Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about some of the challenges facing the Packers new general manager and what he should prioritize. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
The last time the Green Bay Packers had a couple of weeks like this was when Brett Favre came out of retirement in July 2008.
The first two weeks of this offseason haven’t turned the fan base against the Packers the way the summer of 2008 did, but they have been chaotic and transformative for a franchise that has been the model of stability for a decade.
The Packers have a new defensive coordinator, a new general manager and a new front-office structure. That’s a lot of new.
But of all that has gone down, the biggest question is this: Did Mark Murphy, the Packers’ president and CEO, intend to promote Russ Ball to GM, only to have coach Mike McCarthy’s objections and Aaron Rodgers’ reported opposition change his mind? Or were the many signs that pointed to Ball as the leading candidate just misread tea leaves? In other words, was Brian Gutekunst the likely choice all along, and was the front-office structure the only thing that changed in Murphy’s mind since the season ended?
Over the last several days I’ve spoken with multiple sources closely connected to the Packers to find out what happened. I came away with nothing close to a definitive answer and have to admit I still harbor doubts about the prevailing narrative that McCarthy and Rodgers changed Murphy’s mind on Ball.
Not that the prevailing narrative isn’t compelling. It’s straight forward and plausible. It goes like this:
When Murphy at a news conference Jan. 2 said that Ted Thompson’s successor as GM would have full authority over the Packers’ football operations, including the ability to hire and fire the head coach, he thought Ball would be his choice.
Ball was the obvious guess to many who had observed or knew of the inner workings of the franchise. For starters, he spent far more time with Murphy than anyone else on the football side of the organization. That ranged from standing in for Thompson on many administrative matters to joining the GM and CEO in the small suite where the three of them watched games at Lambeau Field.
As Thompson farmed out more and more administrative duties to him the last few years, Ball basically was functioning as GM except for picking players, and in his role as salary-cap adviser he’d even become a voice there. Of course Ball was going to be the next GM. That’s what Murphy was thinking as far back as 2016 when he said he and Thompson had a succession plan.
But as the search began, McCarthy went on the offensive. In his own news conference he proclaimed that the fit with the new GM was a two-way street. He also met with Murphy and presumably expressed concerns that Ball would share Thompson’s disdain for free agency and not provide him with the roster he needed around Rodgers to win a Super Bowl. Two sources confirmed to me that McCarthy indeed had those concerns.
When Murphy heard that Rodgers harbored the same sentiment via an on-air comment by ESPN Milwaukee radio’s Jason Wilde, who used to host a radio show with Rodgers, the CEO realized that promoting Ball would alienate the two most important members of the organization.
So, the narrative goes, Murphy changed course and picked Gutekunst as a compromise. Murphy valued McCarthy and Ball and didn’t want to leapfrog them with a much younger subordinate to be their boss – Gutekekunst is 44, Ball 58 and McCarthy 54. So Murphy abandoned the franchise’s quarter century of GM-as-football-czar model and instead decided to have all three report to him.
That very well might be the gist of what happened. The fact is, many people around and with the team were absolutely convinced Ball would be the next GM. Murphy did declare at his pre-search news conference that the next GM would head all football operations, only to change his mind when he hired Gutekunst. McCarthy did tell the world that the new GM had to be a good fit for him, too.
It adds up.
But there’s another narrative that I also find plausible and compelling after talking with several sources over the last couple of days.
In that narrative, Murphy all along wanted a GM with a background in personnel (i.e., not Ball), and knew or suspected he would hire Gutekunst over 35-year-old Eliot Wolf, the other internal personnel candidate. The fact that Murphy didn’t even try to trade for John Schneider, a proven GM in Seattle, was evidence of his regard for Gutekunst, who also was in the running for the GM job in Houston.
During the interview process, however, Murphy learned of alarming dysfunction within the scouting staff, and between the scouting staff and head coach. Thompson always had kept his own counsel, but as his energy waned the last three years he was even less responsive to the wishes and suggestions of his scouts and coach. McCarthy was extremely unhappy that Thompson and Ball rarely looked outside the draft for players.
In this narrative, Murphy didn’t want his young new GM to have to clean up all the relationships, rebuild the roster and possibly make a big decision on the head coach all within his first year on the job. Murphy also wanted to keep happy two other employees he highly values, McCarthy and Ball.
So Murphy tried to solve the communication problems by having Gutekunst, McCarthy and Ball all report to him. None would be the other’s boss, and Gutekunst could grow into his new role.
One source who closely observes the franchise and knows many of the principals involved lent particular credence to this take. The source expressed surprise that Ball had been reported so prominently as the front runner and considered it less radical for Murphy to restructure the front office than to hire a GM whose background is primarily in administration (i.e., Ball).
It's hard to dismiss this as a possibility. During the search I couldn’t help but wonder if all the sources who were telling me and pretty much every journalist on the Packers beat that Ball was the likely choice were making a false assumption. I questioned whether Murphy’s close working relationship with Ball necessarily meant Ball was the choice, as obvious as it might have seemed.
I still wonder now.
Could McCarthy and Rodgers have changed Murphy’s mind from Ball in the last week? Sure, it’s very possible.
Or did Murphy prefer Gutekunst all along, and this was a way to make sure his top three football men were on staff and happy in 2018 while his young GM grew into a new role? That’s equally plausible.
I and many others already have weighed in about the pitfalls of Murphy’s front-office restructure. I still think it’s a mistake in the long term.
Not that the GM-as-football-czar is risk free. But its clear line of authority and accountability avoids even greater risks. Now all three principals will be able to take their grievances straight to Murphy and maneuver for more control. Human nature and egos being what they are, this setup could pit them against each other when hard times hit, which is inevitable in the NFL.
But we also have to acknowledge that Murphy was in a quandary. After he made the necessary decision to replace Thompson, he was in a bad position for an NFL executive: forcing a shotgun marriage with a new GM and coach. That rarely goes well.
I’m still unsure which narrative is true. The sources I spoke with were well informed and had their opinions, and the majority thought McCarthy (and Rodgers) changed Murphy’s mind. But none could say for sure. There’s probably only a small circle of people who know how it actually went down.
Whatever Murphy’s reasons for the restructure, it looks like a short-term solution. It’s easy to see this going well for a year, maybe even two, when the setup and sense of collaboration are new. But odds are it will fracture, probably sooner rather than later.
Maybe Murphy is fine with a short-term fix. He didn’t close the door to changing course down the road. In any event, we have to judge him more by what he does than what he says. You never know what he might have in mind.
But a year can be a lifetime in the NFL. As long as Rodgers is healthy, the Packers' prospects will be good. But there’s no telling who will be running what for this team a year or two down the road.