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."