This Should Be McCarthy's Last Season
Before I get into exactly why this should be McCarthy’s last season it is worth acknowledging that the primary reason they the Green Bay Packers lost to the Titans on Sunday was defense, and injuries to it. Without Clay Matthews, Jake Ryan, and a hobbled Quinten Rollins (along with the usual injuries to Shields and Randall), the Packers were helpless to stop an above average Titan offense. The once-stout run defense collapsed completely, and Marcus Mariota had a dominant performance against the decimated Packer secondary. It is also worth noting that the Titans ran several interesting formations and even a couple of gimmick plays to help build on their early lead, which brings us to Mike McCarthy.
It is unreasonable to expect your offense to got toe-to-toe with an opponent that put up 47 points. But, while that result is on your defense and Dom Capers, it is worth pointing out that the Titans did not score 47 points by accident. Given their early playcalling, including a surprise onside kick and a halfback pass, they understood coming into this game that they would probably need an impressive offensive performance to win, and planned accordingly. The Titan defense is quite bad (26th going into the game according to DVOA, and 27th against the pass) and it was reasonable to expect, and prepare for a shootout.
Mike McCarthy did not see things quite the same way, and this is the heart of the problem. I wouldn’t fire McCarthy now as midseason firings are the hallmark of dysfunctional organizations, and installing a new system midseason is very difficult. I also wouldn’t fire him just because he lost a game, or just because he has a losing record this season. I would fire him because in a game that was likely to become a shootout, he came out of the gate (with the gift of excellent field position) and ran the ball to James Starks for 3 yards, and ran the ball James Starks for 3 yards, and threw incomplete on 3rd down. It was boring, telegraphed, and most importantly, it did not work. Demarco Murray scored a 75-yard touchdown on the Titans’ first offensive play and the rout was on.
James Starks returned, and with him came McCarthy’s misguided desire for balance, and ridiculous personnel decisions. Looking at the final run/pass split in the box score (the Packers threw 51 times and ran just 10, plus 3 quarterback scrambles) shows anything but balance, but balance is what got the Packers into this mess. Of their 10 carries, 5 came in the first quarter, within the first 12 plays of the game. An additional 2 carries came within the first 4 plays of the second quarter for a 9-pass, 7-run split to open the game. This resulted in the Packers trailing 21-0 out of the gate, and passing for almost the entire remainder of the game, which actually worked quite well.
There is another problem on top of all of this, which is that the Packers had clearly prepared to operate primarily with 3 wide receivers, Richard Rodgers at tight end, and James Starks at running back, and even when they went into full catch-up mode, they stuck with that personnel. Aaron Rodgers did not play well in this game, and he bears some of the responsibility for playcalling, but less so for personnel packages. That is mostly on McCarthy, and in this case, down 21 early and passing almost every down, the base personnel grouping makes no sense at all. Richard Rodgers played 65 snaps in this game and was targeted 7 times, making 4 receptions for 27 yards, but even those paltry numbers do not come close to telling the story of how poorly he played. He dropped a key 4th down pass and quit on a route the became an interception (though it was so poorly thrown that it was likely to be picked anyway). Rodgers longest reception of the day, a 12 yard catch in the 2nd quarter, came on 2nd and 23 and was basically conceded by the Titan defense. In a situation where you know you need to pass, you cannot have a complete non-factor like Rodgers running patterns.
More troubling still, Ty Montgomery, receiver turned running back, started the game with two carries up the middle, and was basically removed from the game once the Packers stopped running. Starks played the vast majority (55 snaps to Montgomery’s 22) even though the game plan called for passing on nearly every down. In one baffling quote from his Monday press conference, McCarthy indicated that the game situation called for moving more snaps to Starks, not Montgomery.
Having Starks and Rodgers as eligible receivers puts no additional pressure on the defense as even players who are poor in coverage can stick with them and at least limit damage. They make it almost impossible to create easier matchups for Nelson, Adams, or Cobb. Mixing in Montgomery, Davis, or Allison would pressure the defense to move players out of their preferred spots. Instead, McCarthy simply makes things easy for the defense.
Both Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy indicated this week that they would like a more balanced offense. If this were simple nonsense coach-speak that would be fine, but McCarthy’s actions are that of a true believer. Balance as a platonic ideal of how a football offense should run is old-fashioned and wrong. Modern teams specialize in running or (in the NFL mostly) passing, and use the other phase to keep the defense honest. Run/pass splits are about game theory for advanced coaching staffs. They are purely aesthetic in Green Bay. This team has Aaron Rodgers, and passing should be the focus of team-building and play-calling. Preferring veterans like Starks and Richard Rodgers to young players like Montgomery and Geronimo Allison is not a luxury modern NFL teams have. “Establishing the run” in modern football is an outdated concept, and a coaching staff no longer has the luxury of running outdated concepts.
McCarthy’s stubbornness has occasionally served him well in the past. The Packers rarely overreact to a single bad game, and maintain a steady philosophy and demeanor. That’s great, until it’s not longer just one game. That’s great until your underlying circumstances change. And that’s great, until enough NFL teams leave you in the dust. McCarthy has shown little ability to learn new tricks. Winning on Sunday would have been tough with the injuries on defense, but the tools to do so, at least to make it a closer contest, were present. If your GM is providing you with the proper tools, and you only know one way to use them, it’s time for a new carpenter.
Washington is a familiar story, and in many way the Packers’ next opponent looks very much like the Titans. The Titans came in as the 8th best offensive team in the NFL, but only the 26th best defensive team. Washington is the 9th best offensive team, and 21st in defense. The big difference is that while the Titans couldn’t stop much of anything entering the game, Washington is actually quite good in pass defense while possessing one of the worst run defenses in the league. This would be a game to potentially ride James Starks (or some running back), and hit the Redskins where they are weak, with the intent of softening them up in the passing game. Moreover, Washington is the 2nd best team in the league at covering pass-catching running backs. If you wanted to give Montgomery a bit of a rest, this would be the time to do it. Washington struggle mightily against outside, receivers, and especially a team’s number 2 receiver, and a game plan composed of running the ball mixed with medium-to-deep passing would make some sense.
With the Packer defense reeling you can expect another shootout as Washington is adept in both running and passing. Delanie Walker dominated a weakened Packer middle and things won’t get any easier against the excellent Jordan Reed. Pierre Garcon is the next outside receiver to attempt to feast on Packer corners, and the duo of Jamison Crowder and Chris Thompson excel in the short passing game. The Packer schedule suddenly looks daunting as they enter the middle of a 3-game road swing. Don’t be surprised if they’re 4-7 when they next return to Lambeau.
A Quick Note on Randall Cobb
Davante Adams has played very well of late, and as a vocal skeptic of his ability to develop, I am more than willing, and in fact happy to concede that I was wrong. Adams has boosted his catch percentage and his yards per reception, and has even managed to burn defenders deep a few times. What is puzzling is the continued lackluster play of Randall Cobb in the face of Adams’ development. Cobb’s catch percentage has rebounded from last season, but his yards per reception has actually decreased. I thought that once an outside receiver established himself that Cobb’s production would pick up in kind, but it simply hasn’t happened. Cobb isn’t a complete disaster, but it’s worth keeping in mind that his salary skyrockets next year from $1.5 million to $8.6 million. With bonuses he will account for a $12,750,000 cap hit in 2017, and if he keeps playing at this level or worse, that number will make things very difficult on the team.