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Spheres of Influence: Ron Wolf and "The Packer Way"

Insight from the past.


There's no doubt that the Seattle Seahawks are on the verge of becoming a powerhouse franchise. And like every great team, a lot of their success can be attributed to past great teams. For us, it's the Green Bay Packers. In fact, we've been living off "The Packer Way" ever since we lured Mike Holmgren to be our head coach back in 2000, imitating their front office's model on philosophy, scouting, and finally, ways of winning.

One figure that remains to be a predominant influence on the Seahawks is former Packers GM Ron Wolf, who John Schnieder often refers to as a father figure. In the nine years Wolf ran Green Bay they won one Super Bowl, lost another and racked off six consecutive playoff appearances, never posted a losing record. Of course, these are the things you expect with success.

What's so interesting about Wolf is not what he did as GM, but how he did it. Like Schnieder and Pete Carroll, Wolf rebuilt the Packers (who only made the playoffs once between 1973 and 1992, the first year Wolf was GM) from scratch.

The first few moves Wolf made? He hired Holmgren, then a offensive coordinator under Bill Walsh with no HC experience, away from San Francisco. He traded a 1st round pick for backup QB Brett Farve, who he refers to as "titling the field", to be his starting QB.

Once the core pieces were set, he then stockpiled on premier talent, such as signing Reggie White to the largest deal for a defensive player and drafting 10+ times every year. All these moves would pay off as Green Bay would win the Super Bowl four years after Wolf was hired.

And as it turns out, Wolf wrote a book entitled "The Packer Way" in 1998, two years before he officially retired. In it, he described the nine core "stepping stones" which he cites to be the reason why his team is successful and in my opinion, the same philosophy that headlines our front office today. These are:

1. Identify what needs to be fixed.
2. Hire the best - before anyone else does.
3. Develop an obsession with winning today. 
4. Play to your strengths.
5. Use the four C's - Certain Devotion, Certain Dedication, Certain Work Ethic, Certain Results - to measure performance.
6. Making it work
7. Keeping it going
8. Handling the unexpected
9. Staying on top.

Right off the bat, #3 seems to be ripped right out of Carroll's playbook. #2 - Hire the Best before anyone else does - is interesting. Consider the first two moves I mentioned above. Obviously in hindsight the price of a first and second round pick is small for getting two NFL Hall-of-Fame members, but the hiring of Holmgren as coach and Farve as QB was also important to set the tone - just as the duo of Carroll and Wilson do now with this team.

But #4 also seemed to emphasized with what Carroll and Schneider tried to do upon landing in Seattle. To quote:

"The cold weather [in Green Bay] was discussed so much it seemed as if we were located somewhere in the Arctic. I wasn't about to put an unrealistic spin on this problem, but I thought we could at least use it to our advantage. It may be cold, but so what? Playing in this kind of weather makes the Packers that much tougher and stronger. Let other clubs worry about coming into Lambeau Field and dealing with the conditions.

[Back then] teams didn't fear coming to Green Bay. We thought we could alter that, in great part by using reverse psychology. Let's turn around this whole weather issue, let it serve us instead of hindering us. Let's sell our team on embracing the conditions - the worse it gets, the better - and almost daring an opponent to beat us in November and December in Lambeau. Our goal was to make Lambeau the best home-field advantage in the NFL."

Sound familiar?

We also mentioned frequently how the Seahawks view scouting and drafting differently than the rest of the league, such as implicating measurements (with exceptions, of course), grading on their own team, and consistently signing obscure free agents. As it turns out,  Wolf has been doing the same thing too with this no stone left un-turned approach:

"At least once a week, [management] meet to talk about the league. We want to make sure we haven't overlooked a player, and that we're fully aware of everyone we might consider later for our roster. We're always updating each club's roster. We also track players names - five deep of the best guys currently not under contract at each position. If someone gets waived, we know whether he's more talented than one of our current players. If he is, we might try to claim him. If we try out a street free agent, we want to see if he has more talent a current Packer; is B better than A? If so, he stays and A goes. Then later, maybe we'll see if C is better than B."

At the same time, Wolf cautions against doing "quick-fixes" and sacrifice short-term gain in the long-term:

"In the months following the 1992 season [when the Packers went 9-7 and barely missed a playoff appearance], we probably could've rushed to cash in on our early success by signing a bunch of older, limited players in hopes we could challenge for the Central Division title. But that approach contradicts our organizational philosophy. As we worked constantly to improve through our Stepping Stone theories, we weren't about to add too many Band-Aids to our roster. Instead, those spots needed to be filled by younger players who could develop into Packer stars. We would pursue a division title-but only by staying within the context of the structure we had established for roster development."

The Packers, after they won the Super Bowl in 1996, also faced a similar scenario the Seahawks faced now in the offseason - the inability to retain everybody as free agency rears its ugly head. As for that, Wolf's only method is to promote young players, draft potential starters, and rely on free agency to fill the rest - a mantra that carried him all the way to the influence he is today.

Only time will tell if Schneider and the Seahawks can do the same.