Green Bay Packers: Eliot Wolf
Maybe they would have survived. But maybe pro football in the NFL's smallest city would have eventually gone away.
"I know what Ron will say: 'Without Brett, without Mike, without Reggie [the turnaround wouldn't have happened],' but that's what's great about Ron Wolf," former Packers quarterback Brett Favre said Friday in a telephone interview. "He's humble, modest, and he's a quiet guy. He's just not going to ever say that he was instrumental in that, nor should he. But the bottom line is it's the truth. Someone had to turn things around. And he did it."
Because of it, Wolf was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Harlan hired Wolf on Nov. 27, 1991. At that point, the Packers had exactly one playoff win -- in a wild-card game in the strike-shortened 1982 season -- since their latest championship under Vince Lombardi in Super Bowl II on Jan. 14, 1967.
Wolf acted swiftly when he arrived in Green Bay. Four days after he was introduced, he and Harlan sat in the press box in Atlanta, where the Packers played the Falcons. Wolf told Harlan he planned to trade for Favre, a backup with the Falcons. Back in Green Bay the next day, after a 35-31 loss to the Falcons, Wolf went to see his first Packers practice.
"He comes into my office," Harlan said, "and he says, 'You've got a problem on your practice field. This team is 4-10, and they're walking around like they're 10-4. We're going to make a change.' He had basically decided in two days on the job that Brett Favre was going to be our quarterback, and Lindy Infante was finished [as coach]."
With Wolf as general manager, Mike Holmgren as head coach and Favre as quarterback, the Packers went 75-37 in the regular season, 9-5 in the postseason and to two Super Bowls. They won No. XXXI. Holmgren left after the 1998 season, and Wolf stayed on for two more years, which gave him a total record (including playoffs) of 101-57 in nine seasons. Unlike when Lombardi left, there would be no falloff in Green Bay after Wolf retired.
"The thing that pleased me is that after 24 years of bad football, thanks to Ron and Mike Holmgren and now Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, we've had 23 years of very good football," Harlan said. "It's been a huge turnaround, but I don't know where we'd be [without Wolf]."
Even though Wolf retired in 2001, his fingerprints remain all over the Packers. He hired Thompson, the current GM, as a scout in 1992, and his son, Eliot, is the Packers' director of player personnel. Four other Wolf disciples -- John Dorsey (Kansas City), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland), Scot McCloughan (Washington) and John Schneider (Seattle) -- currently hold GM posts.
"I think it was a combination of the leadership team in place with Bob Harlan, Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren," said Dorsey, who played for the Packers from 1984-88 and then worked under Wolf as a scout. "He's a stickler for doing it the right way. He was a big part, instrumentally, in terms of changing that culture and that environment. I would say that it was a huge step in laying the foundation for where that organization is today."
The Packers aren't expected to grant the Washington Redskins permission to interview one of their top personnel executives, Alonzo Highsmith.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that new Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan sought permission from the Packers to talk to Highsmith about a position in his scouting department.
Because it's not a general manager position, Packers general manager Ted Thompson can decline the request. He's expected to do so in this case.
Thompson was in Pittsburgh most of the day Sunday attending services for coach Mike McCarthy's brother, Joe, who died last week. Thompson returned to Green Bay on Sunday evening, but it was not known if he had formally declined the Redskins' request yet.
McCloughan worked in the Packers' scouting department from 1994 to 1999.
Highsmith has been with the Packers for 16 seasons and was promoted to senior personnel executive in 2012. That makes him one of Thompson's top advisers along with Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst. Wolf was promoted to director of player personnel earlier this month. Gutekunst is the team's director of college scouting.
In 2009, those three spots belonged to John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey. Since them, all three have become general managers in the NFL – Schneider with the Seattle Seahawks, McKenzie with the Oakland Raiders and Dorsey with the Kansas City Chiefs.
In case you missed it from ESPN.com:
- We graded the Packers by position groups. Here are the offensive position grades, the defensive position grades and the special teams grade. Also, we graded the coaching and personnel moves.
- Our latest NFL Nation project looked at how many players away each franchise is from being a Super Bowl team, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
- At the Pro Bowl, linebacker Clay Matthews sat down for an interview with Monday Night Football sideline reporter Lisa Salters.
- The Packers are good salary-cap shape, but that might not prevent them from cutting some veteran players.
- The Packers in finished dead last in the most comprehensive special teams rankings.
- In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz, in his review of the season that included his player-by-player grades, wrote that everything had fallen into place for the Packers this season, and they still came up short.
- Also in the Press-Gazette, Pete Dougherty looked at how a devastating playoff collapse can impact a team the following season. To do so, he talked to several members of the 1992 Houston Oilers, who blew a 35-3 lead and lost a playoff game to the Buffalo Bills.
- In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bob McGinn put the blame for the Packers' NFC Championship Game loss squarely on the quarterback Aaron Rodgers and also gave his season report card.
Demovsky: If Mike McCarthy didn't win it after going 15-1 in 2011 coming off the Super Bowl season, he probably never will. Jim Harbaugh won it that year. If you look at the list of recent winners, like Ron Rivera in 2013 and Bruce Arians in 2012, it's often given to coaches who turn unheralded teams into contenders. Should McCarthy get downgraded for winning with a team that's expected to win? Probably not, but that seems to be the way many voters think of the award. It seems unlikely that will change this season. But McCarthy knows how the Packers feel about him. They gave him a contract extension this year that runs through the 2018 season.
Demovsky: What to do with Julius Peppers is going to be perhaps the most difficult call general manager Ted Thompson has this offseason. Surely, he already has a good idea which way he's leaning, but it can't be an easy decision. Peppers has not been dominant, but he hasn't been a nonfactor, either. If Thompson thinks he can get the same kind of production -- seven sacks, 17 quarterback hits, a handful of forced fumbles and a couple of interceptions -- while getting another 800 snaps out of him, then it's probably worth the $9.5 million Peppers is owed next season. If he doesn't, then he probably should cut ties and eat the $5 million salary-cap hit.
Demovsky: Eliot Wolf's recent promotion to director of player personnel makes him the undoubted No. 1 assistant to Thompson in the scouting department, if he wasn't already. But that is Thompson's call. The next general manager hire will be made by Mark Murphy (or whoever is the team president at the time), and Murphy doesn't have to stay within the Packers' current personnel structure. Maybe he will, but it's still an unknown. Or maybe he would take a more unconventional route and promote Russ Ball, who handles the business side of the football operations, to general manager. Or perhaps Murphy would prefer someone with GM experience and could find a way to lure back John Schneider from Seattle or John Dorsey from Kansas City. Don't be surprised to hear Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith's name mentioned for jobs, too. Maybe not GM jobs right away, but if the right jobs open elsewhere, you could see Highsmith end up getting a chance at a director of player personnel job elsewhere, that is if Thompson lets him interview.
Demovsky: Not necessarily. Just because it looks like the Packers will re-sign defensive tackle Letroy Guion does not mean they are done with B.J. Raji. The market for Raji was soft last season, so there is no reason to think it will be any different this time around with him missing the entire season because of a biceps injury. The Packers surely could get him for a much lower price than the $4 million-deal he signed last March. Raji has been around the team all season, unlike some players on injured reserve who disappear. That has to be a sign that he wants to return..
The 32-year-old son of former Packers general manager Ron Wolf is widely considered to be a future NFL general manager.
The younger Wolf joined the Packers' personnel department in 2004 as a pro personnel assistant and was promoted to assistant director of pro personnel in 2008 and director of pro personnel in 2011.
The Packers signed general manager Ted Thompson to a contract extension last summer that runs through the 2019 NFL draft so if Eliot Wolf is next in line, he will have to wait out Thompson. Wolf is one of Thompson's top assistants along with senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith and director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst.
Those three could be the next generation of GM candidates to come from the Packers' personnel department, which has turned out Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey in the last six years.
Eddie Lacy at this time last year, he had that sprained ankle that dogged him off and on for the entire month of December. He even missed the entire second half of the Week 16 game against the Steelers and then failed to reach 100 yards in either the finale against the Bears or the playoff loss to the 49ers. He was clearly worn down. He'll end up playing about the same number of snaps (or possibly even a few more) this season, but he should be in better shape for the playoffs than he was last season, barring a setback on Sunday against the Lions.
Ndamukong Suh on the inside and the Lions' ends on the outside, and they know it based on some of their comments this week. That's not just on the offensive line but the tight ends as well. Richard Rodgers' blocking was atrocious in that game. The Packers believe he's much better now. If the Packers can run the ball against that front, it will open up all kinds of possibilities for Aaron Rodgers.
T.J. Lang back on the field goal protection unit. He had not played there since he sprained his ankle while blocking on an extra point in Week 8. As far as the return game goes, perhaps there was some foreshadowing when receiver Randall Cobb was named a special teams captain last week. Cobb has been a part-time punt returner, but this might be the time we see him on kickoff returns, too. DuJuan Harris hasn't offered anything special on kickoffs, and coach Mike McCarthy said this week, "I think we have a chance to improve here down the stretch. And when you play in the winter months up here, this is when the return game has to factor." Former Packers coach Mike Holmgren used to use players like Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks as kick returners in the playoffs even though they rarely did it during the regular season.
In his annual pre-draft session with reporters, his speech was slower and more deliberate than usual, prompting whispers about his health and questions about how much longer he might continue as the Green Bay Packers' general manager.
Even Bob Harlan, the former Packers president and the man who hired Thompson in 2005, noticed a difference.
"I did see him on TV a couple of times where he seemed down, and I don't know if it was just exhaustion from the preparation for [the draft] and all the travel that he goes through because he just grinds all the time," Harlan said. "He's either in that room looking at video, or he's on the road."
At age 61, could Thompson have been showing signs that he was nearing the end of a successful run as general manager that has included one Super Bowl title?
Those close to him did not think so at the time, even when Thompson was forced to miss the NFL annual meetings in March because of an undisclosed personal matter. And they do not think so now, especially after he appeared energized following the draft.
So when Thompson joked a week after the draft that he’s "just getting started," the Packers should hope there is more than just a shred of truth to his typically dry humor.
In many ways, Thompson is the key to keeping the Packers' successful leadership team intact.
Consider what happened when Thompson's mentor, Ron Wolf, retired in 2001: The Packers had a coach in Mike Sherman they wanted to keep. Harlan feared that if he went outside for a general manager, he might lose Sherman, so he added the GM role to Sherman's responsibilities. Four years later, it had become apparent it was too much for him, prompting Harlan to bring back Thompson, who had followed Mike Holmgren to Seattle and was the Seahawks' director of player personnel. Thompson and Sherman worked together for one season before Thompson fired him and hired coach Mike McCarthy.
All the while, some of quarterback Brett Favre's prime years passed without even reaching another NFC Championship Game during Sherman's tenure (2000-05).
It's not unreasonable to think the same problems could befall McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers if Thompson were to walk away anytime soon.
"That poses a problem; there's no doubt about it," Harlan said. "I guess because I saw it happen twice –- when Ron came in and Lindy [Infante] was here [as the coach] and with Ted, who tried very hard to make it work with Mike Sherman –- I know it can go downhill in a hurry. It is very difficult if the general manager cannot select his own coach."
No doubt, that's why current Packers president Mark Murphy indicated earlier this month that before any contract extension will be done for McCarthy, Thompson’s situation will be taken care of first.
Like McCarthy, Thompson has two more years left on a contract he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. Thompson would not say how much longer he intends to work but added that he "wouldn't anticipate doing anything different."
When Harlan hired Thompson, he received no assurances of how long Thompson would stay on in the role, but Harlan considered Thompson -- who has never been married and does not have children – to be all football, all the time.
"I had watched him for all of those years when he was working for Ron in Green Bay, and his life was just football then as I'm sure it was in Seattle, too," Harlan said. "Ron was 53 when I hired him [in 1991], and I was shocked when he wanted to leave so early, but I understood. Frankly, what I was trying to do was make the move on Ted before it was time for me to go so that I could be sure football was good hands."
And Harlan's last major act as president did just that. Of the 53 players on the Packers’ roster for Super Bowl XLV, 49 of them were acquired by Thompson, whose draft-and-develop philosophy has kept the Packers competitive on an annual basis.
If Murphy has a succession plan in mind for the GM job, he has not shared it. Perhaps he could try to lure former Packers scouts-turned-general managers John Schneider or John Dorsey back to town, but it might be tough to get Schneider out of Seattle or Dorsey out of Kansas City, where both have strong support from their owners.
It's possible he could maintain continuity by promoting vice president of player finance Russ Ball or one of Thompson's chief scouts –- Brian Gutekunst, Alonzo Highsmith or Eliot Wolf.
Some believe Murphy might hire a search firm -– as he has done with several other key front-office positions -– to identify candidates.
Or maybe, if the Packers are fortunate, Thompson will keep going strong.
One person close to him said recently that he does not see Thompson leaving anytime soon, unless the Packers win another Super Bowl, and that all the recent talk about him retiring "got him going."
When told of that, Harlan said, "I would think he'd at least go to 65, and then I think probably what he's going to do is become an area scout. He told me a long time ago that someday he might just go back to Texas and just be an area scout.
"Maybe he'd do it for the Packers. I would be surprised if he didn't work until at least 65. His health is good, and this is everything for him."
In the last four years, three teams have plucked members of the Packers' personnel staff for GM hires. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks hired John Schneider. In 2012, the Oakland Raiders hired Reggie McKenzie. And last year, the Kansas City Chiefs hired John Dorsey.
Could there be a fourth this year?
According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith is on the radar of two teams, the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, looking for new leadership in their scouting departments.
Highsmith is a Florida native and a University of Miami graduate. He has been with the Packers since 1999, when he was hired as an area scout. He was promoted to his current position in May 2012.
According to people around the league, it would not be surprising to see Highsmith or any of the other top-level scouts in the Packers' personnel department eventually get a chance at a general manager job. Director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst and director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf are also viewed as eventual GM candidates.
In case you missed it on ESPN.com:
- Packers coach Mike McCarthy revealed that he thought this past season might have been his best team with the Packers had injuries not derailed it.
- With the season in the rear-view mirror, it’s not too early to look at the positions of greatest need in the upcoming draft.
- Kevin Greene was named one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Although he never played for the Packers, were he to be inducted it would have some meaning around these parts because he coaches Green Bay’s outside linebackers.
- Here’s No. 7 on our list of the top-10 plays that shaped the Packers’ season. No. 6 will be posted later on Friday. The top five will appear next week.
- In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz looked at what the Packers might do with their center position going forward.
- In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tyler Dunne wrote that it wasn’t the fact that the Packers’ safeties failed to intercept one pass this season that bothered position coach Darren Perry, but rather it was the overall quality of play from that position that wasn’t good enough.