It's tough all around

Coach Mike McCarthy made a hard decision in firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders; he faces a harder decision in picking his successor. Packer Report publisher Bill Huber explains.

As the saying goes, it's easier to fire the coach than the players.

And since the head coach isn't going to fire himself, it stands to reason that, when in doubt, the assistant coaches' heads must roll.

So, 2009 starts with a sip of champagne and a half-dozen pink slips. Cheers!

Actually, it's not so cheery. The NFL, like all sports, is a results-oriented business. Coaches get paid very well, and they know job security isn't part of the job description. So, while getting fired isn't exactly the best way to ring in the new year, it's part of the hazards of the profession.

That, of course, doesn't make it easier. When coach Mike McCarthy praised defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, defensive ends coach Carl "Big Daddy" Hairston, defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn, cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington, secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer and strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson for being good people, he wasn't kidding.

After the season, reporters got one more chance to talk to the assistant coaches. For a magazine feature on the rookies, I did the rounds with the position coaches, including chats with the always-smiling Washington and the intense Hairston, then headed for the exit. I got a bump on the shoulder from Sanders — a guy I'd talked to several times, but always just as a face amongst the media horde — and he said, "Hey, Bill, have a happy new year."

We shook hands, I returned the "happy new year" greeting and wished him good luck having a healthy defense to work with next season.

Maybe this will sound stupid in this crass world we live in, but the moment really struck me. First, I was surprised Sanders even knew my name. And even if he's got the memory of an elephant, he didn't have to say anything to me. It wasn't like I'd talked to him twice a week all season or we met out for a beer. I'm guessing the reporters are a necessary evil for a focused football coach.

What Sanders said to my reply also struck me. He barely acknowledged what I said about having a healthy defense next season. He laughed and told me to enjoy the offseason. It's like he knew he wouldn't be here and/or he knew I had a hunch that he wouldn't be here.

So, with that out of the way, we turn to the meat and potatoes: McCarthy better make the right move, or he'll be the next coach looking for work.

McCarthy must find a coordinator who can make the most out of the existing talent. The best X's and O's guru in the world isn't worth his chalk if he can't make his system work with the players under contract. Sure, some fresh faces can be brought in, but by and large, the guys who were in key roles last year are going to be in key roles next year.

Then, the new coordinator must hire the right staff. Can the new position coaches coax more out of guys like A.J. Hawk and Aaron Rouse? Can the best of Desmond Bishop (ie. his big-play potential) be harnessed while eliminating the worst of Desmond Bishop (ie. his propensity for allowing big plays)? Can Justin Harrell be salvaged? Can Jeremy Thompson's potential be turned into production? Can Will Blackmon or Pat Lee be turned into the next Tramon Williams?

McCarthy's decision will be interesting. There are a bunch of qualified, experienced candidates out there.

Some, like his former boss, Mike Nolan, run a 3-4 scheme. Others, like another former boss, Jim Haslett, run a 4-3 scheme. Does McCarthy go with a 4-3 scheme, since his personnel is set up to run it? Or does he go with a radical change to a 3-4, even though he might not have the personnel to run it until 2010 and his best player, Aaron Kampman, perhaps isn't well-suited for the scheme?

Does he go with a proven commodity, like Nolan, Haslett, Gregg Williams or Romeo Crennel? Or does he make a bold move and hire a Pepper Johnson (New England's defensive line coach and a Bill Belichick protege) or a Bill Sheridan (the Giants' linebackers coach who runs the scheme of Steve Spagnuolo)? Or does he promote from within with linebackers coach Winston Moss, who might be able to take the best of Sanders' scheme with the best of some of his other influences?

However he does it, this decision will be the most important of McCarthy's tenure. Even more important than Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre. A head coach can make wholesale changes to his staff once. After that, it's his head on the chopping block.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at

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