GREEN BAY – Don’t tell Ted Thompson that the final preseason game is meaningless. When the Green Bay Packers general manager insisted Wednesday that the game is “important,” he had an example at the ready of what a career-changing game it can be:
Desmond Howard in 1996.
“Desmond Howard wasn’t going to make our team,” Thompson, then the Packers vice president of player personnel, recalled Wednesday. “He hadn’t had very good (preseason) games. I think he was hurt in a couple preseason games, and didn’t play very well at receiver. [Coach] Mike [Holmgren] and [general manager] Ron [Wolf] decided that we would put him out there and let him return the whole game and see how he does.
“I think he returned a couple for touchdowns, and wound up having, especially there at the end of the season, [an incredible] run, maybe the finest piece of football returning that I have ever seen. So you never know.”
Although Thompson’s memory of the details from that game are a bit hazy – Howard did not, in fact, score any touchdowns in the Packers’ 30-6 preseason-ending loss at Indianapolis, and his punt return touchdown had actually come against Pittsburgh two weeks earlier – the point still applies. Howard went on to lead the league that season in punt return touchdowns, and had an unforgettable 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI victory – earning himself the Most Valuable Player Award. He is still the only special-teams player to be named MVP.
The Packers may not keep a future Super Bowl because of Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field, but coach Mike McCarthy knows that Thompson will make the best decisions he can when it comes to trimming the roster to 53 players before Saturday’s deadline.
“I don’t know if I ever met a coach who didn’t think he was a great personnel guy,” Head coach Mike McCarthy said. “But I’ve never met a personnel guy who didn’t think he was a hell of a coach. I think that’s just our business.
“It’s fun. I have great respect for the process and structure that’s been in place since Ron Wolf came here in ’92. Just the way our people go about it, there’s just a lot of confidence from a personnel department to the coaching department, and vice-versa. It’s definitely a fun part of the job. But the final decisions are the things that you kind of just beat yourself up over. Ted, he’s the ultimate about being patient, being thorough.”
On Wednesday, a day after the club had placed six players – B.J. Raji (biceps), Jared Abbrederis (knee), Don Barclay (knee), Raijon Neal (Knee), Andrew Tiller (calf) and Joe Thomas (knee) – on season-ending injured reserve. Thompson walked into McCarthy’s office to chat about the upcoming moves.
“I went in to see him this morning just to say that we are going to have a tough couple of days, and we have to keep what’s in the best interest of this football team [in mind].” Thompson said. “Those young men downstairs, we [have] to put that at the forefront.
“We won’t worry about ‘Oh, I thought that guy is going to be that kind of player, or this guy disappointed me, or the coaches are like this guy and the scouts are like this guy.’ We can’t get into that. We have to do what is right for the Packers and most of all what is right for the people in that locker room.”
That includes making tough decisions, which Thompson isn’t afraid to make even though he doesn’t enjoy making them.
“We put a lot of work into building our roster,” Thompson added. “I am more a gatherer than I am a getting rid of guys [guy]. I would rather keep people if we are putting a lot of work into them. Our coaches are really good at getting our guys ready to play. If a young man can help us win then why not give him a chance?”
While making 22 more moves will be difficult, Thompson will do so knowing he and McCarthy did everything what they believed was right.
“I like the makeup of our guys. I like the way they’ve been playing. It is a strange world and you never know but I think – and this is one of my patented sayings – but I think if we play well, we will have a chance to win some games.
“And that is OK in the NFL.”
Tony Cartagena covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on twitter at @TonyCartagena.