Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have had a few sideline spats and public disagreements over the years. But from the outside looking in this season, it seems like there’s more tension between the two.
It’s not just their brief, spirited exchange after a series ended early in the season at San Francisco; or their opposing postgame takes on the offense’s performance after a win at Oakland; or even Rodgers’ tweaking of McCarthy’s Pittsburgh accent in the quarterback’s news conference after a win against Dallas.
Rodgers has looked upset on the field more than in past seasons because of time-management issues and apparent vexation with play calls. It hasn’t gone unnoticed to observers who follow the team daily and Packers fans who watch the games worldwide.
But in an interview with Press-Gazette Media after practice Thursday, Rodgers characterized any differences he has had with McCarthy as healthy and not a factor in the offense’s under-performance this season.
“The thing that Mike talks about is that conflict is good,” Rodgers said. “I think first of all we have a ton of respect for each other, we both want the same thing. We’re both strong competitors. … When you get a couple competitors together, there’s always going to be conflict at times. It’s always been constructive and always been two guys who care about winning so much.”
McCarthy, in a separate interview, said Rodgers knows him better than any player he ever has coached.
“I think you’d like the fact that your star quarterback is fiery, he’s emotional,” McCarthy said. “I think a big part of his greatness is the emotion he plays with and how he plays. The other part of it too, he wants to be challenged. I’m the guy that’s able to challenge him the most.”
Both McCarthy and Rodgers agreed to talk about their relationship because they know it has become a major topic among the team’s fan base. But if any issues between them run deep, neither is going to say so publicly the week of a playoff game, or probably any time, for that matter.
All I can say is that having watched every game live and then on video the day after, I’ve seen the same thing that many of my emailers and the Twitterverse have seen: Rodgers has been demonstrably peeved more than in the past. A lot more.
“This is the most frustrated I’ve ever seen him,” McCarthy said.
In extended interviews — Rodgers’ was 7½ minutes, which is long for in-season, and McCarthy’s was 16½ minutes — the two answered a variety of questions about their relationship and this season.
Maybe the most interesting point to come out of the conversations was Rodgers’ intimation that he needs to take more risks to ignite his offense. The Packers finished this season an astounding 23rd in yards and 15th in points after never finishing out of the top 10 in scoring and only once in yards in Rodgers’ seven previous seasons as quarterback.
After last week’s loss against Minnesota, when the Packers in comeback mode put up 247 yards in the game’s final 19 minutes, Rodgers suggested they should open up their offense. He elaborated Thursday that he might approach the entire game more like he has in some of the fourth quarters this season when the Packers’ offense has come alive playing from behind.
“Maybe I have to adjust my mindset and kind of let it fly a little more because we’ve had some success doing that,” he said, “throwing the ball down the field, adjusting some routes, making some scramble adjustments and playing a little looser because the urgency is up in those moments. Hopefully, we can start the game in that mindset collectively and put together a better performance.”
That’s a potentially significant change, because Rodgers abhors throwing interceptions and historically has gone multiple games without even coming close to one. Changing his approach would entail more risky throws.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Rodgers said. “At this point we haven’t been very consistent in any capacity on offense, so if it means being a little riskier with the ball with a bigger reward on the back end, that’s something you’ve got to think about.”
As for the McCarthy-Rodgers relationship, for most of this season they were talking face to face far less than in the past because McCarthy had ceded play calling to assistant Tom Clements. That meant Clements was compiling the game plan and meeting with Rodgers to go over it.
Rodgers and Clements are close — Clements was his quarterbacks coach from 2006-11, and Rodgers credits Clements for much of his development as a player. Rodgers’ unwillingness to comment when McCarthy took back the play calling in mid-December suggested that he was unhappy, but Thursday he insisted he was OK with it.
“I trust Mike,” Rodgers said. “There are things the team expects me to do, and that’s prepare to be successful, to make the plays I’m accustomed to make on the field, and to make my teammates better. When it comes to big decisions like that, I have to trust Mike. I have to trust that he’s doing what’s in the best interest of the team at all times.”
McCarthy said that he provides Rodgers with his preliminary call sheet on Thursday each week so they can go over which plays each likes best and least. When there’s disagreement, McCarthy has final say.
McCarthy said it has to be that way because the play caller has to account for factors a quarterback doesn’t, such as his play-calling tendencies as well as those of the opposing defensive coordinator.
“I’d hope we’d have some disagreements,” McCarthy said. “… (But) I would say we’re on the same page. As long as I’m here the quarterback is the primary position, and everything we do is built around making the quarterback successful.”
McCarthy also said Rodgers has great latitude to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
“I don’t know that there’s a quarterback that’s had the flexibility (at the line) he’s had,” McCarthy said. “He’s earned that. He prepares that way. He has great insight and input into our offense. He’s exceptional, just talking about pure knowledge of football.”
The decline of the Packers’ offense this season is something new during Rodgers’ tenure and reminded me of the times during the Brett Favre era when he would go on interception binges or a losing streak. I remember a reporter once asking Favre what it was like to be psychoanalyzed by an entire state’s football fans, so I posed that question to Rodgers.
“I love the opportunity I have to be the quarterback of this team, and I know what comes with it,” he said. “I’ve set the bar high based on the way I’ve played, and I like it like that. I want people to expect me to play great every single game every single year.
“It’s disappointing when I don’t live up to those expectations. At the same time I’ve been there, done that. It’s all about winning championships. We have a chance now, we’re in the playoffs. We’re one of 12 teams still playing, and we have a chance to right some of the issues we’ve had during the season and turn this thing into a special run.”
In the end, I’m not convinced any issues between Rodgers and McCarthy, regardless of how deep they might run, have much to do with the team’s offensive struggles this season.
The few most noteworthy incidents or disputes caught on camera go back to 2012, when Rodgers barked at McCarthy after an illegal replay challenge at Minnesota; their yelling match with defensive linemen B.J. Raji intervening on the sidelines at Cincinnati in ’13; Rodgers’ news-conference questioning of McCarthy’s conservative play calling in the final minutes of the Packers’ loss in the NFC championship game at Seattle last season; and a brief, spirited exchange this season after a series ended in San Francisco.
Yet, the Packers’ offense was just fine — better than fine — until this season. And it struggled with Clements, not McCarthy, at the helm for the first three-quarters of this season. So I’m not seeing any problems between the two as decisive.
None of us knows what’s in their heart of hearts. And we may never know, though we can always guess.
“I’m a (sports) fan myself,” Rodgers said. “When I watch sports on TV — you make your own inferences and we try and figure out what’s going on. But ultimately, unless you talk to me or somebody asks me directly, they don’t really know what a certain look means or body-language expression, facial or body expression, unless you’re in my head or in his head.”
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