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Thompson Reflects On State Of The Team


(Editor's note: The interview with Thompson used as the basis for this story was conducted prior to the changes made on the team's coaching staff this past week.)

Not that the disappointment hadn't set in before, but General Manager Ted Thompson may have felt it the most following the regular-season finale.

The 6-10 season had just concluded with a victory over Detroit, and the Packers had posted two 100-yard rushers, two 100-yard receivers, outgained their opponent by nearly 170 yards, and held their foe to a measly 29 percent conversion rate on third down.

The finish, though it was against the winless Lions, seemingly reflected the promise of a 2008 season that took a dramatic turn no one expected, and all that was left to ponder were the opportunities that had been lost.

"We're not satisfied," Thompson said a few days after the end of the season. "I'm not satisfied. I think you could see that even in the locker room (Dec. 28) after the game, when the team was together. We were happy to have won, but we realized we felt like we left a lot of chips on the table."

Like Head Coach Mike McCarthy in his season-ending press conference, Thompson didn't shy away from taking responsibility for the disappointing year. He felt he had constructed a team that, if it played well, had a chance to win every week, which realistically the Packers had. With seven of 10 losses by four points or less, the Packers did have plenty of chances to win games.

But because they didn't capitalize on those chances and win enough, Thompson said it's up to him, McCarthy, and the rest of the personnel and coaching staffs to figure out why the Packers so often couldn't stay on the plus side of that fine line between winning and losing in the NFL.

Tough to watch

As a former player himself, Thompson sympathized with what the players went through this season, because he felt the losses were never the result of a lack of effort or desire to succeed.

"You feel bad for the players because I don't think anyone can dispute, and we've seen no evidence to dispute, the fact that these guys played hard every week," Thompson said. "I thought they were accountable to each other and they cared about each other, not unlike last year. It just didn't turn out as well."

It didn't turn out as well in part because the Packers couldn't turn around the disturbing trend of coming up short in the close games. After a five-point win over Minnesota in the season opener, the Packers let a fourth-quarter lead get away in Tampa, lost by three points to Atlanta, and fell in overtime at then-unbeaten Tennessee and by one point because of a missed field goal at Minnesota.

Then, at 5-6 with their playoff hopes at stake in back-to-back home games against Carolina and Houston, late opportunities to win were squandered.

Without any specific insight from the players themselves, but drawing upon his own playing experience, Thompson believes the negativity surrounding those types of games was perhaps taking a hold on the team, and it continued with two more close-and-late losses to Jacksonville and Chicago to finish the five-game losing streak that torpedoed the season.

"Winning and losing is a close thing, and sometimes there's this pervasive attitude too that can creep in," he said. "If you've won six games in a row and you get yourselves involved in a tight game, even if you think you shouldn't be tight, you should be way ahead of these guys, then you still have this attitude that, you know, something's going to happen and we're going to win this game.

"And you have to guard against the other side of that trick, which his that you're fighting your tail off and it's a close game and it's like 'Oh no, I hope something doesn't happen and we lose this game.'"

Thompson couldn't fault the players necessarily for falling victim to that. He admitted that he did watching the games from either a private box at Lambeau Field or the press box on the road.

A year ago when the Packers went 13-3, with five of the first six wins coming by a touchdown or less, Thompson said anytime he saw a flag thrown, he assumed it would be on the opponent and it would benefit the Packers. This year, it was just the opposite.

"That same flag, it would be, 'Oh no, that's offsides on us, and that's going to be a first down for them,'" he said. "You have to like exorcise it or something. It's just a thing that happens in sports."

Moving forward

But the only way to exorcise it is to improve, and Thompson said the offseason will be about exploring all the avenues to do so, including free agency, the draft, and possible internal changes, such as schemes or player positions.

Thompson declined to discuss any specific plans this early in the process, but he didn't rule out free agency, even though he's brought in just two unrestricted free agents - defensive back Frank Walker in 2007 and linebacker Brandon Chillar in 2008 - the past two years.

But while it may make sense to think Thompson will take the same approach to free agency after a 6-10 season as he did following the 4-12 campaign of 2005, that's not necessarily going to be the case either.

Back then, when defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson were signed as unrestricted free agents to be immediate starters, they happened to "fit perfectly" what the Packers needed at the time.

"We were looking for veteran guys who knew how to play the game at those positions," Thompson said. "It worked out perfectly.

"It's not an end-all, a cure-all. It's a means to try to get better. And we've been working on potential free agents since the start of the season, as we do always."

The other part that must be balanced in searching for the right fits in free agency is looking at the current players on the roster potentially headed for free agency, and deciding whether they're considered core members of the team for the future.

The Packers have a long list of quality players entering the final years of their contracts in 2009, including Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins and several 2006 draft picks like receiver Greg Jennings and offensive linemen Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz. Veteran defensive linemen Aaron Kampman and Pickett, who signed a four-year deal in 2006, are in the same boat.

Their futures play into those of free agents becoming available on the market as well.

"It's a dance, and it's an ongoing thing that you have to consider because any investment you make from the outside coming in means you're probably going to have to sacrifice somebody on the inside that's going out," Thompson said. "Now, that doesn't mean that you don't do it, it doesn't mean it's not the right thing, but you don't do it haphazardly. You don't get do-overs."

Looking at the whole

As far as where to target the upgrades, the Packers appear strongest right now at the offensive skill positions. The receiving corps is deep, running backs Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn should continue to develop into viable options behind Ryan Grant, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned in a solid season in his first as a starter.

Thompson was pleased with what he saw from Rodgers, and he feels too much has been made of the lack of a late, fourth-quarter win, especially when it's considered that Rodgers drove the team to go-ahead fourth-quarter field goals against Carolina and Jacksonville, and potential game-winning field goals were missed in Minnesota and Chicago.

"I think he played well, he played with his head, he was good physically with his arm and moving around," Thompson said of Rodgers. "I thought he did everything that we asked him to do this year. I'm sure there are games or plays that he'd like to have back, but that's not unusual.

"We think he's a good player, and he's only going to get better. We don't have any concerns about that whole 'clutch' thing."

The offensive line is sure to get some attention, with veteran left tackle Chad Clifton entering his 10th season and right tackle Mark Tauscher needing an offseason knee reconstruction for a torn ACL. But with Colledge and Spitz entering what should be their career primes, a future foundation up front is on the rise.

{sportsad300}Meanwhile, it's reasonable to assume the defense will be the top offseason priority, and the coaching overhaul on that side already is underway.

With the Packers landing two members of the secondary, Woodson and Collins, in the Pro Bowl, the glaring weaknesses on defense were its struggles to stop the run and rush the passer. That points to the front seven, and particularly the defensive line, which McCarthy admitted didn't overcome the loss of end Cullen Jenkins to a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 4.

"People talk a lot about the pass rush, and I think there's some valid concerns there that we need to improve in that area," Thompson said.

A believer that the foundation of a team is in its offensive and defensive lines, Thompson also indicated the struggles of the defensive front had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defensive unit.

When asked about the current linebacking corps, which lost Nick Barnett to a knee injury midway through the season and which had been criticized by its own position coach, Winston Moss, Thompson spoke not so much of changing personnel but finding how to get the most out of current contributors A.J. Hawk, Brady Poppinga, Desmond Bishop and Chillar.

"We do have a good group of linebackers, and we think they're the kind of guys you can win with," he said. "So we have to go back and see, OK, why didn't we get more production, or where were the slip-ups? And, what caused that? That's part of this whole process."

As for the impact of the injuries, which in addition to Jenkins and Barnett included safety Atari Bigby and the ongoing health troubles of defensive tackle Justin Harrell, Thompson said it's his job to provide more "sustainability" on the roster. Injuries are part of the NFL game, and a team's depth determines how much injuries end up affecting a particular position and on down the line to special teams, which fell off dramatically for the Packers in 2008 from a productive 2007.

"There's no real excuses here, and we're not using that," Thompson said of the injuries. "It's just a matter of making your team better. However you can get your team to be a better team, whether that means a better player at this position or taking this player and making him a better player within your system. It's all kinds of things. But that's what we have to do.

"We're going to address everything that has to do with our team and the outcome of these games. If we feel like we need to be better in an area, we're going to address it. Whether that means personnel or putting guys in different spots or whatever. Again, this all gets back to me. This is my responsibility."

One that he takes seriously and will go about with the same thoughtful, measured approach that improved the Packers from four to eight to 13 wins in his first three seasons as GM. The falloff in the fourth year was dramatic and disappointing, and Thompson knows it's up to him to turn it back around again.

"We don't like losing. Nobody here does," he said. "I think what you do is you try to focus in and say, 'OK, are there areas where we need to get better? That we have to be more productive in?'

"Again, it's a fine line between winning and losing sometimes. Everybody's got talent, everybody's got players, everybody's got schemes and all that. Now, how do we do this to get back to winning on a more consistent basis? That's what we have to do, because the bottom line is, that's all that really matters."

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