'We’re going to get the right guy,' Packers GM Brian Gutekunst says of the search for a coach
GREEN BAY - By the end, Mike McCarthy knew what was waiting for him.
The realities of the Green Bay Packers’ 4-7-1 record, including four straight losses after Sunday’s defeat to Arizona, were not a mystery. Even if the timing of Sunday’s termination was unexpected, the outcome was foreseen.
“I’ve never heard him talk like he did the past three weeks,” someone who knows McCarthy said.
This was the scenario set in motion when the Packers decided to extend McCarthy’s contract for only one season a year ago. A one-year extension never signaled confidence in McCarthy’s viability to be the Packers' coach long term. All it would take for McCarthy to become a lame duck was a bad stretch, a few losses.
McCarthy became the first Packers coach in 65 years to be fired during a season, but the question is whether president/CEO Mark Murphy waited 11 months too long. The Packers would have been better served, league sources suggested, making their head-coaching change when they replaced general manager Ted Thompson with Brian Gutekunst in January, an assessment with which Murphy disagreed Monday.
“You look at it,” Murphy said, “last year was disappointing. We had obviously the injury to Aaron (Rodgers). I think going into this year, realistically, we all had high expectations that we'd be back competing for a championship and Super Bowls."
That never happened, and it’s fair to wonder whether the distraction of McCarthy’s uncertain future in some way limited what the Packers could achieve in their 100th season. A distracted team fails repeatedly to execute in situational football, and the Packers' third-down and red-zone efficiency have been horrendous in 2018. A distracted team fails to win close games, and five of the Packers' seven losses have come by a single possession.
Inside the Packers' locker room, it was no secret the head coach’s days were numbered.
“I don’t think anybody expected anything like that to happen during the season,” receiver Davante Adams said Monday. “With the way things have been going with the team, there was speculation of whether or not it would happen before we head into next season, but I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on trying to do what I can to win games. But, yeah, we’re here now.”
It wouldn’t have been easy firing McCarthy after last season. He led the Packers to eight straight playoffs prior to 2017, and the team looked poised for a Super Bowl-era, record-tying ninth straight appearance before Rodgers broke the collarbone in his throwing shoulder.
Even Monday, Murphy genuinely sounded like someone who maintains belief in McCarthy’s coaching abilities. He listed all of McCarthy’s accomplishments, which include the Super Bowl XLV victory, 125 wins, and a .618 win percentage.
“It wasn't anything that he particularly did wrong,” Murphy said. “It was, I think, the change was needed now."
Yet there had to be some consideration that a coaching change was on the horizon, or else McCarthy’s last extension would have been longer than one year.
Nothing can be done about the path that led the Packers here. Murphy is left to make the best of this situation.
As the Packers begin the search for what remains one of the NFL’s more attractive coaching jobs, Murphy made clear he is retaining the organizational hierarchy implemented in January. He said Gutekunst will be “actively involved” in the process, but the decision on who will be the Packers' next head coach is Murphy’s to make.
It’s a structure Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf never would have agreed to when he became the Packers' general manager in 1991. Wolf has said a requisite for accepting the job in Green Bay was full autonomy of the football operation. For 16 years, former president Bob Harlan stepped aside and focused on business matters as Wolf, and later Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson, made unfettered football decisions.
Murphy used the same chain of command when he replaced Harlan in 2008, but he placed himself atop the football operations when he hired Gutekunst.
“I think I said this when I got hired and the structure was kind of laid out,” Gutekunst said, “this is about people, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable if it wasn’t for the people involved going forward with that structure. And that’s what it’s about. It’s really about the people, and I feel very confident that we’re going to get the right guy in this.”
Regardless, it’s a risk for Murphy to break from the traditional model that led to a rebirth of football success in Green Bay. Murphy declined the notion that he harbors any personal ambitions for making the hire, saying he believes it’s in the best interest of the Packers. He indicated a head coach would not be hired over Gutekunst’s objections.
“I’m not going to hire a coach that Brian is not comfortable with,” Murphy said.
Murphy offered little insight into the qualities he’s looking for in a new head coach. He said interim head coach Joe Philbin is a “legitimate candidate” to replace McCarthy, and that part of the reason to make a change now was the chance to see how the Packers played in four games under their former offensive coordinator.
Other candidates expected to be on Murphy’s list include Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, New Orleans quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
A source who knows Gutekunst said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would be a top target, although it’s unclear whether the Packers will consider him without Gutekunst leading the search.
A league source said the Packers would also have interest in Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, should he become available after the season. John Harbaugh comes from a defensive and special teams background, so he would be a break from the offensive approach.
Another potential defensive candidate could be Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Murphy hired Fitzgerald when he was the Wildcats athletics director, but it’s unclear whether he would be interested in interviewing him for the Packers' opening.
“I don’t think we’re going to put any kind of parameters on anything as we go forward,” Gutekunst said. “I don’t think we’re going to close the door on anything.”
Translation: The Packers are about to cast a large net.
Yet the net could have been even larger had they hired a new head coach 11 months ago. An influx of offensive coaches were hired last offseason, including Chicago’s Matt Nagy and Indianapolis’ Frank Reich.
Murphy needs his next big decision to work better than McCarthy’s one-year extension. Regardless, Murphy maintains he’s the most qualified person to select McCarthy’s replacement.
“All of my adult life I’ve been involved in football,” Murphy said. “I’ve seen it from the perspective of a player. I’ve been an athletic director for 17 years. I’ve hired many, many coaches, several football coaches. So I think I have a lot to offer. I feel that I’m a football person even though I’m in a position of president.
“Brian and I have a great relationship, and I think this gives the Packers the best chance to have success, and that’s why I’m doing it.”