McGinn: Wolf decision puts heat on Murphy

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy walks off the field after the NFL preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts was cancelled. Poor field conditions

GREEN BAY – Mark Murphy has lived a rather pressure-free existence in his nine years as president of the Green Bay Packers.

Life is great because the football team usually wins and the franchise has made more money than it knows what to do with under his genial leadership.

Now, however, the decision by Eliot Wolf to interview Thursday in Green Bay for the vacant general manager’s job with the San Francisco 49ers could prompt Murphy into making significant decisions regarding his football operation.

Over the years, Murphy hailed Ted Thompson as one of the NFL’s finest general managers. Thompson, however, turns 64 next week, has given few clues how much longer he plans to work and hasn’t hinted of a succession plan.

Given the fact the team Thompson built is in the playoffs for the eighth straight season, it’s unlikely Murphy would ask him to retire or even accept a lesser role while Wolf or someone else were named GM-in-waiting.

As the 61-year-old Murphy looks to the future, he might have to decide sooner rather than later if Wolf has sufficient seasoning or Russ Ball has enough expertise in player evaluation to succeed Thompson.

Some wonder if Thompson’s decision to permit Wolf, the director of football operations, and Brian Gutekunst, the director of player personnel, both to interview with 49ers owner Jed York and 49ers chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe at an undisclosed location in Brown County represented a shift in organizational policy.

After all, Thompson denied the Detroit Lions’ request to interview Wolf last year for their GM job.

Thompson was able to deny the Lions because the Packers’ season wasn’t finished. If the Lions had waited until after Green Bay’s playoff loss Jan. 16 in Arizona, their request would have turned into a notification and the Packers would have been required by NFL rules to let Wolf interview.

Regardless of contractual status, no team can prevent an employee from interviewing to be a GM provided the position has jurisdiction over the 53-man roster. That’s the case with almost every NFL team other than a club like Seattle, where the coach (Pete Carroll) technically has that authority over the GM (John Schneider).

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Last January, the Lions were given permission by the Patriots to interview pro scouting director Bob Quinn two days after the end of their regular season. Three days later, on Jan. 8, the Lions decided against waiting to talk to Wolf and hired Quinn.

Thompson was under no obligation to permit Gutekunst to interview with the Eagles in 2015 and the Titans in 2016 because their requests weren’t for the GM position.

Friends of Wolf said he was disappointed not having the chance to speak with the Lions about a job for which sources said he was the frontrunner.

Moreover, those same people said Ron Wolf, the Packers’ retired GM and a mentor to Thompson, wasn’t pleased at all.

Rather than come across as overly cutthroat and risk alienating others in his personnel department, Thompson this time allowed the interviews even though the season isn’t over.

“Ted’s about timing,” said one league source. “He understands growth and maturation. I just think Ted said (to Wolf), ‘You know what? It’s your time.’ The non-division team was huge, too.”

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York, 36, and Marathe are scheduled to interview nine GM candidates in the next week, based on various reports. The new man will replace Trent Baalke, the Rosendale native who along with coach Chip Kelly were fired Monday after a 2-14 season.

Wolf, 34, is regarded by several NFL sources as a much stronger candidate in San Francisco than Gutekunst, 43. New England’s Nick Caserio and Seattle’s Trent Kirchner also were mentioned as legitimate contenders.

The new GM will be paired with a new coach for a franchise that can roll over $38.7 million (third-most in the league) in unused cap space and might have as many as 11 draft choices in April, including the No. 2 overall pick.

If Wolf were hired, one source estimated that his salary of about $500,000 in Green Bay would increase to about $3 million in San Francisco.

After preparing for Thursday, Wolf obviously would have been interviewing York and Marathe as much as they interviewed him.

“Jed, so inept, so unprepared for his responsibilities, will lead the search for a new GM and head coach,” columnist Lowell Cohn wrote recently in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “God save us from Jed the searcher … Jed and his mother and father and the whole degraded ownership are the problem … who would work for Jed, the rich kid whose parents gave him a team?”

It’s possible Wolf might receive an offer immediately. York, however, has interviews set up into next week.

Either way, Murphy presumably would have the chance to retain Wolf in some form or fashion through further promotion, further salary increase or change in job description.

It all depends what Murphy sees in Wolf and if he wants him to succeed Thompson.

Wolf’s father, Ron, brought him up in the business. Among his mentors in Green Bay were GMs John Dorsey (Kansas City), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland) and Schneider.

Like his father, Wolf has keen intelligence and extraordinary memory that gives him an immediate edge on many NFL executives. Sources say he has chafed under Thompson’s passive team-building practices. One could see Wolf operating every bit as aggressively as Schneider did upon joining the Seahawks in January 2010.

“He’s got enough training to make a decision,” said one personnel man. “I think he’s ready. Don’t let looks deceive you.”

Wolf’s present workload is said to be a 60-40 blend of pro vs. collegiate scouting under Thompson, who unlike many GMs stays fully abreast in both areas and probably doesn’t sign a player that he hasn’t studied himself.

“You really don’t have any idea because you’re not in the draft rooms seeing who’s making the call,” a former NFL GM said of owners trying to pick new GMs. “Unless you have a track record it is a leap of faith.

“It’s not an easy transition; you’re not just one of the guys anymore. I think that would be tough for Eliot because he doesn’t strike me as a guy who has a natural leadership presence. That doesn’t mean you still can’t be very successful.

“But you’re dealing with grown men in a lot of tough situations that aren’t as clear as, hey, does this guy have good hands or not? There are a lot of different traits that you need.”

Murphy must determine if Wolf’s age and the fact he has worked full-time for just one NFL team fits the Packers.

Ron Wolf was 35 in 1975 when he started his four-year stint as GM of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fourteen years later, the Packers hired a 52-year-old veteran who was at the peak of his powers and ready to forge one of the NFL’s greatest turnarounds ever.

In 2005, Thompson was 51 when he returned from a vice president’s job in Seattle to assume the GM reins from Mike Sherman.

Dorsey has admitted he wasn’t ready for a director’s job in Seattle when he was 39. After returning to Green Bay 15 months later, he bided his time until, at age 52, he began his stellar career in Kansas City.

McKenzie was 48 upon taking control in Oakland and, after trying times early, has built the Raiders into a force. Schneider, the NFL’s version of boy wonder, was 38 when he began a Super Bowl-winning partnership with Carroll.

Dorsey would be the ideal choice for the Packers but it’s hard to imagine he’d leave behind the powerhouse that he and Andy Reid have built. McKenzie has proven he has what it takes. Schneider is locked into Seattle after the five-year contract extension that he signed in July purged his previous out clause to Green Bay.

Is 34 too young an age to run one of the NFL’s elite franchises with a fan base that can hardly remember a losing season? Even if Wolf agreed to become GM two years from now, he’d still be just 36.

Schneider was just two years older but at least had worked for four teams when he rejoined the Seahawks.

“It’s a fascinating study of old school-young school,” one NFL personnel director said. “To me, that’s what Mark Murphy is struggling through right now. Do I go after the young buck or with stability?”

Stability would mean Ball, 57, the vice president of football administration whose main role since 2008 has been negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap. He has performed exceptionally well in both areas.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, left, speaks with director of football operations Eliot Wolf during the team's Family Night practice July 31.

Ball ranks as one of the most trusted confidants of Mike McCarthy, Murphy and Thompson. At the same time, he has done everything possible to learn the personnel end of the business. He tries to attend every practice, sits in on almost every draft meeting and constantly watches video with Thompson.

The assumption is that Wolf certainly should be better able to identify a player than Ball. At the same time, Ball would have a vast advantage in areas like building relationships and culture, budgeting, travel and all the myriad duties that slam a first-time GM in the face after the introductory news conference.

“I’ve been an evaluator my whole life,” the former GM said. “When you get a GM job, it’s less and less about evaluating. There’s so many other things. There’s always tension and conflict, and how you lead. The (scouting) does not prepare you for that part.”

In 2011, Ball’s former boss in New Orleans, GM Mickey Loomis, said he should already have been a GM. In August, Thompson said Ball was able to evaluate players as well as a full-time scout and was capable of running an NFL organization both as a GM and as a president.

“Russ has great logic, patience,” said an NFL executive in personnel. “There’s a lot to like about Russ Ball. The million-dollar question is what is Mark Murphy thinking regarding (Ball)?”

It should be remembered that Murphy has yet to hire his own GM or coach. One source with an understanding of Packers’ affairs believes Murphy ultimately will go outside the organization for Thompson’s successor.

In that event, Murphy almost assuredly would rely on Jed Hughes, who conducts executive searches as vice chairman for an international firm. He was responsible for connecting Murphy with the corporation’s executive committee in 2007, and later spearheaded the hiring of vice presidents Laura Sankey and Tim Connolly, both of whom sources said were let go.

Hughes reportedly was hired by the Jaguars to assist their search for a new coach.

Thompson’s contract extends through the 2018 draft. He’ll be 65 then, and one of his friends thinks he’ll walk away at that time.

Eliot Wolf. Russ Ball. Someone from another team recommended by Jed Hughes.

The generation gap and many other factors will be weighing on Murphy as he decides on whom to pull the trigger and set the course for the Packers’ future.

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