You will have to forgive Green Bay Packers fans if they’re experiencing a little bit of déjà vu.
For years they bemoaned former head coach Mike McCarthy for hanging on to defensive coordinator Dom Capers for so many years. A sneaky bad year in 2011 (when the team went 15-1 behind historic offensive production) and getting run over by Colin Kaepernick the following postseason is normally enough to change coordinators.
Two seasons after that, the Packers were in the NFC title game again, but this time they got boat-raced 44-21 by an Atlanta Falcons team that ironically had McCarthy’s successor on staff. That was the final nail in Capers’ coffin, right?
Yet it wasn’t.
McCarthy finally made a change after the 2017 season, firing Capers and hiring Mike Pettine. Unfortunately, McCarthy didn’t make it to the end of Pettine’s first season as he himself was fired that December. McCarthy’s time with the team had grown stale even if it by and large was very successful.
Fast forward to today. Matt LaFleur is at a similar crossroads with his own handpicked defensive coordinator, Joe Barry.
LaFleur brought Barry to Green Bay before the 2021 season after parting ways with Pettine. LaFleur decided to keep stability on defense as a first-year head coach in 2019, which made perfectly good sense.
Barry’s hiring drew a lot of question marks at the time (see Paul Noonan’s excellent piece from that year here) and those questions loom even larger as Ejiro Evero, over whom LaFleur chose Barry, succeeded in Denver and even received head coaching interviews before landing with the Carolina Panthers this offseason.
Meanwhile, Barry’s defense has been inconsistent over the past two years. The secondary’s emergence in 2021, led by the surprise that was Rasul Douglas and the unexpected All-Pro year out of De’Vondre Campbell, boosted their rankings (13th in total defense) but there were a lot of ups and downs. Their 22nd ranking in DVOA illustrates that.
In 2022, with the team going to lengths to keep the inconsistent but apparently talented group together, the unit became so much of a liability some fans probably thought they were watching the final Capers years again.
The Green Bay defense fell to 17th in total defense, but that doesn’t begin to tell the full story. They finished the year tied with the Las Vegas Raiders for 29th in yards per play and 26th in total rushing defense. Thankfully the secondary came around a bit late in the season and kept the rankings from sinking.
Naturally, the Packers lost pass game coordinator Jerry Gray to the Atlanta Falcons while the rest of Barry’s staff is apparently intact.
That’s plenty of evidence to indict Barry and make a change but firing a coach is only one side of the equation. LaFleur also would have to replace him with somebody. Yet LaFleur chose to stick with Barry despite the likes of Evero, Steve Wilks, Brian Flores, and Jim Leonhard (who LaFleur tried to woo to Green Bay before) coming available.
When asked about a change at defensive coordinator, LaFleur said he wanted stability on his coaching staff. Ultimately, that proves one of the biggest fears of this season is coming true.
The Packers were left for dead at 4-8 and rallied to control their own destiny in terms of a playoff spot before ultimately missing out. Did Green Bay delude themselves so much during the four-game winning streak into thinking that they were better than they really were?
Apparently, the answer is yes.
In retaining Barry and not going after one of these other candidates, LaFleur is choosing convenience over competence. Barry and LaFleur have history together with the Los Angeles Rams and it appears he would rather defend his friends than make the hard decision and make a change.
The reasons may be different, but LaFleur is falling into the same trap McCarthy did. Retaining Capers for too long didn’t explicitly get McCarthy fired but you can’t help but think it had a hand in expediting it.
We don’t know how or when LaFleur’s time in Green Bay will end. He’s won more than his share of games and deserves some benefit of the doubt, but he’s whiffed on multiple hires now, from Shawn Mennenga and Maurice Drayton on special teams to Barry on defense.
It is more than fair to question LaFleur’s ability to hire the right coaches and at least one bad hire — Drayton — had a direct effect on the team’s run at a Super Bowl ending early thanks to special teams debacles last year against the 49ers.
The saying goes that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If history is any indicator, the Packers’ head coach is playing with fire.
For his sake (and the Packers’), let’s hope he doesn’t get burned.