GREEN BAY — Late last week, a Green Bay Packers employee was making his way up the wide hallway that leads from the Lambeau Field stadium tunnel to the home team locker room. He was so bundled up from having just watched practice outside — bulky Packers parka, knit winter hat with a hood over the top, Nike Therma-Fit pants — that as he removed one of his oversized gloves to deliver a fist-bump greeting to a passer-by, it was hard to tell just who the person was. Then he said hello.
It was Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst.
The hallway conversation was brief, and then Gutekunst went on his way, past the Packers locker room and toward the elevators that would take him up to his office. It’s a safe bet he had film of some little-known prospect to watch — perhaps from the Canadian Football League, considering he’s signed two ex-CFL’ers to futures contracts in the past week — or some other scouting work to do.
One thing he did not have on his to-do list was speaking with reporters. While certainly more willing than his predecessor, Super Bowl XLV-team architect Ted Thompson, to grant interviews, Gutekunst wanted the focus to remain solely on first-year coach Matt LaFleur and the players as Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., approached. So he declined interview requests, something he’s done since midseason after the Packers’ 7-1 start.
But while he might not want to talk about it, it’s impossible to deny that the Packers are where they are — one victory away from a Super Bowl LIV berth — in large part because of the moves Gutekunst has made, both large and small.
“‘Gutey’ and his staff, man, they work tirelessly. Their effort and their detail is second to none, in my opinion,” LaFleur said. “We’re just really fortunate to have those guys on our side. They’ve done a great job bringing in all those names that have been key contributors for us all season long. They’re always searching. They’re combing through everything, trying to find great players. A lot of those have been a big reason why we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten.”
The big-name signings are well known by now. Knowing the defense needed an overhaul, Gutekunst shelled out $56 million in guaranteed signing bonuses to four veteran free agents, three of them on defense: outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and right guard Billy Turner. The Smiths have combined for 29.5 sacks (including two apiece in last week’s NFC Divisional playoff win over Seattle), while Amos has steadied a shaky defensive backfield and Turner has solidified the interior of the offensive line. All four players have been durable, too, starting all 17 games.
“When we signed those guys, there was certainly that optimism of, ‘Hey, these are three key positions in the defense that needed to be addressed.’ And we were 3-for-3 on those signings,” said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who as free agency began was hoping to just get one of the Smiths.
“You’ll obviously see free agents (and) it’s just like the draft — hit or miss. So give credit to Gutey and his staff that it was three hits. It’s rare that you fix everything or a lot through free agency, and we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
Even ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy noticed. McCarthy, whose teams frequently struggled on defense under previous coordinators Bob Sanders (2006-’08) and Dom Capers (2009-’17) and who hired Pettine last year, took note that the Smith signings delivered far more pass-rush productivity than what the Packers had last year.
“Brian did exactly what needed to be done — he made the roster more competitive,” McCarthy said in an interview shortly before his hiring as the Dallas Cowboys’ new coach. “Those were constant conversations in the short time we worked together.
“They’ve done a great job. You have to give them credit.”
Gutekunst deserves perhaps even more credit for the lower-profile additions he’s made.
After starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a knee injury nine snaps into the Packers’ 37-8 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 24 and young backup Alex Light struggled mightily, Gutekunst put in a waiver claim on veteran tackle Jared Veldheer, who’d ended his brief retirement and been waived off the New England Patriots reserve/retired list. Veldheer replaced Bulaga (concussion) in the regular-season finale at Detroit and played well, then started for an ill Bulaga against the Seahawks and more than held his own.
Having watched the return game struggle with various returners (Trevor Davis, Darrius Shepherd, Tremon Smith), Gutekunst claimed Tyler Ervin on waivers on Dec. 3. Ervin averaged 9.6 yards per punt return to end the season — which would have ranked fourth in the NFL if he had enough attempts to qualify — and now has been integrated into the offensive game plans as well.
Gutekunst also wisely brought back key veterans such as tight end Marcedes Lewis and cornerback Tramon Williams. While his decision to bring back tight end Jimmy Graham was questioned throughout the season, Graham did deliver three crucial catches which all went for first downs against the Seahawks last week.
“I think he’s done a great job. I think he deserves a lot of credit,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Him and his staff have done a great job of finding that talent. I know that they had eyes on a number of players and Tyler (Ervin) was one of them, because I was talking to (personnel lieutenants) Milt (Hendrickson) and Jon Eric (Sullivan) the other day and just telling them what a great pickup I thought that was. And they said, ‘Yeah, we kind of had eyes on him for a while.’ He’s made a huge difference for us.
“There’s been a lot of great pickups. The big-name ones have been fantastic. But it’s the other ones that have been kind of the glue pieces, I feel like. Bringing Marcedes back, I think, was a super underrated move that has really helped our run game and our locker room with leadership. Tramon, picking him a couple years ago was important and keeping him on the roster, how important he’s been from a leadership standpoint, from a playing standpoint.
“It’s little things like that that I think really make this thing go.”
The Packers listed only one player — fullback Danny Vitale, who continues to battle a nagging knee injury — on their final injury report of the week as questionable. Vitale did practice on a limited basis.
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