Revisiting the situation, I remember that was a time that I was very emotional about how things were handled with the personnel. 2005 was nothing for anyone involved with the Packers to be proud of, and Mike Sherman certainly took the brunt of it. I had some issues with how Thompson had handled Sherman. While I wasn’t in any sort of camp that believed Sherman was a great coach or GM, he deserved as fair of a shot as anyone to prove it or not.
Without dredging all the icky details of the Sherman firing, let’s just suffice it to say that I thought the situation could have been handled a lot better, without anyone having to play the scapegoat. Thus began some of my criticisms of Thompson’s leadership style, but as the search for a new head coach went on, I vowed to not be hypocritical and to give whomever Thompson hired a fair shot.
Anyone, that is, except Mike McCarthy.
Yep, I would have been happy with nearly anyone. No, I wasn’t excited about Childress, but there were a lot of names that intrigued me. Tim Lewis, Russ Grimm, Al Saunders, Ron Rivera…no real stand-out names but a lot of potential. But, I had already crossed McCarthy off my list. Why?
One word: accountability. I knew really very little about McCarthy, but I did know that he was the Packers’ quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes in 1999. That year, Favre had suffered through one of his most undisciplined seasons in a Packer uniform: 23 interceptions, a career-low completion percentage, and a non-winning season. As a huge Favre fan at the time, I had a grave concern that McCarthy would not bring the discipline and accountability that Favre needed at that point. In 2005, Favre threw 29 interceptions and a career-low 70.9 passing efficiency rating. I wanted accountability…and if McCarthy couldn’t hold the team leader accountable, how would he hold the rest of the team accountable?
And accountability was critical, not just for Favre, but for the atmosphere of the team as a whole. One of the biggest (and more valid) criticisms leveled at Mike Sherman was that he was overly loyal to certain players and assistant coaches. I often perceived Sherman standing with his arms at his side, waiting for Favre to win or lose the game. But, you also saw certain players remain on the roster, getting second and third chances when others did not.
When McCarthy was hired, I went through a couple of stages of grieving, no doubt. It’s the wrong fit, I thought, but after a week or so of wailing and gnashing teeth, I decided to give McCarthy a chance. Perhaps in retrospect, he was a far better choice than some of the other assistant coaches out there that have yet to be offered a HC job.
As time wore on, I was glad I chose to give him that chance. As Thompson rebuilt the team, I saw a level of flexibility and problem-solving that we didn’t see under Sherman. Where Sherman tended to stick stubbornly to his gameplan, McCarthy was willing to tinker with the system, introducing larger protection packages and five-wide formations to counter a struggling offensive line. Even as Favre broke his personal attempts mark in 2006 with 613, breaking his previous high the year before (609), you had a feeling he was playing to the strengths of the talent he was given to work with.
When the Packers nearly made the Super Bowl in McCarthy’s second season, I felt justified in having given McCarthy that benefit of the doubt. It sure seemed like he was able to pull it together in a rapid fashion. Accountability? No problem.
But since that season, we’ve either seen a different Mike McCarthy or the real Mike McCarthy. He’s always fielded a team that ranked high in penalties, yet as the team has matured, foolish penalties have continued to plague them. But, as the head coach has come under fire for those penalties (often resulting in more negative yardage that positive rushing yards from our halfbacks), a myriad of excuses have been offered, repeated, and gone unfixed.
More and more, expressions like “pad level”, “fundamentals”, and “gap control” are cited as the reasons for gaffes on offense, defense, and special teams. But as McCarthy leads a team in his fourth season as head coach (following a 13-3 season only two seasons ago), the excuses have run out of steam.
George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It seems that McCarthy is falling into the same trap that Mike Sherman once fell into: being overly loyal to players who continue to disappoint and make mistakes. Players like Brandon Jackson, Justin Harrell, Brady Poppinga, Jarrett Bush, and AJ Hawk continue to get chance after chance, only falling to the wayside when injury removes them from the roster. James Campen, the offensive line coach, somehow avoided the massive coaching slaughter at the end of last season and continues to be unable to make chicken salad from the drafted talent he has to work with.
As MM’s defensiveness and annoyance continues, he digs in deeper to the same dysfunction that plagued Sherman at the end of his tenure: you made your bed, and now you choose to sleep in it instead of fixing the problems that need to be fixed.
In some ways, my initial fears are becoming more and more realized…fears that, quite honestly, had gone forgotten for some time. McCarthy had made a believer out of me, but now it seems like he can’t fix the problems that are evidently in front of him.
Now, granted, some of the problems come from a lack of talent. Thompson’s misses along both lines and both backfields have given McCarthy depth players having to become starters, and NFL-E talent and stumblebums to provide depth. But a good coach has to find a way to make that work. And an excellent way to get that done is to accomplish what he keeps repeating: these players have to have excellent fundamentals.
But, if they don’t have decent fundamentals after four years in the system, when do we expect that to happen? When are players going to be sat down when they mess up, giving them the impetus to feel that their job is on the line? Again, it would be helpful if Thompson would be willing to bring in more than an old tackle at the veteran’s minimum to challenge the current roster, but the product on the field still is the responsibility of the coach: a coach who is going to face a chopping block far sooner than a general manager. When the same coaching errors continue to happen, week after week, that day is coming sooner rather than later.
One preseason, he runs easy practices to reduce the strain on the team and try to keep them healthy. The next year, he runs the hardest training camp in the memory of most long-time fans. Yet, the results appear to be the same when the hitting actually starts.
The truest test of a coach’s ability is to look at what he is doing with the talent he has been given, and while he is working with a dearth of talent in a couple of spots (safety, offensive tackle), most scouts will tell you that Thompson has given the Packers a pretty good pile of talented players to work with. Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Ryan Grant, Cullen Jenkins, Aaron Kampman, Nick Barnett, Nick Collins, Ryan Pickett…do the Lions or the Browns have any player on their team that can compare to these guys? Yet, despite the talent, week in and week out the Packers can’t seem to even reach the sum of their parts, much less exceed them.
That is the definition of synergy: the ability for a team to surpass the sum of their parts.
Certainly, the 2007 Packers were the very definition of a synergistic team. Today, they are the opposite, in which the amazing talents of Kampman, Jennings, and Rodgers are diminished because of the efforts of the team around them.
Incidentally, the opposite of synergy is antergy.
Let’s be honest: the Packers are expected to win the next two games. There is no excuse for not being able to beat the Lions or the Browns, who will come in with a combined record of 2-8 and are clearly nowhere near the caliber of talent the Packers possess. The true measuring stick will likely come down to the next game against the Vikings, at home, on November 1st: a redemption game in so many ways for the Packers.
A loss there will cast a lot of doubt on McCarthy and his ability to truly hold a team accountable. Another loss before that will seal it up.