Packers GM won’t sit still in quest to ‘hang a banner’

Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Kelly Heim barely looked up as Brian Gutekunst showed a visitor out of his office. And why would she? It was one of a dozen times on that day alone when the executive assistant to the Green Bay Packers general manager watched him pass her desk, which sits just outside Gutekunst’s office.

Say this much about the first-year general manager: Nearly seventh months into the job it has become evident to those who work on the third floor at Lambeau Field that he’s not one to sit still or stay holed up in his office. His spacious but simply decorated office — with a few Packers-related photos on the wall and a lone freshly-watered plant on the table between the black leather couch and chairs — has Gutekunst’s name on the door, but it’s not where he prefers to work.

Rather, Heim often can find him down the hall, a few doors down in the draft room, where Gutekunst still manages to watch his share of film.

“Kelly will tell you, I spend most of my time in there,” Gutekunst said in an interview Thursday. “That’s our work room, so to speak. It’s where our pro board is up, our college board is up and we have a really nice set up in there.”

‘Don’t forget lunch’

He spent the early hours of that morning before the Packers hit the field for their first practice of training camp in there watching college film and studying some 2019 draft prospects. He followed that with a review of some potential players in the league now who might become available. He then conducted his first staff meeting of camp to review assignments and expectations for all of his scouts during training camp.

And that was before he went down to the practice field at 11:30 a.m. and before another round of meetings and film sessions in the afternoon.

In between, Gutekunst carved out part of his afternoon following practice to open his door for one of his first sit-down interviews since he was introduced as GM on Jan. 8.

“Well, I’m a scout, so don’t forget lunch,” Gutekunst said with a laugh. “That’s very important to us.”

Like his mentor and predecessor Ted Thompson and like Ron Wolf who first hired him in Green Bay in 1998, the 45-year-old Gutekunst sees himself first and foremost as a scout. His first full-time assignment was to scour the East coast for college players. Two years later, he moved to the all-important southeast region before Thompson made him the director of college scouting in 2012 and then director of player personnel in 2016.

He has so many more responsibilities now, but Gutekunst said the best piece of advice he’s received from other general managers was simple: Don’t forget your roots.

“My favorite thing about the job has always been sitting down and watching tape,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of guys in the league that have been in this chair and that’s the one thing they said — that you’ve really got to protect your time because otherwise it can get away from you.”

‘Like a seasoned veteran’

That may have manifested itself during Gutekunst’s first draft, and team president Mark Murphy watched it all unfold — from the trade back from No. 14 to No. 27 with the Saints, who gave up a first-round pick, and then the trade back up to No. 18 with the Seahawks.

“He handled it like a seasoned veteran,” Murphy said.

That wasn’t the way it was viewed after the trade down.

“I received a number of emails from people saying ‘What’s going on? Same old stuff! What are they doing?'” Murphy recalled. “At the end of the day though you sit back and you look at it, we traded however many down, we ended up getting a player we really like. We ended up getting a first-round pick next year.

“I thought that took courage. And the other thing it’s been great to see the relationship between Brian and Ted, kind of the protégé working now closely with the mentor, where Ted has been a mentor to him in a different way for years, and now as an adviser it’s been good to see. But I thought Brian really had command of the room and respect of everyone in the room.”

Gutekunst readily admits that the transition for him has been easier than perhaps it is for other first-time GMs because he’s worked alongside most of the people on the third floor for years. That includes coach Mike McCarthy, who’s entering his 13th year as head coach. Although McCarthy now reports to Murphy — a change in power structure that was made this offseason — the coach-GM relationship between McCarthy and Gutekunst appears simpatico.

‘Confidence in his opinion’

Gutekunst hasn’t even been through a full NFL calendar cycle yet, so any judgement on his performance should be reserved.

But at this point, it’s clear he’s a significant part of what some inside Lambeau Field call a recharged environment. Gutekunst’s approachability, far different than Thompson’s reclusiveness, certainly contributes. So does his willingness to be more aggressive than Thompson was when it comes to player acquisition.

It’s perhaps why a move as unpopular as the release of Jordy Nelson this offseason — “That was exceptionally hard, one of the toughest things,” Gutekunst says now — has not been a black cloud over the team.

“I think the biggest thing with Brian Gutekunst is the confidence he has in his opinion,” McCarthy said. “Whether you agree or disagree, there’s confidence. There’s obviously substance behind it. And that’s something I’ve always appreciated [from] Brian, even at a young age. So you look at his history through scouting and particularly the jobs that he’s had, certainly the southeast and all the way up through the director, there was always a work ethic and confidence. So those are two traits I’ve always admired.”

‘Hang a banner’

When Gutekunst first joined the Packers, they were coming off the Super Bowl XXXI title. He and then-scout Alonzo Highsmith were hired within days of each other.

“The guys who were already here had won that Super Bowl back in 1996, and we hadn’t,” Gutekunst said. “We kept telling ourselves that we’ve got to hang a banner, and we only hang them for one thing.”

Gutekunst finally experienced that during the 2010 season, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. But for him, things start over now that he’s in charge.

“You can’t leave here and not have a banner hung because that’s what this place expects,” he said. “I think everybody who works here feels that responsibility, which is cool.”

And with that, he headed back out of his office and down the hall. There was a 4 p.m. meeting with his scouts to go over the practice film, a 6:05 p.m. team meeting with the players and then back to his office to clear some paperwork off his desk and then “and then try to see the kids before they go to sleep.”

“I get my steps in that way,” he said.

Photo: Mike Roemer/AP Photo