The hazards of firing your coach

Lost between the Brewers’ season and the start for the Bucks is the underwhelming 3–3–1 start for the Packers, a mark likely to drop to 3–4–1 after Sunday’s Patriots game.

So, of course, there are calls to fire coach Mike McCarthy. My opinion in such circumstances is to …


But a Facebook Friend who, unlike 99 percent of football fans, played both college (Badgers) and NFL football, passed on a post in a couple of parts I found at about firing McCarthy if the Packers don’t make the playoffs:

  • I have a suggestion.  Fire Mike McCarthy and then hire Mike McCarthy.  God you guys.  Be careful what you wish for.  We already have a very good HC.  I understand the frustration we had a lost season last year.  This year also not so great.  Last year Aaron was gone.  This year Aaron is playing on a bad leg.  It’s not MM it’s Aaron.  Team is making good progress.  Pettine is turning the Defense around.  On Offense they are OK but not great.   A lot of this is because of Aaron.  Give him major credit for playing through the injury but it is clearly affecting his play.  MM had the team ready to go.  We have had a few bad breaks this year.  Is what it is.  Firing the HC is not the answer IMO.  If they were coming out flat like that first half of the opener  I’d be on board.  The team is playing hard.  MM has not lost them.  Listened to Aaron’s presser see no problems there.  Barring a complete collapse I’d like to give him at least another season to turn this thing around.

(The first sentence sounds stupid, but that actually happened once in the NFL. Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves — unrelated to the Broncos, Giants and Falcons coach — fired coach George Allen Dec. 31, 1968 for what Reeves called a “personality conflict,” despite Allen’s 11–1–2 and 10–3–1 records the previous two seasons. Twelve days later, after several players threatened to retire, Reeves, who had said that “winning with Allen wasn’t fun,” rehired his former coach. Allen was fired two seasons later, then rehired by the Rams’ next owner seven years later, only to be fired during the preseason due to a revolt by the players.)

  • Moving on from MM isn’t the problem – moving on to who is the problem. Do you want a guy like Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Lindy Infante, Ray Rhodes, or Mike Sherman? All of those guys were supposedly solutions to the problem. It’s a fricken crapshoot. LIS elsewhere, loosely speaking, 90% of head coaches fail. For every Sean McVay there are 10 Marc Trestmans. Watch some games from last year and ask yourself if it was coaching or talent. That’s the best argument I can give. I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision. Choose poorly and you burn up the rest of Rodgers’ career. I think I want to see one more year with the revamped receiving corps and a draft with two number picks that doesn’t suck azz like TT’s last few drafts which depleted the roster.
  • 11 of the past 15 years we have drafted above # 20.   Be careful blaming either the GM or the Head coach for the lack of talented difference – makers. Ted made great picks in bad positions in the beginning but then had three bad years in a row. With his philosophy on FA it is no surprise that I believe we have below level talent in a lot of spots. A dearth of talent with respect to ones opponents will begin to weigh heavily. I think we would be in the middle of a long drought without Rodgers. I thin MM has done well with what he has had. I favor keeping him with two # 1s and Gutekunsts new FA philosophy.

From the resignation of Packers general manager/coach Vince Lombardi to the hiring of general manager Ron Wolf is known as the Gory Years for good reason. writer Cliff Christl was asked why the Packers were so bad between Lombardi and Wolf, and Christl gave this answer:

Twenty-four years of mediocrity (1968-91) can’t be explained in black-and-white terms. It’s an all-gray story and the fault lies everywhere.

I recall writing at some point in the 1980s that the Packers had become victims of their own inertia. The point I was trying to make was that no matter what they did, it made no difference. They were stuck in a rut and couldn’t get out of it for more reasons than one could ever address in a forum such as this.

I remember having lunch with Wolf soon after he was hired. He had been a good source of mine for years when he was in Oakland and Tampa Bay. Anyway, at that lunch, he asked me what I thought about having some of the Packers’ former greats serve as honorary captains for games the next season. I didn’t say it, but my initial reaction was: Are you kidding me? For 13 years, while Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg were coaching, one of the most often heard complaints was that the Packers were living in the past and unable to cut ties with the Lombardi era. Now, here was Wolf, with no previous ties to the franchise, primed to make it his cross to bear.

But that’s what it took for change to occur. Wolf went further than Starr or Gregg ever did to promote the Packers’ rich tradition and feed off their glorious past. And he got away with it because he was an outsider. Not only that, it played a huge part in his effort to restore the Packers’ image and credibility across the country.

That’s why I wouldn’t blame the executive committee any more than the coaches or players for how bad things got. At the same time, that’s where I’d start because the committee was 0-for-4 when it came to hiring coaches.

Although Vince Lombardi might have named Phil Bengtson as his coaching successor without consulting anyone, the executive committee gave Bengtson the added title of general manager a year later. That made a bad mistake worse. Hiring Devine and Starr as combination GMs/Head Coaches were terrible mistakes. Stripping Starr of his GM title in 1980 and then not following through on the decision by hiring a credentialed GM only complicated a bad situation.

Four years later, the executive committee signed off on hiring Gregg as coach and all but paved the way for his paranoia to run amok.

Gregg admitted as much to me during an interview in his second to last season as Packers coach. In Cleveland, where he cut his teeth as a head coach, Gregg’s personnel director, Bob Nussbaumer, was caught spying on him at the behest of owner Art Modell. Worse yet, Gregg felt he was undermined by a handful of veteran players there.

Still haunted by those memories almost a decade later, Gregg said it was a factor in some of the most important decisions he made in Green Bay. “You bet your sweet apple pie it was,” he confessed to me in 1986.

More than a year earlier, Gregg had hired Chuck Hutchison, one of his former players and assistant coaches, to be his right-hand man in Green Bay’s front office. What’s more, Gregg insulated himself from some of the competent holdovers from the Devine and Starr regimes, creating schisms in the Packers’ personnel department and other areas of the front office that festered for up to another eight years.

In an interview last fall, Packers radio play-by-play man Wayne Larrivee questioned me about the executive committee’s interference during those dark days in the ‘70s and ‘80s. My answer was something to this effect: I know Bob Harlan has talked about that being a problem, but I don’t buy it. I told Larrivee that Harlan was just being kind. The problem was incompetence, not interference, all the way up the ladder.

Just recently at a meeting, I informed Bob of what I said. He laughed and acknowledged that I was spot on.

The only coach during those two decades who might have suffered from interference was Devine. Bengston, Starr, Gregg and Lindy Infante were victims of their own flaws, not executive committee interference.

Given Devine’s apocalyptically disastrous decision to send five draft picks (including “a-one and-a-two and-a-three”) to the Los Angeles Rams to acquire the recently benched John Hadl (who played for the Rams between Allen and Allen) as quarterback, maybe the Executive Committee should have interfered more with Devine.

Lombardi replaced himself as coach with defensive coordinator Phil Bengtson, who was fired in 1971 because he didn’t have anywhere near Lombardi’s success. (For one thing, GM Lombardi’s players got old and neither he nor Bengston successfully replaced most of them.) Devine, previously the Missouri coach (and chosen after Allen turned down the Packers supposedly because his wife didn’t like cold weather and instead of Penn State coach Joe Paterno), produced one playoff season, then left for Notre Dame perhaps a season before he would have been fired, replaced by former Packer quarterback Bart Starr, for whom it’s a stretch to say he was qualified to be the head coach or GM, particularly given the nonexistent draft picks Devine left him.

As with Devine, Starr had one playoff season, though he had three near-playoff seasons, the last of which resulted in his replacement by his former teammate Forrest Gregg …

… who unlike Starr had head coaching experience (including leading Cincinnati to a Super Bowl), but like Starr had no GM experience. Gregg duplicated Starr’s last season twice, then blew up the roster but failed to improve the roster, then left for his alma mater, Southern Methodist University. Gregg’s replacements were GM Tom Braatz and coach Lindy Infante (Gregg’s offensive coordinator in Cincinnati), who produced one near-playoff season, but that was it.

Wolf waited until the day after the 1991 season ended, then fired Infante. Wolf hired the right coach, Mike Holmgren (Wolf’s second choice when Bill Parcells turned him down, as Lombardi was the second choice after Iowa’s Forest Evashefski turned them down), but had to replace Holmgren when Holmgren decided he wanted to be a GM/coach too. Wolf’s next, Ray Rhodes, lasted one 8–8 season. Hire numb3er three, Mike Sherman, lasted one season as coach, then got promoted to GM/coach (wrongly, but for understandable reasons) when Wolf retired. Sherman’s GM replacement was Ted Thompson, who was Sherman’s boss for one season before firing him and hiring McCarthy.

With a new general manager, Brian Gutekunst, there is historical precedent for McCarthy’s firing if for no other reason than Wolf and Thompson wanting their own coach. But as the first Facebook post says, be careful what you wish for. Gregg was not a better hire than Starr, and the NFL has a long list of coach firings that were not improvements, unless you believe that Ed Biles was a better coach than Bum Phillips, or that Barry Switzer was a better NFL coach than Jimmy Johnson.

There is a school of thought to fire McCarthy and replace him with one of his coordinators, both of whom, Joe Philbin on offense and Mike Pettine on defense, are former NFL head coaches. The head coaching records of Philbin (24–28 in Miami) and Pettine (10–22 in Cleveland) do not suggest them as promising repalcements for McCarthy.

If the Packers intend on firing McCarthy, that’s an obvious sign that the Packers are starting over, which means forget about 2019 and probably 2020. Recall that McCarthy took two seasons to get to the playoffs with Brett Favre, and needed two more seasons with Aaron Rodgers to get to the playoffs. So McCarthy’s firing, if it takes place, would be a sign that Rodgers, arguably the best in the NFL (though the Patriots’ Tom Brady has four more Super Bowl wins), is not long for the franchise. The chances of the Packers’ successfully twice replacing a quarterback who at one time was the best in the league is not good.

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