5 things to know about Packers’ stunning coaching move

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I like what the Packers did, and I like when they did it.

What would have been accomplished by letting Mike McCarthy lame-duck his way through the next four weeks, other than keeping the franchise’s 65-year streak of never making an in-season coaching change intact? Management knew McCarthy was getting whacked, and McCarthy would have had to be blind to not know. You don’t go 4-10-1 in your last 15 games, look as listless as the Packers have looked, watch Aaron Rodgers play borderline disinterested football, and think there’s some way to salvage an era gone bad. There wasn’t. It was just time.

Packers president Mark Murphy trumped the Hunt news two hours after the Pack’s embarrassing 20-17 loss to the two-win Cardinals. In the snow. Against the warmest-weather team in the NFL. Murphy made the first coaching change by the franchise during the season since Hugh Devore and Scooter McLean took over for Gene Ronzani—what, you don’t remember the Ronzani Era in Packer lore?—with two games left in 1953.

It was a mission of mercy.

“The 2018 seasons has not lived up to the expectations and standards of the Green Bay Packers,” Murphy said in a statement. “As a result, I made the difficult decision to relieve Mike McCarthy of his roles as head coach, effective immediately.”

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Five things I feel confident of this morning:

1. Aaron Rodgers was not involved in, or consulted about, the decision. There’s been speculation about a chilly relationship between McCarthy and Rodgers, and that chilly relationship affecting the production of the Green Bay offense. Possible; probable, I think. But football’s a production business. This was based on the Packers losing with more regularity than they had since Rodgers was a rookie in 2008. In Rodgers’ 37 starts since Christmas Day 2015, Green Bay is 18-18-1. Unacceptable.

2. Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst, the deciders-in-chief, had to see how stale this team was getting. Time to hear a different message from a different coach. And Rodgers, for whatever reason, wasn’t playing like Rodgers. He wasn’t himself. In fact, in the first 11 games this year, Pro Football Focus had Rodgers on track to make the most throwaway passes since the analytics firm has been collecting data in 2006. His 47 throwaways means he’s dumping the ball away once every 10 throws, which no quarterbacks has done in the 13 years PFF has mined the passing numbers. The NFL average is once every 28 passes. Either he’s unhappy with the calls, feels too much pressure, or is giving up on some plays too soon—or a combination of those. That helped the Packers to a bizarre year in which, with a healthy Rodgers, they blew out only two of 12 foes. This is a very subjective statement, but it just doesn’t look like Rodgers is having much fun playing football.

3. The Packers are giving themselves a head start on their search, and I’m pretty sure they think McCarthy will be well-served by the same early start. Green Bay will be competing for a coach with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the Jets at least, and maybe two or three other franchises. The Green Bay job will be highly desirable, because of the history—“I still get a thrill driving to the same place Vince Lombardi drove to for work,” McCarthy told me last year—and the quarterback. As for McCarthy, he could land in Cleveland with former Packers scout John Dorsey (they are not tight, but they are friends), and the Jets could want the guy who coached Brett Favre at the end and Aaron Rodgers at the beginning to mentor Sam Darnold. Having December off gives McCarthy a chance to recharge and prep for a round of early-January interviews. I don’t think McCarthy wanted this to happen now, because he’s a coach and wanted a chance to coach his way out of this. But coaching the next four weeks would have been (mostly) a frustrating daily reminder of how underachieving this team is, and would have given pause to prospective employers wondering why a team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback stinks.

4. All things being equal, I believe the Packers would like to find a young offensive coach who could challenge and improve Rodgers. Sunday was Rodgers’ 35th birthday. In July, he told me: “I’d love to play till 40 … That’s my aim.” That gives an enterprising and imaginative coach five years, theoretically, to work with one of the greats. The list has been picked over in the last three years, with Doug Pederson, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Matt Nagy and Frank Reich gone. The best guys left are probably Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFillippo and maybe college candidates like David Shaw of Stanford (not likely to leave Palo Alto) and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma—who could also get a look from Cleveland. Could some team try to match the magic of McVay with, say, a young quarterback mentor like Philly’s 30-year-old QB coach Press Taylor? Doubtful, but just as McVay was a highly speculative choice by the Rams, we could see another one. “Everyone’s looking for the next McVay,” one GM told me last month. It’s just that no one is sure who he is.

5. It wasn’t just a feel. The McCarthy decline, and Rodgers’ part in it, was factual. Over the last two seasons, PFF had McCarthy the league’s 36th-best play-caller out of 44 coaches. The complex formula had the passing game rated 22nd and 14th in the last two seasons. A layman could look at Green Bay’s passing offense and think it’s just not imaginative, at all. It’s stale. Compare it to, say, Chicago’s. On the biggest play of the fourth quarter in New Jersey on Sunday, Bears coach Matt Nagy called a reverse to Tarik Cohen, and a touchdown pass from Cohen to Anthony Miller that forced overtime against the Giants. That’s something the Packers need.

McCarthy deserves his due, and credit for lasting 13 years and making the playoffs nine times. He’s the longest-serving Green Bay coach since Curly Lambeau. He loved everything about the job and the place. Amazing, really, that he lasted four years longer than Vince Lombardi (nine years), and six years longer than Mike Holmgren (seven).

But even those who hadn’t been around the Packers could sense the end was coming. In her story for The MMQB last week about the Packers’ troubles, Kalyn Kahler quoted ESPN analyst Booger McFarland thusly on the relationship between Rodgers and McCarthy: “I find it very [unusual] that you get two people who really enjoy working together and enjoy being around each other, but you can’t sense or see that [they do]. I didn’t sense that from either Aaron or coach.”

The divorce should give the Packers a chance to find a new voice for Rodgers and a sputtering team. And McCarthy, still only 55, is a coach who wants another 10-year job. He’s a coach. He wants another shot. Both sides should get what they want in the next five weeks. The suddenness of Sunday’s decision was surprising, but not the decision itself. It’s best for the Packers, and best for McCarthy.

MORE: Read the rest of Peter’s weekly Football Morning in America column by clicking here.

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.