While it could take years to sift through the rubble created by Mike McCarthy’s stunning in-season firing by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, there are a few absolute truths that should emerge fairly quickly.
The first: This will be a complicated coaching search to replace him, which is why the Packers may have wanted to give themselves some time to sort through a crowded field of collegiate and professional candidates. Aaron Rodgers—a superstar quarterback, who can be mercurial at times—is not without fault, and he presents a monumental challenge for position coaches controlling the meeting room, coordinators controlling the play calling and head coaches controlling the orbit around the league’s highest-paid player. If you are a prospective head coach gambling on what could be your first and only opportunity, meeting with Rodgers or speaking to him over the phone, a practice not unheard of when a team with an established star quarterback is hiring, may end up being one of the most critical parts of the process.
The second: McCarthy will quickly emerge as a viable candidate for another team, especially if the high volume of expected openings actually materializes. Despite his world coming undone, as detailed by The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler, McCarthy has implemented a specific offensive system and a few coaching practices that are known throughout the league. His self-scouting system, and the practice of cross-training his offensive coaches has been heralded by disciples that are currently peppered throughout the NFL—and in front office decision-making positions.
The third: This is yet another benchmark in a new era of Packers football. The transition to general manager Brian Gutekunst showed a team that was relatively aware of the dust building up on their franchise. Already, feelings toward free agency, home-grown role players and defensive philosophy have shifted significantly. Like the Giants, who were loyal for more than a decade to one system and one set of ideas, the Packers may find out how easy it is to stumble when searching for a new one. This is not just a replacement; this is a deep clean, a seismic culture shift.
It’s jarring to see it happen this way, though not entirely unexpected. McCarthy’s era of Packers football could be defined by the gaudy offensive numbers and the Super Bowl, or the lack of Super Bowl(s). It could be defined by his inability to maximize the prime years of the most talented quarterback in the NFL, or, eventually, by his ability to manage it for as long as he did. This season, and this particular moment in team history, will be a prism for those peering in to find out “why.” Any preconceived notions about McCarthy or the team around him could create a far different spectrum beyond.
For example, when asked for their thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the firing, one former McCarthy staffer couched it as a business decision; an unfortunate end for a good football coach, while a former player noted that it could be liberating for a talented group of players in the locker room.
This firing could safely be described as Rodgers winning the stare-down. It could be looked at as something similar to what the Eagles and Andy Reid decided to do after so many years together. It could be the type of domino firing that causes the rest of the coaching carousel to stop and wait.
At the micro level, though, it was something the Packers were trying to correct immediately. Through all the peaks and valleys in the McCarthy-Rodgers era, it had never reached the profound staleness and passive aggressiveness that we’d seen over the last few weeks—a critical stretch of the season that would determine whether the Packers would miss the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time since 2005 and ’06.
There was a palpable divide between coach and quarterback, one that was laid bare for anyone with a television and a seat on the couch. The eye-rolling. The muffled words behind a strategically placed chin strap or play-call sheet. The decisions to punt, or not to punt, or to run. When a couple is together for that long, everything takes on a deeper meaning. The fact that this pairing has existed consistently and competitively for a decade is sometimes hard to believe.
And like the ending to all significant relationships or partnerships, it will take time for the truth to reveal itself. Should McCarthy have success elsewhere, one could wonder what the ceiling truly was for his tenure had both sides taken a breath of fresh air and approached it with cooler heads. Should the Packers accelerate in a rapidly-changing NFC North next year, one could wonder why it took so long.
Firing a coach who was 125-77-2 over the last 12 years is not something that’s done lightly. That’s the best record in the NFC over that time period. Whoever is next won’t have the luxury of learning on the job.