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‘Embracing change:’ Packers players, coaches head into a winter of uncertainty following disappointing 2018

January 1, 2019

GREEN BAY — Joe Philbin’s final message to Green Bay Packers players on Monday morning — beyond a thank-you for their efforts during his four weeks as the team’s interim head coach — was a simple one:

Change is coming. Be ready.

Even if Philbin were to come back in 2019 as the head coach — a possibility that seems remote in the wake of Sunday’s 31-0 loss to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, which left the Packers at 2-2 on his watch — things won’t be the same around 1265 Lombardi Ave. in the wake of a 6-9-1 season that got longtime head coach Mike McCarthy fired after 12 games. A new head coach, new coordinators, new offensive and defensive systems, players coming and going — it’s all on the table.

“I told them football can be a humbling game. You look at the difference of the locker room in the course of seven days, in between the New York locker room and what we had yesterday,” Philbin said, referring to the dichotomy between the celebration that followed the team’s 44-38 comeback victory in overtime over the New York Jets on Dec. 23 and the feeling after Sunday’s loss to the Lions.

“But I also talked to them about embracing change, whatever that may be. And not looking at it as a negative, looking at it as a positive.”

Philbin speaks from experience. Thirteen years ago, Philbin had just finished his third season on Mike Sherman’s coaching staff when the Packers fired Sherman after six seasons and hired McCarthy, whom Phlibin didn’t know.

“I remember we were sitting at the kitchen table,” Philbin said of his wife Diane and the rest of his family. “We had six children at home, and the ticker said, ‘Mike McCarthy named head coach of the Packers.’ And I remember a couple of the kids crying. Because I didn’t know Mike, I had never met Mike.

“So I was thinking, ‘Jeez, I’m kind of a Mike Sherman guy, and I’m going to be packing up.’ We’d been here three years, the kids were all at different stages, and it’s hard. It’s tough. So yeah, it’s an anxious time.”

With a host of head coaches being fired around the league in the 24 hours after Sunday’s game concluded, the Packers were busy setting up interviews for their own opening on New Year’s Eve.

Team president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst have already interviewed ex-NFL head coaches Jim Caldwell and Chuck Pagano, and it was widely reported Sunday that the team intended to interview Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whom Murphy hired when he was Northwestern’s athletic director in 2006 after Wildcats coach Randy Walker died suddenly.

Multiple league sources have said the Packers intend to cast a wide net in the preliminary stages of their search for the next head coach, potentially interviewing as many as a dozen candidates or more.

Multiple reports, including by ESPN and the NFL Network, had them asking for permission to interview New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Patriots de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, New Orleans Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, and Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur

Ex-Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase, who was fired Monday by the team, could also be a candidate.

With the Patriots and Saints having earned first-round playoff byes, McDaniels, Flores and Campbell are able to interview this week, as is Munchak, as the Steelers missed the playoffs. Any follow-up conversations with McDaniels, Flores, Campbell or other assistants on the staffs of the top two NFC and AFC seeds — the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC are the other two teams with first-weekend byes — would have to wait until their teams are eliminated or until the week after the conference title game for teams headed to the Super Bowl.

Assistants on the staffs of the eight teams playing in the wild card round are not available for interviews this week, as their teams prepare for their playoff openers.

“There’s definitely a certain level of uncertainty, but that’s all outside our control as players,” outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell said Monday as players packed up their lockers and most of them headed for their offseason homes away from Green Bay. “We just have to go wherever we’re going to go (for the offseason) and get to work. We’ll have the extra time in the offseason program and training camp to get to know whoever ends up being the coach here.”

Added rookie wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: “I’ve had three different college coaches in my career, so it won’t be anything new to me. You don’t know. When that time comes, you take it all in as it is.”

While the assistant coaches who are under contract for 2019 remained in limbo — they are unable to interview for jobs elsewhere without the Packers’ permission, but are not required to report to work beyond Monday — the players found themselves wondering what a new head coach might mean for them.

First-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine impressed his players with his scheme and demand for accountability, which some felt had been lacking previously, while Philbin’s players on offense (including quarterback Aaron Rodgers) had vowed to play hard for him in hopes of bolstering his case for the job. Pettine has said he doesn’t have much interest in being a head coach again but could return as the defensive coordinator if the new coach wants him to stay on.

Rodgers, meanwhile, did not speak to reporters after Sunday’s game and wasn’t in the locker room during Monday morning’s clean-out after leaving Sunday’s loss after three offensive series with a concussion. How a new coach and a new offense will impact the two-time NFL MVP, who had a down season by his standards, is among the burning questions about where the Packers go from here.

“It makes you go home and work harder,” running back Aaron Jones said of the uncertainty. “You don’t know who’s going to be here, you don’t know what they’re going to want of you. So you’ve got to be able to do everything. It’ll be fun and exciting, learning a new offense, learning how they’re going to use us. But you’ve just got to be prepared, be ready to do (anything).”

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