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Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers issue can expose potential flaws in Packers' structure

GREEN BAY - There’s no right way to structure an NFL front office. Every setup has assets and liabilities, and to some degree the challenge is probably just finding the least worst way to run things.

In 2018, team President and CEO Mark Murphy restructured the Green Bay Packers and put himself in charge of the football side of the organization, breaking from a successful model that since 1991 had given the team’s general manager full control of football operations.

To this point, Murphy’s decision has been a success. His handpicked GM (Brian Gutekunst) and coach (Matt LaFleur) have gone 28-8 and made it to back-to-back NFC championship games in their two seasons together.

But this week we’re catching a glimpse of the potential weaknesses of the new setup compared to the old. Not that the Aaron Rodgers issue is going to blow up — if Rodgers is just looking for commitment from the team beyond this year, it’s hard not to think he and the team can work that out. But we don’t yet know for sure, and regardless this is exactly the kind of thing that can expose the current structure’s vulnerabilities.

In the previous setup, the GM (Ron Wolf, Ted Thompson) had full authority over all things football. The coach and salary-cap analyst worked for him. If they had an opinion on something, or disagreed with an impending move, they could make their case, and that’s where it ended. There was no going around or over a GM empowered to make the call.

The GM, then, sank or swam on the team’s on-field success, with his job status the president’s call. There was a straight line of authority from the coach up to the GM up to the president, with a football expert (the GM) having final say on football decisions.

But in the current setup Gutekunst, LaFleur and team vice president Russ Ball are on the same level of management. They all report to Murphy.

This kind of power sharing among top football executives is common in the NFL, at least as a concept, though many teams don’t fit into neat categories. For instance, in some power-sharing structures the coach had a say (even final) in hiring the GM, and in others it’s not always clear the degree to which some GMs work with their coach or for him, or vice versa.

In Seattle and Kansas City, for instance, the GMs run the scouting department and have great influence over personnel decisions, but in the end the coach is boss. In others, such as the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills, it tilts the opposite way.

Still, it’s safe to say that in a general sense at least half the teams in the league are structured similarly to the Packers, with at least the coach and the GM, and in some cases a director of football operations, reporting either to the owner or team president.

Murphy’s setup has worked well because he has made good hires in Gutekunst and LaFleur. They’ve performed well in their roles, and there have been no signs of major issues between them. Winning obviously makes a huge difference. It truly is the best deodorant.

Murphy’s primary role is to ensure good communication between the coaching, scouting and salary-cap staffs so each knows what the other is thinking, and make sure problems don’t fester. That was an issue late in the tenure of the former GM Thompson, whose declining health had hindered communication more than Murphy knew until he prepared to hire Thompson’s successor.

But even with winning, things don’t ever stay good in the NFL. And while it’s true that issues like Rodgers’ future can mushroom regardless of the setup — when these elite quarterbacks hit their later 30s, it’s almost inevitable — not having a clean, streamlined power structure with the GM in charge of all things football leaves open the door for greater mischief.

Not saying that’s the case here, but there’s at least the possibility. Thursday on ESPN Insiders, Adam Schefter suggested LaFleur is willing to make a longer commitment to Rodgers than Gutekunst is. Schefter didn’t report it as news but characterized it as a suspicion based on sources he’s talked with.

“I think people think, ‘Well, everybody in Green Bay wants (Rodgers) back,’” Schefter said. “Well, yeah. I think the coaching staff wants him back as long as he wants to be there. I’m not as convinced that everybody feels the same way about Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay as the coaches. And we’ll see how those conversations (with Rodgers) play out this week.”

This could end up settled to everyone’s satisfaction relatively quickly. If I were betting, I’d bet it will be. But you never know.

And if things were to go sideways, that’s when the current structure’s potential weaknesses show. Then backbiting and recriminations begin no matter how well intentioned everyone was at the start.

For instance, LaFleur and Gutekunst might go to Murphy separately, blame the other for creating the problem and lobby to get their way. If they had any difference of opinion on drafting quarterback Jordan Love in the first round last April, that would make things worse.

Again, not saying that’s what’s happening here. But just recently we’ve seen the worst-case example with the Houston Texans. From all appearances, ever since director of football operations Jack Easterby got the owner’s ear, that franchise has been a disaster. The more people there are on the football side of an organization reporting directly to the owner or president, the greater the chances for palace intrigue when things don’t go well. And things rarely go well for long in this league even in the best of circumstances.

As said earlier, there’s no right way to set up a power structure in the NFL. Baltimore and the Packers (until recently) have had great success with the GM-as-czar model. New England to the hilt and Seattle and Kansas City to lesser degrees have won big with the coach-in-charge approach. Pittsburgh has had sustained success with more equal power-sharing.

All these approaches have strengths and weaknesses. The people in place matter more than the organization chart.

But human nature is what it is too, and no structure changes that. Murphy made his call and has done well so far. But at some point, either now or later, it will test his abilities to hold it all together. 

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