Aaron Nagler talks to Michael Cohen about his two-part feature on Packers vice president of football administration/player finance Russ Ball. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
One of the best things the Green Bay Packers have going for them is their front-office structure.
Since 1991 their general manager has had full control of football operations, and it has produced the NFL’s second-best winning percentage over that time.
Along the way, they’ve also refined the structure of the football side itself. The Packers’ GM now puts essentially all his energies into building his roster while delegating almost all football administration.
In other words, GM Ted Thompson chooses the head coach, runs the scouting department and has final say over player personnel. But in his more than a decade as GM, Thompson gradually has farmed out most administrative duties to vice president Russ Ball, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Michael Cohen cataloged this week in an in-depth look at the influential but publicly anonymous Ball.
This system has worked to the Packers’ advantage. Their CEO, Mark Murphy, needs to keep that in mind when he hires Thompson’s successor, which could come as early as the next year or two.
Ball is at least a dark-horse candidate to become the Packers’ next GM, as Cohen characterized, and perhaps more. Murphy and Thompson show both in word and deed how highly they think of him. They publicly laud him as a key member of the organization and keep adding to his responsibilities. Cohen’s reporting shows that Ball is well respected in league and agent circles as well.
But no matter how much Murphy has come to value and respect the 57-year-old Ball, that shouldn’t sway him when it comes to hiring his next GM.
Thompson’s successor should again be a scout by trade and at his core. And Murphy has no shortage of qualified prospects on a Packers scouting staff that boasts an impressive track record for producing successful GMs.
To be sure, other NFL GMs share Ball’s background. New Orleans’ Mickey Loomis, Cleveland’s Sashi Brown, Miami’s Mike Tannenbaum, Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman and Buffalo’s Brandon Beane all started their careers in the salary cap and football administration. To varying degrees they took on scouting responsibilities as they moved up the front-office ladder. But in the end, they rely heavily on someone else to choose players.
Ball, likewise, began his NFL career as a salary-cap manager and contract negotiator. As he has added other administrative duties in the last five or six years, the former Division II offensive lineman also has spent more time learning the scouting side of the business, according to Cohen’s reporting.
Ball knows what goes into running an NFL team, and he no doubt knows something about players. But in the end, he likewise would have to lean on a personnel director when choosing players.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ current structure is about as good as it gets. Players are the lifeblood of a team, and the success or failure of a franchise can come down to a couple key personnel decisions every year. Since late ‘91 the Packers have had someone trained first and foremost in evaluating players making those calls. It has served them well.
As it stands now, Thompson is a super scout who spends almost all his time on his team: evaluating players (college and pro), setting salary parameters with the help of a cap manager and overseeing the club at large.
Football administration, in the meantime, has become a full-time job in itself. Along with advising on the salary cap and negotiating contracts, Ball also is the hands-on manager for the medical, equipment and video staffs, as well as football public relations, travel coordination and the like.
I’m not sure another NFL team’s GM has as few administrative responsibilities as Thompson. And that’s as it should be. The NFL is all about finding good players. The guy picking them should be in charge, and the less he has to do outside that, the better.
Entering his 13th season as GM, Thompson very well could be down to his last year or two heading the team. He’s 64, and his contract runs through the end of the 2018 season.
By every indication he has Murphy’s full support to stay on indefinitely, and maybe Murphy will sign him to an extension. But it wouldn’t be any surprise if Thompson retires in two years, just after turning 66 in January of 2019.
Then Murphy will have to make the biggest decision of his presidency.
From here, it looks clear cut. The three scouts who most recently left the Packers to become GMs have thrived — John Schneider in Seattle, John Dorsey in Kansas City and Reggie McKenzie in Oakland. Chances are none of them will be available, but there’s no reason to think the Packers’ well is dry.
Thompson’s top three scouts — Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith and Brian Gutekunst — are qualified to run a team. Wolf is the highest ranking of the three, which suggests he’s the most likely choice.
Regardless, when Thompson’s reign ends, Murphy should hire the one he thinks will be best, do everything he can to retain Ball, and keep the super-scout system running.