GREEN BAY – For the third time in nearly three decades, the Green Bay Packers are in great need of a general manager with full authority to hire and fire the head coach.
Right now, Brian Gutekunst is the general manager in name only.
Under the management structure president Mark Murphy created in January after taking general manager duties away from Ted Thompson, Gutekunst is for all intents and purposes an executive vice-president of player personnel.
He has complete authority over all player personnel decisions but does not have the power to fire and/or hire the head coach. Gutekunst, head coach Mike McCarthy and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball all report to Murphy, which means the decision on McCarthy’s future is in the hands of the president.
This structure sounded bad when Murphy unveiled it in January and it is bad right now.
If Murphy is smart, he will inform McCarthy and Ball immediately that he is giving Gutekunst full authority of the football operation and that they both will now report to him. The decision whether to extend McCarthy’s contract, which expires after next season, or fire him will be the general manager’s.
If 27 years of winning has shown anything, it’s that having a true general manager is vital for the franchise to succeed.
In 1991, then-president Bob Harlan made the decision to end the 50-50 authority structure he had with coach Lindy Infante and director of football operations Tom Braatz and hire a general manager with full authority over all football matters.
He hired Ron Wolf and within five years the Packers were Super Bowl champions.
In 2005, Harlan realized his mistake of giving Mike Sherman both coach and general manager duties after Wolf’s retirement in 2001 and decided to go back to the structure that had worked so well before.
He hired Ted Thompson and within five years the Packers were Super Bowl champions.
Now it’s 2018 and the Packers are threatening to finish with a losing record for the second straight year. At 4-6-1, they are going to have to win their remaining five games to have a shot at a playoff berth.
And even if they do make the playoffs, does anyone really think they’re going anywhere?
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There is a huge problem with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose demeanor on the field gets worse and worse with each loss the Packers suffer, making it seem like he’s waging a war against McCarthy’s offense or McCarthy himself. It has gotten to the point where it has become a national story, with most of the pundits taking Rodgers’ side because of idol worship.
But not everyone with Packers connections sees it that way and it’s possible Gutekunst doesn’t, either. Several prominent former members of the organization see what’s going on when the Packers play and they don’t like it.
“It bothers me watching it,” one said. “He’s (Rodgers) throwing his hands in the air every time something goes wrong. It’s like nobody else can do anything right.”
“Something’s wrong,” said another. “Someone told me the other day that they’re 21-21-1 over the last three seasons. That’s unbelievable. For that franchise to have that record is astounding.”
“What’s going on up there?” said another. “It just doesn’t look right.”
If Gutekunst had full authority over the football operation, he would have every right to call McCarthy and Rodgers together and find out whether there’s a festering problem between the two. He would be able to go on a fact-finding mission to find out what was really going on and how the other players felt about it.
Harlan once said that he remembered both Wolf and Thompson calling players into their offices and setting them straight when the occasion called for it. It’s doubtful they ever did it with Brett Favre and one would imagine it would be hard to do with another star quarterback such as Rodgers, but someone with full authority would find a way to deal with it.
Murphy has that authority and is a former player, but whatever is happening with McCarthy, Rodgers and the offense requires the expertise of someone who is around the game constantly. Gutekunst knows the roster intimately, meets with the coaches regularly and watches practices and games with a critical eye.
When it comes to knowing a football team, the guy who helped build it should be the one managing it. Through his first draft alone, Gutekunst has proved he’s capable of running the show. In addition to hitting on a great first-round pick, he engineered a trade for an extra first in 2019.
Not all his free-agent acquisitions have worked out, but few rarely do and none of his put the Packers in salary-cap purgatory. He has been willing to make bold moves for the long-term future of the franchise, such as trading safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and has been willing to take some lesser chances on players who can help him now (Antonio Morrison, Bashaud Breeland, Ibraheim Campbell).
Most importantly, no one knows the team better than Gutekunst.
When Wolf made the decision to fire Infante, he did it because he saw how disjointed the practices were. He spent a great deal of time observing and making mental notes on how the operation was running.
Thompson did the same thing.
He agonized over whether to fire Mike Sherman right away but after taking some time to think it over, he decided to give him one more year. When Sherman’s resentment over having his general manager’s title taken away interfered with his coaching performance, Thompson ended their relationship.
From all indications, Gutekunst and McCarthy get along. It’s unlikely he would make a coaching decision based on personal bias. He, more than Murphy, knows who’s available to fill a head-coach opening and whether the field could provide someone better than McCarthy.
The best reason to allow Gutekunst to make the decision on his own is that Murphy let McCarthy dictate who his boss would be when Thompson was removed from his position. Murphy wanted to hire a true general manager, but McCarthy, according to a source, told his coaches that he would quit if Murphy hired Ball in that capacity, so Murphy changed his mind and created the new structure.
Murphy could have called McCarthy’s bluff and reminded him he had a contract and wasn’t going anywhere, so he’d have to accept that the new general manager had complete hiring and firing authority. Instead, he created an ill-conceived structure in which everyone reported to him instead of the general manager.
That move showed he may not have the guts to fire McCarthy, if that’s what is necessary.
Murphy should let Gutekunst evaluate McCarthy and make the decision whether to keep him. Gutekunst knows more than Murphy whether McCarthy is getting the most out of the roster. He may feel McCarthy was handcuffed because the team is in transition and next year will be a better indication of whether he has lost his touch.
Gutekunst has been around enough to also know whether McCarthy has fallen behind the times with his offense and it’s time to move on. With true general manager authority, Gutekunst could pressure McCarthy to add some new blood with new ideas to his offensive staff the way Andy Reid did in Kansas City.
If Gutekunst makes the decision to fire McCarthy then it’s on him to find a replacement. Knowing his future depends on that hire, Gutekunst is going to find the very best coach he can.
Murphy, more than likely, would call Jed Hughes, the NFL head hunter who identified Murphy when the Packers hired him to replace Harlan and consulted on the hiring of Gutekunst, to aid in the search process. Even though Murphy would consult Gutekunst and involve him in the hiring process, there’s no guarantee the general manager would get the guy he really wanted for the job.
“Of the major decisions, even if the head coach was reporting to Brian, he and I would talk about it,” Murphy said in January. “Any decision like that, you’re going to be involved. But at the end of the day that would be my decision.”
Well, it shouldn’t be.
Gutekunst travels the country scouting college players and in so doing talks with scores of NFL personnel executives, scouts and college coaches. He wouldn’t need a head hunter to identify who the best coaching candidates are should he decide to part ways with McCarthy.
And maybe most importantly, every candidate should know who his boss is going to be in the long term. When he hired Gutekunst, Murphy didn’t rule out the possibility of giving him full authority in the future, so the new coach is going to want to know whether he’ll be reporting to Murphy one year and Gutekunst the next.
He should know that Gutekunst will be his boss, end of story.
There is a lot at stake this offseason and Murphy can’t afford to make a mistake. He hired Gutekunst because he thought he was the best man for the job. Now he should let him be the general manager.
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