Grading the Packers: Mike McCarthy

The Green Bay Packers' normally high-powered offense went in the tank. How much of the blame should fall on coach Mike McCarthy?

From 2008 through 2014 — Aaron Rodgers’ first seven seasons as starting quarterback — the Green Bay Packers’ average ranking in total offense was 6.9. The only time they finished outside the top 10 was in 2013, when Rodgers missed about half of the season and the offense finished 13th. Their average ranking in scoring was 4.7, including No. 1 finishes in 2011 and 2014. They finished in the top 10 in each of those seven seasons — including in 2013, when they tied for eighth despite struggling along with Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at quarterback.

This year, the Packers finished 23rd in yards and 15th in scoring.

It was a stunning fall considering Rodgers not only played in all 16 games but took every meaningful snap in those games.

What changed?

— Coach Mike McCarthy gave up play-calling. When he announced the change, there was a fear that McCarthy’s decision to act more like a CEO was akin to sticking a finger in one hole of an old dam, only for the dam to start leaking elsewhere.

Ultimately, that’s what happened.

Who knows if McCarthy’s presence alongside defensive coordinator Dom Capers and special teams coordinator made one bit of difference. But those units did play better and were big reasons why the Packers made the playoffs in spite of their offense.

The offense, however, went in the tank without McCarthy’s constant oversight. Better late than never, McCarthy took back the play-calling reins for the final four games of the regular season. The Packers scored a total of 21 points in losses to Arizona in Week 16 and Minnesota in Week 17 before showing some signs of life in the playoffs.

— Jordy Nelson’s season-long absence made the Packers infinitely easier to defend. You didn’t have to earn a master’s degree from Defensive Coordinator University, or spend a night at a Holiday Inn Express, to figure out the basics of defending an offense with no deep threat. Rather than keeping two safeties deep to take away the long ball, you place one of those safeties in the box to take away the run game. So, an offense that’s ill-equipped to throw it deep now has a harder time running the ball. It’s like one stone killing two birds.

To combat that, you could argue that McCarthy should have played Jeff Janis — ready or not. And we did.

Janis’ performance against Arizona didn’t prove the coaches wrong, nor did it prove myself (and thousands upon thousands of Packers fans) right. In the context of the offense, Janis caught five passes for 44 yards and one touchdown vs. the Cardinals. Not mind-blowing stuff. I understand showing patience with Davante Adams. Unlike Janis and Jared Abbrederis, Adams had shown he could deliver vs. top competition (New England and Dallas last season). And the patient approach had worked in the past, most notably with kicker Mason Crosby.

Beyond all of that, this isn’t complicated stuff: If Janis had been excelling in the classroom and making plays on the practice field, he would have played on Sundays. Because he didn’t play meaningful snaps with any regularity, we can only assume his work from Tuesday through Saturday was found lacking. Still, with the two assets that can’t be coached — size and speed — Janis should have been force-fed playing time. Sink or swim with him, so to speak, figuring the pros (the possibility of sparking the offense) outweighed the cons (the offense wasn’t any good, anyway).

— What about play-calling and scheme? Those are areas I leave to the know-it-alls in Twitter-ville to pontificate about. Here’s my long-standing premise, boiled down to one example: Bill Belichick got run out of Cleveland. Then he became one of the greatest coaches in NFL history with New England. Did he suddenly learn how to coach? Or did he go from Vinny Testaverde to Tom Brady at quarterback?

Not even Belichick, for all his greatness, could save the Patriots’ offense this season. During the final three regular-season games, Green Bay ranked 12th among the 12 playoff teams in scoring. Cincinnati (without its starting quarterback) and New England (with an injury-ravaged receiver corps but with Rob Gronkowski at tight end) tied for 10th. Clearly, that couldn’t have had anything to do with Belichick. It’s personnel. It’s almost always personnel.

So, could McCarthy have done more to help a below-average set of passing-game targets? I honestly don’t know the answer. What I do know is if scheme can help get a player open, then speed will help the defender recover.

— A byproduct of the offseason coaching shuffle was McCarthy’s unorthodox decision to leave the receivers and quarterbacks in the hands of Alex Van Pelt. It’s not like the receivers were coaching themselves during periods when Van Pelt was focusing on the quarterbacks. The Packers have no shortage of assistants, with receivers coach-turned-offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett among the extra sets of eyes. Whether the receivers’ poor play was the fault of the coaching change and the lack of a dedicated receivers coach, or the lack of game-breaking talent, is one of those hypotheticals that McCarthy despises answering. But answer it he must.

— If you want to get on McCarthy for something, it’s the play and conditioning of running back Eddie Lacy. If Lacy was overweight at the start of training camp, he should have failed his physical until he got to the proper weight. He should have been fined to the fullest extent of the collective bargaining agreement. (Lacy at one point during the season said he hadn’t been fined.) Instead, it seemed like standard operating procedure. Not surprisingly, Lacy ran hot and cold throughout the season. He’s just so good — and the guys blocking for him aren’t slouches — that he was bound to have some big games, whether he weighed 230 or 255. He also disappeared too often, too. How else do you explain Lacy having five games of 85-plus yards but four of 10-or-less?

— With McCarthy being an offense-centric coach and with the offense being such a staple of his prolonged success, it’s easy to get fixated on that side of the ball. One prominent beat writer gave the Packers a “D-minus” for coaching.

That ignores the work done by Capers and Zook. Capers had a unit that ranked in the top five in scoring until the offense imploded at Arizona and gave away 21 points. Zook supervised the Packers’ surge up the special-teams rankings. Mike Trgovac coached a terrific defensive line, Joe Whitt coached two rookie starters at cornerback and Darren Perry coached one of the best safety tandems in the league. The killer catch-and-run by Larry Fitzgerald was the exception rather than the rule, because the number of blown assignments was the fewest in Capers’ tenure.

Ultimately, this is McCarthy’s team and the bulk of the grade goes on his transcript. In my opinion, much of the offensive meltdown was out of his hands. Put yourself in the shoes of a defensive coordinator. Who on the Packers’ offense kept you awake at night? Still, McCarthy should have seen trouble coming and taken back the play-calling duties long before Week 13. J.C. Tretter should have played left tackle vs. Arizona and Minnesota, not Don Barclay and Josh Sitton.

Still, the players performed for him — a fact that should never be overlooked. This team could have been scheduling tee times during the second quarter of the Washington game rather than storming back to demolish the Redskins. They won 10 games and almost reached the NFC Championship Game with the four projected top receivers on the sideline. So, it’s some good, some bad. For a team that was frustratingly mediocre, a mediocre grade seems obvious. Grade: C.

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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