Dougherty: Changes in Packers' leadership could run deep

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy (right) talks with associate team physician John Gray before their game against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 31, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.

Now that the embarrassment is over, the Green Bay Packers have to decide what they actually need to do.

From CEO Mark Murphy on down, the Packers have to figure out what needs changing and what needs keeping to make a run at the Super Bowl next season.

With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers are only one good offseason away from a championship run. Then again, that has been the case for going on seven years now.

ESPN reported Dom Capers isn't expected to return as defensive coordinator next season, and let’s just say this wasn’t hard to see coming. When coach Mike McCarthy said recently that he’d have to look at the “patterns of negativity and positivity” of the team’s first season without the playoffs since 2008, that pretty much signaled the end of Capers’ nine-year run as defensive coordinator.

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Capers is a good and respected coach, but that doesn’t matter. Good and respected coaches get fired every year in the NFL, and it’s not hard to justify the move considering the Packers’ defensive shortcomings the past seven years. It is time for a change.

This is as good a time as any to point out the similarity between the Packers and New Orleans Saints. Like the Packers, the Saints have won only one Super Bowl in the last 10 years with a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and consistently have ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL in the major defensive categories for years.

The Saints, though, went 7-9 the last three seasons without firing coach Sean Payton, who himself has burned through three defensive coordinators (Steve Spagnuolo, Rob Ryan and Dennis Allen) the last six years. This season the Saints finally are back in championship contention and one of the toasts of the NFL. Why? Mainly because they hit, and big, on two draft picks last April: cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara.

Still, McCarthy has to make the change with Capers at this point, just for his own credibility with his players, most of whom never have experienced a season without the playoffs. They need to see just what’s at stake.

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McCarthy needs to act fast so he has a shot at the best replacements available. With all the expected firings around the league, this week figures to be a free-for-all in the assistant-coaching chase.

You also have to wonder if McCarthy plans any changes on his offensive staff. He has let go of several offensive assistants in his 12 seasons as coach, so it won’t be a shock if he releases one this time.

The even bigger question is whether Ted Thompson is back as general manager. Thompson turns 65 on Jan. 17, and not counting the two owners who serve as GMs he’s the second-oldest GM in the league, behind only Bill Belichick. Thompson’s also entering the final year of his contract in a pressure-cooker business that can take an immense toll mentally and physically.

In an interview I did with him in training camp Thompson gave no hint of even considering stepping down after 2017, but things can change over the long 4½ long months of an NFL season. Who knows? Maybe he has had enough and is ready to retire, or transition to an advisory role, or to finish his career as an area college scout, as some friends have suggested he might when he leaves the GM position.

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If not, it’s up to Murphy to move on. The team’s CEO hasn’t had to make any hard football decisions in 10 years on the job, but he needs to make one now. No matter how highly he thinks of Thompson, it’s time to give someone else a shot at drafting players and building the roster and setting the vibe with the head coach and scouting staff at 1265 Lombardi.

It was interesting listening to McCarthy’s final postgame news conference of the season after his team’s second humbling loss to an NFC North Division rival Sunday. When he referenced the future, he never used the words “offseason” or “next season” or “next year.” He said, “moving forward.”

Maybe it was nothing, but maybe he’s not taking his return for granted, either. McCarthy has been the Packers’ coach a long time (12 seasons) — as long as Payton has been in New Orleans, and a year longer than Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. Only Belichick (hired in 2000) and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis (2003) have longer tenures among current head coaches, and Lewis very well might get fired this offseason.

Like all of us, NFL head coaches have a shelf life. Bill Walsh, among others, said they shouldn’t stay with a team for more than 10 years. His opinion is not one to take lightly.

The Packers have to be alert for signs that things are getting stale under McCarthy. But they don’t need to go there this year, as Payton’s season in New Orleans shows. McCarthy over the years always has managed to keep his teams together through bad times, and he did again this season, at least until Sunday’s demoralizing finale, despite being badly undermanned at quarterback after Rodgers’ injury.  

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The Packers don’t need to change everything, and in any event, the head coach is and should be the next GM’s call, not Murphy’s or the executive committee’s.

This figures to be an offseason unlike any the Packers have seen for a long time. It looks like a new defensive coordinator is coming, and maybe more. Stay tuned.


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