With all of the success the Green Bay Packers have had finding fruit on the Ron Wolf tree, choosing the next general manager from the business side might feel like going to McDonald’s and getting a salad.
It might satisfy your hunger, but that’s not why you go.
John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, John Dorsey, and of course Ted Thompson himself came from what is no longer a tree, but a forest of successful personnel managers. After 19 years with Green Bay, Alonzo Highsmith could soon add his name to the list as a potential successor to Dorsey in Cleveland.
So when the Packers’ V.P. of football administration/finance Russ Ball emerged as the front-runner for the team’s vacant GM opening in the most talent-rich front office of the last 20 years, many fans were left scratching their heads.
Why, with Eliot Wolf or Brian Gutekunst already in-house—each of whom are well-respected as personnel evaluators—would a team with famously great talent evaluators go with a guy who isn’t one of them?
Assuming Ball does get the job, what then? Can a man with a background almost exclusively on the finance side of the front office work?
“The number one thing you have to have in a general manager,” explains former GM Charley Casserly, is “you have to know football. I think when you look at the game on the field, you have to know can a guy play or not play? And the other thing, you have to know whether the coach is doing a good job with the scheme.”
But Casserly, a former GM in Washington and Houston who was a coach and a scout first, insists that doesn’t mean a so-called “non-football” front office head can’t work. He cites ex-Giants GM Ernie Acorsi and current Panthers interim GM Marty Hurney as examples, each coming from the PR side (Hurney was a journalist first!). Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman just put together the No. 1 seed in the NFC without a scouting background.
“There are general managers who have been successful who did not come from scouting backgrounds, however it’s your ability to pick people to do those things for you that’s crucial. But you have to know they know what they’re doing. Which is tricky.”
Essentially, if someone like Ball hires the right football people, they’ll be fine, but how will Ball even know which people are the “right” football people without having a scouting background to begin with? And that’s the rub for the Packers.
Bucky Brooks, a former Packers player, played for the Chiefs when Ball was the strength coach and worked as a scout under Hurney in Carolina, making him uniquely positioned to weigh in.
“What Marty didn’t get as a scout, he was able to make up by being able to hear various opinions, let those opinions marinate, and make decisions based on those viewpoints. Russ has a similar ability to listen to what the room is saying and making a decision that’s best for the squad.”
Just look at what Ball got to witness in Kansas City, Brooks implores, watching the work of Marty Schottenheimer, one of just 10 coaches with more than 200 career wins.
“Make no mistake, Russ knows football. He knows what it should look like,” Brooks says. “So yes, it’s not necessarily a traditional hire if he’s named the general manager, but he knows what a good football team looks like, he knows what good players look like, and he knows what a winning culture looks like. And he’s willing to listen.”
Just because Ball doesn’t come from a scouting background doesn’t mean he’s not a “football guy.” He indisputably is.
Andrew Brandt, the man Russ Ball replaced in Green Bay (notably by Ted Thompson), says the compartmentalization in the Packers organization allows everyone, on the scouting and business sides, to flourish, a trait that could buoy Ball in a potential role as GM.
“The key to any good business is to hire good people and let them do their jobs with minimal interference,” Brandt told Acme Packing Company.
“The football focus in [Green Bay] has allowed that. During my nine years there, I saw such talent on the scouting side that I focused on my lane—managing the business side—and made sure they could do what they do as I had the cap and contracts covered.”
Plenty of front office heads serve more as delegators and final arbiters than tape grinders. Jerry Jones doesn’t spend his time traveling, seeing prospects in person, and fretting over film. He has people for that.
Jones still gets to make the final call, and the Cowboys have one of the best first-round draft records in particular in the last decade.
For the Packers, Brandt believes the lack of a true owner removes the specter of reprisal for a bad pick suggestion for example. It’s one of the reasons the scouting staff and finance staff have both been so good for so long.
“All of us in the front office had a great deal of autonomy compared to other teams with the lack of a true owner. I definitely felt the magnitude of it, treating my job as a steward for a public trust,” Brandt says. “I think all of the internal candidates understand that, accept it and are not awed by it.”
That’s another way of saying the GM in Green Bay has long relied heavily on the people around him to make decisions effectively. It’s an organizational structure that wouldn’t have to change with a non-scouting GM.
Brooks suggests Green Bay, by virtue of the culture installed by Ron Wolf more than two decades ago, could be the ideal place for a non-traditional hire specifically because of that system.
“You can build a culture of great talent evaluators,” Brooks says.
“Having played up there and having worked for guys who were groomed and trained under Ron Wolf in that system, it’s unique in what they do in Green Bay. Just the way that we go about evaluating players, putting together the team, figuring out how the draft board should be, I think those are directly related to how Ron Wolf set it up in Green Bay.”
For example, every area scout in the Packers organization watches every piece of tape on every prospect, so they can get a better perspective on what players in other parts of the country look like. It helps create a fuller picture and context in which to evaluate even if it’s a tedious and arduous process.
Institutionalizing norms, expectations, and standards is how Green Bay has maintained such a high standard of excellence in the personnel department since the early 1990’s, which, not coincidentally, is when the team started winning again.
So if, as Brandt says, all of the pieces are allowed to do their jobs, and the Packers have a built-in advantage at creating employees who are good at those jobs, does the guy making the final call have to be the best evaluator in the room like Ted Thompson often was?
“There’s a huge difference between a general manager and the top scout,” says Brooks.
“The general manager doesn’t have to necessarily be the top evaluator, but he has to have people who work with him who give him information, to make the best decisions for the club. So even if he’s not the best evaluator in terms of watching the tape and finding out who the best player is, he can listen. He can make decisions based on what the scouts give him to make the best decision for the team.”
In the short term, having “the right people” shouldn’t be a problem because Ted Thompson will move into a personnel-exclusive role, and in all likelihood the Packers will be able to retain either Wolf or Gutekunst this offseason — potentially even keeping both, depending on how the other GM searches around the league shake out.
Brandt witnessed first-hand what the presence of an experienced hand can do for a franchise in transition. He was with the Packers in 2001 when Ron Wolf stepped down, but remained as an advisor, a very similar situation to what the Packers now face with Thompson and his successor. Brandt points to Thompson’s consistent presence as a through line that should keep the continuity of culture and effectiveness intact.
“Ron continued to be an invaluable resource, attended practice, watched film and gave his insights. Ted could certainly do the same and in his element, he’s supremely skilled [at] evaluating players. His expertise will be called upon, especially if his successor comes from in-house.”
Wolf and Gutekunst likely aren’t long for Lambeau if they don’t get the head job even with the incentive of a promotion of some kind. The truth is, one is likely gone regardless of what happens, because if the Packers promoted one to GM, the other would head for greener pastures.
“Both are outstanding, general manager quality people,” Casserly insists. “If neither are named general managers, you’ve got a heck of a group right there. But the problem you have, if they don’t get the job, they’re going to leave for other jobs. Who do you replace them with? That’s the issue.”
Will the Packers remain a talent factory with the infrastructure to churn out player evaluators, without Thompson’s top personnel lieutenants and with Ball at the helm? That’s the great unknown.
Last offseason, Michael Cohen from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Ball spent the last handful of years honing his scouting skills, attending meetings in the personnel department, watching practice, and trying to improve his football bona fides in anticipation of the questions about his football background.
Casserly points out even though he was a “football guy” before working in the front office, being a part of the football operations and being around coaches was like its own graduate class.
“You can learn scouting just as you can learn football by watching tape and evaluating tape,” he says. “I coached in high school and small college, but when I was with Washington, I sat it and got an unbelievable clinic from Joe Gibbs.”
One long-time NFL scout from a different team said he thought a non-football person could work in Green Bay because of the scouting system in place and the presence of a consistent, successful coach like Mike McCarthy.
“As long as he listens to them,” he quipped.
Ever since news broke Ball was the front-runner, Twitter and sports talk radio has been buzzing with questions about his football IQ, how much he really knows about the game and talent evaluation.
Ultimately it could be Ball’s ability to understand what he doesn’t know that will determine how successful he can be as a GM.