After the Gory Year

Acme Packing Co.:

It’s been official for just over a week, but it’s still hard to believe.

The Green Bay Packers will miss the postseason for the first time since the 2008 season.

To put that in perspective, the last time the Packers missed the playoffs George W. Bush was at the very end of his presidency, “The Dark Knight” was the top movie of the year and Brett Favre was a New York Jet.

Translation: it was a long time ago.

This means the Packers are in unfamiliar territory, both for them and their fans. The Packers would have tied an NFL record for consecutive seasons qualifying for the playoffs had they made it, yet many fans are demanding major changes from the general manager down to the head coach.

As for the Packers actually making those changes, it’s difficult to imagine much changing save a pending replacement of the defensive coordinator. Team president Mark Murphy will pump up both general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy’s record, citing making the postseason the previous eight seasons plus three NFC North championships and two NFC title game appearances in the past five years as proof the franchise is in good hands.

No matter where you fall in this debate, those are all facts. The Packers have had a tremendous amount of success the past few seasons, but in a city nicknamed “Titletown USA,” anything short of bringing home a Lombardi Trophy is ultimately a disappointment. Still, McCarthy and Thompson have kept the Packers in the upper echelon of the NFL and they are owed much respect and gratitude.

That being said, if you look at specifically the last three seasons of Packers football, the signs are there that it’s time for a change.

“But they just made the NFC championship last year, and they won a playoff game the year before that!” That is what some fans will say, but hear me out.

First, let’s look at 2015. The Packers offense — McCarthy’s baby — was sluggish for a vast majority of the year. In fact, had it not been for a Hail Mary perfectly executed, the Packers likely would have missed the playoffs and the playoff streak would have stopped at six seasons instead of eight. In short, Aaron Rodgers saved the day.

Now look at 2016. The Packers were 4-6 and the calls for McCarthy’s job were intensifying despite McCarthy declaring himself “a highly successful NFL head coach.” Rodgers then uttered the famous “run the table” comment and he went on a tear that led the Packers to within one game of the Super Bowl before they were run out of town by the Atlanta Falcons. Once again, Rodgers bailed the team out.

The 2017 season rolls around, and Rodgers is once again playing like an MVP. The Packers are 4-1 and fans are again dreaming of another postseason run.

Then Rodgers broke his right collarbone.

Everything went downhill from there. Without Rodgers around to consistently bail the team out, the Packers were exposed for what they really are beyond their all-world quarterback: a lousy football team. How lousy are they? They needed rallies to go to overtime in wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns.

To repeat: The Packers nearly lost to one of the worst teams in NFL history when they rallied past Cleveland in overtime. The red flag officially went up for many fans after that game.

The bottom line in all this, in my opinion, is that is time for a change in Green Bay. McCarthy is a good coach, one who leads his team through adversity better than any coach in the league outside of Bill Belichick. He’s also by all accounts a great man whose family has given so much to the Green Bay community and Wisconsin as a whole.

Unfortunately, McCarthy in Green Bay has become Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Mike Shanahan in Denver. All were successful, but sometimes you just need a change. Reid never got close to the Super Bowl again after losing Donovan McNabb and Shanahan got to one AFC title game with Jake Plummer after John Elway retired. That’s where McCarthy appears to be in Green Bay. Everyone is now too comfortable, and the message has just gotten stale. He hasn’t lost the locker room, but it’s time to look at other options.

McCarthy’s contract is up after next season, so this will be an interesting situation to watch. Teams often don’t like coaches going into a season as a lame duck entering their final year, but Thompson gave Mike Sherman an extension in 2005 before firing him at the end of that season.

Speaking of Thompson, he deserves praise for being the best steward of the franchise since Ron Wolf. He’s endured more unfair fan criticism than any other GM in the league. Fans bemoan his lack of activity in free agency then he goes out and signs Martellus Bennett. We all know how that ended and some of those same fans yelled at Thompson when Bennett was released. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, folks.

Thompson still clearly enjoys scouting, but it might be time for a change in the front office too. The Packers only made the playoffs the previous two seasons by the sheer will of their franchise quarterback. Take Rodgers out of the equation and you see just how poor of a roster Thompson has built. He clearly did not learn the lessons of Wolf, his mentor and predecessor. “Oh we have Aaron, he’ll keep us relevant,” has held the Packers back much like the same phrase except with Brett Favre’s name held Wolf — and particularly Mike Sherman — back in the early-to-mid-2000s. The Packers should have followed the Patriots and built a strong team around their quarterback and not just surround him with adequate talent.

As someone who has backed Thompson and McCarthy throughout the past several years, this is incredibly tough to write. They brought a lot of success to the storied franchise and joy to the fans. Both men will one day take their place in the Packers Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, it’s just time for a change.

A better comparison for this season is 2006, before which the Packers relieved GM/coach Mike Sherman of the first half of his title, replacing him with Thompson, who relieved Sherman of further employment following a 4–12 season. In his first three seasons, McCarthy went 8–8, 13–3 (and an overtime loss in the NFC championship) and 6–10 in 2008, Rodgers’ first season as quarterback.

It is interesting to note that, based on social media comments, the order of people Packer fans would like to see replaced starts with defensive coordinator Dom Capers, followed by Thompson, followed quite a distance later by McCarthy. This is despite the fact that the Packers’ rankings in scoring defense (21st) and offense (19th) are similar compared with the rest of the league. The defense did not lose to Baltimore or Minnesota; the offense failed to score, and the defense deserves credit for giving up only nine points to Seattle in the opening 17–9 win. What is worse — giving up more than 30 points five times, or scoring less than 20 points six times?

Only two of the Packers’ eight losses were by one score — Pittsburgh, where quarterback Brett Hundley arguably played his best game (and yes, the defense failed), and Carolina, Rodgers’ aborted comeback attempt. Before the season I predicted the losses at Atlanta, Minnesota and Pittsburgh; I predicted a loss in Dallas, which didn’t happen. What torpedoed this season was the unpardonable sin of losing at home to New Orleans, Detroit and Baltimore, all of which were losses by more than a touchdown.

For what it’s worth, I have read a few predictions of NFL coaches who are about to coach their last games this weekend. None of them list McCarthy.

Regardless of Packer fans’ opinion, Capers is highly regarded in the NFL. The bigger issue with the defense is the players, and that goes past Capers to his boss’ boss, Thompson. The Packers have a long list of defensive draft failures, and if your plan is to develop draft picks and not sign free agents, your draft picks better pan out, but many of the Packers’ draft picks on defense have not.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about Thompson’s acquisitions this year, two in particular — tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. If you’re stuck with an inexperienced quarterback, the short passing game is essential, but whatever the Packers paid Bennett and Kendricks was wasted money.

I often say on this blog (because it’s true) that doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing. A lot of Packer fans want to see Thompson replaced by Eliot Wolf, the Packers’ director — football operations, and son of Ron. The young Wolf was a candidate for the Giants’ GM job, and is reported to be a candidate for other positions. Thompson has gotten enormous plaudits in the NFL for his ability to evaluate talent, but evidently that’s no longer working so well in Green Bay. Tom Silverstein notes the Packers have more room to pursue free agents next year due to a larger salary cap, but for every Charles Woodson, the Packers have had a Joe Johnson and then some. (Though it’s not as if the Packers have done very well in the draft, as previously noted.)

As for McCarthy, he would be snapped up nearly immediately if fired. That may be OK to some fans, but Packer fans who remember the franchise’s history should remember that a new coach doesn’t necessarily lead to better on-the-field results (see Bengtson, Phil, and Rhodes, Ray). A new GM and coach would likely mean you could write off the 2018 season, and even if Rodgers returns (which is far from a sure thing), he doesn’t have that many years left.

The real reason for this season’s failure is Thompson’s responsibility — players, or lack thereof. Schemes don’t matter as much as you’d think, and coaching matters, but not as much as player talent does. Blame Capers if you like for poor defensive play, but Capers can only work with what he’s provided, and it’s not as if he forgot how to coach in the past few seasons. I have yet to read anyone with actual NFL expertise claim the Packers are running a bad defensive scheme. It’s always the players, for better and/or worse.

 

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