A few days removed from their stunning, possibly season-changing Hail Mary win at Detroit, Mike McCarthy has to decide where the Green Bay Packers go from here.
Three-quarters of the way through the season, McCarthy’s team is 8-4 and tied for the lead in the NFC North. If the playoffs started today, the Packers would be seeded third in the NFC.
But there’s a bigger issue. They’re stuck in a sustained stretch of pedestrian offensive play that dates to their 17-3 win at San Francisco in Week 4.
If McCarthy doesn’t get his offense and quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing at their previously elite levels, then it doesn’t matter where the Packers finish in the standings. They’re not going anywhere in the playoffs anyway.
This weekend I had a long talk with Eric Baranczyk, with whom I collaborate on a weekly video breakdown of Packers games, and we concluded that McCarthy essentially has three choices: He can look for the necessary changes in scheme, play calling and personnel within the offense’s current coaching structure; bring in an outside consultant, in this case his former offensive coordinator, recently fired Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin; or he can scrap his offseason changes in coaching responsibilities and go back to the setup that served the team well last year.
The guess here is that he’ll try to make it work within the current framework. As is, McCarthy has a role in offensive game planning, but Tom Clements calls plays, Edgar Bennett is offensive coordinator and Alex Van Pelt coaches quarterbacks and receivers.
The problem is, that setup has produced a mostly underachieving offense for more than two months. Whether it’s the play calling itself or something lost in the new distribution of responsibilities, it’s just not working.
McCarthy and Clements have been scrambling to fix things within this system for at least a month, yet their offense doesn’t look anything like it used to. Last season the Packers led the NFL in scoring, though granted, that was with Jordy Nelson at receiver.
Still, with or without Nelson, where are the short slants and shallow crosses that used to help give this offense rhythm? Or the quick throws against off coverage on run calls?
And why are teams blitzing Rodgers more effectively than in the past? According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers’ passer rating against blitzes this year is 92.2; over the previous four years combined it was 118.9.
The book on Rodgers used to be rush four, play two safeties deep and flood the field with coverage. Now, as started by 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in early October, it’s bring up a safety, keep Rodgers in the pocket and use the occasional blitz without undue fear.
Even the play-calling operation appears slower than before. McCarthy wants a fast tempo, but it seems like Rodgers is getting the calls from the sidelines late and snapping it at the end of the play clock, and not always just to get the defense to show its hand.
It’s simply hard not conclude after three-quarters of the season that McCarthy’s decision to give up play calling and rearrange staff duties was a mistake.
The idea of bringing in Philbin is hardly novel – a fan or two has emailed us with just that suggestion.
And we have to say up front, when teams hire consultants during the season, it’s a sign of disaster.
In October 2009, for instance, Washington brought in former Packers assistant Sherman Lewis as an offensive consultant in Jim Zorn’s final year as coach. That team finished 4-12. Likewise, after the Dolphins fired Philbin in October this year, interim coach Dan Campbell added long-time NFL assistant Al Saunders as an offensive consultant. The Dolphins are 5-7.
But if not desperate, the Packers are the next-best thing. And bringing back Philbin actually makes some sense.
Philbin worked for McCarthy from 2006-11. He knows the scheme, appears to have an excellent relationship with Rodgers and worked with many of the offensive players on the team. This wouldn’t be just some guy coming in from the outside. He has seen this quarterback and offense function at the highest level, and he might spot something that the Packers’ staff has missed while immersed in the thick of it.
The problem is, the Packers probably have too many cooks on offense as it is.
Before the offseason changes, McCarthy spearheaded game planning and called plays, Clements ran offensive meetings and Bennett was highly successful coaching the receivers.
In the new setup, McCarthy still has a hand in game planning, but Clements puts together the call sheet and calls plays, and Bennett runs offensive meetings presenting the game plan to the players. Adding Philbin to the mix could just as easily confuse as clarify. There's also no sign that McCarthy has seriously considered this route anyway.
The third option is returning to last season’s setup, then re-evaluating in the offseason. That carries its own problems, namely disruption within the coaching staff. Few react well to losing responsibilities, and McCarthy’s taking over the offense would be a big blow to Clements.
Then there’s the ripple effect. Either Bennett and Van Pelt would go back to their duties of 2014, with Bennett coaching receivers and Van Pelt only the quarterbacks, or remain in their current roles, with Clements in effect an extra top-level assistant. Either way, the staff’s chemistry would suffer.
But this league is about only one thing: winning. So McCarthy has to do what he has to do. And the Packers led the NFL in scoring last season, so the one thing he knows is that system worked. It also wouldn’t be new for the players.
McCarthy has had the weekend to return to earth after the Packers’ incredible Hail Mary win at Detroit. The sober truth is the same today as it was going into that game: The Packers’ offense (No. 24 in yards, No. 11 in points) is underperforming and nowhere near good enough to win the Super Bowl the way it has played for two long months.
Now, maybe McCarthy and Clements can find the answers in their current roles.
Maybe they’ve finally figured out how to get tight end Richard Rodgers open over the middle, rather than on fruitless short throws to the flats, during his eight-catch game last week.
Maybe second-year receivers Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis will add more with increased playing time the final month.
And maybe McCarthy and Clements will find a way to get Randall Cobb open more often on the intermediate routes over the middle that had been his calling card.
The question is, what does McCarthy think?
He very well might have decided he and Clements only need to persevere. Or perhaps he’s seen enough and will take the offense back to last year. Either way, it’s getting close to now or never.