Not even a beatdown of biblical proportions on Sunday could exorcise the demons from the 2015 NFC Championship Game. Six touchdown tosses from Aaron Rodgers fail to silence the screams and wails from Packers fans as they watched a Super Bowl chance slip away in Seattle would still echo across the ages. Matt LaFleur now carries the weight of those football evils, and ecumenically speaking, he’s outmatched, not because he can’t help lead his team to a win, but because no win in the Divisional Round of the playoffs can deliver such righteousness.
It’s a lesson Mike McCarthy knows well. He lost his job in Green Bay precisely because his team, with the two-time MVP in his prime, only got two chances at a first-round bye. The first time, the Packers also blew in inglorious fashion at Lambeau Field to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The second ended in Seattle at the site of McCarthy’s undoing. A new coat of paint, a basketball hoop, and even a very real culture reset by LaFleur cannot send the ghosts of McCarthy and past Packer failings to the great beyond.
There’s poetry in McCarthy landing with the Cowboys the same week his old team prepares to play those Seahawks, particularly considering one of his signature wins came the week before against Dallas (Dez still didn’t catch it). That 2014 Divisional Round matchup represents the last great playoff win at Lambeau Field, a place McCarthy didn’t win enough to stay employed.
In a surprising twist, winning so much in one season fast-tracked expectations for LaFleur. The clock has started. Fans already expect Super Bowls. The disastrous crater left in the wake of McCarthy-Rodgers acrimony would buy time with fans. They’d allow him time to fill the estimable hole at 1265 Lombardi Ave.
With Rodgers looking like a diminished version of his former self, the window to win with him could be closing even faster than many imagined, with the prospect of a new offensive scheme seeming so tantalizing before the season. The play-action game, focus on Aaron Jones, and shot-play mentality didn’t produce better results. In fact, the Packers offense got worse by DVOA and Rodgers’ statistics seem stuck in stasis.
The burden McCarthy once felt, the yoke under whose pressure he ultimately succumbed, now belongs to LaFleur. Lose on Sunday and fans will call this season fool’s gold. Naysayers of the win-ugly 13-win season will, in full-throat, proclaim victory and say another season of Rodgers has been wasted without a Super Bowl run. Even McCarthy got to the NFC Championship Game in his first playoff run with the Packers.
On the other hand, a win closes the chapter. The book still must sit on the shelf in the library of fan memories, but Green Bay winning its first playoff game in two seasons, propelling them to the team’s fourth NFC Championship Game of the Rodgers era would feel like the right way to end this season. Even a loss to the 49ers, assuming it’s not as embarrassing as last time, would not be a failure. The Packers are better in ways both tangible and intangible, but they were never quite Super Bowl quality.
They can be.
A spending spree in the offseason by Brian Gutekunst put their talent level back in the mix with NFC contenders, but much like the majority of the McCarthy era, the Packers remain a tick below the top. That said, a Saints team projected as no worse than the second-best in the conference fell at home to a Vikings team the Packers beat twice. McCarthy joins a Cowboys team widely believed to be a Super Bowl contender with its deep roster of stars, yet Green Bay bullied them on the road in Jerry World.
If one were to make the case the Packers can still win the Super Bowl this season, beating more talented teams would spearhead the argument. What’s more, the two “best” teams rarely square off in February and just as often the “better” team loses.
For a historic franchise like the Packers, any coach connects to his predecessors in a unique way because there are so many greats to mention. When LaFleur passes names like Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, Mike Holmgren, and Mike McCarthy on franchise record books, it is worthy of standing to take notice. His links to McCarthy, the Super Bowl-winning coach he replaced, will be unique. A successor arrives with personalized baggage, much as Rodgers found out replacing Brett Favre.
Unlike with Rodgers, fans met LaFleur as the conquering hero, the prince who was promised, here to save the franchise from a fate worse than death: mediocrity. LaFleur will get credit simply for not being McCarthy, a benefit McCarthy himself never enjoyed with his previous coaching regime. But with that comes the pressure of righting the wrongs by both McCarthy and Ted Thompson. The irony of that would not be lost on McCarthy, the man who had to sit up at press conferences and answer for his front office’s inaction while his own frustrations with a lack of player movement mounted.
LaFleur faces an added stressor with a general manager who already demonstrates a willingness to spend to improve the team. There will be no “draft and develop” philosophy to blame for failures and fans will still, by and large, be loathe to blame Rodgers. The quarterback further connects McCarthy to LaFleur even if the latter won’t get the two-time MVP at his apex. Their combined success or failure will serve as a reflection on McCarthy, as well as on the two franchise figureheads.
They must help each other if the team is to successfully move on.
Though Green Bay’s first-year coach successfully implemented a culture that, by all accounts, fundamentally altered the mindset of this team, good vibes can only go so far. Wanting to do good is not the same as doing good. Good intentions make infamously effective paving stone.
For LaFleur, the Packers, and Rodgers, there is only one way to eradicate the residual pall hanging over the franchise is to blaze a new trail forward in a post-McCarthy world. Winning in the postseason offers the singular path to righteousness.