The man with a plan

Many Packers fans were scratching their heads over the lack of moves in free agency by Packers general manager Ted Thompson last offseason, but Thompson has quietly hushed his critics over the course of this season, says's Steve Lawrence.

His first-round pick is playing only because of injuries. His second-round pick can't get off the bench.

For many general managers, those would be black marks.

For many teams, those black marks would be too much to overcome.

For Ted Thompson, though, the early results from the marquee picks of his 2007 draft class are about the only blemishes in a season in which he's ascended to elite status among NFL general managers and, more surprisingly, has started to win over his legions of doubters.

Sunday's blowout victory over the Oakland Raiders was the latest demonstration that Thompson knows what he's doing.

Thompson's Packers improved to 11-2 and won the NFC North Division championship on Sunday. How improbable is that, considering how much heat Thompson took for sitting on his salary-cap dollars while watching one free agent after another sign with other teams?

In the Packers' last 17 games, they've gone 15-2. How improbable is that, since Thompson's decision to hire Mike McCarthy — at least in the eyes of the only-today-matters crowd — looked so bad when the Packers were languishing at 4-8? In those first 12 games, McCarthy had been defeated by fellow first-year coaches Sean Payton of New Orleans, Scott Linehan of St. Louis, Dick Jauron of Buffalo and Eric Mangini of the New York Jets. Ouch.

Little was expected of the 2007 Packers. Brett Favre was back, but who was he going to throw the ball to other than Donald Driver? Especially after Thompson decided not to pull the trigger on a trade for Randy Moss. Who was the running back? The defense figured to be pretty good, which made Thompson's decision to draft Justin Harrell in the first round all the more perplexing.

Now, at 11-2, it appears Thompson had not just the answers, but the right answers, to practically every quesion.

Who was Favre going to throw the ball to? Thompson's second-round pick in 2006, Greg Jennings, is turning into a big-play machine and is Favre's favorite option when he needs a touchdown. Not bad for a guy who supposedly doesn't have a ton of speed. Thompson's third-round pick in 2007, James Jones — a reach, the so-called experts proclaimed — has been a find, as well. His 43 receptions rank second among rookies (Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe has 56).

In fact, Thompson has assembled such an impressive stable of receivers that McCarthy frequently employs five-receiver schemes to match his team's strength against an opponent's weakness.

Then there's Thompson's trade for Ryan Grant. The trade was so, ummm, not big that it merited two sentences at the end of a Packers press release that announced the final roster cuts.

All Grant has done since becoming the feature back in Week 8 against Denver is lead the league in rushing by 69 yards. The Packers drafted Brandon Jackson in the second round with hopes he'd be the answer in the backfield, but with the way Grant is playing, Jackson probably has no chance to ever be the man in the backfield. Grant is everything you want in a running back. He's got enough speed to go the distance, he's got great vision and he's tough enough to handle a ton of carries. That Thompson got him from the Giants for a sixth-round pick could one day rival the 2000 trade in which Ron Wolf got Ahman Green from Seattle for draft-bust Fred Vinson.

Finally, sometimes as a general manager, it's the moves you don't make that turn out to be the best ones.

Will Blackmon was supposed to be the Packers' kick and punt returner after excelling during the preseason.

Blackmon, however, broke a hand before the season kicked off. Then, as he was getting close to getting back on the field, he broke the same foot that cost him most of his 2006 rookie season. The logical choice would have been to put Blackmon on injured reserve to open a roster spot. After all, why wait for a player who hasn't proven a thing in his NFL career other than he's good at getting injured?

Thompson rolled the dice on Blackmon, and that gamble paid off with a pair of special-teams touchdowns.

Time and again, many fans criticized Thompson for his lack of bold moves. Thompson, though, has proven it takes a keen eye for talent, not a keen knack for making headline-grabbing personnel decisions, to build a winner.

Steve Lawrence is a frequent contributor to E-mail him at

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