How the Packers overhauled everything to get back to the NFC Championship Game

Rex expects a different Rodgers versus the 49ers (1:21)

Rex Ryan is confident Aaron Rodgers will perform better against the 49ers than he did in the regular season. (1:21)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who among even the most faithful followers of the Green Bay Packers thought, after watching Mark Murphy's awkward introduction of his new coach followed by Matt LaFleur's nervous delivery in that news conference last January, that their team would be preparing for the NFC Championship Game this week?

Yet 382 days after Murphy babbled for nearly 14 minutes before he finally gave way to his young hire, that's exactly where they are: headed to Levi's Stadium to play the San Francisco 49ers (6:40 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox) with a Super Bowl berth at stake.

The Packers, coming off consecutive losing seasons, and with their last playoff appearance (the 2016 NFC title game) a fading memory, had fallen far behind the times.

By now, everyone knows the timeline: They revamped their coaching staff, reloaded their roster, rejuvenated their locker room and ran through a 13-3 regular season. They followed with perhaps their most impressive showing of the season in last Sunday's NFC divisional playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks.

Several parties were central to the turnaround. Here are their stories:

Mark Murphy

This wasn't the first time Murphy pulled a stunner. After a mostly hands-off approach since he took over as team president in 2008 with an inherited general manager (Ted Thompson) and head coach (Mike McCarthy), Murphy shook things up after a 7-9 season in 2017 when he decided to change GMs.

Midway through that search in January 2018, he broke from a power structure that had been in place for more than two decades and decided the head coach would report directly to the president. Previously, Murphy had followed the organizational flow chart that his predecessor Bob Harlan put in place, one in which the GM had full authority over all football decisions, including the coach.

Brian Gutekunst, a longtime Packers scout, took the job despite the structure change -- even after he thought he had interviewed for the general manager job as it had always been defined. He admitted that he had to think about the power-structure change before he accepted.

Murphy made his boldest move yet by firing McCarthy with four games left in the 2018 season then hiring LaFleur who, at age 39, would be the Packers' youngest coach since Curly Lambeau. What's more, he made the move after only one round of interviews, each of which lasted no more than three hours.

If there were questions about whether Murphy knew what he was doing previously, those were only amplified when he walked into the media auditorium to introduce LaFleur on Jan. 9, 2019.

"I hope he let Matt talk, for Christ's sake," one former member of the Packers organization who swore he did not watch the news conference, said on that day.

When told Murphy rambled for nearly 14 minutes, the former employee said: "Are you serious? What a joke."

At this point, the joke's on everyone else.

Murphy's two hires have, at least so far, turned out as well as could be expected.

Brian Gutekunst

If the 46-year-old, second-year general manager doesn't win the NFL's Executive of the Year award this year, then he might never win it.

Hired under Ron Wolf in 1998, Gutekunst spent the better part of his time under a free-agent-averse general manager in Thompson. Yet when Gutekunst was hired on Jan. 8, 2018, one longtime NFL player agent referred to him as "the next John Schneider."

When Schneider took over as the Seattle Seahawks' GM, he made over 200 roster moves and eventually built Seattle's Super Bowl-winning team. So far, the comparisons of Gutekunst to Schneider have been true, especially this past offseason.

Gutekunst, according to one league source early in free agency, "had to do something" to replenish a depleted roster. He made Schneider-like moves. His $56 million signing-bonus spending spree on four players -- pass-rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith along with safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner -- resulted in 25.5 combined sacks from the Smiths, security in the secondary and a key piece to a consistent offensive line.

Each of them has started all 17 games.

"We just came in hungry with the expectation of being great," said Amos, who previously played for the Bears. "I feel like on the defensive side of the ball we all came from programs where defense dominated, and you come in here and you want to instill that same mindset."

Gutekunst didn't pick up a playmaker on offense in the draft, but he added another defensive starter in safety Darnell Savage and perhaps the best interior offensive lineman in the draft in left guard Elgton Jenkins. Both were named Tuesday to the PFWA All-Rookie team. It's too soon to tell how much his top pick, Rashan Gary (No. 12), will contribute because he has been behind the Smiths all season and averaged fewer than 15 snaps per game.

But there's more to Gutekunst's 2019. He made some underrated moves too: He fixed the woeful return game with a Dec. 3 waiver-wire pickup of Tyler Ervin, whose 9.6-yard punt return average would have ranked fourth with enough attempts to qualify, after the punt return unit was on a record-low pace. And Gutekunst provided a much-needed veteran backup tackle with another waiver claim on Nov. 29 of the formerly retired Jared Veldheer, who went from watching the Packers' season opener at Chicago in the stands to starting against the Seahawks on Sunday.

He also wisely released banged-up and aging defensive tackle Mike Daniels (and saved more than $8 million in cap space and cash) before training camp opened and managed to get a sixth-round draft pick from Oakland in a trade for seldom-used receiver/return man Trevor Davis.

About the only decisions that went against him were bringing back tight end Jimmy Graham for a second season and the lack of an in-season trade for another offensive weapon.

"He's made a lot of great moves; I give him a lot of credit for our success," LaFleur said this week. "We wouldn't be where we are if we hadn't made those moves."

LaFleur and the locker room

What might have started out as a concern about LaFleur's youth and lack of experience turned in his favor when it came to the locker room.

LaFleur simplified the rules for the players: Put the team first.

Even if the X's-and-O's aspect of LaFleur's new offense was slow to take root and quarterback Aaron Rodgers' production didn't instantly spike, the buy-in, LaFleur says now, came quickly.

"I think pretty early on," LaFleur said. "There's nothing like reinforcing it then going out and winning games."

A 7-1 start certainly helped, but when trouble hit with road losses at the Chargers and 49ers, LaFleur might have been at his interpersonal best. A group of veterans -- led by captains Rodgers, Za'Darius Smith and Mason Crosby, along with others that included David Bakhtiari -- approached LaFleur about a leadership council. Since midseason, they've met every Wednesday.

In short, LaFleur let the players have more responsibility.

"And they should," one longtime NFL assistant coach said. "It's their team."

And it has been appreciated.

"You get a group of guys that get a vibe of the locker room in a bunch of different lenses and ability for him to really be able to listen and hear the heartbeat of this locker room, and how we're dealing with certain stuff and truly listen and accommodate, has been huge," Bakhtiari said.

"I tip my hat to Matt. I don't know how he does it with his ability to want to be involved and hear every little thing. It's the little details with him that he's willing to put through. Sometimes I look at him like, 'Yo, are you sure you want to deal with this?' But he can take it. So that's what's impressive."

When asked for an example, Bakhtiari offered a hypothetical.

"This is completely made up: Let's say Geronimo [Allison] and [Ty] Summers have an issue," Bakhtiari said as he scanned the locker room. "He's going to hear about it, and he's going to stop what he's doing. He's going to go down and talk to both, make sure everyone is good and fix it."

And fix it, the Packers have done -- from the top on down.