This is the final part of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the coaching and personnel.
Mike McCarthy has said this was the most adversity Aaron Rodgers has encountered during his eight seasons as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback.
The same probably holds true for the Packers’ soon-to-be 11th-year head coach.
Few teams in the modern era have entered a season with larger expectations than McCarthy’s 2015 Packers, who were early favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50. That happens when you return nearly everyone from a team that was five minutes away from the title game last season.
Instead of getting closer to the ultimate goal, however, the Packers took a step back this season, especially on offense. Green Bay, the gold standard for offensive execution for many years, struggled mightily to move the ball in the wake of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury and never established a clear identity.
The coaches and players said after Nelson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Pittsburgh on Aug. 20 that nothing would change for the offense. True to their word, the Packers didn’t do anything drastic to compensate for Nelson’s absence, but perhaps they should have.
The offense flat-lined. Rodgers' play was off, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams were inconsistent to varying degrees and Pro Bowl running back Eddie Lacy played overweight. Meanwhile, talented second-year receiver Jeff Janis sat all season until all other receiving options were exhausted in the NFC divisional playoffs.
The lack of success and adjustments has called into question McCarthy’s command over the operation less than 15 months after New England coach Bill Belichick praised McCarthy’s leadership following Green Bay’s 26-21 win over the Patriots on Nov. 30, 2014.
In his decision to give up offensive play calling, McCarthy folded his best hand to oversee defensive and special-team units.
The offense fell across the board in the wake of the changes to the offensive structure, dropping from first in scoring to 15th, sixth in total yards to 23rd and eighth to 25th in passing. McCarthy, who resumed play-calling duties in Week 14, said he intends to handle those responsibilities going forward.
“I’m going to call the offense next year,” McCarthy said on his coach’s show last month. “I’m going to be more involved in the offense than I’ve been the last four, five years. I’m going to go back to the early years, the ‘06, '07, '08-type format. That’s the initial thought and with that, we have a lot of work to do.”
Getting the offense back on track may be the greatest challenge McCarthy has faced since the transition from Brett Favre to Rodgers because there’s really no precedent for it. Win or lose, it was a given the offense was going to be good. Before this season, the Packers only once ranked outside the top 10 in total offense under McCarthy. The return of Nelson could spur a revival, but that’s no guarantee.
The inactivity of general manager Ted Thompson in free agency also has been a popular topic in the aftermath of the Packers’ 26-20 overtime loss to Arizona in the divisional playoffs. His only veteran free-agent signing came the day after final cuts in the form of receiver James Jones.
To Thompson’s credit, there’s no bait-and-switch in his governance. He drafts, develops and retains the cream of the crop for better and for worse. McCarthy knows it. Team president Mark Murphy knows it. The problem the Packers face with possibly exploring free agency now is the abundance of players who will become free agents after next season, including Lacy, left tackle David Bakhtiari and starting guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton.
Thompson and McCarthy will return in 2016 as one of the longest-tenured leadership pairings in the NFL. Together, they’ll face ample pressure to get the Packers back to the Super Bowl. Five years ago, another appearance seemed like a foregone conclusion after Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV with a 27-year-old Rodgers, 24-year-old Clay Matthews and 27-year-old Nick Collins.
Only 17 veterans remain from that team, a number that undoubtedly will dwindle this offseason with eight scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. Internally and externally, reparations are needed between now and training camp if the Packers are going to make good on the potential they showed a few years ago.
Thompson and McCarthy made the Packers into perennial Super Bowl contenders. The time has come to get them back there.
The Packers started fast with a 6-0 record, but plummeted in the second half and lost seven of their last 12 games. While they qualified for the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, the Packers saw their four-year reign at the top of the NFC North end after getting swept at by division opponents at Lambeau Field.
It was the first time the Packers failed to beat any of their divisional opponents at home since 1968. McCarthy’s decision to concede play-calling flopped. The offense foundered for most of the season en route to finishing 23rd in total offense with 100 fewer points scored than in 2014. Instead of making Edgar Bennett and Tom Clements appetizing head-coaching candidates, the structural changes left the Packers’ coaching staff incredibly top-heavy with assistant coach Alex Van Pelt handling both the quarterbacks and receivers.
The Packers’ passing offense suffered in posting its lowest finish in almost 40 years. Rodgers had his worst season as a starter, and Cobb and Adams each struggled with drops. A full-time position coach also might have done better at readying Janis for a role in the offense.
The offense’s struggles eventually led to McCarthy reclaiming play-calling duties from Clements in Week 14. Still, McCarthy didn’t have any game-changing midseason adjustments like in 2014 when he moved Matthews to inside linebacker at the bye week to help the run defense.
He also admitted that he and the coaching staff didn’t react well enough to injury, especially as it pertained to replacing Bakhtiari (ankle) for three weeks at the end of the season. He deployed Don Barclay and Sitton first before inserting JC Tretter in the first round of the playoffs.
The defense had arguably its best season since the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. The future appears to be bright in the secondary with Darren Perry and Joe Whitt overseeing the development of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Coordinator Dom Capers did a better job of monitoring Julius Peppers’ reps. The defense waited too long to make the switch from Nate Palmer to Jake Ryan at inside linebacker.
The special teams were better under first-year coordinator Ron Zook with the unit jumping from dead-last to 17th in the Dallas Morning News’ annual rankings.
You can take issue with Thompson’s reluctance to delve into free agency, but it’s difficult to argue with his recent drafts. He bounced back from weak classes in 2011 and 2012 and has stocked the roster with prospects over the past three offseasons. There has been no truer example of that than in the secondary, where the Packers have added Micah Hyde (2013, fifth), Clinton-Dix (2014, first round), Randall (2015, first) and Rollins (2015, second).
Receiver/returner Ty Montgomery, inside linebacker Jake Ryan and quarterback Brett Hundley also appear to have bright futures. Cobb (four years, $40 million) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (five years, $33.75 million) didn’t have great seasons, but Thompson made the right call in extending each. The re-signing of B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion on friendly one-year deals helped deepen the defensive line. Conversely, he overpaid to keep fourth-string safety Sean Richardson from bolting on a one-year, $2.55 million contract.
The signing of outside linebacker Peppers and Guion were key to the team’s run to the NFC championship game in 2014, as the moves fortified positions that Green Bay struggled to improve through the draft. You might have thought it would entice Thompson to sign another veteran or two in free agency this season, but he resumed his place on the sidelines. It now has been nearly four years since Thompson has signed an unrestricted free agent with an expiring contract from a previous team (Anthony Hargrove, 2012).
Pressed into action after Nelson’s season-ending knee injury, Thompson picked up veteran James Jones after he was discarded by the New York Giants during final cuts. The 31-year-old receiver wound up leading the team with 890 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
Thompson shouldn’t have let Jermaine Gresham out of town without a contract in August. The two-time Pro Bowl tight end signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals the day after he passed a physical with the Packers. Although his numbers weren’t awe-inspiring (18 catches for 223 yards and a touchdown), Gresham played nearly 600 offensive snaps as the Cardinals’ No. 2 tight end. The Packers could’ve used that productivity with Andrew Quarless’ precarious situation (arrest on July 4, torn MCL in Week 3).
Credit Thompson for not compounding the error and trading for Vernon Davis midseason, though. Davis will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday, but the veteran tight end has been used sparingly in Denver.
After final cuts, Thompson released only two players the rest of the season: defensive lineman Bruce Gaston (activating Guion from suspension) and running back Alonzo Harris (blown curfew).
The Packers had a rough offseason with three players (Guion, Quarless and cornerback Jarrett Bush) getting arrested and defensive lineman Datone Jones being cited for marijuana. Bush (14 games, PED/substance violations), Guion (three games) and Jones (one game) all were suspended.