Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thompson, McCarthy Have Immunity Idol; Safe At Tribal Council

There’s no doubt that Tribal Council is soon approaching for the Green Bay Packers. The disappointment of the 2008 season is historically one of the biggest collapses in franchise history, and the fan base seems ready to put someone’s head on a post.

Take a wander around the Internet forums and blogosphere, and you will see people mounting their case to have any number of Packer brass removed from office, or even Packer players that need to move on. Some have already done extensive research and posted detailed rationale for why the GM, coach, or assistants need to be canned.

Of course, there are the many others that bypass logic or rationale altogether, and are calling for everyone’s head with a war cry that doesn’t discriminate between the targets and that fans that still support them. “Erin Rodgers” has to be one of the most saddening catcalls to see from Packer fans, directed at a quarterback who, really, has done everything in his own power to do his part.

(That stated, after watching Brett Favre take the lion’s share of blame for any playoff loss over the last eight years, perhaps this is just the circle coming around.)

But, I am here to let you know, that no matter how hard we wail and gnash our teeth, Packer GM Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy are safe at Tribal Council. They both have immunity idol that will keep them safe this offseason. Even if we were to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the complete reason for the debacle that has become the 2008 Packer season, they are safe.

For now.

Ted Thompson: There are few who have been more consistently critical of Ted Thompson and his approach than me. I’ve even gotten emails from a couple of fellow Packer fans who have essentially told me that I “was right all along”, and he should be sent packing.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that when I saw Thompson letting veterans go and replacing them with draft picks and young free agents, I gave concern at the time that losing the veteran leadership was a bad idea. When I saw Thompson consistently trading down in the draft, I commented that getting quantity over quality wasn’t the way to infuse talent into your team. When I saw no-names brought in en masse to “compete” for jobs, hoping that competition would eventually produce a quality starter, I suggested that just you can’t always make chicken salad from chicken [gunk].

In the 2009 season, some of these concerns seem to be coming to fruition. But, Ted Thompson, to his credit, has stuck by his guns for the last four years. He has a plan in place and has stuck to it, no matter how much rabble like myself didn’t particularly like it. What he has done with the salary cap situation is admirable, and has done a lot to remove the animosity between the players and management that was present under Mike Sherman in an ill-devised dual role as HC/GM.

After taking a 4-12 team to 13-3 in two seasons, Ted Thompson earned the NFL’s Executive of the Year award last year, a great honor that seemed to finally shut up his critics (like me) and made believers out of many.

That award is going to earn Thompson more time to continue his plan. There are many other factors that come into play to explain off this season: coaching, injuries, offseason distractions. Ted Thompson isn’t going anywhere, probably for a while. It's kind of unrealistic to expect that he would be let go at this point.

Mike McCarthy: I have like Mike McCarthy since the day after he was hired in 2006. I didn’t like him much the day he was hired, because I thought he was perhaps the least desirable of all the candidates out there, and that part of the reason he was brought in was because he wouldn’t stand up to Thompson if there was a disagreement.

Since then, I think McCarthy has done well. I have written story after story praising his ability the past two seasons to take whatever talent he has been given to work with and somehow make it as successful as he can. He’s hasn’t been afraid to modify schemes, formations, or assignments to maximize the performance of the unit.

Most of all, I admired his ability to take mistakes from one game and adjust, literally by the next game. It seemed that the team was always in flux, moving and improving each week.

But this season, I think even the most green-and-gold bespectacled fans would have to admit that McCarthy hasn’t been the same coach. It’s easy to see the amount of frustration he had, even early on, with the mental errors and communication issues. Instead of seeing these problems fixed game-to-game, they only marginally improved, if at all. We were getting what seemed to be clichés instead of solutions, with McCarthy pointing out where the problems were, but rarely pointing that finger at himself.

But, like Thompson, McCarthy has earned his Immunity Necklace also. Starting in Week 13 of the 2006 season, the Green Bay Packers went on a 27-7 run, including playoffs. That’s an awfully good record for any coach, and sort of makes the last seven games (1-6) pale in comparison. It’s hard to look at this and fire a guy for seven games, when Marinelli is still in Detroit (for now).

Who gets the vote? Chances are, the Packers will have to make some changes this year, and as Thompson and McCarthy will get more time, the most likely person to take the fall is defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. Now, I have met Bob Sanders and think he’s a good guy, but if being a “good guy” guaranteed you a job, Bart Starr would still be coaching today.

Just like on “Survivor”, you can already feel the sharks starting to whip the water around Sanders in a frenzy. Packer pundits all over have already made Sanders the sacrificial lamb. Certainly, most of us can see it is the defense that has taken the largest drop from last year, and one has to think that if this year's D was the 2007 variety, this team would likely be contending for the division title, instead of watching the mediocre Vikings and Bears battling to lose the least.

So, yes, I do think that Bob Sanders will be voted off the island at the end of the season, along with some other assistants. McCarthy and Thompson will play their idols and be immune from the vote.

Do I believe Sanders deserves to be fired? That is a much more gray area than just pointing out that the defense has underachieved. All of the areas that have plagued the defense have also reared their ugly head elsewhere on the team.

* The lack of depth along the defensive line and at safety is just as evident at running back and along the offensive line. The Packers are continuing to play with over-his-head Tony Moll, as the rest of the supposed depth (Barbre, Sitton, Guacamole) simply aren’t ready to play in the NFL. Both Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson haven’t played particularly well, and the only other option, Kregg Lumpkin, was lost to injury.

* The underachieving linebacking corps is a sore spot on the defense (especially when all of the top four guys have recently been signed or extended by Thompson to some good money), but so is the tight end position. Lee has been inconsistent and no one playing behind him has risen to the occasion.

* While our secondary has had some big playmakers back there, and for the most part, has done well overall, they are consistently giving up huge plays when it matters most. Similarly, Aaron Rodgers has been a solid player and has done very well; perhaps even at a Pro Bowl level, but when the pressure is highest at the end of the game, he has made more than his share of errors.

* The lack of mental awareness and discipline is evident in poor tackling, poor angles, and miscommunication. However, miscommunication has been just as much of an issue on offense, and our offensive line leads the league in holding penalties.

* Our rush defense has been miserable. Conversely, so has our rushing offense.

So, while I believe that Sanders will get the axe at the end of the season, it is only a part of a larger problem that is pervasive on this team. As it turns out, Sanders’ squad is merely the biggest offender. Is the defense merely a symptom of a much larger problem? That is what 2009 will answer, but likely, it will be with a new defensive coordinator.

The Tribe Has Spoken

In the game of Survivor, if a player is forced to use an immunity idol, it is because they are at risk of being voted out. For whatever reason, they are a target from the rest of the tribe, and the idol is used to save themselves.

But after that, they are vulnerable, and often have to scramble to change their game, make reparations, and revise their strategies in order to stay alive.

Likewise, if Thompson and McCarthy are immune this offseason, they too will be vulnerable in the future. Face it; the “wait and see” period is over. If Thompson has a five-year plan, next year is his fifth year and we should be seeing the culmination of his plan, not a return to the complete rebuilding we saw in his first season.

This is where Thompson’s adherence to his plan will be carefully observed. He has often defied criticism of his draft style and his eschewing of free agency, sticking with what he believes is going to bring long-term success to the team. But, after a season of achievement and accolades, followed by an offseason of risky personnel decisions and heightened expectations, it might be expected that Thompson may want to give a show of good faith that he is committed to winning today, not just planning for the future.

The Packers will look to pick in the top 12 picks or so, and will likely have a solid second rounder from the Jets. Is this another year for the Packers to come away with 12 draft picks, or the year for them to make a statement in adding some quality talent to the roster, whether by standing pat, trading up, or trading picks for established veterans?

Is this another season that Thompson will eschew free agency, using his ample cap space to extend players from within, or will he try to infuse some talent with a big name that might be able to be an instant upgrade at a struggling position?

If Thompson continues to follow the plan as he has so consistently done the past three seasons, and the glaring lack of talent and depth continues to be a problem in 2009, it is pretty clear to see that “the plan” is in serious decline and Thompson will find that he has made his own bed.

Many fans have proposed many quick solutions, including signing every major free agent defensive lineman available (Haynesworth, Peppers). The likelihood of Thompson doing this is pretty slim, but you would think he might be investing in at least a couple of second-tier guys to make a statement that he is truly committed to winning now.

Like Ron Wolf, Thompson may have had something like this in mind all along…building a strong nucleus through the draft and investing in free agency at the end of his fourth year to push the team over the hump and into championship status. Perhaps the collapse this season will be the impetus for the next-gen Eugene Robinson, Keith Jackson, and Sean Jones to join the club.

Mike McCarthy, on the other hand, has an equally difficult task in front of him: first and foremost making the right dismissals and hires among his staff. Then, he must begin to reshape the climate of this team, one that appears to be lacking in communication, discipline, and fire. And, the best place to start is with the head coach.

Both McCarthy and Thompson made statements to the media following the Jaguar loss taking accountability for the 5-9 record. This was pretty significant because, as I had noted a couple weeks ago, McCarthy spent more time spinning clichés and identifying problem areas rather than admitted he himself may have been lacking.

Thompson, on the other hand, may as well have been in Africa filming an episode of Survivor since August, given as much as we’ve seen him. After a rough offseason filled with criticism, it seemed like he had gone into hiding for a while.

As they say, the first step is to admit you have a problem, and better yet, to admit you are a part of it.

But McCarthy’s role in all of this is going to be sensitive. There’s been much made of the recent “blowups” between players. As losing continues and the failure of goals is realized, the precious positive environment becomes tainted and polluted.

McCarthy is going to have to choose how to approach next season, how to reach his players, how to work with his assistants, and try and find a balance that gets everyone reaching their potential again.

It’s possible to swing that pendulum too far, and begin micromanaging the players and coaches, as Mike Sherman was often accused of doing. With the discouragement already on the team, who and how far to press is a tricky game to play.

Hopefully, McCarthy will return to his roots as a coach and work on finding a way to make the talent he has maximize its potential, and perhaps changing the practice schedule to be less relaxed and more like boot camp.


But, regardless, both Thompson and McCarthy will likely make some change in their respective approaches to their duties this offseason. As I’ve said many times, their job became a far more taxing affair when they were faced with the high expectations of last season instead of the eternally short measuring stick of Mike Sherman. The loss of perpetual lightning rod (and occasional scapegoat) Brett Favre placed the onus directly on managment.

And so, when Bob Sanders is officially voted off the island this offseason, both McCarthy and Thompson will use their immunity idols and live to fight another day. But, once that happens, both need to be aware, because the crosshairs will fall on them if the slide continues another season, and impatient Packer fans will be watching to see what changes are made, if any.

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