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GREEN BAY - If you’re Eliot Wolf or Brian Gutekunst or any of the other Green Bay Packers general manager candidates not named Russ Ball, you probably feel like the game is rigged.
There is a preponderance of opinion inside and outside the organization that president Mark Murphy is going through the motions to replace Ted Thompson and that a decision was made months ago between Murphy and Thompson that Ball would be the next general manager.
Murphy’s news conference Tuesday made it clear that personnel evaluation experience is not a prerequisite for the job and that he would be willing to consider candidates with administrative backgrounds such as Ball.
The most telling part of the 30 minutes Murphy spent with the media was the absence of any reference to the draft and free agency. Other than him saying he would not require the new hire to spend in free agency, he never talked about the No. 1 priority being an ability to improve the 53-man roster through the draft.
When former president Bob Harlan decided the authority Tom Braatz and Lindy Infante shared in personnel was hindering the organization, he decided to hire a general manager to oversee the entire football operation. His No. 1 requirement was finding someone who knew how to evaluate talent and could build through the draft.
He chose one of the most highly regarded scouts in the NFL: Ron Wolf.
When Harlan accepted Wolf’s recommendation that coach Mike Sherman succeed him as general manager while continuing to coach the team, he quickly found out it was a big mistake and in January of 2005, he hired another scout who could correct all the problems in the draft room – Thompson.
It’s not that Wolf and Thompson were chosen simply for their personnel evaluation ability, but it was that ability that separated them from other candidates.
Selecting someone without a personnel background doesn’t guarantee failure, but it means potential change year after year. Wolf and Gutekunst can run pro and college scouting for Ball, but should they leave for GM jobs, Ball would be in a far worse position than Thompson was when he lost John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey.
The difference was Thompson, the best evaluator in the room, was still there to make sure the draft decisions were sound. Ball has been sitting in on draft meetings in recent years, but it’s not the same as going out on the road and scouting players for yourself, something Gutekunst and Wolf have been doing their entire careers.
It doesn’t mean that Ball can’t be successful. Maybe he will be the perfect complement to a strong scouting staff and prove to be a terrific decision maker.
But it doesn’t change the fact that this hiring seems preordained.
First, to think that Murphy and Thompson sat down Jan. 1 and decided that Thompson would step aside and become a senior advisor to football operations all in one meeting, is absurd. If Murphy hadn’t been discussing with Thompson during the season his decision to move on, then why wouldn’t Thompson take a day or two to think about it when it was brought up Monday?
If Thompson had it in his mind already that he was going to step aside, he would have told Murphy long before. Thompson truly does want what’s best for the organization and if his health had become an issue or he was burned out, he would have let Murphy know.
The scouting community is tight and this time of year there aren’t many secrets when it comes to which people are candidates to go where. Talking to several current and former personnel executives over the past couple of days, it was unanimous among them that Ball was the chosen one.
One pointed out that Murphy and Thompson had to know Thompson was not going to be general manager next year when sometime during the season they secretly extended coach Mike McCarthy’s contract for a year. It was a way of making sure they could hire a new general manager with say over the head coach while at the same time guaranteeing no change would be made in 2018.
Maybe at the time they were keeping an open mind about hiring someone from outside. But it’s no secret that Thompson and Ball are tight and that the safe choice was going to be to hire Ball, the closest thing to Thompson there is.
Thompson had an equally adept salary-cap manager in Andrew Brandt, but he wanted someone who was more like him: secretive, shrewd and never willing to part with a speck of information to the media. And so he replaced Brandt in 2008 with Ball, who had been vice president of football administration with the New Orleans Saints.
Ball has spent more and more time working with Thompson on personnel and, according to sources, attends draft meetings with the scouts in the offseason. Thompson and Ball make all the tough contract and departmental decisions together, not always with the knowledge of the entire personnel team.
When asked about Thompson’s role in picking a new general manager, Murphy said: “I’ll talk to Ted. I don’t think he’ll be involved in the interview process, but obviously, I greatly value his opinion, particularly on internal candidates.”
Most people feel Thompson will push for Ball.
Murphy has hired Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry to consult with him on candidates outside the organization, but Hughes only accepts one job a year when it comes to searching for a general manager, according to a source, and he is working with the Houston Texans.
Hughes identified Murphy as the top candidate when the Packers hired him to replace Harlan and Murphy’s daughter works for his firm. Murphy and Hughes are said to have a close relationship and it’s likely that Hughes is merely offering advice on outside candidates rather than identifying them and recommending them.
Thus, it’s unlikely Murphy is going to make a big splash with an outside hire.
Wolf and Gutekunst are scheduled to interview with Murphy on Thursday and it’s possible one of the two will knock the president’s socks off. Maybe they’ll win over Murphy the way Mike Holmgren did with Ron Wolf back in 1992.
But you’d have a hard time finding anyone familiar with the Packers organization who wouldn’t lay all their money on Ball being the next general manager.
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