Of all the questions about the just finished 2015 Green Bay Packers season, the overarching one is whether this franchise has egregiously failed to capitalize on having a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback.
You know the argument: Quarterbacks the quality of Aaron Rodgers are hard to come by, and when you have one, the standard should be winning multiple Super Bowls.
Justification for the highest of aspirations includes Tom Brady (four Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl losses) and Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins).
Among the counterarguments are Brett Favre (1-1 in the Super Bowl), Peyton Manning (1-2 in the Super Bowl), Dan Marino (0-1 in the Super Bowl) and Jim Kelly (0-4 in the Super Bowl).
Eight years into Rodgers’ career as a starter, the Packers have been to and won one Super Bowl. They again were among the title favorites going into their just-finished season but didn’t get past the divisional round. So no matter how you frame their 2015, it was the fifth straight season they’ve failed to get back to the title game with Rodgers at the helm.
That was the heart of an interview I had with team President and CEO Mark Murphy this week. This is a good time to hear from the man who runs the Packers organization and counts among his primary responsibilities the hiring and firing of the head of football operations.
“Our team is in a place where realistically we have Super Bowl aspirations every year,” Murphy said. “Now, (winning the Super Bowl), that’s not a given, it’s a hard thing to do in the NFL. So while (the season’s outcome) is disappointing … I still feel we have a good core and I think we’ve got a good opportunity over the next few years to win another Super Bowl or two.”
Basically, that was half of Murphy’s argument: That while the Packers have only one Super Bowl with Rodgers, the quarterback at age 32 will be playing at a high level into his late 30s and perhaps even early 40s.
“I’m confident that Aaron has a lot of years left in his career,” Murphy said, “so let’s not judge his career based on hopefully the first part of it or first half of it.”
The other half is that Murphy thinks Ted Thompson still is the general manager to guide this franchise going forward. Murphy hires the GM and Thompson hires the coach, and neither of those dominoes is falling this offseason.
I’ve heard from a faction of Packers followers who would like to see one or both fired. This will not please them.
“Obviously (Thompson) has had success, I’d say very consistent success,” Murphy said. “That’s hard to do in the NFL. He’s done a great job as general manager. He puts us in a position every year to legitimately compete for a Super Bowl championship. A lot of teams would love to be in the same position we’ve been the last seven years.”
Look, I get the arguments for, say, firing Thompson despite his record: Time is running out with Rodgers, and Thompson won’t make the moves in free agency or the trade market to get the team over the top; he’s draft and develop to a fault; and the Packers need a reboot to attain another next level of success, but Thompson won’t replace coach Mike McCarthy.
Yet the facts are still the facts. The Packers’ winning percentage (.616) since Thompson took over as GM ranks No. 4 in the NFL over that time. The Thompson-McCarthy team (.653) ranks No. 2 since it formed in ‘06.
The Packers and the New England Patriots have the longest active streak of consecutive playoff appearances at seven. The NFL record is nine by the Indianapolis Colts (from 2002-11) and Dallas Cowboys (1975-83), followed by three teams with eight: the San Francisco 49ers (1983-90), Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-79) and Los Angeles Rams (1983-90).
I won’t dispute that head coaches and even GMs can have a shelf life with one organization no matter how well they’ve done. There no doubt can be good reasons to let one or both go even when they’re winning.
If, for instance, any differences between Rodgers and McCarthy that periodically showed on the field this season ever become counterproductive, then the coach probably would have to go.
“I think what you see there is two pretty competitive individuals,” Murphy said. “They both want the same thing, they want the team to do well, they want to win. Just strong personalities, too. But I think they have a good relationship.”
It also bears remembering that even after Brett Favre went to his first playoffs in 1993, the Packers still missed out on postseason play four times in his final 14 seasons as their quarterback. And they changed coaches three times in his tenure.
One was involuntary for the team, when Mike Holmgren left for Seattle, and Ron Wolf hired Ray Rhodes to replace him. Wolf fired Rhodes after one season and replaced him with Mike Sherman. And then Thompson replaced Sherman with McCarthy in ’06.
The point is, change at the top even with a Hall of Fame quarterback is a crapshoot. Rhodes was a disaster, and while Sherman was an upgrade he wasn’t the answer and never advanced even to an NFC championship game.
That same element of luck surely plays into changing the GM.
So would that kind of crapshoot have been worth it for the Packers? For next season, I’d say no.
I already can hear those who advocate change: Keep things the same, you’ll get the same result. Maybe they’ll prove right.
But there’s good reason to think the Packers will be in the thick of Super Bowl contention next year.
Jordy Nelson will be back from knee reconstruction and Ty Montgomery from a season-ending ankle injury. And it’s almost a given Thompson will select a tight end and/or big receiver early in the draft. Any or all give the Packers’ underachieving offense (No. 15 in scoring, No. 23 in yards) a good chance to again be one of the league’s best.
Would this really have been a smart time to blow things up?
This hasn’t been quite the prototypical offseason for the McCarthy-Thompson era, because McCarthy fired two offensive assistant coaches this week (running backs coach Sam Gash and tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot). Their positions performed poorly in ’15, but then every position group on offense underperformed other than the line.
That’s not a major shakeup – the current regime’s lone makeover was when McCarthy fired his entire defensive staff after the ’08 season. But it’s more than usual.
“You have to do a critical evaluation of your staff and your team,” Murphy said. “I know particularly the change with Jerry had to be hard, they’d been together for so long. I think 10 years with Jerry as a coach and five years Jerry was a player when Mike was coaching (with New Orleans). So they have a long history. But if you’re going to improve, those are the kind of decisions you have to make.”
Murphy is facing those same kind of evaluations and decisions himself.
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