When Red Auerbach picked Bill Russell to succeed him as the Boston Celtics’ coach in 1966, he did it for a very specific reason.
Russell was winding down his career at age 32 and already had the most impressive career in NBA history to date as the key player on a team that had won nine NBA titles in his 10 seasons.
“It seemed to me that the best way to motivate Bill Russell at that point was to put him in charge,” was how Auerbach explained it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985.
In other words, Auerbach thought his best chance of squeezing everything he could out of his transcendent but aging star was to make him responsible for the team’s success or failure. It was brilliant. Russell won two more titles over the next three years, then retired at age 35.
That came to mind recently during my weekly online chat when a reader brought up Aaron Rodgers’ obvious dissatisfaction with former coach Mike McCarthy’s game planning and play calling, and asked whether the Packers should have Rodgers call his own plays.
It made me wonder, to get Rodgers back to playing like an MVP should the Packers go full Peyton Manning? Would making Rodgers responsible for play selection, and thus the offense’s success or failure, be the best way to get the most out of their 35-year-old quarterback in the final years of his career?
I bring this up not to argue it’s something the Packers should do, either now with interim coach Joe Philbin, or next season after they hire a more permanent coach. But it is food for thought and something they should at least think through.
To test the idea, I asked a couple of scouts and assistant coaches around the league what they thought. Basically, is it stupid to think it might be a way to get full buy-in from Rodgers?
“It’s not stupid,” one high-ranking scout in the league said. “I’m sure there are reasons that doesn’t happen. Like the game-planning aspect of it, that’s other guys’ jobs. But could Rodgers do it? Sure.”
Said an offensive assistant coach for another NFL team: “It’s easy for Rodgers (to say), I’m not playing good because McCarthy isn’t giving me the right stuff. You go, ‘OK, it’s yours.’ Now he’s accountable.”
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There are reasons NFL coaches have been calling plays for close to 40 years. The game has grown more complicated than in the 1960s, when quarterbacks such as Bart Starr called their own plays, and the volume of information only increases each year. A coach also doesn’t have to execute plays on the field, so he has more time to think through call sequences and be a play or two ahead.
And — this is no small thing — coaches (or offensive coordinators) have a hard time ceding control of something so important.
It’s also true that experienced quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have a lot of autonomy at the line of scrimmage as it is. They do plenty of audibling and choosing between two plays.
But it’s still a big step from that to what Manning did for much of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, where to a large degree he was his own play caller.
The architect of those offenses, assistant coach Tom Moore, said this week from his home in Hilton Head, S.C., that while the coaches did a lot of the scouting and analytics work, Manning was deeply involved in game planning and determining the menu of plays they’d work from each week.
Moore said that by later in Manning’s career, they’d spend the week formulating a plan on what plays to run against specific defensive looks and in given circumstances (down-and-distance, area of the field, time and score, etc.). Then, before each play during the game, Moore would give Manning two or three plays (“alternatives,” as he put it) via the helmet speaker quickly enough to leave 25 to 30 seconds on the 40-second play clock.
The Colts ran a no-huddle, so Manning had time to survey the defense and pick one of those plays or call something else.
“I always told him in pregame, ‘If you see something, go for it.’” Moore said. “I had complete and total confidence, and as I told him, ‘You do what you think is right and don’t worry about it.’ You can’t call plays scared.”
It worked because Manning had the recall and recognition to handle it, and the Colts were fully committed.
“We spent a lot of time,” Moore said. “We practiced it, our practices, our OTAs, minicamp, and early (training) camp. That was us. Everybody has an identity, who are you? What do you do? That was us.”
The Colts generally used static personnel (three receivers, a running back and tight end), so they saved time not shuttling players in and out of the game. In contrast, last week in the Packers’ game against Atlanta, Philbin rarely stayed with the same personnel on back-to-back plays. But Moore said that isn’t a deal breaker for running a system like he did with Manning.
“It's just something you have to work on,” he said.
Would Rodgers want that degree of responsibility, which would increase his workload even more? He has played in the league 14 seasons and clearly has his own ideas about play calling, so there’s reason to think he might. It also would appeal to his insanely competitive nature.
Judging by the details he can rattle off about specific plays going back years, Rodgers appears to have outstanding recall for making play-calling decisions. Not that it matters, but he scored a reported 35 on the Wonderlic test (Manning reportedly scored 28).
And what would be the downside?
Foremost, it would empower a player even more than he’s already empowered. If the new coach and/or general manager Brian Gutekunst think Rodgers has more much say in the franchise than a player should after signing a new contract last August, they might fear this could create more problems than it solves.
There’s also the more practical concern that in-game emotions would influence his play calls too much, or that he’d default to throwing the ball and getting the offense’s run-pass balance way out of whack.
But it’s a quarterback league, and Rodgers already has more say over the team’s performance than anyone else working at 1265 Lombardi Ave. simply with how he plays. To be great, the Packers need Rodgers to play great. Gutekunst and team President/CEO Mark Murphy committed to that when they signed Rodgers to his contract extension four months ago.
Maybe all Rodgers needs to get back to playing like an MVP is working with a coach or coordinator he fully buys into. Or maybe Rodgers will have his differences with the next coach as well.
“I always felt they underappreciated each other,” said a source who knows both Rodgers and McCarthy. “Like Mike thought he was responsible for Aaron, and Aaron thought he was responsible for Mike. It was probably some combination of the two.”
In the end, I doubt Philbin or whoever the next coach is will go full Manning. Coaches are control freaks, and they just can’t abide giving up that much control.
Still, it’s an idea worth considering.