He might not be the most graceful in terms of public speaking, but Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy at least has skills where it counts.
Despite his less-than-helpful description of Aaron Rodgers as “a complicated fella” during the standoff with the quarterback a year ago, Murphy has had a more positive impact than a negative one for the franchise. He has, in fact, been more than a competent steward of one of the most historic franchises in all professional sports.
When Murphy was hired by the team in 2008, he faced the unenviable task of succeeding Bob Harlan, who was a Packers legend in his own right. Harlan not only hired Ron Wolf in 1991, which started the rise of the Packers from poverty franchise to its current place as one of the NFL’s premier franchises, but he also helped get the referendum for the renovation of Lambeau Field approved by Brown County voters in 2000. It was a tough legacy to follow, but when the Packers hired Murphy away from his role as athletic director at Northwestern, the board of directors seemed confident they found the right man for the job.
Murphy faced a baptism by fire as after just seven months on the job, when Brett Favre decided to unretire after previously announcing his decision to walk away and the team and quarterback fought a very public battle of wills with the fans caught in the middle. As the still very new team president, Murphy often demurred to general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy during the saga. He took the approach to let his football people make the decision they felt was best and stood by them, even as the fanbase became deeply divided.
Murphy’s faith in both Thompson and McCarthy would pay off just two-and-a-half years later when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. The Packers had won another championship with Murphy managing the business and letting his football people run the team, and Green Bay appeared poised to win multiple titles as Rodgers at the time had just finished only his third year as the starting quarterback. There was very little reason for the team president to wade into football operations.
Of course, the Packers were in contention over the next several years but could not break through to another Super Bowl appearance. By the time 2017 rolled around, the roster was crumbling and it was further exposed when Rodgers missed a good chunk of the season with a broken collarbone. The relationship between McCarthy and Rodgers was also deteriorating and the Packers appeared to be in trouble, even with Rodgers still in his prime.
The following offseason, Murphy decided to make a change — a bold one, considering how the Packers had operated for the past 25+ years. Thompson was reassigned to a senior advisor role within the organization as Murphy promoted director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst to general manager. This marked the biggest change to Green Bay’s front office since Thompson’s hiring in 2005. Unbelievably, this was not the largest shakeup the organization faced.
In addition to promoting Gutekunst, Murphy decided to have both the new general manager and head coach Mike McCarthy report directly to him. This was a monumental shift as the coach had reported to the general manager since Harlan gave Wolf full control of football operations in 1991. This moved stirred some concern in the fan base, especially those who remembered the floundering Packers teams of the 1970s and 80s.
Would Murphy meddle in how the roster was managed, despite publicly saying Gutekunst had full control of the 53? Would he offer unprompted advice to McCarthy (and later Matt LaFleur) and micromanage the team that way? Those concerns were valid in the eyes of fans who remember the lean days prior. Fans didn’t want Murphy to turn into the Jerry Jones of the north, especially since Murphy was a former athletic director who had experience being more hands-on. Fans didn’t want him running the Packers like a college athletics program, though at the time, Murphy stated the change in structure was to improve communication within the football operation. In hindsight, it was understandable given the messy ending of the Thompson/McCarthy era.
While this was all going on, Murphy of course still had the long-term financial interests of the Packers to consider too. As operating costs in the NFL continue to rise, the Packers were going to need more operating income than ever. Without a single deep-pocketed owner, the team needs to rely on the community to provide revenue as any traditional business would. That led to the development of the Titletown District in the area around Lambeau Field. While not quite as huge an undertaking as a full-blown renovation of the stadium, developing the land surrounding it would be crucial in developing revenue.
What followed was the construction and opening of a hotel (Lodge Kohler) a brewery (Hinterland), an ice-skating rink, a tubing hill that Murphy famously rode down, and of course a football field — and that is just for starters. Stores and other businesses will continue to be a part of the area as it continues to develop, all helping to keep the Packers relevant as the price of doing NFL business continues to climb.
Still, the best way to generate consistent revenue is to put a strong product on the field and as the Titletown District was getting off the ground, the Packers’ on-field fortunes were struggling to gain traction. After replacing Thompson, Murphy decided more change was needed and that meant parting ways with the coach who had won the team’s most recent Super Bowl just eight years prior. It was time to fully modernize the Packers’ football operation.
After firing McCarthy, Murphy and his new power structure faced their first big test. For the first time in his tenure, the Packers were searching for a new head coach and with Rodgers in his mid-thirties, the pressure was on the team president to get this one right. In years past, it had been the general manager hiring the coach but now the final say was with Murphy, even if he said publicly Gutekunst was going to be involved in the process every step of the way.
Fans’ fears ended up being for nothing, as both Murphy and Gutekunst were blown away by Matt LaFleur during his interview and the team hired him soon after. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Packers have experienced a renaissance under LaFleur’s leadership with three consecutive 13-win seasons and NFC North crowns. The Packers also appeared in the NFC Championship in LaFleur’s first two seasons while barely missing out on a third this past season. One would think all would be well in Titletown but it was after that second NFC Championship loss in early 2020 when things took another turn and Murphy’s leadership, along with that of LaFleur and Gutekunst, was tested.
Rodgers wasn’t happy. It wasn’t just that he was unhappy; he apparently wanted out. News broke on the first day of the 2021 NFL Draft that the reigning MVP wanted out and was unhappy with how the franchise was run, a complaint that falls directly in the lap of Gutekunst and ultimately Murphy. Would Murphy preside over the team trading away its second hall of fame quarterback during his tenure? That would not exactly enhance his legacy, especially since he immediately followed a giant like Harlan.
The team sweated out the next three months while trying to lure Rodgers back. They eventually succeeded and the MVP returned on a modified deal while the team decided to put “mechanisms” in place to address the quarterback’s concerns. Not many expected Rodgers to remain in Green Bay past the 2021 season but something strange happened as the year unfolded.
Not only were the Packers winning, but Rodgers was having fun and appeared downright giddy at times. Was this just an act as the two sides headed towards an amicable divorce at year’s end with the soon-to-be four-time MVP either traded to a place he wanted or riding off into the sunset of retirement? The optics looked awfully convincing, but a lot of pessimism remained, especially after how the season came to a screeching halt at Lambeau Field in January.
It turns out the pessimism was not needed. When Rodgers won his fourth MVP in February, he started his speech not just thanking the Packers but also shouting out Murphy, Gutekunst, and director of football operations Russ Ball by name before also going on to gush about LaFleur. Some saw the speech as a farewell to the Packers, while others saw it as a sign the wounds between player and team had healed. Regardless of what Rodgers decided, it was clear that if he retired or left via trade it would not have been for a lack of trying by the Packers to make things work.
Lo and behold, they indeed made it work.
On the eve of free agency, Rodgers was not only back in Green Bay for 2022 but he signed a new three-year deal that not only pays him a lot of money but also makes it appear he will retire a member of the Packers and will avoid another standoff down the road.
The Packers had managed to save the marriage when few gave them a chance (though this writer is not among that group), a testament to Murphy’s and Gutekunst’s leadership. Some may argue the Packers rolled over to please Rodgers in the wake of the selection of Jordan Love, but this is what many good employers do. When you have your most valuable employee airing grievances to the point where there is a legitimate threat you might lose them, you take time to listen and adapt. You aren’t giving in or letting that employee hijack the organization, you’re looking at your organization through their eyes and making changes. Murphy and Gutekunst could have sent Rodgers packing and to a place he wouldn’t have been happy at to boot, but they didn’t. They changed how they operated after hearing feedback, and they kept winning.
That isn’t surrendering. That’s good management.
Looking ahead, the franchise remains in good hands even when the time comes for Rodgers to hang it up. Murphy has just over three years remaining before he turns 70, which means mandatory retirement as president according to the team’s bylaws. When it comes to weighing his legacy, how Rodgers’ time ends in Green Bay will go a long way towards cementing it, but Murphy already has cemented a strong footprint as Packers president.
From sticking behind Thompson’s choice to trade Favre and ride with Rodgers to winning Super Bowl XLV to the development of the Titletown District and the team continuing to be on solid financial ground, Murphy’s spot in Packers history is secure. He isn’t the beloved public figure Harlan was, but what he has been a good steward of the franchise who ushered the Packers in to a new era of NFL football. He also wasn’t afraid to make a bold decision when the situation called for it and didn’t overstep his boundaries.
The final chapter is yet to be written but for now, we toast Murphy — goofy public persona and all.