Reasons why GM's like Ted Thompson don't overspend on outside talent
Packers GM Ted Thompson. Image by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The NFL free agency period has begun, and money is seemingly being tossed around like candy at a parade. This is an exciting time for fans because rosters can be remade and dreams of becoming a contender begin to take form.
It can also cause fans frustration (like many Green Bay Packers fans feel right now) if they feel their team isn’t making an effort at pursuing free agents.
However, the reality of the NFL in the salary cap era is that general managers like Ted Thompson can’t run their franchises like fantasy football rosters. It’s much more complicated than that.
There are real dollars and real personalities in the locker room. Everything must balance out for the long-term health of the franchise. Bringing in a high-priced free agent can certainly fill in a major deficiency on the roster, but it can also cause jealousy and resentment by players currently on the team.
Consider a team like the Packers, who have a long standing tradition of drafting, developing, and rewarding their own players.
Management has essentially told them that they were hand-picked to join the team, the coaches would help them maximize their potential, and when it’s time for a new contract, they’d be taken care of.
However, when top dollar free agents are brought in, it can be damaging to this process. Management has sent a message. Maybe they don’t take care of their own. Maybe they don’t draft, develop, and reward.
While the following example isn’t free agency, it is germane to the discussion.
Consider the the 1966 Packers, which won the first Super Bowl.
During the 1960s, the NFL got into bidding wars with the AFL to attract young players to their teams. In 1966, the Packers won the war for both Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski, who were running backs.
The Packers already had two Hall of Fame running backs on their roster in Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Anderson and Grabowski, who had never taken a snap for the Packers, immediately made more than the season veterans.
This obviously came with resentment. Jim Taylor publicly voiced his displeasure and ended up playing the 1967 season for the New Orleans Saints because he accused Vince Lombardi of not taking care of his own.
Free agency is also a bidding war. Teams have to sometimes overpay to attract new talent from outside the organization. They often have pay more than they usually do for in-house talent. Feelings can, and do, get hurt.
Also, expectations of leadership often accompany large contracts. However, true leadership comes from actions and not mere dollars.
Sometimes, it works out. Reggie White, Charles Woodson, and Peyton Manning were huge free agent signings that translated into immediate leaders on their new teams.
But, for every one those men, there is an Albert Haynesworth, Javon Walker, Andre Rison, and Jerry Porter who were overpriced distractions and cancers to their new teams. Those major signings did not translate into championships. When they got released, the salary cap got slaughtered.
Making a big splash into free agency has a very high risk to reward ratio. If you get it right, like the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning, a trip to the Super Bowl may occur.
However, if you get it wrong, you can kill team chemistry and the salary cap. The 2012 Eagles won the off season spree, but stumbled to a 4-12 record. The “Dream Team” became a nightmare overnight.
These reasons are why many general managers don’t always make big pushes into free agency. They need to send the right message that they are going to develop and reward their own players.
The Packers did this Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields.
Not to mention, it’s both cheaper to do so and builds a family atmosphere.
So, while Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t often make waves in free agency to bring in overpriced outside talent, he does keep the Packers in good health. The cap is sound, the locker room is strong, and he rewards his own.
It’s a good place to play. It’s a model franchise, and everyone knows that.
The Ted Thompson way is the Packers way. His method ensures the Packers will always be in the running to contend.
On the flip side, mismanaging free agency can ensure teams never contend.