Much remains unclear about the 2018 Green Bay Packers.
At 3-4-1, the Packers rank third in their own division standings but could still find a way to sneak into the playoffs over their final eight regular-season games. Their offense could still become a dynamo given the top-shelf talent on the roster but it has yet to translate in the red zone. The new defense called by Mike Pettine has made strides since the bye week but must now accommodate for the lack of adequate (or even healthy) safeties.
But regardless of how the rest of 2018 unfolds, Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the New England Patriots will mark the unofficial end of the Mike McCarthy era in Green Bay.
McCarthy has faced the Patriots three times as a head coach, each serving as a measuring stick for his teams in that given moment. The first, an Aaron Rodgers-less matchup with the eventual No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, showcased the depth of the Packers’ roster and previewed their eventual Super Bowl run later that season. The second, arguably McCarthy’s finest coaching performance, turned on Green Bay’s expert use of wideout Randall Cobb in the backfield, a tactic borrowed by numerous NFL teams since.
Conversely, Sunday’s game in Foxborough underscored just how far the Packers have fallen behind their competition. While McCarthy followed a relatively straightforward game plan, the Patriots unleashed multiple trick plays and packages specifically designed to exploit their opponent’s deficiencies. Green Bay’s defense had no answer for the lightspeed no-huddle offense Tom Brady led on the opening drive, nor did the unit have any idea what to do on the James White-Julian Edelman flea flicker that set the Patriots up 2 yards away from the goal line. The difference in coaching represented the biggest (and perhaps only) meaningful difference between the two teams, an indictment of McCarthy and the staff he has assembled.
McCarthy has come under fire at multiple points during his Packers tenure and has always found a way to extinguish the torches outside 1265 Lombardi Ave. His record as head coach -- 124-74-2 -- puts him in rare company, as does his status as a Super Bowl champion. He has produced some of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen, and his teams have performed more consistently than all but a few across the league during his time as a headman.
However, McCarthy’s once-golden touch hasn’t manifested in 2018, nor did it a year ago when Aaron Rodgers missed most of the season with a fractured collarbone. Looking back further, McCarthy’s last two playoff squads also underperformed offensively relative to their talent, a sign that a bigger drop-off approached. At a time when more NFL teams have adopted concepts from the college game, the Packers look stagnant, lifted only when their future Hall of Fame quarterback goes supernova. While that recipe could still yield another playoff berth if the Packers get enough breaks, it doesn’t portend well for their title hopes.
Green Bay’s management hasn’t made a public statement suggesting a hot seat for McCarthy, but their actions belie their words. Team president Mark Murphy restructured the organization this past offseason in order to give himself the power to hire and fire the head coach. At the same time, Murphy demoted longtime general manager Ted Thompson in order to install Brian Gutekunst, a move further reducing McCarthy’s ties to the front office. Sunday morning’s report that the Cleveland Browns -- a team led by a cavalcade of former Packers scouts -- see McCarthy as a possible replacement for deposed head coach Hue Jackson further reinforces the idea that Green Bay will make a change this offseason.
And while the Packers won’t formalize that decision until after their final game, the move became unavoidable in November.