GREEN BAY — For 24 hours, people thought Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy had hired a new general manager with all the proper credentials and that the process of fixing the team’s depleted roster would begin in earnest.
On Monday, they found out who Murphy really hired as general manager: himself.
OK, so that’s an overstatement. Maybe even a gross overstatement.
But while promoting director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst to general manager was a home run for Murphy, the out-of-the-blue shift in the structure of the football operation that accompanied Gutekunst’s coronation should have people worried.
Gutekunst (pronounced: GOO-tuh-kunst) has worked in the team’s scouting department since 1999 and has everything the Packers need in a general manager.
He is a crack personnel evaluator with an expertise in college scouting, is well-versed in the Ron Wolf system that has made Green Bay a model franchise since 1992 and is a people person who is respected throughout the building.
And unlike outgoing general manager Ted Thompson, he’s planning to use every means at his disposal, including free agency, to build a roster.
But closure on the search didn’t put an end to the uncertainty in Green Bay. Murphy’s announcement that he was splitting Thompson’s duties three ways and that Gutekunst, coach Mike McCarthy and executive vice president of football operations Russ Ball would report directly to him was a bombshell that could have far-reaching ramifications. From now on, Gutekunst will have total control over the roster, McCarthy over the team and Ball over the salary cap, with Murphy overseeing with a self- described hands-off policy.
That radically alters an organizational structure that has been in place since president Bob Harlan named Wolf general manager late in 1991 and gave him control over all football decisions, including personnel acquisition and hiring and firing the coach. When Harlan did that, it effectively took the team president and the executive committee out of the football business, eliminating any meddling from above and leading to just three losing seasons in 26 years.
Although he’s been busy building hotels and sledding hills in the Titletown District for the past decade, Murphy said he’s been wanting to get more involved in the football operation.
He said he went into the general manager search with an open mind, but decided to change the organizational structure after finding a disturbing lack of communication and collaboration within the football operation under the increasingly reclusive Thompson.
“As we went through the process, the more I thought about it and the more we talked with each other, I just really felt that we needed to improve communication,” Murphy said. “I just felt like there were too many silos in football — whether that be coaching and personnel, the college and the pro side — and breaking down those silos (was necessary). The idea of having the three people report to me, to me made the most sense in being able to achieve that objective.”
Murphy doesn’t have a reputation as a micromanager and said he won’t be that way with Gutekunst, McCarthy and Ball.
But he made it clear he won’t be a wallflower, either.
“It’s a pretty significant change, but I’m excited about it,” he said. “On the business side, I feel like I’ve got really good people in place, so I’m not concerned about that. This is a move that I think will be good for the organization going forward. ... There’ll be three people in football reporting to me, but I’m not going to be making football decisions. I’m supervising people that make football decisions.”
Not many remember it, but a similar arrangement failed badly in Green Bay in the late 1980s.
President Robert Parins, a local judge, hired Tom Braatz as general manager in 1987 and put him in a separate-but-equal arrangement with the coach, first Forrest Gregg, then Lindy Infante.
The system was dysfunctional and often led to the coach and general manager competing for the ear of a president who wasn’t qualified to make football decisions.
It plagued the team’s decision-making until Harlan put an end to it in 1991. Though Murphy has spent a lifetime in football, he’s never been intimately involved in coaching, scouting or player acquisition.
“It really comes down to people,” he said. “The key is going to be — and that’s what I’m going to push — is open communication, honesty with each other. We’re going to start that right away and set that tone. I think we’ve got three talented people heading up our football operations. It’s going to be incumbent on me to make sure that they all work together.”
And what happens if they don’t? Who breaks the tie when they can’t agree?
Murphy said he’ll mediate and try to achieve a consensus, but added, “Ultimately if it’s not possible, then I will make the decision. But I would say it depends on what kind of dispute. If it’s something that involves the roster, Brian would have final say.”
That sounds good, and it might end up working for Murphy, but the triangle of authority is fraught with potential problems, especially when you’re fiddling with a structure that has worked for the Packers and other NFL franchises for 25 years.