The next Packer era

As expected, the Packers fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers following their season finale loss to Detroit Sunday.

Less expected was Monday’s news from Packers.com:

Green Bay Packers Executive Vice President, General Manager and Director of Football Operations Ted Thompson will transition to a role as senior advisor to football operations, team President/CEO Mark Murphy announced Tuesday.

“I want to thank Ted for his tireless efforts as the general manager of the Green Bay Packers for these past 13 seasons. Under his guidance, the Packers enjoyed a remarkable run of success, one that included our 13th world championship, four NFC Championship appearances and eight consecutive postseason berths,” said Murphy. “The organization, our fans and our community were fortunate to have had one of the NFL’s all-time great general managers leading our football operations. On a personal note, Ted’s work ethic, humility and loyalty are nearly unparalleled, and it has been one of the great honors of my life to work beside him. Fortunately, Ted will remain involved in our personnel department as we work to win another championship. We will begin an immediate search for the next general manager of the Green Bay Packers.” …

Thompson, who just finished his 13th season as the leader of the team’s football operations, built the Packers into one of the NFL’s strongest and most consistent teams. His tenure was highlighted by a victory in Super Bowl XLV and six NFC North titles, including a franchise-record four consecutive division titles from 2011-14. The Packers’ four appearances in the NFC Championship since 2005, including two since 2014, lead the NFC.

Since taking over as general manager in 2005, Green Bay made nine playoff appearances, including a run of eight in a row (2009-16) that set a franchise record. The stretch of eight postseason berths is tied for the fourth-longest streak in NFL history behind three teams with nine (Dallas, 1975-83; Indianapolis, 2002-10; New England, 2009-17). The Packers’ nine appearances in the postseason since ’05 are tied with Seattle for the most in the NFC over that span and with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh for the second most in the NFL behind New England (12).

During Thompson’s tenure, Green Bay finished with a winning record nine times and won at least 10 games eight times. In 2011, the Packers set a franchise record with 15 regular-season wins. Since 2005, Green Bay has a regular-season record of 125-82-1 (.603), ranking No. 1 in the NFC and No. 4 in the NFL in wins and winning percentage over that time span. Of the five best single-season win totals in team history, two came under Thompson’s leadership (13 in 2007).

The Packers are tied with Pittsburgh for the third-most postseason games played (18) since 2005, trailing New England (25) and Seattle (21). Dating back to 2005, Green Bay’s 10 postseason victories are tied with Baltimore for No. 4 in the NFL (New England, 16; Seattle, 13; Pittsburgh, 12).

Thompson was named NFL Executive of the Year two times (2007, 2011) by Sporting News in a vote of his peers. Of the 53 players on Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV championship roster, 49 were acquired by Thompson. Highlighting Thompson’s acquisitions over the years are two-time NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers, 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, six-time Pro Bowler and franchise sack leader Clay Matthews, and Jordy Nelson, who ranks in the top five in franchise history in receptions, receiving yards, touchdown receptions and 100-yard receiving games. Since 2005, the Packers have drafted 14 players who have made at least one Pro Bowl appearance.

The fact is that Thompson is responsible for Capers’ defense, because schemes do not win games; players win or lose games. Thompson is responsible as well for the Packers’ offense, which will have a new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach after the departures of Edgar Bennett (who reportedly may be reassigned) and Alex Van Pelt (whose contract wasn’t renewed).

24/7 Sports adds:

Ted Thompson isn’t the only member of the Green Bay Packers’ front office who is taking a new role. According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, the Packers will restructure of the entire front office. Team president and CEO Mark Murphy will define the new roles shortly and some of the front office members who could be in line for new roles are Russ Ball (VP of football administration), Brian Gutenkunst (player personnel director) and Eliot Wolf (director of football operations).

Whatever that means, those expecting a radically different approach to getting players are likely to be disappointed. The three obvious choices to replace Thompson all worked for Thompson. It’s not really clear that Murphy believes that the front office needs to be blown up, or that, for that matter, the front office needs to be blown up.

Ball seems to be the front-runner if reports are accurate. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

Ball, 57, is among the most intriguing figures in the Packers organization simply because the general public knows nothing about a man with immense influence. He is lauded as the team’s lead contract negotiator and salary-cap guru, but his responsibilities are said to extend much further. His talents are viewed as indispensable.

He has been described by Murphy as the “unsung hero of our Super Bowl” and by coach Mike McCarthy as “the best I’ve ever been around.” He is devoutly loyal to the organization and the epitome of a company man. He will not discuss business dealings with his family. He cuts off contact with his brother during the draft and free agency each year. (Randy Ball, a former collegiate head coach, is a pro scouting assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs.)

Around the league, Ball’s peers view him as a legitimate candidate for general manager jobs and wonder why he doesn’t have one already. In Green Bay, Ball is the dark horse to take over whenever the 64-year-old Thompson retires.

“He likes what he does now,” said Russ’ oldest brother, Rick Ball, “but he would love the opportunity to be a general manager.”

Obscurity lingers because Ball has been barred from speaking to the media since his arrival from New Orleans in 2008. The Packers declined multiple requests to interview Ball for this article, citing the longstanding team policy. Even Thompson would not discuss the specifics of Ball’s responsibilities during an interview with the Journal Sentinel last week. (The media guide says his daily supervision includes the following departments: athletic training, equipment, video, corporate travel, player development, family programs and public relations.)

Instead, the story of Russ Ball is told through interviews with those around him, and more than 30 agents, team executives, current and former coaches, family members, owners and college teammates offered a window into a man whose talents extend far beyond the nebulous titles he has held. …

Ball graduated from Central Missouri in 1981 and immediately pursued strength and conditioning, the latest fad in sports. He spent eight years as the head strength coach at Missouri while earning a master’s degree in human performance. By 1989, he’d latched on with the Kansas City Chiefs and first-year coach Marty Schottenheimer.

As the assistant strength and conditioning coach, Ball worked alongside Dave Redding, better known as Redman. They were part of a staff that included future head coaches Bruce Arians, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy. In the next three years, Herm Edwards and Mike McCarthy would arrive as well.

Redding and Ball brought opposite personalities to the weight room. In Redding the Chiefs had their bellowing taskmaster whose ferocity matched the sport itself. In Ball they uncovered a keen thinker and tireless worker whose skills were universal.

As a balancing act, it worked.

“Redman was the energy bunny, and Russ was the calming force,” said Edwards, who coached defensive backs. “Redman knew how to get them to the mountain, but you needed a plan to get them to the (top). Russ would always plan out the strategy.”

Fellow coaches said it was obvious Ball’s ambition stretched beyond the strength and conditioning program. His role expanded as Schottenheimer recognized new applications for his talents.

Schottenheimer trusted Ball with everything from player attitude problems to disputes between assistant coaches, and every successful task led to three or four more. Ball became known as a fixer who never turned down a job. His jack-of-all-trades reputation still applies today.

“That boy had his hands in more pies than anybody I’ve ever seen,” offensive line coach Alex Gibbs said. “ … It didn’t matter to him what it was, how bad it was, what he had to do. He was going to do it and he would do it better than everybody else.

“Guys like Russ save head coaches. I mean, they just save them.”

Ball started his days early and ended his nights late. He arrived at the facility long before practice began to interact with players and learn more about their lives. He spent his evenings holed up watching film. Sometimes he watched alone; sometimes he shadowed scouts or assistant coaches to see how their jobs were done.

“He was always pushing that envelope of trying to learn more to try and develop players,” Edwards said. “ … He gets a lot of respect from the players and agents alone because of what he’s done to get there. He wasn’t given the job (in Green Bay). He actually had to work for it. He ain’t part of the family that owns the team and guess what, ‘Wanna learn how to be a scout? OK, you can go over there and learn.’ No, no, no, no, no. He had to earn it. He was on the back end of it. He was in the weight room.”

Ball stayed in the weight room for eight years before crossing over to the front office in 1997, escaping before his body broke down. He spent two seasons as Schottenheimer’s administrative assistant to lay the groundwork for the remainder of his career: two years as a senior football administrator for the Minnesota Vikings; one year in Washington as director of football administration; six years and multiple job titles with the New Orleans Saints; and the last nine years with the Packers.

The constants of Ball’s administrative path have been salary-cap management and contract negotiations, which are among his chief responsibilities in Green Bay. He honed those skills in Minnesota under-then director of football administration Rob Brezezinski. He was described by former Vikings President Gary Woods as having an IQ “far above that of a strength coach.”

“He’s a mathematician,” Woods said, “and one has to be a mathematician to deal with salary cap. Many teams have PhDs dealing with salary-cap issues.”

In 2002, Ball interviewed with New Orleans on the strength of a recommendation from McCarthy, who had become the offensive coordinator of the Saints. And just as he did everywhere else, Ball made a sterling first impression on owner Tom Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Jim Haslett.

The Saints, who declined all interview requests for this story, hired Ball as senior football administrator.

“You fall in love with everything that he did,” said Haslett, now the linebackers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. “You see the way he works, the way he interacts with people, the way he interacts with players and agents and everybody else in the building. He’s a tireless worker; he’s a great family man; he’s a great person to deal with.”

Ball’s experience with different facets of an organization allowed for a complete understanding of the Saints’ franchise, according to Doug Marrone, who took over as offensive coordinator in 2006 and is now the head coach in Jacksonville. Ball knew the game well enough to hold his own in football discussions with players and coaches. He also flashed the requisite business savvy to run the financial arm of a professional team. …

After nine years in Green Bay and two decades of prior experience, Ball sits at an interesting point in his career. He’s proved himself at every job he’s ever had, and the only positions above him are general manager and team president — Thompson and Murphy.

The idea of Ball as a general manager is one that surfaced repeatedly during the reporting of this story. A number of former coaches believed he has earned the opportunity, and roughly 80% of the agents interviewed by the Journal Sentinel agreed. …

“We’ve talked about it,” Ball’s oldest brother Rick said. “The only thing that’s ever knocked him and he’s been underestimated on is his ability to recognize talent. He’s even concentrated more on talent the last probably five or six years, just so that he does know that (it) isn’t a hindrance to him.”

Ball’s heightened emphasis on talent evaluation has included more time observing practice, more attention to the on-field portion of the NFL scouting combine and more direct contact with players, his brother said, “even though that’s not his job.” He often works until 9 or 10 p.m. regardless of the time of year.

Those efforts align with Thompson’s yearly assertion that Ball is involved in personnel and draft meetings to absorb as much information as he can. But it’s clear Ball is proactively seeking more knowledge on his own, just as he has done throughout his career.

“He doesn’t want to have that as a reason for not being able to assume the position,” Rick Ball said.

If Ball is picked, I’m not sure if Packer fans are going to like that. Putting a financial guy on top of your football operation might give the impression the Packers care about their finances more than anything else. (Maybe Ball should replace not Thompson, but Murphy, though at 62 Murphy is probably not looking at retirement, and given the Packers’ financial performance shouldn’t be shown the door.) Since Ball doesn’t talk to the media we have no idea of how he would deal with the media (which means fans), but he sounds similar to Thompson, who said next to nothing and gave the impression to fans of not doing anything when something appeared to need to be done. That was in stark contrast to Ron Wolf, who was delightfully blunt and could never be accused of sitting on his hands, whether or not he made the right decisions.
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