Skip to main content

Diverse Football Background Serves Ball Well


Considering Russ Ball's knowledge and expertise in the areas of the salary cap and contracts, it might be assumed the Packers' vice president of football administration and player finance has spent his entire career in football sitting behind a desk, crunching numbers, and negotiating deals.

But that would be far from the truth.

In fact, dating back to the early portion of his career at the University of Missouri and with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ball has dabbled in more areas of football operations than probably any member of Green Bay's front office.

He has served roles as an equipment assistant and team video cameraman. He has signaled in defensive calls from the sideline and been on the offensive headsets helping to get proper personnel on the field. He has also worked with players as a strength and conditioning coach, and even served a brief stint as a quality control coach.

It wasn't until a little over 10 years ago that the 51-year-old Ball first got heavily involved in the salary cap and player contracts with the Minnesota Vikings, and he continued in a similar administrative capacity with the Washington Redskins and then for six seasons with the New Orleans Saints before coming to Green Bay in 2008.

But as much as he enjoys what he's doing now, Ball wouldn't trade all those prior experiences for anything. It's that diverse background that allows him to have a valuable voice in both the football and administrative sides of the Packers' operations.

"I feel fortunate to have had all these different opportunities because I feel like it's rounded me," Ball said. "I have some background in a lot of different areas, and hopefully it helps me to be more understanding of all the different things that go on.

"It gives you a good perspective, especially from the coaching side to be on a headset on fourth-and-1. To hear that and know what it's like has really given me perspective. The more experiences you have, the more breadth of knowledge."

It serves Ball well, particularly with all the input that is solicited in the decision-making that relates to his primary duties in the financial realm.

*Collective efforts*

While Ball's current focus, now that the draft is completed, is on negotiating all the rookie contracts to hopefully get everyone to training camp on time, he spent the first 3" months of the offseason focused on the rest of the roster.

With the league heading into an uncapped year for the first time in nearly two decades and free-agency rules suddenly changed - requiring six years of service rather than four for a player to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) - the Packers had an unusually large number of restricted free agents (RFAs) slated for tender offers and/or new contracts.

That required an extensive process during which the Packers determined the level at which to tender each RFA, and which players to target for further negotiations toward an extension.

The Packers make those determinations collectively. General Manager Ted Thompson has final authority, but he and Ball will talk internally with members of both the coaching staff, including Head Coach Mike McCarthy, and personnel department, such as director - football operations Reggie McKenzie, to get the total picture of how a player fits within the team and where he ranks across the league.

Then it's up to Ball to process that input from different perspectives and work with Thompson to make the best football and financial decision for the club, and go from there.

"It's a total team effort," Ball said, adding that salary cap analyst Melanie Marohl also assists with contract details and their implications. "Everybody has input and everybody needs to have their piece in the decision. It has to fit from the personnel side, from the coaching perspective, and the job that we have is to compensate the player appropriately for what he does."

With RFAs, the tender level not only designates each player's salary but also the corresponding draft picks other teams would have to surrender should they sign any RFAs away from Green Bay. So there's a delicate balancing act between paying the player appropriately and assuring he can be retained.

This year, with the new free agency rules keeping players with four or five years of service restricted rather than unrestricted, the Packers issued qualifying offers to eight RFAs at various levels. The team also negotiated a long-term extension with safety Nick Collins, the lone player of those eight with five years of service and Pro Bowl bids on his resume.

All this was going on while the same collective process was being employed on the team's UFAs, which led to nose tackle Ryan Pickett getting the franchise tag and eventually a new contract, and offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher being re-signed.

"It's the type of thing where I wouldn't say there's always something going on, but there's always conversations and things along those lines as far as with your current players and the tendered players," Ball said.

"Ted's philosophy is we try to take care of our own players first and foremost, and he does a really good job. He pretends he doesn't know a lot about the numbers, but he does. He's pretty sharp at it. He knows a lot more then he gives himself credit for or he'll let anybody else give him credit for. He knows what the market is for different players."

*Doing the legwork*

Armed with some initial parameters from Thompson and others, Ball actually does a lot of the offseason legwork before the free-agency period begins.

He travels to both the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL Scouting Combine in February, not to scout potential draft picks but to meet with the representatives of Green Bay's free-agent players, and those preliminary discussions with agents go a long way toward deals getting done in good order.

{sportsad300}"I think this business is based on relationships, so anytime you can get with somebody and develop that relationship and spend time with them, you get a better understanding of where they're coming from and they can hopefully have a better understanding of where you're coming from," Ball said. "The relationship part is probably the most important piece of it. That's the thrust of those particular two events for me."

That annual schedule is a familiar one for Ball, but the unfamiliar part this year has been the pending uncapped year and structuring long-term contracts without any certainty as to how the new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union will read.

"That's the challenging part of it, because you don't know all the rules," Ball said. "You're dealing with a lot of unknowns as you look to the future."

The Packers structured the Pickett and Collins deals sensibly relative to the uncapped year, but Ball said the approach was no different from Thompson's usual "pay-as-you-go" mantra, which avoids deals that could mortgage the future.

Also in line with Thompson's philosophy was making these rather significant investments in Green Bay's own players. Ball has witnessed firsthand the varying approaches to free agency and understands the reasons behind the perspective here.

"Philosophically I think it's wise," he said. "From being with other teams that have gone into the free-agent market pretty heavily, you find that there's a hit-and-miss ratio that can be fairly high if you're not careful. If you pay your own, you know what you have and you know what you're paying for."

*Behind the scenes*

Like many in the Packers' front office, Ball does his work behind the scenes, without many details revealed or public appearances required, and that suits his understated personality. He also helps to oversee the equipment, video, medical, and player development departments, with family programs and travel recently added to his administrative duties as well.

One of the major projects from those areas this offseason has been the implementation of a new equipment inventory system, which is ongoing. But Ball is quick to credit each department's chief - equipment manager Red Batty, video director Bob Eckberg, head athletic trainer Pepper Burruss, director of player development Rob Davis, manager of family programs Sherry Schuldes and corporate travel manager Linda Nuthals - for running strong areas that need minimal additional supervision.

Those responsibilities, though, keep Ball in touch with the plethora of football-operations experiences from earlier in his career. Keeping that breadth of knowledge fresh helps him process all the different perspectives that factor into that next contract extension or group of rookie signings.

Whether he's sitting in on draft meetings listening to coaches and scouts debate the merits of a prospect or talking with an agent about a player's recovery from injury, Ball constantly uses his well-rounded background to home in on what's in the franchise's best interests.

"The thing I enjoy the most is that we all as an organization have to do our pieces and our parts to be successful," Ball said. "To be able to contribute on a small basis to helping this franchise succeed, and to do things the right way, I take that responsibility and that opportunity as something pretty special."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content