It’s hard to take Bruce Arians at his word that the Cleveland Browns are the only team he’d come out of retirement to coach next year.
But it’s still telling that when asked this week if he’s interested in coaching the Green Bay Packers, he said no.
“Not at all," Arians told CBS Sports Radio. “If I ever return to coaching it will only be in Cleveland.”
The fact is, the Packers, who have grown used to being considered one of the NFL’s gems, aren’t the league’s most attractive head-coach opening this offseason. As Arians suggested, that honor already belongs to the Browns.
While the Packers have a lot going to attract a new coach – their history, a sustained winning culture and an abundance of resources – the Browns have more.
It starts with personnel, where it looks like Cleveland has a keeper in rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield plus budding young stars at the two most important positions on defense (end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward). The Packers have a star quarterback who’s suddenly blemished and a defense short on talent.
The Browns are also swimming in salary-cap room to sign free agents and extend contracts. According to Spotrac, they have a league-high $54 million in cap space, which they can carry over to next year, and will have another $81 million in cap room next year.
The Packers are in decent cap shape but can’t compete with the Browns: $5.3 million in cap room this year, and $40.6 million in 2019.
The biggest thing working against the Browns is owner Jimmy Haslem, who has a history of inserting himself into football matters. The Browns’ 24-83 record during his tenure tells you all you need to know about how that has worked out. But general manager John Dorsey's early success could help there.
That's not to say the Browns’ advantages make the Packers’ job unappealing. Far from it.
“This is the Green Bay Packers, this is one of the cornerstones of the National Football League with a Hall of Fame quarterback,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said this week.
Or as an assistant coach with another team said: “Because of the culture it is a much more attractive job than a lot of them out there.”
One of the standard lines in the NFL is that there are only 32 head-coaching and GM jobs available, so they’re all good. But some rate higher than others, and after what's happened with the Packers this season, their future Hall of Fame quarterback now cuts both ways.
Aaron Rodgers has had two sustained stretches of mediocre play in the last four years. The first was a 19-game run in 2015 and ’16, when he put up an 8-11 record and 88.9 rating. The other has been this season’s 4-7-1 stretch with a 99.3 rating, which helped get Mike McCarthy fired Sunday night.
That's something prospective candidates will at least have to investigate. Some might be wary of taking over a team with a 35-year-old quarterback they hear is either difficult to work with, in decline or both. Others will be sure they have what it takes to help a highly talented passer play some of his best football late in his career, like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Brett Favre.
“It would be something where that coach would have to have a face-to-face conversation and tell (Rodgers), ‘I want to work with you,’” a longtime assistant coach in the league said. “I don’t work for you, but I do want to work with you and make sure we get this thing done.”
Said another league source: “Maybe Rodgers can play five years and maybe his (knee) injury screwed him up this year, I don’t know. Or maybe he’s got diminished skills. All I’m saying is, you’re banking on the quarterback having three to four really good years. If he doesn’t, you’re (in trouble).”
For the last quarter century, the Packers have been a destination for coaches and scouts for two other reasons: their football culture free of ownership interference, and a willingness to spend money on facilities that stack up with anyone in the league.
The culture was largely a result of a front-office structure in which their general manager had full authority on all football decisions. The Packers’ GM from 1992 through 2017 was boss of everything football, coach and salary-cap manager included.
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President/CEO Mark Murphy changed that last January and now heads football operations. Like this season, the next coach will report to him, as will Gutekunst and vice-president/football operations Russ Ball.
That, too, can cut both ways.
“I like the fact that there’s one guy (in football) you answer to,” said a league source who prefers the fully empowered GM.
Every front-office structure has its weaknesses, and Murphy was right Monday when he said relationships are more important than structure. I also don’t doubt Murphy and Gutekunst when they say they get along great. But relationships can change over time, especially when you add two more parties (Ball and the coach) to the mix.
Murphy also is right that some candidates might prefer to report to him rather than the GM. But my guess is the previous structure was a better draw, even if Murphy isn’t a wild card like Haslem and many other owners in the league.
“(The new structure) opens the door for a lot of back stabbing,” a longtime scout in the league said.
Said another scout: “Whatever Murphy is, (in Green Bay) at least you don’t have to report to a crazy billionaire.”
As for facilities, the Packers can compete with anyone to attract coaches and players: The Don Hutson Center, the smaller CRIC training field, and state-of-the-art facilities for weight training, medical treatment and dining.
If you look at some of the other jobs that also might come open, you’d only prefer the New York Jets if you think Sam Darnold is going to be a top quarterback. Baltimore has a good culture but questions at quarterback. Denver has a good culture but not a quarterback. And Tampa Bay and Buffalo don’t have a quarterback or culture.
So yes, coaching the Packers remains a coveted job in the NFL. But it’s behind the Browns this year.
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