The Case Against Mike McCarthy
High expectations greeted the Green Bay Packers in August, as the team arrived at training camp. Practices -- held across the street from Lambeau Field -- were very physical, as the Packers tried to show they wouldn't be bullied around like they were far too often in 2008.
That 6-10 season, we all were told, was a memory. It was a fluke. It wasn't how things would be conducted in Green Bay. Bad tackling, soft defense, poor special teams play, and stupid penalties were going to be a thing of the past.
As much as fans would like to warm up to fourth-year head coach Mike McCarthy, it's becoming difficult. The team he is leading couldn't possibly be more insanely inconsistent. They've shown time and time again that they have character, that they won't quit, and they play to the whistle.
Unfortunately for them, those traits aren't enough to win games.
General manager Ted Thompson has given McCarthy talented players to work with. Receiver Donald Driver is one of the top veterans in the game, and youngsters Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson are all high draft picks. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has done what so many before him have failed at, in that he has stepped in to a position once held by a future Hall of Famer, and he's played exceptionally well.
On defense, Al Harris and Charles Woodson are still top one-on-one cornerbacks who are useful in run support. Linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett are former first-round picks, and lineman Aaron Kampman has been to multiple Pro Bowls.
The talent is there. What's gone wrong?
For starters, the Packers can't run the ball. McCarthy leans on Ryan Grant at times, but tends to give up on the run way too quickly, sometimes at the first sign of trouble. It allows defenses to tee off on Rodgers, which only makes his job all the more difficult.
McCarthy has preached the importance of running the ball better, but his words ring hollow, because for every game like the easy win over Cleveland in Week 7, where the Packers ran it 41 times for over 200 yards, there are multiple games like Sunday, where Grant spends more time on the sideline or on pass routes than he does carrying the rock.
The Packers used screen passes with great efficiency in the earlier game against Minnesota. Against the same team Sunday, the Packers didn't run any, outside of an attempted screen pass on a two-point play that was batted down.
In the end, however, the biggest issue with McCarthy -- and one that could cost him his job come January if he's not careful -- is discipline.
The Packers have become a penalty-plagued team during his time. In 2005, the final year under Mike Sherman, Green Bay was in the middle of the pack in penalties assessed. McCarthy's first year actually saw them improve, as they were near the upper third of the league in fewest penalties. However, the 2007 team -- one that finished 13-3 -- was fourth in the NFL in penalties, finishing second in penalty yards. The Packers were second in penalties and first in yards marked off in 2008. 2009 isn't looking too much better. So far, they're second in total penalties and third in yards.
Virtually every Monday when he addresses the media, McCarthy talks about how they're going to fix the penalty problem, and the special teams problem. Then, almost on cue, the same issues plague this team every Sunday.
Yes, it can be pinned on the players. Surely, McCarthy isn't telling them to commit dumb penalties, and he and his special teams coaches aren't telling guys to forget about their lanes and blow even the simplest kick coverages. The players aren't doing what they're told.
However, there comes a point where the problem comes back to the coach. When the head man talks a good game about improvement in certain areas, and nothing improves, it has to fall back at his feet. Why can't this team avoid taking dumb penalties, like the one on defensive lineman Johnny Jolly that prolonged a Vikings drive Sunday and turned a likely field goal into a touchdown?
How is it that even players good enough to start on defense can't practice the simple concept of lane discipline when covering a kickoff? Virtually any decent kick returner just has to make one cut against the grain against the Packers, and he's got 35 yards easily.
While the Vikings are clearly better than Green Bay, the most stunning difference between the two teams is the quality of their coaching. The Vikings make mistakes (everyone does), but they rarely make the same error twice in a game. They don't beat themselves with bad penalties, and they are able to make big plays in every phase of the game.
When the 2007 season ended, there wasn't a Packer fan alive who would have traded McCarthy for Brad Childress, and there wasn't a Viking fan around who would turn that same trade down. Childress was about as popular in Minnesota as Favre was. Oh, how things change over time.
Now Childress has to be close to getting his coveted contract extension with the Vikings, and Packer fans are asking serious (and valid) questions about the coach they have in McCarthy.
Blame Thompson for the Brett Favre fiasco all you want, but it wasn't all his fault. Not only that, but no team worth anything is going to fire a general manager who hasn't had a chance to make at least one coaching change. Even Matt Millen got to make coaching changes before being shown the door. Thompson might be the problem, but there should be more fingers pointing at McCarthy at this point. There is still a lot of football to be played.
McCarthy has talked before about constant improvement. While you can't argue that his 4-3 team is much better than they were at the start of the year, there are still nine games left. If this team improves and becomes a true playoff contender, much of this will be forgiven and/or forgotten.