NFC North: Bob Harlan

Ted ThompsonAP Photo/Mike RoemerUnder the direction of general manager Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers have maintained stability in the front office.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A month ago, Ted Thompson looked –- and sounded –- worn out.

In his annual pre-draft session with reporters, his speech was slower and more deliberate than usual, prompting whispers about his health and questions about how much longer he might continue as the Green Bay Packers' general manager.

Even Bob Harlan, the former Packers president and the man who hired Thompson in 2005, noticed a difference.

"I did see him on TV a couple of times where he seemed down, and I don't know if it was just exhaustion from the preparation for [the draft] and all the travel that he goes through because he just grinds all the time," Harlan said. "He's either in that room looking at video, or he's on the road."

At age 61, could Thompson have been showing signs that he was nearing the end of a successful run as general manager that has included one Super Bowl title?

Those close to him did not think so at the time, even when Thompson was forced to miss the NFL annual meetings in March because of an undisclosed personal matter. And they do not think so now, especially after he appeared energized following the draft.

So when Thompson joked a week after the draft that he’s "just getting started," the Packers should hope there is more than just a shred of truth to his typically dry humor.

In many ways, Thompson is the key to keeping the Packers' successful leadership team intact.

Consider what happened when Thompson's mentor, Ron Wolf, retired in 2001: The Packers had a coach in Mike Sherman they wanted to keep. Harlan feared that if he went outside for a general manager, he might lose Sherman, so he added the GM role to Sherman's responsibilities. Four years later, it had become apparent it was too much for him, prompting Harlan to bring back Thompson, who had followed Mike Holmgren to Seattle and was the Seahawks' director of player personnel. Thompson and Sherman worked together for one season before Thompson fired him and hired coach Mike McCarthy.

All the while, some of quarterback Brett Favre's prime years passed without even reaching another NFC Championship Game during Sherman's tenure (2000-05).

It's not unreasonable to think the same problems could befall McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers if Thompson were to walk away anytime soon.

"That poses a problem; there's no doubt about it," Harlan said. "I guess because I saw it happen twice –- when Ron came in and Lindy [Infante] was here [as the coach] and with Ted, who tried very hard to make it work with Mike Sherman –- I know it can go downhill in a hurry. It is very difficult if the general manager cannot select his own coach."

No doubt, that's why current Packers president Mark Murphy indicated earlier this month that before any contract extension will be done for McCarthy, Thompson’s situation will be taken care of first.

Like McCarthy, Thompson has two more years left on a contract he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. Thompson would not say how much longer he intends to work but added that he "wouldn't anticipate doing anything different."

When Harlan hired Thompson, he received no assurances of how long Thompson would stay on in the role, but Harlan considered Thompson -- who has never been married and does not have children – to be all football, all the time.

"I had watched him for all of those years when he was working for Ron in Green Bay, and his life was just football then as I'm sure it was in Seattle, too," Harlan said. "Ron was 53 when I hired him [in 1991], and I was shocked when he wanted to leave so early, but I understood. Frankly, what I was trying to do was make the move on Ted before it was time for me to go so that I could be sure football was good hands."

And Harlan's last major act as president did just that. Of the 53 players on the Packers’ roster for Super Bowl XLV, 49 of them were acquired by Thompson, whose draft-and-develop philosophy has kept the Packers competitive on an annual basis.

If Murphy has a succession plan in mind for the GM job, he has not shared it. Perhaps he could try to lure former Packers scouts-turned-general managers John Schneider or John Dorsey back to town, but it might be tough to get Schneider out of Seattle or Dorsey out of Kansas City, where both have strong support from their owners.

It's possible he could maintain continuity by promoting vice president of player finance Russ Ball or one of Thompson's chief scouts –- Brian Gutekunst, Alonzo Highsmith or Eliot Wolf.

Some believe Murphy might hire a search firm -– as he has done with several other key front-office positions -– to identify candidates.

Or maybe, if the Packers are fortunate, Thompson will keep going strong.

One person close to him said recently that he does not see Thompson leaving anytime soon, unless the Packers win another Super Bowl, and that all the recent talk about him retiring "got him going."

When told of that, Harlan said, "I would think he'd at least go to 65, and then I think probably what he's going to do is become an area scout. He told me a long time ago that someday he might just go back to Texas and just be an area scout.

"Maybe he'd do it for the Packers. I would be surprised if he didn't work until at least 65. His health is good, and this is everything for him."
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Thursday, we broached the topic of whether the Chicago Bears would retire the number of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. As it turns out, the team is dealing with a backlog on that issue.

Almost a half-century after playing his final game with the team, Mike Ditka will have his No. 89 retired this season, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. (The Bears have since confirmed the report.) As Biggs explains, Ditka has had his ups and downs with the franchise after both his playing career and coaching tenure the latter of which brought the Bears a Super Bowl championship in 1985.

It's the first such gesture by the Bears since 1994.

Modern-day fans might remember Ditka as a coach, but I wonder how many know that he was the No. 5 overall pick of the 1961 draft and went to five Pro Bowls in his first six seasons. He was a two-time All-Pro, still ranks first on the Bears' all-time receiving list for tight ends and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

Congratulations to Da Coach, who is now an ESPN analyst.

Let's continue our morning tour around the NFC North:
  • Former Bears coach Lovie Smith on Urlacher, via ESPNChicago.com: "[H]is physical play is just a small part of what made Brian great. People knew he called our defense, but his intelligence was never given its just due. His understanding of the game is among the best who has ever played it."
  • Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon on playing for Bears coach Marc Trestman, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times: "The big thing for Jay Cutler is just realizing that you have an unbelievable opportunity here to work with a guy who has really had success with quarterbacks. You have to ask yourself, 'Why has he had this success?'"
  • Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Greenwood, who missed his rookie year because of an injury, is ready for his second chance. More from Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com.
  • Lions special-teams ace Ashlee Palmer is hoping for an expanded role on defense this season, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Technique development is the first step for Detroit Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, according to Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Former Green Bay Packers president Bob Harlan has plenty to keep him busy in retirement, writes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Nick Perry’s rookie season wasn’t a total injury washout, but the Green Bay Packers still can’t say he’s successfully made the transition from a college defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL."
  • Vikings defensive end Jared Allen knows that 2013 could be his final year with the team. Allen, via Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune: "I pray about it. I talk to my wife. And we'll end up going where the good Lord takes us. But I don’t know where that path is headed."
  • Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has an interesting profile of new Vikings punter Jeff Locke, who is an intellect in his own right.

BBAO: Bob Harlan's lament

July, 5, 2012
7/05/12
7:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I had only been covering the NFL for a few years when the Green Bay Packers added the general manager duties to coach Mike Sherman's job title. I remember wondering what exactly qualified Sherman, a longtime assistant, to run the front office. But the Packers had been performing well on the field under Sherman, and so I didn't think much of it.

In an interview this week with ESPN 540, former Packers president Bob Harlan called Sherman's promotion "the worst decision I made."
Harlan: "[W]hen Ron Wolf left, there were a number of things that bothered me about picking his successor. First of all, in his first season Mike went 9-7, won his last four games. We did have momentum going into the next year. I had talked to [quarterback] Brett Favre; he said it was the best chemistry he had seen in the locker room in all the years he had been here. And he'd been through a couple of Super Bowls by that time.

"I was concerned that if a new man came in from the outside, Mike might have trouble getting along with him, [or] the new man might want to come in and want to totally change the scouting staff, which I thought was a capable young scouting staff. And so I decided to do something that I don't like to do -- give one man both jobs. And he didn't hurt us on the field – we went 12-4, 12-4, 10-6, 10-6. [Sherman] did a great job of coaching. But it got to the point when we started having problems with players that he almost seemed to be ignoring the team."

Indeed, Sherman's performance as a general manager wasn't nearly as good as his performance as a coach, and eventually Harlan hired Ted Thompson to replace him in the front office. The lesson: There are a limited number of qualified general managers in NFL circles. There are also a limited number of good coaches. The chances of finding someone who can do both well are, statistically, pretty small.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Almost a full year has gone by since our last FavreWatch post. As it turns out, there is a little-known codicil in the NFC North blog constitution which gives the blogger unlimited power to preserve order in times of emergency. And 365 days without a FavreWatch post most definitely qualifies.

Those of you who are hoping for an imminent reconciliation between former quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers would be disappointed to learn what former team president Bob Harlan told ESPN 540 on Tuesday morning. According to Harlan, it appears Favre has declined an invitation to attend and/or participate in former coach Mike Holmgren's induction into the Packers Hall of Fame this summer.

Harlan envisioned the appearance as a first step toward a reconciliation and still holds out hope that Favre himself will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame before his presumptive 2016 enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The full podcast of Harlan's appearance is available, but here is a portion of what Harlan said:
"We had a meeting about two months ago and talked about who should be invited back [for Holmgen's ceremony] -- Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, people like that. And, we talked about players. And I said to the group, 'What about No. 4? This would be the perfect time for him to come back, come into Green Bay.'

"The crowd at the Hall of Fame banquet is an adoring crowd, they're as loyal to the Green Bay Packers as anybody. And unfortunately, I don't think he’s going to do it. We did approach his agent, and I don't think Brett's going to do it. I feel badly about that."

It's reasonable to think Favre and the Packers will come together sometime in the next five years. But it doesn't appear that will happen in the summer of 2012.

BBAO: Working for the weekend

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
7:10
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The vast majority of you pleaded for the continuation of BBAO in responding to last week's suggestion request, so I will of course oblige. The Friday heading into Memorial Day weekend, however, is going to be a bit thin. News is as news does. Or something like that.

On with it ...
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette covered a public discussion on the early 1990s revival of the Green Bay Packers by Bob Harlan and Ron Wolf. Prior to that point, national media members were suggesting that the team be moved to Milwaukee.
  • The Minneapolis City Council is expected to ratify the Minnesota Vikings' stadium bill formally on Friday, notes Eric Roper of the Star Tribune.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "If Cliff Avril and the Detroit Lions don’t work out a long-term deal this summer, and Avril hits the unrestricted free-agent market next spring, the biggest in-house beneficiary could be Willie Young."
  • Several Lions players, including Young, will compete in a fishing tournament against pro Kevin VanDam on June 12. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News has more.
  • Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune: "Bears linebacker J.T. Thomas likely will be cleared of a misdemeanor drug possession charge before the regular season begins, provided he completes the terms of a deferred sentence."
  • Here is some audio of former NFL tight end Jermaine Wiggins speaking to ESPN 1000 about the Bears' offense under offensive coordinator Mike Tice and how he would handle the Matt Forte contract situation.

BBAO: Swapping bye weeks

October, 31, 2011
10/31/11
8:30
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

DENVER -- Now, we flip the switch. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers will emerge from their bye this week. The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings will go into hibernation for a week, and we'll all reconvene at full strength in Week 10.

Week 9 brought us some clarity on the Lions' short-term future and some genuine optimism for the Vikings in the long term. Let's hit the local coverage as I travel back to NFC North blog headquarters:

BBAO: LET'S DO THIS

January, 23, 2011
1/23/11
9:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

CHICAGO -- IT'S HERE.

WE MADE IT.

NO MORE TIME FOR TALK.

NO NEED TO DEBATE.

THE DAY HAS COME TO PLAY THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME.

GREEN BAY PACKERS.

CHICAGO BEARS.

LET'S DO THIS.

Sorry, my caps lock was jammed.

I'm writing from downtown Chicago, where we are getting a light dusting of snow that apparently will taper off in a few hours. Still, it has given us our own little white Christmas in the NFC North.

While we nervously pace the room, let's take a glance at some headlines from those who have been covering the Packers and Bears all season. I'll check back in with you from Soldier Field in a few hours:
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Bears coach Lovie Smith: "But if the Bears beat the Packers, it will force us to start rethinking the way we view a guy who enjoys more respect around the league than in his own city. It would be time for everyone to show Lovie a little more love."
  • Dan Pompei of the Tribune: "A very good chance exists the quarterbacks will decide whether the Bears or Packers goes to the Super Bowl."
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Bears-Packers, for everything. If that doesn't give you shivers, nothing will."
  • This game puts Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz at center stage, writes Mark Potash of the Sun-Times.
  • Can the Bears' offensive line stand up against the Packers' blitzes? That's one of Michael C. Wright's five things to watch in this game over on ESPNChicago.com.
  • Michael Wilbon of ESPNChicago.com writes of his boyhood hatred for one of these teams.
  • Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "You can bet your cheesehead or your old William Perry poster that Dom Capers and Rod Marinelli, the respective defensive coordinators of the Packers and Bears, spent every waking moment last week crafting game plans to limit the effectiveness of the opposing quarterback."
  • Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel on Packers general manger Ted Thompson: "What got the Packers to the position they're in now is the confluence of two natural actions in the Thompson system: the maturation of young players into good players and the natural selection process of replacing good players with better ones. In theory, what you should have is a roster blossoming at the top and budding at the bottom. Whenever a blossom falls, there's a bud ready to bloom and take its place."
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette speaks to former Packers president Bob Harlan about the decision to hire Thompson.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette: "Yes, today's game at Soldier Field between NFC North rivals is huge. Yes, it will go down as the most important game in the 182-game history of the series. Yes, the winner will dance all the way to Dallas carrying huge bragging rights, while the loser will suffer through an especially long and painful offseason. But no animosity exists between these teams, no matter how hard some try to manufacture it."
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com traces the rising public confidence of Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
  • Check out who Wilde picked in this game. He is 14-4 in Packers games this season.
  • Seven out of 10 ESPN experts are picking the Packers.
  • If you want a pregame speech from the actor who plays Vince Lombardi in the currently-running Broadway show, check it out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert 

Whether intentional or otherwise, a group of caravanning Green Bay Packers spent part of Tuesday painting quarterback Brett Favre as a retired player who misses the game -- and not one who is trying to get back into it.

Mark Murphy, the Packers' new president and CEO, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that "no player leaves the game gracefully." During a promotional visit to Fond du Lac High School, Murphy added: "It's kind of the nature of what makes great players great, is they're competitors and they always want to compete and they want that next challenge, and it's hard to find that next thing that's going to give you that excitement and adrenaline. That's what we're seeing a little bit here."

Later, Murphy said: "I keep going back to his retirement announcement and how sincere and heartfelt that was. I think it's pretty reasonable that, as an organization, we're going to move on."

Murphy's sentiments -- echoed by Bob Harlan, his predecessor -- may well represent the Packers' true interpretation of Favre's situation. But it also positions the organization for the moment when -- and if -- Favre publicly announces his plans to play. (Or, at least, formally requests the Packers remove him from their reserve/retired list.)

The Packers know their least painful scenario is for Favre to remain retired. They also know how difficult it will be to win the public relations battle if Favre presses the issue at a time when the organization, in Murphy's words, is moving on.

Murphy's response reminds the public that four months ago, a teary Favre said on national television that he didn't want to play any longer. The Packers took Favre at his word, installed Aaron Rodgers as their starter and began the journey into a new era. Eventually, the Packers will consider the issue a matter of Favre keeping his word.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Earlier this week, ESPN.com's Bill Williamson revealed voting totals for the NFL's top owner. The story, which named Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney the winner, caused some readers to suggest that one team be considered in its own category. The Green Bay Packers are the NFL's only publicly-owned franchise and -- at last count -- include 112,015 shareholders.

The Packers are operated by a seven-member executive committee, led by president/CEO Mark Murphy. They generally run like a typical NFL team, but the unique structure requires a greater degree of accountability to the fan base/shareholders.

ESPN.com's survey was based on the perspective of league's head coaches. None of the 30 respondents named the Packers, but they might not have considered Green Bay given the structure. After all, Murphy only recently replaced the retired Bob Harlan and, in reality, Packers head coaches usually work for the general manager in the absence of a traditional owner.

It takes a certain type of coaching personality to succeed under the Packers' structure, but there are some benefits. Namely, the organization goes to great lengths to create a family environment among its employees.

At minicamp last month, the Packers invited the families of all nine draft choices to Green Bay. They received an exclusive tour of the team's facilities, inspected the town where their sons/husbands will be spending this season and also watched practices. It was neat to see the mother of fifth-round pick Breno Giacomini race over to a group of reporters to make sure they knew who her son was.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8