Dougherty: Mark Murphy plays odds in making right call

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy addresses media on Jan. 2, 2018 about GM Ted Thompson transitioning to a new role within the organization.

Mark Murphy played the percentages and made a football scout the Green Bay Packers’ new general manager.

Next comes the fallout.

Many signs over the past week pointed to Murphy, the Packers’ president and CEO, choosing the team’s salary-cap manager and top administrator on the football side, Russ Ball, as the new GM. Instead, Murphy surprised on Sunday by hiring the 44-year-old Brian Gutekunst, who first joined the Packers as a scouting intern in 1997.

That’s playing the odds. The Packers have been a model franchise ever since Bob Harlan, the team’s chairman emeritus, ceded to the quintessential scout, Ron Wolf, total control over football operations in 1991. There’s a lot to being a GM, but in the end his most important duties are drafting and signing players. If you don’t get that part right, the rest doesn’t matter. So the Packers’ GM really should be a scout above all.

That doesn’t mean Gutekunst will succeed. If it had been John Dorsey or John Schneider or Reggie McKenzie, there’d be a GM track record to go on. Gutekunst has never had this kind of authority, so just as with an on-the-rise scout from another team, we won’t know his capabilities until he does the job.

As for Gutekunst’s likely approach to building his team, I asked around. He worked for Ted Thompson, so some of his old boss has to have rubbed off on him. But there’s also a strong feeling he’ll be more aggressive than his predecessor bringing in players aside from the draft, a low bar to be sure.

One NFL source who’s very familiar with the Packers’ front office said that Gutekunst, Eliot Wolf and recently departed scout Alonzo Highsmith all had a similar, far more expansive view of free agency and trades than Thompson had in his 13 seasons as GM.

“I think (Gutekunst) will build a winner through every resource available,” the source said.

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The Packers haven’t had a change at the top of their football operations for 13 years, so this represents a jolt for the organization. The hiring of Gutekunst should help smooth the transition in some ways, though, because he has been with the team the last 19 seasons. The Packers’ scouting system presumably won’t change, and Gutekunst already knows everyone in the scouting department well.

But in his first days on the job, Gutekunst also will have to negotiate a potential minefield in intra-office politics, starting with his two highest-ranking subordinates, Ball and Wolf.

Ball, whose title is vice president of football administration/player finance, has a role in essentially every facet of the football operations. Over the past few years, Thompson had ceded more and more administrative responsibility to him, to the point where by the end of his tenure Thompson was basically a super scout who did little else but evaluate players.

One source said Gutekunst worked more closely with Thompson and Ball than anyone else on the staff, and that his relationship with Ball is good. Another source said there’s been no indication Ball wouldn’t want to work for Gutekunst.

Ball has to have felt a great letdown after not getting a job he has coveted and appeared to have a good chance at landing. But at least the early signs suggest Gutekunst will have Ball’s deep administrative knowledge to guide him through that side of the job as well as the team’s salary cap. 

Wolf’s return figures to be more problematic. He’s under contract for next season, but the feeling in the organization is that if he really wants to leave, Gutekunst will let him.

Wolf no doubt will feel spurned. He was Thompson’s top adviser at least by title (director-football operations), has 14 seasons as a scout with the organization officially and has been sitting in on draft and scouting meetings (originally with his father, former Packers GM Ron Wolf) since he was in middle school.

From talking to several people inside and around the organization who have knowledge of the interviewing process, it sounds like both Gutekunst and Wolf had excellent interviews. I get the sense that Gutekunst got the nod in part because of his age — he’s 44 to Wolf’s 35.

Gutekunst’s scouting experience is longer (19 years to 14 years), but not that much when you take Wolf’s internships with other teams and unofficial scouting practice into account. He also has deeper experience (13 years) in college scouting, which is important for projecting college talent to the NFL, whereas Wolf came up as a pro scout who has gained more draft responsibility over the last seven years.

But more than anything, Gutekunst has nine years of life experience on Wolf. It appears that made a difference to Murphy for a job that requires extensive managerial as well as scouting skills.

Now Wolf has to decide what’s best for his future. There undoubtedly is an attractive job waiting for him with Dorsey in Cleveland. Wolf might find it valuable to leave the Packers after all these years to broaden his resume and experience now that there’s no room for advancement with the Packers any time soon.

However, one source said Gutekunst very much wants Wolf to stay on and is hoping to convince him with a role that holds real influence and collaboration.

That might have been missing the last couple years even though Wolf was Thompson’s top adviser. From what I’ve been told by people who would know, Thompson relied heavily on Dorsey, McKenzie and Schneider when they were on staff. But they were all peers of Thompson as they came up through the scouting ranks, and after they left Thompson became more autonomous in his decision making.

Murphy could have gone several ways with this hire, including going outside the organization. We shouldn’t just dismiss the argument that bringing in someone from the outside might have supplied some new ways of thinking.

Schneider, Dorsey or McKenzie would have accomplished that while also maintaining the Ron Wolf-Packers ties. But none of them were available. Dorsey just took a new job in December, McKenzie turned down Murphy’s request for an interview, and the Seahawks denied Schneider permission to talk to the Packers.

But I’d say Murphy made the best call to stay in-house and go with one of his two personnel scouts. Nothing guarantees success, just like it didn’t with the other Ron Wolf hires who became GMs: Thompson, Schneider, Dorsey, McKenzie and Scot McCloughan.

But their history of success has to count for something. As a former Packers assistant coach told me recently, “All those guys (i.e., Gutekunst, Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith) are really good. Just hire one of’em and keep rolling. If it ain’t broke …”


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