The smart money is on Ron Wolf getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame early next year.
Wolf, the former Green Bay Packers general manager, and Bill Polian, the former GM for Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, are the first two nominees under the hall's new contributor category.
The hall added the category because it has inducted only 19 contributors — that is, for something other than playing or coaching. And of those 19, only one, Jim Finks, was chosen because of his work as a general manager and scout.
So maybe the strongest point in Wolf's and Polian's favor is that the nine-person contributor subcommittee decided that among this underrepresented group, their cases are the strongest. That probably will carry a lot of weight among the 46 voters on the selection committee.
"I can tell you this, and I hope others have my philosophy: I will automatically vote for whoever that committee recommends among the contributors," said John McClain, an NFL columnist for the Houston Chronicle and Hall of Fame voter. "Ron's deserving and Bill's deserving. They wouldn't be in there if they weren't."
The contributor category is a five-year experiment and works similarly to the seniors category that's been in place since 1972. Finalists for both categories automatically get an up-or-down vote from the 46-member selection committee and need 80 percent in favor for induction. This year there are two contributor nominees and one senior, and that will alternate over the next five years. Then, the hall will review its procedures.
Aside from being the first contributors to make the final cut, Wolf's and Polian's odds look good based on the history of the seniors committee nominees. Of the 52 seniors finalists, 41 (78.9 percent) have been voted in.
"I'd say the chances (for Wolf) are pretty good, but they're not 100 percent," said Dan Pompei, a columnist for Bleacher Report and a hall voter. "There are times when some of the senior committee candidates get shot down by the overall committee. This is something completely new."
To give a sense of how difficult it's been for GMs to get serious consideration, consider the hall's history since 1970, when it went to an official format of 15 modern-day finalists. (That expanded to up to 17 with the seniors committee, and now with the contributor category is at 18).
When the voters meet to choose each year's class the day before the Super Bowl, they cut the list from 15 to 10, and then from 10 to five. Only the final five, plus the subcommittee recommendations, get an up or down vote.
And for perspective, only two GMs, Finks and the New York Giants' George Young, have made the final 15.
Finks built the dominant Minnesota Vikings of the late 1960s through mid-1970s, then turned around the Chicago Bears in the early 1980s and New Orleans Saints in the late '80s and early '90s. He made the final five on his first chance and was voted in.
Young, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, made the final 15 three times. But he never was voted in.
Another front office executive, Dallas' Tex Schramm, is in the hall as team president and GM. But he was primarily an administrator, not a personnel man, and also was highly influential in NFL management as an adviser to former commissioner Pete Rozelle.
The hall had no written or, according to voters interviewed here, unwritten rules about criteria for GMs. But comparing them to great players and even coaches proved nearly impossible, so team builders such as Young, Wolf, Polian and Bobby Beathard couldn't get to an up or down vote. They were eliminated in the cuts from 25 to 15, or in the final meeting room when the list went from 15 to five.
"I think everyone struggled with comparing (former 49ers owner) Ed DeBartolo to (receiver) Marvin Harrison, for instance," Pompei said. "At what point do you say that a contributor had a greater impact on the game than a great player did? It was very, very difficult. There was a feeling that very strong contributor candidates weren't getting a day in court."
Wolf's case starts with his work as the Packers' GM, where he turned around a franchise that from 1968 through 1991 went to the playoffs only twice. Wolf won one Super Bowl, advanced to another, and in his nine full seasons (1992-2000), the Packers' .639 winning percentage was second-best in the league, behind only San Francisco (.660).
Wolf also started a Packers golden era that has continued to this day under one of his protégés, Ted Thompson. Since '93, the Packers have missed the playoffs only five times, and their .635 winning percentage is second-best over that time, behind only New England (.663).
Wolf's signature moves were trading for all-time great quarterback Brett Favre, hiring Mike Holmgren as coach and signing Reggie White in free agency.
"And I always thought the guy was the best second-day drafter in history," said Dallas Morning News columnist and hall voter Rick Gosselin, referring to rounds 4 through 7 in the old draft format.
But Wolf is a finalist also in part because of the respect for his work with the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s through 1990. He was owner Al Davis' top adviser for most of those years and Davis' eyes and ears on the college scouting circuit while Davis was overseeing the team on site.
The Raiders won Super Bowls in the 1976, '80 and '83 seasons, and from the NFL merger in 1970 through Wolf's final season in the organization, 1990, their .654 winning percentage was the league's second-best.
"You look at Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, they were two of the best when it came to building teams," said Jarrett Bell, an NFL columnist for USA TODAY and member of the contributor subcommittee. "They had significant input with multiple organizations.
"With Wolf, one thing that doesn't get a lot of attention was what he did with the Oakland Raiders because he was in Al Davis' shadow. But Al Davis really needed someone to lean on — we're going back into the 1970s and '80s — and Ron Wolf was that guy."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.