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.

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.