Packers' decision on Eliot Wolf's future looms

Pete Dougherty
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Going back at least to 2009, Eric De Costa routinely has been turning down interviews for general manager jobs around the NFL.

De Costa is the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant general manager, and year after year he would be one of the top candidates for GM openings in the league if he were so inclined.

But according to the Baltimore Sun, De Costa’s contract makes him the team’s next GM whenever Ozzie Newsome leaves the Ravens. So De Costa, now 44, has shown no interest in running another team.

It’s relevant for the Green Bay Packers because they also have a highly regarded young front-office executive who’s going to become a hot candidate for GM jobs around the league: Eliot Wolf.

Though only 33, Wolf is an experienced NFL scout. He started tagging along to draft meetings with his father, former Packers GM Ron Wolf, when he was about 9. He began working summer scouting internships in the NFL, which included writing up reports on players, at 14. And now as the Packers' director of player personnel, he's listed as the team's highest adviser to GM Ted Thompson.

Wolf's name popped up prominently in media reports about the two true GM vacancies in the league this offseason, Tennessee and Detroit. Cleveland also has an opening for a GM in title, but the job doesn’t include final say over personnel.

An NFL source told me that at least one of the two clubs contacted the Packers about interviewing Wolf, but Thompson denied the request. The Packers can’t prevent Wolf from leaving for a job that includes final say over personnel, but they can block him from interviewing until their season is over, and it wasn’t at the time.

Both jobs now are filled. Tennessee hired Jon Robinson, who had worked in the front offices of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots. Detroit hired Bob Quinn, who had spent his career with the Patriots.

Still, it’s clear Wolf will be a prominent candidate for GM openings around the league in the coming years. So that made me wonder whether the Packers have or plan to talk to him about becoming their De Costa.

This week Mark Murphy, the team’s president and CEO, said he hasn’t and sounded like it’s not in his plans.

“I think a lot of Eliot,” Murphy said. “Obviously very bright and literally grew up in the business. This became a big thing in college athletics, having a coach in waiting. I think a couple things: You hate to tie an organization’s or athletic department’s hands. For league rules it’s also important that you go through searches, too.”

The NFL’s Rooney Rule actually wouldn’t apply if the Packers and Wolf agreed in writing that he’d be the team’s next GM. The Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and GM jobs, with an exception if someone on staff has in his contract that he’s the successor if the job opens.

Regardless, the Packers will have to confront Wolf’s future one way or another, perhaps as soon as next year, when more GM jobs will open and more teams consider hiring him.

The main questions then are how long Thompson will continue as GM, and whether Murphy and the Packers’ Executive Committee want Wolf to succeed him.

I’ve asked around and gleaned little insight into how long Thompson is likely to stay on. He turned 62 last week and has three more years on his contract.

One school of thought says he’s a scout at heart and after any of the next couple seasons might move to his land in Texas and work as an area college scout. Another is that he’ll work through his current contract and retire after the 2018 season at age 65. Another says that his work is also his only hobby and that he’ll want to work beyond age 65.

Murphy said that Thompson’s health is fine. Two years ago, Thompson had a slow recovery from hip-replacement surgery.

“That was a difficult surgery,” Murphy said. “But that was a few years and ago. I think that’s behind him.”

Regardless, Thompson appears to have Murphy’s strong support. Murphy is 60 and starting his ninth year as head of the franchise.

“Hopefully (Thompson will stay on) as long as he wants to and feels good about what he’s doing,” Murphy said. “I think we’re fortunate to have him.”

The other question is whether Murphy wants Wolf as Thompson’s successor.

I would think Wolf would be the top candidate, though Seattle’s John Schneider, a De Pere Pennings graduate and former Packers executive, also could be high on the list.

The Packers actually have at least three front-office executives who could be future GMs. Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith, who is the team’s senior personnel executive, could take over a team tomorrow. Brian Gutekunst, their director of college scouting, also looks like a possible GM but likely needs at least one or two seasons working in a larger role before running a team.

No matter, I’ll bet the Packers’ next GM is either Wolf or Schneider.

Schneider is Seattle’s GM but could leave the Seahawks because coach Pete Carroll has final say over personnel. He has done well helping build a team that went to the last two Super Bowls and won one of them. The Packers could find that experience and success with another team attractive.

But Wolf likely has the advantage from working in-house while Schneider has been away since 2010. This franchise has a history of promoting stability and rewarding good work by hiring from within. Murphy will have seen Wolf’s work and growth first-hand.

Also, Wolf’s youth shouldn’t be an issue for the Packers or any other team. In baseball, Theo Epstein became the Boston Red Sox’s GM at 28 and two years later won that franchise’s first World Series in 86 years. Just this offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers hired 30-year-old David Stearns as their GM.

Though Wolf is 33, he started training as a talent evaluator at 14. In scouting years he’s closer to 40 than 33.

No doubt other teams recognize that as well. I read through several national media reports listing the top GM candidates going into this offseason, and Wolf was on every one.

So as early as next year, he could have a good shot at running another team. Then Murphy and the Packers’ executive committee will have some decisions.

If Wolf is their preferred successor to Thompson, they’ll have to convince him to stay. Murphy doesn’t sound inclined to do it with a contract promising him the job, though he could at minimum imply it via salary.

And who knows? Maybe Wolf is willing to wait without a written promise. He has been a de facto member of the organization since moving to Green Bay as a grade schooler, and the possibility of running the same franchise that his father resurrected in the 1990s has to have great appeal.

Also, the Packers’ GM is among the most attractive front-office jobs in the NFL. As long as the setup remains as it has been since late 1991, the Packers’ GM will have autonomy on all football matters, and because the franchise doesn’t have to pay an owner and his family, it pours almost all its vast resources into football operations.

But is it a given Wolf would take his chances and wait without a written guarantee? I don’t know. I’d have to think there are at least a couple other GM jobs out there that he’d find highly attractive if offered. But at minimum, the possibility of the Packers’ job will allow him to be picky.

As to whether the Packers should push out Thompson if Wolf gets another offer, I’d say no, assuming they're still happy with their current GM's work. If they like Wolf that much, convince him to wait.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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