Next Packers coach’s mission: Make Aaron Rodgers great again

January 6, 2019

GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers’ next head coach — whoever he turns out to be — will have a lengthy to-do list once he gets the job.

He’ll have to hire a staff — and decide whether to keep anyone from Mike McCarthy’s.

He’ll have to put together his schedule — which may or may not include the Friday STAA (Soft Tissue Activation and Application) program McCarthy put in place instead of traditional Friday practices.

He’ll have to install his offensive and defensive playbooks — and determine whether he wants to try to convince defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who just put his scheme in last season upon his arrival, to stay.

And, he’ll have to forge a close working relationship with general manager Brian Gutekunst, director of football operations Russ Ball and team president/CEO Mark Murphy — as part of the Packers’ triangle of authority under Murphy on the team’s organizational flow chart.

But more than anything else — and as exhibited by the team’s interview list thus far — Job No. 1 for the next coach is obvious: Make Aaron Rodgers great again.

“I think anybody who would say that they don’t think about that is probably either lying, or they’re too cliché-ridden in their interviews. So, of course, you definitely think about what could have been had we played better, or if things had gone differently in certain games,” Rodgers replied when asked about his season before sustaining a concussion in the team’s 31-0 loss to Detroit in the Dec. 30 finale.

“Of course, human nature and competitive nature is, you go through that. You go crazy thinking about that stuff.”

The ‘real’ 12

Truth is, the two-time NFL MVP quarterback is coming off the most vexing season of his 11-year stint as the team’s starter:

He threw only two interceptions, but he also threw only 25 touchdown passes, the lowest full-season total of his career.

He completed only 62.3 percent of his passes (his second-lowest percentage of his time as a starter) and finished with a 97.6 passer rating (well below his 103.1 career rating), but Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL this season.

The Packers finished 6-9-1, their second-worst winning percentage in a season in which he was able to start all 16 games, but Rodgers started all 16 games despite a left knee injury sustained in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener that affected him to varying degrees all season.

He had No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams on the verge of single-season franchise records entering the Dec. 30 finale (111 receptions for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns), but he also played much of the season without veteran Randall Cobb (hamstring injury/concussion, nine games played), Geronimo Allison (core muscle injury/five games played) and longtime security blanket Jordy Nelson (cut in March/63 receptions for Oakland) and with rookie wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore (61 combined receptions).

Most of the coaches that Murphy and Gutekunst have either already interviewed or are scheduled to interview have offensive backgrounds: Ex-Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell; Packers interim head coach Joe Philbin; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell; Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken; Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur; and ex-Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. The interview list is likely to expand in the coming days, after the NFL’s wild card playoff games are in the books.

Since their renaissance began in 1992, the Packers have hired four head coaches: Mike Holmgren (seven seasons, 1992-’98); Ray Rhodes (one season, 1999); Mike Sherman (six seasons, 2000-’05); and McCarthy (12-plus seasons, 2006-’18). Only Rhodes, who’d been the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator (1989-’91, 1994) and Packers defensive coordinator (1992-’93), didn’t have an offensive background.

For as much success as they had together since Rodgers took over for Brett Favre in 2008, McCarthy and Rodgers’ relationship had clearly run its course by the time McCarthy was fired on Dec. 2 with four games left in the season. Rodgers publicly criticized McCarthy’s game plan after a 22-0 victory over Buffalo on Sept. 30, and while Rodgers never again explicitly or publicly criticized McCarthy thereafter, it seemed to be a watershed moment in a relationship that had had its friction from time to time.

In the end, the Packers finished 12th in total offense (369.1 yards per game) and tied for 14th in scoring offense (23.5 points per game) in the 32-team NFL. In 2006, when Sherman was fired and general manager Ted Thompson picked McCarthy from a seven-man interview list, the Packers were coming off a 2005 season in which Favre had thrown a career-high and NFL-most 29 interceptions and the Packers finished the year ranked 18th in total offense (319.9 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring offense (18.6 points per game).

History lesson

At the 2006 NFL meetings, McCarthy sat down at his assigned table for the NFC coaches breakfast to find legendary Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman waiting for him along with a handful of Wisconsin-based writers and a few other national reporters. “Dr. Z,” as he was known, proceeded to grill McCarthy on how he was going to fix Favre. The perception, right or wrong, had been that Sherman and his offensive coordinator, Tom Rossley, had let Favre do whatever he wanted, resulting in what McCarthy called an “astronomical” number of interceptions.

During the back-and-forth, McCarthy’s small fruit plate sat untouched — in subsequent breakfasts, McCarthy would only drink coffee — as he tried to articulate what he’d do to get Favre, a three-time NFL MVP, back on track. Complicating matters was Favre’s annual rite of contemplating retirement.

“I think anytime when you look at offense, when it’s an individual, you obviously look at change. I think with the Packers’ experience (in 2005), they had a lot of different interchange of players playing, and I think anytime you have that, that a lot of times affects your efficiency on offense,” McCarthy explained that morning. “So I think it was more the (lack of) continuity than he’s had in the past, because they’ve been very good on offense for the past five to seven years. Shoot, probably over his whole career. I think getting the new guys up to speed (was the issue). At one time he had seven Pro Bowlers on offense. Seven Pro Bowl players. We need to re-establish that with some of our younger guys.

“I think physically it’s clearly evident on film he has a lot of football left. I can only tell you about today and what I’ve seen. You know, 29 interceptions is obviously an astronomical number. And it’s something we need to improve on as a football team. But to sit here and say that I’m making excuses for Brett Favre, I would disagree with that.

“Statistically, obviously he didn’t have his best season. (But) to have a Hall of Fame football player on your football team, I have a history with him, and he is a special player – regardless of how he played last year. I’m looking forward to the opportunity of coaching him.”

Still, it was a process. Favre, who turned 37 during the 2006 season, went from 20 TDs/29 INTs in 2005, to 18 TDs/18 INTs in 2006, to 28 TDs/15 INTs in 2007. The Packers went from 4-12 in 2005, to 8-8 in 2006, to 13-3 and a berth in the NFC Championship Game in 2007.

‘Fixing’ Rodgers

With Rodgers, who’ll turn 36 during the 2019 season, McCarthy’s successor will be tasked with getting Rodgers back to playing his game again.

This season, Rodgers missed throws he’s historically made, passed up open short passes while looking for throws farther downfield and absorbed 49 sacks, fifth-most in the NFL. He also threw away more passes intentionally than any other quarterback in the league and did it more than he ever has in a single season in his career, which is attributable in part to his lack of chemistry with his young receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham, who was the Packers’ third veteran free-agent tight end signing in as many years.

Asked midway through the season why Rodgers hadn’t look like himself, Philbin, who returned last January to the offensive coordinator job he’d held from 2007 through 2011 and was coaching Rodgers when he won his first NFL MVP in 2011, replied: “I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors, just like anything else in football. Obviously, we’ve been playing with some younger receivers. Sometimes it might be a route, sometimes it might be a protection, sometimes it might be the throw, sometimes it might be they’ve got a good coverage dialed up against that specific pass concept. I don’t think it’s really been one thing necessarily.

“He’s not going to make very single throw every time. But I definitely don’t see anything from a mechanical, function, fundamental, any of those things. I don’t think there’s any limitations on the throws that he can make or can’t make. Again, it’s a little bit of everybody.”

Statistically, Rodgers’ game didn’t change significantly after Philbin took over as interim head coach. Although his completion percentage went up (64.2), his passer rating was actually lower (91.2) before his concussion in the finale after three three-and-out series. Because of the concussion, Rodgers didn’t speak to reporters after the game or when the players cleaned out their lockers on New Year’s Eve morning.

But after the team’s Dec. 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Rodgers was asked about his own performance during the season and how much responsibility he and the offense would bear if McCarthy got fired. At the time, Rodgers didn’t know McCarthy had been summoned to Murphy’s office for precisely that reason. In his answer, Rodgers acknowledged he had not played well enough — for anyone — and that he and the offense bore “a lot” of responsibility for a season gone awry.

“Obviously, I know my role with the team and expectations of the way I play and have played and expect to play. That part is pretty frustrating. There’s a lot of things we haven’t done great this year,” Rodgers said. “We haven’t played very well. Usually, over the years, the success that we’ve had, we’ve taken really good care of the football, but we’ve paired that with efficiency in the passing game and big plays and explosive gains. This year, we’ve taken care of the football, but we haven’t had the consistent explosive gains.

“We all take part in the disappointments and the failures that we’ve had this season. We’ve had a number of opportunities.”

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