The Green Bay Packers left no uncertainty Sunday afternoon about the kind of team they are, or about what the final month of their season will be about. They are a broken team, and December will be about sorting through the wreckage.
The Packers started immediately, announcing within hours of their ghastly, 20-17 loss in Lambeau Field to the dreadful Arizona Cardinals that they had fired Coach Mike McCarthy after 13 seasons. McCarthy led the Packers to a Super Bowl in January 2011, and his tenure in Green Bay ends with the second-most wins (125) and fourth-highest winning percentage (. 618) in franchise history. But his stale game management and clearly soured relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers necessitated a change.
That the Packers acted so quickly and so decisively underscored the depths the Packers found themselves Sunday afternoon. At 35, Rodgers is in his prime and the highest-paid player in the NFL. He played every game this season, even if hobbled for most of it after suffering a knee injury in Week 1. And the Packers are effectively eliminated from playoff contention with four games to go. They've won as many games as the Buffalo Bills.
"The 2018 season has not lived up to the expectations and standards of the Green Bay Packers," Packers President Mark Murphy said. "As a result, I made the difficult decision to relieve Mike McCarthy of his role as head coach, effective immediately."
Sunday was a low point, and nearly unprecedented for the Packers during the tenure of McCarthy and Rodgers. The Packers could always be counted on for simple competence, to handle the dregs like they were supposed to, especially at Lambeau. The Cardinals had lost to the Oakland Raiders at home two weeks ago. They had been outscored by 138 points this season. They had a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen. They had no reason to compete with a Packers team led by Rodgers desperate to remain in playoff contention.
"This was a game we had won in the past, had expected to win," Rodgers said. "Teams that want to have any shot of having postseason success have to win these games. Dome team, 35 degrees, snow, wind. It's playing right into our hands. We came out flat."
The Packers had gone 18-3 in December home games since Rodgers took over as the full-time starter in 2008, and one of those losses came last year when backup Brett Hundley quarterbacked a team officially eliminated from the playoffs. The Packers will play meaningless football for a month, a position they have not been in since Rodgers' first season as starter 10 years ago.
"I've never been in this spot," McCarthy said in his postgame news conference, before he knew his fate. "I'm not going to act like I know what the hell I'm going to do when they get in here tomorrow."
It turns out, McCarthy will not be on the Green Bay facility premises Monday morning, unless he goes in to pack up his office. Joe Philbin will take over as interim coach. But the Packers will immediately begin their search to rediscover an identity. This past offseason, they moved longtime football czar Ted Thompson into an advisory role and hired Brian Gutekunst as general manager. The Packers are undergoing wholesale change, and it's clear they need it.
Green Bay's challenge now is to implement the overhaul on the fly. Rodgers' age and salary - he signed a four-year, $134 million extension this offseason - demands they attempt to contend for Super Bowls. Their roster is better than their 4-7-1 record indicates. This season was undone by a combination of injury (particularly on the offensive line and at wide receiver), discontent (particularly between Rodgers and McCarthy) and underperformance (including by Rodgers, who admitted his missed throws contributed to crucial third-down failures in recent weeks).
The Packers can become a Super Bowl contender again. Rodgers makes that a possibility every year, although the advantage he gives the Packers over the rest of the NFL has been mitigated by rules that make it easier to play quarterback.
The first thing the Packers must do is find a coach who jibes with Rodgers. Despite his brilliance, he's not easy to coach. McCarthy will lament how he and Rodgers fell off the same page, as Rodgers' improvisational genius prevented McCarthy from establishing a routine as a playcaller. But Rodgers' ability to extend plays shouldn't have to be an obstacle. The Packers' next coach needs to be able to utilize and embrace it, not view it as a frustration.
For his part, Rodgers needs to understand how to blend his talent with the modern game. Schematic innovation and new rules inhibiting defensive contact means every quarterback has access to more easy completions. Rodgers tends to make the game harder than it needs to be, relying on his incredible escape acts in the pocket. He can still be brilliant, but be more willing to settle for the mundane.
The Packers must build around Rodgers, not only rely on him to prop them up. Rodgers lamented the loss of Geronimo Allison this season, which surely hurt. But what does it say when an offense has a hard time withstanding the loss of a third-year wide receiver who went undrafted? The Packers were wise to let aging Jordy Nelson go, but they never replaced him. They may have finally found a running back in Aaron Jones, but McCarthy too often split carries or played Jamaal Williams over him.
Gutekunst got off to a strong start in his first draft. First-round cornerback Jaire Alexander could become one of the best defensive backs in the NFL. He needs to raise the level talent around Rodgers.
In recent years, Rodgers pasted over the Packers' dearth of wide receiving ability - Davante Adams excepted - with his otherworldly talent. As he ages, the Packers need to help him. His one-man show will not last forever, and this season already exposed the folly of believing it will.
They started Sunday night with a move that was not surprising in its outcome, but stunning in its timing. McCarthy hewed to outdated game-management choices, most strikingly his ill-fated punt late in a critical loss in Seattle. McCarthy and Rodgers had a great run in Green Bay, and Rodgers can have success with his next coach. The Packers need to be honest with themselves about how to go about it.