Packers GM Brian Gutekunst stressing 'dependability factor' with players' off-field behavior

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst was having a conversation Sunday morning when his first Zoom call with reporters unexpectedly went live. He was discussing with someone off camera how he could tell it was training camp, because already the Green Bay Packers general manager was losing track of which day it was, and that sounded about right. 

There is no such thing as a weekend in the NFL this time of year. The weeks blend together without pause, off days left behind in July. Yes, the return of the grind is quite familiar. 

Everything else about this 2020 training camp feels very different. 

The Packers enter their sixth day of camp Monday. Ordinarily, players would have already strapped on their pads, rehearsed something resembling live contact, with the team’s annual Family Night closing in. This year, camp’s sixth day will be their first time on the field, but only in a walkthrough capacity, and only for 60 minutes. It will be joined by 60 minutes of on-field conditioning and 60 minutes of strength training in the weight room, each segment carefully planned out because of COVID-19 protocols. 

The pads won’t be strapped on for another two weeks. 

“It’s felt very different,” Gutekunst said. 

That’s not about to change. Every piece of this 2020 training camp is unfamiliar, starting with the lack of fans in the stands — “walking out to practice without the guys riding their bikes … it’s going to be disappointing,” Gutekunst said — down to the on-field training. 

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks March 14, 2019, at a press conference at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

If the Packers are to play their opener at the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 13, something that can’t be taken for granted given the coronavirus pandemic’s ever-evolving climate, they will do so without a single preseason snap. Even more, they will have less than a month to kickoff after their first full-pads practice, 28 days to be exact. The schedule crunch will force the Packers to get creative in how they train. 

Coach Matt LaFleur said he anticipates more “live-scrimmage situations” worked into camp practices this summer, trying to replicate scenarios players encounter during games. Some of those practices will be held inside Lambeau Field, instead of the traditional Ray Nitschke Field, LaFleur said.  

“That’s not something we’ve done in the past outside of the Family Night,” LaFleur said, “but we will certainly have a couple practices in Lambeau.” 

The Packers are operating in a split-squad format, dividing their roster into separate practice fields. Rookies and injured players will be in one group, with veterans in another, Gutekunst said. The split format will allow the Packers to delay trimming their roster to 80 players until Aug. 16. The Packers' roster stands at 83 players, not counting three designated on the COVID-19 list. 

After an offseason full of virtual chats, LaFleur said he hopes to conduct as many in-person meetings as possible during camp. Special efforts have been made inside Packers facilities to make Lambeau Field the “safest place in Green Bay” for players, he said. The team has moved some meetings to larger spaces, such as the media auditorium, which now houses offensive line gatherings. 

“We’re going to do everything in our power,” LaFleur said, “to make sure that our guys are as safe as they possibly can be.” 

Eventually, players will leave Lambeau Field. The team chose this year not to stay inside the dormitories at St. Norbert College in De Pere, their typical training camp home. So players will have more freedom than usual outside scheduled functions. 

LaFleur said he encourages players to “mask up” whenever they choose to go out in public. He also knows responsibility for preventing an outbreak extends beyond the eventual 53 players who will comprise the Packers’ locker room. If the return to sports has shown anything, it’s that COVID-19 takes no time to ravage a team. 

Even with the extra protocols in place, the factor outside team control is how players and staff handle themselves on their own time. 

“I think around here,” Gutekunst said, “we’ve always put the reliability, the dependability factor as a major part of our evaluation process, and this year more so than any. For us to accomplish the things we want to accomplish this season, guys are going to have to make the right choices when they leave the building. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve always believed football is the ultimate team game, and this year more so than ever. It’s going to be dependent on how each one of us, not just the players but everybody in our building, makes goo choices when they leave the building. 

“At the same time, we’re going to have positive tests. This virus that we’re dealing with, we’re going to have that, and it’s not going to always be, just because someone gets it, be their fault. So the dependability, the availability of players, the teams that do that and overcome that and rise to the challenge are going to be the ones who are left standing.” 

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