If you’ve been reading and hearing about what ails the Green Bay Packers, you’ve probably come across this one:
They don’t have a majority owner who can shake things up and put fear into everyone in the organization by walking into the building and firing someone on the football staff in midseason.
Anyone who believes that’s the Packers’ problem this season has a fundamental misunderstanding of the hierarchy and management structure that has made them the NFL’s second-winningest franchise since 1992. Their .631 winning percentage is behind only New England’s .650 in that time.
For starters, the Packers have a definitive hierarchy even if they don’t have a single owner.
The team’s president and CEO, Mark Murphy, operates as the owner in most respects. He represents the club at NFL meetings, has the final say on all corporate business and ultimately is responsible for the performance of the team on the field.
The organization’s by-laws are designed for a strong president even though it also calls for a seven-person executive committee that represents the larger board of directors in the month-to-month administration of the team. The title actually is president, CEO and chairman, and the person in that position can act unilaterally to make any move in football that he wants. Now, whether he’d be smart to make a major decision without consulting the executive committee, no. But the president has the power, and his job is to lead the committee, not vice versa.
However, outside of the bylaws, the Packers have been a model franchise since the 1990s because of the way their presidents have delineated authority over football operations. The key move was in November 1991, when Bob Harlan, current Chairman Emeritus and at the time team president, fired Tom Braatz as general manager and hired Ron Wolf to replace him.
Up to that time, for the 20-plus years since Vince Lombardi had left the organization, the executive committee had had a strong voice in football, most especially in the hiring and firing of the head coach. And try to wrap your head around this: For a time during his tenure as coach, Bart Starr had to meet with the committee every Monday to go over the previous day’s game. Can you imagine a worse use of the coach’s time?
And how did that work out? From 1969, which was the first season after Lombardi left as GM to coach Washington, through 1991, the Packers’ .421 winning percentage was fourth worst in the league. And how’s this for context? The only three teams with worse records were the most recent expansion franchises: Atlanta (.409), New Orleans (.395) and Tampa Bay (.293).
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Harlan’s crucial decision was to draw a sharp line between football and administration. In order to get Wolf to agree to become GM, Harlan had to put in writing that Wolf would have final say over all football decisions, including hiring and firing the head coach.
Harlan has told me numerous times over the years that Wolf always ran major decisions by him – the firing of Lindy Infante as coach after the ’91 season; trading a first-round pick for Brett Favre in ’92; and pursuing Reggie White in free agency in ’93 – but that it was a formality. He already had permission.
Mike Sherman had the same arrangement when GM was added to his coaching title in 2001, and current GM Ted Thompson has it now.
The arrangement has served two critical purposes.
Most importantly, it puts football decisions in the hands of people trained in football. The GM sinks or swims based on the team’s performance, and the hierarchy is clearly defined: The president hires and fires the GM, and the GM hires and fires the coach.
The president's and executive committee’s expertise is in the business world, or in Murphy’s case athletics administration and NFL business matters, not in building a football team. They don’t tell the GM how to run the club. If the president doesn’t like the way football is going, he can fire the GM. But he and the committee are not involved in actual football decisions, and rightly so.
The separation of authority also has served a second purpose: It has made the Packers’ GM job – and by extension, coaching and scouting in the organization – one of the most attractive in the league.
If you’re the Packers’ GM, you can run the organization your way, with minimal interference from your boss. You succeed or fail based on your decisions, not decisions forced on you from above. And because the team doesn’t have an owner siphoning off profits for his own enrichment, all the money the franchise makes goes back into football. The Packers are among the best-resourced teams in the league.
This hierarchy fostered a climate where Thompson could draft Aaron Rodgers at No. 24 overall in 2005 even though Brett Favre was still going strong. Would a Dan Snyder or Jimmy Haslam, thinking only of the Super Bowl in the upcoming season or two, have stood for that? Would a head coach have gone to the owner to nix the possibility?
So yeah, after back-to-back losses like the Packers suffered at Tennessee and Washington, another team might have had an owner angrily fire Mike McCarthy or Dom Capers or Ron Zook, just to put everyone else on notice. But is that really how you should operate an NFL team? Do you want a Snyder or a Haslam making those kind of decisions?
Look at the most stable franchises in the league: New England, Pittsburgh and the Packers. The Packers and Patriots, as noted earlier, have the best records in the NFL since ’92. And who’s third? The Steelers at .627 percent.
The Patriots might be a one-off, because of the singular ability of coach Bill Belichick, who’s in his 17th season with the team. Replacing him will be next to impossible.
But the Steelers have had only three coaches since 1969, and sticking with coaches despite multiple bad seasons has been a hallmark of the Rooney family that owns the franchise. Current coach Mike Tomlin missed the playoffs in back-to-back 8-8 seasons in the middle of his tenure (2012 and ’13) but remains on the job. His predecessor, Bill Cowher, missed the playoffs three straight seasons in the middle of his time there but later won a Super Bowl and retired by his own accord after 15 seasons.
So teams with a majority owner can be patient, even if it’s the exception, not the rule. And it’s worth noting that the Rooneys are among the few owners in the league whose primary business is football.
As for the Packers, Wolf or Thompson has been the GM for 21 of the last 25 seasons. Their scouting system and staff have been stable, and they’ve had only four head coaches over that time.
To be clear, this isn’t an argument for the Packers to do nothing this offseason. The season needs to play out before we weigh in on that.
But the Packers have a structure in place to make changes. McCarthy can fire any assistant coach at any time. Thompson can fire McCarthy at any time. And ditto for Murphy with Thompson.
That power has been exercised in the past. Harlan did it – during the season, mind you – in ’91 when he fired Braatz and hired Wolf. Wolf did it in 1999 when he fired Ray Rhodes only hours after the finale of Rhodes' first season as coach. Harlan did it again in ’05, when he stripped Sherman of GM duties and hired Thompson. And Thompson did it after the '05 season when he fired Sherman and hired McCarthy.
If there’s one thing that absolutely, positively doesn’t ail the 4-6 Packers, it’s an organizational model that clearly separates football from administration. In fact, it's the best thing they have going for them.