When Mike McCarthy abdicated playcalling duties for the Green Bay Packers in 2015, he clearly recognized the need for him to be able to make important in-game decisions without the clutter of playcalling questions looming over him. The collapse in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle towered over this decision. It’s hard enough to make the right call to go for it on fourth down without having to also think “What play are we going to pick?”
Instead, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams struggled with injuries, Eddie Lacy battled his weight, and Aaron Rodgers appeared to lose faith in his supporting cast, coaches included. The offense never got on track, even once McCarthy re-took control of playcalling.
Fast forward to 2018 when the offense once again looks disjointed, the two-time MVP quarterback looks jumpy and unsure anyone will do his job around him, and although the scheme has improved, the offense itself regressed from an execution standpoint.
Maybe the problem is they’re still running McCarthy’s offense, one behind the NFL times in terms of creativity and ease of operation. Plenty of other teams have found ways to integrate rookies or play backup quarterbacks. They’ve deployed personnel much less talented than the running backs the Packers have to greater efficiency and success.
The question could certainly be raised that if McCarthy isn’t here for his offense, why is he here at all? That’s a reasonable take to have, but let’s set it aside for a moment.
McCarthy, as a tone-setter and culture leader, has always displayed the kind of toughness and commitment to fundamentals ingrained in the history of the Packers. He’s a quintessential Packers coach. He’s well liked by Mark Murphy and for whatever can be said about his failings, McCarthy is, as he says, a highly successful football coach.
So let’s assume Murphy wants to give McCarthy a chance to turn this offense around in 2019. What that likely also assumes is the offense gets back on track far enough to get this team back into the playoffs, win a game or two, but ultimately come up short of the Super Bowl. This could be enough to save McCarthy’s job outright, but not go so far as to insulate him from a directive from the front office to make changes.
Is this situation even workable? That depends on who the Packers bring in to run the offense. One would have to imagine McCarthy would still want to run some variation of the West Coast principles, which doesn’t close the pool of potential candidates too far. Much of the league still relies on core West Coast concepts even if Mike Holmgren disciples like Andy Reid have incorporated a ton of new, spread schemes from the college game.
The hot offensive names likely won’t settle for OC jobs, which rules out guys like Lincoln Riley and John DeFilippo — though both would be desirable head coaching candidates if Green Bay needs one this offseason.
When the Buccaneers complete their predictable collapse this season, expect everyone to be looking for work. That would include Todd Monken, who brought deep shots for days to the Bucs offense. But his approach could veer too far afield (no pun intended) from how McCarthy wants to play, though Rodgers would probably love to chuck it deep 10 times a game.
Joe Moorehead would be an intriguing options in a vacuum, but he just signed as head coach at Mississippi State. Lane Kiffin probably has no realistic shot to coach in the NFL until at least 2020.
Todd Downing, a Vikings offensive assistant, presents an intuitive fit. The 38-year-old coached Matthew Stafford in Detroit and Derek Carr in Oakland before joining the Vikings staff this past offseason and has shown himself to be an adaptive offensive mind, coaching in multiple types of offensive systems. The Vikings run their own version of the modern West Coast offense under DeFilippo, a perfect coach under whom Downing can learn. Rodgers would likely play well with the shared concepts, which would include more deep shot openings as well as schemed underneath route combinations.
The cliche route is to pick a position coach from the one of the best offenses in the league, but if there’s a dark-horse candidate out there, it’s Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. The 35-year-old now works under Sean McVay, the most creative offensive mind in football, but previously coached quarterbacks under Joe Philbin in Miami and was an offensive graduate assistant under Mike Sherman at Texas A&M. If any young coach has the right blend of experience in the Packers current system but also exposure to a more innovative approach, it’s Taylor.
How would Rodgers respond to a coach running the offense who is only a year older than he is? The Packers could have the same problem with a new head coach as well. The hope would be the improved offensive approach would help Rodgers play more often within the structure of the offense.
Even if the schemes, terminology, and concepts didn’t change that much, just having a new voice in the room could turn the tide for this offense from an attitude standpoint. Rodgers appears frustrated with stale concepts and it’s possible McCarthy’s voice has grown tired. If that’s the case, the better course of action would likely just be to find a new voice altogether for the locker room.
That said, such a drastic change in the tail end of Rodgers’ prime may be unpalatable for Murphy and the Packers brass. Half-measures rarely work in the NFL, but given the circumstances, keeping McCarthy in charge of the team but insisting he turn over the offense may be just the kind of injection of life this team needs.