Mark Murphy has restructured the Green Bay Packers’ front office. The last quarter century says that's a mistake.
Murphy, the team’s president and CEO, has overhauled the Packers’ chain of command and with it the system that had helped turn the franchise from an NFL joke into a place among the league’s elite for the last 26 years.
He did it by deciding to have the three highest-ranked men in the Packers’ football operations – new general manager Brian Gutekunst, coach Mike McCarthy and executive vice president Russ Ball – report to him. Until now, the team had a czar, the general manager, who had final say over everything football, and he alone reported to the president.
As Murphy went through his reasons Monday, mainly that the interview process revealed just how badly communication between departments in football operations had faltered, you could understand his concerns.
It’s also true that Murphy shouldn’t do things now just because that’s the way the Packers did it before. Times change, methods evolve.
But one thing hasn’t changed in the last 10,000 years, let alone the last 25, and that’s human nature. So I’d argue that Murphy’s new setup opens more possibilities for pitfalls than it closes.
We can start by saying there’s no such thing as a perfect front-office setup. All systems have dysfunction and any system can fail. When human beings are involved, there’s no avoiding it. Look no further than what’s going on with the NFL’s dominant franchise, the New England Patriots, right now.
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But the Packers’ command structure since late 1991 has worked for this unique organization and made it one of the most attractive jobs in the NFL. What GM, scout or coach wouldn’t want to work where there’s almost full autonomy at the top of the football chain?
This isn’t just provincial thinking. When Chairman Emeritus Bob Harlan relinquished total control of the Packers’ football operations to Ron Wolf as GM in November, he did it for good reason.
The Packers had been a disaster for 25 years because the executive committee was too involved in monitoring football, and no one with the expertise was fully in charge. By 1991, it was clear the latest stab at it, a 50-50 power-sharing arrangement between GM Tom Braatz and coach Lindy Infante, had bombed.
So Harlan set up a clear chain of command, giving Wolf final say over all things football, including hiring and firing the coach. Wolf had interviewed for Braatz’s job in the late ‘80s and took himself out of the running because of that 50-50 arrangement. He has said repeatedly over the years he’d never have taken Harlan’s offer in late ’91 if he hadn’t received full control.
Now, can Murphy’s new system work? Sure, it might. Gutekunst, McCarthy and Ball have been together with the Packers for almost a decade. They know each other well. Gutekunst appears to have a strong relationship with everyone involved. Murphy, too.
And to be sure, the coach-GM relationship is the most important on an NFL team. If Gutekunst and McCarthy can stay on the same page, then this has a chance.
I don’t doubt that things will go well at first. On Monday you could sense the buzz around the team with a new GM who’s open about his plans to be more aggressive than his predecessor going after players. By all accounts, Gutekunst was McCarthy’s preferred choice for GM. The coach got what he wanted, and it has to put a bounce in his step.
But the NFL is a tough business, with the most extreme highs and lows. Bad times are ahead, there’s no avoiding them. Good, even great times, could be ahead, too. That’s when there can be problems.
With Gutekunst, McCarthy and Ball all reporting to Murphy, it opens the door to jockeying for influence, power and credit. Murphy, not Gutekunst, is McCarthy’s boss. The CEO even plans to meet with his coach weekly during the season. That’s a huge change.
A year or two from now, if the team is struggling, the coach can go to Murphy and say the GM isn’t getting him good enough players. The GM will say, “You sit in on the draft meetings, you see what we’re doing, the coaches wanted these guys. They’re not coachin’em up.” As the pressure builds, the door is open to backbiting and recriminations galore.
Or if the team is winning, the coach might think he deserves more say over personnel. He now has a direct line to Murphy to make that case.
You see things like this happen all the time in the NFL. In Kansas City, former Packers executive John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid supposedly had a model power-sharing relationship as the two turned that team around. But just last summer, Dorsey got run out of town, and now Reid’s in charge.
Everyone has the best intentions, and all is good right now. But it’s asking a lot out of all the principals to get this to work long term. That’s just human nature. Murphy clearly has confidence in his ability to make sure everyone gets along. It’s the kind of setup he’s used to as a former college athletic director, where everyone reported to him. But all I can say is good luck.
Because with the previous structure there’s a clear line of accountability. If the GM is unhappy with the coach or cap guy, he makes the change. If the CEO doesn’t like the results on the field, the GM goes. And if the executive committee doesn’t like the direction of the franchise, it replaces the CEO.
I understand that Murphy found himself in a tough spot here. In his news conference Monday, he said that as he interviewed the internal GM candidates, he became more and more aware of the communication failures within football operations. He spoke of silos between and even within football departments that probably had been developing for years, going back to before Ted Thompson.
So by having the top three report to him, he can foster better communication throughout the football side of the organization. Theoretically, it makes sense.
Murphy also argues that this system works for other franchises. It does, at least for a while. Several teams in this season’s playoffs use it. And to be fair, one team that’s had long-term success, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have had this setup going back to coach Bill Cowher in 1992.
But the family that owns the Steelers, the Rooneys, is uncommonly patient and bent on stability, too. They’ve had only three coaches over the past 49 years. They also reportedly almost always defer to the coach whenever there’s a dispute between him and personnel.
Looking at it now, it’s hard not to think the communication breakdowns were Thompson’s and Murphy’s responsibility. This front-office change essentially says that over the last few years, Thompson’s energy and capacity to do the job waned, gradually enough that Murphy didn’t see it until late this season. He simply wasn’t as engaged as he needed to be.
Say this for Murphy, he’s putting himself on the line. He’s now directly involved in football. Gutekunst has final say over the roster, McCarthy coaches the players, and Ball oversees all else. But they all report to, and are evaluated by, the CEO.
Murphy is better equipped to do this than anybody else running an NFL team. He played eight years in the league and has spent most of his career since then working in or around football. In theory, this move makes sense.
But I can’t help but think back to when Wolf retired in 2001. Mike Sherman had just finished his first year as Packers coach and closed with a four-game winning streak. Brett Favre declared the team’s chemistry the best he’d seen.
Harlan was hesitant to bring in a GM over Sherman, so he promoted him to the dual role. That move made sense in theory, too.
It also ended up being a mistake Harlan had to correct by hiring Thompson four years later.
Hats off to Murphy if he makes this work. But I don’t think he made the right move.