It's not really a surprise that Mike McCarthy is leaving, but it is a surprise that he's gone. McCarthy's 12-plus year reign with the Packers ended unceremoniously on Sunday night, as team president Mark Murphy fired McCarthy after a 20-17 home loss to the lowly Cardinals essentially ended Green Bay's chances of returning to the postseason. It was the first time the Packers had fired a head coach during the middle of a season in the 98-year history of the franchise. The move ended the second-longest tenure of any head coach in Packers history, as the only leader to last longer than McCarthy was Curly Lambeau.
Lambeau has been immortalized as the name of the Packers' stadium, while the street in front of the stadium was renamed Lombardi Way for legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Mike Holmgren has a lengthy way that stretches more than three miles through Green Bay and Ashwaubenon. McCarthy, the only other coach in franchise history to win a championship, was honored with a side street off of Holmgren Way that's all of three blocks long and consists of the backside of the Packers' practice facility, a few local businesses, and port-a-potty storage.
Likewise, McCarthy's stature within the organization and to its fans relative to those legends seems to pale in comparison. Lambeau is the most important person in the history of the franchise. Lombardi is arguably the greatest coach in football history. Holmgren restored the Packers to the top of the football world after Lombardi left and the franchise won just one playoff game over a 24-year span. McCarthy won a Super Bowl and finished his tenure with a .618 winning percentage, but it's difficult to find a Packers fan who wanted him to coach their team in 2019.
As 2018 fades, it seems likely that fans will look more fondly upon McCarthy's tenure. (Remember how these same fans lustily booed Brett Favre in 2009 and welcomed him back warmly when the Packers retired Favre's jersey six years later.) In the short term, though, there are plenty of questions surrounding what has happened and what comes next. Let's get to those questions now, beginning with how we got here:
Were the Packers right to fire McCarthy?
It's not hard to make a case that the Packers were going backward in terms of recent performance. After getting blown out by the Falcons in the 2016 NFC Championship Game, the Packers stumbled through a lost 2017 season in which McCarthy was unable to manufacture any semblance of an offense after Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury. Brett Hundley posted a 70.6 passer rating, and the offense averaged 16.6 points per game in Rodgers' absence during a year in which the Eagles were able to weather the Carson Wentz injury and win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles.
That was enough to at least put McCarthy on watch, but it was fair to expect that the Packers would return to form with a healthy Rodgers in the fold. Rodgers injured his knee in the first half of Week 1 this season, but when he came back and brilliantly led the Packers to a comeback victory over the Bears, it seemed like the Packers who won 10 or more games like clockwork with Rodgers were back.
Obviously, that hasn't happened. The Packers, who have gone 3-7-1 since that Bears victory, will have to go on a winning streak to top their 7-9 mark from a year ago. The only game they've won over a team's primary starting quarterback came when they beat Josh Allen and the Bills at Lambeau in Week 4. Their other two victories are over Brock Osweiler's Dolphins and the C.J. Beathard-led 49ers, with the latter win requiring a furious 10-point comeback in the final two minutes from Rodgers to win the game.
You could make a case that the Packers are better than their record; they were 10th in DVOA heading into the Cardinals game, essentially have the point differential of a .500 team, and played credible football in narrow road losses to the Rams, Seahawks and Vikings. They've had freak moments and performances cost them games; Mason Crosby suddenly lapsed into a Chargers kicker during a 31-23 loss to the Lions, while a fumbled kickoff from Ty Montgomery cost the Packers a shot at driving for a game-winning field goal when they were down two points to the Rams.
At the same time, as bad as the Packers' season has been, things could be even worse. The Bears failed to convert a third-and-2 late in the fourth quarter and kicked a field goal to go up six points, then Kyle Fuller dropped an interception that should have sealed that Week 1 game up before Rodgers won it with a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. Beathard underthrew a would-be touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of their game, instead throwing an interception. Crosby missed a would-be game winner against the Vikings in Week 2, but then-Minnesota kicker Daniel Carlson whiffed on a shot to give the Vikings an overtime lead and then missed a 35-yarder to seal the deal at the end of overtime.
The Packers are now projected to win 6.5 games by ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), and it just isn't unusual for modern coaches to be let go after two consecutive sub-.500 seasons, even with a longer track record of success. Heck, Andy Reid was fired in Philadelphia after nine playoff appearances in 11 years gave way to 8-8 and 4-12 seasons. Brian Billick was fired after two sub-six win seasons in three years. Coaches such as Sean Payton and Marvin Lewis have gotten longer leashes amid rough stretches in recent years, but this isn't an unprecedented decision.
Had the Saints' offense stagnated, Payton might have been in more danger during the Saints' three-year run of 7-9 records. Instead, a historically awful defense was their problem. If the Packers had continually fielded a top-10 offense, McCarthy might have been insulated from criticism and had job security, but this offense has been a problem. There were whispers of how McCarthy's West Coast scheme was behind the curve and relied heavily upon Rodgers' improvisational skills to create big plays off-schedule, but those fears weren't truly confirmed until the offense ground to an absolute halt after Rodgers broke his collarbone last season.
Those issues reappeared with the 2018 offense, which continued to look antiquated in comparison to teams like the Chiefs and Rams. The Packers simply don't do enough to create natural rubs and easy releases for their receivers, who have to win one-on-one in coverage. Of Rodgers' 21 touchdown passes this season, just two used a pick to create space, and they were both within two yards of the end zone. Two of the touchdowns included stacked receivers, but one didn't create an open receiver and required Rodgers to improvise and create a throwing lane for a score.
The Packers hadn't run a jet sweep through mid-October, and while they used ghost motion in Week 12 to set up an Aaron Jones touchdown run, it felt like when the diner that has been in your town for 75 years suddenly added poké to the menu. Putting Davante Adams in the backfield for one fourth-down play isn't modernizing your offense. It's one play.
Could anyone else be blamed?
Not in a practical way. If anything, this was supposed to be the season in which all the other scapegoats were out of the picture. After the disappointing 2017 campaign, the Packers responded by making a pair of long-requested changes. They started by firing oft-criticized defensive coordinator Dom Capers and replacing him with former Jets assistant and Browns coach Mike Pettine. Pettine took over a defense that ranked 20th in DVOA in 2016 and 20th in 2017 and had them at ... 20th heading into the Cardinals game.
More notably, Murphy kicked longtime general manager Ted Thompson into an advisory role and replaced him with lieutenant Brian Gutekunst, who finally took the Packers back into free agency. Thompson had mostly disavowed free agency in favor of amassing draft picks, but Gutekunst went headfirst into the market.
The returns were disappointing. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, signed to a one-year deal, suffered a season-ending leg injury after three games. Tramon Williams, brought back to Green Bay at age 35 on a two-year, $10 million deal, has moved to safety in midseason and publicly criticized McCarthy for punting in a fourth-and-short situation against the Seahawks.
Tight end Jimmy Graham got the biggest deal, but his three-year, $30 million pact is off to a rough start. The former Saints star has spent the past two weeks battling through a broken thumb, but he has 44 catches for 536 yards and a mere two touchdowns this season. The Packers will have to choose between a $12.7 million cap hit or $7.3 million in dead money for Graham next season. Their foray into free agency, thanks in part to injuries, has been a failure.
You can make a fair case that injuries have hit the Packers hard on defense. Green Bay has four defensive starters on injured reserve in Wilkerson, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Jake Ryan. On offense, Randall Cobb has been limited to five games, and Rodgers wasn't 100 percent for the first six weeks as he played through his knee injury. Even now, his mechanics seem to be inconsistent and his ball placement hasn't been up to his usual standards, which is hardly an uncommon occurrence when mechanics are altered to account for an injury.
Some have criticized Rodgers, but he is being held to an unrealistic baseline given his age and otherworldly level of play in years past. Has Rodgers missed more underneath throws than he has in years past? Absolutely. He's completing just 68.2 percent of his passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, which is below the league average of 73.2 percent and the worst mark of his career.
At the same time, Rodgers also made some astoundingly important passes when the Packers really needed a big play, most notably in those games against the Bears and Rams. He has 21 touchdown passes against just one interception. Rodgers' receivers have dropped 201 yards worth of passes this season, the most in football.
The receiver situation hasn't been ideal. Rodgers has thrown 106 passes to third-year undrafted free agent Geronimo Allison, rookie fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie seventh-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown, which accounts for nearly 23 percent of his pass attempts. On Sunday, those guys went 2-of-8 for 19 yards. Rodgers has taken criticism for not making those guys look better than they are, but shouldn't that be on McCarthy (or Gutekunst) for not finding and developing better talent behind Davante Adams? McCarthy's handling of the running back situation and limiting Aaron Jones' role through the end of October also beggared belief.
In reality, though, there wasn't another card Murphy could play. If the Packers needed to make a change after this season, the two big pieces left to work with were Rodgers and McCarthy. Rodgers just signed a four-year, $134 million extension in August and can't be released without torpedoing the cap until 2021 at the earliest. McCarthy makes a fraction of Rodgers' salary and doesn't count on the cap. It wasn't hard to figure out who was going to lose that fight.
Should he have won more than one Super Bowl with arguably the NFL's most talented quarterback?
Certainly, if you're looking at the specifics, McCarthy left some opportunities on the table. Before Rodgers even took over, McCarthy lost as a 7.5-point favorite against the Giants during the 2007 playoffs in a 23-20 game in which Brett Favre threw a critical interception in overtime. The Packers rode a hot streak to the Super Bowl three years later, their lone trip during the McCarthy era.
The Packers were 5-6 in the playoffs after their Super Bowl win. Their victories were over teams quarterbacked by Joe Webb, Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning, Dak Prescott and Tony Romo in the infamous Dez Bryant catch rule game. They were ripped apart twice by Colin Kaepernick, lost as eight-point favorites to end a 15-1 season at home against Eli's Giants, and were blown out by Matt Ryan in what was McCarthy's last playoff game, the 2016 NFC Championship Game.
McCarthy deserves blame, at least in part, for the other two games. In the legendary January 2016 Packers-Cardinals playoff tilt where Rodgers brought the Packers back with two Hail Mary completions on the same drive to tie the game, McCarthy decided against a two-pointer to try to win the game and instead kicked an extra point to send the game to overtime. His team had lost multiple receivers to injury, but the Packers had just ripped the Cardinals' hearts out and were seven-point underdogs. One play from the 2-yard line on offense was a better idea than going to a full overtime, where the Cardinals picked up a 75-yard completion on the opening play from scrimmage and scored two plays later.
Maybe McCarthy deserves only a bit of criticism for that one. When it comes to the 2014 NFC Championship Game, though, McCarthy bungled his way into a crushing loss. I wrote about this at the time, when McCarthy kicked two sub-20-yard field goals to start the game, ran the ball on third-and-3 to set up a fourth-and-1 field goal try, and said after the game that he was calling second-half running plays to try to hit a total of 20 rushing attempts in the second half.
The latter is a brutal conflation of cause and effect, and as Mike Tanier noted, the Packers were probably better off setting a target of three second-half kneel-downs if McCarthy was going to misapply math. I won't get into McCarthy's erratic late-game decision-making in the regular season or the time Jordy Nelson had to try to hide the challenge flag McCarthy incorrectly threw, but at the very least, the Packers should have represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX.
Let's look at it on a much broader level. I can think of eight quarterbacks who were drafted after 1980, didn't spend time in the CFL or USFL, and count as surefire, first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famers: Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger. Those guys were competing against one another (and some in cases, with Rodgers) for Super Bowl appearances, so we can get an abstract sense of how frequently a dominant quarterback in the modern era should sniff the Lombardi trophy.
Those passers combined for 126 seasons as starters (excluding 2018). Those seasons delivered 27 Super Bowl appearances and 16 victories. In other words, they made the Super Bowl once every 4.7 healthy seasons and won it once every 7.9 seasons.
Rodgers' debut season as the Packers' starter didn't come until age 25, thanks to three seasons spent as Favre's understudy. He completed eight full or nearly-full seasons as a starter, excluding the 2013 and 2017 campaigns. Those eight seasons have delivered one Super Bowl appearance and one ring. In other words, Rodgers has won almost exactly the number of Super Bowls we would have expected given the success rate of other quarterbacks, and if the Packers had sneaked past the Seahawks and into Super Bowl XLIX, he would be right in line in terms of expected appearances, too. I think the expectations for eight (approaching nine) full seasons from Rodgers should be something in the range of two Super Bowl appearances and one win.
What are the benefits of firing McCarthy now?
There have been suggestions that firing McCarthy in midseason is more insulting than letting him play out the campaign. I'm not sure I agree. As Kevin Seifert pointed out, once Murphy decided he was going to fire McCarthy, the Packers would have spent the next month coaching meaningless games in front of a likely-hostile fan base amid a sea of rumors about whom the Packers were going to hire next. It's difficult to imagine that serving as a fun or dignified farewell.
Firing McCarthy gives the Packers the rest of the season to evaluate interim boss Joe Philbin. He was a middling 24-28 during his three-plus seasons in charge of the Dolphins, but Miami has a way of making smart people look bad. I would hesitate to make any interim coach permanent, as I wrote when I was evaluating Philbin's replacement back in 2015, but if the Packers think Philbin is head-coaching material, the next few weeks represent an extended free job interview.
More notably, though, firing McCarthy essentially gives the Packers a head start on the interview process for their next coach. The only other team with its permanent job open is the Browns, and while Cleveland has gone 2-2 since firing Hue Jackson and has a talented young quarterback in Baker Mayfield, I mentioned last month that the Packers opening would be the most enticing opportunity likely to come available this offseason. Given the steady, stable ownership of the Packers in contrast to the shortsighted, impulsive decision-making of Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland, it's easy to imagine the Packers job looking very enticing.
Crucially, the Packers can start talking to college coaches who might make the leap to the pros if so inclined. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is arguably the hottest candidate right now, and his Sooners don't play until the opening round of the College Football Playoff on Dec. 29. Riley will spend much of that time preparing for the game, of course, but it would stand to reason that he could spare a day to talk to the Packers if so inclined.
One other candidate is already free. Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury was fired after a 5-7 season, but he already has attracted attention at both the college and pro levels for his work in building a consistently devastating offense with the Red Raiders. Kingsbury's offense ranked as high as second and no lower than 23rd in scoring over each of the past four seasons. His offense peaked with back-to-back top-five finishes in both 2015 and 2016, when Kingsbury's starting quarterback was a guy who has had some success this season: Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes.
Is it smart to go after a coach who didn't excel in the college ranks?
It's hard to say. Kingsbury would certainly be an aggressive hire given that he hasn't coached at the NFL level and went 35-40 in his first head-coaching job at Texas Tech, but his offensive acumen is unquestionable. Teams want to hire the next Sean McVay, but the reality is that the next McVay probably isn't lurking around at the NFL level or he would have gotten a job last season. Teams have to expand their searches if they're looking for young, smart offensive minds, and with the NFL incorporating more spread and Air Raid concepts into their offenses, Kingsbury is as close to the prototypical candidate as anyone on the market besides Riley.
Hiring Kingsbury would be going out on a limb, but the Packers made a controversial decision when they hired McCarthy in the first place. He had spent one year in Green Bay as the quarterbacks coach in 1999, and McCarthy then spent five years on Jim Haslett's staff as the offensive coordinator for the Saints. In 2005, he left the Saints to join the 49ers as their offensive coordinator and spent one year in charge of an offense that ranked 30th in scoring offense and 29th in DVOA. Thompson then hired McCarthy as his coach over higher-profile candidates like Steve Mariucci and Wade Phillips. McCarthy was not the most popular pick, but he became one of the best coaches in franchise history.
The unanswerable question for the Packers, at least right now, is whether the college coaches they can talk to will be better than the pro coaches they'll get to speak to come January and February. Would they rather wait to see whether the Ravens fire John Harbaugh? Is the better scenario to hire Kingsbury as offensive coordinator and steal from their division rivals by hiring Chicago's Vic Fangio as coach? Could they go for a different offensive mind and hire away Josh McDaniels from the Patriots? (And, if McDaniels leaves, would Bill Belichick replace him by bringing Kingsbury -- whom the Patriots drafted in the sixth round in 2003 -- on staff to replace him?) At the very least, the Packers have options.
What's next for McCarthy?
McCarthy, too, will likely land on his feet. It would be wrong to say that he's guaranteed another head-coaching job when you remember that Billick went 80-64 as a head coach, won a Super Bowl, and never coached again, but McCarthy is likely going to have a new opportunity as early as next season. The obvious fit is in Cleveland, where the Browns have an opening and general manager John Dorsey grew up in the Green Bay front office. Matches aren't always this simplistic, but you have to figure that McCarthy will at least be somebody Cleveland interviews.
It plays to McCarthy's observed strength of developing young quarterbacks. He did solid work in helping to mold fourth-round pick Aaron Brooks into a useful starter in New Orleans, then spent three years mentoring Rodgers before unleashing his protégé onto the world in 2008. McCarthy didn't do much in a half-season with Alex Smith during the first overall pick's rookie season, and Rodgers might have been a supernova regardless of his offensive coordinator, but it seems fair to say that McCarthy could help Mayfield continue to grow.
As for the problems, well, they're fixable if McCarthy wants to grow. Reid has proved that a coach from the West Coast offense tree can meld Bill Walsh concepts with spread looks and modern bells and whistles. The Browns still have Paul DePodesta and members of the analytics staff built under former general manager Sashi Brown on the payroll, and while McCarthy probably isn't going to turn into a math whiz, he could get better at managing fourth downs and late-game situations.
There's the possibility of a win-win for both sides here. If McCarthy's strength is molding young quarterbacks, he's going to be a lot better fit for a team like the Browns than he would be for a 35-year-old Rodgers and the Packers. The move might simultaneously encourage McCarthy to re-examine his weaknesses and make positive changes. At the same time, the Packers might get a coach who coaxes more consistent play out of Rodgers by giving him quicker post-snap reads without compromising his ability to make magic happen off schedule when things break down. There are still plenty of streets around Lambeau Field that Packers fans wouldn't mind renaming.