Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Casey Hayward and Ted Thompson’s Conveyer Belt of Bravery
Like every good NFL story, it all started with Brett Favre.
Wait, what? Let’s try again.
Like this good NFL story, it all started with Brett Favre.
Entering the 2005 off-season, Brett Favre was coming off a season when he had continued to defy the effects of father time. Favre was still the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback despite being north of 30 by a few years. With him under center, a 1,000 yard rusher behind him, Ahman Green, and two 1,000 yard receivers outside of the numbers, Javon Walker and Donald Driver, the Packers had the fifth best scoring offense in the league.
That offense carried them to a 10-6 record during the regular season before they suffered a close loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the wildcard round of the 2004 playoffs.
Favre had long since locked up his status as a future hall-of-fame quarterback and was showing few signs of slowing down. There was no real reason for the Packers to plan for the future, instead the expectation for the team’s new general manager was to add difference-makers to the defense. That new general manager was a person who had established himself over seven years witht he Packers’ organization before spending a four year stint as the Seattle Seahawks’ Vice President of Football Operations.
Nobody would realize it for some time, but Ted Thompson’s return to the Packers as the team’s general manager in 2005 would signal the beginning of a new era for the decorated franchise. From undrafted linebacker in 1975 to professional scout in 1992 and general manager in 2005, Thompson had developed his own ideals and philosophy for building a football team. Once the Packers named him their general manager, all expectations became irrelevant.
For any general manager, be it proven veteran or first-time-rookie, the first draft is always the tone setter.
Simple logic suggested that Thompson would be eying the best possible defensive piece to improve that side of the ball, especially considering veteran Darren Sharper had been released. A Marcus Spears, Fabian Washington, Luis Castillo, Marlin Jackson, Mike Patterson, Brodney Pool, Shaun Cody or Barrett Ruud all eventually went off the board on the defensive side of the ball close to when the Packers picked in the first round.
The Packers didn’t take a defensive player. Instead they added another weapon to help Favre push his offense over the top, right? No, Thompson didn’t take Heath Miller or Roddy White, players who were both still available when the Packers picked. So that just leaves an offensive lineman, the 2005 class had outstanding players such as Logan Mankins and Michael Roos who were still there for Thompson in the first round. Tackle wasn’t really a need, so Mankins was the obvious choice.
Alas, Thompson took a player the Packers had no use for. He selected a prospect form the position that the Packers should have had no association with. A player who wouldn’t help them at all in 2005, 2006 or 2007. A wasted pick for a team that was on the verge of winning one more Super Bowl with their fading franchise quarterback.
Thompson did address the defense with his second pick in the draft, but he only added a player, Nick Collins, who would replace the departed Sharper. After that, a raft of role players would come in from round four on.
The new general manager proved to be blinded by the bright lights. He had no previous experience in the role, so obviously lost his composure when tasked with making his first real move that mattered. Accepted rule number one of team-building is find your franchise quarterback, the Packers had theirs. Accepted rule number two is put him in the best position to succeed during his championship window.
Favre’s window was closing, there’s no doubt about that, but Thompson wasn’t looking at Favre when he took over the role of general manager. Thompson was considering his philosophy, his long-term plan and his priorities. It was a very egotistical approach that caused some initial skepticism, but would eventually prove beneficial.
Thompson took quarterback Aaron Rodgers with his first ever selection as the Packers’ general manager. The California born Cal prospect was disheartened when the San Francisco 49ers passed up on him with the first overall pick in favor of Alex Smith, but Thompson recognized his value, if not his potential, when he slid all the way to 24th overall.
For three seasons Rodgers wouldn’t start a single game. He would attempt 59 passes in the regular season, completing 35 of them for one touchdown, one interception and 329 yards. Rodgers being on the field wasn’t a real positive for the Packers, because it meant that Favre wasn’t.
The Packers went 4-12 in 2005. Favre threw 29 interceptions and 20 touchdowns, but that didn’t make Thompson look any smarter. The loss of Javon Walker, who had been at ends with the franchise during the off-season, to a torn ACL during the first game of the season gave fans a reason to be unhappy with Thompson for not investing in a better supporting cast during the off-season.
Rodgers was a wasted pick for the franchise in the short-term, there’s no doubt about that. It was hard to argue that Thompson wasn’t going to just fall quickly back into the role of a scout after being overwhelmed during his debut stint as a general manager.
Thompson wasn’t worried about the short-term when he took Rodgers however. He would help the franchise back to success in the short-term over the next two seasons.
Mike Sherman was fired, to be replaced by Mike McCarthy. Despite his coach leaving, Favre would announce his intentions to return after some initial hesitancy. Charles Woodson arrived in free agency with AJ Hawk, Greg Jennings and Tramon Williams(undrafted) headlining the draft class. The Packers improved to an 8-8 season and even though they missed the playoffs, the pieces were coming together for a playoff run in 2007.
Again, Favre returned, keeping Rodgers on the bench for another year, while the roster had many more Thompson pieces on it than it had two years previous. In Favre’s final season, the Packers would finish the regular season 13-3, making it to the Conference Championship, just one game away from the Super Bowl.
Despite his philosophy, Thompson had given Favre one last chance to ride off into the sunset on the highest of highs, but fairytales are fairytales because they are rare. If they weren’t we’d just have tales. So Favre missed out, but not because of Thompson, while Thompson’s work had set the Packers up for the next decade or so, because Aaron Rodgers would soon establish himself as the best quarterback in the league.
Solely because it was the quarterback position and Brett Favre was involved, Thompson’s decision to look to the future with his short-term investments attracted a lot of scrutiny. Obviously that move worked out, but there are two recent. less notorious moves that Thompson has made that could potentially follow similar paths.
Despite re-signing James Jones in free agency, still having Greg Jennings in his prime and Jordy Nelson coming off a season when he showed some promise, the Packers(read Thompson) selected Randall Cobb in the second round of the 2011 draft. Cobb was then a diminutive 20-year-old receiver prospect coming out of Kentucky who wouldn’t have a role on the team as a rookie.
Even into his second season, the receiver position was crowded until Jennings was injured.
During the two seasons after Cobb was drafted, the Packers would be knocked out of the playoffs early largely because of their poor defensive displays. Instead of taking Cobb and first round pick Derrek Sherrod, a player who was taken with similar motivations at the tackle position, the Packers could have come away with any two of Jabaal Sheard, Bruce Carter, Akeem Ayers, Brooks Reed, Rahim Moore, Marcus Gilchrist, Da’Quan Bowers or Justin Houston.
Of course, they weren’t guaranteed to pick the right defensive players, but taking Cobb again made no sense from an orthodox team-building point of view. Yet, fast forward to this off-season and Cobb is set to become a leading star for the Packers’ offense, while Jordy Nelson is coming off of a season when he struggled with injuries and Greg Jennings is now in Minnesota catching passes from Christian Ponder.
Outside of Percy Harvin, Cobb is arguably the most dynamic receiving weapon in the NFL from a sheer talent perspective. Even though it cost him an opportunity to improve his defense since, Thompson should reap the rewards of his approach over the coming seasons. Rewards that will dramatically outweigh the lost impact on the other side.
Cobb only cost one draft pick, Thompson has concentrated much of his effort in the off-season since then on his defense. One of his most astute additions was Casey Hayward in the second round of the 2011 draft.
Taking a defensive player was no surprise at that point, but the strength of the Packers’ defense was supposedly their corp of cornerbacks. Adding Hayward to a unit that already included Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Charles Woodson as a safety/cornerback hybrid seemed like overkill when the potential was there to find another valuable piece for the front seven.
Much like Cobb, Hayward was able to make an impact earlier than expected because of injury. When Charles Woodson went down early last season, Hayward took his opportunity to become the fifth defensive back on the field and at times played outside as a starter. His style of play was very reminiscent of Woodson’s, while his impact wasn’t too far behind.
Fast forward 12 months from his draft day, and Woodson has returned to the Oakland Raiders after being released while Hayward is set to enter his second season with a more prominent role.
Much like Aaron Rodgers, Hayward and Cobb were complete value picks for Thompson. He passed on players who made more sense in the short-term to build a brighter future for the long-term. Having players like Cobb and Hayward on either side of the ball is something that all 32 teams would desperately love to be able to boast about, while there is no chance that Aaron Rodgers would fall past the first overall pick if the 2005 draft was done over.
Thompson is a celebrated general manager in today’s league, but it’s also true that his value is overshadowed by the hype surrounding Aaron Rodgers. Thompson isn’t perfect, the Packers’ defense attests to that and his philosophy does have it’s flaws, but not every general manager in the league is always as willing to be so aggressive and brash when it comes to building their football teams.
Everyone wants to claim to be brave, brash and aggressive, but not everyone is and those without the calculated intelligence supporting their approach will typically fail. Thompson is a very rare breed who can back up his bravery with his accuracy.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf