Ted Thompson Serves Up...Spaghetti?
The Packers GM's Approach to Problem Solving
by Mike Conklin
July 22, 2012
Ted Thompson must like spaghetti. He sure likes throwing it against the wall.
"Throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks" is an old saying that refers to using multiple approaches to find out what works best. It is a phrase that we hear in the business world, when companies try out different strategies on focus groups to find out what works best. We also hear it in the courtroom, when prosecutors present many different arguments in hopes that something will resonate with members of the jury.
In terms of acquiring players, it appears to be a strategy that appeals to Ted Thompson as well.
It is hard to argue with Ted Thompson's approach, after taking over a post-Sherman-as-GM team bereft of talent and turning it into a perennial Super Bowl contender and one of the deepest teams in the league. When he first arrived, the team did not have much of a core group of players outside of Brett Favre, and the end of the roster was full of marginal NFL talent. Now there is a strong, young nucleus of Pro Bowl level talent, and it has become increasingly difficult each season to make cuts because even some of the "camp bodies" can play.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how Thompson approaches problem areas on the team. During his tenure, there have been a handful of times that one particular position group was underperforming. One of the ways that Thompson has consistently tried to address the problem is by using the aforementioned spaghetti approach. He will bring in multiple players, often at a low price, and see if any of them pan out. Sometimes, if it doesn't work, he has to raise the stakes the following year and pay a higher premium to try to solve the problem.
The first time this happened was in 2005, which was Thompson's first year with the Packers. After making a difficult decision to let both Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leave in free agency (a great move in retrospect), the Packers were precariously thin at the offensive guard position. Thompson went out and signed free agents Matt O'Dwyer (formerly the 33rd overall draft pick in 1995 who had started 105 games), and Adrian Klemm (formerly the 46th overall pick in the 2000 draft), and re-signed backup C/G Grey Ruegamer. He also spent two draft picks on the positions, choosing Junius Coston in the fifth round, and Will Whitticker in the seventh round.
In this case, none of the spaghetti really stuck. O'Dwyer didn't even make the team, Klemm was a major disappointment, and although Whitticker started 14 games as a rookie it was clear that he wasn't going to be the future at that position. As a result, Thompson had to up the ante and spend premium draft picks on Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz before the position would begin to stabilize.
Thompson also employed this method to find answers at the running back position. After letting Ahman Green leave in free agency to Houston (also a great move in retrospect), the Packers had no proven talent or depth at the position in 2007. The best players at the position were Noah Herron and Vernand Morency. Herron was previously a seventh round pick of the Steelers and had spent a year and a half on the Packers roster in a backup role. Morency was the player received the prior year when Samkon Gado was traded to the Texans, and he had not even been through a full offseason with the Packers yet. In the draft, Thompson went out and spent a premium (second round) draft pick on Brandon Jackson, as well as a seventh round pick on DeShawn Wynn. Going into the season, it looked like Thompson and his staff were hoping that one of those unproven players would emerge and "stick to the wall."
None of the players ran away with the job, and the problem was compounded when Noah Herron injured his knee in the final preseason game. Thompson then had to pay a higher premium again; he did something he was loath to do, which was trade away a future draft pick. He sent the following year's sixth round draft pick to the Giants for Ryan Grant. Since he missed all of training camp, it took Grant a while to learn the playbook and earn the trust of the coaches, but over the second half of the season it was apparent that he would be able to fill the gaping hole at that position.
This season, the Packers are using the spaghetti approach again with their defensive linemen. It became a glaring need last year after nobody stepped up to fill the void next to B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, which had been left by the departure of Cullen Jenkins in free agency. Former second round pick Mike Neal will be given one more chance, but is hurt by his inability to stay healthy, along with his pending suspension. He is joined on the roster by other former draft picks C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn, and Lawrence Guy. On top of that, Thompson aggressively picked up quite a few players to add to the mix. He signed Anthony Hargrove, Daniel Muir, and Phillip Merling, all of whom have several years of NFL experience. He also went out and drafted Jerel Worthy (second round) and Mike Daniels (fourth round). The Packers typically keep six defensive linemen. Raji, Pickett, and Worthy are locks. Daniels probably is too because of his draft position. That leaves seven players with a legitimate shot to vie for two roster spots. (Johnny Jones is also on the roster, but must be considered the longest of long shots.) This might be the best example yet of the spaghetti approach during Thompson's tenure.
There have been other examples that could be cited as well. When Darren Sharper was let go in 2005, there was a void at safety. The Packers weren't confident Mark Roman was the answer, so Thompson signed two players with more than five years of NFL experience, Arturo Freeman and Earl Little. He also drafted Nick Collins and Marviel Underwood.
In 2008, there was a void at the backup quarterback position. Rather than just signing a veteran free agent, Thompson drafted two players (Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn) in hopes that at least one of them would pan out. He did something similar in 2010 when he brought in Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan to compete for the open punter spot.
And over the past couple of seasons, the Packers have used the spaghetti approach with the OLB position opposite Clay Matthews. They have tried a combination of Frank Zombo, Brad Jones, Erik Walden, Ricky Elmore, Vic So'oto, and Jamari Lattimore, to various degrees of success. Ted had to up the ante in that regard again, spending a first round pick this year on Nick Perry. By mid-season the Packers should have a good idea how this position will shake out.
Thompson's approach has worked in the past, and there is no reason to think it will not work again. Although it may not satisfy fans who want immediate gratification and want to see holes on the roster filled swiftly and decisively, the approach is a much more cost-effective method than big free agent signings.
Maybe Ted Thompson isn't his frugal father's son anymore after trading up three times in this year's draft, but try as he may he just can't stray too far from his roots. After all, if you're trying to save money and not eat out, isn't spaghetti one of the cheapest meals you can make?
(Photo Credit: www.jerseyal.com)