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How big a concern is the Rodgers-McCarthy rift? Matt LaFleur will provide the answer

The disdain and dysfunctional between Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy was no state secret. We won’t know if these issues uncovered intractable problems until we see Rodgers with a new coach.

Green Bay Packers v Carolina Panthers
There was no secret McCarthy and Rodgers had issues. The question will be do those issues matter for Matt LaFleur?
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers thought he knew better than a coach that players, coaches, and personnel people inside and outside of the Green Bay Packers organization believed had lost his touch. Where’s the controversy? Why is anyone sure this will be a problem for Matt LaFleur?

In Tyler Dunne’s opus for Bleacher Report on the divide between Mike McCarthy and his star quarterback, nearly every source provided damning criticisms of McCarthy. Whether it was not showing up to a meeting to get a massage in his office, failing to push the offense forward, or not calling plays effectively, it’s hard to find defenders of the former head coach, even amidst criticism of the quarterback who reportedly grew to resent and despise him.

Reports of playcalling questions from the players go back to the early 2010’s, but the issues of complacency reared their heads more recently. McCarthy, in an interview with ESPN, went out of his way to defend himself from those allegations, but the front office put it on the record they contributed to his firing. Players in the organization, including leaders like David Bakhtiari, openly criticized the lack of accountability within the franchise.

So if Rodgers, a Hall of Fame quarterback emboldened to change plays at the line of scrimmage, is doing what he was given the freedom to do, who really cares? He changed plays because he thought McCarthy called bad plays. In a vacuum, that’s not a huge deal.

Simply being ‘Not Mike McCarthy’ could be enough to reinvigorate Rodgers. He took hard coaching from Jeff Tedford at Cal, desperately asked to be coached a few years ago, and seemed genuinely delighted to have Joe Philbin at the helm at the end of the season. This all might be as simple as Rodgers didn’t respect McCarthy. In retrospect, wanting to “be coached” may have been code for “I want to be coached by someone I respect.”

It was an indictment of McCarthy above all else.

Sports Illustrated previously reported a tension within the team that festered due to a push-pull between the two figureheads over who was running the show. Rodgers didn’t trust McCarthy to do it, while McCarthy felt he should be in charge. He’s the coach, after all.

It turns out, the Packers decided McCarthy shouldn’t be in charge. Rodgers was right. The question once again becomes: where is the issue with Rodgers?

A quarterback is under no obligation to fix a fissure with his head coach, one he doesn’t respect and on whom the team actively quit multiple times in the last two years. You can’t blame Rodgers for what happened in 2017. The players quickly realized Brett Hundley was a zero and they didn’t believe the head coach could put him a position to succeed, nor had he properly coached the backup to be ready for this opportunity.

None of this is to say Rodgers is blameless. It’s possible he never gave McCarthy a chance, that the slight from not picking him No. 1 overall when he was with the 49ers was a wound that couldn’t be healed. But early in his career, it didn’t manifest on the field. Rodgers made quick decisions, flinging the ball around the yard with alacrity in a way we’ve never seen. Rodgers and the offense soared with tremendous supporting talent.

Beyond the criticisms from known Rodgers cynics Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings, what are the substantive criticisms of the quarterback? That he’s arrogant? Has anyone met Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers?

Finley recently complained that Rodgers didn’t like him because he didn’t practice hard or run the right routes. How devastating. Jennings was upset Rodgers suggested another team should sign him in the offseason. How many other receivers have opposite visions of Rodgers? Maybe we should ask his best friend Jordy Nelson, or Randall Cobb, who made Rodgers a groomsman at his wedding. Or James Jones, who is still close enough with Rodgers he broke the quarterback’s massive new mega-deal story.

Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison have the trust of their quarterback. So do Jimmy Graham and Aaron Jones. If the problem was McCarthy for Rodgers, LaFleur should be able to turn this around.

Rodgers has critics inside and outside the locker room. Not everyone approves of his icy demeanor, his high standards, or his prickly way of handing certainly situations. He’s certainly not blameless in this mess. It’s interesting, however, the best leaders this team has had over the last decade, to a man, effusively praise Rodgers. Charles Woodson, A.J. Hawk, Julius Peppers, and others loved the way Rodgers held everyone accountable, insisting they had to get to his level.

Icing out rookie receivers? Work harder.

Davante Adams managed to avoid the ire of his quarterback despite struggles early in his career because he busted his ass. Rodgers called out the 2018 rookie class in training camp for not practicing up to NFL standards. It takes time to develop a rapport and chemistry with Rodgers because he has to know you give a shit like he does. Adams did. Guys like Woodson, Hawk, Nelson and Cobb, they did too.

If your quarterback has high standards, that ought to trickle down to the rest of the team. Rodgers does have to understand how impactful his words are. He has a clean slate to empower this new coach so his team buys in as well.

Rodgers’ teammates didn’t trust Mike McCarthy. He didn’t either. Those are certainly related. It’s hard to fault him for believing he was smarter than his coach. He almost certainly is. And most agree his coach failed to do the things necessary to sustain a winning culture. That’s what ultimately cost him his job.

Getting him on the same page with these young receivers will be important, although less so if the Packers use a high pick on a tight end and/or a receiver. If Rodgers is so stubborn none of these receivers can ever work out of the doghouse, that’s certainly an issue.

That’s what the new head coach is for. Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst have to believe they hired a guy who is going to intellectually stimulate Rodgers. Someone who was going to coach him. Was “don’t be a problem” — the comment that Murphy reportedly made to Rodgers when he told him that LaFleur would be the guy — meant as a way of saying “we need you to be on board for this to work”? Or was it an offer of legitimate concern that Rodgers would torpedo this coach’s chances as well?

We’ll soon find out.

If LaFleur was the right coach and Rodgers is a good soldier, we’ll have solid evidence the problem was truly rooted in a specific interpersonal dispute. If not, there will and should be more questions about Rodgers’ attitude and how deleterious his arrogance is to the on-field play of the Packers. We saw the offense improve under Joe Philbin for stretches, which may be a reason for optimism. Many observers noticed Rodgers appeared to be having significantly more fun playing in the second half of the season. Was it because he was healthier or simply happier with Philbin in charge instead of McCarthy?

Either way, LaFleur will be tasked with extracting that same spirit from Rodgers, the one McCarthy had early in his tenure, at least on the field. We won’t know truly how big a problem this rift was until we see Rodgers healthy with a new head coach. The good news is we won’t have to wait much longer. The Packers officially open the 2019 season next week.