Principle vs. reality for Ted Thompson

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

They tricked us. Or, at least, they fooled me.

When Green Bay acknowledged this winter it was shifting to a 3-4 defense, my thoughts moved immediately to free agency. Finally! Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be forced to dabble in a market he has historically disdained. After all, the Packers were built as a 4-3 team and it's unreasonable to expect every player can make the transition. You figured the Packers would need at least one or two new veteran starters to smooth out the makeover.

Tuesday, however, marks the 33rd day of free agency -- and Thompson has changed nothing about his offseason approach. The Packers have signed two veterans, but safety Anthony Smith and offensive lineman Duke Preston project as backups and play positions that don't impact the schematic transition.

So what gives? How could Thompson justify such a passive offseason approach following a 6-10 season that spurred the defensive overhaul?

I missed Thompson at last week's NFL owners' meeting, but he told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he is satisfied with the personnel makeup of the team. "We're pretty solid in our starting lineup," was the way Thompson put it. Later, he added: "I think our team is built as such we don't, in my opinion, have some glaring needs."

In essence, Thompson stood pat. In poker terms, he checked. Many fans and observers are bewildered by the paradox between changing schemes and sitting tight on personnel; in the end it represents a staunch and perhaps stubborn display of confidence in past drafts and the prospects for this year's affair. But let's be clear: The approach has left the Packers with no room for error in the April 25-26 draft and little doubt about how to judge the 2009 season.

That final clause is the part that intrigues me the most. The Packers aren't the only team that stood on the sidelines of free agency this year. You don't have to look further than the NFC North to notice that Minnesota has done nothing more than trade for a career backup quarterback and sign a nickelback. Chicago has quietly revamped its offensive line but hasn't addressed its defense in a meaningful way.

The Vikings, however, will return a team that won 10 games last season. The Bears went 9-7 and lost three games after leading late in the fourth quarter. The Packers, on the other hand, dropped seven of their final nine games and produced the ninth-worst record in the NFL. To stand pat after a 6-10 season is to stake your career on the idea that it was an aberration rather than a sign of long-term trouble.

Sure, the Packers hired a new defensive staff led by coordinator Dom Capers to revamp the scheme. But those changes are tied to the flexibility of the personnel on hand. Speaking earlier this month at the Packers' FanFest, Capers said the transition will be a "process" and added: "I wish I had a comfort level where I could stand here and say we've got everything we need, but you probably couldn't get a coach in the league to say that."

Before free agency began, we noted the change would be a step-by-step process. But a little more than a month later, the Packers don't seem to have made any progress from a personnel standpoint. They haven't taken any steps. We're not any closer to naming their four-man group of linebackers. We don't know who would replace nose tackle Ryan Pickett if he were injured. We have to wonder whether Johnny Jolly can handle left end -- and, even if he can, whether he will face NFL discipline as a result of an arrest in Houston last summer. That's a totality of uncertainty you don't want to be facing a year after finishing 6-10.

If nothing else, free agency could have provided alternatives worth embracing with more enthusiasm than Thompson has. That doesn't mean the Packers should have paid $41 million in guaranteed money to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. It doesn't necessarily mean they should be pursuing a trade for Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

But even if it meant overpaying a bit, w
ouldn't you feel a bit better if the Packers knew they could turn to, say, Kevin Burnett at linebacker or Igor Olshansky at defensive end? Even from a standpoint of pure principle, it would demonstrate the Packers were pursuing every option available to improve their team and, consequently, transfer one less position of pressure to the draft.

What I'm building to is this: Thompson should face serious questions and be exposed to high accountability should the personnel group he is endorsing not generate a significant improvement from last season. If the Packers produce another losing season, Thompson's failure to address the 2008 performance more aggressively will prove to be a grave mistake.

This tack ultimately will validate or revoke the philosophy of setting a base, as Thompson did in his first season, and then building almost exclusively through the draft.

I did catch up last week to the man who ultimately will evaluate Thompson's performance. Team president/CEO Mark Murphy expressed no regret about the approach to free agency but made clear it was an option if Thompson wanted to use it.

Here's the exchange Murphy had with Silverstein and me:

What's been your assessment of the offseason?

Mark Murphy: Well, to me the biggest change was following the season, [coach Mike McCarthy] changing the coaching staff. I'm very encouraged. I've been very impressed with Dom Capers and the staff he and Mike have put together. I think you'll see a difference on the field. We haven't been big players in free agency, obviously, to this point.

Did you know that going in?

MM: We're always looking for opportunities, but we want to make sure it makes sense and fits into our long-term plans.

Did you expect more out of free agency?

MM: Free agency isn't over yet. It's not a one-week event. It goes on for quite a while. I still think you look historically and the better teams are built through the draft. And then filling needs in free agency.

Were there any financial restrictions on Thompson?

MM: No.

Did the football budget remain the same?

MM: Yeah, we haven't dropped off.

I didn't sense any impatience or exasperation from Murphy, but he has a long history in the NFL and knows how successful teams are built. He understands the risks and rewards of Thompson's offseason gambit and no doubt will judge him accordingly.

Thompson prefers to focus on the draft, and the Packers have a chance to grab an immediate starter with the No. 9 overall pick. But a great draft would produce two or three starters across the board. Is it reasonable to expect immediate defensive dividends from one draft? Consider that last year's draft produced two immediate starters in the entire NFC North. Both were tailbacks: Chicago's Matt Forte and Detroit's Kevin Smith. Otherwise, it's a crapshoot.

Thompson isn't the only NFL general manager who shies away from free agency. But the combination of last year's 6-10 record and the defensive changes has put his approach into critical focus moving forward.