by C.D. Angeli
Author’s Note: This article was actually written last March for the lead article of the 2016 CHTV Draft Guide. It was a particularly ominous article published at a time when offseason optimism is at its peak. However, the Packers’ struggles to start the season warrant a look back at the observations made months ago coming to fruition.
The Season of Discontent
A 10-6 regular season record, a playoff win, and a close overtime loss in a divisional playoff game would be considered a positive season for the majority of NFL fans in the world today. But in Green Bay, just having a winning record is nothing less than a prerequisite for a franchise and fan base that has grown accustomed to doing nothing but winning over the last 24 years.
But perhaps more disconcerting to Packer fans isn’t just the final results in the ledger, but the behind-the-scenes friction that seemed to manifest itself more and more both on and off the field. This friction seemed to center around the central triumvirate of the Green Bay Packers: MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy, and general manager Ted Thompson.
The eye of the hurricane might well be McCarthy, who found himself at times at odds with his quarterback for the first time since 2007; and also rumored to be frustrated with his boss, according to the Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn. McCarthy has manned the sidelines for ten seasons as the Packers’ head coach–an exception to the average tenure of an NFL head coach, which is only 38 months.
As Rodgers passed his way to a 92.7 passing efficiency rating, the lowest of his career as a starter, it became more and more evident that he had an axe to grind, whether it be with his coach, the talent around him, or with himself. He was uncharacteristically demonstrative on the field, and had a brief, yet notable, clash with McCarthy following a series in a game against San Francisco. The experiment of McCarthy giving up the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, a close friend of Rodgers, came after the quarterback publicly questioned his head coach’s conservative playcalling following the previous season’s devastating playoff loss to the Seahawks.
The idea of of a highly successful coach and quarterback (think of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady) growing and evolving in their relationship in the face of consistent success isn’t all that surprising, but the perception that McCarthy is also growing impatient with Thompson’s single-pronged approach to building a team, utilizing the draft almost exclusively. McGinn’s observations that both McCarthy and the Packers’ personnel department have been harboring frustration to a lack of big moves for a team that has seemed on the cusp of winning it all since 2011 opened a visible crack in the armor of a GM/head coach relationship that Packer fans have long seen as unassailable.
The Thompson/McCarthy/Rodgers relationship began in 2006, following a cap-clearing season in Thompson’s first season with the team left the Packers with just a handful of players that looked to be a part of a Thompson’s master plan. After drafting Rodgers as Brett Favre’s perennial backup in 2005, McCarthy replaced Mike Sherman and immediately adhered to Thompson’s style.
Thompson’s drafts and lack of free agent moves drew a considerable amount of criticism from the Packers’ media and fan base, but there never seemed to be any discontent between the head coach and his general manager. In fact, the two stood resolute in solidarity as Favre reportedly lobbied hard for the Packers to sign wide receiver Randy Moss in the next offseason. This team was to be built through the draft with “Packer People”, and Rodgers might have been the poster child for that term.
In 2006, Thompson used the NFL Draft to set the tone for his approach,repeatedly trading back and coming away with 12 players in a seven-round draft. Perhaps most notable in that draft was the three offensive linemen taken, Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll. None of the players were prototypical linemen, but McCarthy had made the decision to move the line to the Zone Blocking Scheme, and Thompson complied, bringing in guys who were smaller, more agile, and more cut out for the ZBS than traditional blockers.
In the end, the ZBS was a failed experiment, a once-dynamic scheme that surprised defenses with its speed and simplicity. The Packers had invested heavily in a scheme that defensive coordinators had learned to counter, and were stuck with offensive linemen that had difficulty transitioning to a more conventional blocking style. But no one questioned that the head coach and general manager were on the same page in this endeavor.
While most fans would like to forget the summer of 2008, it is impossible to ignore the impact the Favre Divorce had on not only the team, but on the relationship between Thompson, McCarthy, and Rodgers. In April, after again rebuffing Favre’s insistence on acquiring a veteran wide receiver through trade or free agency, Thompson traded out of the first round to selected Jordy Nelson at the top of the second. While many of us blessed with 20/20 hindsight can claim today what a steal that pick was, it was criticized as being a luxury pick, a project player who would sit on the bench behind Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and James Jones.
But the Nelson pick was a shining example of Thompson’s approach to the draft. He wasn’t intended to be a contributor in 2008, but a “next man up” in the master plan. Thompson didn’t just draft players to help today, but looked ahead to restock players he thought wouldn’t be re-signed after their contracts ran out. As it turned out, Nelson ended up being a key player in the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl, and stepped up as a key contributor, then starter, then superstar after Driver’s decline in 2011, Jennings departure after 2012, and Jones’ flight after 2013.
But that wasn’t enough for Favre, who felt he was one player away from winning another Super Bowl, and many in the media and fanbase agreed with him. As Packer Nation divided wholly that summer in the face of the Favre Spotlight bringing every blemish to the surface, Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and de facto starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers stood resolute in the face of the storm. The triumvirate committed to the draft, not making another major dip in free agency until 2014, when Julius Peppers joined the team. They committed to the coaching style, with McCarthy calling the shots on offense. And finally, they committed to their former first-round pick with the pinpoint accuracy and penchant for taking sacks over interceptions.
After a miserable 2008 campaign mired by the Favre hangover, Thompson did the unthinkable in the 2009 NFL Draft: after taking BJ Raji with the 9th overall pick, the Packers traded a second-rounder and two third-rounders (including the conditional draft pick from the Jets for Brett Favre) to move up to the 26th pick and take linebacker Clay Matthews III. While the bottom half of that draft will never be remembered for much, the Packers came away with three star players that would be key contributors very quickly.
The Packers won the Super Bowl in what might be the greatest underdog story in NFL history. The last few criticizers of Thompson, McCarthy, and Rodgers were sent to their room without any supper, and few questioned the caliber of the three leaders of the team that brought glory back to Titletown.
Ted Thompson became widely regarded as a draft mastermind, and GMs across the NFL began copying his draft-first approach, rather than the Dan Snyder annual free-agent fiascos. Mike McCarthy assembled teams that piled up 46 wins over the next four seasons, becoming as perennial in the playoffs as the Patriots. And Aaron Rodgers went on to win two NFL MVP honors, putting him not only in the top echelons of quarterbacks in the NFL, but even starting discussions placing him among the best of all time.
The Packers finished 2014 with a loss in the NFC Championship game, but widely expected to be a contender for the Super Bowl in 2015 by the time the season started. What could go wrong?
Other than everything?
Shooting Ourselves in the Foot
“Aaron Rodgers, coming off an MVP season, looks to add another ring to his collections and seal his legacy.”
“This might be the best offensive line we’ve ever had.”
“Eddie Lacy is more comfortable, more natural as he approaches what should be another 1,000 yard season.”
“The Packers’ receiving corps provides a healthy balance of experienced veterans and young talent with potential to make this offense the most threatening in the league.”
In 2015, we saw Mike McCarthy, the eye of the hurricane, watch as his team seemingly crumbled around him. He snagged back the play-calling duties he had delegated to offensive coordinator Tom Clement. He watched Eddie Lacy struggle to make weight, finally benching him in favor of James Starks for a part of the season. But, most of all, he watched Aaron Rodgers struggle to connect with his receivers once his most trusted one, Jordy Nelson, was lost for the season back in August due to injury.
A once-dominant offense struggled to score against mediocre teams, and it started with his quarterback. The relationship was hampered, with both McCarthy and Rodgers reportedly trying to usurp control from Clement, both trying to influence the playcalling without being the playcaller. McCarthy finally settled the argument by taking the playcalling duties back, leaving his coordinator chastened and dealing with his quarterback directly in the power struggle at the line of scrimmage.
Rodgers chimed in on the new arrangement after a win against the Raiders: “We just don’t really have a clear-cut direction. We got into some stuff with John [Kuhn] in there and four receivers, but we were too inconsistent.” He later tried to clarify that he meant the execution, not the playcalling, but given McCarthy had just bristled at a reporter questioning whether or not this team was capable of playoff-caliber football, it’s not hard to read between the lines.
As for the relationship between McCarthy and his general manager, the McGinn story set both Thompson and McCarthy into damage control mode this offseason. McCarthy told Packers.com, “I think the program that Ted and I built, it speaks for itself. I think the consistency is probably our biggest strength because of our approach and belief and how we go about it. So our relationship is as good as it’s ever been.”
But, it didn’t help matters when McCarthy stated in February that fans should expect some play in the free agency market this offseason. “We’ll see how it shakes out. We might shock you this year.”
But, Ted Thompson’s decision to not sign any big-name (or medium-sized names) in free agency this offseason shocked no one. Thompson received perhaps the loudest fan backlash for not dipping into the free agent pool since the 2010 offseason, but he remained resolute. “Just because we don’t sign somebody doesn’t mean we don’t consider people. We did a lot of considering, and we do all the time [and] wherever we felt like we could make our team better in the grand scheme things, we’ve tried to do that. So far, it’s been kind of quiet from a fan’s standpoint, and I’m sorry to say that.”
The Packers have re-signed several key free agents, including defensive lineman Mike Daniels, kicker Mason Crosby, running back James Starks, and linebacker Nick Perry. This coupled with the unexpected retirement of BJ Raji and the likely departure of James Jones, leaves the Packers where they seem to be every offseason: with no players added to provide an immediate impact.
As we learned in 2008, not every player Thompson drafts, even in the early rounds, are expected to provide an quick fix. But then, this is an offseason following a season of discontent, with all eyes and renewed criticism of Thompson’s approach beginning to fester. With needs at inside linebacker, tight end, and along the offensive line, having the 27th-overall pick isn’t a good position to start addressing all of those areas from.
In the end, the draft isn’t what is ailing the Packers. They are suffering from sketchy play-calling, inconsistency, and poor communication, and this is just on the offensive side of the ball. The Packers have a level of talent on their roster than 75% of NFL teams would kill for, or at least, so we believe. If players like Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, and Bryan Bulaga continue to struggle, it is an indictment of Ted Thompson’s ability to bring in the right talent.
If the playcalling and team cohesiveness continues to be a detriment to the team in spite of its talent, it is an indictment of a head coach who might have allowed too much success to go to his head.
And if Rodgers continues to throw inaccurate passes and pick-and-choose the receivers he trusts to determine where he throws them, it might be an indictment of our MVP quarterback has jumped the shark to where his ego overshadows his ability.
In the end, if this team is going to go back to the promised land, these three leaders of the Green Bay Packers need to become a triumvirate once again.
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan, co-host of the long running Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio, good cop at PackersTalk.com, and your new best friend. An ENTP, he doesn’t always necessarily believe everything he says. Follow his tweets at @TundraVision.——————
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