Thompson devoted his life and livelihood to the game he loved. Here’s a look back at his journey.
Thompson was one of the most innovative general managers of this century, combining his background as a player and scout with a fondness for athletic metrics. Thompson seemingly established minimum thresholds for athletic performance at various positions, which gave the Packers a substantial edge in their draft performance, especially when selecting wide receivers and offensive linemen.
Prior to his days as a personnel executive, Thompson played linebacker at SMU, where was promoted to team captain for his senior season. He picked off seven passes over the course of his college career while also serving as the team’s placekicker. In 1975, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Oilers, where he enjoyed a lengthy NFL career under Bum Phillips and even managed to knock through four PATs as the emergency kicker against the Jets during the 1980 season.
Thompson was hired by Packers GM Ron Wolf as a scout in 1992 and continued in various front office position through the Brett Favre glory years until he was poached by Mike Holmgren in 2000. He joined the Seahawks as VP of Football Operations where he was heavily involved in the scouting and drafting process. In his tenure with Seattle, the team drafted Shaun Alexander, Steve Hutchinson, Darrell Jackson, and Marcus Trufant, among other key players, and Seattle would advance to the Super Bowl the year after Thompson’s departure.
When Thompson returned to Green Bay in 2005 to take over as general manager, he entered a difficult salary cap situation with a shaky roster and aging quarterback. He made several difficult decisions to not bring back established and high-priced veterans, most notably guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, which wound up being a recurring theme of his tenure. In his first draft with the Packers, he made one of the most important selections in team history, picking Aaron Rodgers 24th overall. Rodgers was expected to go higher, but famously fell to the Packers, where Thompson made the controversial and difficult decision to spend precious capital on a quarterback despite a hall-of-fame incumbent in Brett Favre.
The Rodgers selection insured Thompson’s place in history, but it was hardly his only success, as he repeatedly found excellent value during Rodgers’ prime. He took safety Nick Collins later in the 2005 draft, wide receivers Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson in the 2006, 07, and 08 drafts, respectively, and defensive stars Clay Matthews and BJ Raji in 2009.
As good as Thompson was early in the draft, he really shined in finding value in the 4th round or later, and Green Bay was able to build all-pro caliber lines to protect Aaron Rodgers with relative ease. Thompson picked guards Josh Sitton and TJ Lang, center Corey Linsley, and left tackle David Bakhtiari all in the latter rounds of the draft, and each provided value well in excess of their draft positions.
Thompson’s style blended a mix of traditional scouting with more advanced (for the time) thresholds, requiring minimum agility scores, heights, and weights for several positions. Similar philosophies are now the industry standard, and combined metrics like Speed Score, SPARQ, and RAS are standard when evaluating players. While his success rate did start to drop off towards the end of his tenure as the rest of the league caught up, the current team still relies heavily on the aforementioned Bakhtiari, defensive lineman Kenny Clark, and all-world receiver Davante Adams, all Thompson picks.
The other calling card of the Thompson era was his partnership with Russ Ball, who joined the Packers as VP of Football Administration in 2008. Thompson’s use of metrics and his understanding of positional value and the general lack of value in the free agent market combined with Ball’s incredible understanding of the NFL salary cap and negotiating skills to make the Packers’ front office one of the most efficient in football. During their tenure together, the team never incurred any salary cap trouble and negotiated some of the most creative contracts and extensions in the league.
Thompson preferred to fill roster holes with less expensive free agents and UDFAs, but when he did make a big splash it almost always paid huge dividends. When he brought in Charles Woodson in 2006, it changed the course of Packer history, and that signing may be second only to the Reggie White signing in its importance to the franchise. Thompson also brought in Julius Peppers, who contributed three high-quality seasons late in his career.
Thompson had a frosty relationship with the media, and essentially spoke publicly only when required to do so by league rules. Coach Mike McCarthy was generally tasked with answering questions about on-field and front office work while Thompson stayed in the background. He was a very private person and kept to himself both in-season and during the offseason. In 2017 he was diagnosed with an autonomic disorder, a disease of the nervous system that can lead to a breakdown of the body’s involuntary functions, and this contributed to his decision to step down as GM, though he continued in an advisory role.
Thompson built the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl-winning team with a deft combination of draft picks and high-impact free agents while keeping the team in excellent financial shape and maintaining its competitive window for over a decade. He pioneered scouting practices that are now commonplace, while developing a keen and often cutthroat understanding of positional value. In May 2019, he was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame.