Tyler Dunne will open your eyes:
There had to be a breaking point. An incident, an argument, a loss, a moment that doomed the football marriage of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy.
Anyone could see the Packers quarterback and head coach were headed for divorce well before that inconceivable 20-17 loss to the lowly Cardinals in December, the one that finally got McCarthy fired. Death stares and defiance from Rodgers had been constant for years by then.
But how far back do you have to go to find the beginning of the end?
Was it Week 3 of the 2017 season, when cameras caught Rodgers barking“Stupid f–king call!” at his coach?
Or back further, to the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, 2015, when McCarthy coached with the ferocity of a sloth, calling for field goals from the 1-yard line twice in the first half and then running three straight times with five minutes left to infuriate his QB and effectively euthanize a Super Bowl season?
Or even earlier, to 2013, when Rodgers and McCarthy appeared close to throwing haymakers midway through a loss in Cincinnati?
Those who observed this relationship from the beginning say you have to keep going.
Back to the honeymoon period. Even as the Packers went 15-1 in 2011, with Rodgers as league MVP. Even as they won their last Super Bowl title, in the 2010 season, with Rodgers as Super Bowl MVP. Even then, Rodgers was already seething at his coach.
So keep going. All the way to when these two were first brought together. In early 2006.
The worst-kept secret at 1265 Lombardi Avenue was that Rodgers seemed to loathe his coach from the moment McCarthy was hired.
Nobody holds a grudge in any sport like Rodgers. When it comes to Rodgers, grudges do not merrily float away. They stick. They grow. They refuel.
No, Rodgers would not forget that McCarthy had helped perpetuate his four-and-a-half-hour wait in the NFL draft green room the year prior. His nationally televised embarrassment. McCarthy, then the 49ers offensive coordinator, chose Alex Smith No. 1 overall. Not Rodgers.
No, Rodgers would not take it as a funny accident.
“Aaron’s always had a chip on his shoulder with Mike,” says Ryan Grant, the Packers’ starting running back from 2007 to 2012. “The guy who ended up becoming your coach passed on you when he had a chance. Aaron was upset that Mike passed on him—that Mike actually verbally said that Alex Smith was a better quarterback.”
Another longtime teammate agrees: “That was a large cancer in the locker room. It wasn’t a secret.”
Through all of the winning seasons, it might have been easy for casual observers to overlook this cancer. To mistake success for bliss and harmony and assume life was good between the two.
But even in the best of times—when confetti should’ve still been stuck to their clothing—one person who was then close to Rodgers remembers he would regularly call to vent that McCarthy didn’t have a clue what he was doing. He’d tell him that McCarthy frequently called the wrong play. That he used the wrong personnel. That they were running plays that worked one out of 50 times in practice. That McCarthy was a buffoon he was constantly bailing out.
“Mike has a low football IQ, and that used to always bother Aaron,” this source says. “He’d say Mike has one of the lowest IQs, if not the lowest IQ, of any coach he’s ever had.”
Adds a personnel man who worked for the Packers at the time: “He’s not going to respect you if he thinks he’s smarter than you.”
And then, as time moved on and the team plateaued, the facade fell away. Cracks in the foundation of this arranged marriage became impossible to ignore.
“You start arguing. You start losing. When the money’s bad, you argue,” says DuJuan Harris, a Packers running back from 2012 through 2014. “You start hating how somebody breathes. You start hating how somebody chews their food.”
Then, poof, it’s over.
Leaving behind what legacy? It’s not like the Packers were epic failures this last decade. McCarthy has a street named after him in the shadow of Lambeau Field. Rodgers is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. The two made the playoffs together eight years in a row. But this should’ve been a Patriots-like reign. History. One former teammate says he thinks Rodgers should have won a minimum of six Super Bowl rings under McCarthy and that the 2011 team should be remembered like the ’72 Dolphins.
Instead, a surefire dynasty never was.
Instead, Rodgers is hoping to rise again at 35 years old, McCarthy is unemployed, and everyone else is left asking one question: What the hell happened?
Bleacher Report talked to dozens of players, coaches and personnel men who shared time in Green Bay with Rodgers and McCarthy in search of an answer.
Virtually all of them agree this era of Packers football is missing rings. Many rings. And sure, there’s blame to spread. Some cite former general manager Ted Thompson literally falling asleep in meetings by the end of his tenure. Some cite the defense’s innate ability to self-destruct each January.
But central to it all are the two Packers who lasted the longest.
McCarthy and Rodgers.
Where Jermichael Finley, a Packers tight end from 2008 to 2013, sees a self-entitled quarterback and bad leader, Grant thinks it’s idiotic for anyone to complain about such a transcendent talent. Where Greg Jennings, a Packers receiver from 2006 to 2012, sees Rodgers as an ultrasensitive source of toxicity, others lambast McCarthy for wasting a gift from the football gods.
One ex-Packers scout puts it on both. He describes Rodgers as an arrogant quarterback quick to blame everyone but himself—one who’s “not as smart as he thinks he is”—yet kindly points out that McCarthy basically quit on his team.
Nobody’s sure where Rodgers and the Packers will go from here. How long this next marriage with new head coach Matt LaFleur will last.
But one former teammate, lamenting this colossal what-if, makes one point on the past crystal clear.
“If you were going to write a headline,” he says, “that would be it right there: How Egos Took Down the Packers.”
At its peak, the Rodgers-McCarthy Packers offense carried a feeling of absolute certainty.
Coaches would try to build up opponents, and the players would chuckle inside. “We would literally say, ‘They can’t stop us,'” Grant says.
There was zero doubt.
Plays were simple and worked like clockwork. McCarthy identified and game-planned for endless mismatches. Defenses couldn’t double-team Jennings. Linebackers couldn’t guard Finley. Jordy Nelson was in unbreakable mindlock with Rodgers on back-shoulder throws. James Jones bullied corners. Randall Cobb added to the embarrassment of riches. And playing zone against Rodgers was like playing zone against the Golden State Warriors: a death sentence.
The cherry on top for Rodgers was ever-growing freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and an ever-growing propensity mid-play to wait, wait, wait for something grander to develop downfield.
McCarthy could live with that, of course. The Packers were winning. So much.
Yet as Green Bay’s talent drained, that freedom became a problem.
Think of mankind’s never-ending debate over artificial intelligence, Grant says. “When you put a quarterback in a position and you talk about how cerebral he is and you give him flexibility to make some changes, guess what? … You develop A.I., because it has the capacity to run without you. And then when it runs without you, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute!’ But in the same breath, if you’re not actually able to stay ahead of it, it’s going to outthink you and it’s going to say, ‘Me making the decision is the better decision.'”
And so, Grant adds, “You live and die by his greatness.”
The problem for McCarthy was that as the talent drained, he failed to innovate. His scheme went stale and he didn’t adapt. As one personnel man puts it, McCarthy “got full off his own juice.” He believed his system—not the Packers’ absurd amount of talent—was the foundation for the offensive success. But raw rookies cannot bust free one-on-one like, say, Jennings or Nelson or Jones.
Tension with Rodgers over the play-calling became part of the DNA of the offense itself. Rodgers felt the system was bland, so he increasingly played Superman.
Many believe Rodgers, the QB with the best career passer rating (103.1) in NFL history, was 100 percent justified in overruling his coach’s play calls, and that the Packers would’ve deteriorated more precipitously if he hadn’t put that cape on. The personnel man says the Packers’ passing offense was essentially “Get open” and that they basically ran the same routes for seven years straight, to the point where division rivals “constantly” called out plays pre-snap and jumped routes.
No wonder the slant route, once so lethal, went extinct.
Where were the route combinations? The motion? The misdirection? “It’s like, ‘Dude, you have to adjust! The league changes!'” the personnel man says. “You’ve got to be humble enough to follow it. If you can’t adapt, you die. He definitely didn’t adapt. You can’t run 90 back-shoulders into coverage. I don’t care who you are. Things got so stale.”
Rodgers had no choice but to seize control, and each year, he took more.
That ridiculous throw to Jared Cook in the playoffs in 2017? Drawn up in the huddle. Rodgers told an uncovered guard to pull out with him, that he’d bait in a defender and dash left. “That’s what you’re dealing with,” one former Packers coach says. “A guy who’ll do that. He might screw up a play Mike called … [but] you have to give him credit for the good, too.”
That disconnect led to tension. A system that once seemed so unstoppable was rendered bland, archaic. Games devolved into weird contests of who could call the better play, and the grudge-fueled Rodgers felt more and more empowered to excel in spite of McCarthy, the man who dared to think Alex Smith was better than him.
McCarthy, on the other hand, seemed to be more and more checked out, leading many to sympathize with Rodgers.
The sight was strange at first.
About once a week, a meeting would start up and McCarthy was MIA. Players weren’t quite sure where he was while, for example, an assistant coach would run the team’s final prep on the Saturday before a game. Eventually, word leaked that McCarthy, the one calling plays on game day, was up in his office getting a massage during those meetings.
One player had the same massage therapist, and she let it slip that McCarthy would sneak her up a back stairway to his office while the rest of the team prepared for that week’s opponent.
“That was when guys were like, ‘What the heck?'” says one longtime Packer. “Everybody was like, ‘Really? Wow.'”
Rodgers in particular was not thrilled.
Not that there wasn’t logic to it all. As the years grinded on, McCarthy tried to take on more of a CEO-like approach with the team. He would routinely deny outside interview opportunities for assistants if they were under contract, so this was his way of giving them more responsibility, to prep them for an eventual promotion elsewhere. Back issues are common amongst all football coaches. And while McCarthy likely wasn’t getting a massage every time he let an assistant run a meeting, the optics were bad. In stepping back, he came across as distant and lost respect from players.
“If you’re not a part of meetings, and then you’re trying to be pissed about execution, nobody’s going to really respect you,” says one former front-office member from the McCarthy-Rodgers era. “They’re going to look at you like, ‘Where have you been all week?’ It sounded like he was really just chilling.”
Put yourself in Rodgers’ shoes—in the shoes of a player who eats, sleeps, breathes the sport. As some sources put it, “How do you think he felt?” Of course he’d seize control.
Rodgers may not be a Tom Brady-like locker room presence, but to one former offensive teammate, he’s still “by far the best quarterback, skills-wise, in the history of the NFL.” And it was on McCarthy to manage that, provide leadership and make his quarterback’s life as stress-free as possible. Do everything in his power to let that talent shine.
“His No. 1 job, and Mike always missed this point, is to manage Aaron,” the former teammate says. “That’s your driver. That’s your engine. Aaron’s your engine for the whole team. Whether you want to or don’t want to, you have to make sure that guy’s happy. At the end of the day—and it doesn’t sound like a fun job—if he’s happy, you’re winning.
“Your job isn’t to go out there and throw and catch passes. Your job is to manage people.”
And if Rodgers isn’t Brady as a leader, McCarthy sure as hell never managed like Bill Belichick. Whereas Belichick despises the limelight and “removes himself” every way he can, this player says McCarthy loved anointing himself as a quarterback guru. The coach often bragged to players about his time with Joe Montana…in Kansas City.
“He tried to bill himself as this quarterback master,” the player says. “It was like, ‘Buddy, I just want to let you know, Joe Montana did a lot more before he was in Kansas City.'”
McCarthy felt he was the one who created this monster of an offense. A personnel man adds: “That was McCarthy’s big mistake. He wanted to be The Guy. He wanted to be The Reason. And he wasn’t that good.”
It didn’t help that McCarthy also was rotating his assistants between positions annually. He wanted them to gain more experience, but as Grant points out, this didn’t necessarily help the players. Many times, they felt as though they knew more about their position than their own coach.
Many agree McCarthy could have saved himself if he had swallowed his pride and hired a bright offensive mind to challenge Rodgers. One beam of hope emerged in Alex Van Pelt, who coached running backs in 2012 and 2013 before moving over to quarterbacks in 2014. However, team sources say McCarthy felt threatened by Van Pelt, who became close to Rodgers. The Packers opted not to retain Van Pelt when his contract expired after the 2017 season, which didn’t sit well with Rodgers.
Which cut that grudge deeper.
And the rest of the team? There were mixed opinions on McCarthy.
Some interpreted his laissez-faire style differently. It was refreshing. From backups like Jayrone Elliott (“I have nothing but respect for him”) to starters like Grant (“Mike’s a great coach. I’m surprised he’s not coaching right now”), again and again they describe him as a player’s coach. But even one defensive starter who begins a conversation by praising McCarthy soon admits the culture he instilled created a soft team.
When Thompson hired McCarthy, he called him “Pittsburgh macho.” And yet the coach rarely matched his no-bull rhetoric in press conferences with no-bull action. One personnel man calls him “a fake tough guy.” McCarthy rarely fined or benched or sent messages to players and paid the price almost every season—never more so than in the game, the moment, that’ll define him in the eyes of many Packers fans. Multiple sources from the team say McCarthy should have cut inept backup tight end Brandon Bostick months before the NFC title game in 2015. Instead, he was on the field for a late Seahawks onside kick attempt, and instead of blocking his man, he went for the catch. The ball bounced off his helmet, and Green Bay collapsed.
The Packers also rarely hit in training camp, and it angered defensive players “every day” how little interest McCarthy showed in them. He was never around their drills, the former starter says, and it was always the defense sprinting to the offense’s side of the field for team drills.
“What guys did on defense did not matter,” he says. “This is an offensive-minded team, and our quarterback is expected to bail us out. As defenders, we used to always talk about it. It’s like, ‘We whupped their ass today in camp. Are they going to finally run to us? Respect us?'”
The answer was a resounding “No,” and this player says the result was a “soft mindset” that’d constantly rear its ugly head.
When Rodgers missed seven games in 2013 and nine games in 2017, the player remembers teammates outright quitting.
“That’s when the real coaching, the real identity, the real character came out of everybody,” he says. “I saw that guys give up when we don’t have a star quarterback. I see guys aren’t going to give it all when their backs are against the wall.”
Even when they built a 19-7 lead in the NFC title game in 2015, even as they bruised and bloodied the most physical team in the NFL for 56 minutes, it was only a matter of time before their inner softness was exposed. McCarthy caved, the defense caved, and it was not by accident.
“That Seahawks game defined our team right there,” he says. “We didn’t have any finishers.”
Moments after that 28-22 loss, Rodgers let his frustrations show. He criticized the team’s lack of aggressiveness. But he didn’t blow up directly at McCarthy, that anyone interviewed saw. Quiet tension defined this relationship. One player who heard about McCarthy’s massages even wonders aloud if Rodgers started that rumor and tried spreading it to anybody that’d listen. Neither Rodgers nor McCarthy could be reached to comment on this story, but nobody B/R spoke to recalled a scornful, over-the-top confrontation between the two when such a reckoning was needed.
If Rodgers has a problem, he rarely chooses to address it directly.
One person, who used to be close to the quarterback but has since been cut out of his life, describes Rodgers as forever “conflict-averse.” As passive-aggressive to the extreme. As someone who’d rather stuff problems deep, deep down inside of him and pretend there’s no issue rather than communicate those issues and strengthen relationships like this one with his coach.
Rodgers usually chose midgame tantrums over constructive conversation.
“I guarantee you, he never—maybe once or twice—but mostly never, ever addressed any of those things with Mike,” this person says. “Which means all it did was fester and poison it.”
So fester, it did. And fester. And fester.
So, no, McCarthy is not the only one to blame.
It was 2012 and the Packers were hosting the 49ers when, mid-timeout, cornerback Carlos Rogers playfully asked Jennings why he was running so many short routes.
“You know how it is,” Jennings told him. “Contract year.”
That’s when Rodgers stepped in to say, per Jennings, “You guys should get him at the end of the year.”
Jennings walked back to the huddle speechless.
“I don’t think he realizes what he said and the impact that it had,” Jennings says. “Had the shoe been on the other foot and I said, ‘Hey, man, I should come and play with your quarterback,’ he would’ve been so offended by that. But when it comes out of his mouth—and we all know there’s truth behind jokes—for him to say that and just act as though everything was the same? It just wasn’t.”
The next day, Jennings told his position coach, Edgar Bennett, he knew this was his last year in Green Bay. “That was my headspace,” he admits.
He had been Rodgers’ No. 1 receiver for four seasons running, racking up 4,619 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns from 2008-11. He was on the receiving end of Rodgers’ iconic Super Bowl thread of the needle. He had opened his family’s front door to Rodgers for Thanksgiving, for any day he’d ever want, because he knew his quarterback was alone in a new city.
And now Rodgers didn’t want him around? Jennings felt betrayed.
That season plodded along. The Packers misdiagnosed Jennings’ sports hernia as a groin injury. When he entered free agency, Rodgers made no effort to convince him to stay. No calls. No texts. Not one conversation. Goodbye.
Before bombarding his Twitter account with profanities, understand that Jennings is self-aware. He acknowledges there will be steam bursting out of Packers fans’ ears. Any ex-Packer who does anything but praise Rodgers to the fullest extent is swiftly shamed en masse. He gets that. But Jennings insists he’s simply speaking the truth—and in this case, the truth “provokes.”
He’s not the only one, either.
Maybe Rodgers’ ability to sling a football on a rope from any angle every Sunday masked McCarthy’s flaws. But a faction of people who have spent time around Rodgers and the Packers believe you must look beyond the statistics and highlights and understand Rodgers is also responsible for the Packers’ plummet to mediocrity.
Then they list the reasons why.
He is self-entitled.
The moment Rodgers inked his new contract, one that could earn him up to $180 million, Finley knew a storm was brewing. Because Finley, Rodgers’ No. 1 tight end for four-and-a-half years, remembers the entitlement his QB had even as a first-year starter “when he was broke as f–k.”
“You gave a man $200 million,” Finley says. “He’s the GM. He’s the organization. He’s the quarterback. And he’s the head coach. He has a sense of entitlement already, and then you give him $200 million? You make him one of the highest-paid in history. It comes with the territory, man. I think Rodgers, man to man, needs to take a little more blame.”
He’ll throw you in the doghouse.
One former Packers scout says Rodgers can be brutally tough on young players. Sometimes, it’s necessary. Other times? Not so much.
The scout points to Jeff Janis, a 2014 seventh-round flier with rare size (6’3,” 220 pounds) and speed (4.42 in the 40) who quickly became a fan favorite—and Rodgers’ favorite whipping boy. It was enough to alarm the scout, even though he also wasn’t high on Janis as a player.
“Janis got into the doghouse really quick, and he just never let him out,” he says. “He didn’t even give the kid a chance. And the tough part is Janis is actually a good person. And they used to dog him. Other people did what Aaron did. They used to dog Janis.”
What does this doghouse look like? Easy. Rodgers can do no wrong. “He doesn’t make a mistake. It’s always the receiver’s fault.”
He is overly sensitive.
That word constantly comes up when you ask about Rodgers. Where to begin? “Sensitive is sensitive,” Jennings begins. You hear what you want to hear. Perceive what you want to perceive. Nothing else matters.
To illustrate, he points to his own broken relationship with the quarterback, because he is confident that he’s done everything in his power to mend it—while Rodgers has not, he punctuates, “by any stretch of the imagination.”
Covering a Packers game as a member of the media, Jennings tried to get Rodgers’ attention, but the quarterback refused to acknowledge him. Jennings spoke to McCarthy. He spoke to the trainers. He spoke to everyone he could to set up a man-to-man chat, no cameras around, and never heard a peep back. Not that he was surprised.
This is the same quarterback who scolded him for daring to speak to Brett Favre when Favre was a Viking. Jennings still remembers an incensed Rodgers saying to him after that 2009 game, “Why do you have to do that?” as if he was accusing Jennings of picking sides.
“I can’t have a relationship with him because you have a problem with him?” Jennings says. “That’s petty! That’s not who I am.”
So there was Jennings, a Viking himself in 2013. He could tell Packers receivers were scared just to say hello with Rodgers likely hyperanalyzing their every move from afar. To him, that’s sad. It shouldn’t be like this. He sees the relationship Brady has cultivated with Julian Edelman, with all of his receivers, and says, “Everyone wants that.” Those two spend time together off the field, and it carries into what matters on the field. Brady builds bonds for life, and that can be the difference between division titles and Super Bowls.
Between Brady’s legacy and Rodgers’ legacy.
Meanwhile, Jennings’ once-strong friendships with Nelson and Randall Cobb, two of Rodgers’ closest allies, have fizzled. There’s no chance in hell that “Perfect Pack” group posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2011 would do so again.
In Rodgers’ world, as one former friend says, “When you’re out, you’re out.” He eliminates anything he perceives to be negative. Famously, that included suddenly cutting off his family and close friends in 2014. He made a comment in December about celebrating his birthday with his “folks,” but sources close to the family say that’s incorrectly led many to believe they reconciled. They have not, and those who were cut out still can’t understand why.
“I don’t know how someone changes completely,” one of them says. “That whole flip? For no reason? I can’t even fathom how someone does that.”
Some around the Packers wonder if this absence of family is affecting Rodgers, if holding grudges has a negative effect on his psyche. One former Packers personnel man describes him as someone who’s “really into his feelings,” who’s “not kind of sensitive—he’s real sensitive.” There are bad dudes in the NFL, he assures, and Rodgers is not one of them. But he’s different, he says. Not in the way Brady is, not ultraconsumed with winning. Just…”different.”
It’s as if Rodgers cannot hear millions of people calling him a walking Hall of Famer.
As if Rodgers is still the kid with the spiky hair free-falling on draft day.
Every scrap of negative press, every perceived slight from a teammate, a coach, whoever, “bothers him to his core,” this source says, “It hurts him. … It’s like, ‘Dude. You’re Aaron Rodgers. Relax. People are trying to crown you as the greatest ever, and you’ve only won one Super Bowl.’ It’s so entrenched in his mind—that everybody’s against me—that he just can’t get over that.”
The chip on Rodgers’ shoulder was always more of a boulder, from the zero Division I offers to McCarthy’s 49ers choosing Smith over him to his own fans booing him during “Family Night” when Brett Favre tried to return. As he aged, Rodgers needed a new source of fuel, and that fuel became his own coach.
In a twisted way, that attitude is also Rodgers’ gift. Pissing off teammates. Defying his coach. Burning bridges for life. These may all be inconvenient side effects to the assassin you see on Sundays.
Grant dismisses anything his former teammates say—”Dude, get out of here”—because to him, the chip isn’t a bad thing.
Hostility is also a weapon.
“With Aaron, his chip on his shoulder and his sensitivity is actually what makes him great,” Grant says. “It’s part of what motivates him and who he is. So you can’t knock it. Just because you like it in one direction doesn’t mean you’re going to like it in all directions.”
Another longtime member of the Packers front office agrees, claiming any frustration Rodgers felt with Janis, with anyone, is likely because that player doesn’t work how Rodgers works. Think of Jordan, Kobe, any legend. They’re all demanding to the point of teammates despising them. Ask Magic Johnson’s teammates what they thought of him, the source says. “They’d say, ‘This dude was a jerk!'”
With superstardom comes the realization that all eyes are on you to deliver.
Jordan embraced it. Kobe, too.
That’s where Jennings and Finley see a stark difference in Rodgers. He is not accountable. “He’s not a natural-born leader,” Finley says.
Now the pressure on Rodgers is rising like never before, Jennings adds, “whether he likes it or not.”
“Not so much with his play, because we know his play is second to none,” Jennings says. “But how can he foster relationships and coexist with a head coach, a play-caller, that is going to put more on his plate to deliver for the betterment of the team? Not so much for the betterment of you, statistically, with all your numbers. You’re going to get your accolades. But now, we’re going to ask you to suppress your ego.”
Adds Finley, “A-Rod wants his. He wants to eat. He cares about his yards, his completions. He’s going to have a hard time. … That’s like an addict. You tell an addict to change his ways when he’s been stuck in his ways so long. I think it’s going to be very tough. I thought he’d be able to grow out of it, but, s–t, you give a guy more money, there’s more attitude, more diva-ness…”
His voice trails off.
Nothing’s changed. McCarthy couldn’t do anything about it, and maybe no one can.
Not that McCarthy didn’t try.
Sources say McCarthy welcomed Rodgers over to his house and once even recommended he pick up the phone to call his mother. But Rodgers wasn’t a fan of McCarthy’s storytelling—he preferred to stick to the X’s and O’s. And on the family advice, Rodgers told McCarthy in so many words to mind his own business. McCarthy demanded more of Rodgers “as a man,” one ex-friend says, “and Aaron didn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to ever be told he’s wrong.”
Everything continued to fester, problems never went away, and for some reason, nobody ever stepped in.
The cold front of complacency swept on through northeastern Wisconsin every single time the Packers fell just shy of another Lombardi Trophy.
After the Giants stunned those 15-1 Packers.
After Colin Kaepernick zapped their defense (twice).
After the Seattle meltdown.
After an NFC title game blowout loss in Atlanta.
Every time, the general manager who oversaw the team from 2005 to 2017 did…nothing. Or close to nothing. That’s what the ones banging the table for both Rodgers and McCarthy stress. They point to Ted Thompson sticking his head in the sand every offseason. To his ignoring the building tension between the two men he brought together to lead his franchise. And to how his stubborn reluctance to sign veterans, despite the rising salary cap, made life more difficult for both.
As one player put it, Thompson assumed the Packers system was automatic and he could just plug cheap rookies in.
In the process, the Packers lost the leaders that Rodgers and McCarthy never were, never would be, and they never found replacements.
Gone were gnarly, take-no-prisoners guards Josh Sitton (a Packer from 2008 to 2015) and T.J. Lang (2009-2016). Both were never afraid to speak their minds. Gone was fullback John Kuhn (2007-2015), who several players cite as a major vocal leader. Gone were all those receivers. Gone were defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (2006-2013) and defensive back Charles Woodson (2006-2012). Gone was defensive tackle B.J. Raji (2009-2015), who one player claims held everyone accountable on defense. Thompson lowballed Raji, choosing instead to pay big money to fire-breathing defensive tackle Mike Daniels. While Daniels has been hell-bent on trashing Green Bay’s “soft” label, one teammate says guys are turned off by his “hypocritical leadership.”
Thompson wanted the Packers to stay young. In the process, he gutted the team of its heart and soul.
It got so bad, one player says, that offensive and defensive players almost never hung out off the field. Camaraderie was shot.
“Guys really started feeling like, ‘I can’t get paid here,'” one player says. “How are you letting certain guys walk who proved themselves?”
The leadership exodus pushed Rodgers further and further into an ill-fitting role. He never had to worry about speaking up back in 2010 or 2011. He played football. That’s what he prefers. Multiple sources say Rodgers misses those days, with one adding he’s become worn down and bitter about everyone’s expectations of the type of leader he should be. In other words, as a former Packers scout puts it, Rodgers “is Brett Favre 2.0. He used to say, ‘Oh, I’ll never be like that guy.’ And he literally is.”
Back in Grant’s day, the Packers were armed with legit leaders at every position.
Those teams self-policed. McCarthy never had to intervene. Rodgers never had to speak up.
“The reason we did well was because we weren’t looking for Aaron to be a phenomenal leader,” Grant says. “He needed to be a phenomenal quarterback, because we were leaders. We handled our own position, and we weren’t looking for someone else to be that guy, to be that leader. … It was, ‘We’ve got this s–t.’ When things got out of hand, we were like, ‘What’s wrong with y’all?’ I don’t know what this looks like now.”
Chances are, Rodgers would be less apt to defy a coach with more vets in the room.
Players his age, who’ve seen it all, wouldn’t put up with his antics.
“There’s no one there to hold him accountable,” Jennings says.
How Thompson failed to grasp this dynamic baffles people in the organization, although they also believe someone above Thompson should’ve stepped in because the GM’s health was deteriorating. One personnel man recalls Thompson moving “really slow,” with slurred speech, falling asleep during film sessions. “I’m like, ‘This is the GM?'” Thompson was dealing with obvious physical issues, and Mark Murphy, the team president since 2007, didn’t step in.
Thompson kept on serving as the team’s preeminent judge, jury and executioner.
Until, finally, he didn’t.
After the 2017 season, Murphy replaced Thompson with Brian Gutekunst as GM.
In December, Murphy fired McCarthy.
There’s no official “owner” in Green Bay—no one with a Jerry Jones-like heavy hand—but a decade after standing by Thompson, McCarthy and Rodgers when Favre tried to take his job back, Murphy is now wielding his power as de facto owner.
Only Rodgers is left now.
And Murphy made it clear that whatever happened last season cannot fly again.
At its best, the Lambeau mystique during the Rodgers-McCarthy era looked like this: Rodgers fakes a handoff, Rodgers boots, Rodgers chucks it 60 yards to a wide-open receiver, beers are spilled, “Bang the drum” roars, Rodgers does a little skip with a defiant uppercut of a fist pump.
When the Lambeau Field mystique evaporates, when the Packers offense inches closer and closer to collapse, it erodes to this: McCarthy sends play in. Rodgers does not approve. Rodgers calls own play in the huddle and/or tells a receiver to change his route. Exasperated sighs and snarls are exchanged all around. Nobody in their right mind is thinking, “They can’t stop us.”
The Packers finish 6-9-1.
The Packers suffer back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1990 and 1991.
Whoever’s fault it was, it got ugly in 2018. Real ugly.
After signing the richest contract in NFL history, Rodgers took more liberties than ever before the snap. A talent drain and McCarthy’s stubbornness were undoubtedly major issues. But Rodgers also showed virtually zero trust in his three rookie receivers, J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. No. 1 wideout Davante Adams was targeted 169 times, one shy of Julio Jones‘ NFL high.
Rodgers had the leverage, and McCarthy knew it.
Maybe Rodgers had no choice but to railroad a rotting offense. Maybe Rodgers should have respected authority—after all, this offense helped him earn all that money.
Either way, he freelanced more than ever. One source with close ties to the team estimates Rodgers changed about a third of the plays McCarthy called. “An alarming amount. That is embarrassing. And they don’t work!'” Realizing early on that his days in Green Bay were numbered, McCarthy would not rip Rodgers publicly. Not even as fans lambasted him for failing to feed dangerous running back Aaron Jones—while Rodgers simultaneously audibled out of runs.
That tendency to audible out of runs is just about the only issue Grant ever had with Rodgers as a teammate. That wasn’t a problem in 2011. It was in 2018.
Life sure wasn’t fun for those rookie receivers, either. On-the-fly route changes put them in a no-win situation. They didn’t know whether to listen to their coaches or Rodgers.
A source close to the team says St. Brown became frustrated because as much as he wanted to follow McCarthy’s play design, he also heard rumors of Rodgers freezing out teammates if they didn’t do exactly what he demanded. So he listened to Rodgers. On one play in New England, Rodgers told St. Brown to run a post route when the play called for a flag. St. Brown ran the post, and pressure forced Rodgers to throw the ball away toward the flag—leading his position coach to grill him on what he was thinking.
St. Brown told him he was “improvising” so he didn’t upset Rodgers.
Knowing what was up, McCarthy told him to stick with the routes called.
“That’s when it went off the rails,” the source close to the team says. “This s–t was terrible. He f–ked McCarthy over. Aaron undermined him.”
The A.I. was operating on its own. Nobody was going to rein this in.
“Of course, it comes to a head, and what does he want to do?” says a source who was once close to Rodgers. “He wants to cut him out of his life, just like he cut his family out.”
Rodgers refused to take scheduled throws underneath, instead waiting for a deep shot that rarely materialized. The lack of experience did not help. These rookies simply did not have the thousands of reps Rodgers once had with Nelson and company, so he couldn’t make subtle audibles play after play with them. In one red-zone drill in practice, St. Brown didn’t pick up on a signal, and Rodgers lost it. No, he wasn’t exactly giving these rookies a chance to grow, either. A source close to one of the team’s skill-position starters says Rodgers was the one “sinking the ship” with zero interest in developing Valdes-Scantling, St. Brown or Moore.
The slightest mistake faded them out of his peripheral vision and sent him back to zeroing in on Adams.
“If they don’t make plays, you can’t just not go to them again,” this source says. “You have to keep building trust in them.”
Instead, he chose not to throw the ball to rookies open in one-on-one coverage. It’s likely no coincidence Valdes-Scantling faded out of the offense down the stretch. He ran the routes as they were called from the sideline, and his targets declined. Rodgers would look his way, then pat, pat, pat the ball for something else to develop. Why? A source close to the team says Valdes-Scantling told him Rodgers just didn’t like him. That he wasn’t doing exactly what Rodgers asked him to do, so the quarterback started to freeze him out.
“Can you imagine Mike McCarthy trying to coach through all this s–t?” that source asks.
McCarthy had lost all control of the machine, basically conceded defeat and was fired.
The knee injury Rodgers suffered in Week 1 did not help. Jennings acknowledges that. But even if the expiration date on McCarthy’s offense had passed, he believes this kind of insubordination cannot be ignored. He even hints at a tinge of strategy to Rodgers’ cavalier ways.
“When something gets stale, you’re not as motivated,” Jennings says. “You’re not as invested. Because even though you want to perform well, you’re still out to prove, ‘I told you so.’ There’s a fine line of saying, ‘Was he purposely doing things?’ or, ‘Was it just McCarthy?’ Because it had been so successful before, it’s hard to just say it was all McCarthy and none of Aaron. …
“Is it enough for him to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to have a record-breaking year that’s eventually going to keep McCarthy for another year.’ Is he willing to do that? I don’t think so.
“Just because change happens doesn’t mean the problem still doesn’t exist.”
Grant blames neither Rodgers or McCarthy but admits so many seasons with the same coach can turn that coach’s voice into “white noise.” Change was needed. The marriage was years beyond repair. From afar, Finley barely recognized the coach he loved Green Bay, the one who’d invite him into his office and snipe, “It’s time to catch the f–king ball!” Finley loved that authenticity. His best games came after talks like that.
And last season, to him, McCarthy looked “fed up and washed up. Just tired, period.”
For years, Rodgers built up a justifiable benefit of the doubt. Two MVPs, a Super Bowl title and ridiculous Hail Marys tend to make all of this drama, all of these headaches, worth it.
Now, it appears that benefit has been squashed. By Murphy.
Right before the Packers announced LaFleur as their new head coach, the source close to the team says Murphy called Rodgers to tell him who they were going with. He didn’t ask for permission—he told him who the choice was. There was a brief pause on the other end of the phone before Rodgers eventually spoke. Murphy made it clear that Rodgers would need to accept coaching. “Don’t be the problem,” he told him. “Don’t be the problem.”
Whoever’s to blame, Murphy does not want drama engulfing his team again.
The source close to the team says the president is “tired of the diva stuff.”
Over the years, Rodgers has preferred to surround himself with “Yes men,” multiple sources say. That’s why many thought Murphy would hire a “Yes man” to be the next head coach. To keep the peace. One former personnel man in Green Bay insists Murphy should’ve gotten Rodgers’ input and approval because, in his view, Rodgers is the one who makes the Packers relevant. Instead, Murphy made it clear to Rodgers that the organization was behind LaFleur.
The Packers’ brass did not feel the need to get Rodgers’ approval on whomever it hired. Murphy wanted a young coach who’d challenge the entire team, not just the quarterback.
Excitement’s in the Lambeau air again. Gutekunst inked a trio of defensive starters in a matter of 24 hours: edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith, safety Adrian Amos and linebacker Preston Smith. He’s the anti-Ted, determined to toughen up this soft defense. LaFleur is bound to be more creative than McCarthy. New offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is a Type A who’ll push Rodgers. Luke Getsy, the new quarterbacks coach, is a straight shooter who’s been in Green Bay before.
Only one question remains.
Will Aaron Rodgers be the problem?
Nobody outside of the state of Wisconsin is shedding a tear for the Packers. This is still a franchise that’s enjoyed nothing but Hall of Fame quarterbacks since 1992. Pull up the highlights of Rodgers and McCarthy celebrating, not the ones of Rodgers and McCarthy fighting, Harris implores.
The ex-Packers back surely speaks for millions in saying this generation of Packers fans is spoiled.
Then he offers a warning.
“The Packers went through their terrible time of losing before,” Harris says. “History can repeat itself.”
There’s some concern it could, some concern the Packers are becoming too corporate. One former team personnel man describes Ed Policy, the team’s chief operating officer, as a quiet “puppet master” angling for more football power. He adds Policy “has way more clout than people think” and that everyone in power got drunk off the team’s success over the years.
The business of the franchise has expanded tremendously with the new “Titletown District” across the street from Lambeau booming. Some in-house worry the business side of things could infiltrate actual football decisions. Even Grant heard it’s not as family-friendly as it used to be in Green Bay.
Right now, Murphy’s in charge, and he cares deeply about the product on the field.
Rodgers’ game might reach a new stratosphere with LaFleur. The optimists see a coach who’ll insert this combination of gifts—muzzleloader right arm, Houdini-like escapability, a QB Grand Maester intellectually—into an X’s-and-O’s equation that’ll now spit out an endless stream of MVPs and Super Bowls as it should have all along.
After dismissing anything Jennings and Finley say—”F–k those guys”—one former coach says Rodgers has matured and dismisses the idea that he’d blow off anyone who can’t match his IQ. He says Rodgers simply wants a coach “who isn’t going to bulls–t him” and expects Getsy, who was in Green Bay from 2014 to 2017 and spent last year at Mississippi State, to be precisely that.
And isn’t last season what McCarthy and the Packers basically signed up for from the jump? To him, you can’t have it both ways.
“You give a guy a green light to do whatever he wants and then criticize him for it. Which one do you want?” the coach says. “Do you want him to be creative, or do you want him to be exactly what you tell him?”
This fine line will be central to anything LaFleur implements on offense. That’s why Grant is more interested in what the offense looks like schematically than any wins and losses in 2019. This is a cerebral game now more than ever, and he knows Rodgers is frustrated that time is running out. Grant expects change to rejuvenate the quarterback.
And yet some do expect the 35-year-old player to railroad the 39-year-old first-time head coach.
“He already had a sense of entitlement, then you give him $200 million,” Finley repeats. “Then you give him a young head coach. I think in Aaron Rodgers’ heart, that’s what he always wanted. He wanted to take control.”
The challenge for LaFleur will be to strike a balance between showing confidence in himself and being a Tom Coughlin-like drill sergeant who Rodgers would tune out. Something like a “really, really hard cheerleader,” one ex-personnel man in Green Bay says, chuckling, as though he’s skeptical such a coach exists.
If LaFleur does strike that tricky balance and revitalizes Rodgers, Jennings thinks his old QB can enter the GOAT/Brady stratosphere. He’s just not sure how willing Rodgers is when the quarterback’s first public commentsabout the hire, at the NFL Honors, started off with the words, “A lot of change, in life in general, it’s tough at first.” That’s all he needed to hear. To Jennings, that quote practically guaranteed how this will go down.
“I know how Aaron operates,” Jennings says. “For him to make that statement, it already lets me know he’s going to make it hard on a young Matt LaFleur.”
To him, Rodgers doesn’t need to sacrifice too much. It’s as simple as what Brady did in the AFC title game, handing the ball off to backs 47 times to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field. LaFleur has already hinted at wanting to run the ball more.
Newfound humility would help the quarterback with five fewer rings.
“Now it’s, OK, are you willing to swallow all the sense of entitlement? All your pride?” Jennings says. “You don’t even have to swallow all of it. But are you willing to suppress most of it and say, ‘You know what, whatever it takes, I’m willing to do’?”
With McCarthy gone, all eyes, all pressure, all scrutiny, will be directed toward Rodgers. It’s on him to make that sacrifice, to work with others. After all, he brought the magic to Lambeau before.
He can do it again.
Even Jennings acknowledges that reality.
“Just as much as he is a part of the problem,” Jennings says, “he’s a big part of the solution.”
The only person who comes off well in this is Murphy, who, readers will recall, got hammered after McCarthy’s firing and LaFleur’s hiring. A properly cynical person might therefore ask how much role Murphy had in this story.
Be that as it may, I suspect a story like this could have been written about Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre, with McCarthy, or before him Mike Sherman, or with Mike Holmgren. Perhaps it could have been written about nearly every successful NFL coach with a superstar quarterback. With the exception of today’s New England Patriots (and there have been reports the last couple of years of friction between coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady), the lack of repeat NFL champions since John Elway’s retirement suggests that winning creates egos and the need to get credit for success that might be the biggest impediment to sustained success. (And that may extend to other sports.)
There’s an old phrase that states that great accomplishments are possible when those involved are willing to not take credit, or to pass credit around. After Super Bowl XXXI the Packers looked like they were in position to win Super Bowls as far as the eye can see. And then Holmgren decided he didn’t want to be just the coach anymore, and the would-be dynasty crumbled.
Before that was the Cowboys, who won consecutive Super Bowls, and then the egos of owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson couldn’t coexist anymore. The Cowboys haven’t even been to a Super Bowl since then. Then there was Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants before retiring, got to a Super Bowl with the Patriots, and then got Holmgren Disease. Parcells never went back to the Super Bowl with either the Jets or Dallas. The same thing happened to Mike Ditka after Super Bowl XX with Da Bears. (Almost immediately, in fact, since defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan immediately left.)
It seems self-evident that championship teams fall apart from inside as much as from outside. As a veteran NFL writer put it in the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXII season, if you win the Super Bowl one season, you play 16 Super Bowls the next season. But consider what typically happens after a team wins a title. Non-star players who think they’re better players than they actually are leave for more money or a bigger role with another team. (Desmond Howard after Super Bowl XXXI.) Players undervalued by management leave, and their replacements don’t measure up to their predecessors. (Every Brewers first baseman between Prince Fielder and Jesus Aguilar.) Assistant coaches, and sometimes head coaches (Holmgren), leave for better or at least better-paying jobs. (Holmgren.) Players sign big contracts and perhaps become complacent. (Rodgers?)
Packers and Bucks coaches and Brewers managers have been fired generally for bad performance, except for Harvey Kuenn, who reportedly was fired over concerns about his health after a year and a half and 160 wins. As for the Bucks, Don Nelson was one of the best coaches in the NBA in the 1980s, but he left Milwaukee due to his deteriorating relationship with owner Herb Kohl. George Karl coached the Bucks to the conference finals, and then his ego got him fired.
That makes the accomplishments of such coaches as Belichick, Bill Walsh (four Super Bowls in the 1980s), Joe Gibbs (three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different featured running backs), Pat Riley with the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers, Gregg Popovich with the Spurs, Joe Torre with the Yankees and Tony LaRussa with the Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals as noteworthy as they are. Those coaches and managers won multiple world championships while keeping egos at least publicly under control, or got rid of (or convinced the front office to get rid of) problem players while adequately replacing them.
If you think about it, why should this be surprising? Practically every workplace where people work for a career (as opposed to places that employ mostly part-time employees) have people who work together not by choice. There are people competing for different jobs from the jobs they have, often against their fellow employees. There are people who get promoted when by merit they shouldn’t be. The fact that pro athletes get paid much more than their fans for physical feats doesn’t make them better people than the fans who watch their games.