Dougherty: With sky falling on Packers, jobs are in serious jeopardy
One thing you have to say about Mike McCarthy’s 12 years as Green Bay Packers coach: He has kept his team together in hard times.
In his first season, he started 1-4 but finished 8-8.
In 2013, he was winless (0-4-1) in the first five games after Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone but recovered to make the playoffs.
And last year, he was 4-6 and on the brink of playoff elimination, then didn’t lose again until the NFC Championship game.
But we’re in the midst of McCarthy’s toughest test yet in that way.
HIs Packers have nosedived without Rodgers, and their prospects for the second half of the season look bleak.
Rodgers’ absence has exposed a shortcoming of playmaking on both sides of the ball, and flaws in the team both real and imagined. The Martellus Bennett debacle this week only has added to the sense of a franchise coming unmoored.
Add onto that McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson’s six-year Super Bowl drought with Rodgers at the helm, and the Packers are looking at the very real possibility of their season unraveling to the scorn of a restless fan base that questions whether they’ve been around too long.
It’s safe to say, jobs are at stake in the second half of this season, depending on how well McCarthy keeps his team together this time. This franchise isn’t used to change, but if the Packers' performance continues down its current path, it figures to be the most eventful offseason in Green Bay in years.
So what kind of change are we talking?
For starters, we’re not talking about the very top.
Mark Murphy, the team’s president, unequivocally has endorsed Thompson as his general manager. It’s going to take a lot more than a bad season without Rodgers to get Murphy to make a change there.
Same for Thompson regarding McCarthy. As long as Thompson is GM, McCarthy will be the coach. There’s no reason to think otherwise.
The biggest job in play is Dom Capers at defensive coordinator. Of course the fire-Capers crowd on social media is at full force, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Michael Cohen documented in a story this week. It has been loud for several years, but that counts for nothing with McCarthy.
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The Packers coach repeatedly has voiced his high regard and unwavering support for Capers, who at 67 has been running NFL defenses every season but one since 1992, including the Packers' starting in 2009.
But this season feels different. For the first time, you have to think Capers’ job is in serious jeopardy. Not because of anything McCarthy has said or done, but because of McCarthy’s long tenure and Rodgers’ advancing age.
Capers’ defenses actually haven’t been as bad statistically as you might think. In 2014 and 2015 they were No. 7 in defensive passer rating, which might be the most telling defensive stat, and finished in the upper half in the league in points allowed (No. 12 in ’15, No. 14 in ’14).
The problem is their backslide since then despite the abundant resources Thompson has put on that side of the ball.
In the six drafts since 2012, the GM has spent 10 first- and second-round picks on defense. Yet last season the Packers finished No. 26 in passer rating and No. 21 in points, and this year they’re Nos. 25 and 19.
On the eyeball test, what stands out the last two years is that when they’ve really needed a stop, a lot more often than not they haven’t gotten it.
We can argue all day about who’s more responsible. Is it Thompson’s drafting or Capers’ coaching?
But there’s no arguing that Rodgers is less than a month from turning 34, and the clock is ticking on everyone. Thompson (64 and in his 13th season as GM), and McCarthy (54 and 12th) aren’t going anywhere. So while the landscape would be much different if Rodgers hadn’t gotten hurt, this is where we are now: If the Packers’ season collapses and the defense doesn’t turn around, something will have to give.
Capers’ fate will depend directly on his players’ response, and the team’s as a whole, to the current troubles. The Packers have lost three straight and looked bad doing it. Detroit didn’t even punt against them last week. Rodgers isn’t coming back any time soon, and Brett Hundley hasn’t done much to excite teammates or fans.
So how will the players respond starting Sunday at Chicago? Will any quit on McCarthy and Capers? And how do you tell?
This week I asked two scouts what they’d look for to determine whether a coach or coordinator has lost his players. One said by their body language, engagement and effort on game day. Are they playing hard and showing excitement after making plays? Are they tuned into their responsibilities, or blowing assignments?
The other said he’d go as much by the energy in practice. How’s the tempo? Are players flying around and competing for the ball in the air? Are the linemen going hard in one-on-one drills? Or are some players just going through the motions?
“Then it’s like these guys aren’t practicing with the idea of playing an opponent, they’re just practicing to get things over with,” the scout said. “It means they’re no longer responding to the coach.”
That’s what the Packers’ final eight games are about.
For now, the sky is falling in Green Bay. That’s life in the week-to-week NFL. Fortunes can change in a moment, as the Packers know. But sometimes they don’t change at all.
I asked one of the aforementioned scouts what he’d hope for with Rodgers out. He said he’d want to go .500 in those games.
The Packers decidedly aren’t there. They’re 0-3 since Rodgers’ injury, and the playoffs look like a pipe dream.
Of course, they went winless for five weeks after Rodgers got hurt in 2013. But backup quarterback Matt Flynn went 2-2-1 in the games he finished that season. So it can be done.
McCarthy has kept his team together before. He preaches culture, process and consistency. He’s relying on those things now more than ever. And jobs are riding on what could be a long eight weeks.