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Harlan’s regret illustrates importance of coach-G.M. relationship


Though the Packers currently have one of the smoothest-running organizations in all of sports, they went through a little chaos to get there.

Former Packers president Bob Harlan recently explained to Jason Wilde of the events that resulted in the decision to make Mike Sherman head coach and G.M., the decision to hire a G.M., and the eventual decision to fire Sherman.

Harlan called the decision to make Sherman the head coach and the G.M. “the worst decision I made.”

When G.M. Ron Wolf retired after the 2001 season, Harlan gave Sherman, who had only one year on the job as head coach, Wolf’s job. The decision made sense; former Packers coach Mike Holmgren was performing both jobs in Seattle, and former Packers assistant Andy Reid wore both hats in Philly, albeit without the formal G.M. title.

Harlan attributes the move not to the trend that existed at the time, but to his fear that Sherman wouldn’t mesh with a G.M. who didn’t hire him.

“I was concerned that if a new man came in from the outside, Mike might have trouble getting along with him, [or] the new man might want to come in and want to totally change the scouting staff, which I thought was a capable young scouting staff,” Harlan said. “And so I decided to do something that I don’t like to do -- give one man both jobs. And he didn’t hurt us on the field -- we went 12-4, 12-4, 10-6, 10-6. [Sherman] did a great job of coaching. But it got to the point when we started having problems with players that he almost seemed to be ignoring the team.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back came in 2004, when Harlan sensed that Sherman was preoccupied by former Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie’s holdout. “That following Tuesday, we had our regular monthly meeting of the executive committee and I asked the committee for permission at the end of the season -- this was in early October -- if I could take the general manager duties away from Mike Sherman and hire Ted Thompson,” Harlan said. “And they gave me permission to do that, and I sat on that for four months.”

Sherman wasn’t happy about the plan, Harlan said. “I’d go to practice, and I’d watch Ted and Mike on the field -- I didn’t even watch the team, I wanted to watch those two gentlemen -- Ted would be talking to Mike, and Mike would be looking off in the distance, like he didn’t even listen to him. It was a very cold relationship. And Ted came into me at the end of the year and said, ‘I’ve got to make a coaching change. I can’t go on like this.’ And we made the change.”

And the change paid off, because Thompson and subsequent coach Mike McCarthy have enjoyed a strong working relationship. The team has been among the elite in the NFL for the past several seasons.

It’s not enough to attribute the success to the fact that the G.M. hired the current head coach. G.M. Scott Pioli hired Todd Haley in Kansas City, and their relationship disintegrated within three years.

The point is that, regardless of gets there first, the head coach and the guy who runs the front office need to be on the same page. And if the head coach also runs the front office, he needs to have people in the front office to whom he can and will delegate issues, so that the head coach won’t lose sight of the most important part of his job duties.

Given the intense pressure and heavy lifting of a football season, it’s critical for teams to have people in these jobs who can work together. Though success isn’t impossible without such cooperation, it’s a lot easier to thrive when everyone is on the same page.