Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ron Wolf's Top Ten Moves

Where were you eighteen years ago today?  If you are a Packer fan, you were probably checking the newspaper each day to find out what crazy moves new general manager Ron Wolf was making after being handed the keys to the organization.  Today, we regard him in high regard, as a man who rescued a storied franchise from the Lean Years, but in those days, let's be honest:  there were some doubts about his big-time moves.

After all, who was Ron Wolf?  As far as we knew, he was the guy who helped lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an 0-28 expansion franchise start, and took the fall for it back in 1978.  He was a VP who got caught between two "good old boys" in owner Hugh Culverhouse and coach Jim McKay, and when it was time for heads to roll, Wolf was the odd man out.  While he went on to establish himself in front-office and scouting positions with the Raiders and Jets since then, there were more than a couple of rumblings if this guy making wholesale changes with the Packers was playing with a full deck.

At that point, however, Packer fans were ready for change.  After years of seeing a .500 season as overachieving, the Packers seemed on the cusp of something special under Lindy Infante in 1989, narrowly missing the playoffs.*  However, that was the zenith, and the Packers quickly took giant steps backwards before finishing in an all-too-familiar 4-12 season in 1991.  Packer fans had suffered through years of uninspired play, and that 1989 season gave them a taste in their mouth for more than what Starr, Gregg, and now Infante was giving them.

For years, Packer fans had cried for "the coffers to be opened" and to see the Packers go out and spend the money that other franchises were willing to cough up for good players.  With the advent of free agency and the salary cap, Wolf found himself in the perfect storm, as far as GMs go.  He had a green light to spend some money, additional revenue brought it due to the sharing rules, and availability of veteran players never before seen in the NFL.  So, what did he do?  Sent a second-round pick to the 49ers for a head coach--a guy who had never been a head coach at any level.  Then, he sent a first-round pick to the Falcons for a third-string quarterback that looked to be a bronco in dire need of being broke.

June of 1992 was a season of anticipation:  was this team going to implode under an inexperienced coach, a bomb of a quarterback, and the loss of our draft picks?  Even then, you couldn't say that Wolf wasn't a guy who was afraid to take risks.  In the end, this is what made him such a commendable general manager:  he took tremendous risks that ended up paying off in the long run, no matter how questioned they were at the time.

For me, a "risk" is defined as a move that goes beyond the daily humdrum of managing the roster of a team.  Simply making a draft pick, even if it successful, isn't a risk.  Even if you pick a future Hall of Famer in the fourth round, it is still more of a reflection of your scouting (and a little bit of luck) as opposed to making some sort of calculated risk.

Risks can, however, be a trade-up in a draft (or even a trade-back), changing your fortunes and the value system that the draft allots for each team.  A trade-up sacrifices quantity for quality, while a trade-back does the opposite (at least in theory).

Otherwise, risks are moves that are out of the ordinary:  trades, free-agent signings, and the like.  And Ron Wolf made a slough of such moves on the way to making his five-year plan a reality, culminating with two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi Trophy.

In honor of those days when you couldn't wait to get the paper to find out what was happening next in a quickly-evolving regime change, here is my list of Top Ten Moves Made By Ron Wolf

10)  The firing of Lindy Infante.  Normally, I wouldn't count such a firing as any sort of risky move.  In fact, it is usually customary for a newly-hired general manager to bring in his own coach, so there really was no surprise that the well-liked Infante was let go.  But, it wasn't just the firing of Infante, it was the immediate message sent to the rest of the team and the fans that things were going to be different.

On the day Infante was fired, Wolf went in to the locker room to address the team, and by his own recollection, Wolf said he didn't make a whole lot of friends that day.  But, the country-club atmosphere that had been prevalent under Infante  had stalled the development of the team, and Wolf let it be no uncertain terms...that every player was here only as long as it took Wolf to find someone to replace him.

While usually guarded, his candor sometimes got the best of him when speaking with the media, and what he said surprised many fans.  Wolf announced that offseason that, after examining the roster, he didn't see any players on the roster that fit his plans, and that he didn't expect many of them to be around within a year or two.  This hit many fans (and players) sharply:  despite their 4-12 finish, there were still some popular players on the team:  Don Majkowski, Chuck Cecil, Jackie Harris, Mark Murphy, and Vince Workman were all fan favorites that would soon find their days numbered.

And in the end, Wolf was true to his word.  It is one thing to make threats, and another to follow through on them.  After Sterling Sharpe's career-ending injury in 1994, less than a handful of players who graced Infante's roster in 1991 remained on the 1995 team:  Butler, Jacke, Jurkovic, and Ruettgers.

9. Bag o' Donuts via Plan B.  James Campen had been one of those popular Packers under Lindy Infante, but injuries had been a problem since coming to the Packers in 1989.  Enter Frank Winters, a journeyman center who came to the Packers the same way Campen had, by way of long-gone Plan B free agency.  Winters immediately connected another new recruit in 1992:  quarterback Brett Favre, and became close friends and roommates on the road.

When Campen succumbed to injury in 1993, it was Winters who stepped in to start at center during Week 4.  Winters' held onto the starting spot for eight seasons following, but his first season might have been the most important one.  1993 was Brett Favre's crossroads season, with 24 interceptions and a stubborn penchant for risk-taking that nearly had him benched for Mark Brunell.   Having his best friend taking over under center certainly had to help Favre's confidence as that season of growth went on.  It certainly didn't hurt that Winters was renowned for his hustle and his workmanlike approach to the game, something that tempered Favre's easy, lighter approach.

My favorite memory of Bag o' Donuts was that dreaded game against the Vikings in 1995, when both Favre and Ty Detmer left the game with injuries, and TJ Rubely was left to come into the game to hang on to a lead against the Vikings.  As Rubely foolishly audibled out of a quarterback sneak into a passing play, it was Winters who was screaming, "No!  Don't do it!!"  In the end, Rubely threw an interception, the Vikings won, and Winters was left glaring at Rubely (who found a pink slip in his locker the next day).  I have little doubt that when Favre needed to be grounded, Winters was the man on the field to do it.

Jersey-born Winters was a popular player who felt a duty to play his hardest for his teammates, and whose toughness and effort never stopped until the whistle blew (and several times, afterwards).  Winters was the epitome of the kind of player Wolf wanted to fill his roster and change the paradigm of the team.

8.  Bad Moon Rison.  The Packers were 6-1 and had their tickets already punched for an appearance in the 1996 playoffs.  Every piece that Ron Wolf had put together was in place for this season, and the preseason favorites were playing every bit the part...that is, until #1 wide receiver Robert Brooks tore his right knee into two or three pieces and went on the IR list.  Like any GM after the trade deadline, Wolf gave Mike Holmgren time to see if the team could compensate for the loss. 

But a 2-2 record dropped the team to 8-3 and doubts were beginning to creep in.  Don Beebe, so instrumental on special teams and as a #3 receiver, was unable to play at the level of a starter, and the Packers' offense began to sputter.  With the trade deadline past, Wolf found any options to upgrade the position very limited:  most players available off the street weren't going to outplay Beebe, and that wasn't going to be good enough.

Except for the troubled Andre Rison, he of the infamous burning house by his ex-girlfriend only a few years prior.  Off-the-field issues haunted him in Atlanta, and followed him to his short stints in Cleveland and Jacksonville.  The nickname "Bad Moon" wasn't just a play on his name:  his reputation as a malcontent preceded him, such as when he lashed out against boo-bird fans in Cleveland with an obscenity-laced tirade.

But he was also the only receiver available that would legitimately upgrade the receiving corps, and Wolf felt it was worth the risk to the locker room.  Besides, Wolf had several aces up his sleeve:  Rison wasn't going to be walking on to a young team with a greenhorn head coach.  Some of the first faces that Rison encountered entering the locker room were strong, veteran leaders such as Reggie White, Sean Jones, Eugene Robinson, and Don Beebe--men who were on their last ticket to a Super Bowl ring and set the tone for the team. 

By his own admission, Rison turned into a "perfect gentleman" and a team player, and the Packers' fortunes immediately turned for the best.  With Rison in the lineup, the Packers finished the season 5-0 and dominated the playoffs.  In the Super Bowl, "Bad Moon" caught Brett Favre's first pass for an 54-yard touchdown and set the tone for the team victory.  Rison's touchdown was more than a fluke play, but a great example of teamwork and communication.

"It was a check off to me," said Rison in 2006.  "Antonio would have been outside and I would have been inside. But I was outside, and Free went inside from the outset. Brett relayed the signal and then we hit it."

Rison left the Packers after that season with a Super Bowl ring on his finger and memories that would last for the rest of his life.  Wolf apparently wasn't so confident in his attitude (or talent) to keep him around for more than half a season, but he served his purpose with flying colors.  Rison never achieved the same glory anywhere else, despite playing for seemingly every other team in the league.

Without Rison, Brooks' injury looked to be a train derailer.  Wolf took a risk that might have derailed the team in a different way.  Give credit to Wolf for not only making this move to bring in the mercurial hired gun, but having the leadership in the locker room to keep Rison in check.

7.  Desmond Howard  Desmond may have not been the biggest risk Ron Wolf ever made, but by far, he paid perhaps the highest of dividends.  Howard was a big-name, former Heisman winner, former 4th-pick overall that had never blossomed in the NFL as a wide receiver.  The Redskins had him returning kicks his first two seasons, then tried to make him focus on starting at WR only.  The experiment failed, and he was left exposed in the expansion draft after that season.  Jacksonville picked him up in 1995, only to release him after the season.  It was starting to look as though Howard was going to be just another draft-day bust.

The Packers signed Howard in July of 1996, just before the start of training camp for a palty one-year contract of $300,000.  Certainly, no risk involved for the Packers here...if he didn't pan out, just let him go.  But, Wolf didn't need another wide receiver, at least at that moment.  Robert Brooks, Antoio Freeman, and Don Beebe were as good of a top-three set in the NFL, and Howard was brought in for one purpose:  as a returner.

But the first day of practice, Howard left with a hip pointer and all involved started to believe that this might be the end of the line for the man who originated "the Heisman pose" for future college hopefuls to emulate.  At that point, who did Howard turn to?  None other than Reggie White, who began prayer sessions with the discouraged former star.  Finally, Howard was healthy enough to play in an exhibition game and returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown.

The rest, as they say, was history.  Howard set the NFL record for most punt return yards in a season...shattered it, in fact...and delivered in the playoffs with two return touchdowns against the 49ers and a 99-yard return in the Super Bowl that slammed the door shut on a comeback attempt by the Patriots.

It was, as they say, the perfect storm.  Howard had great God-given talent, but like any returner, depended on the blocking he had in front of him in order to succeed.  The Packers had a veteran-laden roster, with many veterans (and starters) willing to play special teams.  This well-disciplined bunch did their job well, leaving Howard with the hypothetical "one man to beat" on a consistent basis.

Howard went on and suckered Al Davis out of millions of dollars as a free agent a year later, but the impact he had on the Packers' Super Bowl team is forever etched in stone:  he won the Most Valuable Player award for the game.  Pretty good for a guy signed for a song and who nearly gave up in the preseason.

6. and 5.  Santana Dotson and Sean Jones  Patty, the draft guru at Packerchatters, has often told me that "you can never have too many defensive linemen", which is why I curtail criticism of the Packers picking up DL in the draft (unless his last name is Harrell). The line is too critical to your defense, and is usually peppered with players prone to injury (and attitude issues).  Which is why it may surprise you that the Packers' Super Bowl starting lineup featured a defensive line that wasn't made up of one single Wolf draft pick.  Obviously, Reggie White was a free agent and Gilbert Brown (in his first season as a starter) was a waiver pickup from Minnesota.

In fact, Wolf had only invested three draft picks in his 1992-1996 drafts (Darius Holland, Gabe Wilkens, and Shazzon Bradley), and don't forget he had twelve rounds to play with in 1992.  No, Wolf knew that the line was where everything on defense started, and as Infante holdovers like John Jurkovic moved on and the draft picks didn't develop quickly, he went out and solved the problem via free agency.

Jones came aboard in 1994, already a force in the NFL.  He already had a Pro Bowl under his belt, along with 88-and-a-half sacks while playing for the Raiders and Oilers.  Mind you, as Jones became a free agent, Wolf did play his usual game of hardball with him.  In the end, the quibble over the last $200,000 of his contract went in the Packers' favor, as Jones realized how special it was going to be to play alongside Reggie White on the Frozen Tundra.

In his three seasons with the Packers, he added another 24-and-a-half sacks to his resume, and while he statistically tailed off during the Super Bowl year, you could attribute that as much to the development of the talent around him as to his age (34).

One big part of that talent was the acquisition of Santana Dotson during the 1996 offseason.  Dotson was probably Wolf's easiest sell.  Not content with the talent on the roster following the departure of stalwart and popular tackle Jurkovic in 1995, Wolf didn't wait to see who might develop in what he deemed a critical year.  He signed Dotson, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1992 for a blue-light special, thanks again to the Packers' #1 recruiter, Reggie White.

"I remember when I was a free agent, Reggie called and when he asked me to be a part of something special, the deal was done," Dotson admitted. "It didn't matter what Ron Wolf said or didn't matter what Larry Brooks, the defensive line coach said. When Reggie called me, and I was at home in Tampa Bay, I was going to Green Bay. It was a done deal."

Together, Dotson, White, Jones, and Gilbert Brown struck fear in the eyes of any offensive line they faced.  With Brown able to eat up two blockers and White commanding an extra one, there was no shortage of directions this line could come at you from.  The Packers finished with the #1 defense in the NFL that year, in no small part due to the defensive line.

4.  Eugene Robinson.  The Packers added many veterans at the end of the five-year plan to round out the roster, but few of them made as important an impact as Eugene Robinson.  Robinson was a ten-year vet from the Seahawks who relished the opportunity to come to a contender in Green Bay, but the upgrade at free safety over George Teague was very evident because of what it did for LeRoy Butler.

Butler was one of the very few holdovers left from the Infante regime, and he moved from cornerback to strong safety, and he was the prototype.  He loved playing close to the line, loved helping in run support, and loved to rush the quarterback.  But Teague wasn't a strong enough free safety to hold his own in the backfield and allow Butler to wreack havok near the line of scrimmage, so Butler's opportunities were limited.

Enter Robinson, a natural quarterback of the defense whose instincts and speed allowed Butler more freedom to roam, and that he did:  Butler never had more than one sack in any of his previous six seasons, but with Robinson alongside him, he piled up 6.5 sacks in 1996 and another 3 in 1997.  Many of us remember Butler's play in those Super Bowl seasons, counting up his sacks and often seeing him disrupting plays as linemen were occupied blocking Reggie White and Co. 

In addition, Robinson was another leader of the team, a vocal veteran who took his turn in the locker room with inspirational speeches.  While he became the butt of jokes later on after joining the Atlanta Falcons in 1998 and being arrested for an offer of prostitution (the same day he was awarded the Bart Starr Award for his "high moral character"), there's no doubt that he made an impact on the Super Bowl Champion Packers with his efforts both on and off the field.

In 1996, not only did the Packers finish #1 in overall defense, but #1 in overall pass defense.  Robinson's prototypical free safety play and control of everything happening in front of him, was a huge part of keeping that ranking when the rushers didn't get to the quarterback.

3.  The hiring of Mike Holmgren.  Now, in retrospect, The Walrus seems like a no-brainer today, but in reality, he was the third-year offensive coordinator of a team that had been steered by Bill Walsh for many years before that.  Moreso, he had no head coaching experience at any level.  Not everyone was convinced that Holmgren was going to suddenly turn the Packers into the 49ers, especially when our defense was just as anemic as our offense, which most expected Holmgren to focus on.

The decision to go with the high-potential assistant coach as opposed to a veteran coach (Wolf had considered both Bill Parcells and Chuck Knox) was a big risk to take, especially when you consider that Holmgren was still under contract, and the 49ers were not willing to release him without compensation from the team who wanted him.

But Holmgren was the darling of NFL teams in January 1992, leaving his interview in Green Bay without a contract and began a tour of other teams with head coaching vacancies.  Wolf knew this was the guy he wanted, but played a delicate game to not put himself in a position to seem desperate or to give his new coach too much power.  Finally, on January 11, the Packers signed Holmgren as head coach, and sent their second-round pick to the 49ers as compensation for allowing him to break his contract with them.   Such compensation is a rarity in the NFL, both then and now, as most coordinators have verbiage in their contract that allow them to take another job as long as it is a promotion.  Other teams simply allow a man to break their contract as a good faith move.  But, the 49ers played hardball, and there are many GMs that would have hedged at giving a conference rival an extra first-day pick.

In the end, whomever the Packers could have gotten in the second round paled in comparison to the young coach who brought the team together on the field.  And, in 1995 and 1996, the Packers happily gave the 49ers a little payback in the playoffs for that lost pick.

2)  The trade for Brett Favre.  At one point in Brett Favre's struggles in the early 1990's, Mike Holmgren had to look at his undisciplined protege and tell him, "Listen, you and I are attached at the hip."  If one went down, they both went down.  And both would have Ron Wolf to thank for it.

Wolf's trade for Favre is well-documented and is still listed as one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history, yet you would have a hard time convincing anyone of that at the time.  I remember watching the 1991 NFL draft and hoping the Packers would draft this kid with the funny last name, but the Falcons scooped him up two picks before the Packers' second rounder.  After the Packers picked Esera Tuaolo with that pick, the New York Jets picked Browning Nagle, but a certain Jets' personnel director had been equally disappointed when Favre had been selected.  That man was Ron Wolf.

The next year, when Wolf was in the Packers' fold, he designated two key positions he needed to fill to establish leadership on the team, and that was head coach and quarterback.  After getting Holmgren in January, he set his sights on Favre, who was toiling as a third-string quarterback with Atlanta and had laughable stats in very limited playing time.

Moreso, Favre was becoming a discipline problem: a partier that refused to prepare, take coaching, or show up on time.  He was a diva that felt he should be starting ahead of Pro Bowler Chris Miller, and rebelled against coach Jerry Glanville's attempts to shape him up.  The divide grew wider as Glanville told Falcon GM Ken Herock that while Herock could force Favre to take up a roster spot, he wouldn't do anything else besides hold a clipboard.

Can you say, "risk"?  Certainly, Favre's behavior over the last few years certainly would corroborate the Favre we've heard about in Atlanta but didn't think existed anymore.  But Wolf was keenly aware of these issues with Favre and felt that he could get him for a first-round pick.  In reality, he might have gotten him for a fourth rounder had he played it out, but Herock wanted to prove his pick as worthy, despite everyone else in his organization telling him it was a waste.

Now, at the time, most of us knew Favre was a project and "the quarterback of the future".  A first-round pick for a guy who was a second-rounder the year before and had done nothing to improve on his value since was the very definition of "risk".  But Wolf knew even more about Favre's behavior at the time than most of us did, which makes the move even more daring.

In the end, Favre captured three MVP trophies and the hearts of many Packer fans who dared to hold him up to Bart Starr in comparison.  Perhaps there is no higher praise for a Packer quarterback.  In the end, Wolf trusted the scouting he had done a year earlier and did what it took to get the player he believed had the potential to be better than just another good quarterback.

1)  Reggie.  After Wolf's and Holmgren's first season, the Packers were back on their way to respectability.  They improved to 9-6, winning six in a row in the second half of the season.  Favre had taken over as the starter and had already began to capture the imagination of the fans with his youthful, risk-taking play.  Sterling Sharpe benefited immediately from the West Coast Offense, catching 108 balls and becoming Favre's favorite target.  And yet, in a transitional year, a rebuilding year, there was still this feeling that not all the pieces were there.  The team's nucleus was getting younger, there was the feeling that the team needed some glue to hold it together.

What they got was cement.  And they got it using the newly-implemented free agency, allowing an already legendary player still in his prime to go to the highest bidder.  Six teams began lobbying for Reggie White's attention, whose contract had expired with Philadelphia.  Many of the contenders were the usual suspects;  New York, Washington, Atlanta.  But one of the teams in the bidding was new to the table:  the Packers.  No one expected the Packers to ever be serious with big-time players.

That is, until this penultimate day.  Ron Wolf and the Green Bay Packers had come to play, and they played well.  Reggie was given a tour of the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame, instead of wined and dined at exclusive restaurants.  Wolf and Holmgren weren't afraid to invoke the spirits of the Glory Years to speak to the tradition of the the Packers, instead of the Siberia reputation it had developed during the Lean Years.  Holmgren made comical phone messages pretending to be God, telling the spiritual White that Green Bay was The Promised Land.

But in the end, Ron Wolf made perhaps the biggest move in Packer history, outbidding the big players and offering White a four-year, $17-million contract, at that point the biggest for a defensive player in NFL history.  It also set in motion the template for unrestricted free agency that we still see today.  For the usually financially-tight Packers, this was the very definition of "opening the coffers" and shelling out the money for the big-time players.

And, in the end, Reggie White was the glue that bonded this team together.  His on-the-field ferociousness was matched by his locker room spiritual leadership.  Furthermore, his signing brought legitimacy to the Packers, leading other veteran players to believe there was something good happening up in Green Bay.

Because of his MVP honors, there are many that would say that Favre was the bigger move than White's, but I have to disagree.  Without White, the Packers would not have been a #1 overall defense in 1996, and Favre alone would not have attracted so many free agents (particularly on defense) to come to Green Bay at a cut-rate price.  Favre obviously was a huge part of the team, but White is the one that made the team.  In order to bring White here, though, Wolf had to spend an amount of money that likely made many long-time board members pass out in the meeting room.


So, there you have my list of Wolf's Top Ten Moves, the biggest risks he took along the way to bringing a third Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay.  Obviously, I didn't include Wolf's many draft selections in this list, simply because those aren't "risks" asmuch as they are a result of scouting and, oftentimes, luck.  While Mark Chmura, Edgar Bennett, and Antonio Freeman all played key roles in the building of a Super Bowl champion, this article was meant to note the high-risk/reward that comes along with moves like trades and free agency, and how he used it to turn this team into a champion.

We also have to note that not everything Wolf did turned to gold.  For every Andre Rison, there was a Mark Clayton.  For each Santana Dotson he brought in, there was a Bryce Paup he let get away.  But when the end result is a Lombardi Trophy, everything gleams like gold, and the black marks seem to get lost in the luster.

I'm sure there are some names I left off this list that some will disagree with:  Keith Jackson, Gilbert Brown, Jim McMahon, Don Beebe all come to mind as honorable mentions.  These are my top ten moves that Wolf had to pull the trigger on...feel free to comment and voice your opinions!
* The NFL playoffs expanded to include a third wild-card team in 1990.  Had that happened a year earlier, the Cardiac Pack would have made it in to the post-season.

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