Silverstein: Critics of Mark Murphy's new Packers management structure say it could lead to dysfunction

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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New Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, center,  is introduced during a press conference in the Lambeau Field media auditorium with general manager Brian Gutekunst, left, and team president Mark Murphy Wednesday, January 9, 2019 in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY – As the Green Bay Packers embark on a new chapter in their long, storied history under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, one thing is clear: The paradigm inside 1265 Lombardi Ave. has changed.

An organizational chart that for 25 years spelled out the franchise’s hierarchy in a clear and concise manner is gone.

The president is still on top, but there is no single person in charge of the football operation, no Ron Wolf or Ted Thompson to set the course and make sure everyone was working toward the same organizational goal.

Instead, there are three men — LaFleur, general manager Brian Gutekunst and director of football operations Russ Ball — all with visions of the way they want their departments to be run, all reporting directly to Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy, hoping to steer the organization back on course after two straight losing seasons.

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It is a structure that is fraught with trouble based on the franchise's history, according to current and former members of the organization.

The Packers floundered through the 1970s and ‘80s without a strong personnel man overseeing the football operation and didn’t turn things around until then-president Bob Harlan hired Wolf in 1991 and gave him full authority over all football decisions.

Using that structure for all but three of the last 26 years, the Packers won two Super Bowls and 12 division titles, made seven NFC championship and 19 playoff appearances and had 21 winning seasons.

The new structure, sources say, has allowed Murphy to be more involved in the football operation, resulting in him spending a lot more time on the coach’s floor and in the locker room than he ever did. Just as importantly, it has elevated Ball to a position of authority nearly equal to what Thompson’s was despite his being passed over for the general manager’s job 17 months ago.

It was Murphy alone who chose to employ the new structure. He gave Gutekunst and Ball their titles, and hired LaFleur. It is critical to the franchise’s future, not to mention Murphy’s, that the three men below him find a groove together. The team has not had three losing seasons in a row since 1986-88 and another sub-.500 finish could have fans calling for a house cleaning.

How Murphy arrived at the structure can be traced to the circumstances that followed his decision to remove Thompson from his position for health reasons. The club had never commented on an illness that some say began affecting Thompson as early as 2014, but this week, after his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame, the former general manager revealed he has an autonomic disorder.

Thompson did not get into specifics about the symptoms or the cause but said doctors do not think it relates to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the brain disorder that has struck scores of former NFL players such as Thompson.

Thompson’s illness forced Murphy to act at the end of the 2017 season, the team’s first losing campaign in nine years. His intention was to replace the ailing Thompson with a full-authority general manager, but at some point, he decided the top three positions in the football operation should report to him.

There are skeptics of the organization’s direction, and it’s easy to see why, given the lack of a decisive leader with years of NFL experience in charge of the entire football operation. Maybe Murphy is the smart one, but the way things transpired after Thompson’s demotion suggest not all the pieces are going to fit together the way he believes.

Speaking with current and former members of the organization, agents and friends for some of those employees and people who do business with the Packers, nearly 20 in total, there are concerns that the organization is headed down a faulty path.

All the sources quoted in this story have firsthand knowledge of what they described but asked not to be identified to protect their jobs and professional relationships. In the NFL, those who speak out without authorization from the club can find themselves out of work quickly and those with associations with the club who speak out of turn can find themselves cut off just as fast.

Russ Ball a 'good man,' but polarizing figure

Many of those interviewed expressed concern over Ball’s role and whether it was a mistake not to give Gutekunst full authority. Gutekunst served under both Wolf and Thompson, is well-liked, exudes an air of great confidence and would have been a general manager somewhere else if not in Green Bay.

Russ Ball was a candidate to replace GM Ted Thompson before Packers president Mark Murphy decided to restructure the team's senior management.

Ball worked hard to learn the personnel side of the game and even spent time in team meetings to get a feel for that part of the operation. He has managed the salary cap beautifully, has a good reputation among the many agents with whom he negotiates and has the experience of working for four different organizations. Thompson has told friends that Ball “is a good man.”

But despite his anonymity outside the building, he is described as a polarizing figure by current and former associates. Agents who negotiate contracts with Ball call him fair and honorable. Others who have left the team say he is an organizational climber, rubs people the wrong way and has a personal agenda that interferes with the cohesiveness between the different departments.

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Asked about that, Murphy said any questions about Ball’s responsibilities or performance are born of jealousies that exist over how the front office shook out. He said Ball was an important part of the team’s success and was trusted by Thompson.

Murphy acknowledged that Ball has a tremendous amount of responsibility, much of which he had before. But he acknowledged that before the change, Ball had to clear every decision he made with Thompson before moving forward.

Now, nearly every football decision except team personnel goes through Ball’s office, and multiple sources said he has Murphy’s ear more than anyone else, creating an uneven dynamic in what was supposed to be an equal split of authority. Gutekunst has full say over the 53-man roster, but unlike Thompson and Wolf before him, he doesn’t control the message inside and outside the building.

Ball never speaks to the media or is out front when news is announced.

Under the current structure, the club doesn’t have a strong public presence like when McCarthy, Wolf or Mike Holmgren were leading the way. LaFleur didn’t come in and say he was going to win a world championship like McCarthy did or bring a pair of Super Bowl rings with him like Holmgren did. From all indications, he doesn’t have a forceful personality.

He’s also just 39 years old and will need to grow quickly into the position.

Gutekunst does not have authority over LaFleur or Ball except with roster decisions, and LaFleur has little of the influence McCarthy had when it came time to fight for something he wanted. So far, LaFleur has been allowed to make changes around the facility and add some former colleagues to his staff, but at least one friend worried that Murphy and Ball would lord over him.

Murphy insisted LaFleur has autonomy with his coaching staff, is being given everything he needs to succeed and won’t be interfered with. Murphy is his boss and only Murphy has the authority to give him everything he wants.

The transition from Ted Thompson

So, how did it get to this point?

Ball originally looked like the odd man out after Murphy removed Thompson. But that changed with McCarthy’s firing Dec. 2. McCarthy opposed Ball’s candidacy to fill Thompson’s position in early 2018 and let Murphy know it, according to a source. He wanted someone steeped in personnel to acquire talent for him.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst (right) and former GM Ted Thompson watch training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday, July 26, 2018 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

But it is McCarthy who is gone now and Ball who oversees finance, salary-cap management, player contracts, football administration, travel expenses, facilities, remodeling and the medical staff. These were all areas in which Thompson had final say and he rarely allowed emotion or personal relationships to get in the way of making the best decision for the franchise, various people within the franchise have said over the years.

Like Wolf before him, Thompson set the direction of the football operation and together with McCarthy made sure the unique culture of a small-town NFL franchise remained. Both embraced the past success of the organization and made sure every player who walked through the door received a history lesson on the Packers.

Ultimately, Murphy removed the then 64-year-old Thompson because he was no longer able to carry out his enormous responsibilities the way he once had. During 2017 draft news conferences, he appeared worn down and rumors began circulating about his health.

Few people knew anything specific about the illness that struck Thompson, but for someone who had spent endless hours traveling the country to scout players while also tending to daily matters, the job was becoming too big. Wolf, Thompson’s mentor, had retired at age 62 in good health because he no longer felt he could devote the necessary time to the job.

Thompson built one of the franchise’s four Super Bowl teams and gave everything he had to the organization, but he started to show signs of the autonomic disorder as early as 2014, about the time he underwent hip replacement surgery, according to one source. Murphy was made aware of some of the changes Thompson was going through, the source said.

Out of respect for a man they loved and appreciated, McCarthy, Ball, Gutekunst, personnel men Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith and many others did everything they could to fill in where Thompson could not in the years to follow.

It wasn’t that Thompson couldn’t make well-reasoned decisions; it was that he wasn’t always available to make them because his work capacity had been reduced. Everything still ran through him, and while it was his style to let things play out rather than react too quickly, his inability to devote the same number of hours to the job slowed the operation.

“Maybe keeping him going was the worst thing we could have done for him,” said one longtime front-office colleague.

A close friend of Thompson's agreed that the good intentions of his colleagues may have backfired, adding that Thompson’s health should have been the priority, not keeping him in an intensely demanding position that might have been making things worse.

It is understandable why Murphy did not remove Thompson from the general manager’s chair earlier than he did. As much as his tightfisted salary management and aversion to free agency frustrated many inside and out of the organization, Thompson devoted his life to the job and demoting him would have been a difficult decision for Murphy.

On the other hand, Harlan had faced a similar situation in 2007 when his hand-picked successor, John Jones, was unable to manage the job due to a health problem. Harlan consulted with doctors and finally told Jones he had to step down.

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Murphy could have done the same much earlier with Thompson. He has run the Packers like a corporation and that puts him smack dab in the CEO seat, where the toughest of decisions are supposed to be made. If he wasn't aware of Thompson’s decline, he should've been, so the onus was on him to make a move, as tough as it might have been.

Murphy pivots to three 'silos'

In a Jan. 2, 2018, news conference announcing Thompson’s removal, Murphy said he did not intend to change the front-office structure or get rid of McCarthy. He fully intended to replace Thompson with a general manager who oversaw the head coach. The way sources described it, Ball was going to be it.

Ball had spent years serving Thompson, doing some of the toughest work in the building. He did all of it with almost zero recognition from the public.

When McCarthy heard Ball was going to be Murphy’s pick, a source said, he objected because he wanted an experienced personnel evaluator who would not be averse to signing free agents. He had accepted Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy — knowing each year he would be replacing veterans with rookies — because he was loyal to Thompson. But recent weak drafts had made it more necessary to sign free agents.

McCarthy couldn’t really leave — he had earlier in the year had his contract extended through 2019 — but Murphy apparently felt he couldn’t tell McCarthy to accept Ball or go sit out the next two years at home. So, he went through his GM interviews with the head coach in the room. It meant Ball had to conduct his interview with the guy who didn’t want him in the job.

Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy addresses media after hiring Brian Gutekunst as general manager for the organization on Jan. 8, 2018 at Lambeau Field.

Ultimately, Murphy decided he would hire a personnel man as his general manager. He chose Gutekunst over Eliot Wolf (Ron's son) and Doug Whaley.

Gutekunst, a source said, thought he had interviewed for the same job Thompson had. But when Murphy reached him on his way to a general manager’s job interview in Houston, he offered a different job. Gutekunst would have final say on the 53-man roster, the draft and free agency, but he would not have the power to hire or fire the coach or oversee all facets of the football operation.

Gutekunst was taken aback but took some time and eventually decided he wanted to stay in Green Bay. Part of the reason might have been that he had a good working relationship with McCarthy and felt they could partner the way McCarthy and Thompson had.

McCarthy was not aware Murphy had decided to create a new structure until after the fact and was not pleased because of the influence it gave Ball, a source said. It turned out to be the beginning of the end for McCarthy. Once it looked like his team wouldn’t make the playoffs after a home loss to Arizona on Dec. 2, Murphy didn’t even wait until the stadium lights were off to fire him.

When reached for this story, McCarthy said he was focused on the present and preferred not to dwell on the past.

After Gutekunst took the job, Murphy rewarded Ball with the director of football operations title and a big raise, according to a source who learned about it directly from Murphy. The title was taken from Thompson’s job description, meaning Ball was being given control of everything but personnel.

The title change made it seem that Murphy was stripping Eliot Wolf of his title, but Murphy pointed out Wolf had been director-football operations, which was a separate title and one Thompson had created for Wolf. So, with Ball taking over the more important title, Wolf took off for a job with the Cleveland Browns.

He has declined to discuss his decision to leave, but it has caused a rift between Murphy and Ron Wolf, a source said. The elder Wolf moved to Cleveland and does not take part in any Packers-sponsored events, although he did attend Thompson’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony inside the Lambeau Field Atrium.

With Gutekunst in charge of personnel, Ball in charge of football operations and McCarthy the head coach, the three “silos,” as Murphy likes to call them, were established. Gutekunst wasn’t the general manager he expected to be, Ball wasn’t the general manager at all and McCarthy was in no man’s land with two years left on his deal.

A source said when Ball was congratulated about his promotion, he scoffed and said it was not the job he wanted. He and McCarthy kept a working relationship, but they were both reporting to Murphy, and Ball worked more closely with the president than McCarthy did.

A bumpy start for LaFleur

After McCarthy was fired and the season ended, Murphy led a search committee for a new head coach. Gutekunst and Ball were his two primary advisers and all three were impressed with LaFleur’s interview in Nashville, Tennessee on Sunday, Jan. 7.

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They flew back to Green Bay and met the next day to discuss the prospects. According to two sources familiar with what transpired in the meeting, it was expected the candidates would be discussed some more and LaFleur would be brought in for a second interview. But Murphy was convinced the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator was the guy and made the decision to hire him.

At the Jan. 9 news conference introducing LaFleur, Murphy insisted the entire search committee agreed that LaFleur was the choice and a decision was made to move quickly. Murphy did most of the talking at the news conference; Gutekunst was mostly in the background. Ball wasn’t part of it at all.

A source said Gutekunst initially wasn’t going to be part of the news conference and that it would be just Murphy and LaFleur. But eventually it was decided Gutekunst would take part.

Once he was up and running as head coach, LaFleur had to build a coaching staff. He was supposed to have complete control over the hiring of his staff. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was not forced on LaFleur, but the new coach was strongly encouraged to keep him.

When it came to other assistant coaches, LaFleur wasn’t the sole decision-maker, sources said.

LaFleur was excited about hiring highly regarded Miami special teams coach Darren Rizzi, who was not returning to the Dolphins and had told the Packers he would come up for an interview but was not going to sign for less than three years and total of $4.5 million, a source said.

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur during a team practice at the Don Hutson Center on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

Rizzi was told to come. He and LaFleur hit it off in their interview, the source said. But when it came time to talk about a contract, the Packers offered Rizzi less than he was seeking and Rizzi felt he had been led astray.

He left town. The Packers eventually met his price a couple of days later, but by that time Rizzi had decided to pursue other opportunities. LaFleur tried to convince him to change his mind but had no success.

Murphy claims the Packers did not low-ball Rizzi and met his price before he left.

Rizzi ended up signing a three-year, $4.5 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Thompson had faced a similar situation when hiring defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a source said. Capers had a set price and wasn’t going to accept less. Thompson thought it was too much, but McCarthy and others convinced him they needed to do it and he gave in.

Capers built a championship defense over the next two years and helped the Packers win Super Bowl XLV.

A source said LaFleur was also interested in hiring assistant special teams coach Maurice Drayton to replace Ron Zook but didn’t think management would allow it because Drayton had been part of the disastrous 2018 special teams under Zook. Team officials vehemently denied this and said LaFleur could hire whomever he wanted.

After striking out on another candidate, LaFleur hired Vanderbilt’s Shawn Mennenga and retained Drayton as his assistant.

LaFleur interviewed offensive line coach James Campen for two days, a source said, and for a while it appeared he was going to stick with tight ends coach Brian Angelichio and defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt. But none of them were retained, and Whitt was fired without any notice.

As it turned out, nobody who had a long-term connection with McCarthy was retained.

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Two sources with connections to the coaches said that was done on purpose and that Ball had a role in it, but Murphy and others vehemently deny it.

“Matt was allowed to make his own decisions,” Murphy said.

LaFleur wound up filling his offensive staff with several young position coaches with limited NFL experience, such as Adam Stenavich (offensive line), Jacob Outten (tight ends) and Alvis Whitted (receivers). He also hired former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and former Packers wide receivers coach Luke Getsy (quarterbacks) and retained running backs coach Ben Sirmans.

Now that all the hirings and firings are done, LaFleur has started the process of winning over the players and developing a new culture. He still has a lot of work to do in forging a relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and installing a new offensive system.

In the meantime, the organization enters its second year under its new front-office structure. Sources said the executive committee seems to be made up of people who are just happy to be connected to the Packers and have stayed out of Murphy’s business. At board of director’s meetings, it’s rare to hear someone question the Packers operation or Murphy.

The three-headed management team has high expectations for the 2019 season. Murphy and Ball OK’d $56 million in signing bonuses to free agents Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner, and they’ll be expecting a big return.

Things need to turn around fast. Murphy has put himself at the top of football operations, and Ball is right there with him. Gutekunst will be judged on the talent he brings in.

A lot is riding on LaFleur’s ability to succeed on the field this year with the team, and leadership structure, he's got.

It all starts when training camp opens July 25.

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