GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson is always thinking long-term, which his job as the Green Bay Packers general manager requires.
But at present, he’s focused solely on Saturday night’s NFC Wild Card playoff game between his Packers and the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field – as he made clear during a telephone interview Friday morning.
Thompson spoke about the way the 2012 season unfolded for the 11-5 Packers, the contributions the team got from its young players and the challenges that lay ahead, both with players and the personnel department.
Here is that conversation:
ESPNWisconsin.com: With your team starting what I’m sure you hope is a long playoff run tomorrow night, how do you view the regular season?
Ted Thompson: Oh, I think we’ve done OK. We’ve gotten ourselves in position. We were able to win our division and now we got ourselves in the tournament. It’s the second season starting
ESPNWisconsin.com: You ended up playing a lot of young players this season, in part by design and in part due to injuries. What have you seen from them?
Thompson: I think it worked out pretty good. We were kind of forced into some of that stuff early on. Our guys stepped up. Anytime you’re able to get experience with young guys, its valuable. And the fact that we were able to win some games and do that at the same time was very beneficial.
ESPNWisconsin.com: You used your first six draft picks on defensive players and added some undrafted guys who’ve chipped in on defense as rookies, too, like Dezman Moses. Did it work out the way you’d hoped when you infused the defense with this much young talent?
Thompson: I think we needed more depth all over, but certainly on the defensive side. I think that proved itself out, and that’s kind of what we achieved. We were able to play the young guys and win some games and hang on.
ESPNWisconsin.com: The most impressive of those young guys was second-round pick Casey Hayward, who’s been awfully good at corner. Did he surprise you being this good this soon?
Thompson: Casey’s done well. With all these young guys – and none of them are finished products yet – there’s a certain amount of maturation going forward. We feel Casey’s done a good job.
ESPNWisconsin.com: On offense, you’re counting on some young guys on the line, including an undrafted rookie free agent at right tackle in Don Barclay. Has he been a pleasant surprise?
Thompson: To some degree. You never know. In the NFL – not just with us, but with all the teams – it’s literally the next man up. It worked out when his turn came. He’s done OK. He’s playing pretty good. It doesn’t really matter where you were drafted or if you were drafted. It matters if you can play the game. And he’s done OK.
ESPNWisconsin.com: Barclay, Moses, Jarrett Boykin, Greg Van Roten, even guys that you didn’t initially sign after the draft like running back DuJuan Harris – you have a lot of undrafted guys contributing right now. Meanwhile, your last three first-round picks – Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod and Nick Perry – are on injured reserve. Does that reinforce the notion that while you need to be good as a GM on your first-round picks, you better be good with the not-so-glamorous moves, too?
Thompson: We’ve always put a lot of emphasis on that, as do all the teams. We’re no different than anybody else. There are people that can play that wind up not getting drafted for a number of reasons. It just works out that way. Working on your depth, building up the 53, it’s an ongoing process and you’re always doing it. Certainly we’ve used college free agency to build that portion of our team up.
ESPNWisconsin.com: Your defense went from 32nd in the league in yards and 19th in the league in points allowed to 11 th in both yards and points this year, which is Dom Capers’ fourth with the 3-4 scheme in place. Do you feel you’re now a real 3-4 team in terms of personnel, and that might have been a factor in the bounce-back year?
Thompson: I think so. We have different body shapes, we have different sizes. At the end of the day, 3-4 4-3, you can play or you can’t play. Certainly when you’re predominantly in base a 3-4 team, you look at certain body types, certain types of athletes. But we don’t get too whacked out about that. Even when we first switched over, I wasn’t wacked out about it. I think good players will find a way to play.
ESPNWisconsin.com: What kind of season do you think your quarterback had? Is it possible Aaron Rodgers had a better season this year even though he doesn’t have the numbers he had last year when he won the NFL MVP?
Thompson: Good. I think with Aaron there’s a lot of accolades paid to him and it’s well deserved. I could add to that. He’s very much a professional football player, combined with the fact that he’s extremely talented and confident as a player. All those things are a must. It’s a difficult position to play. It’s extra difficult for someone to play it at the level he plays it.
ESPNWisconsin.com: What about the running back position? You’ve had Cedric Benson, Alex Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant and now Harris all lead you in rushing in a game this season. How do you feel about what you’ve gotten there?
Thompson: We’ve had some hitches along the way from an injury standpoint that we’ve never really been able to keep ‘em all healthy at one time. But all the guys have contributed and we don’t discount that.
ESPNWisconsin.com: Philosophically, do you see the running back position as somewhere that you don’t have to make a big investment, especially considering the pass-oriented offense Mike McCarthy runs?
Thompson: I don’t know that it says anything. I think obviously this is a group that has been more of a group-driven thing as opposed to a single player. Certainly there are other teams that have a dominant player at that position and things are a little bit more predictable. I think it says these guys came in and they stepped up, whatever we asked them to do, whatever they were doing the week before. They’ve stepped up and played and contributed.
ESPNWisconsin.com: I know you’re focused on the next five weeks and a Super Bowl run …
Thompson: I’m focused on tomorrow.
ESPNWisconsin.com: … but is this offseason going to be any more challenging that previous ones? Greg Jennings is a free agent, you have a decision to make on Jermichael Finley, you have some huge names needing contract extensions in the not so distant future.
Thompson: Every year there are tough choices, tough decisions, tough things that you have to work through. You just work through them. It’s just part of the business. Every year is a little bit different. You just work through them and try to keep your eye on the ball in terms of where you’re trying to get to.
ESPNWisconsin.com: Obviously there’s talk about director of football operations John Dorsey being in the mix in Kansas City and with the New York Jets as a GM candidate. Do you apply your draft-and-develop philosophy to how you operate in the personnel department, too?
Thompson: We do. We do believe in developing our own,” Thompson said. “It’s something that (retired GM) Ron (Wolf) did very successfully, as you well know. I try to stay pretty close to Ron’s way of thinking as much as I can. We’re all different a little bit. But that’s the way he tried to do things, and that‘s the way we try to do things. It’s good to be able to hire people and let them work within the system and let them grow and expand. I’m very proud of the guys we have had here (who left), and we’re proud of the guys we still have here.
ESPNWisconsin.com: Is there any doubt in your mind that John is an NFL GM?
Thompson: John’s a very talented guy. He could do whatever would be asked,” Thompson said. “Outside of that, I’m not going to critique, ‘This guy can do this, this guy can do that.’ If they’re working here, and especially in John’s case, he’s been trained by Ron, he’s worked with us, he has a lot of experience and talent.
ESPNWisconsin.com: If you lose him, having already lost John Schneider and Reggie McKenzie, would it be a blow?
Thompson: Sure. (But) I think the system is the system, and it’s built so you have people that are cross-trained. We do a lot of that. That’s the way we do our draft prep, that’s the way we do our free-agent prep. Everybody is involved in it, whether they’re on the college side or the pro side. But at the same time, while you’re very happen when guys get opportunities – and well-deserved opportunities – I think it’s natural to think, ‘It’d be nice if you could keep ‘em all together.’ It just doesn’t work out that way. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.