Ron Wolf talks Al Davis, Brett Favre and his Hall of Fame football life
When it comes to scouting, personnel development and team building, Ron Wolf's name stands with all the great names in NFL history, and his Hall of Fame induction in 2015 was well-deserved and long overdue.
Wolf's career in pro football started when new Oakland Raiders coach and general manager Al Davis took a chance on him as a scout in 1963, and he eventually became Davis' right-hand man through the AFL-NFL merger and into the early 1970s. Wolf was then hired as vice president of operations for the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise in 1975, and that franchise's 0–26 start tends to eclipse the fact that the roster Wolf put together through spare free-agent parts and astute draft picks made it to the NFC championship game in 1979.
Wolf returned to the Raiders after being fired by a capricious front office in 1978, and through his time in Oakland, Wolf had a hand in selecting everyone from Fred Biletnikoff to Ken Stabler to Howie Long to Marcus Allen. He spent two years with the Jets in the early 1990s, but it was his move to the Packers' organization in 1991 for which he's most remembered. Wolf was in his element, trading for quarterback Brett Favre, signing defensive end Reggie White as one of the first big free-agent hauls and building a team that won one Super Bowl and contended for the NFL title throughout the 1990s.
Wolf has kept his name in the game since, taking consulting jobs with the Chargers in 2012 and the Jets in '14, but it's his tenure with the Packers that resonates the most. Green Bay will honor him with the Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence during halftime of this Sunday's game against the Lions at Lambeau field, making this a great time to speak with Wolf and look back on one of the most estimable careers in NFL history.
Doug Farrar: Let's start with this Hall of Fame induction. It's a good time for reflection. When you look back on your career, what's the one thing you're most proud of?
Ron Wolf: The one thing I'm most proud of is that we were able to take a storied franchise like the Green Bay Packers and resurrect it. I'm very, very proud of that.
DF: As you should be, and I want to ask you more about that in a bit, but let's begin at the beginning, as they say. How did you start working with the Raiders as a scout in 1963?
RW: Sure. I graduated from high school in 1956, I joined the Army and served three years, and after that, I went to college—Maryville College in Tennessee, and then I transferred to Oklahoma. It was while I was at the University of Oklahoma that my name was given to Al Davis by Ted Elbert, who wrote Pro Football Illustrated, which later became Pro Football Weekly. The paper started in Chicago in 1962, and I went up and worked with that paper for about six months. The paper was based in Chicago—everything at that time was done in Chicago because of George Halas. They had the All-Star Game, they had the draft, all the league meetings, all in Chicago. Having had the opportunity to meet a lot of the higher-ups in the NFL, I think that benefited me. At least, my name got out there.
What happened was, Elbert happened to be in San Francisco at his sister's wedding. He went over to interview Al, who had just been named head coach and general manager of the Raiders. Al mentioned in the course of the interview that he needed somebody who knew names for his talent department. Ted recommended me, and Al brought me out after my last final at Oklahoma in the spring of '63 on a temporary basis, to see whether or not I could cut the bill.
The rest, as they say, is history. He took me and trained me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful time for someone like myself. In the American Football League, you had eight teams and 33 players on each team. That's 264 players. So, every night for a couple hours, we would sit with the coaching staff, of which there wes four people, and go over every team. And you could see who the good players were by position. So, at the end of the night, we'd do left tackles. You knew who the best left tackle was, and who the poorest was. And you could see why. This is how Al trained all of us.
DF: Yeah, 13 years and a whole lot of great players later. Being kind of an AFL historian, I wanted to ask you about one of the guys in the AFL who had so much talent, but it kind of got away from him—receiver Warren Wells. What do you remember about Warren Wells?
RW: Well, he didn't get away—he came to life in Oakland. What happened was, we had just finished playing our final preseason game in 1967 against Denver, and Denver trounced us. It was awful. It was like 56–0 in North Platte, Neb. We just got our clocks cleaned. So, we were getting ready to study the Chiefs the next couple of days, and in the course of watching the film of the game, Al kept noticing Warren Wells. Lo and behold, the Chiefs waived him. Al claimed him, and that's how he ended up with the Raiders. The unfortunate aspect was, he got in a little trouble with the law, and he only played three or four years with the Raiders. But what a remarkable player he was—just a great, great player.
DF: You also got Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown from the Broncos—not a bad deal. How did that work?
RW: Al did that. Al worked that through Lou Saban, and that was a remarkable deal. Al made some... just unreal trades. [Defensive tackle] Tom Keating from Buffalo, you mentioned Willie Brown, he got [running back] Hewritt Dixon from Denver—I mean, those were monumental trades. Pumped a lot of life into a team that needed life.
DF: I wanted to ask you about the Raiders' 1967 defensive line, who set a sack record that I believe stood until the Buddy Ryan Beard broke it. Everyone thinks of the AFL as an offensive league, but that line was something truly special. How did you guys put that together?
RW: One [Ike Lassiter] was a free agent who played for Denver, Ben Davidson was a free agent who got cut by the Redskins. Keating was acquired in that trade, and Dan Birdwell was already there. It was a heck of a job done by Al of moving players around and getting the right combinations. Keating was the catalyst behind that, because in those days, every team had a quick defensive tackle. Keating was one of those—just an unbelievable player. He could really stir the pot up, and you really had to account for him. Every team had one of those guys. John Elliot with the Jets and Henry Jordan with the Packers were two, but if you were any good in those days, you had one of those guys. And the Raiders were very fortunate to have a player like Keating.
DF: Did you guys draft Gene Upshaw just to deal with [Chiefs defensive lineman] Buck Buchanan? Because that's how the story goes.
RW: That's true. That's exactly why. The Chiefs were our main competition—don't get me wrong, everyone was our main competition. Al had this thing about San Diego because of his association with Sid Gillman. But really, the reason for Upshaw being drafted was because of Buck Buchanan.
DF: What was the most important thing you learned about scouting and personnel development from Al?
RW: Well, it was hammered into our heads, or into my head... size and speed, size and speed. Those were the two things. And you couldn't deviate from that.
DF: So, you go to Tampa in 1975 to help start the Buccaneers franchise, and I don't know if people understand just how bleak it was for expansion teams back then. There was no sort of pool of players as there was for the Panthers and Jaguars later on—but a couple years after losing your first 26 games in a row, the Bucs were in the 1979 NFC championship game. I know you left in 1978, but how hard was it to build that team up? What were the inherent difficulties for expansion teams then as opposed to later on?
RW: The difference was, there wasn't free agency. You didn't have a salary cap to concern yourself with, but the player pool was atrocious. You could freeze up to 33 players, and you'd pick one from a team, and they could freeze four more. So, you could see what you were dealing with there. To be with an expansion team at that time, you had to crawl before you walked. And I mean, crawl. You literally crawled. You didn't have much of a chance, other than the first claim on the waiver wire, of fixing your football team.
You add to that my inexperience, the inexperience of the head coach at that time, that played an important role in it as well. We were 2–26 in those first two years, and somebody had to bite the bullet. It was determined that I would—that I was the reason behind the lack of success. So, I got canned. And as you say, two years after that, they were in the championship game with the right to go to the Super Bowl. No other expansion team had ever done that. And you're looking at guys like Tex Schramm [Cowboys], who's in the Hall of Fame, Paul Brown [Browns and Bengals], who's in the Hall of Fame... they couldn't do it [that quickly]. The fact that the Buccaneers got to the championship game demonstrated that we had some really good players. Without a doubt, throughout my career, the best player I ever drafted was Lee Roy Selmon.
DF: Before you said it, I had a feeling you were going to say that about Selmon. He was something else. So then, you go back to the Raiders, you have a little time with the Jets in the early nineties, and then, the Packers come calling. How did you wind up in Green Bay?
RW: What happened was, I felt that I kind of outlived my usefulness with the Raiders. I spent 24 years there, 25 drafts, so it was time to get the heck out, I thought. After I quit, I had an opportunity to go work with Dick Steinberg of the Jets—he had just been named the general manager. That was an unbelievable experience for me. I spent a year and a half with him, and I learned so much on top of all I'd learned through my time with the Raiders about scouting.
Around Thanksgiving of 1991, the Jets were contacted by the Packers for the right to talk to me, they let that happen, and they also let me leave with five games left in the season. By the time I got there, the Packers had four games left to play.
DF: I want to ask you what you saw in two people—head coach Mike Holmgren, and Brett Favre, for whom you traded a first-round pick to Atlanta.
RW: What I saw in Mike Holmgren was the fact that he was the offensive coordinator for the most successful team of that era [the 49ers]. I also watched him win 10 games [in 1986] with [backup quarterbacks] Mike Moroski and Jeff Kemp [after Joe Montana was injured]. I was really impressed with that, having been through that in Tampa, where there were no quarterbacks. The two drafts I had in Tampa, the only quarterback who ever came out and started a game was Steve DeBerg. He was a 10th-round draft choice [of the Cowboys in 1977].
Having seen what he was able to do with players of that ilk, I thought he'd be perfect. The fact that they won, that played a huge role for me, just being around a winner. That permeates the entire operation; once you have a guy who comes in who has the confidence and has actually done it, it's a big plus for your operation.
In my opinion, through all my years in scouting, I thought that in 1991, Favre was the best player in the draft, without question. I mean, it wasn't even close. That's the year I was with the Jets, and we had him rated as the top player in the draft. Fortunately for me in the long run, the Jets didn't have a first-round pick; they'd used it to take [receiver] Rob Moore as a supplemental pick [in 1990]. Dick Steinberg was trying to move around in the second round, trying to get Brett, and he almost had a trade with the Cardinals, but the Cardinals backed out.
What I saw in Brett Favre? When he took the field, the field tilted in his team's favor. I watched him on film beat Georgia at Georgia, beat Florida State at Florida State, beat Auburn at Auburn with the team that he had [at Southern Miss]. He was an incredible player. I also, in 1991, followed him around in the preseason—that was my job assignment with the Jets. He didn't do anything in any of those games that I watched to indicate that he couldn't play. So, that's why I made that trade.
DF: Something I've observed through the years: Some really great scouts fail as general managers when they have to take the more global view. What are the qualities that make great general managers, beyond just personnel knowledge and an understanding of the game? I'm in Seattle, so I've seen your protégé John Schneider do a great job of it, but some other guys [like Tim Ruskell, Schneider's predecessor], can't. What makes the difference?
RW: Well, you know John. John is not afraid. And you can't be afraid in that chair. Because you're not always going to be correct. In fact, 10 out of 11 times, you're going to be wrong. But you have to keep moving forward. You have to keep believing in yourself, and eventually, it will work itself out. I mean, look at what John did. He doesn't need me blowing smoke up his rear end, but he comes in there, and he goes for the guy [quarterback Charlie Whitehurst] in San Diego, and he can't play. He goes for the guy [quarterback Matt Flynn] in Green Bay, and he can't play. But John doesn't stop, and he gets [Russell] Wilson. Look at him now! I mean, you cannot stop—you just file that and go on.
I think Satchel Paige said it best when he said, "Don't look back—something might be gaining on you." You can never look behind. And I think that's his attribute. Look at the job Ted Thompson's done [in Green Bay]. Same thing you keep doing it the same way. You have that belief in yourself, and you do it your way, and you're confident you can do it. Everybody can look at the drafts I've had and say, "Hey—you've got a lot of first-round picks that never really made it." That's true. But by that same token, during that same period when I was with the Packers, we drafted more Pro Bowl picks than anybody else. We also went into the free agency period and won more games than anybody [through the early- and mid-1990s].
So, it's not how you draft, it's who you draft. It doesn't matter how you get them, as long as you plug them in and they can play exceptionally well.