Just like writing an argumentative essay in high school, sports takes these days have to be polarizing and absolute to get any attention. There are rarely any debates in the sporting world that offer any room for compromise; rather, many fans look to embrace the binary, the definitive, “X player is better than Y player, Y player is trash” angles that generate clicks and retweets. Hell, that’s how people like Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd stay employed.
Messi vs. Cristiano. Crosby vs. Ovechkin. Jordan vs. LeBron. “Tom Brady is the best player in the history of all sports in the world” vs. “Brady is just a system quarterback.” It’s either all love or all hate — you get what I’m saying.
This phenomenon is perhaps more exacerbated and virulent in the age of Twitter, where any random person can fire off their thoughts and react to anything that’s happening in real-time (believe me, I do this just as much as the next guy). Sometimes these takes can border on unfair or be straight-up dehumanizing — they often fail to illustrate a complete picture of a player or front office member’s situation, talent, potential, or personal barriers/burdens.
Enter Brian Gutekunst.
Gutekunst was appointed as the general manager of the Green Bay Packers in 2018, right after a disappointing 2017-18 season where they missed the playoffs. The Packers missed the playoffs again in Gutekunst’s first year in charge, though the effect that a GM has on a team is not usually felt in the first year on the job.
It has now been three full seasons since Gutekunst took over for Ted Thompson. After two consecutive trips to the NFC Championship and recreating Aaron Rodgers’ MVP form, one would certainly think that Gutekunst’s performance thus far is worthy of being celebrated.
There are many out there, it would seem, that think otherwise.
I’d like for us to have a bigger picture of all that Gutekunst has been able to accomplish in his first three years. While there have certainly been some lowlights, there have been many highs under his tenure. These highs have brought Green Bay back to the center of the championship contender conversation, which should be strongly considered when evaluating Gutekunst’s performance so far.
Let’s start with some of the whiffs, shall we?
Almost obligatorily, I have to talk about Jordan Love here.
It’s one thing to select a quarterback early in a draft. It’s another thing to select one while you have arguably the most talented quarterback of all time on your roster. It’s a further thing to select that quarterback in the first round while your MVP, Hall of Fame-bound quarterback sits at home and watches all of this unfold without knowing that finding his replacement was ever on the table — let alone trading up in the first round to take that QB.
Early returns are still unclear regarding what the plan was with this pick. Did Gutekunst think Rodgers was washed? Did he want to send a message? Does he really think Love is that good?
There is one microscopic silver lining to this pick, which is only a crazy hypothesis: The Love selection lit a fire under Rodgers’ ass and compelled him to get out there and destroy anyone who would stand in his way. I mean, hey, Rodgers did just win MVP this year. Other than that, it is hard to see much upside with the Love pick at this juncture. While the Packers did not give up much value in trading up to get Love — only a compensatory fourth-round pick — that first-round selection easily could have been spent on a wide receiver in last year’s draft class that was loaded with them. Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool would have been nice.
There are also some other notable “bad-but-not-catastrophic” decisions that Gutekunst has made since he took over. The two years of Jimmy Graham were not great, and that’s being generous. Green Bay paid a lot of money for Graham to fail to meet expectations in nearly every way. Trading for DeShone Kizer in 2018 looked silly. The decision to fire Mike McCarthy mid-season in 2018 ruffled some feathers among the fans who were desperately clutching those 2010 title run pearls. This is just to name a few mishaps — no GM is without their mistakes here or there.
Ultimately, the Love selection alienated and infuriated the entire fanbase of one of the most storied and successful franchises in the NFL. Green Bay’s 2020 draft as a whole was tainted by this maneuver, and Gutekunst’s reputation in the public eye has still not recovered. The AJ Dillon selection came out of nowhere, and by the time Josiah Deguara was selected, most people had turned off the draft completely. The impact of this most recent draft class will not be known for a couple of years yet, but Gutekunst did not do himself any favors to earn the trust of the Packers faithful with his performance.
Mired within the rabble and subsequent fallout of the Love selection, it is important not to forget the lengths that Gutekunst has gone to reestablish Green Bay’s dominance.
Inheriting a rapidly fading squad in 2018, Gutekunst cleaned house and fired McCarthy to instill a new system and culture in Titletown. While the hire of current head coach Matt LaFleur was seen as highly speculative at the time, it is impossible to grade that move as anything but a wild success after making the NFC Championship game for two years in a row.
Much like the newly appointed general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gersson Rosas, Gutekunst took his initial season on the job to see what sort of talent (or lack thereof) he had on the roster. He then cleaned house and brought in the players he thought would give the team the best chance at winning. Of the roster that made it to the 2019 NFC Championship Game, 35 of the 53 players were brought in by Gutekunst. (That is roughly two-thirds for those of you keeping track at home.)
These new players were brought in through the draft and free agency, both areas where Gutekunst has seen massive success so far. His first-ever draft selection for the Packers was Jaire Alexander in 2018, and regular contributors Josh Jackson, Oren Burks, JK Scott, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling also came in that draft.
The 2019 draft saw similar successes. Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage Jr., Elgton Jenkins, and Kingsley Keke have all been steady since their selections. Savage has become a regular starter for Green Bay, and there is much anticipation for Gary and Keke to take major leaps on defense this year. The early returns on this class of draftees look good, and the hope is that the same will be said about the class of 2020.
Where Gutekunst has truly made his mark is in free agency. Green Bay is notably a rather conservative franchise in that regard, and Gutekunst has been looking to reverse that narrative. The 2018 free-agent class had a couple of fun splashes with Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, and bringing Tramon Williams back to town for the first time, though Gutekunst had major successes with the class of 2019.
The defensive trio of Adrian Amos, Za’Darius Smith, and Preston Smith was one of the most immediately impactful FA additions that the franchise had seen in quite some time. Working in tandem with many of the Gutekunst draftees, these players helped elevate the Packers defense to a top-10 scoring unit in 2019.
The 2020 free-agent class was a bit quieter, though the pickup of undrafted LB Krys Barnes has looked to be a smart one. Robert Tonyan, who was picked up off the scrap heap by Gutekunst in 2018, also blossomed for the Packers last year. The best GMs can make winning moves on the fringes of rosters, and Gutekunst has showcased an ability to find talent at every available outlet.
As the early returns suggest, it is hard to argue with success. While winning does inherently cover up many flaws for many teams, it would seem difficult to find many true holes with Gutekunst’s performance thus far. He is making winning moves that put the franchise in a position to sustain its current successes. From assembling a coaching staff with a clear vision to acquiring players that fit the coaches’ schemes, Gutekunst appears to have a firm grasp on what he is doing in the front office.
However, his legacy will always be tied to the Love selection. How that entire situation and dynamic pans out in the next 2-3 years will be extremely telling. Will the good seeds that Gutekunst has sown come completely unraveled if Rodgers leaves before he retires? This is one of many questions that haunts Green Bay’s most devout followers.
In the meantime, at least the Packers are playing winning football. There is a strong chance they would not be playing winning football if it were not for Gutekunst. You can’t argue with that.