Whether they were pro-Ted Thompson or anti-Ted Thompson, Green Bay Packers fans never lost much sleep over who would replace the franchise’s general manager when the time came.
After all, there was always an impressive pool of potential candidates — some with the Packers, others with Packers ties — who were raised in the Ron Wolf system that saved the franchise in 1992 and has kept it at or near the top of the NFL ever since.
Former Wolf and Thompson lieutenants John Dorsey, John Schneider and Reggie McKenzie have found success running other NFL teams — Dorsey in Kansas City and now Cleveland, Schneider in Seattle and McKenzie in Oakland. Still on the Packers’ personnel staff are director of football operations Eliot Wolf (Ron’s son), director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst and vice president of football administration Russ Ball. All of them, like Thompson, are part of the Ron Wolf tree.
Now that Thompson has been kicked upstairs, the onus is on president Mark Murphy to make the most important call in his 10 years with the team. Murphy can’t afford to whiff because quarterback Aaron Rodgers just turned 34 and the organization needs a general manager who can maximize the final years of his remarkable career.
It’ll be interesting to see what direction Murphy goes since his biggest decisions to date have been in non-football areas. Murphy said Tuesday he would hire a search firm to help him select the new general manager and that he wasn’t tied into hiring someone from the Ron Wolf tree.
Of the two, hiring a search firm is the most curious. Murphy has been an NFL executive for a decade and has discussed this move with Thompson for a year, so he already should have a good idea of what’s out there. And while an outside search firm might know candidates, it won’t necessarily understand what the Packers need in a GM.
If there is one piece of advice I’d give Murphy, it is this: Stick with what has worked in Green Bay.
The next Packers general manager should have a scouting background first and an administrative background second. He should be fluent in the Ron Wolf system of scouting, drafting and developing that has led to 19 playoff berths in the past 25 years. He should have a working knowledge of a franchise that is unique to the NFL in terms of structure, location and place in history.
OK, I can hear you screaming already: That job description fits Thompson and look at how thin the roster has become on his watch.
My response: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Although the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since winning the 2010 NFL title, the system they’ve used to acquire players isn’t irretrievably broken. Thompson’s draft-and-develop approach became a lightning rod for criticism, but mostly due to his reluctance to use means other than the draft to build his roster. It wasn’t the approach that was flawed, it was Thompson’s interpretation of it.
The draft-and-develop strategy has worked and can continue to work. However, that will only happen if Murphy hires someone willing to augment the roster with veterans via free agency and trades, unlike Thompson, whose reliance on undrafted — read: dirt cheap — free agents left the bottom of his roster weak and the team vulnerable to injuries.
The natural reaction is that hiring a Thompson protege will mean more of the same in Green Bay, but that’s highly unlikely. Most of Thompson’s underlings never shared his overly cautious nature and were frustrated by his lack of action when deals that would have improved the team presented themselves.
In their work with other teams, Dorsey, Schneider and McKenzie have shown themselves to be more adaptable than Thompson. Eliot Wolf and Gutekunst were known to favor more aggressive tactics over the years but were often vetoed by Thompson. There is no real track record on Ball, who has largely handled Thompson’s administrative work and managed the salary cap.
Whoever Murphy hires should have a background in scouting. The Packers organization was going nowhere until then-president Bob Harlan hired Ron Wolf, a career scout, to run the football operations in 1991. The franchise ran smoothly until Wolf’s retirement in 2001 and again after Thompson, another career scout, took over in 2005.
It was in between their tenures, when coach Mike Sherman was given the additional role of general manager, that the Packers roster went sharply downhill. Sherman had no background in scouting and it showed in his suspect drafting and shaky veteran acquisitions.
Since Murphy extended coach Mike McCarthy’s contract through 2019, hiring someone who has worked with McCarthy is important. Otherwise, it could be 2005 all over again. That’s when Thompson took over and Sherman was a lame-duck coach, resulting in a 4-12 record. The current Packers can ill afford to waste even one year of Rodgers’ career.
Murphy owes it to the franchise to see if Dorsey, Schneider and/or McKenzie are available. If not, his best candidates might be just down the hall in the scouting department.
The best organizations have continuity and Murphy would be wise to remember that.