After the Green Bay Packers' latest defeat -- a 47-25 drubbing at the hands of a mediocre Tennessee Titans squad -- head coach Mike McCarthy faces heightened scrutiny and calls for his ouster.
Perhaps now more than at any time in his Green Bay tenure, McCarthy's grip on his job appears to have significantly loosened. While previous slumps came with valid caveats that limited his exposure, the 11-year head coach has far fewer excuses this time around. His offense has stumbled even with its full compliment of weapons. The Packers' two-time MVP quarterback has regressed over the past two years. The team has appeared lifeless to start games in recent weeks. These developments have to concern the front office, even if they don't make their feelings public.
If nothing changes, the Packers may have no choice but to replace McCarthy this offseason. That may seem unthinkable to some given general manager Ted Thompson's conservative approach. However, if Thompson can trade away Brett Favre, he can make a change at head coach.
That doesn't mean his outlook can't change between now and the end of the season. Remember that during the Packers' slide in 2010, hot-seat talk began to surround McCarthy as well. Of course, the angry mobs put down the torches and pitchforks as the team rebounded to not only qualify for the playoffs, but also take home the Lombardi Trophy later that February. Similarly, if McCarthy can spark a rally in 2016, he could hold onto his position for at least another year.
Still, should the Packers decide to replace their long-time head coach this offseason, they have no shortage of qualified candidates to consider.
Offensive coordinator, New England Patriots
Retread head coaches often fail to excite fan bases. However, sometimes the reasons for a coach faltering during his first run do not transfer to subsequent opportunities. That could well prove to be the case with current New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
After a historic run as the Patriots offensive play caller during the mid-2000s, a 32-year-old McDaniels landed the top gig with the Denver Broncos in 2009. With it, he assumed final say over the roster, a rarity for coaches of any age or résumé.
Those powers proved to be his undoing, as McDaniels made multiple crippling mistakes, essentially swapping Jay Cutler for Matt Cassel, trading a first-round pick in order to select Alphonso Smith, and drafting Tim Tebow as his quarterback of the future. Those moves, along with a 5-17 record after a 6-0 start to his head-coaching career, forced the team to fire him before the end of the 2010 season. After a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Rams, McDaniels returned to New England to replace departing Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator.
In short order, McDaniels rebuilt his damaged reputation. The Patriots immediately returned to their offensive juggernaut status, finishing top five in scoring every year from 2012 through last season despite myriad injuries hitting Rob Gronkowski, multiple starting wideouts, and the offensive line, not to mention a hotly debated suspension for Tom Brady. As a result, McDaniels has leapt to the top of many coaching wish lists.
For a team like the Packers, McDaniels offers many attractive traits. He has shown the ability to scheme open receivers via creative formations, pre-snap motion and route combinations. While success didn't follow him to Denver, much of his struggles away from the Patriots related directly to the lack of quality quarterback play. The presence of Aaron Rodgers alleviates those concerns. Furthermore, McDaniels' failures with the Broncos have humbled him by all accounts, and he has learned the value of proper delegation and oversight. That doesn't guarantee some of the issues he endured as a head coach couldn't resurface again, but they appear significantly reduced.
However, McDaniels' offense derives from the Erhardt-Perkins system, a football language entirely different from the West Coast verbiage the Packers have utilized in various forms in every season since 1992. Bringing him in would necessitate every member of the team to relearn scheme simultaneously. While that limits some of the upside McDaniels can offer in the early going, the Erhardt-Perkins system features one of the simplest and most intuitive play-call languages in football, reducing the difficulty of a transition.
Offensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
Though Kyle Shanahan has never served as a head coach, he has previously flirted with the possibility. As Washington's offensive coordinator in 2012, he fashioned a hybrid of the West Coast offense and the spread scheme run by Art Briles at Baylor to help Robert Griffin III win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Within short order, Shanahan's name began turning up on head-coach watch lists within the media and NFL circles.
However, after Griffin's ACL tear pushed both him and the team to take a more conservative approach with his health and play calling, Shanahan and Washington struggled to recreate the success in 2013. Those issues resulted in the ouster of the entire coaching staff the following offseason. An unsuccessful one-year stint with the Cleveland Browns further diminished Shanahan's appeal around the league, leading him to take another offensive-coordinator position with the Atlanta Falcons.
Shanahan's first year in Atlanta started off well. The team won six of its first seven games while averaging 27.6 points per contest. That productivity quickly crashed after a series of injuries along the offensive line and Matt Ryan's sudden propensity for turnovers short-circuited the offense. Everything bottomed out in a 38-0 loss to the division rival Carolina Panthers in December, leading some to wonder whether the Falcons would retain Shanahan for the following season.
Ultimately, the team decided to keep Shanahan, and the results thus far have justified that decision. In Year 2 of the offense, Ryan has become a bona fide MVP candidate and the Falcons lead the league in points per game. Furthermore, Shanahan has become increasingly creative and smartly aggressive with his play calls, something with which the Packers became familiar during Atlanta's game-winning final drive in Week 8. Though not all of the questions surrounding him have dissipated, he has become one of the hot candidates for the upcoming coach-hiring cycle.
Of course, Shanahan's age (37 in December) raises some red flags given the struggles of other young first-time head coaches. Furthermore, he has established a reputation as an extremely confident coach that could rub colleagues and players the wrong way at times. Given how similar issues torpedoed other similarly situated coaches, any team considering Shanahan this offseason has to ensure a personality fit above all else.
Additionally, Shanahan relies heavily on isolation routes, not unlike that of the Packers' current headman. Shanahan's offense varies in numerous other ways -- primarily in how much longer plays develop compared to Green Bay's more quick-hitting approach -- but that reliance on receivers to win one-on-one matchups regularly raise some valid questions.
Head coach, Stanford
A coveted coach for several years running, Stanford's David Shaw could command considerable attention again this offseason. Since becoming the Cardinal's head coach in 2011, Shaw has overseen the greatest stretch of success in program history, achieving double-digit win seasons in four of his first five seasons as well as its first Rose Bowl wins since the 1970s.
Shaw possesses an even-keeled demeanor and a reputation as an ideal CEO type, capable of properly delegating his subordinates and putting them in positions to succeed. He has also established himself as one of the better talent developers potentially available this offseason. And while Shaw doesn't crave the spotlight like many of college football's more prominent coaches, he does know how to handle himself in front of the media.
Just as importantly, the Packers seem to like what Shaw has produced at Stanford. In just the past two drafts, the team has selected three of Shaw's former charges: Ty Montgomery (third round), Blake Martinez (fourth), and Kyle Murphy (sixth). Already, Montgomery and Martinez have become prominently featured on their respective sides of the ball, while Murphy could compete for a starting spot on the offensive line as soon as next season.
The Stanford headman has other Green Bay ties as well. From 1998 through 2001, Shaw served on the Oakland Raiders coaching staff under Jon Gruden, a former Packers assistant. During that time, Shaw rose from a quality-control assistant to the quarterbacks coach for Rich Gannon, who won MVP honors soon after.
While college coaches remain stigmatized in NFL circles after the struggles of Chip Kelly, Greg Schiano, and others, the most recent success story also hails from Stanford. Jim Harbaugh, Shaw's predecessor, left the program in 2011 and immediately turned the San Francisco 49ers into a Super Bowl contender. While Shaw differs from Harbaugh in temperament, he shares many of his other traits. Additionally, for a Packers organization that has employed a minority head coach for exactly one of its 96 seasons, hiring an African-American head coach like Shaw would represent a significant milestone.
And for all of Shaw's positive traits, he has established himself as one of the most maddeningly conservative coaches in all of football. Under his watch, Stanford has usually settles for punts and field goals where many of his colleagues and statistical evidence favors keeping the offense on the field. That approach can work in college football where the talent discrepancy can vary greatly. However, in the more level playing field of the NFL, gaining the extra 2 percent often proves the difference between winning and losing.