After their latest national disappointment, the Green Bay Packers find themselves worrying about not only the outcome of their 2016 season, but the not-too-distant future as well.
The Packers have taken many forms in 2016. Unfortunately for head coach Mike McCarthy, all have featured at least one glaring deficiency. Early in the year, the Packers rolled out a highly effective defense with little to no firepower on the other side of the ball to match it. While the offense hasn't reached anything approximating their 2011-'14 peak, it has improved since those early struggles. While that has transpired, Green Bay's defense, ravaged by injuries at each level, has regressed to the point where opponents have reached at least 31 points in every contest over the past month. All the while, special teams has become an increasingly troubling unit, giving up returns and turning over the ball.
And therein lies the problem. In the past, this staff has found ways to calibrate to the roster's strengths and weaknesses. The loss of Jermichael Finley in 2010 forced McCarthy to revise his offense, turning it back into a high-flying unit in time for a Super Bowl run. The 11-year head coach even managed to keep the team afloat during Aaron Rodgers' half-season absence in 2013 due to a broken collarbone. That edition of the Packers too managed to qualify for the playoffs.
However, while McCarthy and his staff have made adjustments to his offense this year, none of them have provided more than a temporary reprieve. The offense has bursts of brilliance before going quiet for multiple quarters, even entire games. Meanwhile, as the defense addresses issues along the edges, the middle of the field has become frequently exploited. Even in a down NFC North, Green Bay doesn't seem to have much of a shot at rebounding in time for a run at the playoffs.
The Packers increasingly look like a boat with more leaks than the coaches have fingers with which to plug them. The question then becomes not if McCarthy and his staff can fix these problems this season, but whether they receive another year to right the ship.
As of yet, there is no clear answer. The Packers as a general rule err on the side of patience with their coaches, and McCarthy certainly has bought himself plenty of wiggle room with his seven-year postseason streak and 2010 title. At the same time, the team's offensive regression the past two years despite the presence of a two-time MVP under center has to concern team brass.
And the pool of head-coaching candidates further complicates the matter. Of the apparent top targets, Josh McDaniels already appears out of reach based on recent reports. Another, Stanford's David Shaw, has repeatedly turned down overtures from the NFL and may do so again this offseason. That leaves the 36-year-old Kyle Shanahan, a handful of lesser-known coordinators, and multiple less-appealing retreads among the best available options should Green Bay pull the plug on the McCarthy era.
And while no credible reports suggest the Packers desire to force Ted Thompson out, the soon-to-be 64-year-old general manager could potentially step aside after the season regardless. That would leave Eliot Wolf -- son of Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf -- as the likely heir to the front office. Like any first-time GM, Wolf's preferences and approach to the position remain unclear along with his commitment to the current coaching staff.
All of this suggests the Packers don't have an obvious path to take, and the choice may not become clear anytime soon. The remaining six regular-season games may not result in a playoff berth, but they could hold the key to the next 3-5 years of the franchise.