarthy about this? Does he agree? Doesn’t this approach put more on him to take all the heat when things aren’t going well, such as last season’s 4-6 start?
A: Mike handles himself very well. He always does a good job. Nobody’s not – we all can see, we all have vision, and we understand when things are in a tough spot and when they’re not in a tough spot. I just don’t agree with the substance of your question.
Q: We have time for a final question: Your team is now through the most competitive portion of training camp practices – the first two weeks – and has played one preseason game. What do you think of your club?
A: I like it. I think we’ve got a shot.