Could the Packers actually fire Mike McCarthy?
The Green Bay Packers are 3-2 with losses to teams with a combined 10-1 record. They have a fairly easy schedule over their final 11 games, and though they probably won't catch the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North, the playoffs are a good possibility, which should come as no surprise -- the Packers have made it seven straight years.
But despite that run, which of course includes a win in Super Bowl XLV and would be the envy of every other NFL team outside of New England, there's discord at Lambeau. Aaron Rodgers has been an average quarterback for just about a year, getting thoroughly outplayed on Sunday by a fourth-round rookie leading a team with one playoff appearance in the last six years. The Packers haven't looked impressive in any of their three wins. Taking out that Super Bowl year, Green Bay is 3-6 in the playoffs during the Rodgers' era despite posting records of 15-1, 12-4 and 11-5 (twice). (The Packers were 10-6 in their championship season.) Overall, there seems to be a general feeling of malaise in Green Bay, like the team has stagnated and needs something -- a big move -- to reinvigorate the franchise. And since Rodgers isn't going anywhere, all eyes are likely to shift to Mike McCarthy this offseason.
And barring a turnaround that ends with a .750 winning percentage and/or an appearance in the NFC championship in January, it might be time for the Packers to see what life is like without their coach of 11 years.
It sounds ridiculous. McCarthy is one of the most successful coaches in the NFL. He missed the playoffs his first year, coached Brett Favre and the Packers to within one play of the Super Bowl in 2007, missed the playoffs in the first season of the post-Favre Aaron Rodgers era and hasn't been home in January since. After winning the Super Bowl, Green Bay won the NFC North four straight years before getting dethroned by Minnesota last year (in a race that came down to the final game of the NFL's regular season). The Packers have been the most consistent power in the NFC during the McCarthy era.
Does it feel like that, though?
Every year, it seems, the Packers are the most popular pick to win the conference. Every year they're remarkably steady in the regular season but usually without wowing anyone, taking a backseat to the Panthers in 2015 and the Seahawks and 49ers in the years before. And then, in the playoffs, Green Bay looks fine, maybe wins a game, but can't finish off the close ones and loses in a tight finish. (The last two years brought overtime defeats. The year before they lost by three.) They're most achieving underachievers in the league.
Maybe it's because he's in tiny Green Bay or maybe it's because Aaron Rodgers takes up all the oxygen, but McCarthy had always flown under the radar, both in good times and bad. (Has a Super Bowl-winning coach ever gotten less hype than him?) That's changed the last two years. He had a 2015 debacle with play-calling duties, when he gave them up, then took them back early in the season and vowed never to farm them out again. And, though much of it's probably due to the fact that he is a good head coach, McCarthy gets the brunt of criticism from the new-wave football minds who (correctly) deplore automatic punts on fourth downs (go for it!), safe two-point conversion strategy (go for it!) and bad clock management/timeout usage.
You could pick literally dozens of instances, but here are a few: In last year's playoff loss, McCarthy brought in the field-goal unit twice in the first half on fourth-and-1 plays. Still, the Pack got up 16-0 -- whereupon McCarthy's play calls were so conservative William F. Buckley would have felt uncomfortable. His stated goal after the loss was to hit 20 rushing plays in the second half. Getting first downs probably would have been better. (The coach had a short memory. His players convinced him to go for a fourth-and-1 from deep inside their own territory rather than punt in a 2013 game against the Bears. It worked and the Packers went on to win.)
On Sunday it was more of the same. Trailing 7-0, Green Bay had a fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 19. Field goal. Trailing 7-3, Green Bay had a fourth-and-(a short)-2 from the Dallas 25. Field goal. McCarthy did go for a fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 38 while down 10-6, which showed a little bit of moxie. The play call -- a deep pass to Randall Cobb by an inconsistent Rodgers -- didn't.
It's all this in totality that makes McCarthy one of the most intriguing figures on the always bustling NFL hot seat. Let's say the Packers finish 10-6, make the playoffs and lose before the conference championship. Is it really possible to fire a coach who's gotten you to the postseason eight straight years and brought Titletown U.S.A. its fourth Super Bowl win?
Yes, and it's the same reason the New York Giants got rid of Tom Coughlin, the Eagles cut ties with Andy Reid and Les Miles is out of work after 12 years at LSU. Sometimes a team, even a great one, needs a change of scenery. McCarthy isn't going anywhere during the year, of course -- Green Bay doesn't do midseason coaching changes (even Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante survived 16 games in their final seasons). But unless something magical happens at Lambeau (or by the guys who play there) this January, it makes sense for the Packers to move on. McCarthy needn't worry -- he'd have job offers the instant the news broke.
The answer should be clear, but I suspect it won't be. Rodgers' prime is coming and going, and the team can't keep losing in the second round of the playoffs. It might seem beneath the oft self-important Packers to fire a coach who's done nothing wrong except recently fail to win the crapshoot of the NFL playoffs, but there's no nobility in sticking with a plan that's not meeting its goals. Sometimes change for the sake of change is the way to go.