GREEN BAY, Wis. — Perhaps Ted Thompson deserves the credit. Maybe it goes back to Ron Wolf for implementing a successful system two decades ago. Regardless of how it exactly happened, the winning ways of the Green Bay Packers in recent years have opened the door for many of the franchise’s top executives to quickly elevate their careers throughout the NFL.
Having the title of Director of Football Operations for the Packers has evolved to basically meaning one thing: Good luck as the next general manager of another team. It happened with John Schneider, then Reggie McKenzie and this offseason with John Dorsey.
It’s become a rite of passage through Green Bay.
“We’ve had some losses in terms of guys taking really good jobs around the league,” Thompson said at the Scouting Combine in late February. “We encourage that. We foster it. It’s something Ron Wolf started back in the day. It’s next man up.”
The way Thompson and his staff have built the Packers has become the model for how nearly every team across the league hopes to reach a championship level.
The strategy is simple: Draft well, develop those players and sign them before they reach free agency.
The execution is much more difficult. That’s why these now-former Green Bay executives have been in such high demand.
With the exception of signing cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett in 2006, the Packers drafted all of their significant contributors. A group of players led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers (24th overall pick in 2005) on offense and linebacker Clay Matthews (26th overall pick in 2009) on defense has given Green Bay a young, talented team that won a Super Bowl in 2011 and followed that up with back-to-back NFC North titles and divisional-round postseason appearances.
Singling out Rodgers and Matthews, though, doesn’t do justice to the supporting cast Thompson’s staff has surrounded them with, including a deep group of wide receivers now featuring Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb (both second-round picks), outstanding offensive guard Josh Sitton (fourth round, 2008), impactful defensive lineman B.J. Raji (first round, 2009) and four quality young defensive backs in Casey Hayward (second round, 2012), Davon House (fourth round, 2011), Morgan Burnett (third round, 2010) and Sam Shields (undrafted).
That roster wasn’t put together by happenstance. It’s the product of hard work from smart, savvy football executives who couldn’t stay hidden under Thompson for very long.
When the track record of success in Green Bay continued, the rest of the NFL was sure to notice and scoop up Thompson’s top-ranking members. And that’s exactly what has happened.
Schneider didn’t grow up far from Lambeau Field. Born and raised in De Pere, Wis., he was only 31 years old when he first joined the Packers’ front office in 2002. Six years later, he was promoted to Director of Football Operations.
In Jan. 2010, the Seattle Seahawks hired Schneider as their general manager.
From a personality perspective, Schneider is nothing like his former boss, Thompson. When Schneider was at the podium at the Scouting Combine, he laughed, joked around and casually mentioned cocaine and guns when discussing what he had once seen on a prospect’s Facebook page. Later, he recalled how Dorsey used to have “a porn ‘stache.”
So, while Schneider learned how to operate a football team from Thompson, he certainly didn’t attend the same public-speaking courses.
“Believe it or not, he’s very fun to hang out with,” Schneider said of the quiet and reserved Thompson. “I’ve seen him on TV and stuff (and) I think he’s way better at it now. He’s gotten much better and much more comfortable. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s part of the job.”
Schneider is an unquestioned up-and-coming star in the world of NFL front offices. He’s turned the Seahawks from a team that had only nine combined wins in the two seasons prior to his taking over to an exciting group coming off an 11-5 regular-season record that also added a playoff victory.
Unlike Thompson, Schneider hasn’t been timid in making headline-grabbing trades and free-agent signings. This offseason alone, Schneider traded for wide receiver Percy Harvin and signed defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
Despite that difference in offseason approach, Schneider gave a lot of credit to Thompson for teaching him what he knows and now applies in Seattle.
“Ted is a great person; He’s a great teacher, a great leader, extremely even-keeled,” Schneider said. “I think he’s probably taught a lot of us to be even-keeled and humble. He’s a great guy.”
McKenzie spent 17 years in the Packers’ organization from 1994 to 2011, beginning as a pro personnel assistant and later spending 10 years as the team’s director of pro personnel.
Once McKenzie’s title changed to director of football operations in 2008, it took him less than four years in that position before the Raiders noticed and hired him as their new general manager in January 2012.
McKenzie began the difficult task of replacing deceased owner Al Davis, who had run the organization without a true general manager in place for a long time.
Unlike Schneider, whose football career only lasted until his freshman season at a small private school in Minnesota, McKenzie played seven NFL seasons at linebacker. Thompson, who played 10 years in the league, believes that will help McKenzie succeed in Oakland.
“I personally think there’s an advantage, but it’s not an end-all, be-all,” Thompson said of playing in the NFL helping to become a successful general manager. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be a good scout. Ron Wolf, one of the best scouts I’ve ever been around, never really played. But I think there is an advantage.”
Dorsey became the latest to go from the Packers’ director of football operations position to general manager of a different team when he was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs in January.
Dorsey had a few roles in Green Bay after starting out as a college scout in 1991. He later was the director of college scouting in the late 1990s and held the same title again for 12 years until 2012 before his promotion to director of football operations.
“John doesn’t need my advice, but we still talk,” Thompson said. “The Chiefs are in good hands, I can promise you on that.”
Dorsey took over the worst team in the NFL from the 2012 season, which has Kansas City picking No. 1 overall in a draft that lacks a clear-cut top-pick talent.
Dorsey, who worked under both Wolf and Thompson in Green Bay, plans to use aspects each of them taught him.
“We all started under the one plan, and it has been the Ron Wolf plan,” Dorsey said. “We have all grown from that plan, we have learned from that plan and that is kind of where we are today. I think that plan speaks for itself. Each one of us has tweaked it to our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Schneider recalled a story from 1984 when Dorsey was preparing for the draft as a player.
“At his pro timing day, he moved the starting cone up a yard so he could run faster,” Schneider said of Dorsey.
Dorsey, a fourth-round pick by Green Bay in 1984, only played five seasons in the NFL — all with the Packers — before transitioning to a front office role two years later.
“He’s just the ultimate grinder,” Schneider said of Dorsey. “He just never stops. He’s huge on tradition, so being able to go to Kansas City for him, really hard to leave Green Bay, having played there and everything, but if there was a team to go to … he was really excited about it.”
Moving forward in Green Bay
As Thompson has lost his right-hand man year after year, promotions have been available for others in the Packers’ organization to climb up the front office ranks. One person who’s benefited from that is Wolf’s son, Eliot, who at only 31 years old is Green Bay’s director of pro personnel.
For now, though, Thompson added director of football operations to his own list of titles that also includes executive vice president.
“We’re very happy for all those guys that have gotten those good jobs,” Thompson said. “They’re going to do a great job around the league and kind of carry on probably much the way Ron Wolf taught us all.”