Dougherty: Packers must weigh risk-reward with Mike McCarthy on the hot seat

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy during practice Thursday, November 8, 2018 at the Don Hutson Center in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

Of course Mike McCarthy is on the hot seat.

With only one year left on his contract and a 3-4-1 record halfway through his 13th season with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy’s job has to be in question. All things considered, how could it not?

Judging by my emails and online chats, a lot of Packers fans in fact think McCarthy’s coaching seat is scorching. National media deem his job to be in serious jeopardy as well.

Just this week ranked McCarthy as the sixth-most likely NFL coach to be fired after the season. More credibly, Mike Lombardi, a former front-office executive for multiple NFL teams, argued in The Athletic on Friday that parting after this season would benefit the Packers and McCarthy.

But how precarious is McCarthy’s job security in reality? That’s up to team president/CEO Mark Murphy. In the Packers’ new front-office structure, Murphy has final say over all football matters, so it’s his call, though one source this week said new general manager Brian Gutekunst’s recommendation would carry great weight with Murphy as well.

Murphy has been inscrutable in such matters – he surely was regarding former GM Ted Thompson. For years it looked like Murphy wanted Thompson in the job for as long as Thompson wanted it. But that changed abruptly late last year, and Murphy fired Thompson as GM in January.

All signs suggest Murphy similarly thinks highly of McCarthy. He approved the coach’s one-year contract extension last year and appears to have relied in part on McCarthy’s opinion in choosing Gutekunst as GM in January.

The point of this column isn’t to offer whether Murphy should fire McCarthy after the season, or exactly what the team has to do for McCarthy to keep his job. It’s too early for that, regardless of what the fire-him crowd says. I’m sure many wanted him canned at 4-6 in 2016, too. As we saw then, all it takes is Aaron Rodgers to revert to MVP form and the Packers could go on a run deep into the playoffs. Despite all the team’s shortcomings, it at least has cornerback talent to give it a chance.

The point instead is to look at what Murphy and Gutekunst have to think about over the next two months as they decide whether McCarthy returns for a 14th season as Packers coach in 2019.

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Their biggest concern has to be whether Rodgers fully buys into McCarthy’s offense after their 13 seasons working together, including 10 with Rodgers as starter.

Creative conflict can be good, as McCarthy has said over the years. But something is off between them, and it isn’t sparking creativity. The Packers rank No. 19 in scoring, and while Rodgers’ knee has been a factor, it’s not the only reason the Packers’ offense has been ho-hum through eight games.

Rodgers’ deportment and veiled comments tell us that McCarthy’s scheme and approach don’t excite him anymore. It’s no coincidence that his complaints about the game plan after a win over Buffalo six weeks ago came three short days after Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams put up 38 points on Minnesota on national TV.

As Lombardi put it in a column this week, “(The Packers’ offense) relies on the immense talent of the quarterback to make precise throws. No offensive coaches around the league watch Packers tape for ideas or new concepts to steal, there is no “wow factor” when it comes to their offensive schemes. And this is the root of the disconnect between Rodgers and McCarthy. Rodgers craves more and has been unhappy.”

The coach-quarterback partnership is the most important relationship in the building. If that doesn’t start to click, this team is going nowhere.

Another factor is a coach’s shelf life with an NFL team. Al Davis and Bill Walsh famously believed it was 10 years, give or take, before complacency or stale messaging creep in.

To that point, among the game’s long-tenured coaches of the last 60 years, many won far more in their first decade with a team than thereafter: Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh (.667 winning percentage and four Super Bowl wins his first 11 years, .505 and no Super Bowls his last 13), Bud Grant in Minnesota (.710 and four Super Bowl appearances his first 10 years, .500 and no Super Bowls in seven seasons thereafter), Don Shula at Miami (.745 and two Super Bowl wins his first 10  years, .603 with one Super Bowl appearance his final 16), and Paul Brown in Cleveland (.871 and seven titles in his first 10 years, .581 and no titles his last seven).

There are exceptions, too. Tom Landry won Super Bowls in his 18th and 19th seasons in Dallas. Bill Cowher won his lone Super Bowl in his 14th season with Pittsburgh. And of course, Bill Belichick (19th season with New England) won two of his five Super Bowls in the last five years.

Has McCarthy run his course in 13 seasons with the Packers? Lombardi sees a parallel with Andy Reid. The Eagles fired Reid after 14 seasons, a 130-93-1 record and one Super Bowl appearance. With a fresh start he’s in a successful second act with Kansas City, which is 8-1 this season.

In evaluating their coach, Murphy and Gutekunst also have to take into account the Packers’ glaring roster shortcomings and the upside of sticking with a winning coach through tough times.

There’s no denying that McCarthy for the last few years has suffered from a talent shortage aside from Rodgers.

Thompson did next to nothing for the roster aside from the draft, and his final five classes offered little to justify that approach. His 2013-15 picks should form the veteran core of the team, but only three players from those drafts are still on the roster (David Bakhtiari, Davante Adams and Corey Linsley).

McCarthy hasn’t had an outside pass rusher for opponents to worry about since Clay Matthews was in his prime. And aside from Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels, his best talent on defense is either injury prone (Kevin King, Nick Perry) or rookies (Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson).

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Murphy and Gutekunst can’t hold McCarthy responsible for a roster that has neither high-end quality nor sufficient breadth.

There also are advantages to staying with a proven winner through hard times. Maybe a change would help the Packers, but there’s also real risk the next coach won’t be as good while a few more years of Rodgers’ career blow past.

The most recent coaches who are rewarding their teams for choosing stability are Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin.

Payton, hired by the Saints the same year the Packers brought in McCarthy, has won only one Super Bowl with his elite quarterback (Drew Brees), just like McCarthy and Rodgers. More than that, Payton had three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-16.

But New Orleans stuck with him, and after an outstanding draft last year and some aggressive personnel moves this year, the Saints might be the best team in the NFC in 2018.

Tomlin, likewise, won a Super Bowl early (2008, his second season) with his star quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and hasn’t won one since. His roughest stretch was back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2012 and ’13. Yet the Steelers stuck with him, played in the AFC title game two years ago, and after a shaky a 1-2-1 start this season have won five straight and are coming off a 30-point win over 6-3 Carolina on Thursday night.

Whether you like McCarthy or not, he has an impressive record. His 124 wins rank 28th in league history, his .625 winning percentage is No. 13 among coaches with at least 10 seasons in the league, and he’s been to the playoffs in nine of his 12 seasons with the Packers.

Yes, he’s been blessed with a great quarterback, and yes, his coaching seat is heating up. Rightfully so. But only Murphy and Gutekunst know just how hot it really is.

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