Mike McCarthy could never have managed it. Slogging through seven-win seasons three straight years and four out of five, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton somehow stayed beyond reproach. Micky Loomis can’t manage the cap. The defense can’t get it together. Even as rivals gain steam and make trips to the Super Bowl, neither Payton nor Brees took any heat from the local or national media, the fanbase, or the NFL audience at large.
This never would have happened in Green Bay and the reason is simple: expectations. Saints fans are used to losing. Payton, along with Brees, revived a dormant franchise, and did it on the backs of the greatest tragedy in New Orleans in a century. They would always be met with a hero’s welcome.
Mike McCarthy meanwhile, rebuilt a Hall of Fame quarterback’s career, lifted another into dominance, and returned the Lombardi Trophy to Titletown. The difference is that’s a baseline expectation in Green Bay. Cheesehead Nation looks at the Patriots and wonders “Why isn’t that us? We have the best quarterback in the game, maybe the best ever. Why don’t we go to the Super Bowl every year?”
Those expectations ultimately ended McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay, one that came with far less failure and significantly less shame than Payton’s. This was only the second losing season in McCarthy’s tenure when Aaron Rodgers started more than half of the season’s games. The Saints have four since winning the Super Bowl a year before Green Bay.
McCarthy never lost a season of coaching for failing to control his coaches and players amid a bounty scandal, targeting opposing players with payment for violent plays. On the other hand, he presided over more winning seasons, more division titles, playoff appearances, conference championship games and No. 1 offenses by DVOA than Payton.
Yet one is employed, and the other isn’t.
The reasons for that are myriad, not simply tied to one’s record vs. the other. McCarthy’s record, for example, compares favorably with coaches considered among the best in the game, guys like Payton and Andy Reid. McCarthy failed to address the failings of his defensive coaching staff, though Payton did the same. Reid once named an offensive line coach to be his defensive coordinator and it failed as spectacularly as one might expect.
It’s true McCarthy failed to adapt and evolve his offensive system the way those coaches did, but until the last two years, it didn’t really matter. The last full season Rodgers played healthy, the Packers went to the NFC Championship Game, where they succumbed to injuries and a talent deficiencies.
Nearly every excuse that can be made for Payton can be made for McCarthy except for one fundamental difference: expectation. McCarthy lost the locker room and his quarterback, but an essential reason for that loss stems from the notion the Packers consistently underachieved relative to the talent of Rodgers. There’s something telling in that about the difference in perspective of Rodgers vs. Brees.
Rodgers’ abilities are so virtuoso, so sui generis that he’s expected to lift his team in ways Brees isn’t. And any coach who can’t get him there is a failure, nevermind the reasonable criticisms about Ted Thompson’s unwillingness to sign free agents or his recent failures in the draft.
In fact, the Saints, who were patient with Payton, only saw their patience pay off because the team made a historic draft run to revitalize the program. If Green Bay watched Damarious Randall turn into Marshon Lattimore and Ty Montgomery into Alvin Kamara, McCarthy would almost certainly still be employed.
But that reason that didn’t happen is because of expectations. It’s different in Green Bay, where anything short of a Super Bowl is considered a failure by the fans and the media. The Packers are a national brand, a public team, helmed by the most skilled quarterback to ever lace up cleats. Why aren’t they playing for titles every year like the GOAT Tom Brady (such as one believes in such claims)?
No one compares the Saints to the Patriots, or Brees’ failings in to the playoffs’ to Rodgers. Two heart-breaking losses in a row? How quaint. Rodgers has four playoff losses on the final play of the game (three in overtime) and has a defense that can barely step onto the field without allowing 30 points in January.
Much like McCarthy and Payton, the failings of Brees never seem to tarnish his legacy the same way some love to skewer Rodgers. Brees is a humble leader, nevermind if he pushes fake supplements in a pyramid scheme. Did you see how cute his baby was at the Super Bowl with the head phones? Daaaw.
Rodgers is a selfish diva, deserving of the scorn. Or at least such is the narrative. This too is the burden of expectation. No one accuses the Saints or Payton of wasting Brees’ prime, and few people point out the streak of losing seasons they put together, or the interceptions, or the playoff losses.
Imagine how different the Brees legacy might have been had Brett Favre not thrown that unthinkable interception for the Vikings. No Super Bowl for the Saints, and one of the greatest statistical quarterbacks ever would be mentioned along with Dan Marino as great quarterbacks who never managed to win a title.
But they did win, in a city starving for a victory. He would never have to win another game and he’d go down as a Bayou hero. Brees doesn’t bear the weight of expectation in the same way.
It’s not that another playoff defeat should have cost Payton his job, or that McCarthy deserved to keep his. Clearly the rubicon had been crossed with McCarthy. It was time to move on. Payton, on the other hand, remains one of the top offensive minds in the league, something that cannot be said for McCarthy despite the proven success.
But it’s fair to wonder if the positions had been flipped — if McCarthy comes to New Orleans and Payton to the Packers in 2006 — would the legacies have played out differently? If McCarthy leads the Saints with Brees to a Super Bowl, is he still the toast of Bourbon Street? If he gets that title and never evolves, never grows, never changes, does anyone care locally or nationally?
They never had a defense. The front office screwed them over. The division got better around them. The referees botched a huge call in a playoff game. An unthinkable miracle play cost them a chance at a Super Bowl. Which team am I talking about?
Though it’s fair to point to lack of talent, a myopathy of vision, and a complacent mindset, it’s likely none of those things would have gotten McCarthy fired in New Orleans. The attitude in Green Bay is different, and perhaps rightfully so. Payton failed more and it’s cost him less because the stakes aren’t the same.
But perception is reality in pro sports. This is a culture Matt LaFleur enters, hopefully with eyes wide open about what it means. If fans and media perceive the Packers to be “wasting” Aaron Rodgers, the double-standard for Brees and Payton is irrelevant to Green Bay. Pointing out this hypocrisy doesn’t win games. There simply is more pressure. The why’s and how’s of it are irrelevant.
At this point, it doesn’t matter. Yes, the Packers do have more pressure and the Saints have been let off easier when it comes to criticism. Yes, Rodgers is better than Brees and should be held to a higher standard. And the only way to “fix” it is simple: start winning again.