Dougherty: Potential McCarthy-Rodgers rift requires resolution
GREEN BAY - Winning doesn’t cure all ills after all.
The Green Bay Packers easily dismissed the punchless Buffalo Bills by a 22-0 score at Lambeau Field on Sunday, but you wouldn’t have known it listening to Aaron Rodgers after the game.
The Packers quarterback was in a foul mood and clearly unhappy with coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive game plan that produced good stats (423 yards) but a disjointed performance and only 22 points.
So Rodgers used his postgame press conference to send the message. He was uncommonly short with most of his answers and characterized the Packers’ play Sunday as “championship defensive level and non-playoff team offensive level.” At another point he called the offense’s play “not acceptable.”
He lamented that they didn’t score twice as many points and was dumbfounded that Davante Adams (14 targets) and Jimmy Graham (six targets) didn’t get their numbers called even more, based on the way the Bills played them.
Then when asked how to get that done, Rodgers got to the nub of the matter. Though he didn’t name McCarthy, he identified him by pointing to his coach’s No. 1 responsibility.
“It’s by the (game) plan,” Rodgers said curtly. “Find ways to get (Adams) in No. 1 spots.”
If you’ve been following the Packers through the Rodgers era, then the tension between him and McCarthy isn’t new. In the past, though, it’s been more obvious on the sidelines. Over the years the quarterback has barked at the coach because of some decision or other, and the coach sometimes has barked back.
And in the past, both have explained it away as competitors getting heated in the moment. McCarthy also has said he welcomes creative tension as healthy for a team. At times, all that no doubt has been true.
But this seems to run deeper. The two have been working together for 13 years, with Rodgers the starting quarterback the last 10. That’s a long time in the NFL, where about one-third of the roster turns over every year. They’ve been through several generations of players together.
We’re seeing signs of the same phenomenon out of New England, where even with five Super Bowl titles in hand Tom Brady reportedly has been feeling unappreciated and chafing at working with coach Bill Belichick the last couple years. They’re in their 19th season together.
This year, for instance, Rodgers has never given any indication he liked McCarthy’s revamping of the playbook this past offseason. Rodgers’ comments Sunday taken as a whole suggest he’s concerned about the direction of the offense, and his terse response to a specific question on whether he’s getting enough input in the game plan hinted that he doesn’t think so.
“Coaches put the plan together, I tell them what calls I like and we go,” he said.
On the other side of this, we can wonder if Rodgers is overstepping his bounds. Should he let the coach coach, and save his not-so-veiled criticisms for behind closed doors?
At this point, it doesn’t matter much who’s more in the right. All that matters is, if their collaboration doesn’t improve, and soon, it will end badly. This kind of internal rift can ruin a season and cost jobs. We can only imagine what CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst are thinking now.
Creative tension in fact can be good. But the quarterback-coach relationship is the bedrock of an NFL organization, especially when your quarterback is Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and this feels like something that’s been simmering for a while. It’s just the most public manifestation we’ve seen.
We’re talking about two strong-willed people here, and things can go bad fast. Both are walking fine lines, because the coach has to be in charge of the team, but the most important person at 1265 Lombardi (and several other team facilities around the league) is the quarterback. Everybody knows that. You need only look at their salaries for proof.
Only these two men can work it out, and they don’t have long to do it. They have a big road game next week against NFC North rival Detroit, and matchups with the Los Angeles Rams, Patriots and Minnesota Vikings not long after that. The 2018 season is on the line.
McCarthy’s news conference was just before Rodgers’ after Sunday’s game, and the coach betrayed no inkling that he knew of his quarterback’s feelings about the game plan. When asked if Rodgers’ willingness to play through a painful knee injury set a tone in the locker room, he had nothing but praise.
“There's always things that are said,” McCarthy said, “but for someone to go out and do it, it's a tremendous boost for your football team. Whether it starts in practice on Thursday and to go out there today and grind through like he did, it speaks volumes about him. It's definitely something that plays big in the locker room.”
What won’t play big, in the locker room or anywhere else at Lambeau Field, is a rift between the head coach and quarterback.
Maybe this will turn out to be just the latest creative tension between them, and better days are ahead. But the NFL is one big pressure cooker, and problems are either solved or they explode.