Tom Oates: General manager Brian Gutekunst is most qualified to find next Packers coach
GREEN BAY — There is little argument that Mike McCarthy’s time as coach of the Green Bay Packers had run its course and there also should be little argument about what type of coach the Packers need to replace McCarthy, who was fired Sunday with four games left in his 13th season.
Given how new-look spread offenses are taking over the NFL, the way McCarthy’s old-school offense has struggled all season and the towering presence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, the situation cries out for an energetic, creative and offensive-minded coach who — and this is big — has a strong enough personality to both connect with Rodgers and coach him at the same time.
Before we can think about who the Packers will hire as coach, however, we need to think about who will do the hiring. Team president Mark Murphy has been operating as the de facto general manager since January, when he named Brian Gutekunst to replace Ted Thompson as general manager but stripped the position of its control over all phases of football operations. Instead, Murphy put the general manager in charge of only the roster and placed him on equal footing with the coach and the salary-cap guru, all answering to Murphy.
Many people, myself included, thought at the time that Murphy was bucking history and making a poor decision by not giving the general manager total control of football operations, including hiring and firing the coach. Indeed, the new structure was a radical departure from a top-down system of letting football people make football decisions that had worked best for the Packers in the past. It also mimicked periods in the team’s history when members of the administration and executive committee involved themselves in football decisions, almost always leading to poor performance on the field.
Murphy said Monday he will make the final call on the new coach but that Gutekunst will be “actively involved” in the process, a point he drove him by having Gutekunst participate in the news conference. If you’ve watched the Packers operate over several decades, however, you can see red flags with the current structure, which is why Murphy is missing out on a golden opportunity here.
First, he should put Gutekunst in charge of the search and let him pick the coach. Second, he should take this time to go back to the structure that has worked so well in the past by putting Gutekunst in charge of all football operations.
With Rodgers now 35 years old, the Packers can’t afford to screw up this hire. Therefore, it would be wise for Murphy to put the decision in the hands of a career football man such as Gutekunst, who has a lifetime of connections throughout college and pro football to fall back on for suggestions, recommendations and background checks on potential candidates.
Murphy played in the NFL and was an assistant executive director of the players’ union, but he had been a college administrator for 17 years when the Packers hired him to run the franchise in 2007. Until January, he was more involved with building hotels and ski hills than participating closely in day-to-day football decisions.
Yahoo.com reported Monday that Murphy has been more involved with roster and contract decisions since January. It’s not inconceivable to think that potential coaching candidates might be put off by concerns over who is really in charge in Green Bay.
“To me, the biggest, the most important thing is the people in the building and the relationships,” Murphy said. “Brian and I will work together and we’ll hunt together and we’ll hire the best coach. I’m not going to hire a coach that Brian is not comfortable with.”
Gutekunst, sitting next to Murphy, echoed those sentiments.
“I think I said this when I got hired and the structure was laid out, this is about people and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable if it wasn’t for the people involved going forward with that structure,” he said. “And that’s what it’s about. It’s really about the people and I feel very confident that we’re going to get the right guy in this.”
That might very well happen, but neither Murphy nor Gutekunst would speculate on what would happen if they can’t agree on a candidate. Asked what makes him qualified to make such an important football decision, Murphy said it had nothing to do with ego.
“I don’t want to brag about myself, but all of my adult life I’ve been involved in football,” he said. “I’ve seen it from the perspective of a player. I’ve been an athletic director for 17 years. I’ve hired many, many coaches, several football coaches. So I think I have a lot to offer. I feel that I’m a football person even though I’m in a position of president. Brian and I have a great relationship and I think this gives the Packers the best chance to have success and that’s why I’m doing it.”
Still, a deep knowledge of the coaches in the NFL and college football is Gutekunst’s area of expertise, not Murphy’s. In his brief time as general manager, Gutekunst has proven himself to be an active, aggressive decision-maker. Every decision he’s made hasn’t panned out, but that goes with the territory.
Hiring the next coach is one of the most important decisions in team history and right now Gutekunst is the most qualified member of the organization to make it.