The foul stench that emanated from Lambeau Field in 2008 cannot be fully blamed on the players and coaches, nor can it be placed entirely on injuries. It requires an analysis from the top—the seeds of failure are often sown in the spring leading up the season.
Hence, I finish my examination of the Packers 2008 season and immediate future by looking at management: General Manager Ted Thompson and Chief Executive Officer Mark Murphy (filling the role an owner would fill in every other organization, not owned by the community).
Mark Murphy (became team CEO in December of 2007)
Murphy has the responsibility of pushing Thompson in the right direction. In his first full season in charge of the team, he failed to do that.
Typically, you want to give a guy—even if you did not hire him—the latitude to make decisions he believes in. And coming off having been the executive of the year, Thompson had earned that autonomy.
However, I believe it was Murphy's responsibility to push buttons in two areas that Thompson was clearly failing in:
Signing Free Agents
Murphy could have convinced Thompson that he needed to not make the mistake he had in 2007, when one more signing could have provided the Packers the one play they were missing to get past the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Perhaps then Favre feels satisfied enough to retire gracefully and the team avoids the mess that follows in the offseason; which brings me to the second issue...
Murphy should have been able to see that Thompson was over his head and stepped in to represent the organization without fearing how Thompson's role would have been perceived.
Since Murphy is technically the ultimate authority, as Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here." He has to bear the responsibility of a team that struggled both on and off the field, and cannot receive higher than a C- for 2008 despite the many unforeseen problems the team encountered. We also have little to go on for his role in the future but what we saw in 2008, so I grade his future a C-, as well.
Ted Thompson (starting fifth season as Packers GM)
Thompson made the decision to keep Aaron Rodgers over Brett Favre. This was a controversial decision and a primarily unpopular one.
But it was the right one, both for the future and for the 2008 season. Not only did Rodgers have a better season than Favre in 2008, he had a better season than most of Favre's previous 16 despite it being his first year starting.
Thompson also signed linebacker Brandon Chillar to a free agent contract, and Chillar got ample playing time because of the injury to Nick Barnett. He drafted back-up QB Matt Flynn in the seventh round, and drafted other players who made significant contributions in WR Jordy Nelson (36th pick, 336 yards and 2 TDs) and TE JerMichael Finley (91st pick, 74 yards, 1 TD).
Thompson traded away his most dynamic defensive tackle in Corey Williams, relying on a run-stuffer (Ryan Pickett), two pedestrian players (Colin Cole and Johnny Jolly), and an injury-prone 2007 draft pick (Justin Harrell). When Harrell once again was not healthy, this decision proved tragic.
Thompson cannot really be blamed for picking QB Brian Brohm, who was a training camp bust, in the second-round—he was widely regarded as the best player available, and the Packers needed some insurance for the predominantly untested Rodgers.
Similarly, like his third second-round pick, Pat Lee, we cannot assume that one bad year (for injuries in Lee's case) will mean the player does not work out.
However, Thompson's continued reluctance to venture into the free agent market despite the Packers being in the top quarter of the league in cap room in each of the last two years magnifies every draft pick that does not pan out. He has to accept the consequences of being cheap.
While the choice of Rodgers over Favre was clearly the right one, it is hard to imagine a way he could have handled the decision worse. He put undue pressure on the franchise quarterback he had now chosen and divided the fan base.
Obviously, I do not blame Thompson for deciding not to take Favre back, and I applaud him for refusing to release him or trade him within the division. Favre made the decision to leave and the Packers had to not only move on but protect their own interests.
Moreover, Favre's hindsight claims that he felt unwanted are not supported by facts. Favre said in his message to Sports Illustrated writer Peter King announcing his retirement that he was not pressured to leave. According to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report last summer, both Thompson and McCarthy tried to encourage Favre to wait to make the decision to retire when he talked with them about hanging it up, hoping he would change his mind.
But Thompson made the situation unnecessarily contentious when he did each of the following:
- Saying Favre could come in as a backup. Favre was a not just a future Hall of Famer, but coming off a Pro Bowl season. He deserved at least an even chance to start.
- Trying to buy Favre off with a $2 million/year PR contract. Even if I were to believe it was something the Packers wanted to offer him either way (and since I reject Favre's contentions that seem implausible, I must do the same for Thompson), the fact that it came across as a buy-off represents a failing on Thompson's part.
- Hiring Ari Fleischer to do damage control confirmed that there a mess to clean up. Moreover, Ted was willing to hire a professional liar who represented an administration that believed itself to be above the law and whose policies bankrupted the country morally and financially to do the job.
Had Thompson simply said he would take Favre back publicly and then worked behind the scenes for a trade, a lot of bad feelings could have been spared on both sides. The Packers may also have gotten better than a third-round pick for the Hall of Fame QB.
While the reality is that the Packers season was hurt by injuries and not distractions, we cannot be sure that the distractions did not affect training and conditioning, nor that the injuries could not have been better overcome had there not been distractions.
We also do not know that Rodgers might not have been even better without the pressure of having to win over half of the fan base.
Thompson's negatives outweighed his positives in 2008, and he can get no better than a D+ for his efforts. Since he appears to have not learned any lessons regarding free agency or paying his players he already has, one has to contrast that against his executive of the year 2007 job performance, and conclude he gets a B- for the future.