GREEN BAY – On a foundational day for the Green Bay Packers future, a history lesson could provide context.
In 1991, two years after Bob Harlan was promoted to team president, he enforced a radical restructure within the Packers' front office. Ron Wolf, his new general manager, was given total authority over football operations. Aside from Harlan, his supervisor, no man within the organization was Wolf’s equal.
It’s a structure the team would keep in place almost three decades, through Mike Sherman’s time as GM, and later Ted Thompson’s 13-year tenure.
“We wanted a football person making all of our football decisions,” Harlan told PackersNews.com on Sunday, one day before the team announced its new structure. “The people on my executive committee were very talented business men, very successful businessmen, and very valuable to the organization helping us with our business structure. But from the football side, I just felt we needed one strong football person, and give him that authority.
“Quite honestly, I would’ve never gotten Ron Wolf in ’91 if I hadn’t given him that authority, and I think the same thing is true about Ted. They want to run their own operation, be in charge of it.”
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The Packers will continue having a football person in charge of their roster. Brian Gutekunst was introduced as the team’s 10th general manager Monday, reportedly signing a five-year contract. He replaces Thompson, who Gutekunst called a longtime mentor and friend, as the Packers' top team builder.
But Gutekunst will not have total authority over football operations.
In a restructuring that seemed just as radical as Harlan’s decision to give Wolf complete autonomy, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy announced Monday his new general manager will be one of three people within football operations reporting directly to him. The other two are Russ Ball, who was promoted to executive vice president/football operations, and coach Mike McCarthy.
Murphy, whose expanded involvement will resemble more of a traditional owner, said restructuring the chain of command was a byproduct of what he learned during his search for a new general manager.
“What this process showed me,” Murphy said, “within football we have silos, and we’ve had some breakdowns in communication. And one of the things that I really tried to do as I looked at it, what would be the best way to improve communication, improve collaboration among people within our football operations, and how do you knock down those silos? So this search process really identified some of those issues for me and was really very helpful.”
Gutekunst said Murphy didn’t mention the restructure during his interviews Friday and Saturday. It wasn’t until he received the job offer that they discussed how the newly defined responsibilities will work.
If Gutekunst had significant reservations about the restructure, he presumably wouldn’t have accepted the job. He was inside the Houston airport Saturday when Murphy finally extended the offer. Gutekunst was set to interview with the Houston Texans for their general manager vacancy Sunday, and had dinner with team officials Saturday night.
Murphy, joking he tried to ruin Gutekunst’s dinner in Houston, said the Texans’ looming interview expedited his decision. He made sure Gutekunst had the job offer before eating with the Texans.
“As soon as the last interview (ended),” Murphy said, “a group of us sat down, and pretty quickly we all agreed that Brian was the top candidate. Unfortunately, we let him out the door already, and was on his way to Houston. I communicated with him.
“What sped me up a little is I didn’t want him to have the full interview with Houston. He had a dinner and wanted to try to wrap things up that evening and get him back on a plane Sunday as soon as possible.”
Throughout the evening, Gutekunst envisioned how the Packers' remade front office would look. Gutekunst said he returned to his hotel after dinner around 10:30 p.m. Over the next two hours, he and Murphy discussed the restructure.
Ultimately, Gutekunst said, he saw potential benefits.
“No red flags,” Gutekunst said. “I had to think about it when I was trying to process it or whatever, but the biggest thing to me was just the people involved. My relationship with Russ is really strong, and my relationship with Mike is really strong. So I needed to hear how it was going to work, but once Mark laid it out, I was all for it.
“I was pretty jacked up about it. Because it actually takes some things out of my way, so I can really do what I’m good at. So I was happy about it.”
Beyond job title, it’s uncertain how much will change in practice for Ball. Murphy said there might be a “few slight differences” in Ball’s role, but much will remain. Ball served as Thompson’s salary cap expert the past several years, and will continue as Gutekunst’s chief negotiator on player contracts.
Ball also will have authority on non-roster areas of a traditional GM’s responsibilities, including video, training, equipment, family affairs and public relations.
“Russ has been doing a ton of this stuff already,” Gutekunst said. “It fell under Ted’s roof, but Ted empowered him to do all that. So this isn’t really changing anything about the way we’ve done business for the last few years. I think Mark is just spelling it out more than anything.
“So, yeah, me and Russ are going to work hand in hand on all that stuff.”
In the new structure, Gutekunst and Ball’s relationship will be tested most. Gutekunst’s primary responsibility will be player acquisition and retention, while Ball’s will be the salary cap. The two duties are connected, but will be split between two individuals.
If they aren’t in lockstep, a situation could arise where Gutekunst wants to sign a player, but Ball doesn’t believe the necessary contract works within the Packers’ cap. Murphy left open the possibility he might have to be an arbitrator, though he hopes Gutekunst and Ball could work out any dispute between them.
If an agreement can’t be reached, Murphy said he would side with Gutekunst on personnel matters.
“It's a roster decision,” Murphy said. “He has final say on it."
Murphy, a former All-Pro safety in Washington, has deeper football knowledge than most owners around the league. But he said making “football decisions” won’t be part of his portfolio. Like Harlan before him, Murphy said it’s important to be involved enough in football matters to be aware of issues, but far enough removed to allow scouting experts to make decisions.
One exception will be McCarthy’s employment. Instead of the GM, Murphy said he will have the power to fire and hire a head coach. McCarthy received a one-year extension last fall, pushing his contract through the end of the 2019 season.
Murphy said he also will consult McCarthy, who was part of the GM interview process and met with Gutekunst for more than an hour, on “everything that’s under the coach’s control” in weekly, in-season meetings. Possible topics include coaching hires and even game plans, Murphy said, though he won’t spend the meetings vetting potential fourth-and-one play calls.
“I think it’s like anything else when you have somebody,” Murphy said, “I’m not going to micromanage them. But having somebody to bounce ideas off of. Just being somebody who can talk. Let’s look at, for instance, what kind of things could we do that would really help us win games, and what kind of things can we do as an organization to really give us an advantage in a number of different areas.
“I think that’ll be a very different situation having a direct involvement with him.”
When Harlan restructured the Packers' front office, it wasn’t only to give his GM total authority. Another primary reason was to limit the voices distracting his top officer. The Packers' board of directors has been removed from the GM since 1991, and that will continue.
Yet change comes with risk.
“When you give them that total autonomy, which I think they needed, and we needed it,” Harlan said, “you get good people. And they found Green Bay a great place to work, and they’ve had wonderful success.”
Murphy, putting his stamp on the Packers, decided the communication breakdowns were severe enough to overhaul a system that has worked in Green Bay almost three decades. Just like Harlan, the success of his new business model will go a long way determining how his legacy is remembered.
A brief look at the three most pressing issues facing new Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. (Jan. 7, 2017) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin