Ron Wolf on Rodgers wanting out: 'In my opinion, you can’t be in a better place'
The Hall of Fame GM who woke the Packers up from the dead in 1992 and built a system that lasts to this day weighs in on what makes this franchise special... and why conviction is needed as a GM.
This sure feels like open season on a system that’s done nothing but produce winning football for three decades in the NFL’s smallest market.
Takes burn at 600 degrees. Smoke emanates from keyboards. Our ears will pierce for the next several weeks. And through this melodrama, there sure seems to be one universal theme: Shame on the Packers. Shame on an organization that refuses to change with the times. If Aaron Rodgers is this unhappy — so the chorus goes — the Packers only have themselves to blame.
We’re certainly not absolving the Packers here. They should’ve known how delicately Rodgers is wired, how drafting his heir apparent could’ve spawned a “mastermind” exit. But they didn’t do anything wrong, nor anything revolutionary in drafting Jordan Love 26th overall in the 2020 draft. GM Brian Gutekunst essentially followed the blueprint. He drafted a quarterback he believes in for the long-term health of the franchise.
And yet, we’re told, this thinking is prehistoric.
Which all got me wondering what the architect of this system could possibly be thinking right now, the man who wrote the book: “The Packer Way.”
When Ron Wolf took over as GM in 1991, the Packers were on life support. Through a 25-year stretch, they made the playoffs twice. Playing here was akin to total exile — NFL players legitimately feared their bosses would ship ‘em north to this frigid, desolate place. Wolf ripped apart the franchise’s infrastructure, traded for Brett Favre, signed Reggie White and instituted a way of doing business that has lasted to this day. The Packers have not only remained a financially viable franchise in the country’s 296th-largest city. They win. A lot.
Green Bay has made the playoffs in 21 of the last 28 years. Only New England has made it this many times over the same span.
That’s why you’ll find Wolf’s bust in Canton today.
So, please, stop with the insane requests for Gutekunst to issue Rodgers a public apology. These last three decades have been a football miracle so — as talented as Brett Favre was, as talented as Rodgers is — quite possibly that system Wolf created long ago is the foundation for everything. Granted, Wolf is removed from the madness. Today, he’s living a peaceful life down in Jupiter, Fla. Today, Wolf is more apt to keep tabs on the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals (who both have spring training nearby), than track the Packers’ every transaction.
But no doubt: Wolf does know the value of what the team built back in ’91.
“It’s a fairy tale story,” Wolf says. “No question about that. I feel very fortunate to have had an opportunity to be there, No. 1. No. 2, I was able to surround myself with some highly intelligent individuals. Having Mike Holmgren as the head coach certainly helps. That seems to have carried over. When I left, Mike Sherman took over and he couldn’t do it, so Ted Thompson came in and did a heck of a job. He kept the ball rolling. Let’s face it, there isn’t a better operation — or a better organization — to be a part of than the Green Bay Packers. I say that because of the tradition involved. It starts right there at Lambeau Field. You walk in and see those magical names up there that surround the field and the fact that the Super Bowl winner gets the Lombardi Trophy, I mean, it’s all part of this wonderful franchise. And I’m glad we were able to bring it back to life.”
The conviction to trade for Favre, of course, sparked the renaissance. Wolf traded his 19th overall pick in the ’92 draft pick for this ’91 second-rounder who attempted four passes and was picked off twice with the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie. Then, White chose the Packers. Then, Wolf emphasized homefield dominance. He says the goal was to make Lambeau Field a difficult place to play. While Wolf was in Green Bay, the Packers had an .841 winning percentage at home with a surreal 25-game winning streak.
The GM, here, has final say. The coaches coach. The players play. In one recent interview, Brett Favre said Wolf would’ve kicked him to the curb if he asked Wolf for input on draft picks.
And considering this current stalemate isn’t about money (the Packers reportedly offered Rodgers an extension that’d make him the richest QB) or winning (the Packers’ roster offers Rodgers the best shot at a Super Bowl), one can only assume what he seeks: Power. He’s become irritated over everything from Gutekunst releasing an aging Jordy Nelson to cutting sixth-string Jake Kumerow to, of course, drafting Love.
Clearly, Rodgers believes he deserves a say in personnel.
Granting any player pseudo-GM status would of course effectively kill that Packer Way and lead to all sorts of long-term problems but, nonetheless, most voices on the national airwaves right now agree that this QB deserves such power.
When Wolf is told that what he built is essentially under attack, he points to Seattle. Longtime Packers personnel man John Schneider brought this formula to the Seahawks in 2010 and built a perennial winner. They’ve made the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons. He points to Cleveland, too. Longtime Packers personnel man John Dorsey was fired but several players he — and Wolf’s son, Eliot — selected make up the nucleus of this rising AFC power.
The key, Wolf says, is taking advantage of what you have. In Green Bay, he knew he could lean into tradition. The history of the Packers could be a major selling point. Suddenly those names up in the rafters weren’t just names. Ray Nitschke and Paul Hornung and Bart Starr were named honorary captains and hung out with the Packers of the 90s right in the locker room.
Rodgers will be one of those names someday but Packers tradition also doesn’t seem to matter too much to the QB at the moment.
When Wolf is asked how in the heck you try to make this work with a player who apparently doesn’t want to be there, Wolf first admits it would be extremely difficult to run a team in today’s “professional climate.”
“You have this guy Russell Wilson in Seattle who wants to be an owner, a coach, a scout and he’s hired to play quarterback,” Wolf says. “He’s telling them who to draft and all that? That’s just what you said about what Brett said. He’s hired to do one thing: He’s hired to win football games and play quarterback and is paid very well and he’s a very good player. He’s a top 5 quarterback certainly in the game.
“Now, I’m not really sure what the deal is with Rodgers — what is upsetting him. In my opinion, you can’t be in a better place. Everything there is geared toward the player. Everything they do is about the player. That’s the greatness of that franchise. To me, that’s why it’s been so successful. It’s about playing football. That’s all. It’s not about any other thing. It’s not about going to some owner’s wife’s tea party. This affair or that affair. It’s about playing football and being a professional football player. That’s all it is. That’s really the greatness of the Packers.”
“You can’t top that anywhere. I don’t understand why guys don’t want to get better. Why don’t they want to come in and have (OTA) camps? Don’t you want to get better? Don’t you want to increase your salary impact? You have this God-given gift. Take advantage of it. Make yourself better. But today that’s not the case. This just befuddles me. I don’t understand it.”
A different time, indeed.
Rodgers apparently desires Wilson-like power behind the scenes. At least that’s the only conclusion we can all draw. The QB himself has not said anything publicly. Instead, current and former teammates continue to do the talking for him. James Jones and John Kuhn spoke last week and, on Monday, it was Davante Adams’ turn. The team’s Pro Bowl wide receiver said he’d need to do “some extra thinking” as a 2022 free agent if Rodgers wasn’t his quarterback.
Thus, the full-court press is on. Maybe Adams’ words do shift some public opinion to complete The Packers could lose everyone! Oh my God! mode.
But as we’ve written in this space, this moment doesn’t need to feel apocalyptic. It can be an opportunity. It can be a chance for Green Bay to go on the offensive and fully support Jordan Love. However you slice it, Gutekunst knew he’d also be defined by his decision at QB. Maybe the GM was hoping Love wouldn’t play until 2022 or 2023 but, no doubt, he knew this moment was inevitable… and that this moment would be excruciating for all involved.
Exactly as Ted Thompson knew what drafting Rodgers meant in 2005.
Exactly as Wolf knew what trading for Favre entailed in 1992.
A callous GM running the show can (still) be a good thing. In this chair, difficult decisions must be made.
“That’s going to define me,” says Wolf. “The guy was a second-round pick and the first thing you do is give up the No. 1 for that guy. I was very fortunate it worked out for me. But I believed in the guy. To me, the one position you better have a handle on in your operation is quarterback. You better protect yourself there. And that’s something, when I was there, we always did. We always protected ourselves. So, Thompson picked that up. Obviously, Brian Gutekunst has picked that up with Love. Obviously, they felt he was worthy to be the No. 2 guy eventually and then follow Aaron Rodgers. I would have to bow to that. I see no reason not to believe that.”
If there is one downside to making the playoffs in 21 of 28 years, it’s that you rarely ever have a shot to draft one of the best quarterbacks out of college. You’re always picking in the 20s. So, it’s not too complicated as a Packers GM: If there’s an ultra-talented prospect you believe in, you better draft that prospect.
Miss your shot and you’ll be caught with your pants down whenever your current QB fades.
Gutekunst was looking out for the Packers.
“You have to protect your operation, your organization,” Wolf says. “And if you have a guy who you think is that good and you’re willing to take him in the first round, you better take him — regardless of the position. And there isn’t a better person to take than a person at that position to protect your football team. What I’ve read is they’re really upset because the Packers didn’t take a wide receiver. I mean, they look like they’re doing OK with receivers.”
Wolf does not recall a player in his tenure seeking a trade with three years left on his contract, either.
In fact, he believes the Packers organization is as player-friendly and player-oriented as it gets in sports.
That was always central to The Packer Way.
“I mean, these guys want to go somewhere else and I bet they’re shocked when they go other places to see what they’ve given up leaving the Packers.”
“That whole building is designed to benefit the player. And they’re not asked to do anything but play football. To me, that’s a very important thing. I don’t know anything about this new regime. But I assume that hasn’t changed. That in itself is enough right there — they’re asking the guys to be representative, be professional football players and play football. That’s it. Everything else is all taken care of.”
Possibly, a month to cool off helps. After all, Russell Wilson is still a Seahawk. Wilson took a deep breath and agreed to play in Seattle for one more season anyways.
The grass is not always greener. Maybe Rodgers realizes that at some point this month, changes his mind and keeps on ordering those steaks at Chives in nearby Suamico.
Right now, it sure seems like he’s had enough after 16 years.
Says Wolf: “Obviously there’s something that has a burr in his saddle.”
Miss any of our past stories on the Packers? Here’s some linkage…
The Packers have a plan (it’s genius, too) (Dec. 4, 2020)
The Impossible Life of LeRoy Butler (Jan. 19, 2021)
Jamaal Williams is living his own anime (Jan. 21, 2021)
The Thread: As QB chaos grips NFL, Packers are A-OK (March 1, 2021)
Why you must believe in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (March 11, 2021)
‘It’s coming:’ The time is now for Packers RB AJ Dillon, a unicorn (March 26, 2021)