MINNEAPOLIS – When the man with jet white hair and wide-eyes was reminded of his offseason – of all the things he failed to accomplish – he could only crack a wry smile at the Green Bay Packers' 4-0 start.
"I told you that I expected us to win," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said, tucked in the corner of a locker room after his team's 23-16 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
He was enjoying the moment, though he tried to remain his typically stoic and reserved self. After an offseason when Thompson's lack of moving and shaking was well-chronicled, he sat in the Minneapolis Metrodome and watched the underrated moves of his last two offseasons pay dividends. Thompson would never point it out, but he owned a little slice of Sunday's history: Brett Favre's 421st and 422nd touchdown passes went to Greg Jennings and James Jones, a pair of fast-maturing wideouts he drafted the previous two springs. And the game's clinching interception? That was by Atari Bigby, a safety Thompson got off the free agent scrap pile in 2005.
Yes, Sunday was Favre's moment, but the day might have belonged to Thompson. The Packers walked a team out Sunday that had the general manager's fingerprints all over it and it's a maturing group that he has put together fast. Eleven of Sunday's 22 starters were acquired since the 2005 offseason. That includes the offensive renaissance taking place around Favre, where Thompson used the NFL draft to cull a young core of Jennings, Jones, tackle Daryn Colledge, guard Junius Coston and center Scott Wells in the last four drafts.
"The front office, why not give them a pat on the back?" said cornerback Charles Woodson, signed as a free agent in 2006. "They have done a great job. The proof is in the pudding. They've brought in guys that love to play. They've brought in great guys who fit this system. And we're winning right now because of that."
But the success hardly seemed guaranteed. It was only a few months ago that Thompson was standing on the Lambeau Field atrium and his own fans were booing him for what appeared – and still may be – a botched first-round pick in defensive tackle Justin Harrell. What fans didn't know was that little-known third-round pick Jones would more than make up for the offensive piece that Packers fans craved in the first round. In fact, Jones has more catches (18) and receiving yards (232) than every rookie wideout in the NFL, including far glitzier first-rounders such as Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Ted Ginn and Robert Meachem.
Even after Jennings' return from injury, Jones has continued to make a contribution as the third option behind Donald Driver and Jennings. And it was Jones who caught Sunday's eventual game-winning touchdown pass from Favre, getting free on a go-route and catching a perfectly timed pass from Favre that put Green Bay up 23-9.
The success of Jones and Jennings underscores Green Bay's offensive growth despite what didn't happen in the offseason: specifically, the failed attempt to acquire wide receiver Randy Moss. While Moss clearly would have been a major addition, the failure to acquire him has actually allowed some of the younger offensive pieces to take on larger roles and mature more quickly. And it's also made for a less contrived 4-0 start, in the sense that the Packers have righted the ship without making a staggering offensive pickup in the offseason, a la the New England Patriots.
"That definitely makes it even sweeter, us being 4-0 with the guys who were pretty much here last year," Jennings said. "We didn't go out and get the big name guy. The organization stuck with who they thought could get the job done, and we're doing it. It says a lot about the organization and this team. We're a young team, yes, but we're a mature young team.
"We know we're good receivers. We know what we're capable of doing. It all starts with Brett. … If the quarterback has confidence in his receivers, it's going to make everything else work. I think that's what you're starting to see."
A sign of that confidence and maturity: Favre audibled into a quick slant on Jennings' first touchdown catch, and the second-year wideout picked up on it flawlessly. Two quarters later and with the game hanging in the balance, Jones told Favre his defender was cheating toward run support in a particular alignment. The next time out, Favre faked a draw, pump faked to freeze the safety, and then hit the rookie in a hole where he could run with the ball. One 33-yard pass later, Jones had his first NFL touchdown, and Favre was left feeling a little bit better about one of his offensive pieces.
"That's the kind of maturity that is helping," guard Junius Coston said. "Everybody made this big deal about what we didn't get on offense in the offseason. But we knew we had some young pieces that we could eventually win with. We just needed to be patient."
It's helped that Favre has been spectacular in the process. Despite the total lack of a consistent running game, he's seized on solid protection this season to have one of his more prolific starts. Through four games, he's amassed 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns against only two interceptions. Those numbers put him on pace for his best season since 2003, and aided by a good young defense, have put the Packers in the NFC North's catbird seat after the opening month.
"This game was sort of a defining moment," Woodson said. "A lot of people didn't think we could win this game. I don't think everybody truly believes in what we're doing. But with each win, that's another defining moment for us."
In some ways, the Packers are beginning to take shape as this season's New Orleans Saints, a team that seized momentum and begun a roll that lasted deep into the playoffs. Clearly, the Packers aren't there yet, but they are developing an identity beyond their Hall of Fame quarterback.
"I don't think we have that (fear)," Favre said. "(But) I think we're developing not only chemistry, but a little bit of a swagger."
As Woodson put it, "People don't have to believe anything about us. As long as we win, they can believe whatever they want. Go ahead and disbelieve us all the way to the Super Bowl, if that's how this thing is going to work."
- Ted Thompson
- The Packers