Dougherty: Questions swirl over Wolf's future

Pete Dougherty
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Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf (right) watches training camp practice.

When news broke this week that Eliot Wolf will interview for the San Francisco 49ers’ general manager job, my first thought was: Why are the Green Bay Packers allowing this?

NFL tampering rules say teams don’t have to let a personnel executive interview for a GM job until their season is finished, and the Packers’ season is not finished. GM Ted Thompson exercised that veto last year when the Detroit Lions called about Wolf while the Packers still were in the playoffs.

So why the change? Does Mark Murphy, Packers president and CEO, not consider Wolf the most likely successor to Thompson as GM? Is Murphy waiting to see if Wolf gets an offer before making some kind of move? Or are other factors at play?

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I’ve talked with several sources in Green Bay and around the NFL the last couple days trying to figure out what’s going on. None had much sense of Murphy’s plans to succeed Thompson, although Murphy has said publicly he has a plan.

In the end, Murphy might be the only person who knows how this would play out if Wolf is offered a GM job elsewhere. Wolf, the Packers’ 34-year-old director of football operations, will interview with the 49ers on Thursday. He’s one of six 49ers candidates who have been reported so far.

In the last couple days, I’ve come across three plausible theories for why Thompson granted Wolf permission to interview this year after blocking him in 2016.

One, the Packers didn’t want Wolf going to an NFC North rival last year.

Two, Thompson’s denial last year upset his mentor, Ron Wolf, the former Packers GM and father of Eliot Wolf, so out of deference to Ron Wolf, Thompson allowed Eliot to interview this year.

And three, Murphy has a preferred candidate to succeed Thompson, possibly Russ Ball, the team’s vice president of football administration/player finance.

Of the three theories, I find the first the most persuasive. It’s the reason Thompson wouldn’t trade Brett Favre to the Minnesota Vikings in 2008. To protect the Packers, he didn’t want a talented member of his team taking over a franchise that the Packers play twice a year, every year.

Theory No. 2 also is plausible. Ron Wolf, after all, brought Thompson into NFL scouting in 1992 and trained him in the profession. Thompson surely feels beholden to him, so maybe he changed course this year.

Green Bay Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf watches training camp practice.

And as for Murphy having Ball as the successor in mind, that’s possible as well.

In one way, it makes the most sense. Ball is highly respected in the Packers’ franchise and over the years has taken over almost all football operations outside player personnel. Murphy has worked with him daily for nine years and based on Ball’s status in the organization, it’s clear Murphy thinks highly of him.

But in another way, it seems like the least likely. Even though Ball sits in on draft and other personnel meetings, his primary training is in administration and salary-cap management. He’d be heavily reliant on scouts for personnel decisions.  So I’d think Murphy would stick with the Packers’ highly successful model over the last 25 years that has a trained personnel scout running football operations.

On top of that, there’s a long list of Wolf protégés who have gone on to become successful GMs (Thompson, John Schneider, John Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie and Scot McCloughan). Why would Murphy stray from that tree? Eliot Wolf, Brian Gutekunst and Alonzo Highsmith all are qualified in-house candidates trained in Ron Wolf's system.

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Now, could all those be reasons the Packers allowed Wolf to interview this week? Yes. Could Murphy have other candidates in mind? Sure. Maybe he’d try to hire Schneider, who presumably can leave the Seahawks to become Packers GM because coach Pete Carroll has final say over personnel in Seattle. But would Schneider leave? And could Murphy compete with owner Paul Allen’s deep pockets? That's very much in question..

Regardless, events over the next few days or weeks could force Murphy to show his cards. What will he do, if anything, if Wolf gets an offer?

The 49ers are starting over after having fired their GM (Trent Baalke) and coach (Chip Kelly). They have a winning history (five Super Bowls) and a new stadium in one of the most affluent parts of the country. That’s attractive.

They also are coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, don’t have a franchise quarterback and have ownership that has gone through seven head coaches in 15 years. That’s unattractive, though a long-term deal and large salary also might make it a challenge worth accepting.

Aside from Wolf, the five other reported candidates are Gutekunst, the Packers’ director of player personnel; Nick Caserio, the New England Patriots’ director of player personnel; George Paton, the Minnesota Vikings’ assistant GM; Louis Riddick, a former NFL scout and current analyst for ESPN; and Jimmy Ray III, the Indianapolis Colts’ vice president of football operations.

Maybe Wolf won’t be the 49ers’ choice, or maybe he won’t want the job after meeting with 49ers CEO Jed York. Then all of this will have been a trial run.

But maybe York offers him the job. Or maybe, say, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay fires GM Ryan Grigson in the next couple days and targets Wolf. That's an attention grabber because the Colts have a young and legit franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck.

Then what does Murphy do? If he has someone else in mind, he lets Wolf go. But if he wants to try to retain Wolf, he has a couple options.

First, he could give Wolf a raise and put in writing that he’ll be GM-in-waiting. The Baltimore Ravens have done that with Ozzie Newsome’s top aide, Eric DeCosta. But when I talked to Murphy about that last year, he said he wasn’t inclined to tie the franchise’s hands that way.

Second, he could ask Thompson to take on the advisory or area-scout role, and maybe even add a few years to his contract. I talked to several sources who know Thompson to varying degrees, and received varied guesses on whether he’d be open to it. Some said maybe, some no.

Thompson is 63 and has been slowed physically since a difficult recovery from hip-replacement surgery three years ago. But multiple sources said that however things might look from a distance, he’s sharp and shows plenty of energy in every-day interactions. There are no indications he’s ready to move to another role or retire, though there’s no knowing whether new circumstances or a Super Bowl win might affect his thinking.

And even if Wolf doesn’t get a GM offer he likes this offseason, there’s still the question of whether Murphy should be proactive.

This week I learned from one NFL source that at least a couple of members of the Packers’ executive committee are concerned about losing Wolf and want him promoted to GM this offseason. In that scenario, Thompson would become an area scout or take an advisory role. Thompson is under contract through the 2018 season.

But if Murphy’s administration is like predecessor Bob Harlan’s, he goes to the executive committee when he’s ready to make that kind of move, not the other way around. So we'll see if Murphy agrees.

Let’s start by acknowledging what Thompson has done for this franchise. I know he has plenty of detractors out there, but let’s be real. He has put together a winning program that's now in the playoffs for the eighth straight season. Since he took over as GM in 2005, the Packers have the NFL’s fourth-best winning percentage (.617), behind only New England (.771), Indianapolis (.656) and Pittsburgh (.635). And he drafted Aaron Rodgers, which alone is a foundation for winning for another five years or more. For whatever criticisms of him are warranted, he has been a very good GM.

Let’s also acknowledge that there’s no way to know how Wolf would perform in that role. There’s no knowing until he sits in the captain’s chair.

But Murphy has been around Wolf enough, and had the chance to talk about him with Thompson and others, to make as educated a projection as anyone. And if Wolf is his top choice to succeed Thompson, then Murphy is obligated to make that happen, one way or another.

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