General Manager Ted Thompson, left, and former GM Ron Wolf during Green Bay Packers training camp at Clarke Hinkle Field on August 18, 2008. / File/Press-Gazette
In this Feb. 4, 2009 file photo, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis smiles during an NFL football news conference at Raiders headquarters in Alameda, Calif. / File/AP
Ron Wolf cut his teeth as a football scout for Al Davis in 1963 and spent about 15 years in two stints working for that NFL giant who died last weekend at age 82.
Wolf eventually became the general manager who engineered the Green Bay Packers’ resurrection starting in the early 1990s, and his influence remains with the organization a decade after his retirement in the men who succeeded him, Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson. Both entered NFL management with the Packers and while Wolf was running the team.
But if you’re looking for tangible signs of Davis’ influence via Wolf on today’s Packers, you won’t find them.
That’s not to say the influence isn’t there, because it is. But it’s not in the most obvious places, such as the Packers’ college and pro scouting systems that, at their core, are the same as when Wolf implemented them in 1992. They’re based more on what Wolf learned working for the New York Jets in the 1980s and early ‘90s than on anything Davis did.
It’s also not in the Packers’ coaching systems today. The Packers still use, in a broad sense, the San Francisco 49ers-based West Coast offense that former coach Mike Holmgren brought to the organization in ’92. Coach Mike McCarthy’s version comes from the Paul Hackett branch of that tree, not Holmgren’s, but it’s still nothing like Davis’ preferred offensive philosophy, which emphasizes the deep passing game.
Still, Wolf insists Davis’ influence on him was profound. Judging by an interview with Wolf this week, it probably shows up in today’s Packers in more personal ways among their scouts, such as work ethic, performance standards and the fundamentals of evaluating players.
“I’m sure there’s a lot that I brought here that was embedded in me from what (Davis) taught me,” Wolf said.
Davis, most importantly, taught Wolf how to scout players.
Wolf had just finished final exams at the University of Oklahoma in 1963 when Davis called him with a job offer out of the blue.
The editor of “Pro Football Illustrated” (now “Pro Football Weekly”) happened to be in Northern California attending a wedding when Davis became the Raiders’ coach and GM, so he went to Oakland to interview Davis about the new jobs. During their conversation, Davis said he needed an assistant scout who was good at remembering names, and the editor recommended Wolf, who had worked at “Pro Football Illustrated” the year before. Wolf jumped at the chance to break into pro football but had never scouted, so he learned by spending hours watching game film with Davis and his four-man coaching staff.
The AFL at the time had only eight teams and 33 players per team, so they’d watch everyone and rank each player by position.
“It was right in front of you, they were showing it on film,” Wolf said. “’This guy’s the best, and this guy’s the worst,’ why he’s the best and why he’s the worst. And Al did everything by comparison, he was a big comparison guy. He’d take the left tackles, and go one through eight in the AFL. You could see how they fell in and why a guy was really good and you could also see why a guy was really bad.”
It’s impossible to quantify what among those lessons Wolf passed to his Packers scouts, but you can be sure some of it got through in Wolf’s years of conducting scouting meetings in Green Bay. And now those scouts Wolf molded run the Packers.
Wolf, for starters, hired Thompson into NFL scouting in 1992 and worked with him through ’99. Wolf also hired the team’s current director-football operations, Reggie McKenzie, in 1994, and retained and promoted the current director of college scouting, John Dorsey, after Dorsey had joined the team as a college scout in ’91, less than a year before the Packers’ hired Wolf as GM.
Then there’s Wolf’s son, Eliot, who began studying game video with his father at age 10 and starting the next year, 1993, has worked either unofficially or officially on every Packers draft since. He’s now the team’s assistant director of player personnel.
Wolf said Davis also pushed him hard, was a stickler for thoroughness in written reports and challenged his conclusions. Scouts who worked for Wolf likewise say he set high standards for effort, put them on the spot to defend their stances, and was attentive to detail, including intolerant of grammatical and typographical errors in reports.
“(Davis) was very demanding,” Wolf said. “But he also let you do your thing. He could not stand a haphazard report or a haphazard attempt to do something. It was either all or nothing, and you learned how to do it that way to please him. You’d try to go over everything with him when you had a situation, try to explain to him, and invariably he’d ask the one question you never thought of. He was a genius.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.