“You want to talk about Ron Wolf a little bit?”
The question is barely out before Scot McCloughan answers, his voice brimming with enthusiasm and eagerness: “Let’s do it.”
Every aspiring football guru needs a mentor, and McCloughan drew Wolf. He could’ve done a whole lot worse. We sit and talk for a long while, about everything football and the way it was years ago, reliving his career. The highlights are plentiful and spill out rapidly. McCloughan’s father Kent, a former defensive back for Al Davis’ Raiders, was convinced by Wolf to continue his career as a scout in Oakland post-retirement. Teenage Scot would spend hours watching tape with his dad, growing more passionate about the game of football by the day. Wolf was frequently around, building a friendship with Scot’s father through scouting that prospers to this day.
The younger McCloughan recognizes it was because of this friendship that he received a call in 1991. It was an invitation from Wolf to join the Green Bay Packers as an area scout. “It was unique because that relationship [between Ron and my father] got me into it,” says McCloughan. “I never wrote a report or anything before I signed the contract. I just watched football.” After a brief reflection, he accepted. How couldn’t he?
Despite the lack of tangible scouting experience, the whole midwest soon became the newest Packers scout’s residence. Fueled by a work ethic cheerily self-described as “psychotic,” McCloughan remembers being constantly on the move, absorbing information, and promptly submitting his reports on a weekly basis, without fail. Scouting is not an exact science, but McCloughan was soon aware of his uncanny knack for talent evaluation.
To this day, Scot appreciates the trust Wolf bestowed in his scouts. “I never talked to him during the year,” he admits. “I was told from the get-go from Ted [Thompson]. He said no news is good news.” McCloughan breaks into laughter before noting how much it “sucks” to be alone on the road and expressing gratitude that the head honcho would be so willing to place so much trust in a scout so green.
Wolf began his storied NFL tenure in 1963 as an acolyte of Al Davis, soaking up everything from Oakland’s owner/coach/GM along the way — how to prioritize, how to stack his draft board, all of it. When Wolf left the Raiders in 1976 to become Vice President of Football Operations for the Buccaneers, he felt confident in the proficiencies he had gleaned from Davis and his own ability to run a franchise. Unfortunately, other factors prevented Wolf from succeeding in Tampa Bay; though he was the franchise’s de facto General Manager, he wielded little final decision-making authority. Wolf was unable to properly utilize the tools he had sharpened for years, and was forced out before the fruits of his hard work had time to ripen. He returned to the Raiders in 1979, just in time to witness Tampa Bay — and the roster he had helped build, limitations and all — reach the NFC Championship Game.
Wolf got another shot in 1990 as the New York Jets’ Personnel Director. The Packers came calling a year later. Over the next few seasons in Green Bay, Wolf proceeded to build one of the most stacked front offices football has ever known.
The evidence hangs on the wall of McCloughan’s office, a picture as important to him personally as it is to the mythology of football. Within the frame lie five future General Managers — Ted Thompson, John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, John Dorsey, and Scot himself — all celebrating their first Super Bowl win alongside Wolf. “We were all on the same staff,” remarks McCloughan with a certain incredulity, as if he still can’t believe the NFL allowed such a confluence of prowess.
Before that group of scouts and personnel assistants turned into the titans (of the non-Tennessee variety) they are regarded as today, they worked tirelessly to learn Wolf’s system: how to run draft meetings, how to prioritize certain positions over others (this was especially important, as Wolf stacked rankings by position rather than a standard all-encompassing list), how to build a roster not just off of pure highway speed but from football players, how to communicate with and treat people. “It was very unique,” asserts McCloughan. “It wore off on all of us.” During separate tenures as a General Manager (in San Francisco and then later Washington), he ran meetings identically to Wolf’s, as did the rest of the bunch.
The leading dogma that manifested itself in Wolf’s apprentices is likely the most obvious: building through the draft is key. This was how the 1990’s Packers were primarily assembled — trading for Brett Favre and signing Reggie White aside — and is how much of Wolf’s legacy has been maintained through the 21st century. McCloughan and company have all prioritized the draft, constructing foundations on young, unproven talent rather than high-priced free agents. John Dorsey built a Patrick Mahomes-led juggernaut in Kansas City before departing and, record aside, has since turned Cleveland from a talentless wasteland into, uh, not a talentless wasteland. Reggie McKenzie took the much-maligned Raiders to a 12-4 record and the playoffs in 2016. John Schneider had an incredible run of drafting success in Seattle from 2010 to 2012 (McCloughan was a Senior Personnel Executive during these years), leading to a Super Bowl victory in 2013. Ted Thompson was maybe the most prominent example of Wolf’s mindset; Green Bay’s reluctance to utilize free agency under Thompson became almost a meme of sorts. While there are examples of high profile signings scattered throughout these teams (Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in Seattle, Charles Woodson in Green Bay, etc.), the vanguard of these rosters were built with homegrown players; prospects whose talents were correctly identified and uniquely developed.
McCloughan himself has been to four Super Bowls, with each team predominantly being built through the draft. “For some reason, I could identify talent,” he recollects. “But I missed a lot too.” Despite these inherent slips, McCloughan drafted exceptionally well as General Manager in San Francisco before joining Schneider in Seattle; by 2012, the 49ers and Seahawks were the two most talent-rich teams the NFL.
The collective success of Green Bay’s alumni isn’t a coincidence. McCloughan can’t identify one specific moment of realization that Wolf was an all-time evaluator, but the time spent during draft meetings and around the combine stands out. Even if he disagreed with one of Scot’s evaluations, Wolf would take the time to watch the player’s tape and place him on Green Bay’s draft board; respect was evident in both directions.
And this draft board was no joke. Wolf was intensely secretive about his prospect rankings leading up to the NFL Draft, prefacing every meeting with a simple warning: “If you’re talking, I’m going to find out.” McCloughan laughs as he remembers the fire-resistant, pulley-driven curtain that Wolf would use to cover his board every night. Scot eventually asked why the sheet needed to be so thick. Wolf responded curtly with, “Well, if we have a fire here, I still have my draft board.”
Flammability aside, the draft can be a frustrating business, as Wolf and McCloughan both learned on multiple occasions. After barely missing out on Brett Favre in 1991 (Wolf ended up trading a first-round pick for him the following season), the Packers were sniped again in 1996 — one pick before Green Bay was on the clock, Baltimore selected Ray Lewis. It was the only time McCloughan ever saw Wolf flip out. The Packers believed that Lewis’ size would cause him to fall. They were right; apparently so were the Ravens. “Ozzy [Newsome] is fucking good,” chuckles McCloughan.
Eventually, Wolf’s time in Green Bay came to an end. He pulled McCloughan aside in 1999 to break the news directly. “Ron told me to leave,” says Scot. “He said, ‘I’m going to retire next year.’ ” Despite protests from McCloughan, Wolf insisted and the young scout left Green Bay to join Mike Holmgren and Ted Thompson in Seattle as the Director of College Scouting.
Wolf was open about the fact that the evolution of free agency is what pushed him toward retirement. Paying Brett Favre, Reggie White, and the elites worthy of monster deals wasn’t the issue; the Packers’ architect — who was 62 at this point — had grown tired of teams continually signing away his depth. Wolf foresaw what free agency was destined to become, even in the ’90s: an out of control market where decent — not great — players earn gargantuan contracts that they don’t necessarily deserve. Wolf could’ve adjusted, as he had done so many times before in a league constantly evolving.
But he felt that the time had come for him to say goodbye.
McCloughan spent five seasons in the Pacific Northwest before heading south to San Francisco, eventually becoming General Manager in 2008. “Who cares about free agency?” asks Scot playfully as he reminisces. “We’re going to draft well and we’re going to re-sign our own.” And draft well they did, with Wolf’s tutelage proving useful from the beginning. I ask McCloughan if there are any players he selected due to specific lessons he learned from his mentor. He responds immediately and with vigor: “Well yeah, I got a lot of guys.” Scot begins to read down a laundry list of All-Pros. “Vernon Davis. Patrick Willis. Frank Gore. Joe Staley. Dashon Goldson.”
Without giving me time to do much other than chuckle at the absurd level of talent just casually mentioned, McCloughan carries on with a seemingly obvious but widely neglected assertion: “The talent was very important, don’t get me wrong. But who is the person? Is he going to be consistent in what you want in the building and what you want on Sundays?” At first glance, applying that standard seems obvious. But in an era of athleticism and measurables dominating our opinions of prospects, we on the outside tend to miss the personal nuance; whether or not the young man will work tirelessly to achieve greatness. “You want talent at any position, don’t get me wrong,” articulates McCloughan. “But it’s taking the person and knowing what you’ve got and what you want to be one of the leaders in the locker room.”
Scot recounts a pair of trips he took to South Dakota State in 1995. He believed senior offensive lineman Adam Timmerman to be a draftable player and conveyed to Wolf as such. The only red flag? Timmerman had left football for a year to work on his father’s hog farm. Wolf told McCloughan to fly back and ensure that the 24-year old was committed to playing football in person. After speaking to him, Scot’s premonitions were confirmed and the Packers ended up drafting Timmerman in the 7th round; he anchored Green Bay’s offensive line for four years and a Super Bowl. (The other eventual Pro Bowler on South Dakota State that year? Adam Vinatieri. I rib McCloughan about missing out on the Hall of Famer and he lets out a good-natured laugh before admitting that he’s never been great at evaluating kickers. “Just kick it straight.”)
Wolf’s influence was most apparent during McCloughan’s stint as General Manager in Washington. In 2015, he selected Brandon Scherff, an offensive guard out of Iowa, with the fifth overall pick. Plenty of pundits criticized this decision, as guard isn’t a premium position or worth a top-five selection, according to most. It’s not like Scot wasn’t aware of this; he assigns priority to certain positions just like anyone else. But his education in Green Bay shined through in the end. “It’s best player available,” he says assuredly. “I knew exactly who Brandon Scherff was.” McCloughan could’ve drafted a high-upside tackle and all would be satisfied. Instead, he took the sure thing and Scherff has been a perennial Pro Bowler. In a league where so much praise is placed on teams making the flashy, consensus move, the monotony of reliability can be undervalued.
From area scout to General Manager, McCloughan looks back fondly at his career in the NFL. He currently runs a scouting business, Instinctive Scouting, through which he joined John Dorsey and the Cleveland Browns as a consultant for the 2018 Draft. McCloughan and Dorsey had Baker Mayfield, the first overall pick, pegged early. While the second-year quarterback has struggled thus far in 2019, the future is bright for one of the NFL’s budding stars. Cleveland’s selection of Mayfield — a comparatively unathletic but uber-productive, outspoken leader at Oklahoma — is yet another instance of Wolf’s legacy in the modern NFL, especially when chosen over high-ceiling, developmental prospects like Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. “Measurables are cool; they’re part of the portfolio when you’re considering a guy,” explains Scot before reiterating again and again to me what I can only assume Wolf reiterated for him decades ago: “It’s production. It’s tape, tape, tape, tape.”
Buried in each word McCloughan utters, every anecdote he recalls, is a deep respect for Wolf, the guidance he provided over the years, and his unique ability to make colleagues feel heard. Scot characterizes the Hall of Famer as both an excellent personnel guy and The Godfather in the same breath, making clear the desire to uphold his most trusted advisor’s legacy in a constantly-shifting NFL landscape. “Ron Wolf was excellent to me,” he states simply and gratefully. “He’s won multiple championships and he’s just a quality, quality guy. He’s in the Hall of Fame for crying out loud!”
McCloughan pauses. Static crackles softly and fills the void, every pop and hiss saturated with poignancy. It is merely an interstice; a brief cavity, if only to ensure the following words do their subject justice. And, true to their purpose, they do. “[Ron Wolf] was legit and really good at what he did,” Scot speaks succinctly and with certainty. “No doubt about it.
“If I’m half of what he is, I had a hell of a career.”
Visuals by William Cornell