A lack of sentimentality made Ted Thompson infamous among fans and consequential as a figure in Green Bay Packers history. He moved on from Brett Favre when the beloved quarterback insisted on coming back, believing instead in the talent of the quarterback he took in one of the biggest gambles in NFL history. The long-time personnel executive showed a supreme eye for talent, particularly at offensive line and receiver, and his gamble on a skinny kid from Cal codified as legend. While the end of his run in Green Bay soured some fans on his tenure, Thompson rebuilt a stagnant franchise, pulling it out of the muck of a wandering-in-the-wilderness quarterback and an over-his-head administration.
His passing may remind us of shortcomings, but it should also evince the images of great players, flashbulb moments, and historic accomplishments. Thompson, not known for showing his emotion, was the architect behind moments that made fans experience frustration and anguish, but also elation and accomplishment.
A former NFL linebacker, Thompson was the embodiment of the clichéd “football man,” the kind of executive who relished the dirty work. He watched film relentlessly and traveled to the far reaches of the country, scouring the college ranks for the hidden gems and more often than not finding them. He plucked Nick Collins out of obscurity at Bethune-Cookman and put his faith in a little-known college tackle out of Central Florida named Josh Sitton.
There’s fitting symmetry in Tramon Williams rejoining the Packers on the practice field the same day we find out about Thompson’s passing. His ability to pluck undrafted free agents out of obscurity, seeing the potential for stardom, drove much of his early success thanks to players like Williams, Ryan Grant, and Sam Shields.
Thompson’s terse delivery and scarce availability made him few friends among beat writers and even earned the scorn of his hand-picked head coach. Mike McCarthy lamented the lack of veteran players provided by his front office and McCarthy, not Thompson, faced the media firing squad when the Packers made moves (or failed to make moves) that drew skepticism.
Still, as his executive tree blossomed, Thompson maintained his edge as an evaluator. Losing John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, and John Dorsey depleted the bench, but he kept faith in his staff thanks to the capable stewardship of the pocketbook under Russ Ball and the keen eye of a scout Ron Wolf hired who goes by “Gutey.”
In hindsight, his signature accomplishment, the drafting of Aaron Rodgers, appears axiomatic. Thompson’s critics point out Rodgers entered the draft as a potential No. 1 pick, conveniently forgetting the rest of the league possessed 23 chances to take the best quarterback of his generation but passed. And none of them already had Brett Favre still in something close to his physical prime.
Thompson’s final acts as GM featured extensions for Davante Adams and Corey Linsley, All-Pro players he drafted. He also signed a former Indiana State quarterback to the practice squad who would later go by the nickname “Big Bob.”
His legacy will include conversations about his aversion to free-agent risks, the lack of production from the draft late in his career, and complaints about wasting Aaron Rodgers’ prime. Perhaps another Super Bowl title dulls those roars, though it can’t be ignored that although Brian Gutekunst added key pieces to this roster, many of the its core components began under Thompson — including and especially the soon-to-be three-time MVP.
Packers fans won’t wistfully remember the halcyon days of ignoring March because the team never makes free agent moves. They won’t think fondly on the 2015 draft or the non-Randy Moss trade. But there are so many other moments. Between the 2007 “Big Five” season, the myriad Rodgers performances from Atlanta in 2010 to beating the Patriots in 2014, and beyond, the last decade and a half of Packers football will go down as one of the franchise’s most prosperous.
None of it would be possible without Ted Thompson, the steely eyed, poker-faced executive who valued winning over sentimentality. But given the way the last 15 years of Packers football has gone, hopefully he’ll forgive us a moment of saccharine remembrance and gratitude for what we’ve watched.
Rest in peace, Ted.