Apparently in Milwaukee, it was time to trot out that tried-and-true "Ted Thompson couldn't shine Ron Wolf's shoes" story. Nothing like a little red meat for the "sign someone but don't bother me with specifics" crowd.
By now, you know the drill. Wolf is a legend because he pushed a good Packers team over the hump by upgrading several key spots with free agents.
And by now, you know this drill. Thompson treats unrestricted free agency like it's a grenade.
Well, Wolf indeed is a legend. For what Wolf did in Green Bay — hiring Mike Holmgren, trading for Brett Favre and signing Reggie White et al in propelling a woebegone franchise back to the Super Bowl — it's an outrage that he's never gotten even close to election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But to compare Wolf to Thompson is like comparing apples to lugnuts. They ran the Packers in two vastly different eras. Wolf was like an Ivy League valedictorian among a room full of fifth-graders during those early stages of free agency, when top-quality players were readily available. Thompson is muddling through this mature stage of free agency, in which good players seldom are available.
To suggest Thompson should make some bold moves to push the Packers over the top seems logical at first blush. After all, the Packers went 11-5 last season, including 7-1 down the stretch. They are an elite team in a wide-open NFL. But then you realize there aren't many bold moves to be made.
Look at the starting defensive line from the Super Bowl teams that Wolf assembled. Reggie White, Santana Dotson, Sean Jones and Gilbert Brown were all signed as free agents, with White, Dotson and Jones coming in unrestricted free agency and Brown signed off the street after being waived by the Vikings.
That White, Dotson and Jones were even available is a testament to how free agency has changed over the last 15-plus years. This year's top three defensive tackles, according to the pre-free agent list compiled by Scout.com's Adam Caplan, were Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton and Ryan Pickett. Wilfork and Pickett were franchised and re-signed and Hampton was re-signed just before the start of free agency.
And right there is the difference between free agency for Wolf and Thompson — while Wolf will quickly acknowledge. In Wolf's days, the contending teams typically went all-in by pushing higher salaries off to later years of the salary cap. It worked in the near term but was disastrous over the long term, which is why the Cowboys and 49ers went from the penthouse to the outhouse when over-the-hill players blew up those teams' caps.
With Thompson, the Packers are the poster children for the new way of doing business. With most teams re-signing their best players, the free-agent pool gets more diluted year after year.
So, when people like legendary Packers safety LeRoy Butler needle Thompson over his free-agent philosophy, it's either living in the past or being blissfully unaware of the current free-agent landscape.
Ron Wolf reacts after winning NFC title game.
Mark Duncan/AP Images
However, what worked for Wolf in the mid-1990s simply doesn't work anymore. The proof is plain to see for anyone who's not a card-carrying member of the Hate Ted Thompson Club.
The seven five-star free agents to change hands in free agency last year were Albert Haynesworth to Washington (seven years, $100 million), Matt Cassel to Kansas City (six years, $63 million), T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Seattle (five years, $40 million), Matt Birk to Baltimore (three years, $12 million), Jason Brown to St. Louis (five years, $37.5 million), Bart Scott to New York Jets (five years, $40 million) and Brian Dawkins to Denver (five years, $17 million).
The Redskins (from 8-8 to 4-12), Chiefs (from 2-14 to 4-12), Seahawks (from 4-12 to 5-11) and Rams (from 2-14 to 1-15) all picked in the top six of the draft. Denver tanked after a fast start and finished 8-8 for the second consecutive season. The Ravens went from 11 wins to nine but made it back to the playoffs by replacing Brown with Birk. The Jets recorded matching 9-7 records but this time made the playoffs and reached the AFC title game.
For a grand total of $309.5 million in contracts, those seven teams posted the exact same cumulative record.
The Giants — a year removed from winning the Super Bowl — looked like the big offseason winners last year by revamping their defense with Chris Canty (six years, $42 million), Rocky Bernard (four years, $16 million) and Michael Boley (five years, $25 million). Instead, they went from 12-4 to 8-8, and their defense allowed an additional 133 points.
To be sure, by not adding to the mix at outside linebacker and cornerback, Thompson is gambling the season on Brad Jones being a legit sidekick to Clay Matthews III and that last year's injury-plagued secondary — which led to Jarrett Bush going from sixth corner/fourth safety to nickel corner — sorts itself out with a little help from Lady Luck.
What choice did Thompson have, at least in free agency?
This is not 1996, when Wolf filled glaring holes by adding an in-his-prime Dotson and veteran safety Eugene Robinson (in a lopsided trade with Seattle for Matt LaBounty). Those caliber of players simply didn't exist. Today's top options at outside linebacker are Shawne Merriman, who has four sacks in his last two seasons, and Adalius Thomas, who was benched twice last season by New England and released last month. There was only one legit corner available at the start of free agency, Dunta Robinson, who at 5-foot-10 falls short of the Packers' height requirements. With seven interceptions in his last five seasons with Houston, he signed a ridiculous six-year, $57 million deal with Atlanta.
When Butler says he prefers Wolf's way to Thompson's way because it's "proven," that's just uninformed.
The Indianapolis Colts are the NFL's model franchise. What is Colts president Bill Polian's free-agent motto? As he told the New York Times in 2008: "Closed for business."
Thompson's way has the Packers on course for being consistent winners, just like Polian's way has turned the Colts into consistent winners. Throw your shoulder into the door enough times and, in theory, you'll break through.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.