GREEN BAY - If you really want to know what Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s offseason message is amid a flurry of changes in the organization this week, look no further than the rhetorical question he posed during his season-ending news conference Thursday.
“Are we doing enough to win a world championship?”
McCarthy offered the thought along with many others during a half-hour question-and-answer session with reporters, his first since Dec. 31 when the Packers closed the 2017 season with a 35-11 loss to the Detroit Lions.
The answer, of course, is no, not after the team finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
That’s why, in the course of three days, general manager Ted Thompson was demoted, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and two of his assistants were fired and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett was stripped of his title and left weighing whether to accept a lesser position.
The 2017 performance changed everything, and though McCarthy’s job wasn’t one of those outwardly affected, the pressure valve headed into next season has steam whistling out of every opening.
With just two years left on his contract and a new general manager about to take over, McCarthy must take a Super Bowl-or-bust approach to 2018. If he doesn’t get to the Super Bowl next year, it will give the new guy an excuse to fire him.
And so, when McCarthy asked that question, he seemed to be issuing a challenge to the front office to deliver him more talent. He made a good-faith effort to clean up his coaching staff; now he needs the front office to use any means necessary to build the roster.
“Are we doing everything we need to do to win a championship?” McCarthy said. “That question needs to be answered. It needs to be answered throughout football operations.
“I know what I’m in control of. I’m in control of making sure we’re doing everything we can, everything we can to win a championship. That’s what this process is.”
Over the past 12 seasons, McCarthy has accepted — often not cheerfully — that Thompson was going to take the path of least resistance in building the roster. His philosophy was to draft, scavenge and then let McCarthy sink or swim with low-round draft picks and undrafted free agents as injury insurance.
The loss of quarterback Aaron Rodgers for seven games with a broken right collarbone probably was the final straw in proving to president Mark Murphy that Thompson’s stubborn ways were no longer going to cut it. Thanks to Rodgers’ play and McCarthy’s patchwork, the Packers kept making the playoffs year after year.
But Thompson’s unwillingness to partake in free agency and trades and refusal to re-sign locker room leaders such as Casey Hayward, Julius Peppers, T.J. Lang and Micah Hyde started to catch up with him. When he tried to replace them with rookies or some low-level free agents, it weakened the team.
It could be argued the 22 starters McCarthy had to begin this past season were strong, but as the year wore on the roster couldn’t support the weight of so many injuries. McCarthy had total faith in Thompson’s ability to provide him with a good draft class each year and made it to the NFC Championship four times on the strength of those players.
But in some years it wasn’t enough.
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McCarthy would like the next general manager to assess last season and come to a similar conclusion: More needs to be done to stock the roster. He said it’s imperative that he and the next general manager are on the same page when it comes to building a championship team.
“You want the most competitive 90-man roster,” McCarthy said. “There’s not a coach that doesn’t want that. So, I think you just start there. What happened yesterday is yesterday. I’m more focused on today.”
It was McCarthy’s miscalculation that Brett Hundley was capable of winning games in the absence of Rodgers, but it also was Thompson’s fault that he let a promising young quarterback named Taysom Hill get away. Had Hill stuck around, he might have pushed Hundley to play better or taken the job away from him.
The best rosters are the deepest ones and Thompson’s growing reliance on undrafted rookies and street free agents weakened his. When injuries struck the secondary, Capers had to move safety Morgan Burnett to slot corner and play shaky rookie Josh Jones at strong safety.
Thompson had two cornerback roster spots devoted to undrafted rookies Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown and one to second-year pro Josh Hawkins. The coaches were reluctant to play any of the three because they were inexperienced and capable of giving up big plays in an instant.
The Packers are off to a good start with the 90-man roster, having signed receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley to long-term extensions. In April, the Packers are scheduled to pick 14th in the first round and in the middle of every other round. They should receive three compensatory picks and a late-round conditional pick for a 2016 trade of linebacker Lerentee McCray to Buffalo.
If they can add a couple of free agents to a promising draft class, they might be able to turn things around quickly.
One only has to look at what New Orleans did last offseason with the addition of draft picks Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara and Marcus Williams and mid-tier free agents Ted Ginn, A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o and Alex Okafor. They went from 7-9 to 11-5 and winners of the NFC South.
For McCarthy, making that kind of jump isn’t just necessary for the good of the franchise, it’s imperative for his future. He may have the third-highest winning percentage among active coaches with 100 or more games, but he has failed to go to the Super Bowl with Rodgers for seven straight seasons and the pressure is starting to mount.
If the new general manager is Russ Ball, as many people predict, McCarthy should have an easy transition. He helped Ball get his position in Green Bay and their friendship goes back to 1993 when they both were with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But he still doesn’t know if Ball would avoid free agency and trades like the plague or be open to more roster-building avenues.
McCarthy also has worked with Brian Gutekunst and Eliot Wolf, both of whom probably would be more open to free agency and trades than Ball. If Murphy goes outside the organization, then McCarthy’s future will be cloudier.
“It’s fit,” McCarthy said. “I’m very comfortable where I am in my career. I’m more focused on the fit of the GM. Frankly, fit’s a two-way street. It has to fit together.
“That will fall clearly under what’s best for the Green Bay Packers.”
And for his future.
Aaron Nagler hosts a Facebook Live session with readers to discuss Mike McCarthy's season-ending news conference and take questions on the Packers. (Jan. 4, 2018)