No end in sight for Ron Wolf's legacy
In the coming weeks, Ron Wolf will sit for the first of several sessions for his bronze bust that will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
The bust will be a permanent monument to Wolf's rebuilding of a Green Bay Packers organization that was the dregs of the NFL in the 1970s and '80s.
But Wolf also has a flesh and blood legacy still with the Packers, and it's looking like that could continue for years.
Ted Thompson, a Wolf protégé, has been the Packers' general manager since 2005 and runs the same scouting and grading systems that Wolf implemented in 1991 and '92, just as Mike Sherman did as coach and GM before Thompson.
Thompson already has had a long run as GM and signed a contract extension through the 2018 season, though that doesn't mean he'll finish out the deal. He turned 62 last month, and there's no knowing when he'll decide he's had enough. When Wolf announced in the 2001 offseason that he was stepping down after the draft at 63, it came out of the blue. Thompson very well could do the same thing in the next couple of seasons, or perhaps retire at 65.
But there's every reason to think Wolf's influence will continue in the organization whenever Thompson leaves. For starters, there's no reason to think team President and CEO Mark Murphy will change from the power structure that's worked so well under Wolf and Thompson, with a GM having final say over football operations, including the hiring and firing of the coach.
Even if coach Mike McCarthy were interested in both jobs, Murphy should say no. But that doesn't appear to be an issue anyway, because McCarthy has said publicly whenever asked that he has no interest in being anything other than the head coach. If I were running a team, unless I had to give both jobs to Bill Belichick to get him as coach, I'd separate the positions. They're too big for one man, including Belichick, who in truth is fortunate he has Bill Belichick as his coach.
And at this point, it's hard to see Murphy not hiring someone from Wolf's lineage among five strong candidates: John Schneider, the former Packers scout who is the Seattle Seahawks GM; Russ Ball, the Packers' vice president of football administration; John Dorsey, the Kansas City Chiefs GM; Eliot Wolf, the Packers' director of player personnel and son of Ron Wolf; and Alonzo Highsmith, the Packers' senior personnel executive.
All five have spent most or all of their careers as front-office executives working for Wolf, Thompson or both, and are steeped in Wolf's way of constructing a team. All are highly qualified. But only Murphy knows who is most likely to succeed Thompson.
Schneider, a De Pere native, is a natural fit because of his history with the Packers and performance as a GM. Wolf hired him out of college in 1992, and since then Schneider has worked his way up the ladder with the Packers, Kansas City, Washington and now Seattle. He's played a prominent role in building the Seahawks into a team that has played in back-to-back Super Bowls.
Schneider also has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave Seattle to become the Packers' GM. It's probably unnecessary, because coach Pete Carroll has final say in the Seahawks' football operations even if Schneider conducts the draft and drives the personnel moves for the 90-man roster. But the clause is a sign that running the Packers is Schneider's dream job.
However, it's not a given that the 43-year-old Schneider is next in line. For one, Murphy started with the Packers in December 2007 and Schneider left them in January 2010, so Murphy doesn't have as long a history with him as with several of the other candidates.
Also, Schneider works for one of the richest men in the world in Seahawks owner Paul Allen. As attractive as the Packers GM job is leaguewide because of the autonomy and organizational emphasis on football, the Seahawks also are attractive because of Allen's nearly unlimited resources. Schneider might not be persuaded by such things, but there's at least a chance that if the Packers showed interest, Allen could offer him a contract that would be difficult to turn down.
Ball, 55, is the most difficult candidate to gauge in part because his administrative background also puts him in line as a possible successor to Murphy as Packers president. Ball started with the Packers 2½ months after Murphy, so the two have a substantial working history together, and by all indications Murphy holds Ball in high regard.
Ball's football expertise is on the financial side — he's been managing the Packers' salary cap since 2008, and had a similar role with Minnesota (1999-2000), Washington (2001) and New Orleans (2002-07) before that. He's never worked formally as a scout but played college football at Central Missouri and often sits in on personnel and draft meetings.
The large majority of NFL teams have GMs who came up as scouts, but some teams over the last decade have gone with administrative-trained GMs. There currently are two GMs who never worked as scouts: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a former college football player who made his fortune primarily in the oil business, and Mickey Loomis, a former cap specialist who's GM of the New Orleans Saints.
Dorsey, 54, has a long history with the Packers as an area scout (1991-96), college scouting director ('97-98, and 2000-11) and director of football operations ('12). He has a 20-12 record the last two seasons as the Chiefs' GM.
Hiring Dorsey could be difficult, though, because he has final say over personnel with the Chiefs, which means they would have to give him permission to go to another team. It's also not clear whether he'd be inclined to leave, especially in the next few years.
The Chiefs' ownership has a good reputation among NFL scouts, and if Dorsey and his good friend and coach, Andy Reid, build a perennial winner, he might want to finish what he started.
Eliot Wolf is one of the league's rising young stars in personnel. He turns only 33 next month, so he'd be uncommonly young for a GM candidate if Thompson were to retire in the next year or two. But he also has more experience scouting than men a decade his senior — he filed his first personnel report as a 14-year-old intern with the Atlanta Falcons and began attending draft meetings with his father in 1993 — and has continued to accrue influence and responsibility since he joined the Packers full time in 2004.
Just this offseason, Thompson promoted him from director or pro personnel to director of player personnel. If Murphy thinks highly enough of Wolf, he might decide he has to hire him as GM when Thompson leaves even if he preferred Wolf had more seasoning, or risk losing him to another GM job in the league.
Like Wolf, Highsmith, who turns 50 on Feb. 26, has been around football his entire life growing up the son of player, then playing at a high level before going into scouting. His father, Walter, was an offensive lineman in the NFL, WFL and CFL, and coached in college and the CFL.
Highsmith was a running back in college at Miami and for six years in the NFL, and started his front-office career with the Packers in 1999 as a college area scout. He was promoted to his current role as senior personnel executive in 2012, and along with Eliot Wolf is Thompson's top adviser.
All five potential successors have worked for Ron Wolf and Thompson, and all would share a scouting system and basic principles that go back to Wolf if and when they run teams. At least four of them, in fact, are likely to be more like Wolf than Thompson when it comes to player acquisition.
Schneider and Dorsey have proven as GMs to be far more aggressive in free agency than Thompson, who generally disdains signing players on the open market. People who know Eliot Wolf and Highsmith say both also advocate using free agency more liberally.
Only Murphy knows the likely path after Thompson stops running the Packers' football operations. But even now, it's a great bet that Wolf's legacy will live on in Green Bay.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty