Wisconsin Owes Ted Thompson an Apology
As he always does, the man with the white mane sat stoically in his press box seat. Believe me, I checked.
Every time the Green Bay Packers’ rookie nickelback made a play, I stole a glance down the aisle. Ted Thompson was unmoved. There was no hint of vengeance when rookie tailback James Starks scored a second-quarter touchdown, and I saw no reaction of note as punter Tim Masthay flipped the game’s field position all afternoon.
The Packers’ general manager had every reason to feel wholly vindicated Sunday as his team advanced to Super Bowl XLV with a 21–14 victory over the Chicago Bears. On a day when quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ best play was a touchdown-saving tackle, Thompson’s brand of team building proved especially prescient. This was a Ted Thompson victory if there ever was one.
“Ted built this house,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He is responsible for everything that goes on.”
We’ve all had our fun and taken our shots at the way Thompson constructed this team. Eschewing veteran free agency puts a premium on your own development program, leaving no margin for error in the draft and little patience in bringing along young players. You’ve got to hit nearly every time, and after watching Sunday’s game at Soldier Field, I think we can agree that Thompson batted 1.000 in a year when the Packers lost more starting players to injuries than any NFL team.
Undrafted nickel back Sam Shields became one of 11 rookies in NFL history to intercept at least two passes in a playoff game, including the game-clinching play with 37 seconds remaining. Starks continued his postseason surge with 74 yards and his first touchdown since he was a junior at Buffalo in 2008. Masthay, plucked off the street last winter, pinned the Bears inside their 20-yard line on five of his eight punts. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, Thompson’s first pick in the 2009 draft, returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown that served as the final margin of victory.
The Packers have their share of elite players in Rodgers, receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. But without Shields, Starks and Masthay, the Packers might not have a ticket for Arlington, Texas, in two weeks.
“I think this really to me showed all of Ted’s work over the last two or three years,” team president Mark Murphy said. “You look at the depth of the roster, the players he’s been able to identify. We have starting players playing key roles for us who were undrafted free agents this year. It’s a tribute to Ted and his staff that he’s able to find these players.”
I missed Thompson after the game. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have been in a gloating mood. It’s not his style, and it’s what I like best about him. He doesn’t need to tell us I told you so. We saw it ourselves Sunday, and it was a development not lost in the Packers’ locker room.
“It starts up top with Ted and players and the personnel department,” veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “They do a good job of bringing in players. Somebody gets hurt, and they bring in a guy where there’s almost no drop-off. We have a lot of talent on this team. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this much, as long as I have been playing. There are players all over this team that were overlooked by other teams.”
On the day the Packers advanced to their first Super Bowl in 13 years, you might not be up for patting their shy general manager on the back. Sorry folks. If Rodgers had pulled another of his postseason gems, I would be telling you all about it. If Matthews had put together another of his three-sack games, this post would have been easy to write.
The assumption has been that the Packers would ride Rodgers as far as he could take them. But Sunday, the Bears’ defense limited him to 17 completions in 30 attempts. He threw two interceptions, including one to linebacker Brian Urlacher on what he called a “terrible throw” in the third quarter. Rodgers managed to trip up Urlacher at the Bears’ 45-yard line, preventing what almost certainly would have been a touchdown, but he was unable to take the Packers to a second-half touchdown that would have put the game out of reach.
On this championship day, that task fell to players like Shields, Starks and Masthay. We’ve had plenty of discussions about Starks, who has vindicated Thompson’s decision not to seek a veteran replacement (albeit a little late). Shields, meanwhile, was Thompson’s version of an answer to the Packers’ thin depth at cornerback last season.
Signed as an undrafted free agent after the draft, Shields initially was a candidate to be the Packers’ kickoff and punt returner. But as soon as he arrived at training camp, he had defensive players and coaches turning their heads.
“We saw him and said, ‘Why didn’t this guy get drafted?’” Pickett said. “This guy has been making plays since the moment he got here. He might be the best rookie cornerback in the league.”
It would be hard to argue based on Sunday’s game. Shields ended two consecutive Bears series in the second quarter. The first was a sack of quarterback Jay Cutler on third down. Less than two minutes later, his athletic interception prevented what would have been a long 42-yard touchdown pass to receiver Johnny Knox.
According to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Shields is the first rookie in NFL history to collect two interceptions and a sack in a playoff game.
“He is going to be a great player for the Green Bay Packers for a long time,” McCarthy said.
The Packers have more than their share of similar stories.
Ted Thompson is their ghost writer.
He won’t tell you.
He doesn’t need to.
You saw it yourself.