The Packers turned in another up-and-down, ultimately disappointing performance at Minnesota Sunday night, which only intensifies Mike McCarthy’s already hot seat. The 13th-year head coach has become a receptacle for criticism, much of it adhering to the same theme: that his offensive system is stale.
The first problem is this analysis is a few years too late (more on that in a moment). The second—and much bigger—problem is it gives Aaron Rodgers a pass for the highly inconsistent way he executes this offense.
Please understand, you’re not reading an Aaron Rodgers Hot Take. At least, not according to discussions that occur within the NFL. Around the league, Rodgers is regarded as an incredible but imperfect quarterback. Outside the NFL, Rodgers is basically viewed as a god. It has somehow become heretical to say anything critical of him.
Rodgers is the most physically talented quarterback of all-time; 32 NFL GMs would be happy to build their team around him. When he’s clicking, he’s magnificent. But Rodgers does not click with the regularity of a Drew Brees, Tom Brady or even a resurgent Andrew Luck. There is no stat that captures throws that should be made but aren’t, or throws that could have been made on-schedule but were made off-schedule. If these categories existed, Rodgers would have as many as any quarterback, every year. He’s a scintillating sandlot player who goes into sandlot mode way too often.
Sandlot mode? Who does he think he is, Brett Favre?
Yes, Rodgers’s unique style, which few QBs have enough talent to call upon, has led to some of his most spectacular plays. But in the aggregate, it also creates the illusion of dysfunction around him. To television viewers, Rodgers runs around because his O-line breaks down. Or because, presumably, receivers aren’t getting open. And they’re not getting open because the scheme isn’t helping them. Sometimes this is the case. But just as often, the glitches aren’t coming from everyone around the quarterback, but from the quarterback himself.
What’s most befuddling: Right when you start to think Rodgers will forever read the field with the choppiness of a rookie, he starts slinging the ball with perfectly disciplined timing and rhythm. When that switch is flipped, Rodgers borders on unstoppable. His greatness reaches such a level that, when the switch is flipped back, you understand why outside observers can’t help but assume the problem is everyone else.
This is where McCarthy is getting victimized. A great illustration of Rodgers’s unevenness came two weeks ago in Green Bay’s win over Miami. The Packers faced a 4th-and-2 near midfield. The Dolphins are a zone D that almost always plays nickel. Knowing their nickel would keep two linebackers on the field, McCarthy put in a fourth receiver and aligned Davante Adams in the backfield, so their top weapon could run his route against those overmatched linebackers. Adams did, breaking open on a short-angle route right in Rodgers’s immediate line of vision. The play worked perfectly. And Rodgers, for reasons not even Sigmund Freud could figure out, tried to break down and extend the play. A quick-strike play like this can’t be extended, though, and naturally, the protection cracked and Rodgers was sacked.
Imagine if it had been Sean McVay putting Brandin Cooks at running back. Or Andy Reid putting Tyreek Hill there. Their genius would have been heralded once again. On a big fourth down gamble the offensive mastermind puts his best wide receiver at running back and catches the defense off balance! Boy, you never know what this coach will do next!
Of course, McVay’s QB or Reid’s QB (or almost any team’s QB) would have thrown the ball on that play. McCarthy’s QB didn’t, and so, to outside observers, McCarthy’s creativity here never existed.
That creativity lately has shown up on other plays, too. In fact, this season, McCarthy’s offensive scheme has evolved dramatically. Early in the year, it was mostly just the simple spread formations that propagate isolation routes—that’s the unimaginativeness McCarthy has been dogged for over the years. Most likely he played this way because it accommodated Rodgers’s sandlot tendencies. It worked when the Packers had the right veteran receivers. But with an aging Jordy Nelson gone, James Jones longgone, and Randall Cobb either out injured or not looking like himself, the Packers this season have had to rely on callow, rookie receivers who are not yet capable of getting open on their own or finding the defense’s soft spots when Rodgers extends plays.
So, McCarthy has scrapped some of the iso-spread passing concepts for newer-age designs. He has used spread formations this November about half as often as he did in September. More importantly, he’s used condensed formations, with receivers aligned tight to the formation, about three times as often. Those condensed sets are the same thing McVay uses in L.A. It gives receivers more field to work with, which propagates more schematic variables in the passing game and a more natural intertwinement of routes. It also creates congestion for a defense, rendering coverages more predictable. This makes it easier for a QB to anticipate open throws. And, receivers who align tight to the formation are in better position to block safeties in the running game, which makes play-action off of that even more believable. On a related note, the Packers have also employed more snaps of two-tight end personnel, which diversifies a scheme, particularly on the ground.
The results of McCarthy’s updated approach have been mixed, in part because Rodgers’s execution has been mixed. Still, it’s reasonable to keep McCarthy on the hot seat; even with his improved approach, he’s far from flawless. But when evaluating McCarthy, we must admit that his quarterback is far from flawless, too.
Kalyn Kahler asks:
Is he going to say it?
Twice a week, every week, for the past month, Aaron Rodgers has stood in front of a sea of recorders, cameras and phones, all patiently waiting to capture the speech. In 2014, it was “R-E-L-A-X.” In 2016, “run the table.” But now it’s getting late. Rodgers and the Packers have just lost aSunday Night Football game in Minnesota, falling to 4-6-1 on the season. Those reporters, like the rest of the football-watching world, are still waiting for the quarterback to say something—anything—that will ensure the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 season will turn out O.K. Instead, Rodgers stands at the podium, left foot casually crossed in front of his right, and stoically repeats a variation of this phrase: “We’re going to need some help.”
It doesn’t feel like 2016, when they fell to 4-6 then ran the table, making it to the NFC championship. It doesn’t feel like 2014, when they were blown out in two of their first three games before flipping the switch, finishing 12-4 and coming within an onside kick recovery of the Super Bowl. As November turns into December, the Packers face the prospect of missing the playoffs with a healthy Rodgers for the first time since 2008—his first year as the starter. Observers can’t help but wonder: What is wrong with the Packers?
It’s been nearly a year since Ted Thompson stepped down as general manager. But to understand what is happening in 2018, you must look back a few years. Many interviewed for this story say the Packers’ struggles can be traced back to Thompson’s final years as GM; others who won’t say it still suggest it with their actions.
Thompson, of course, had a wildly successful overall run in Green Bay. He began his career as a front-office executive in Green Bay in 1992. After leaving for a five-year stint in Seattle, he returned to the Packers as general manager in 2005. The first selection of his first draft was Aaron Rodgers, and the team went to the postseason nine times in 13 seasons of Thompson’s GM tenure, including a Super Bowl XLV title. He will deservedly be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in May.
Thompson was devoted to a strict draft-and-develop model, rarely signing free agents or making trades; it drove Green Bay’s success during the most of his tenure. But the draft-and-develop model falls apart quickly if the team doesn’t draft well. 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.
Some in the organization felt the reduced talent on the roster put a strain on the coaching staff. And many in the front office were frustrated as well. Sources familiar with the inner workings of the organization said that lower level personnel employees explored trades and initiated conversations with other teams, around three or four times each year, but they could never get far without the ability to counter offer, which would require Thompson’s cooperation and approval. Scouts on the pro side were often frustrated because they felt like their hard work went to waste. They would spend weeks putting together reports on all the available free agents, and Thompson would rarely sign any. At various points during Thompson’s tenure, the Packers had chances to land Randy Moss, Marshawn Lynch (a collegiate teammate of Rodgers’s) and Tony Gonzalez, but did not move on any of them. (A team spokesperson declined an interview request for Thompson.)
Multiple sources noted the Packers’ low tolerance for “loud guys,” a general term for players who are outspoken with the media or even those who complain privately about the organization. Thompson was fiercely and famously private—if he had it his way, the team wouldn’t have put out press releases at all, even for good news like a player signing a contract extension. The term “bad guy” was thrown around amongst team decision makers, a descriptor that could range from a guy with a sordid past, or just a player who talks too much. (Example of the latter: Martellus Bennett, last season. “Yeah, that was never going to work,” says one person familiar with the inner workings of the front office.)
Thompson had full autonomy over football operations. Team president Mark Murphy, who arrived in 2007, says he met with his GM regularly, but that he doesn’t involve himself in any football decisions. Some in the organization believed that because Green Bay has no actual owner (Murphy serves as a de facto owner), Thompson’s power went unchecked. The front office as a whole got too comfortable. And the conservative, traditional culture being created became stifling for some.
Ron Wolf, the Hall of Fame GM who ran the Packers from 1991-2001, had a saying: Football is the most important thing. If we do the football part right, the result will be wins. It was a message about seeing the bigger picture, not sweating the small stuff, and taking care of the things that really mattered. Some in the organization felt like that message had been lost.
Some of the team rules became byzantine. No backwards hats on the sidelines. No undershirts showing from underneath practice jerseys. All players must coordinate and wear the same color shoes, as determined by the team. When players leave the locker room for practice, the equipment staff tidies each locker, clearing it of any unsightly hangers or extra gear.
Thompson set the rules, and it was up to Russ Ball, the VP of football administration/player finance who was seen as the only person in the building with Thompson’s full trust, to enforce them. One former Packer said that over time, these small rules add up and wear players down, causing some to question why certain things are the way they are.
“It’s an insane level of control,” says one person close to the organization. “No fun, it’s all about the Packer brand and being a vice president. The most important people in the organization are the VPs. The players and all that, that comes later.”
After Thompson stepped down, Murphy reorganized Green Bay’s power structure. During the interview process for a new general manager, Murphy decided Thompson’s job would be best be split into two separate roles. In January, director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst was promoted to general manager, and Ball was promoted to a new role, executive vice president/director of football operations. And Murphy made one more change: Instead of McCarthy and Ball reporting to the GM, they now, like Gutekunst, report directly to Murphy. Green Bay calls the triumvirate “football leadership,” creating natural checks and balances in the front office.