Are Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy on the clock?
Thompson and McCarthy have lifted the Green Bay Packers to a remarkable run of success. Only the Patriots and Packers have reached the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons. Only the Patriots have won more games than the Packers over that span. To have avoided being cut down to size by the NFL’s version of the Grim Reaper, otherwise known as the salary cap, is a credit to the two men on top of the football operation.
“We don’t hang division title banners around here,” McCarthy said before the season. “Once you cross the threshold into the playoffs, it’s about getting to the final game and winning. I want everybody to think that way, and I want everybody to behave that way and train that way and aspire for that to be. Now, ultimately, how do you measure success? This is a successful football program on anybody’s standards.”
He’s right. Have the Packers wasted too many of Aaron Rodgers’ best seasons by winning only one Super Bowl? Perhaps. But at least they’ve won one and at least they’re in the conversation most years. You don’t think the Vikings and Bears and Lions and another 20-plus teams wouldn’t take that run of success?
Still, it’s clear these Packers aren’t headed in the right direction. At best, they’re treading water. At worst, their heads are starting to sink. There’s no spinning these numbers: Since starting 6-0 last year, the Packers are 8-10 in their last 18 regular-season games (9-11 including playoffs). From 2010 through 2014, the Packers were 34-5-1 at home in the regular season. Since the start of last season, the Packers are 8-5 at home.
I’ve been talking to you long enough that you probably know where I stand on these things. To me, players win games. That means it’s up to the general manager to provide the talent and then it’s up to the players to execute the plays that are called.
That’s not to totally minimize the role of McCarthy and his staff. Executing the plays that are called demands executing the techniques necessary to turn X’s and O’s into production. For as much as your blood pressure surges when you hear words like “fundamentals” and “pad level,” those are critical factors in executing what’s called.
What about scheme and play-calling? Those are hot topics — though, strangely, the critiques of McCarthy’s offense fall silent when the offense is productive, like it was vs. Chicago and Atlanta the previous two weeks.
The Packers’ coaches are smart. So are the other teams’ coaches. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that crossing routes and slants were the ticket for beating man coverage, I’d be writing this column from a warm beach and having my staff cleaning up the avalanche of leaves that have covered my grass. Seriously, if all you needed to beat man coverage were crossing routes and slants, then every team would run crossing routes and slants and no team in the league would play man-to-man coverage.
Repeat after me: Players make plays and players win games. If you don’t believe it, remember that the great Bill Belichick got fired in Cleveland. He didn’t suddenly get smart in New England. He did, however, get Tom Brady.
Teams with the best players win the most games. It’s really as simple as that. And let’s face it, the Packers don’t have enough players.
That falls on Thompson. What he’s done to McCarthy and his coaching staff is the football equivalent of criminal. By and large, I like the way Thompson has done business over the years. As a longtime personnel executive told me long ago, for every free agent that you sign, that’s one less of your free agents that you can keep. By not bringing in high-priced free agents, Thompson’s managed to keep most of the team’s top players in Green Bay. That’s led to sustained success.
This, however, isn’t about high-profile free agents. This — with the crucial acknowledgment that the players who are available today are available for a reason — is about plugging gaps at positions devastated by injuries.
This is about adding a veteran cornerback who can help out so the defensive coordinator can actually run his scheme. For goodness sakes, Dom Capers is a blitz-centric coordinator. Give him the tools so he can actually do his job. No offense to Demetri Goodson, but to expect him to go from the suspended list to an every-down cornerback — a role he’s proven ill-equipped to handle — is sheer folly.
This is about signing a running back so there’s at lease some measure of unpredictability in the offensive scheme. Ty Montgomery is a hell of a player but he’s not built to be an every-down running back and he hasn’t trained to be an every-down running back. If you can’t run the football, you can’t use the play-action passing game. As is the case with Capers, just how much of McCarthy’s playbook is unusable at this point? Put simply, Thompson has handcuffed the coaching staff by asking them to turn chicken feathers into the equivalent of a KFC family meal.
McCarthy and his coaches aren’t without blame.
Three non-X’s and O’s things strike me as odd. First, would Eddie Lacy have needed surgery if he hadn’t played against Dallas? Playing injured players is so completely out of character for the Packers, but he did in that game. Second, there was, as Randall Cobb put it, a “lack of communication” about his role for Sunday’s game. Rodgers “didn’t quite understand” Cobb’s role, either. Shouldn’t those two have been front and center in any pregame conversations? Third, either at halftime or after Sunday’s game, McCarthy said, “a big focus of my message was about energy.” At his postgame news conference, Rodgers brought up the “low energy,” which he said is “just not acceptable.” On Monday, however, McCarthy backtracked and said the energy was fine.
On the field, the biggest problem is the team’s chronic late-game failures. The playoff games, obviously, are the big black eyes. The last three seasons ended on the final play of the game. With a defensive stand, the Packers would have beaten the Falcons in Week 8. With a defensive stand, they would have had a chance to steal a victory over the Colts in Week 9. The Packers’ last two drives at Minnesota in Week 2 ended with turnovers. In 2015, they were swept at home against division teams by a total of 13 points. It’s not a black-and-what stat, but Rodgers has five fourth-quarter comeback victories since the start of the 2013 season. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has five this year. Perhaps most damning: According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, McCarthy’s record is 16-45-1 when the Packers have a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, which is having the ball while facing a one-score deficit. Among coaches with 10 such fourth-quarter opportunities, McCarthy’s .266 winning percentage is better than only Chip Kelly (.188) and Mike Mularkey (.179).
At 4-4, this team is heading the wrong way. For years, the Packers could ride the right arm of Rodgers and the ballhawking skill of their defensive backs to a series of blowout wins. Those strengths have disappeared.
If this keeps up, change — drastic change — must be considered by team President Mark Murphy. With that said, McCarthy absolutely deserves every chance to turn things around this season. He’s done it before. No, he’s done it frequently before. The Packers lost their last two games in 2015 but crushed Washington in the playoffs and almost shocked Arizona with most of the top skill players sidelined with injuries in the divisional round. In 2014, the Packers were 5-3 through eight games but won eight of nine and almost got to the Super Bowl. They were 2-3 in 2012, 3-3 in 2010 and 4-4 in 2009. Those three teams closed their regular seasons with a combined 23-6 record.
So, let’s give McCarthy something resembling his full team. Give him James Starks and Jared Cook on offense. Give him Clay Matthews and Randall on defense. Give him Lacy if they get to the playoffs. As the Packers showed in 2010, all you need is a chance.
And if nothing changes? Then Murphy needs to take a long listen to the anger and frustration building up among the legion of fans.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.