Packers set up Wolf as likely next GM

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers must see Eliot Wolf as their next general manager.

At right, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson visits with former Packers general manager Ron Wolf and Eliot Wolf during training camp  at Ray Nitschke Field in 2015. Eliot Wolf was promoted Monday to director-football operations.

How else to interpret Wolf’s recent promotion to director of football operations, which is their highest player personnel position after current GM Ted Thompson?

Wolf’s job duties aren’t changing. So the most plausible interpretation is that they did it to give him a raise and let him and the rest of the NFL know that he will be Thompson’s successor.

There’s no indication they put it in writing — team president and CEO Mark Murphy said early in the offseason that he’s reluctant to “tie an organization’s” hands in that way. But when the Packers promoted Wolf a little more than a week ago, Murphy said he and Thompson have made a succession plan. It now appears that Wolf is that plan. With their money, and perhaps spoken word, they’ve let him know it.

“I get the impression that’s what’s planned,” said Bob Harlan, the Packers’ chairman emeritus, “that (Wolf) is getting a promotion now and when Ted goes, ‘You’ll get the No. 1 job.’ If they’re trying to keep other people away from him, this will accomplish that.”

So then the question is, why now?

It might be as simple as they know the 34-year-old Wolf will be in the running for vacant GM jobs next year — he had one nibble this offseason — and they wanted to be preemptive without knowing when Thompson will leave.

I wondered whether it meant Thompson is thinking of leaving sooner rather than later. He turned 63 in January and has three seasons left on his contract. But his health appears to be fine, and at least two people who know him — former GM Ron Wolf, who is Eliot’s father and Thompson’s scouting mentor, and Harlan, who hired Thompson as GM in 2005 — don’t see any signs that he won’t finish his contract.

“I’d think he still enjoys doing what he’s doing,” Ron Wolf said. “That’s 95 percent of the entire battle. As long as he’s enjoying it I see no reason for him to stop.”

Said Harlan: “Ted’s a tough guy to read. I haven’t talked to him for a long time, it’s been several months since I’ve talked to Ted. I’ve never gotten the impression from anybody that talks to him that his retirement is close. … I just keep wondering, what’s he going to do when he’s finished? He could become (an area) scout for somebody. Whether that would keep him occupied, I don’t know. He loves doing that work, that’s his life. To give it up totally would be a huge change for him.”

If I were a betting man, I’d bet Thompson finishes his contract and calls it quits after the ’18 season. But, obviously, that’s just a guess. Thompson is secretive. His best friends might not know his plans. He presumably has given Murphy at least an inkling of his thinking.

But things can change quickly, even if Thompson for now plans to finish his contract or perhaps even work beyond. Running an NFL team’s football operations is a demanding and wearing job.

Thompson is in his 12th season as the Packers’ GM, which makes him the sixth-longest tenured GM in the league behind only Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown (26th season), Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (18th season), New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kevin Colbert (17th season) and Baltimore Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome (14th season).

Thompson also is 63. Of that group listed above, only Brown (80), Jones (73) and Belichick (63) are older.

The way Thompson does the job, traveling the country most weeks during the regular season to scout college players, is a grind. That’s how Ron Wolf did it.

“The air travel is the big thing,” Ron Wolf said. “That wears you out. By the same token, today they have so many tools available to them that were not available to me. They can sit down and watch (video of) an individual player before they even go to a school. They know pretty much what they’re going to see when they go there. That’s so advantageous.”

Harlan was stunned when Ron Wolf told him in August of 2000 that he probably was going to retire in the 2001 offseason at the age of 62. So were Packers observers after the season when the team announced that ’01 would be Wolf’s final draft. It seemed to come out of nowhere, because Wolf’s health and team were good.

At the time, Wolf had often lamented to Harlan the difficulty of acquiring players during the season in the free-agency and salary-cap era of the NFL. He dreaded going to practice for fear of seeing a starter get injured and being unable to replace him adequately.

But Wolf also spoke often of “hitting the wall.”

“It just took me longer to do things,” he said this week. “If somehow somebody could have given me, instead of a 24-hour, a 36-hour clock I probably would have stayed.”

Harlan said he spoke with former New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi about a year ago and asked him if he missed the job. Accorsi had been the Giants’ GM for nine years and retired after the 2006 season at age 65.

“He said, ‘Bob, I’m so glad to be out of it I can’t stand it,” Harlan said. “He said, ‘I don’t even go to games.’ There is a stress, and there is a relief when it’s finished.”

There’s no knowing whether Thompson might hit that wall in the next year or two. It’s always a possibility.

But his health seems fine. He also has one of the game’s best quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, who at 32 still is in a quarterback’s prime, so that could be a big enticement to stay on.

“I’m not sure where it’s going or how soon,” Harlan said. “I’d just be surprised if Ted got out right away.”

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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