Aaron Rodgers would be an easy mark in poker. When he’s frustrated, it’s written all over his face and when he’s having fun, it’s all smiles. There was no hiding his dissatisfaction with the Mike McCarthy era as it plodded in place, unable or unwilling to move the offense into a modern landscape.
The eye rolling, the cursing, the frustration, the seeming lack of confidence QB1 had could be seen by anyone with two eyes and half a brain. Ever since Joe Philbin took over, the body language flipped. Even down two scores against New York on Sunday, Rodgers was smiling, laughing, and when necessary, fiery.
What are the chances Rodgers defends Bryan Bulaga’s honor against Leonard Williams six weeks ago?
Then, the quarterback made headlines by saying he wanted to give Joe Philbin the “best opportunity possible” to be the next Packers head coach. This came on the heels of Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst saying outright Philbin would be considered after McCarthy got his pink slip.
Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning the administration has to say that about Philbin, otherwise it’s pointless to even name an interim coach. Murphy and Gutekunst can’t get up there and say “We just need someone to play out the season and then we’ll move on.” Empower the guy to whom you give power and try to inject a little life into the team.
Rodgers also, importantly, did not say Philbin was his preference to be the next head coach, just that he wanted to give Philbin the best opportunity to earn the job. That’s really another way of saying “We want to play well, so Joe gets a fair shake.” Rodgers’ support of Philbin isn’t the same as saying he prefers Philbin to other candidates. It’s very possible he may not, though his loyalty streak with coaches runs deep.
But back to the original point, the Packers could believe keeping Philbin represents an opportunity for continuity. Rodgers is in the back stretch of his career and learning an entirely new offense may be unduly cumbersome. Green Bay just invested a lot of resources in new offensive pieces and changing the terms of the offense may set back the development of talented young players like Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Unlike McCarthy, Philbin has the support of the players in the locker room, with myriad guys coming forward to say they bought into their interim head coach’s message right from the start. The fire and intensity does appear to be ratcheted up even if the level of play hasn’t been consistently higher.
And keeping Philbin in place would allow the Packers to justify retaining Mike Pettine who, when this defense was healthy, injected some much needed verve into a unit lacking it for years. Much like on offense, there’s a value to continuity, especially in this defense. Would Jaire Alexander still be as good in a different defense he’ll have to learn? Does a lack of top edge rushers hurt more in other defenses with a coach who isn’t as adept at scheming up pressure, someone like say Vic Fangio?
There are reasons in a vacuum to keep Pettine, and retaining Philbin would make it that much easier.
What may really be the clincher though, would be if Philbin is able to lure Zac Taylor away from the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor, a trendy OC coaching name on his own, he ties to the Packers organization and Philbin in particular. Taylor was a graduate assistant under for Packers coach Mike Sherman at Texas A&M before joining Philbin’s staff in Miami as the assistant quarterbacks coach. The 35-year-old coach was promoted twice with the Dolphins, first to QB coach, then to OC in Philbin’s final season with the Dolphins.
This is Taylor’s second year on the Rams staff with Sean McVay first as an assistant receivers coach and this season as quarterback coach. Between the two, he was the offensive coordinator in college for a year at Cincinnati.
Taylor’s pedigree, raised with the bones of the Packers offense, mixed with his college experience and time with an innovator like McVay, represents precisely the type of tweaking this offense requires. A young, progressive thinker could re-engage Rodgers mentally, building new concepts and innovations into an offense this team already knows.
McVay loves to use 11 personnel with three receivers and a tight end, as do the Packers, but the Rams disguise it much better with pre-snap motion, bunch formations and spacing advantages. Their play action game has been the best in football under McVay with a commitment to the run game Rodgers has been begging for.
The risk with Taylor would be the same as with any hot offensive coordinate coaching name: if everything goes as planned and he really does nudge this offense forward, he’ll be a head coaching candidate within a year or two, particularly with his experience with the Rams and then with Rodgers. If those two years involve runs to the Super Bowl, no one will care much if the team loses its star offensive coordinator.
This scenario may simply be kicking the can down the line a bit further, but it also represents a quick fix. It’s not unthinkable to suggest Taylor could be a Josh McDaniels-esque figure with Joe Philbin set to turn 58 this offseason. Make a run at some titles the next two years and if the offense really pops, but they come up short, simply promote Taylor to HC and the creative hotshot coach many want the Packers to hire this offseason steps forward with institutional knowledge already built in.
While this doesn’t represent an optimal solution to the Packers coaching problem, it’s a reasonable one and likely one Green Bay will consider. The addition of Taylor could be precisely the kind of inciting factor the front office needs to believe Philbin, Taylor, and defensive continuity are the best path forward for this team. And they might be right.
If Joe Philbin remains as head coach, this is the argument for making it happen and the case for it to succeed. Anything less would feel like a reactionary choice over-emphasizing the opinion of the star quarterback and doubling down on the notion the real coach of the Packers wears No. 12.
Any scenario where Philbin remains would be short-sighted, potentially by design. Replace the engine in the car to squeeze a couple more miles in hope of making that trip to the Super Bowl. If it comes up short, just buy a new car in a few years. But with long-term solutions out there (Josh McDaniels on Line 1, Lincoln Riley on 2), keeping Philbin would be myopic to the point of cynicism, as if to say, “We think most coaches are bad anyway and at least our guys like Joe.”
Taylor makes this work. He’s the offensive coach for whom many have already thrown on capes. Their thought process suggests a non-offensive head coach with a guru offensive coordinator makes more sense than chasing the sexy offensive hotshot candidate. But there’s no reason to believe a coach like Fangio or Dave Toub would be certain upgrades over Philbin who possesses important support in Green Bay he never had during his disastrous tenure in Miami. He also has Aaron Rodgers. This would be the holiday cocktail of coaching hires: continuity with a splash of innovation. It’s not what you’d order, but if your parents are serving it, you’ll drink it.
And like any cocktail, this one might not be the optimal choice, but at least it has booze. Cheers.