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NFL AM: If Packers Don’t Rally, Mike McCarthy’s Days May Be Numbered

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As the 2016 NFL season turns the corner and heads toward home, with seven games remaining for most teams, there are few more disappointing clubs in the league this year than the Green Bay Packers.

The current season was supposed to be a renaissance campaign for Green Bay, one of the early favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI. But instead, at 4-5 through nine games, the Packers sit in third place in the NFC North, looking at the very real possibility of missing the postseason altogether for the first time in eight years.

If that happens, it could be the end of the road for head coach Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.

McCarthy is in his 11th season as Packers head coach, tying him with New Orleans’ Sean Payton as the third-longest tenured head coach in the league, behind the great Bill Belichick and the league’s most Teflon coach, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis. Up to this point, Green Bay has made the playoffs in eight of McCarthy’s 10 seasons and failed to secure a winning record just once, in 2008, Aaron Rodgers’ first season under center. That also happens to be the last time the Packers missed the playoffs.

But the parallels between that team and the one currently in place in Green Bay are limited. The 2008 squad was a young team building toward something special, realized just two years later when they won Super Bowl XLV. However, the 2016 Packers are not a young team building toward something. They’re a veteran squad that has been treading water for a number of years and has fallen under during a season in which there was a golden opportunity to re-establish their place in the hierarchy of a wide-open NFC.

When things go as far off the track as they have for the 2016 Packers, who are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the blame game begins and attention turns toward two men: the head coach and the quarterback. We already know the quarterback isn’t going anywhere. Despite having what many would call a down year compared to the extremely high bar of personal standards he has set, Aaron Rodgers remains one of the league’s top quarterbacks and a player that gives Green Bay a chance to win every game they play. That shifts all of the blame to McCarthy, who despite a 108-60 record that ranks him fourth among active coaches in winning percentage, suddenly finds himself on the hot seat.

For his part, Rodgers has shot down any criticism of McCarthy this week, while throwing cold water on rumors that there is dissension between the coach and quarterback.

“I think it’s ridiculous. I think people don’t understand how difficult it is to win in this league and win consistently. The success that we’ve had here, it’s tough to do, and we’ve set the standard pretty high,” Rodgers admitted. “But I wouldn’t listen to some of those people out there. They’re not in this locker room. They’re not in the meeting rooms. They’re not in the practice environments. They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know the type of work ethic that we have here and that Mike has here.”

But while that work ethic and McCarthy’s relationship with his players could be second to none, it hasn’t gotten Green Bay very far in recent years. After a 12-4 campaign in 2014, the Packers made a deep playoff run, which seemed ticketed for another Super Bowl appearance. Instead, they blew a 16-0 halftime lead in the NFC Championship Game, and they’ve been regressing ever since. They backed into the postseason last year, losing their grasp on the NFC North crown with back-to-back losses to end the season. And after dispatching the Redskins in the Wild Card round, they lost an overtime heartbreaker to the Arizona Cardinals, in one of the wildest divisional round games in recent memory.

This season was supposed to provide a bounce back to the top of the NFC North. The offense was supposed to be better with Rodgers’ favorite target Jordy Nelson back in the fold at wide receiver and running back Eddie Lacy supposedly in shape for the first time in a few years. Except that hasn’t come fruition as of yet. It didn’t take Lacy long to put the weight back on, and by mid-October the running back was on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

With and without him, the Packers offense has again struggled to run the ball this year, ranking 19th in rushing offense through 10 weeks after ranking 12th there last season. Despite the return of Nelson, which restored the vaunted Green Bay receiving corps to full strength, the passing offense hasn’t been up to snuff either, ranking 14th despite the presence of arguably the league’s most talented quarterback. That could be in large part due to the team’s inability to establish the run and a porous offensive line.

Worse yet, the Packers haven’t been able to get teams off the field on defense. Despite ranking Top 10 in fewest yards allowed per game, including an impressive fourth in rush yards allowed, Green Bay is bleeding points, having allowed the sixth most in the league among teams that have only played nine games. (Six teams have played 10 games, and of them, only the Denver Broncos have allowed fewer points). That too puts pressure on the coach to account for why his team is allowing so many points, despite playing fairly well on defense. McCarthy knows well that they need to be better.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the performance and the application of what’s going on throughout the week,” he said. “We have not played well enough, and that’s what we’re focused on. We’re really diving into how it happened and why it happened, and that will stay our focus.”

One thing McCarthy can be sure of is that, despite some bumps in the road, he hasn’t lost his locker room. When the criticism turned up a notch after the team’s third straight loss last Sunday, an embarrassing blowout at the hands of the Tennessee Titans, Rodgers wasn’t the only one to rush to the support of his coach. To a man, all the Packers players stood behind McCarthy and praised what his presence and leadership means to the team.

“We 100 percent buy into everything Coach Mike has to say,” wideout Davante Adams said. “He’s been winning around here for a long time. I think the Green Bay nation kind of gets spoiled when they see a lot of big plays and see the flashy things, and then you might go through a little bit of adversity and everybody is blaming coach and doing all these things, when you have to realize there’s a lot more into it than that…he’s human and the same for anybody else in this building. We definitely stand by him 100 percent in whatever he’s saying to us, knowing that he’s not going to lead us in the wrong direction.”

And although things look dire now, the opportunity still exists for Green Bay to turn this thing around with seven games to play. It’s something they’ve done before, as recently as 2013 when they rallied from a 5-6-1 start, which included a full month without a win, to three wins in their final four games to make the postseason at 8-7-1. A similar record might not get them there this year, but they also probably don’t need to win 11 games to get there. It’s tight at the top of the NFC North, where the Detroit Lions have gained control with a 5-4 mark, tied with the Minnesota Vikings, who have lost four straight.

Green Bay is just a game back, working with the benefit of the best in-division record of the three teams, sitting at 2-1 vs. their NFC North peers while both Detroit and Minnesota have lost two of their three games in-division. The Packers close the season with three consecutive divisional games, which will give them a golden opportunity to seize back the NFC North crown at season’s end.

But they’ll have to get to that point with a decent record first, making the next four games, against Washington, Philadelphia, Houston and Seattle, vital. A 2-2 mark in those four would put them at 6-7 entering that divisional gauntlet, likely needing to sweep those three games to make it to the playoffs. But if they can manage wins in three of their next four, which seems possible given the competition, the Pack would be right in the thick of things entering the final weeks. McCarthy said this week that, despite the losing streak, he doesn’t believe in turning over the apple-cart and thinks the only thing that needs to change for the Pack to get back on track is their execution.

“I’m not into shock-and-awe, or a torch-the-landscape type person. I’m a builder, I’m a developer, and I’ve said that since the first day I arrived here. You build a program, the culture makes it go, and you have to invest in that culture every single day. That’s my big-picture focus,” McCarthy said. “Do I still think we’re gonna win ’em all? Hell, yeah. I’ve never entered a contest, ever, that I didn’t feel we were going to beat the other guy, and that won’t change, especially this week.”

This week, the Packers head back to Washington, D.C., site of their most recent playoff win, a Wild Card game that saw them overcome two deficits and pour it on late to defeat the Redskins last January. Perhaps a trip back to a place that holds recent success can be just what the doctor ordered for McCarthy and his troops, an opportunity to get back rolling and end their losing streak. Either way, McCarthy seems quite aware that he may well be coaching for his job over the final month-and-a-half of the season. But at least publicly, he’s giving off the confidence of a guy who doesn’t feel any added pressure.

“I’ve never looked at the ride to this point as smooth,” he told reporters this week. “To me, it’s always bumpy. That’s the joy of it. That’s this game. That’s how hard it is in the NFL. It really isn’t what you did last year or 2010. As we know it doesn’t factor. You have to stay in tune with the now. Obviously, people outside our room don’t feel really good about the now. Personally, I enjoy these type of moments. This is kind of how my life has gone professionally. That’s just a personal thought.

“This is about our team, and I trust and believe in what we do every day,” he added. “I really like our football team. I love the guys I’m coaching, and we have a lot of football left to play.”


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys