NFL Nation: Ron Wolf

Packers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are well positioned to contend in the NFC over the next several years because they have perhaps the NFL’s three most important components in place: Their quarterback, coach and general manager.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is 30 years old and should be in the prime of his career. He is barely more than a year into a five-year, $110 million contract extension that should keep him in Green Bay through the 2019 season. Among quarterbacks who have started in the Super Bowl in the last five years, only three are younger than Rodgers.

Their coach, Mike McCarthy, is entering his ninth season. Only three NFL coaches have been with their current teams longer, giving the Packers stability and continuity in their game plans and schemes. McCarthy has two years left on a five-year deal he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and is still relatively young in coaching circles at age 50.

Their general manager, Ted Thompson, is entering his 10th season. Like McCarthy, he signed a five-year contract extension following the Super Bowl victory. Although Thompson is 11 years older than McCarthy, he said after this year’s draft that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

Myriad other things make up a championship team, but none is more important than the quarterback-coach-GM trio. An elite quarterback automatically gives a team a chance. Combine that with an experienced, successful coach who has the trust of his players and a proven system, plus a general manager with a solid track record in the draft and free agency, and the Packers are a team that should be an annual contender.

The Packers had the same type of combination in the 1990s with Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf. They combined for two Super Bowl appearances. The Rodgers-McCarthy-Thompson trio has one so far, but should be a contender for another.
Ted ThompsonAP Photo/Mike RoemerUnder the direction of general manager Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers have maintained stability in the front office.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A month ago, Ted Thompson looked –- and sounded –- worn out.

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."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You can't accuse Ted Thompson of failing to give his quarterback enough weapons.

When he selected Fresno State receiver Davante Adams in Friday's second round at No. 53 overall, it was the sixth time in his career the Green Bay Packers general manager has drafted a receiver in the third round or higher.

No wonder quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted the following moments after Thompson made the pick:

 
Thompson, in his 10th year running the Packers' draft room, has a history of drafting -- and drafting well -- receivers in the second and third rounds. He found Randall Cobb (2011), Jordy Nelson (2008) and Greg Jennings (2006) in the second round. He also took Terrence Murphy in Round 2 in 2005, but Murphy's career was cut short months into his rookie year due to a neck injury. And he found James Jones, the receiver Adams perhaps best resembles, in the third round in 2007.

When asked about his success with receivers in the second round, Thompson knocked on the wood podium where he stood to address reporters Friday.

"Athletically, they're similar in some respects and different in others," Thompson said. "Again, if you get back to it, their ball skills are all remarkable. Jordy and Randall and, like you said, Greg and those guys. And that's the first and foremost thing we look for. If I was going to get stuck on one thing it would be that. And they're good people. All those guys that you mentioned are good people and good teammates, and that’s what this kid's supposed to be too."

In the 12 years before Thompson was hired as general manager, the Packers' previous two general managers (Ron Wolf and Mike Sherman) drafted only five receivers in the third round or higher. One of them, however, was first-round pick Javon Walker (2002).

One of Wolf's greatest regrets was not drafting more help for Brett Favre.

Thompson, who learned his craft under Wolf, has not simply relied on his standout quarterback to make his receivers better.

Adams caught 131 passes -- the most in the FBS last season -- as a redshirt sophomore and had 24 receiving touchdowns with fellow second-round pick Derek Carr as his quarterback. Adams ranked second in the country in yards after the catch with 888.

Adams was the ninth receiver taken in a year when a record 12 went in the first two rounds. Thompson took him instead of Indiana's Cody Latimer, among others. Latimer went three picks later to the Denver Broncos.

"I guess they say it's one of the deepest classes since the draft has been in existence," Adams said. "It's great to be a part of it. There's definitely guys who have gone that are great players and there are guys that are continuing to go now that are great players. So we'll see as everything unfolds how everything ends up. But it's definitely a very deep class with a lot of talent."
Russell Wilson, Drew BreesJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDespite a lack of height, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees haven't struggled with passes being batted at the line of scrimmage.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the course of the past few weeks, I've been chipping away at the Hot Read piece that was published today on why evaluating quarterbacks is so difficult -- and hasn't gotten any more precise in an era where teams have more information at their disposal than ever. In the process of talking to more than a dozen GMs and coaches for the story, I came across a number of interesting tidbits that didn't make the final edition.

I thought I'd pass them along here, in case they're of interest to you:

  • First, for Vikings fans, I had a good conversation with offensive coordinator Norv Turner about what he looks for in a quarterback. Turner was Troy Aikman's offensive coordinator in Dallas, worked with Philip Rivers as the San Diego Chargers' head coach and was the Chargers' offensive coordinator when they drafted Drew Brees (which is a prominent part of the story). He places a high emphasis on a quarterback's ability to learn quickly, understand complex systems and boil those systems down into manageable terms for the rest of the offense. Aikman and Brees both excelled at that, Turner said, and he also mentioned former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, whom Turner coached with the Redskins. One thing teams are doing now, as they try to put young QBs on the field sooner, Turner said, is simplifying the terminology of their offenses. "They're cutting down some of the verbiage, code-naming more things and helping them, where it's not just so much rote memorization and you don't get into the concepts," Turner said.

  • We talked in the story about the issue of short quarterbacks, and after talking to Turner and Colts GM Ryan Grigson in particular, the sense I got is that smart teams aren't dismissing short QBs simply because they're short -- they're looking to see how many batted balls come about because of a quarterback's stature. In some ways, shorter quarterbacks actually fare better here, because they've already learned how to compensate for their lack of height. In fact, Brees and Russell Wilson were tied for just 21st in the league in batted passes last season, with six each, according to Pro Football Focus. The leaders? The 6-foot-2 Chad Henne (with 20), the 6-2 Matthew Stafford (with 17) and the 6-5 Matt Ryan (with 14). Said Turner of Brees: "He'd been playing like that his whole life. It's not like he was 6-4 or you're going to make him 6-4. He understood how to play that way. He created lanes, he moved and he was very competitive against the rush. That's what it comes down to: that ability to visualize. You don't have to actually see the guy running free -- you 'see' him, you see where the defense is and you know where you're going to throw it."

  • A couple more good stories from Bill Polian and Ron Wolf about drafting Peyton Manning and trading for Brett Favre, respectively. Polian, who now works as a NFL analyst for ESPN, dispelled the since-developed myth that the Colts were split between Manning and Ryan Leaf until just before the draft. In reality, Polian said, the decision was made by mid-March.
    "A lot of people now have amnesia, and said Ryan Leaf was by far the better product," Polian said. "The consensus of so-called experts on Peyton was, he had a weak arm, couldn’t make all the throws and was 'a product of the system.' We worked him out, and found out he had a better arm than Ryan Leaf. He was much better than people gave him credit for. The athleticism thing, that one I can understand, because he looked a little bit gawky. But he had an incredible work ethic, incredible desire to be the best, incredible accuracy when he threw the ball, a unique understanding of defenses. None of that was present with Ryan." And Wolf, when he told the Packers' board of directors when he explained he was about to trade a first-round pick for a player the Atlanta Falcons had taken in the second round and no longer wanted, said this: "I compared him to a player like Lou Gehrig -- a face of the franchise. I told them everybody would one day around Green Bay wear No. 4. I'm sure they were a little shaken. I'm sure they thought they hired some idiot."Wolf said he hadn't thought about the obvious ironman parallels between Favre and Gehrig until we discussed it in our conversation; rather, he saw an aura about Favre that put him in that class. Wolf rightly gets credit now because few others saw what he did, but as he admitted, those evaluations are almost the more obvious ones to make."I thought the field tilted in his team’s favor when he ran on the field," Wolf said. "He played teams [at Southern Miss] that did not have the same type of talent that he was playing against. By and large, he kept them in the game. I think [former Auburn coach] Pat Dye put it the best; was reading somewhere where he was asked 'Who’s the best player you've seen as a head coach?' He said right away, 'Brett Favre.' I think a lot of people would have said that. He won games he had no business being able to win. He's just a rare, rare player."
  • Wolf, then, would agree with the point ESPN NFL scout Matt Williamson made -- that teams and executives who are often branded "quarterback experts" get that reputation unjustly, because all they had to do was be correct once. "If you do hit one, then you don’t have to do it any more," Williamson said. "It's hard to say, 'Boy, these guys are great at developing QBs," because they did it once. They don’t have to worry about it for 12 years."
  • Lastly, I'd commend to you a Sports Illustrated story published just after the 2001 NFL draft. The magazine followed Brees around during his entire pre-draft process and chronicled what the experience was like, and there are lots of cameos from talent evaluators who are still in the NFL limelight, from Turner to Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Seahawks GM John Schneider. And for the Minnesotans in the crowd, the story ran in an issue adorned with a cover photo of former Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, discussing the upstart Twins' hot start to the 2001 MLB season.

Just wanted to pass those things along, before we return to the rhythms of the Vikings beat. Hope you enjoyed them.
Colin KaepernickRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick has beaten the Packers three times since becoming the starter in San Francisco.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Every offseason for three straight years in the 1990s, then-Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf gathered his staff of personnel advisers in a room and discussed the same topic.

Why couldn't they beat the Dallas Cowboys?

In some ways, it became an obsession in the Lambeau Field offices.

Twice, the Packers lost to the Cowboys in the divisional playoff round -- 27-17 following the 1993 regular season and 35-9 following the 1994 regular season. Then there was the 38-27 loss in the NFC Championship Game following the 1995 regular season.

Wolf and his staff thought they had to solve the Cowboys puzzle if they were ever going to get to a Super Bowl.

“And you know what?” the long-since retired Wolf said in a phone interview. “We never could beat them.”

Luckily for them, they didn't have to. Finally, in 1996, the Packers' road to the Super Bowl didn't run through Dallas. They went 13-3 to garner the NFC's top playoff seed and then had the Carolina Panthers to thank for taking out the Cowboys in the divisional round.

Nearly two decades later, replace the Cowboys with the San Francisco 49ers and the Packers find themselves in practically the same situation.

Except that, unlike the Packers of the 1990s, it doesn't sound like they're sitting around obsessing over how to beat the 49ers, who have knocked the Packers out of the playoffs two years in a row and have beaten them four times, including three with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, in the past two seasons.

“Colin has played very well against us; that's stating the obvious,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last month at the NFL scouting combine. “Really, the discussions we're having on defense isn't really about one player on an opponent's team.”

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMike McCarthy said he's hoping that a season opener in Seattle will mean added focus for the Packers in training camp.
Perhaps they should be.

Otherwise, a repeat of the 1990s could be coming.

To be sure, the Packers have to take care of things in the NFC North first to even worry about the 49ers, who aren't on their schedule in 2014. And plenty of differences exist when comparing the Packers' problems with Dallas in the 1990s and the 49ers today. In Wolf's opinion, the biggest one back then was having to play at Texas Stadium.

“We felt that was an AstroTurf team,” Wolf said. “And they had [Emmitt] Smith and [Michael] Irvin and some very, very talented players. We always felt that if we ever got them on grass, we could play them.”

Wolf was right about that.

In a 1997 regular-season game, the Cowboys came to Lambeau and got blasted 45-17. But by then, Dallas' days as the NFC's dominant team were over.

The Packers haven't been able to beat the 49ers anywhere of late, whether it be in Green Bay (the 2012 opener and last season's playoff game) or San Francisco (the 2013 opener and the playoff game following the 2012 season).

McCarthy and his coaching staff did spend part of last offseason on an extensive study of the read-option offense that Kaepernick used to torch them in the 2012 playoff game, but last season Kaepernick proved he also could beat them with his arm.

“I've seen it done before where you set your philosophy or what you need to do because of one player,” McCarthy said. “I think you're losing sight of what really needs to be done.”

This offseason, they're taking a bigger-picture approach to their problems.

“The things we're going to do more on defense -- and we'll do this more in detail when the players get back in April -- we have to do a better job of utilizing our personnel,” McCarthy said. “We've had a situation with our defense where there's a lot of change, a lot of moving parts, and we have to do a better job of planning for that and training that way starting in April.”

Wolf, who still follows the league, stopped short of imploring that his old team learn from the mistakes of the 1990s Packers, but he did say that perhaps the best way to solve the 49ers might be to emulate them.

“They have a pretty good model,” Wolf said. “So if you're going to imitate another team, that'd be a pretty good one to do it with. They have receivers, they have offensive linemen, they have a good front group on defense, a really good linebacker group. If you're going to try to copy a team, I would think that'd be a team to copy.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- People in Green Bay and fans of the Packers love to hate the Seattle Seahawks after the infamous Fail Mary play in the 2012 meeting between the two teams.

Yet there’s a segment of them who likely will be rooting for the Seahawks against the Denver Broncos on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII. They’re the ones who know John Schneider, the Seahawks’ 42-year-old general manager whose ties to this city and his old team run deep.

[+] EnlargeJohn Schneider
Elaine Thompson/AP PhotoSeattle's John Schneider has so many ties to the Packers that some wonder if the general manager will one day return to Green Bay.
Schneider grew up just a few miles from Lambeau Field in the neighboring town of De Pere, Wis., which is essentially an extension of the Green Bay city limits. He was a high school football standout as a running back at a private, catholic high school that no longer exists. And he began his NFL scouting career as an intern for the Packers under then-general manager Ron Wolf, who only hired Schneider because of his persistence.

While in college, Schneider wrote a letter to Wolf asking for an opportunity as a volunteer scout. Wolf replied with a rejection letter, so Schneider wrote him again. Another rejection letter followed, so Schneider wrote again.

Many years later, Schneider admitted, “I kind of stalked him a little bit.”

Finally, Wolf told Schneider he would get in touch with him after the 1992 draft, Wolf’s first in Green Bay. Yet Schneider heard nothing. Six weeks went by before a friend convinced Schneider to just call Wolf directly.

So he did.

That led to an internship in Wolf's scouting department for the summer of 1992 to jobs as a pro personnel assistant with the Packers (1993-96) to Kansas City Chiefs director of pro personnel (1997-99) to stints with the Seahawks (2000) and Washington Redskins (2001) as vice president of player personnel and then back to the Packers (2002-2009) as a one of the top personnel advisers.

Of all the participants in Super Bowl XLVIII, no one has stronger ties to Green Bay and the Packers than Schneider.

“Growing up there and having different people reach out to you, this week has been really neat to get text messages and emails from people back there,” Schneider said during a phone interview on Friday from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl headquarters in Jersey City, N.J. “It’s cool because it’s such a small community, but yet you have that strong football foundation.”

Schneider’s foundation is rooted in Wolf’s beliefs. Though he and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll have forged their own identity as one of the most aggressive and compatible coach-GM combinations in the league, Schneider still calls on what he learned from Wolf and current Packers general manager Ted Thompson, another Wolf protégé.

“I think there’s a lot of Ron in this just because of the philosophical foundation of how you approach acquisitions,” Schneider said. “So I think it’s huge.”

Together, Schneider and Carroll have formed an unusual approach to signing, drafting and trading for players. In their first season together, they made an astounding 284 player transactions. Schneider also hit on a quarterback, when he drafted Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012, something for which Carroll gives full credit to Schneider.

“John and I have joined together aggressively to compete at every single turn, at every opportunity whatever it may be, to see if there’s something in there for us,” Carroll said during one of his Super Bowl week news conferences. “He’s done a great job of having the competitive will to keep pushing and fighting and clawing and scratching to have the opportunity that has sent us down the read early on with the hundreds of guys that came through the program.”

Schneider’s parents still live in Green Bay. As do some of his best friends, including the one who convinced him to make that call to Wolf. All of them will be at MetLife Stadium for Sunday's game.

There are plenty of people who wonder whether Schneider will be the Packers' next general manager. Thompson turned 61 on Jan. 17 and some within the organization believe he may walk away after his contract expires following the 2015 season.

That’s not a topic Schneider is comfortable discussing.

Instead, he’d rather swap stories about his friends who remain back in his hometown and talk about players who have ties to the Packers. He has two of them on his roster, right tackle Breno Giacomini and punter Jon Ryan. He signed Giacomini off the Packers practice squad in 2010, but he inherited Ryan, who had signed with the Seahawks early in the 2008 season after the Packers cut him.

The person responsible for telling Ryan the Packers planned to release him? That was Schneider.

“This is kind of a funny story,” Schneider said. “Jon Ryan’s brother after the (NFC Championship) game the other night was like, 'Hey man, ‘I’m glad you’re doing well now, but I wanted to kick your butt because you cut my brother.'

“Both players, Breno and Jon, have obviously improved since leaving Green Bay.”

The same could be said for Schneider.

The only question is, will he ever come back?
This is not a knock on Jimmy Raye, the Chargers' director of player personnel.

By all accounts, he has been a terrific employee for the Chargers over the past 17 years and he has all the makings of a fine general manager. With that said, the San Diego Chargers made the right call by bypassing Raye in favor of Indianapolis executive Tom Telesco for their vacant GM job.

The Chargers badly need an influx of outside perspective.

Had Raye been hired (he was considered the heavy favorite), the front office would have largely remained the same outside of the firing of A.J. Smith, who was let go last week after nearly 10 years on the job. The Chargers needed to do more than just moving away from Smith in the front office.

They need a new set of eyes. They need a new philosophy.

I salute them for making this hire. Prior to the search, it was considered nearly a foregone conclusion that Raye would be promoted.

But the search committee, which included former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, did an excellent job of talking to several outside candidates. From what I understand, Telesco blew the committee away. He was prepared and he had plenty of ideas.

Plus, he already has skins on the wall. Telesco has been credited for helping the Colts turnaround their roster this season.

Like the front office, the Chargers’ roster has gotten stale. With new ideas and experience from another franchise, Telesco can breathe new life into this program.

San Diego owner Dean Spanos told reporters Wednesday that Telesco will run the search for a new head coach, which now begins in earnest. I get the sense the Chargers hired Telesco because they trust he can add something to the program it didn’t have.

I’m not sure ownership believed it was going to find someone so impressive.

The Chargers need Telesco’s eye for talent right away. When he was fired, former coach Norv Turner said he didn’t think the Chargers had the most talented roster in the AFC West for the past three seasons (San Diego didn’t make the playoffs all three years). Turner also said San Diego fans should lean more toward being surprised if the Chargers make the playoffs next year rather than expecting it.

Turner is right. This roster has holes, especially on offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers needs help at nearly every position. Defensively, San Diego is stout. But Telesco needs to score in free agency and in the draft.

He also has to find a strong coach. We will be back with thoughts on that search later. But this is a fine start in San Diego. Telesco’s hiring is the front step in re-energizing this organization.

Thoughts on Chargers' search

December, 31, 2012
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It is interesting that the Chargers hired longtime personnel man Ron Wolf to consult during the general manager search. Wolf’s son, Elliot, is the Packers’ director of pro personnel. He is young, but he is considered a future general manager. Not sure if the Chargers will consider him.

Last year, Wolf helped the Raiders in their decision to bring in Reggie McKenzie as general manager. McKenzie worked for Wolf in Green Bay and Wolf worked for the late Al Davis in Oakland.

I think Wolf’s involvement in San Diego is a strong indication that in-house candidate Jimmy Raye will have major competition for the job. If the Chargers were sold on Raye, I don’t think Wolf would have been brought in to help.

Expect the general manager search to be fairly fast. The general manager is going to have a say in hiring the coach, so the process has to be swift.

The Chargers may consider keeping defensive coordinator John Pagano and special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia. Both men did a good job with their units. It may be tough for a new coach to keep a large part of the old staff, but perhaps something could be worked out.

I think the Chargers need more offensive help anything.

The old adage in the NFL is teams hire coaches who are the opposite of the discarded coach. Norv Turner was a player’s coach. Will the Chargers go looking for a hard-edged coach?

Finally, change in San Diego

December, 31, 2012
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Another hour, another massive change in the AFC West.

The Chargers just announced they have fired general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner.

Smith was in his role since 2003 and Turner was in his role since 2007. The Chargers went from one of the NFL’s better teams to a team that has not made the playoffs in the past three years.

Turner and Smith were expected to be fired last year, but ownership game them a reprieve. This year, the team had no choice; Turner and Smith had to go. These moves are among the least surprising in the NFL.

This move has been expected for several weeks. Jimmy Raye is a top candidate to replace Smith.

In an interesting development, the Chargers have hired former Oakland and Green Bay personnel guru Ron Wolf to help with the general manager search, along with owner Dean Spanos, his son John Spanos and cap man Ed McGuire, who will stay. That many mean that Raye is not a slam dunk. The general manager will then help hire a coach.

So, the Chargers will keep the power structure of the coach reporting to the general manager.

Here is a statement from San Diego owner Dean Spanos: “I thank A.J. and Norv for the determination and integrity they brought to the Chargers each and every day. Both Norv and A.J. are consummate NFL professionals, and they understand that in this league, the bottom line is winning. My only goal is the Super Bowl, and that is why I have decided to move in a new direction with both our head coach and general manager positions. I am committed to our great fans, and we will do whatever we possibly can to achieve that goal.”
Mark DavisRob Carr/Getty ImagesRaiders owner Mark Davis said Sunday that he was "embarrassed" by his team.

The Oakland Raiders have done a good job of becoming a modern NFL franchise in the past year.

They must continue that trend, and that means owner Mark Davis needs to continue to stay in the background and allow the men he chose to run the football operations to do their job of digging the franchise out of the dregs and make it a viable NFL program.

Davis took over primary ownership of the historic franchise in October 2011 when his father, the legendary Al Davis, died at the age of 82. Mark Davis, who benefited from the mentoring of several of his father’s trusted former employees, hired Reggie McKenzie to become the general manager, a duty his father essentially held from 1963 until his death. McKenzie then hired Dennis Allen to coach the team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2002 and is tied for having the second-longest playoff drought in the league.

Early in the year, Davis proclaimed it was a "brand new day" for the organization. I have been impressed with Davis’ work as the owner, starting with him allowing the football people to do their jobs.

Yet, Davis' actions Sunday worried me. He made some rare public comments, spurred by the frustration of another blowout loss which dropped his team to 3-7. Among the things Davis told reporters was this: “I’m patient, but I want to see progress. Not regression. I’m embarrassed, pissed, disappointed and I take full responsibility.”

I know many Oakland fans were happy that Davis made those comments, and he is certainly entitled to his opinions. But there were some key parts of his media session that struck me. Saying he was seeking “progress” means that Davis may not have patience. He also mentioned that the team’s woes this season shouldn’t be pinned on the team’s salary-cap situation in the offseason. That can be interpreted as a direct knock on the job his team’s brass has done.

[+] EnlargeReggie McKenzie
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoReggie McKenzie (left) was saddled with a poor salary-cap situation when he took over as GM.
It will be in the best interest of the franchise if Davis simply allows his general manager and coach to grow. They are both first-timers in their positions. I suspect that’s what will happen, and I think it's unlikely Davis will make changes there. But what if the losing continues in the final weeks of the season?

Exactly what kind of progress is Davis looking for? Will going 2-4 the rest of the way constitute progress? What if Oakland beats Cleveland and Kansas City at home but gets trounced in the other four games? Is that progress?

Hopefully, advisers such as Ron Wolf, Ken Herock and John Madden -- who all helped guide Davis through the hiring process with McKenzie -- are there to let Davis know it would hurt the organization if he gets impatient.

There is no denying Al Davis was impatient. He went through six head coaches in his final 10 seasons. The instability hurt the franchise.

The Mark Davis era was met with hope because of the expectations for renewed stability. He needs to work through his emotions and stay stable. No NFL program can handle constant change at the top. It appears Romeo Crennel could be on the chopping block in Kansas City after one season as the permanent coach. He was promoted from being the interim coach in January. Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles, in an interview with the Kansas City Star this week, said:

“I don’t know what the outcome is, what you’re going to get if you keep on changing head coaches and changing head coaches. If you keep doing that, he can’t get the right players here. I feel if you stay with one system and continue to get players … If [Crennel] is here for one year, you just can’t kick him out because he’s not having a good year. Let him get his stuff together and have a couple of years, then we can have a successful year.”

Charles’ words can be related to any NFL franchise.

If the Raiders continue to falter and Davis makes a change, he will show that it’s the same old Raiders and the franchise will be back to square one. Who would want to work for the franchise knowing that it is a one-year audition every season?

Davis needs to realize that the team’s immense salary-cap issues this season are playing a role in the Raiders’ failures. They had to cut several starters and were relegated to signing modestly priced players because of the cap restrictions. Plus, the past couple of draft classes (next year’s class will be small as well) were small because of trades made by the past regime.

McKenzie, who rebuilt the entire pro and college scouting departments, needs to be allowed the opportunity to work free agency and the draft without limitations. Allen deserves to be able to coach a deeper roster.

We all knew it would take time in Oakland. It was predictable that the Raiders would likely take a temporary step back in the spirit of having greater long-term success. Davis has to remember that and chalk up this disappointing season as part of the reconstruction of the franchise.
NAPA, Calif. -- Reggie McKenzie relaxed in his hotel suite at the Raiders’ training camp site Tuesday, comfortably clothed in matching team T-shirt and shorts.

The former Raiders linebacker turned NFL executive appears to be at home. It’s where he belongs.

[+] EnlargeReggie McKenzie
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoRaiders GM Reggie McKenzie (left) talks with team owner Mark Davis at training camp on Monday.
McKenzie -- whose eyes twinkle when he talks about his new role -- is taking on a responsibility few others NFL leaders can understand. He is now the football decision maker in Oakland. Since 1963 and until his death last October, that position was filled by Al Davis.

Davis was the Raiders. Now, McKenzie -- who was born in 1963 -- is the voice of the team.

“It’s an immense amount pressure,” McKenzie said. “But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I really feel like I belong here, going back to where it began.”

Davis drafted McKenzie, a linebacker out of Tennessee, in 1985 and he spent four seasons with the Raiders. After his playing career, he became an astute personnel man for the Green Bay Packers. But he always kept in touch with the man who brought him to the NFL.

The two would often talk when they ran into each other such as events such as the NFL combine. Davis often talked to McKenzie about coming to work for the Raiders one day. In one of their final conversations, Davis said this to McKenzie: “You can come home anytime you want.”

McKenzie has come home.

I asked McKenzie did he think Davis died knowing McKenzie would be the man who would take over for him as the team’s decision maker. McKenzie thought long about it.

“I don’t know if Al told people, “hey, go get Reggie,'" McKenzie said. "But I do think he had a plan and I hope he’d be happy I’m back with the Raiders in this role. … Now, we got to go win some games and win that Super Bowl and I’m sure he’d be jumping up and down about that.”

McKenzie believes it has helped him that he's entering this job with Raider ties. He said he thinks it’s possible for someone without Raiders’ ties to run the team in the long run, but he felt his connection gave him credibility with people around the organization.

“It is like a college atmosphere and people have given me so much support and I think is because I was a Raider,” McKenzie said. “It’s been incredible. I’ve had guys who played here in the 60s to give me their support. A lot of people care with what is going on here.”

As he takes over the team, McKenzie has vowed to do it his way. Yes, he will take things he learned from Davis and former Green Bay boss Ron Wolf (who also has an Oakland past and who helped bring McKenzie to Oakland), but he will do it his way. He has already cut several players Davis recently gave big contracts to and he has had his own draft philosophy.

“I have to do it my way,” McKenzie said. “I was brought in to do it my way. Being a Raider is important to me and I will do my best to make it work and win games here at a place that means so much to me.”
Kevin Kolb/Matt Flynn/Sam BradfordGetty Images/AP PhotoQuarterback play will be something to keep an eye on in the NFC West this season.
San Francisco 49ers fans were skipping along toward training camp when Aaron Schatz threw the book at them.

The book, all 574 pages of it, knocked some of them off their stride.

How could anyone familiar with the defending NFC West champions project only seven victories for the coach Jim Harbaugh's second season? After all, the 49ers are bringing back all of their most important players -- Harbaugh's mighty men, as the coach likes to call them -- from a squad that went 13-3 and nearly reached the Super Bowl.

Here is the deal: Even Schatz himself, lead author of the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac, believes the 49ers will outperform the modest expectations set forth by his book's widely cited win projection system.

"Subjectively, I'd expect the 49ers to win the division at 9-7," Schatz said Tuesday during an hour-long conversation on all things NFC West.

Anyone interested in more fully understanding the projection system can find an explanation, plus detailed reports for every NFL team, in the almanac Football Outsiders made available for sale recently.

I've singled out key points for consideration here and will run through one per NFC West team, supplemented as needed with material from my conversation with Schatz.

Arizona Cardinals

The point: Kevin Kolb should be an easy choice over John Skelton as the team's starting quarterback.

Yes, the Cardinals posted a 5-2 record when Skelton started and a 3-6 mark when Kolb was in the lineup. Skelton was even the primary quarterback during one of those victories credited to Kolb. (He performed rather impressively during an upset over the 49ers after a concussion sidelined Kolb early in the game.)

The disparity in win-loss records largely accounts for coach Ken Whisenhunt's decision to let Skelton compete with Kolb for the starting job in camp. But the way Schatz sees things, that thinking ignores the context for each player's performance.

"Skelton got away with close wins playing an easier schedule, and the idea that he had more wins and therefore is a better quarterback, no way," Schatz said. "Should there be a battle between Kolb and Skelton? No, it's silly."

For evidence, the almanac points to the schedule. The New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were on the schedule right before an injury to Kolb opened the door for Skelton. The Cardinals then played St. Louis twice and the then-struggling Philadelphia Eagles with Skelton in the lineup. And they needed some miraculous plays, including punt returns for touchdowns from Patrick Peterson, to eke out victories over the Rams.

The assessment shoots down Skelton more than it endorses Kolb, but there are obvious reasons for the organization to take a longer look at Kolb this season.

Kolb had very little prep time following his acquisition last summer. Injuries kept him off the field for long stretches. The team also invested millions in Kolb. The point is basically that Skelton, despite his 5-2 starting record, hasn't shown enough for the team to disregard all those factors.

"Frankly," the almanac concludes, "even if Kolb or Skelton does a reasonable job, the Cardinals will still be in the market for a franchise quarterback in the 2013 draft."

Seattle Seahawks

The point: History suggests new quarterback Matt Flynn will be at least serviceable, and probably better than that, despite extremely limited evidence (two career starts, 132 career attempts).

Schatz, writing recently for Insider Insider, allowed that sample size generally means a great deal. But in looking at Flynn's 480-yard game for Green Bay against Detroit, a performance complete with six touchdown passes, Schatz made a basic conclusion.

"Bad quarterbacks simply don't have games that good, even as flukes," he wrote.

For evidence, Schatz noted that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger were the only other quarterbacks with similar performances over the past five years.

"Going back to 1991," Schatz wrote, "the worst quarterback who had a single game this good was Scott Mitchell. As bad as Mitchell was at times, he also threw for more than 4,000 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 1995. Seattle would gladly take those stats from Flynn."

The almanac actually projects slightly more victories for Seattle than for San Francisco (the mean projection is 7.2 for each, but the Seahawks' total is slightly higher). But much will hinge upon something that is uncertain: how good Flynn might become. Talk of rookie Russell Wilson possibly winning the starting job in camp didn't resonate with Football Outsiders, even if the Lewin Career Forecast suggests "Wilson can win in the NFL if he has an offensive coordinator who knows how to take advantage of his skills."

San Francisco 49ers

The point: There's almost no way the team will approach its 13-3 record from last season.

In covering this ground previously, I noted that the 13 teams finishing with 13-3 records from 2004 through 2010 had won 8.3 games on average the following season. Three finished better than 9-7. Over the same period, the 19 teams finishing 13-3 or better all finished with lesser records the next year. The average drop was 4.1 victories per team.

Schatz's reasoning for projecting a drop takes into account historical data.

"Teams that improve dramatically from one season to the next do tend to settle to previous levels in the third year," he said. "That is exacerbated for the 49ers by having the quality of their team wrapped up in defense and special teams. Offense tends to be most consistent from year to year. Special teams is the least consistent of the units. Defense is second. The 49ers' defense and special teams are likely to come back to the pack."

Schatz also thinks the 49ers were unusually healthy on defense last season, and that they'll most likely be less healthy in 2012. The 49ers current and former leadership put together their roster, particularly the defense, with size in mind. Former general manager Scot McCloughan, borrowing from Ron Wolf, believed bigger players held up better over the course of a season. The thinking intrigued Schatz, whose company tracks injury information. By combining injury information with data for size, might we have an easier time predicting injuries for certain players and teams?

"It's an interesting theory," Schatz said. "There are teams that no doubt have a record of better health. The 49ers do not quite count as one of those teams. They have been healthy on defense three of the last four years. Dallas is a team that tends to suffer fewer injuries. Kansas City was a team. Cleveland tends to suffer more. New England has suffered more than average and gotten away with it."

St. Louis Rams

The point: Quarterback Sam Bradford wasn't all that much worse last season than he was as a rookie.

Bradford's individual passing stats were worse, but Rams fans worried about their team's franchise quarterback should find some consolation in Football Outsiders' analysis.

Basically, the Rams suffered injuries on a level nearly unprecedented over the past decade, all while facing a schedule that was tougher than anticipated.

Football Outsiders uses a metric called "Adjusted Games Lost" to measure injury impact. The 2011 Rams suffered a league-worst 110 AGL, which the almanac equates to "losing seven key players for the year in training camp." Only the 2009 Buffalo Bills (122.8 AGL) fared worse since 2002.

Meanwhile, the Rams became the first team since at least 1991 to go from playing the NFL's easiest schedule one season (2010, when the Rams were 7-9) to playing the hardest.

"On average," the almanac reads, "the 10 teams since 1991 with the biggest year-to-year rise in strength of schedule had 4.1 fewer wins."

The Rams declined by five victories from 7-9 to 2-14.

None of this means Bradford will lead the Rams to prominence. The evidence does suggest, though, that the Rams faced unusually difficult obstacles last season.

"Everything points to them being in process," Schatz said.

The upcoming season should be one of discovery, in other words. Absent some of those unusually difficult obstacles, the Rams will have an easier time evaluating their personnel. They'll find out more about Bradford, tackle Jason Smith, tight end Lance Kendricks and other potentially key players. They'll learn about their wide receivers and outside linebackers.

"In the end, though, the team's ultimate fate will lie in the hands of [coach Jeff] Fisher's first acquisition in St. Louis, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer," the almanac predicts.

That is a subject for another day.
Reggie McKenzieKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireNew GM Reggie McKenzie is in the process of remolding a Raiders franchise fallen on hard times.
If anyone still hasn’t grasped that the Oakland Raiders are a changed organization, all they had to do is look at Juron Criner run routes during this weekend’s rookie minicamp.

A player with potential, Criner has speed in the 4.7 range. He is not the burner that Al Davis craved. If Davis were still alive, there's little chance Criner would be in Oakland today.

The Autumn Wind is still a Raider, but it blows on a different course.

When Davis died at age 82 on Oct. 8, it was clear that the Raiders were going to embark upon a major transition period. Davis was the Raiders’ decision-maker for nearly 50 years, even into his ailing final days.

While we anticipated change, the modification since the 2011 season ended in Oakland has been swift, dramatic and wildly intriguing.

This just doesn’t happen in the NFL anymore. Imagine if George Halas were still running the Bears or if Vince Lombardi were still on the sideline in Green Bay? The Raiders are suddenly moving from the staunch and independent ways of Davis and emerging as a modern outfit with youthful spirit and ideas.

“I think the biggest challenge is that because the leadership has been the way it’s been done for so long, people are used to doing things one way,” new Oakland head coach Dennis Allen said earlier this offseason. “I think the biggest challenge is just getting people within the organization to open up the thought process to doing things another way. There are different ways to do things in this league. I think everyone within the organization has been open and receptive to conforming to the way [new general manager] Reggie [McKenzie] and I are trying to do things.”

Though Davis was a legend, his ways didn’t always work in today's NFL. The Raiders’ last Super Bowl title came nearly 30 years ago and Oakland hasn't had a winning season in 10 years. Its playoff drought is tied for the second-longest in the NFL.

If there has been an MVP in Oakland since Davis’ death, it has to be his son, Mark Davis. While his father ran the team, the affable Mark Davis chose to ride in the background. Once he took over as the leader of the Raiders, Mark Davis continued that stance.

Davis -- who was being advised some of his father’s top lieutenants in John Madden, Ron Wolf and Ken Herock --- listened to the advice and hired Green Bay personnel man McKenzie as GM shortly after the end of last season. Davis deserves credit for respecting his advisors' recommendations (McKenzie has a strong ties to Wolf and Herock) and for allowing McKenzie to run the team once he was hired.

McKenzie’s task is steep and it will take time. But thus far, McKenzie -- a former Raiders linebacker -- has put his head down and dug in. The Raiders didn’t hire a Davis clone in McKenzie. McKenzie is doing it his way.

He hired Allen, then Denver’s defensive coordinator, as head coach. The last defensive-minded head coach in Oakland was Madden -- who was hired in 1969. McKenzie fired longtime scouts and totally revamped the team’s draft preparation, focusing on modernizing the process. He has already hired a new college scouting director, former Green Bay colleague Shaun Herock, and more scouts are on the way in.

McKenzie cut several players to whom Davis gave supersized contracts in his final years -- part of what should be a new emphasis on salary-cap management under McKenzie. McKenzie added players in free agency and in the draft who fit his coach’s schemes -- and not a rigid scouting plan. Speed and measurables are no longer as important as they were when Davis was running the team.

On the first day of the Raiders’ offseason program, newly signed linebacker Philip Wheeler made some eye-opening comments.

[+] EnlargeMark Davis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireUnlike his late father, Al, Mark Davis appears to be allowing the Raiders' football experts to manage football operations.
“I actually heard some of the coaches saying we’re not just big and fast anymore,” Wheeler said. “We’re going to be big, fast and we’re going work harder and have good football players. … The (Raiders) were always bigger, faster and stronger than everybody. But the awareness of the game, some of it was down or whatever. I feel like Mr. McKenzie brought in a lot of players in who actually know how to play the game and aren’t just faster than everybody. We have actual football players here now.”

Change in Oakland haven't stopped with the players. It has flowed throughout the organization in the past few months, including the hiring of a new public-relations director with whom McKenzie has history. The Raiders have become more accessible and appear to be willing to be more transparent than under the Davis regime.

It’s a new NFL world and McKenzie is introducing his team to it. Allen said the plan is to meld the past and the future in Oakland.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us that are involved,” Allen said. “To take over such a historic program, be a part of that tradition there with the Raiders, is obviously exciting for all of us. We’re excited about the opportunity to put our stamp on the program.

“I think with every great program in the National Football League, I think you really have to respect the history and tradition within the organization. The Oakland Raiders. It’s one of the most storied franchises in all of sport, not just the NFL. We want to embrace those, embrace the past, and the history of the organization. But yet, we want to do it our way. Reggie and I are going to work together to do it the way we want to do it, and put the best team out on the field we can put out there.”

Much of the transformation will be based on bringing stability to the franchise. The past three head coaches -- Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Hue Jackson -- all created distractions for themselves and for the team. Throughout the years, the instability caused many former Oakland players to be relieved when they became former Oakland players.

“There’s definitely a difference,” cornerback Stanford Routt (whom McKenzie released) told reporters in Kansas City after he signed with the Chiefs this offseason. “You know what? I think there’s a little more stability here to say the least.”

Still, Allen made it clear the building process in Oakland will involve every facet of the organization.

“Our deal is, we want to foster an organization that’s based on trust, honesty, integrity, doing the right things, doing it the right way,” Allen said. “Those are things that both Reggie and I believe in. That’s the way we’re going to run that organization. We’re going to do things the right way. We’re going to do things in a first-class manner. We’re going to build a team that’s going to be tough, smart, disciplined. Just like I talked about doing the right things within the organization, that’s the way we’re going to do it as a team.”

Call it a new shade of Silver and Black.
NDIANAPOLIS -- Reggie McKenzie’s former boss believes the Oakland Raiders are in great shape moving forward with McKenzie taking over as general manager.

“I think they got a gem,” Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said Friday at the NFL combine. “Reggie and I are really good friends, so I’m very biased in my answer here, but … he is a really good man. And the people there in (Oakland’s) building, in that organization, are going to appreciate the fact that he is a really good guy. Again, he is part of that group of people that I was referring to that we have always patterned what we do after the training we received from Ron Wolf. And I think that combination, plus the fact that Ron has a history with the Oakland Raiders and that sort of thing, I think that’s the way he’ll go about it. And he’ll do a good job.”

Wolf was part of the group that recommended McKenzie to the Raiders. McKenzie is in charge of the team as it changes course after the October death of owner Al Davis.
Maybe the Green Bay Way will prevail in Oakland after all.

When the Oakland Raiders hired longtime Green Bay executive Reggie McKenzie to take over as general manager this month, it was expected that they would become the East Bay Packers. But McKenzie changed that perception quickly when he bypassed several former Green Bay cohorts in favor of Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Yet, in comments made to the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday after Allen’s introductory news conference, McKenzie showed that he, indeed, will build his team from the Green Bay model.

During and after the news conference, McKenzie talked about how important it is for the general manager and the coach to work together. McKenzie said he and Allen will be a team. During his time in Green Bay, McKenzie watched similar partnerships.

“Fortunately, I come from a situation in my 18 years where most of those years that’s where we excelled. You know, when coach Holmgren and Ron Wolf, watching them work together, and then piecing it together how we did that… and they were always in communication. They were always in each other’s office. And I saw how it’s supposed to be done.

“Up until the end, with coach McCarthy and Ted Thompson, how their relationship was. It was never things forced on the other. And it was always the right hand knew what the left hand was doing. They were in communication. And I think that’s vital.”

McKenzie is a bright guy. He saw how important the relationship with the coach is for someone in his role. It has produced championships in Green Bay, and McKenzie is clearly looking to duplicate it with his own partnership, even though Allen doesn’t have Green Bay ties.

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