Although the exact job description may vary between NFL teams, the role of general manager is always an important one. What other single person has a hand in practically every level of the team’s management, from scouting and recruiting to overseeing the coach’s performance?
All too often, however, fans only notice or concern themselves with general managers if a team is performing poorly.
The individual imprint of the GM’s team-building philosophy can perhaps be seen most clearly at the conclusion of each offseason, after the draft and the free-agent signings have concluded but before the head coach is able to step in and begin trimming the roster.
Although there are a number of notable general managers who have certainly made their mark on their teams, Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers should certainly be considered the best GM in the NFL.
That’s not to say that Thompson has had an easy path to the respect he now commands around the league. In fact, he has faced a lot of criticism and, at times, outright vitriol from the Green Bay fanbase over the course of his time with the team.
When Thompson dared to bring in Mike McCarthy, a man who was best known as the offensive coordinator of the worst offense in the NFL, to lead the Packer offense, fans were uncertain.
When he drafted Aaron Rodgers with the first pick in his first draft as the Green Bay GM, many fans scratched their heads.
When he dared to trade Brett Favre a few years later and put all his faith in the young quarterback, fans started screaming for his head.
And through it all, Ted Thompson carried himself during years of doubt and occasional vitriol with a type of quiet dignity, commendable in an NFL landscape that is so often filled with people soaking up their fifteen minutes of fame whenever the cameras turn their way. In the end, Thompson’s actions spoke for themselves—loudly.
Of course, success in the face of adversity is not a trait that is unique to Thompson, nor is it the single thing that makes him laudable among NFL GMs.
Signing big-name free agents to the roster to fill gaping holes in a team’s composition can be a great way for a GM to provide a quick boost to a team and its fanbase, but when it comes to bringing in big talent, there can be too much of a good thing. GMs who form a habit of consistently relying on free agents whose well-known names may demand salaries that are not commensurate with their actual worth fall into that category.
Then there is the complete other end of the spectrum, where some general managers build their teams almost exclusively through the NFL Draft and through undrafted free-agent signings.
Ted Thompson has managed to fall squarely in the second camp while still cherry-picking (mostly) the best from the first. Building a solid team through the draft and supporting the implementation of a coaching staff that can transform many of those solid young men into great players is the name of the game for the Packers. At the same time, Thompson has recognized great free-agent talent—often at a bargain price—when he has seen it.
The bonus of implementing a system whereby a team largely grows its core through the draft instead of free agency is the dividends that such a system pays off.
As the rookies mature and demand paychecks commensurate with their perceived experience and expertise, Ted Thompson and his coaches have the luxury of honestly evaluating the role that each one plays on the team and whether there is newer blood in the system that could step up to take that player’s place. If the player wants more than Thompson and Co. believe he is worth, then he is welcome to test the waters of free agency.
By sticking to their guns with such a system, even in the very beginning when Thompson allowed a number of big-name free agents like Darren Sharper and Marco Rivera to walk away from the team, Thompson has demonstrated no flexibility to his system for players to prey upon. Through his frugality and his willingness to cut ties when the time is right, he has also ensured that he has plenty of salary cap space to maintain the vital core that his team needs to remain competitive year after year.
Now, that’s not to say that Ted Thompson has never had a miss. He has made plenty of mistakes and missed many opportunities in his time as general manager of the Packers. He has reached in the draft when he shouldn’t have, gambled on players who weren’t worth it and allowed players to stay that his team needed to walk away.
That being said, Thompson has made fewer of those types of mistakes than perhaps any GM today. He has also managed to compensate for most of those mistakes—along with unforeseen thin spots on the roster—with often jaw-dropping turnaround.
Since Thompson took over the reins as GM in 2005, he has led the Pack to sustained excellence and has built the core of a team that will remain competitive for years to come. He has accomplished this feat through a combination of characteristics that are unique to him among all other general managers.
With his uncanny draft insight, his moderation in free agency, his ability to part ways with players whose compensation demands exceed their value to the team and his foresight in bringing in Mike McCarthy and giving him the freedom to lead the other coaching staff, Thompson has demonstrated that he is simply the best whole-package GM in the NFL today.