What sort of legacy will Mike McCarthy leave in Wisconsin when his tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers is through?
That's one of the questions facing the big cheese this summer as he looks to help lead his team back to Super Bowl glory for a second time under his watch. With Aaron Rodgers, Packers fans generally expect another ring in the near future, and the last five years' playoff losses - the last three on the final play of the game and the past two in overtime - only have added to the narrative of McCarthy being a great "Monday through Saturday" coach.
Those items are discussed in a piece from Don Banks of Sports Illustrated this week, in which he looks at the mounting pressure on McCarthy to get the Packers a second Lombardi Trophy in his tenure. Banks specifically breaks down the playoff losses, the playcalling changes in 2015, and the possibility that his coaching style has worn out its welcome after a decade, among other topics.
However, one item that is perhaps most damning is this response from Banks' SI colleague Doug Farrar:
Remembering that there's a thing called the middle of the field when designing route concepts would help. https://t.co/ZBrArduxJV— Doug Farrar (@SI_DougFarrar) May 27, 2016
This point is critical to examining the Packers' offensive struggles in 2015. The offense began to stagnate once opposing defenses started playing press-man coverage against the Packers' receivers midway through Green Bay's six-game winning streak to open the year, and the unit never seemed to find an effective way to counter that scheme. The tendency of opposing teams to bring a safety down into the box further compounded the issue and signified that defenses had no fear of Green Bay's receivers beating them deep, especially not over the middle.
One possible way to break that tendency would have been to call more plays that feature route combinations involving in-breaking routes like slants and posts, which have been a staple of the Packers' passing game in years past. Admittedly, the only way to loosen up defenses would have been to actually hit on a few of those plays, but too often the play-calls just ended up with receivers matched up one-on-one on the boundary and apparently being told to simply beat their man. It was plain for even the average fan to see that the Packers' receivers struggled to get open on their own, even on routes that took them to the middle of the field, so why did the Packers not try harder to run combo routes to free up their receivers?
McCarthy did address the topic of the middle of the field at the Scouting Combine this February when speaking with Packers media following his official press conference. When asked about tight end Richard Rodgers and the tight end position (which at that time had not yet been bolstered by the addition of free agent Jared Cook), McCarthy mentioned that Jordy Nelson's ACL tear was a major blow to his offense's ability to attack the deep middle. With Nelson expected back at full strength this offseason and the team having several other receivers who can line up on the boundary, the veteran will likely be lined up in the slot on occasion and should be able to be a factor over the middle along with teammate Randall Cobb. Those two in particular have been used together in the past to play off one another.
Cook's signing also adds to the offense's ability to pressure defenses between the hash marks, as he brings a drastically different skill set to the tight end position than the one possessed by Richard Rodgers. Cook's height and speed should be a weapon that Aaron Rodgers can use to pressure safeties and linebackers deep, which should in turn help open up the coverage underneath for Cobb and company.
However, Farrar's greater point remains: why were the Packers so loath to try to scheme their players open over the middle without Nelson on the field? I'm not sure which of the possibilities would be more frustrating - if the coaching staff identified that as a problem during the season and were not able to find ways to adjust the scheme to fix it, or if they did not recognize that as a contributing factor to the struggles in the first place.
Ultimately, McCarthy has hardly proven himself to be an unimaginative offensive mind. Think back to the 2014 game against the New England Patriots to imagine the coach at his best and most creative. What were the top plays in that game? This inside-out combination on the right side that helped Nelson get free for a huge touchdown and this score to Richard Rodgers. On the tight end's score, he attacked up the seam and was open in part due to a short route by Davante Adams on the left side of the field and Eddie Lacy leaking out to that side for a swing pass (though a heck of a pump-fake by the quarterback helped as well). Numerous other big plays in that game alone were brought about as a result of creative route combinations, so we know the coach has it in him.
Barring injuries, the Packers look to have the personnel to jump-start their stagnant passing game in 2016. With Nelson and Ty Montgomery returning from injury, Cook's addition to the offense, and another year of development for young players like Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, and Jared Abbrederis, the team should have plenty of different skill sets to call upon when devising creative ways to attack opposing defenses. Here's hoping that whatever reasons McCarthy and the Packers had for not doing so in 2015 are rectified this season - and if they are, the team should be one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.