Ron Wolf, the paragon of NFL personnel men, abruptly retired as GM of the Green Bay Packers in 2001. But Wolf still sees his legacy bearing fruit across the league even now. The former mentor and teacher of Packers GM Ted Thompson, Seahawks GM John Schneider, Chiefs GM John Dorsey, Washington GM Scot McCloughan, and Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie is not only known for what he was able to do for the Raiders and Packers in a career spanning nearly four decades, but for the model he created for draft scouting and for building successful teams. When Wolf is inducted into the Football Hall of Fame this weekend, it will not only be for the triumphs he had in Oakland and Green Bay, but for the influence he's had on how effective franchises are organized and run.
Wolf started out as a scout for the Raiders in 1963, and quickly rose up in the ranks to become a trusted lieutenant for Al Davis. "Ron Wolf is just excellent," the late Davis said back in 1997. "He became my eyes and ears while I was coaching and later my co-worker and close friend. He's one of the guys who built this organization."
Wolf was integral in the Raiders' decisions to draft players like Ken Stabler, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Jack Tatum, Marcus Allen, Matt Millen, and Howie Long, among many others, and he helped build the Raiders' teams that won Super Bowls XI, XV and XVIII.
It was Wolf's scouting prowess that helped lay the foundation for his run as one of the most influential GM's of all time. John Madden remembered Wolf's insane recall in Peter Richmond's book Badasses:
"Ron Wolf was a one-man full-time personnel staff," Madden says, in near reverence. "And he was the one man who could be a one-man staff. I mean, Ron Wolf knew every player everywhere. Ron Wolf's mind was amazing. You could ask him, ‘Ron, there's this junior wide receiver someone told me about at Alcorn,' and he would know him. He didn't have to go through notes and read stuff. He'd say, ‘This is who he is, and this is what he does.' He truly had a photographic mind."
"I kind of laid a huge egg in Tampa," Wolf said recently. "I knew what I did improperly, what I did wrong and I vowed if I ever got that opportunity again that would never happen. We were going to do it my way."
Wolf went back to Oakland after his time in Tampa, then spent a year in New York working for the Jets, but when Green Bay called in 1991 offering full control of football operations with no interference from the board of directors, Wolf got the chance to do things "his way."
It took him almost no time to make a huge impact. He fired then-head coach Lindy Infante and hired 49ers Offensive Coordinator Mike Holmgren. Soon thereafter, he traded a first-round pick for Brett Favre, a quarterback he'd had his eye on as a scout, then in 1993 signed big-name free agent Reggie White. Getting Favre was huge for the offense, and the signing of White not only gave the defense a leader and star player, but helped make Green Bay a desirable location for players again.
The Packers quickly became a perennial powerhouse. In the 23 seasons prior to Wolf's arrival in Green Bay, they'd had four winning seasons. In the nine years under him, the Packers put together a 92-52 record, appeared in six consecutive playoffs (from 1993-1998), won three consecutive NFC Central Division titles (1995-1997), went to the Super Bowl twice, winning one (XXXI). He changed how the organization was run, he changed the culture, and created a framework for success that's been copied and reproduced all over the NFL since.
At his core, Wolf was a scout -- during an average in-season week, he'd be on the grind, on the road scouting from Tuesday through Saturday -- and as Ted Thompson put it recently, he re-set the standard for having "football people making the football decisions," leaving roster decisions to the ones who knew players through and through.
Wolf's keen eye and draft acumen is legendary, but he was also selectively aggressive in free agency and loved him some trades. In nine years, he pulled off 89 trades, 67 more than any other club.
"I liked to trade. I did," Wolf said recently. "I always believed that if I have a player or I can get a player that's better than the guy I'm playing with, then I'm going to go out there and get that player."
"It's interesting, because he's probably a little old-school in the way he did his meetings and the grind of it," Seahawks GM John Schneider says. "Just with the time that we met and we put in -- it was a lot. But he was still ahead of his time because he was so aggressive and was on this constant quest to improve his team any way he could. And that's what we all try to do."
Schneider's taken his mentor's lead in building the Seahawks, orchestrating trades that brought him Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham, among others. Not all of them have worked out, obviously, but Schneider's aggressiveness was instilled in him during his time under Wolf.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Wolf developed scouting and grading systems for college players, and established a new focus on the nuances of evaluation.
Thompson still runs that same system in Green Bay, and Schneider, Dorsey, McKenzie, and McCloughan have based their scouting approach on what Wolf created. "It's what we know," Thompson says. "It's what we were taught by Ron."
"It all starts with Ron Wolf," Schneider said recently when asked about his process for building the Seahawks. "[He] was actually more of an educator than he probably thought at the time. At a very young age, I was exposed to the way Ron Wolf did things."
"Talk about a great mentor," Schneider said. "Ron was really just an unbelievable guy to learn from, and we learned so much from him about work ethic, and never being complacent with your team at all, and never stop asking questions during the draft process."
It wasn't just a specific technique that Wolf taught, it was a work ethic – a "constant quest for knowledge," as Schneider always says – that was instilled.
"I remember sitting there after a draft meeting," Chiefs GM John Dorsey told the Seattle Times. "You had a big old box of VHS and Beta tapes. One Friday night, Wolf said, ‘Boys, I want that box done by tomorrow.' So Schneider and I stayed there until about 3 in the morning, we did every tape in that box, and we found one guy."
Wolf detailed his scouting system in his book, The Packer Way. Here's a snippet for how he'd set out to build Green Bay's draft board, and it's worth reading in full because it illustrates the level of detail and work that goes into evaluating each college player:
Putting together our draft board takes weeks.
We take each position and go through each player at those spots one-by-one. I then ask the scout who has seen him and has graded him how he arrived at his decision. I ask him if he's changed his mind because we're constantly reviewing our information. I ask him if there's anything he wants to add to what we know. At this point, he'll tell us whether we need to look at tapes of the prospect.
If we do, we'll pull out five games against his best opponents, I run the tape machine -- and we start talking about what we're seeing. If the player isn't showing well, maybe I'll ask the scout if he'd rather put another game on the screen. By now, the scout is melting in his seat because his evaluation isn't holding up. After two or three tapes, you get a feel for the prospect. You give him a final grade, which could differ from the scout's. The player winds up in one of two categories. If he's bad enough, he becomes a reject and doesn't go on the board. If he has what we call a makable grade -- he has enough ability to perhaps play in the NFL -- he goes on the live board.
If we're lucky, we review 20 players a day in these draft meetings. They continue for five or six weeks, athlete by athlete, with each player allotted enough time to be evaluated properly. If you rush, you could make mistakes, which is what this process is trying to avoid.
The pace changes according to position. If we like a receiver, we'll take a look at every pass that's been thrown to him during his career, whether it was a completion or a miss. Same with running back.
On quarterbacks, we just watch them play as much as we can.
This is a long and arduous process. How many times can you review people blocking each other? But you have to maintain and edge.
You have to be correct.
Schneider, Dorsey, McKenzie, McCloughan and Thompson all went through the crucible Wolf describes above, and all still use versions of this method today. They each stayed up until 3, 4 o'clock in the morning scouting tapes and tapes of players for Wolf, and this laid the foundation for how they'd lead their scouting teams. They all still call Wolf, asking for his advice on a player or a potential decision.
"There's times where I'll call him for reassurance," Schneider said recently. "Like, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Let me throw something at you.' He's helped me through several different situations, just being able to bounce it off him."
It's a testament to Wolf's legacy that his influence is still felt so strongly in the NFL more than a decade after he retired. He'll don his yellow jacket this weekend in Canton, Ohio.
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