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Packers' firing of Mike McCarthy was right move, but comes with plenty of risk

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The Packers 4-7-1 season sealed McCarthy’s fate, but there’s no guarantee the next coach will be any better.

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
It may have been time for Mike McCarthy to exit Green Bay, but there’s no promise the next coach will have more success.
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Mike McCarthy didn’t see it coming. It’s fitting really. McCarthy, the consummate Packers coach, a fit of personality and culture, never thought anyone would be suited to coach this team besides him. So when the news came Sunday evening he would not return in Green Bay, it blindsided him. Next, the person Mark Murphy gets to replace McCarthy will have to coach in the shadow of a man with a street named after him, with a Lombardi Trophy in his case, and a resume full of NFC North wins.

While Murphy made the right call moving on from McCarthy, whether it was now or on Black Monday, this move comes with more risks than most fans are willing to admit. A more momentous move hasn’t been made since the Packers traded Brett Favre to install Aaron Rodgers as the face of the franchise and the gamble is hardly any smaller.

For whatever anyone thought of McCarthy as the Packers head coach, no one loved being the coach more than he did. He embodied the blue collar mentality of the fanbase and an organization owned by the people. Green Bay was nobody’s underdog and McCarthy bristled at the notion the Packers ever would be, even without Aaron Rodgers under center. He understood this team doesn’t hang banners for division titles.

He ran a program that bred winning, with eight straight playoff seasons, and had Anthony Barr held up just a little bit, likely would have set a new NFL record for consecutive postseason appearances. McCarthy is one of the winningest coaches in team history and one of the best active coaches in that department. Shortcomings and all, he will leave 1265 Lombardi with more Super Bowl wins than the entire NFC North combined going back to 1985.

Yet, some obvious changes must be made within the organization. Reports of complacency cropped up over the last few years, and making such a sweeping change could reinvigorate a franchise desperate not to squander the final years of an all-time great quarterback. But the Packers were trying to accomplish that same feat when they hired Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman. It took McCarthy’s arrival to reset Brett Favre and build up Aaron Rodgers. Making a change could energize this franchise, or the lack of cohesion could send them into a tailspin.

With Mark Murphy assuming the role of de facto owner these days, there could be a power grab this offseason with the new coach and Brian Gutekunst. Murphy can offer a potential head coach more power than McCarthy had, undercutting Gutekunst’s standing in the organization. While the cement is hardly dry on Gutekunst’s ability as a GM, early returns are good and he should be empowered rather than subverted.

Surely the goal will be to find a coach, whether as the head man or the offensive coordinator, who will click with Aaron Rodgers -- who can be a prickly personality for all his estimable gifts. He’s incredible and he knows it and the dick measuring between him and McCarthy may have undermined this team over the course of the season. If the Packers bring in a Lincoln Riley or a Kliff Kingsbury, will Rodgers readily accept their coaching, or wonder why someone who could have been in his chemistry class at Cal is telling him what to do?

There are quality candidates on the market. Josh McDaniels reportedly would have interest in a head job, bringing championship pedigree and experience coaching a Hall of Fame quarterback. But his first head coaching stop was an unmitigated disaster and he too has some potential personality questions.

Trendy candidates like John DeFilippo and Matt LaFleur would enter as complete unknowns, an enormous risk for a franchise with a closing window to undertake. If John Harbaugh loses his job in Baltimore, he feels like a lateral move from McCarthy and has no resume indicative of a coach who will come in and make this offense any better, nor does he have a history of finding offensive coaches who could accomplish such a task.

Bruce Arians would turn 67 next season, isn’t sure he wants to be a head coach at all, and has said outright the only place he’d come back to coach is in Cleveland. After squeezing just one quality year of Carson Palmer’s final seasons, what proof is there Arians would be a surer bet than McCarthy to get this turned around?

And what of Mike Pettine? His scheme brought vitality and energy to a wallowing defense, creating chicken salad from, well, not chicken salad. Retaining Pettine and his attacking defense would help young defensive players like Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Josh Jackson grow within a scheme. A new coach could want his own DC, and force this defense to readjust once again. Pettine proved he’d still one of the better defensive coaches in football and the next person in that booth may not be able to say the same.

All of this said, the Packers surely needed to make this move, whether now or in early January. When asked if McCarthy lost the locker room, Randall Cobb dissembled and equivocated. If the answer had been, “No,” he could have and likely would have said that. Rodgers clearly soured on McCarthy whether as a playcaller or designer of offense or both. The message had grown stale, not just for Rodgers but for the team.

This was a move McCarthy may not have seen coming, but those paying attention have been reading the writing on the wall for weeks.

Even the best coaches has a shelf life. Phil Jackson was the zen master until the NBA passed him by. Mike Ditka was a coach’s coach, one of the best ever, but never evolved to meet the dynamic needs of a modern NFL.

The offense clearly needs updating, something Rodgers and likely other players readily realize. McCarthy was the only man in the civilized universe not to realize Aaron Jones was the best running back on this team or that Davante Adams couldn’t be covered 1-on-1. He was also the last one to realize Dom Capers lost his fastball years ago.

Ultimately that dichotomy will define McCarthy’s tenure with the Packers. His attitude, leadership, and unqualified success in revitalizing the career of one stalwart quarterback while nurturing a nascent superstar en route to a Super Bowl, should go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in team history. There’s a street named after him after all. The ultimate job of a coach is to win, and he did it with aplomb, with four conference championship appearances and a Lombardi Trophy to his name.

But he will also be remembered for the shortcomings, for being slow to react to the obvious failings of his coaches and players, for conservative playcalling in pivotal games, and for impeding the greatness of one of the game’s all-time greats.

It’s possible to remember McCarthy as both of those men. He was at once the kind of coach who would have made Vince Lombardi proud, a football man who preached fundamentals and mental toughness, while also fading from relevance within his own locker room as he struggled with the modern game, punctuated with a performance unfit to be watched even by Lombardi’s statue outside Lambeau.

The Packers couldn’t have asked for a better leader of their franchise right up until they had to. That’s the legacy of Mike McCarthy in all of its complicated nuance and glory. He was a great coach, probably even an underrated coach, until he wasn’t.

There’s just no guarantee the man who succeeds him will be a better coach, and it’s unlikely Mark Murphy will find a better ambassador for this or any team.