The Most Powerful Man in Green Bay?
by Mike Conklin
December 30, 2012
There are several powerful people that make things happen within the walls of Lambeau Field.
Ultimately, the buck stops with Mark Murphy. Since taking over as President and CEO of the Packers five years ago, he has had the final say on all business affairs. The Packers have been very successful on the field, but Murphy has spearheaded a period of unmatched profitability off the field for the Packers as well. He leveraged the team's success into a well-received stock sale, which helped finance another building project. Under his leadership, it appears that Lambeau Field will remain a viable income producer despite the fact it is one of the oldest stadiums in the league and in the smallest market.
Ted Thompson is the final authority in all personnel matters. He gambled on a dark horse head coaching candidate who was a surprise hire at the time, and the move paid off. He guided the team through a tumultuous period when there was a change at quarterback, and came out smelling like roses. Ultimately, Thompson is the architect of a championship team that has won 32 of its last 38 games. He is highly respected across the league, and if his services were available on the open market he would be quickly snatched up.
Mike McCarthy has already put himself in the conversation to be considered among the legendary coaches in Packers history. He has already accomplished as much as Mike Holmgren did in the 1990's. If he stays in Green Bay for another two years, there is a strong possibility he would pass Vince Lombardi in overall wins. McCarthy has also been able to navigate the team through a period where the NFL is changing. As the league has become more wide-open, McCarthy's offensive philosophies have remained on the cutting edge. He may not receive the same media attention as some of the other top-tier coaches, but McCarthy runs a well-oiled machine in Green Bay.
But with all of their power and success, none of those men would dare to tell another key figure on the team what to do.
Patrick McKenzie is the team doctor, and has held that role for nearly twenty years. By all indications, it appears that his decision is final when it comes to whether or not players will take the field on Sundays, and none of the "Big Three" listed above would likely tell him otherwise. With the looming lawsuit against the NFL, teams seem to be more careful than ever when it comes to exposing players to injury. That may play into why it seems to take a long time for players to be cleared to play once they sustain an injury.
“Dr. Pat McKenzie and our medical staff, they’re conservative by nature," explained McCarthy. "I think if you ask anybody who’s gone through our program and worked in other places, they’d say, ‘Hey, they do a good job taking care of their players.' They’re conservative."
In that quote, McCarthy makes it sound like McKenzie is always the most conservative person in the room when it comes to handling injuries. But that hasn't always been the case.
Two decades ago when Ron Wolf was trying to turn around the Packers after years of futility, the boldest move he made during his first offseason was to trade for Brett Favre. What didn't become known until later was that due to a degenerative condition in Favre's hip, he flunked his physical when he was examined by the Packers' team doctor. Ron Wolf wasn't about to just void the trade and let the guy he wanted go back to Atlanta. Wolf wanted a second opinion and called upon McKenzie, who was a local orthopedic surgeon who also did some work for the Packers in those days. Although McKenzie told Wolf that Favre may have trouble four or five years down the line, he didn't think it would deteriorate right away.
"Dr. McKenzie was included in the whole process and in his opinion (Favre) didn't fail the physical," Wolf said.
And the fate of Packers history was changed forever.
Not too long after that, Wolf offered McKenzie a job as team's top physician and medical director. He has turned out to be highly regarded across the league, and in 2011 McKenzie won the Jerry “Hawk” Rhea Award as the NFL’s Physician of the Year. In one capacity or another he has worked with all the coaches and executives in recent Packers history, including Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Bob Harlan, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman, Mark Murphy, Ted Thompson, and Mike McCarthy. And according to McKenzie, he has never felt compelled to sacrifice his integrity to let a player on the field.
"I have never been asked to compromise someone's care because of pressure from the team, that I would put the team in front of the player," said McKenzie in a rare interview a few years ago. "It's never been an issue."
If it never was an issue before, McKenzie may hold more sway than ever now that the NFL is handling player safety so cautiously. There have been several instances this season that players have seemingly been held out longer than they may have been in years past. For example, if Charles Woodson had played during the Holmgren era, it is hard to imagine that the team would still be holding him out of games at this point of the season. And had he played during the Lombardi era, Woodson may have been pushed back on to the field after a couple games, broken collarbone and all.
In an interview with ESPN Radio, former Packers center Bill Curry recalled how Vince Lombardi's staff dealt with injuries...specifically concussions...during his playing career. Curry recalled trying to play through a concussion that he suffered late in training camp, as he was fighting to keep a roster spot:
"I went through Sunday with headaches, reported to practice Monday morning and was told, ‘You go get your pads on. Nobody besides you and Ray Nitschke will do that.’ We were taken to the practice field by the assistant. We were told to warm-up, do some stretching and then go full speed Oklahoma drill, which is one-on-one smashing. Ray Nitschke was well known to have this forearm (that he would use to hit people in the head). After an indeterminate number of times that we smashed one another we were taken back up to the locker room and my headache increased.
"But eventually it went away and the next day the final cut was made and it dawned on me that I had received my physical not from an EEG machine or flashlights in the eyes from an M.D., but rather from the forearm of Ray Nitschke. And I suppose I passed the test. Had I died in that spot I would not have made the team. That’s the way the NFL operated in those days and I don’t think that situation was unique.”
Perhaps stories like that are part of the reason that recommendations by Pat McKenzie and other team physicians across the NFL are considered so carefully today. The Packers also employ another doctor, John Gray, who is a concussion specialist. It wasn't that long ago that if a player wanted to play, the team would let him...even if it was against the advice of the team doctors. Now, the teams and their doctors almost seem to be trying to protect players from themselves. As a result, coaches may find themselves in a different position than ever before.
Mike McCarthy doesn't even seem sure what to think when it comes to injuries these days. Earlier this week, McCarthy was asked about his level of concern for Randall Cobb's injury. He chuckled in response.
"I don't know how to be concerned anymore...just the way this year's gone," said McCarthy. He then transitioned into the usual "coachspeak" answer, mentioning how the player has to go through the process with the medical staff so they can gather more information. But McCarthy's initial reaction did give some measure of insight as to how different it may now be to deal with injuries in today's player safety-conscious NFL. These are uncharted waters.
The role of team physician may not still not be in the spotlight when compared to team president, general manager, or head coach. By all accounts, Patrick McKenzie is a modest man who doesn't seek attention. But there is no doubt in Green Bay that when Doctor McKenzie speaks, people listen.
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