Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about new Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and the team's personnel group scouting for speed during Senior Bowl practices. (Jan. 25, 2018)
MOBILE, Ala. - Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst have spent very little time in each other’s company since the former assumed his new role as senior advisor to football operations and the latter was promoted to general manager of the Green Bay Packers earlier this month.
When the frenzied transition was complete, Thompson hit the road for scouting trips to Texas and California as the rush of college all-star games began. Gutekunst quickly settled in at Lambeau Field before flying south for stops at the East-West Shrine Game in Florida and the Senior Bowl in Alabama, where the rest of the personnel department joined him — sans Thompson.
"We haven’t had a ton of time together,” Gutekunst said last week. “But we’ve worked together for so long that it’s pretty typical. He’s still telling me what to do sometimes, smiling at me, so it’s good.”
Over the next few months, Thompson is expected to play a significant role as the Packers evaluate prospects and finalize their board ahead of this year’s NFL draft. By shedding the burdens associated with managing the 53-man roster and overseeing the clerical side of an organization — the totality of which finally wore him out as he approached his 65th birthday — Thompson can immerse himself in the film room to concentrate on what he does best: identify talent.
And in that regard, Gutekunst is eager to utilize the skills of his former boss.
“I think he’ll have a big role,” Gutekunst said. “With his experience and doing this for as long as he’s done it at a high level, I’m going to lean on him tremendously.”
By bringing Thompson’s responsibilities into focus, Gutekunst has thinned the cloud of ambiguity hovering over a rather broad and nondescript title. At the time of the change, team president and CEO Mark Murphy told reporters the job description for a senior advisor to football operations would be finalized after a new general manager was hired. Gutekunst echoed that notion in his introductory news conference by saying he planned to speak with Thompson in the near future to hash out specifics.
“Quite frankly I want to talk to him more about that,” Gutekunst said the day he was introduced as general manager. “But for me, just to be able to have a guy in the building that’s done what he’s done as a general manager, to lean on him and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking. How would you do this? What would you think about this?’ I’m going to be my own man and do things the way I believe, and that will be different than Ted sometimes, but I’m heavily influenced by him, so there’s probably going to be a lot of similarities.”
Thompson himself was unsure exactly what he should be doing for the first part of January because the specifics of his new role weren’t agreed upon in advance, according to a source. His level of future involvement truly hinged on whoever would be chosen as successor, and nobody knew what would happen if the Packers selected an outside candidate.
Murphy and Gutekunst weren't being vague; they were honest.
"I would hope that I could lean on him very much through this process," Gutekunst said in his introductory news conference. "He obviously has a ton of experience, and he’s a very, very close friend. I expect him to be very involved, as much as he can be."
Still, Gutekunst’s vision for Thompson may have intensified even more following the departures of senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith, who jumped ship before Gutekunst was offered the job, and director of football operations Eliot Wolf, who wanted a fresh start after Murphy passed on hiring him. Both men took high-ranking positions with the Cleveland Browns under general manager John Dorsey, a former Packers’ executive.
The defections forced Gutekunst to evaluate the remaining members of his scouting department to determine if the Packers could navigate the draft without making external hires. His answer was yes; he felt comfortable relying on director of pro personnel John Wojciechowski and director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan, who served as Gutekunst’s right-hand man at the Senior Bowl last week.
Gutekunst also knew he had Thompson as an ace in the hole.
“He’s one of the best evaluators that has ever done this,” Gutekunst said. “So he’s going to be part of our meetings, he’s going to be part of our evaluation, he’ll be a pretty big deal. Hopefully it will free him up to watch more tape. He is exceptional at that part of it.”
This time of year is particularly monotonous for scouts. They spend their days watching, pausing, rewinding and re-watching film from the time they arrive at Lambeau Field until the time they depart — typically late at night when their eyes ache. The best scouts are those who can “grind,” as Gutekunst often describes it, and Thompson can push through tape with the best of them.
In fact, Thompson has been energized by the change in role. He received an outpouring of support from current and former players who called his office or visited in person to thank him for the role he played in their careers, all of which moved Thompson. He took some time to visit his father, brother and nephew in his hometown of Atlanta, Texas, after a scouting trip to Dallas. He will join Gutekunst and the rest of the personnel department at the NFL scouting combine in February.
Most importantly, Thompson has relished the chance to study film with few outside responsibilities, and he queues up tape for several hours at a time. He is doing what he loves without being the public face of the Packers, a role he still wasn't comfortable with after 13 years in charge.
Long days in the film room suit Thompson just fine.
“I think he enjoys that part more than anything," Gutekunst said.