- In Monday’s press conference, Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst revealed that Sunday's loss to Arizona helped them decide that it was time to move on from McCarthy.
It was a must-win game for Green Bay; and on a cold, windy and snowy December day at Lambeau Field, against a 2–9 Cardinals team that plays in a dome, it was the kind of game that the Packers coached by Mike McCarthy and quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers do not lose.
“I’ve never been in this spot. I’m not going to act like I know what the hell I’m gonna do tomorrow when we get in here,” McCarthy said after Green Bay lost to Arizona 20–17. Now with the benefit of hindsight, that quote is telling, and seemed to be the head coach acknowledging that he’d crossed over into unfamiliar and dangerous territory. And shortly after that press conference, McCarthy was fired.
When I asked Packers president Mark Murphy last Tuesday about whether he’d considered a coaching change yet this season, he avoided the question and emphasized there there was still a third of the season left. He also added, “I think the continuity and stability has served us well. You see it across the league, I think you have to be careful not to make changes for changes’ sake.”
So the sense in the locker room was that McCarthy’s firing was inevitable, but the timing of it came as a surprise. The Packers have historically been slow to make coaching or general manager changes, so the speed of the decision was unexpected. I reached back out to several of the sources I talked to for my story on Green Bay’s disappointing season, and all were surprised by the timing of the firing.
On Monday afternoon, when Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst spoke to reporters in a press conference, Murphy called Sunday’s loss “unacceptable” and said that, “the performance on Sunday night made it very clear that a coaching change was needed.”
When pressed on whether he’d had his mind made up before the loss, Murphy said no. “Up until yesterday we were hopeful we would get a big win and turn the season around, but the performance yesterday really sealed it for me,” he said. A reporter followed up and asked if Mason Crosby had made the game-tying field goal, and then they won in overtime, would the same decision have been made? “That’s a hypothetical,” Murphy said. “But we did not play well. To lose to a 2–9 team at home, a dome team, that was not a good performance.”
When asked if Rodgers would play any role in the hiring process, Murphy said, “No he won't. He is free to provide input and talk to us, but he is not going to be part of the process.”
Gutekunst added, “I have a good relationship with veteran players, and we are in constant communication about our locker room but we are not going to consult any of our players on the search, but at the same time we have a good feel for our locker room.”
If Murphy and Gutekunst stick to what they said, it seems like a mistake to exclude the most important player, the one the Packers paid $134 million this summer, from sitting down and having a conversation with a potential head coach. No one is suggesting Rodgers should have the power to hire the next coach, but when the most important part of the job description for Green Bay’s next head coach is working alongside him, earning his trust and respect and developing a successful chemistry, how can Rodgers himself not directly be involved in that conversation?
In the short term, there’s no huge advantage for the Packers in firing McCarthy—it just puts every coach on the staff on edge for the remainder of the year. But it makes sense long-term; there’s no point in keeping a coach around if the franchise knows it’s going ot fire him at the end of the season, and it allows the franchise to get an early start on the coaching search. Green Bay will be competing with Cleveland and most likely, the Jets and Tampa Bay in the coaching search. In addition, by letting McCarthy go now, he gets a jump start on finding his next gig.
Murphy’s decision to fire McCarthy midseason is not only rare for Green Bay (the franchise hasn’t made an in-season coaching move since 1953), but uncommon throughout the league. McCarthy is just the second Super Bowl-winning head coach in NFL history to be fired by the team he won a title with during the regular season (The Colts fired head coach Don McCafferty five games into the 1972 season after winning a Super Bowl with him in ’70).
Sunday’s abysmal loss to the Cardinals was another game in which the Packers offense was flat and listless. Green Bay struggled to get an explosive play, and just when it looked like Rodgers might have that “galvanizing moment” that he’s said he’s been waiting for this year, a 39-yard pass on third-and-11 to Randall Cobb, the play was called back because of an offensive holding penalty on offensive lineman Jason Spriggs.
In each post-loss press conference this season, Rodgers has sounded like a broken record on the team’s struggles on offense. “It’s the same things I say every week and I hate to repeat myself, but it’s applicable,” he said on Sunday. “We’re just not on the same page consistently, we’re not executing the right way. It’s poor throws, not being on same page as receivers, wrong depth, protection…”
Judging from his body language all season, Rodgers has looked at worst, unhappy, and at best, uninterested with this Packers offense. He’s been hesitant to issue any declaration of confidence in the team as he’s been known to do in the past.
In my story last week, even those who hadn’t spent a lot of time around Rodgers and McCarthy could tell that something was off this season. ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Booger McFarland told me, “Maybe it’s their personalities, but to me, I find it very [unusual] that you get two people who really enjoy working together and enjoy being around each other, but you can’t sense or see that [they do]. I didn’t sense that from either Aaron or coach.”
As Peter King pointed out in his Monday column, Rodgers has 47 throwaways in the first 11 games this year, which means he’s dumping the ball once every 10 throws, which no quarterback has done in the 13 years Pro Football Focus has tracked the passing numbers. The NFL average is once every 28 passes.
It was clear some kind of change was necessary to spark a new energy in these Packers, and McCarthy was the one to take the fall this year. It’s important to remember that this is not all on McCarthy’s coaching getting stale. As I wrote last week, another of the Packers issues is a lack of veteran talent and depth on the roster. Former general manager Ted Thompson’s strict devotion to the draft-and-develop model originally built the Super Bowl XLV model, but fell apart in recent years as the team began drafting poorly. For instance, of the Packers’ eight draft picks in 2015, just one remains on the roster, linebacker Jake Ryan (who is currently on injured reserve). Only wideout Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley remain from 2014’s nine-man class. But even as holes in the roster began to show the past few years, the Packers remained conservative in free agency.
Rodgers isn’t an easy player to coach. He’s highly involved in game planning and play calling and isn’t afraid to be critical when things aren’t going right. The QB turned 35 years old on Sunday, and he told King last summer that he wants to play until he’s 40, so whoever Green Bay brings in next will be charged with getting the most of out the end of Rodgers’s career.