Observers can’t help but wonder: What is wrong with the Packers?Perhaps so, although if you're going to follow the draft-and-develop model, you've got to have draft choices developing in two or three years. The 2015 draft class was a failure.
It’s been nearly a year since Ted Thompson stepped down as general manager. But to understand what is happening in 2018, you must look back a few years. Many interviewed for this story say the Packers’ struggles can be traced back to Thompson’s final years as GM; others who won’t say it still suggest it with their actions.
Thompson, of course, had a wildly successful overall run in Green Bay. He began his career as a front-office executive in Green Bay in 1992. After leaving for a five-year stint in Seattle, he returned to the Packers as general manager in 2005. The first selection of his first draft was Aaron Rodgers, and the team went to the postseason nine times in 13 seasons of Thompson’s GM tenure, including a Super Bowl XLV title. He will deservedly be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in May.
There might have been the proliferation of the football equivalent of deanlets and deanlings, and arbitrary administrative ukases at work.
Ron Wolf, the Hall of Fame GM who ran the Packers from 1991-2001, had a saying: Football is the most important thing. If we do the football part right, the result will be wins. It was a message about seeing the bigger picture, not sweating the small stuff, and taking care of the things that really mattered. Some in the organization felt like that message had been lost.That's not to say that conditions in the locker room and on the field were otherwise good.
Some of the team rules became byzantine. No backwards hats on the sidelines. No undershirts showing from underneath practice jerseys. All players must coordinate and wear the same color shoes, as determined by the team. When players leave the locker room for practice, the equipment staff tidies each locker, clearing it of any unsightly hangers or extra gear.
Thompson set the rules, and it was up to Russ Ball, the VP of football administration/player finance who was seen as the only person in the building with Thompson’s full trust, to enforce them. One former Packer said that over time, these small rules add up and wear players down, causing some to question why certain things are the way they are.
“It’s an insane level of control,” says one person close to the organization. “No fun, it’s all about the Packer brand and being a vice president. The most important people in the organization are the VPs. The players and all that, that comes later.”
Even after a win over Buffalo, Rodgers criticized the offense and blamed the game plan. “It was as bad as we’ve played on offense with that many yards in a long time,” he said. “There was no flow to the game… We were championship defensive level and non-playoff team offensive level today. That was not great, by any stretch of the imagination.” (Rodgers later clarified that he put most of the blame on himself rather than the coaching staff.)The frustration the quarterback revealed in the Buffalo game might have been a continuation of his discontent with the new draft choices that was evident in training camp.
That mini-controversy was nothing compared to what CBS cameras captured during a victory over the Bengals last season. After taking a sack late in the third quarter, Rodgers looked to the sideline. It didn’t take an expert lip-reader to decipher his message. “Stupid f---ing call!” And then again for good measure. “Stupid f---ing call!” The following week, when Rodgers walked into his individual meeting with McCarthy, the head coach had the broadcast clip pulled up on the screen, ready to review and discuss. Early in Rodgers’s career, McCarthy spent a lot of time coaching him to better control his body language when he was frustrated.
The new draft choices, however, are not yet familiar with improvisational football.
The spread system played into Rodgers’s strengths as a sandlot playmaker. But that style of play requires tremendous chemistry between the quarterback and the other 10 players, who must have a similar “feel” for how any given play is developing and what their quarterback will do on the fly. The roster turnover made that nearly impossible to pull off in 2018. Jordy Nelson, long Rodgers’s favorite target, was released in March, while Randall Cobb, the longest-tenured Packers receiver, has missed half this season with a hamstring injury and third-year receiver Geronimo Allison lasted just five games before going on injured reserve with a groin injury. Rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown have been asked to take on significant roles alongside Adams and first-year Packer Jimmy Graham. Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown are too green to keep up with Rodgers’s improvisational style, making a more highly schemed system a necessity. Though, judging from how the offense has struggled to find its footing at times, the change might have been forced upon Rodgers and Co. before they were ready.Thus, the head coach who is second only to Curly Lambeau Himself in years of service and total victories is dismissed.
The defense has battled injuries and inexperience as well. Gutekunst’s big free-agent signing on that side of the ball, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, is out for the season with an ankle injury. The first-year GM was aggressive at the trade deadline, but it was to gather future assets rather than find immediate help. Along with sending struggling running back Ty Montgomery to the Ravens just days after his costly kick return fumble against the Rams, Gutekunst dealt fifth-year safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, an impending free agent who had played every snap for a secondary relying on first- and second-year players, to Washington for a draft pick. The Clinton-Dix trade sent mixed signals to the locker room, as it was seemingly a rebuilding move (though one that guaranteed Green Bay an extra pick in the 2019 draft, rather than waiting for a compensation pick that might not come in 2020 if they are aggressive in free agency this winter). Lately, the cornerbacking group has been ravaged by injuries, putting first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who prefers an aggressive man-to-man defense, in a bind.
It has also been a season of near-misses. A September meeting with the Vikings ended in a tie in part because of a controversial roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews, one that wouldn’t have been called had it happened after September. Veteran kicker Mason Crosby missed four field goals and an extra point—indoors—in a upset loss in Detroit. A potential comeback at Washington was foiled by another questionable roughing flag on Matthews. Back-to-back road losses to the Rams and Patriots turned on ill-timed fumbles. And head coach Mike McCarthy’s overly conservative decision to punt on a fourth-and-2 late in Seattle cost them a chance to win despite a defense plagued by injuries at all three levels, and a scheduling glitch that required them to travel two time zones and play a game on three days’ rest.
McCarthy's stature within the organization and to its fans relative to those legends seems to pale in comparison. Lambeau is the most important person in the history of the franchise. Lombardi is arguably the greatest coach in football history. Holmgren restored the Packers to the top of the football world after Lombardi left and the franchise won just one playoff game over a 24-year span. McCarthy won a Super Bowl and finished his tenure with a .618 winning percentage, but it's difficult to find a Packers fan who wanted him to coach their team in 2019.The standard is still five championships in six championship games in eight seasons.
Maybe, in the era of 32 teams, that's an unrealistic standard.
Rodgers has won almost exactly the number of Super Bowls we would have expected given the success rate of other quarterbacks, and if the Packers had sneaked past the Seahawks and into Super Bowl XLIX, he would be right in line in terms of expected appearances, too. I think the expectations for eight (approaching nine) full seasons from Rodgers should be something in the range of two Super Bowl appearances and one win.Yes, although a trophy named for Vince Lombardi, even if that's simply a matter of timing for the merger and some recent deaths, ought be in Titletown, U.S.A. more regularly.
That noted, there's more than one succession the Packers ought be contemplating.
Maybe Rodgers thinks he’s doing that with all the scrambling out of the pocket and playing an unconventional street-yard game. But he’s not. Rookie receivers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown need to be put in positions to succeed, not in positions that satisfy the quarterback’s desire for perfection.Yes, and history rhymes.
They shouldn’t be immune from criticism, but why does Rodgers have to do it so publicly on the field? If it’s in the name of good leadership, it’s not really working because the two rookies combined for two catches for 19 yards, both by Valdes Scantling. The longest completion to anyone not named Davante Adams was 11 yards.
The way the game went Sunday, you would have taken the offense that played against Seattle or Minnesota over this one. The Packers put up 17 points against a warm-climate team with all kinds of problems with its run defense and not enough corners to cover Northwestern’s receivers.
And who’s to say Gutekunst isn’t going to do to Rodgers what Ted Thompson did to Brett Favre? Maybe next year or the year after that, he drafts a quarterback with loads of potential, someone exactly like Rodgers when he was selected in 2005.We'll be watching the position coach hires for clues.
Then there’s the new coach and his offensive system. Suppose the new guy doesn’t want to give Rodgers all the freedom to change plays and tell his receivers to run routes differently than McCarthy did.
Those are all legitimate possibilities.
Rodgers is going to want to hit the ground running with a new coach and a new offense, but success might not come as quickly as he thinks it will.
You can criticize McCarthy all day for not adapting his offense to the talent he had, but the bottom line is he didn’t have enough of it to succeed on offense. When you’re playing with rookie receivers and young running backs and your two veteran tight ends are too slow to beat anyone down the field and your offensive line depth doesn’t cut it, you’re not going to go to many Super Bowls.
Let's close with a trivia question. The Green Bay Packers opened the 1959 season with three straight wins, over the Bears, Lions, and 'Niners. Who was the quarterback?