- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

GREEN BAY, Wis.

The facts of Mark Murphy’s resume leave little doubt he’s qualified to steer the Green Bay Packers in the years to come: Played eight years with the Redskins. Worked through two players strikes. Holds an MBA and a law degree. Spent 15 years as an athletic director.

But who do people think Murphy is? Right now, that’s a matter of perspective.

Depending on your point of view, the new Packers president and CEO either wore a white or black hat in the team’s standoff with Brett Favre over the summer, a saga carried continuously over fiber-optic cables but magnified a thousand times more in the NFL’s smallest outpost, where the team’s 110,000 shareholders add a level of accountability to the Packers’ machinations unmatched by any other franchise in the league.

For the moment, at least, he’s seen by the national public as the guy that curiously evoked Julius Caesar in a press release about Favre’s return and offered him a $20 million deal to stay retired, not as an approachable, well-spoken executive with both football sense and business acumen.

In Green Bay, it wasn’t nearly that simple. The former Northwestern University athletic director quickly found himself in the middle of an emotional split, the team simultaneously trying to secure a long-term relationship with Favre while protecting its own future, namely fourth-year quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It quickly showed the 53-year-old how fervently his team would be followed.

By some method or another, it ended with calm on Aug. 11, when Murphy watched a sellout crowd give Rodgers a standing ovation before the first series of the Packers’ preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

That sentiment could change if Rodgers (who inherits a 13-3 team) struggles early, or if Favre leads the New York Jets to the playoffs.

But Murphy - a man whose modus operandi, learned partially from former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, is to surround himself with good people and trust them implicitly - is as confident as ever the Packers correctly navigated through their dicey summer.

“If we do well over these next few years, it’ll be behind us,” Murphy said. “That’s the risk that we take.”

Preparing for more

The son of a labor relations manager who joined the Redskins as an undrafted free agent out of Colgate in 1977, Murphy always conducted himself with the caution of an outsider who never believed his playing career would leave him set financially, even as he became a fixture on two Super Bowl teams and led the NFL in interceptions in 1983.

He took night graduate classes at American University while playing for the Redskins and cut his teeth in negotiations during two NFL players strikes, first as a player representative in 1982, then as an assistant executive director for the NFL Players’ Association in 1987. He left sports for several years, working at the District law firm of Bredhoff and Kaiser and as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

By the time his alma mater named him athletic director in 1992, it was clear Murphy was destined for big things.

He kept ties with the NFL, doing occasional broadcast work and joining two league committees at the request of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, himself a former D.C. lawyer and Redskins season ticket-holder.

That tableau of experience made Murphy stick out early in the Packers’ search for an heir to longtime president Bob Harlan, conducted after handpicked successor John Jones stepped down last May over health issues and concerns over his management style.

Though he had no connection with the Packers, Murphy had everything the team’s executive committee wanted: experience running big organizations, a player’s background, relationships at the league level and a skill in negotiations that could help him promote the Packers’ unique interests when labor strife is lurking.

“We’d been concerned that the Green Bay Packers, being a small-town team, had to be well-represented within the league itself,” said Peter Platten, the chairman of the search committee that hired Murphy. “We thought he could do that because of his background. That certainly was part of it.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell has already tabbed Murphy for the management council’s executive committee, which will oversee negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement after the owners opted out of the current CBA last May.

It puts Murphy on the other side of the table from the group he fought so fervently for in the 1980s, trying in a way to correct the course he helped set back then.

“In some ways [it’s strange], but it was so long ago,” he said. “What we fought for in ‘82 was a percentage of the gross [revenue], and they have it. It’s really worked well, by and large. But it’s kind of swung. We’ve got rookies who haven’t played in the NFL yet who are the highest-paid players at their positions.”

A smooth start interrupted

From the time he accepted the job last December until this summer, Murphy’s introduction to Green Bay befitted his management style. He spent the first few months taking stock of the Packers’ organization - by all accounts a well-run machine - making subtle changes to beef up the team’s marketing operations and secure a possible expansion of its property around Lambeau Field.

It was an ideal handoff. Harlan stayed on through the team’s NFC Championship game loss and will serve as a consultant through this year, giving Murphy a chance to get comfortable.

And then Brett Favre called.

The quarterback told head coach Mike McCarthy in June he was considering coming out of retirement, which set off a protracted, sometimes public breakup between the team and its future Hall of Famer.

“I told him, ‘I don’t envy you to make a decision like this,’” said Steve Green, a senior associate AD at Northwestern who worked with Murphy for 4 1/2 years. “Mark is not exactly confrontational. That’s not his makeup. I’m sure that was probably a difficult thing to go through.”

Murphy, like the rest of the Packers’ front office, didn’t believe Favre would act on his second thoughts. He’d seen the possibility coming, knowing from experience how hard it is to leave the game, but never expected the process to end where it did.

“It’s kind of like a divorce,” Murphy said. “I don’t know how we got to this point, but ultimately, it’s a breakdown in communication, which probably goes back a number of years. When you have a superstar, especially one who’s been at a very high level for a long time, there’s always an issue with, how does he interact with the team? There’s a tension there when you have the megastar.”

Even with Favre in New York, Murphy chooses his words carefully; the quarterback remains an icon in Green Bay, where a street and a restaurant bear his name, and the team still makes plenty of money off the Favre merchandise strewn across the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field.

After he retires, the Packers plan to again offer him the now-famous marketing deal Murphy said they discussed with Favre long before his retirement, a deal that was construed in some corners as a bribe to get Favre not to play this season.

If Murphy has been misunderstood through the Favre ordeal, it’s through that development.

“What’s a little frustrating is, the marketing deal was a way to reach out to Brett, to try to help him out of a difficult situation, and it turned against us,” Murphy said. “Having been a player who dealt with my own transition out of the game, I knew what he was going through. He was very close to taking it.”

Murphy isn’t looking for pity over how the Favre situation played out.

But he, McCarthy and Rodgers all drew some vindication from that standing ovation on Aug. 11, a seal of approval before the first errant pass that’s bound to make some fans pine for Favre.

“I’ve always felt [our fans] would support our team, regardless of how they felt about myself or Brett or management or whatever,” Rodgers said. “It was great to be able to look up in the stands and see the signs and stuff. It definitely means a lot.”

What this summer means to Murphy’s legacy is yet unclear. The things he’s seen from the Packers make him believe he, or they, won’t be defined by it.

“Ultimately, it’ll be how we play and how we perform. That’s the beauty of sports,” Murphy said. “When you make tough decisions, but decisions that are in the best interest of the organization, over time, you’re going to do very well.”

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