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Hold off on the Mike McCarthy verdicts, Cowboys fans

Yes, the Packers are doing quite well without him. That doesn’t mean that he was the real problem in Green Bay.

San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There are several reasons for this fanbase to be unhappy that the Green Bay Packers are going deep in the playoffs, after securing the number one seed in the NFC. Primarily because it isn’t the Dallas Cowboys, of course. We also have a bit of an aversion to seeing Aaron Rodgers doing so well after the times he crushed our own playoff runs. But, as R.J. Ochoa pointed out, mostly it is because the Packers have seen incredible success under Matt LaFleur. He was hired to replace Mike McCarthy when Green Bay decided to part ways with the Super Bowl winning coach after they missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. There was always criticism of McCarthy’s hire by the Cowboys, and that was just bolstered after the dismal 2020 performance.

McCarthy certainly has a lot to prove. But he also should not be judged on one very bizarre and injury-riddled season. He made a fairly significant mistake in hiring Mike Nolan; how the correction attempted by hiring Dan Quinn goes is more important than agonizing over the past.

More pertinent may be just what went wrong for McCarthy in Green Bay. While there may be multiple contributing factors, there is a lot of evidence that most things point to one overriding cause, and that is Rodgers.

It was widely reported just after McCarthy’s firing that he and his quarterback had a difficult relationship from the very start. One report from then asserts that Rodgers’ resentment of McCarthy started before the latter was even hired as the Green Bay head coach.

Fourteen years ago, McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for the 49ers, who went into the draft with the No. 1 overall pick. At the time, the 49ers were in need of a quarterback, so it was pretty clear they were going to take one of two guys: Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers and many fans in San Francisco thought he seemed like the obvious choice: For one, he was popular in the Bay Area because he grew up in Northern California (Chico), and also, he attended a Bay Area college (Cal). Instead, the 49ers chose Smith, and Rodgers ended up tumbling all the way down to the 24th pick, which was held by Green Bay.

One year after that draft, McCarthy was hired as the coach in Green Bay, which made for a slightly awkward situation, because Rodgers never forgave McCarthy for passing on him, according to former Packers running back Ryan Grant,

“Aaron’s always had a chip on his shoulder with Mike,” Grant told Bleacher Report. “The guy who ended up becoming your coach passed on you when he had a chance. Aaron was upset that Mike passed on him — that Mike actually verbally said that Alex Smith was a better quarterback.”

The article goes on to state that Rodgers never respected McCarthy’s football acumen, and blamed him for not changing his offensive approach. It eventually degenerated into a power struggle between the two, with Rodgers changing the play called at a high rate, almost a third of the time. It led to confusion for his wide receivers and a reported final blowup in 2018.

Rodgers had poor performances in both 2017 and 2018 in the leadup to the firing of McCarthy. He missed nine games in ‘17, and was sacked the third most times in his career the next year. The latter could well have been caused by some of that tug-of-war over play calls. In any case, in this battle of wills, the head coach lost.

One element that may be significant is the uniqueness of the Packers, the only publicly-owned team in the league. All other franchises have either a single owner or an ownership group with a clear leader. Those are the people who hire the head coach, and in many franchises, the tolerance for Rodger’s behavior might not have gone over so well. But the lack of that one controlling voice in Green Bay might have swayed the balance of power to the quarterback. He might be the only player in the NFL who has a similar influence on his team as we see in many cases in the NBA, where the true superstars like LeBron James, and even some who just think they are, like James Harden, often are able to force their teams to do what they want, either in who is on the roster, who the head coach is, or being able to demand they be traded to what they perceive is a better situation. No one else in the NFL, not even Tom Brady with his six titles, has that much influence over his team.

Even with all that, the Packers won that Super Bowl under McCarthy. And throughout his tenure, the fortunes of the team were very directly tied to the performance of Rodgers, who despite how much some of us are loathe to admit it, may actually be the best quarterback of this century, and is in the conversation for the all-time best the league has ever seen. He repeatedly makes plays that almost no other quarterback can, and certainly not with the frequency he does.

There is another case that has some interesting parallels to McCarthy’s. Doug Pederson was just fired by the Philadelphia Eagles despite also having won a Super Bowl, in his case the only one in franchise history. He did so by getting arguably the best season of a career from not one, but two quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Then, once Foles moved on, his relationship with Wentz went downhill, accompanied by a precipitous decline of the player’s performance. It shows just how important quarterback play is to success in the NFL, and how a breakdown there can lead to the termination of the head coach. There are no salary cap considerations for coaches that force teams into a situation such as the Eagles face with the massive contract they awarded Wentz. When financial push comes to shove, the head coach is more expendable.

At the moment, McCarthy seems to have an excellent relationship with Dak Prescott, whose injury was the tipping point for Dallas last season. He also has, for now at least, an offensive coordinator who seems to have an excellent football IQ in Kellen Moore. While there continues to be speculation about just how much influence Jerry Jones may have had on retaining Moore on the staff, it so far appears to be absolutely the right decision. Assuming Moore is unwilling to walk into the disaster that seems to be ongoing in Philadelphia, or that he realizes he needs a little more seasoning before taking on the head coach mantle somewhere, the problems that led to the rift between McCarthy and Rodgers seem highly unlikely to develop in Dallas.

All this argues for seeing what happens under McCarthy in the next couple of seasons before deciding that he is not the head coach we want. It does not mean that he is, it just means that we need a lot more evidence to be presented to the jury before a verdict can be rendered.

And in the end, there is only one juror that matters, and his name is Jerry Jones. However, the biggest exhibit for him is the same as it is for all of us, getting to and succeeding in the playoffs. We just have to wait to see how that develops.