GREEN BAY – Until he wins a Super Bowl, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will be a punching bag, absorbing shots from every direction for every perceived misstep he takes.
Should the Packers win it all under his guidance, the honeymoon period will last between the Super Bowl’s final second ticking off and the start of free agency — if he’s lucky — and then the abuse will resume.
But for whatever criticism Gutekunst deserves in his first three months on the job, he deserves a ton of credit for making decisions he knows won’t necessarily be popular with his franchise quarterback.
In that short period, he cut receiver Jordy Nelson, chose not to re-sign tight end Richard Rodgers and added only one new offensive piece: tight end Jimmy Graham. Just as coach Mike McCarthy didn’t consult Rodgers when he hired quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti to replace Alex Van Pelt, Gutekunst didn’t dial up Rodgers and ask if it was OK to cut Nelson or sign Graham.
As Rodgers correctly noted in an April 5 interview on Milwaukee radio station 102.9-FM, “I think it’s pretty clear that players play and coaches coach and personnel people make their decisions. That’s the way they want it.”
Yes, not only is it the way they want it, it’s also the way it should be.
Whether Rodgers was taking one of his patented veiled shots at Gutekunst — welcome to the club, one could imagine McCarthy saying — or just stating the facts, his comment, coming on the heels of the Van Pelt remarks he made on radio row during Super Bowl week, comes off pouty.
If Rodgers is truly upset about not retaining Van Pelt or letting Nelson go, he should state so publicly and move on. He’s entitled to his opinion and no one would crucify him for being honest.
Dropping hints or using surrogates to relay feelings isn’t the way to go.
The Nelson move obviously bothered him. Gutekunst didn’t make much of an effort to keep Nelson even at a reduced salary. He just decided to move on, the same way the Packers moved on from Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton and many more.
Rodgers just happened to have a special on-field relationship with Nelson that he’s going to miss. He worked endlessly to develop that chemistry and his physical assessment of Nelson probably doesn’t jibe with Gutekunst’s.
“It’s a tough part of the business when you get close to guys and spend a lot of time with them,” Rodgers acknowledged in the radio interview.
Rodgers doesn’t have to agree with the direction the organization is going, but he deserves no consideration when it comes to building the team. Gutekunst could be jobless in a couple of years, so he has no time to make sentimental decisions.
(He certainly won’t be making a sentimental decision when he makes Rodgers the highest-paid player in the NFL sometime this offseason.)
Rodgers should know how this works.
In his second year in the NFL, he was witness to the mission then-general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy went on to wrest control of the team away from Brett Favre. Under Mike Sherman, Favre was being treated like a lord and the two newcomers needed to establish their authority.
Thompson came in and made several tough decisions in ’05, including letting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera walk. Then, after a 4-12 season, Thompson endured an offseason of indecision from Favre, who eventually admitted he was waiting to see what the Packers did in free agency before deciding whether to come back.
“I want to feel like we can compete for the Super Bowl and not just say that to say that because people want to hear that,” Favre said at his charity golf tournament during the offseason. “I don’t want the coaches to say that, I don’t want to say that (that he was returning for another season) unless we really can get to the Super Bowl or compete for it. That’s really my stance right now.”
Thompson did very little and Favre wound up committing to another year right around draft time. A short time later, Thompson added Woodson at a bargain rate and within two years, Favre was an eyelash away from playing in Super Bowl XLII.
Aaron Nagler took to Facebook Live to talk about the Packers bringing back Davon House on a one year deal and answered your questions.
Gutekunst isn’t in the same boat as Thompson. He doesn’t need to put Rodgers in his place. But he does have to remake a roster that managed just seven victories last season. If he thinks Nelson can’t run anymore and Richard Rodgers isn’t going to help win Super Bowls and he has replacements for safety Morgan Burnett, then he needs to make the appropriate moves.
They are the ones he’s paid to make.
To put things in perspective, think about the roster losses New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has had to put up with over the years.
Brady’s introduction to the my-way-or-the-highway modus operandi came in ’03 when coach Bill Belichick cut safety Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp. Brady was unhappy, but it was just the start of things to come.
Brady was reported to be “mad as hell” when Belichick shipped his favorite receiver, Deion Branch, to Seattle in 2006. He again reportedly wasn’t happy when Belichick refused to re-sign receiver Wes Welker in 2013. And in 2014, multiple reports said Brady was “upset” over Belichick trading six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay.
"It's really tough because there is never job security and it's not actually based on your performance, either,” Brady said after the Mankins trade. “You can play at a Pro Bowl level and you could show up every day on time and never complain and be a captain and a leader.
"It is not about if it will happen. It is just when it will happen to each player."
Brady isn’t the only one who has gone through this, either.
Ask New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees how he felt when the Saints decided to trade Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. Graham was coming off a season in which he caught 85 passes for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns.
It sure doesn’t seem like Brees was consulted about it. He said at the time, “I think it shocked all of us.”
"Jimmy was like a brother to me," Brees added. "He was close to so many guys on the team.”
Do you think Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t know that? He did and he made the move anyway.
It would be foolish to think that every decision Gutekunst makes is the right one. Or that Rodgers might not be right in thinking Nelson has another good year or two in him. But there’s a reason NFL greats such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Peyton Manning and maybe someday, Brady or Rodgers, finish up their careers somewhere other than where they made their mark.
General managers like Gutekunst must decide when a player’s time is up or whether he is weighing down the salary cap. They should continue making those decisions regardless of what their quarterbacks think.