He moved through the visitors locker room at Lincoln Financial Field with a muted smile on his face, his manner so unassuming, he could have been mistaken for the team chaplain or a corporate sponsor. If Packers general manager Ted Thompson was in a mood to gloat following his team's 21-16 first-round playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, he certainly wasn't going to do it in plain view.
When I threw out a question about his team's achievement, Thompson took me into a private area near the coaches' lockers, explaining that he doesn't typically do postgame interviews. We talked about the sudden emergence of a running game via unheralded rookie James Starks(notes), the numerous injuries his team has had to overcome in 2010 and the outstanding play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes).
Then I asked Thompson a question I'd been curious about for awhile:
"I'm not going to touch that," Thompson said. "I don't think it's appropriate."
Since I harbor no such reservations, be they ethical, karmic or pragmatic, I'm going to answer the question for Thompson:
Yes, he and coach Mike McCarthy suspected Rodgers had a chance to be an elite quarterback – though the longtime understudy is probably performing at an even higher level than they anticipated.
Yes, they had other reasons for wanting to get rid of Favre, a high-maintenance headache who exerted an unseemly amount of influence on a franchise and on the emotions of its fan base. And no, Thompson and McCarthy wouldn't still be employed in Titletown had they been wrong about Rodgers' worthiness to follow a legend.
If you think I'm exaggerating, I fear you may be struggling with some short-term memory deficiencies. When Favre first ended his five-month retirement – yeah, I know, that was several retirements ago – and showed up at Packers training camp in August of '08, the popular notion was that Rodgers was a brittle, unworthy stand-in and that McCarthy and Thompson were ill-meaning imbeciles whose insecurities were causing them to put their own agendas ahead of the good of the team.
Favre's behavior ultimately turned the locker room, and some Green Bay fans, against him – but even then, McCarthy and Thompson were still regarded warily by much of Packer Nation. And while some of us believed Rodgers would shine immediately after his three-year apprenticeship (a position I've continually defended from the get-go), it was almost universally assumed that the Pack would struggle in the short-term. Favre, after all, was coming off a terrific 2007 season during which he'd led the Packers into the NFC title game.
So when Favre returned and asked for his job back, rolling with Rodgers was both an unpopular call and an aggressive declaration of independence from Favre's self-serving stronghold by the coach and GM. They put their reputations and careers on the line, and suffice it to say that there were plenty of people in Titletown intent on holding them accountable if things blew up.
Between now and then, Thompson and McCarthy have had to endure their share of stomach-churning moments. There were Favre's many successes: His terrific 11-game run with the Jets in '08 before things came crashing down in the final month of the season; his signing with the rival Vikings the following summer and the MVP-caliber campaign that followed; Favre's brilliant efforts in a pair of victories over the Packers, including an in-your-face triumph at Lambeau Field; a gritty NFC championship game performance in New Orleans that nearly resulted in a Super Bowl trip.
The Packers, meanwhile, struggled to a 6-10 record in '08. Though Rodgers put up good numbers in his first season as a starter, he lost a lot of close games. Midway through the '09 campaign the Pack looked flaccid before a late rally pushed them into the playoffs. In a first-round game against the Cardinals in Arizona, Rodgers served notice of his impending stardom in leading a spirited comeback – but suffered a painful, 51-45 overtime defeat.
A year later, no matter what happens in Green Bay's divisional playoff game against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome on Saturday, or beyond, Thompson and McCarthy can officially exhale. Favre had a disastrous season that included off-the-field embarrassment, a pair of defeats to Rodgers and the Packers, the end of his record 297 consecutive starts streak and a team that imploded. He's apparently gone for good, and it's obvious that he hung on a year too long.
Meanwhile Rodgers, 27, is one of the league's best quarterbacks and appears to be getting better. "I think my ceiling is still a lot higher," he said Sunday after his 49th career start, and second in the postseason. "I hope it is. For me, it's all about preparation. When I'm prepared, I like my chances of succeeding. I don't think that's cockiness. That's confidence."
At this point, if you're a Packers fan, your confidence in Thompson and McCarthy should be pretty pronounced. McCarthy's coaching ability has been demonstrated in ways well beyond Rodgers' development. In each of the past two seasons his team has weathered a rough stretch and peaked at regular season's end to fight its way into the playoffs. His masterful game plan in Green Bay's Sunday night game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in mid-December, with Matt Flynn(notes) making his first career start as Rodgers sat out while recovering from a concussion, allowed the Pack to come within four points of an upset.
As for Thompson, he has built a deep, talented roster that looks poised to contend for years to come. No team, in my opinion, has endured so many noteworthy injuries in 2010 – 15 Packers ended up on injured reserve during the regular season, including six starters.
"Everybody's pitching in," Thompson said after Sunday's victory. "We thought we had a pretty good team, and it's been a struggle this year. It took way more guys than I ever thought it would, but we're finding a way. Now, we have to play pretty well and catch a break here and there, but if we play our game we feel we have a chance to win every time we take the field."
Thompson has patiently positioned the Packers for lasting success. For each of the previous four seasons, Green Bay was the NFL's youngest team, and this year's version remains relatively fresh-faced and full of unlikely standouts like cornerback Tramon Williams(notes). And though I was critical of Thompson's refusal to make a more aggressive push to acquire halfback Marshawn Lynch(notes) from the Buffalo Bills after starter Ryan Grant(notes) went down in the team's season opener – and believe me, I was prepared to drive home that point after Lynch's amazing effort for the Seahawks in their playoff upset of the New Orleans Saints on Saturday – the Pack seems finally to have discovered a ground attack.
Rodgers and the Pack got a huge lift from Starks on Sunday.
(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
On Sunday, Starks, a sixth-round draft choice who missed his senior season of college and most of his rookie campaign with injuries, ran for 123 yards and took some pressure off of a quarterback who carries more on his shoulders than virtually any player in football.
With just a little bit of balance – and with a defense that is playing at an exceptionally high level – Rodgers has a chance to do something very special over the next few weeks. And Thompson and McCarthy deserve credit for putting him in that position. Had they decided to give Favre his job back before the '08 season, Rodgers, who'd already spent three years waiting behind a man who never sits, almost certainly would have forced his way out the following spring.
In that sense, handing him the ball was a relatively simple call. But remember, other than Joe Montana to Steve Young in San Francisco, there had never been a resoundingly successful transition from an all-time great quarterback to a promising successor in the modern era. And had McCarthy and Thompson been wrong about Rodgers, they'd almost certainly have been run out of Titletown.
"We knew he was going to be a good quarterback," McCarthy said of Rodgers. "We knew he had a chance to be a great one. You don't ever know till you go through the games. But everything he'd done to that point, I really felt he was on time."
We'll know after Sunday whether Rodgers is ready to reach for the biggest prize of all. In the meantime, here's a list of eight more questions Thompson might find inappropriate, beginning with the most powerful of postseason participants and finishing with the still-under-.500 party crashers:
1. New England Patriots: After Jets coach Rex Ryan took a shot at him for attending the Broadway play "Lombardi" rather than watching Saturday night's first-round playoff game, how tempted was Tom Brady(notes) to respond, "I heard they're working on a play about Rex – it's an updated take on 'My Left Foot' "?
3. Baltimore Ravens: After he fumbled away an interception against the Chiefs last Sunday while trying to lateral to teammate Ed Reed(notes), was safety Haruki Nakamura(notes) – a former national judo champion – tempted to choke himself?
Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose vs. Baltimore last month.
(Gail Burton/AP Photo)
6. Chicago Bears: After declaring that "I don't see this as a team of great talent," did general manager Jerry Angelo mutter under his breath, "and believe me, no one is better at spotting lack of talent than I am"?
7. New York Jets: If they upset the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday, will the Jets set an NFL record for most trash talked in a locker room after the game?