Packers’ GM maintains high-talent, low-overhead roster despite rising costs

Thompson sits tight in free agency because Packers’ financial considerations leave razor-thin margin for wasted bonuses

GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson isn’t a tight wad. He’s a trapeze artist. Or better yet, a magician.
The Packers’ general manager is roundly criticized each offseason for being inactive during the NFL’s free agent frenzy.
The criticism is misguided and misses the point.
Thompson isn’t careful in free agency because that is his preferred style. He’s careful because the Packers’ fiscal parameters demand it. He isn’t a salary hard-liner because he doubts free agents can help his team win. It’s because protecting the team’s financial future trumps all.
That tightrope is difficult to walk. It also is singular to Green Bay. While the Packers have $239 million in cash reserves, the Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blanc have Home Depot and an estimated $105 billion.
When the Packers pay top dollar in guaranteed bonuses to free agents, they aren’t limited by salary cap space. They are limited by how much actual money they can allow to walk out the door.
There are reasons teams slash salaries in the annual cost-cutting measures each spring. It is to get their salary cap back in whack. That doesn’t happen in Green Bay because the Packers don’t play in free agency, and therefore routinely have more cap room than cash.
Thompson and the Packers have $100,000 in dead money in 2013.
Dead money is cash being paid to players who no longer play for that team. By comparison the Colts have $38 million in dead money, the Cowboys have $27 million, the Redskins have $20 million and so on.
Clearly, there is a correlation between teams’ amount of dead money and their failed attempts to fill holes through high-priced free agents.
The TV revenue from the collective bargaining agreement sets the annual salary cap number ($123 million this year), and provides teams with the revenue to pay player salaries. It does not cover the guaranteed bonuses that deep-pocket owners routinely pay out and spread out.
The Packers have $239 million in cash reserves, much of which has been targeted to pay for re-signing their own key veterans.
It is reasonable to think they will be paying Aaron Rodgers ($55 million) and Clay Matthews ($35 million) perhaps $90 million in guaranteed money. It is well-deserved and the cost of doing business.
And it is why Thompson must be prudent in free agency.
That $239 million minus $115 million (Rodgers, Matthews, Jennings, Jackson and a safety) quickly becomes $124 million. The Packers could afford to do it, but they couldn’t justify it.
Even if all three players fulfilled their contracts it is still a huge hit. If they fail because of injury or decline it’s a disaster.
Why Thompson deserves praise, rather than criticism, is for being able to sustain the team’s excellence without the benefit of free agency.
The Packers are among the NFL’s youngest teams each year because young players are the least expensive.
Instead of allowing that to be a detriment, Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy endeavor to turn it into a positive.
Younger players heal quicker than older players. McCarthy preaches availability, and younger players tend to be return from injury quicker.
They also tend to enter the league with their eyes open and their mouths shut. That is especially true now that the new CBA has lowered the rookie pay scale and prevents restructuring for at least three years.
By comparison, high-priced veteran free agents tend to have been there, done that. They aren’t as likely to buy into a system when they think they’ve heard it all before. What is the Vikings’ coaching staff going to teach Jennings that will improve his game? Not much.
The Packers’ lack of play in free agency doesn’t sit well with fans, but it plays nicely in the locker room. T.J. Lang’s tweets to the Detroit Lions were his way of saying Green Bay doesn’t buy titles, it builds them.
Trust me, McCarthy may not like Lang goading a division opponent, but he has to agree with promoting the concept.
Clearly, fans were disappointed when the Packers didn’t sign Jackson.
Jackson, who signed in Atlanta, would have been nice in the backfield. However, 30-year-old running backs, no matter how tough and decorated, constitute high risk at $4 million guaranteed.
It’s why the Packers are apt to draft a running back in the first round. For the choosing, and at a bargain, they can select the back of their choice and develop him in their system.
It isn’t as sexy as free agency, but come September nobody will care if the rookie meets expectations.
Fortunately, the Packers’ terrific scouting department works the draft as well as anyone. Part of that is because the Packers put a premium on their scouts and value their input. Again, that is because they can’t simply spend their way out of talent miscalculations.
To think Thompson’s frugal history in free agency is simply his management style is to miss what’s been happening in Seattle and Kansas City. Seahawks’ GM John Schneider and Chiefs’ GM John Dorsey – both Thompson disciples – are among the league’s biggest spenders in free agency.
They are exceptional talent scouts who are shackled by few fiscal constraints. They spent years learning under Thompson, but that didn’t keep them from being huge players in free agency after they left.
It is why a Chiefs-Seahawks Super Bowl isn’t all that farfetched.
At the end of the day, Packers’ fans should be grateful for Thompson’s talent and effort given the unique challenge he faces here. Hopefully, there comes a day when player salaries stop soaring (doubtful) or the league allows the Packers’ owners (the fans) to help pay player salaries.
Until then, the Packers’ sustained excellence is actually stunning. Green Bay has won a Super Bowl in the past three years.
Thirteen teams still haven’t won one.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio ( Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.