The decision may not have been surprising, but the timing sure was: Following Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Cardinals, the Packers fired head coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy had been the third-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, with nearly 13 full seasons under his belt in Green Bay. But as the Pack trudged through another lost season, his job security hung by a thread. Even before falling to the lowly Cardinals to drop to 4-7-1, the Packers had watched their playoff hopes all but disappear. The loss to Arizona slammed the door shut on any chance of a R-E-L-A-X-style miracle run to close out the season—and it closed the book on McCarthy’s tenure in the process.
Before this week, many thought that McCarthy would lose his job, barring some dramatic late-season turnaround. But the franchise was expected to make that call after the season. Firing a coach with McCarthy’s track record midseason is virtually unprecedented in the NFL. Before Sunday, only one Super Bowl–winning head coach had ever been fired midseason—the Colts’ Don McCafferty, 46 years ago.
The Packers organization is far from flippant. Its unique ownership structure and historically insular, often provincial thinking make Green Bay one of the more conservative teams in all of professional sports. The Packers’ choice to move on from McCarthy with four games remaining on the schedule points to a changing climate in the NFL, one that extends far beyond Green Bay. As the gap between the league’s best teams and their middle-class counterparts widens, teams’ windows to be patient are shortening. The work of Sean McVay with the Rams, Andy Reid with the Chiefs, and others this season has created a new standard and a new timeline for head coaches, and that combination could lead to levels of offseason turnover that would have seemed unfathomable even a few months ago.
As the league’s landscape shifts, discourse around what a coach needs to accomplish to avoid the hot seat is going to shift with it. The Panthers, for example, were 6-2 a month ago and looked like a potential NFC contender. But heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Buccaneers, Carolina had lost three straight games and CBS Sports insider Jason La Canfora reported that new Panthers owner David Tepper may be considering an overhaul of both the coaching staff and the front office. After the team’s ugly 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay, the murmurs around Ron Rivera’s future should only get louder.
The situation in Carolina provides a useful template for examining why sweeping changes may be coming around the league. Tepper finalized his purchase of the Panthers just five months ago. By most accounts, he’s a different sort of NFL owner—one who’s able to bring fresh eyes and a more forward-thinking approach to a business that often moves at a glacial pace. Tepper was reportedly comfortable with the management and coaching personnel in place when he took over. That group includes general manager Marty Hurney, who had previously spent 11 years as the team’s GM before being fired in 2012 after a 1-5 start to the season (he was rehired as the team’s interim GM in July 2017, a quick-fix solution after the organization fired Dave Gettleman), and Rivera, who has held the Panthers’ head-coaching job since 2011 and led the team to the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. After Sunday’s report, though, it’s clear Tepper’s comfort level with that system has changed. Tepper has every right to seek out a general manager whose top qualification isn’t just being chummy with the former owner. And though ousting Rivera would be much more surprising, given his résumé, the writing is on the wall. On Monday, the Panthers fired multiple assistants, including defensive line coach Brady Hoke and cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura. And those may just be the first dominos to fall. These are the types of jobs that could come open at season’s end—ones that no one would have anticipated heading into the year.
Given the level of success the Rams have found this season, more and more teams will inevitably begin searching for their own version of McVay—a pursuit that the Packers now begin in earnest. McCarthy’s ultimate downfall was his failure to maximize the prime of one of the most talented quarterbacks in NFL history. Aaron Rodgers may have a more unorthodox style than the other great QBs of this era, but there’s also no denying that McCarthy’s system failed to create the sorts of massive throwing windows and easy chunk gains that we see from the NFL’s best offenses. Green Bay fielded some truly impressive units during McCarthy’s tenure, but with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, it was often much harder than it had to be. Now, the Packers are armed with a month-long head start on any team that chooses to fire its coach after the season, and their goal will be finding an offensive-minded head coach who can get the most out of Rodgers’s final run in Green Bay.
There are reasons to be skeptical about how replicable the McVay blueprint is. Critics are likely to suggest that coaches like McVay (or Reid, or Sean Payton for that matter) don’t just materialize; finding a coach of that caliber is more complicated than plucking a 30-something play-caller off the staff of a trendy offense and expecting him to be the league’s next great coach. The Titans tried to find some of the McVay magic this offseason by hiring former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur in the hopes that he could revive Marcus Mariota’s career. Tennessee currently ranks 28th in points per game. There just aren’t dozens of brilliant offensive minds hanging around the NFL, waiting for their shot to be head coaches. And if a rash of firings does happen this offseason, with previously unforeseen jobs like the Panthers gig coming open, there likely won’t be enough quality candidates to go around.
Then again, this formula has been successful for teams other than the Rams. Bears head coach Matt Nagy has worked wonders with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and a rebuilt a group of talented pass catchers in Chicago. And Frank Reich, in his first season as Indy’s head coach, has turned the Colts into an unlikely wild-card contender by orchestrating one of the league’s most well-designed offenses. It’s worth remembering that he was the Colts’ consolation prize last offseason after the team was infamously spurned by Josh McDaniels.
It’s inevitable that the success McVay, Reich, and Nagy have had will lead to some truly awful hires in the years to come. Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor’s name already has been floated as a possible candidate for the Packers job and other potential openings; while Taylor may wind up being a brilliant hire, somewhere down the road a 30-something position coach who happened to work under someone like McVay is going to become a walking example of the Peter principle. But even if that type of disaster is all but certain for some team in the near future, it shouldn’t be enough to prevent owners and decision-makers from chasing a coach who could transform their franchise.
The NFL’s pool of coaching candidates may not be deep enough for each franchise to find its own offensive mastermind, but there’s a reason Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley has become the hottest name in the league’s coaching carousel. It’s no accident that the Rams and other front offices reached out to Kliff Kingsbury almost immediately after he was fired by Texas Tech. Teams have started to understand what it takes to build a winner in the modern NFL, and for the franchises that don’t already have the ingredients, coaching changes are on the horizon. Firings like the one in Green Bay and rumblings like those in Carolina may be the first surprises of this season, but they certainly won’t be the last.