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.

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Why NFL free agency is often Fool’s Gold

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So we’ve just had a week of all NFL, all the time, of two mega-New York stories (Odell Beckham Jr., being traded by the Giants and Le’Veon Bell signing with the Jets) breaking within five hours, and the New York media machine going as wild as it can. Fans of the Detroit Patriots are fired up. The Raiders are going to the playoffs. J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!

I am here to dump cold water on this.

Five very bad team stories of spending big in free agency:

• 1996: The Jets, 3-13 in 1995, signed Super Bowl QB Neil O’Donnell (to the third-highest quarterback contract ever) and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. O’Donnell started 0-6 and got yanked. New York finished 1-15 and fired the coaching staff.

• 2000: Washington, 8-8 in 1999, went wild in free agency, signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to deals totaling $99 million on paper. Sanders lasted one sub-par year and retired, coach Norv Turner was canned in December, and Washington went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11 in the four years after the gold rush.

• 2009: Washington, which likes to win March, replayed its free-agent follies of a decade earlier, making the worst signing in free-agency history (Albert Haynesworth, seven years, $100 million, and he lasted two disastrous years) and a few others. Washington crashed to 4-12. Coach and GM: fired.

• 2011: Philadelphia, NFC East champs in 2010, worked the free market like no team in the 26-year history of free agency, led by president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman. ”They came out of the gate like wild men,” coach Andy Reid said. “Dream Team,” quarterback Vince Young christened the newbies—Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. “Dream Team” went 8-8 and 4-12. Reid got fired.

• 2016: Jacksonville spent $199 million on good but not great players (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum). The reward: The Jags regressed from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, and coach Gus Bradley got whacked in December.

I sense a trend.

“There are lots of mistakes made in free agency,” Cleveland GM John Dorsey said Saturday. “And lots of mistakes made early in free agency—when there are 32 teams competing for the best players, and you’re going to pay probably 20 percent more than makes sense.”

Sometimes high-priced imports work, and they improve a team mightily. Reggie White had great defensive impact as the first big free agent in 1993, and made it cool for free agents to work in Green Bay. Drew Brees (2006, San Diego to New Orleans) became one of the best quarterbacks ever. Andrew Whitworth (2017, Cincinnati to the Rams) has been one of the best left tackles of football for a growing and starry team. The Giants got a one-year pop out of Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in 2016, and made the playoffs that year … but it was like a 5-Hour Energy jolt. The Giants crashed. And there are a lot more Haynesworths and Asomughas and ’96 Jets than there are even one-year success stories.

Just Look At 2018

While getting excited about the new class of free agents, remember these Pro Football Focus ratings of some of the richest players who changed teams in the 2018 free-agency class.

Kirk Cousins ($28 million per year) was PFF’s 11th-rated quarterback.
Case Keenum ($18 million per) was the 28th-rated quarterback.
Sammy Watkins ($16 million per) was the 38th-rated wide receiver.
Nate Solder ($15.5 million per) was the 38th-rated tackle.
Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million per) was the 43rd-rated cornerback.
Allen Robinson ($14 million per) was the 35th-rated wide receiver.
Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per) was the 13th-rated guard.
Malcolm Butler ($12.2 million per) was the 73rd-rated cornerback.
Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million per) was the 36th-rated center.

Seriously: How many GMs who signed those players, 12 months later, wish they hadn’t? Keenum in Denver, Watkins in Kansas City, Johnson in New York and Butler in Tennessee … Those would be the top on my list.

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10 hours that changed the NFL: Inside the Odell Beckham Jr. trade

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The reality is it was probably smart to trade him. That doesn’t, however, make the decision to sign him for $18 million a year less than seven months ago very smart.

So … last week. I believe GM Dave Gettleman thought it was a sign of desperation to reach out and try to scare up offers—that he learned under Ernie Accorsi, who played that kind of game with the Chargers in last-second Eli Manning trade during the 2004 draft. So Gettleman reached out first to only one team before dealing Beckham: Buffalo. When the Antonio Brown deal fell through, Gettleman called Bills GM Brandon Beane wondering if he was so interested in Antonio Brown, how about Beckham? Beane didn’t bite.

Hearing the persistent rumors, Cleveland GM John Dorsey reached out Tuesday morning. No harm, no foul, he figured. That began a back-and-forth over the next 10 hours, approximately, that featured about 12 ideas/offers/counter-offers. The Giants wanted two first-round picks for Beckham, but I believe Gettleman knew that bounty might be tough to get because Beckham had proven himself a difficult player to handle. The Browns discussed some other players. But Gettleman, smarting from the prospect of losing safety Landon Collins in free agency to Washington (still hard to fathom why the Giants didn’t franchise their unquestioned defensive leader, Collins, at $11 million for 2019), had studied one Cleveland player he wanted: the 25th pick in the 2017 draft, versatile if slightly disappointing safety Jabrill Peppers. And at some point during the day, my understanding is Gettleman made it clear that the trade would not get done without Peppers being in it.

That was okay with Cleveland. My read of Peppers—and when I asked a couple AFC people about him in recent days, the view was shared—is that he was a good and aggressive run-defender and okay but not very instinctive or disruptive against the pass. He allowed, per Pro Football Focus metrics, passer ratings of 128.4 and 116.5 in coverage in his first two NFL seasons. If that doesn’t get better, Peppers won’t be a long-term Giant. But in the Giants’ eyes, Peppers could replace Collins, and he’d be the second first-round pick Gettleman wanted. And the Giants had made an iffy pick in the 2018 Supplemental Draft last summer, using their 2019 third-rounder on Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal. Cleveland’s mid-first-round pick (17th overall), and the former first-rounder in Peppers, and the low third-rounder (95th overall) this year replacing the third-round pick they’d lost … all of that was compensation enough for Gettleman.

So when the deal got to the one and the three and Peppers, Gettleman and Dorsey agreed. By my measure, the Giants got about 80 percent value for Beckham; I’m not as high on Peppers as Gettleman obviously is—or as Gettleman has to be. Gettleman had to decide whether he wanted to leverage the Cleveland offer with other teams. Because Beckham’s stock had been tarnished, it’s doubtful, for example, that he could have fetched better than 17-95-Peppers from the 49ers for picks and/or a player in the next two drafts. The Niners have been sniffing around Beckham for months. But they’re just not a good match right now. The Giants need high picks and/or productive players. The Niners wouldn’t have wanted to trade a high pick this year or next plus rising star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner … and the Giants might not have wanted to settle, say, for next year’s first-rounder and this year’s second-rounder (36th overall) plus a lesser player than Buckner (say safety Jaquiski Tartt). The Giants need help now. So Gettleman took the bird in the hand. He lanced the boil.

In the coming days, or at the NFL meetings in Phoenix, Gettleman will be pressed on why he said, “You don’t give up on talent,” and then he gave up on it. He’ll probably say he didn’t give up on talent—he used Beckham to get more talent, including Peppers and two picks in the first three rounds in a draft stocked on defense, where the Giants are woebegone. Gettleman’s history in Carolina was to build from the inside out, to build his lines first. The Giants now have picks 6, 17, 27, 95 and 108, and even if they pick a quarterback first, New York should pound the defensive side of the ball with at least three or four of those choices.

So now the Giants can approach 2019 and beyond without the distraction of Beckham—but also without his greatness. I do not buy that it’s a great move; I do not buy it’s a bad move. And I can tell you the Giants, absent a strong pitch by Cleveland, would still have Beckham on the team today.

One last Giants-related thing: the Aug. 28, 2018 signing of Beckham to the five-year, $90-million deal. Think back to last August. Beckham had a quiet offseason, mostly, and part of the allure of the Giants job for rookie coach Pat Shurmur was to coach him. If Gettleman did not sign him before the season, the Beckham contract would have been the Sword of Damocles over the Giants’ season. And so the deal got done. Six weeks later, Beckham appeared in the ill-fated ESPN interview alongside Lil Wayne (Non Sequitur of the NFL Season) and questioned Eli Manning’s ability. Josina Anderson asked Beckham, who signed the biggest contract for a receiver ever, and was playing in the media capital of the world, if he was happy. “That’s a tough question,” he said. Strange thing to say, and, inside the Giants and around New York, the answer went over like a fart in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Shurmur disciplined Beckham. But it didn’t get much better from there—and missing the last month of the season with a quad injury left some in the organization wondering how hurt he was.

Part of me says, “Good luck, Cleveland.” And maybe history will repeat itself and Beckham eventually will be a problem. Maybe he won’t. His best football friend and one of the only people who can tell him when he’s being an idiot, Jarvis Landry, is the leader in the receivers room. His LSU receivers coach (and two-year position coach with the Giants),
Adam Henry, coaches the wideouts in Cleveland. And there’s Freddie Kitchens, the head coach who appears to have some blunt-force trauma to his communications.

Kitchens is the big X factor. Some boom-or-bust players seem like tech stocks at the start of their careers. Patrick Mahomes and Saquon Barkley turned into Apple, John Ross and Reuben Fosterinto AOL. Kitchens, who took over offensive play-calling after Hue Jackson was fired last fall, helped the Browns to a stunning 5-2 finish, making Baker Mayfield look like a fledgling Favre. Kitchens had enough of the Midas Touch to land Cleveland’s head-coaching job. Amazing story. But can he handle being a first-year head coach, and the pressure that comes with coaching an ascending Cinderella, and the play-calling, and handling the incendiary Beckham?

“From a planning standpoint,” Dorsey told me Saturday, “you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels. I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff [veteran offensive coordinator Todd Monken, ex-head coach Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator]. And remember: This head coach is very direct, very honest. He’s going to tell it like it is, and he’ll tell Odell like it is. He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves, as he should do.

“We really like Odell. He’s passionate. He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. He’s on time. Everything you hear is he’s a great teammate. We’re thrilled to have him.”

Dorsey has had one heck of a run these last 11 months. He drafted the franchise quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and a long-term very good running back in Nick Chubb; traded for two Pro Bowl receivers (Landry, Beckham); signed the tarnished 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt). Now Dorsey has to be sure his offensive line is good enough, and I’d watch for some fortifications there.

He was in full we-haven’t-done-anything-yet mode when we spoke Saturday, but he knows the expectations, locally and nationally, are through the roof. The Browns are already the Vegas favorites to win the AFC North. Last time they won the division: 30 years ago, in 1989, when Dorsey was a Packers linebacker and Bud Carson coached the Browns.

“You’re never happy till you get to the ultimate goal,” Dorsey said. “Right now we’re a third-place team, 7-8-1, building a team that can compete. That’s all.”

He’s right, technically. But for the first time in 1.5 generations, there’s the weight of expectations on the Browns. Odell Beckham has put them there.

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