When Mike McCarthy confronted the first crisis of his coaching tenure with the Green Bay Packers, navigating his way through legendary quarterback Brett Favre's abrupt, awkward and contentious un-retirement in the summer of 2008, he and his new starting quarterback forged a seemingly unbreakable bond.
Once McCarthy pushed the organization to end the saga, setting in motion the trade that would send Favre to the New York Jets, Aaron Rodgers knew his head coach had his back, and McCarthy felt similarly about the young passer's loyalty.
A decade later, after a prolific run that still failed to live up to the lofty standards of the main protagonists, McCarthy was fired with four games remaining in his 13th season in Titletown, largely because his bosses believed his working relationship with Rodgers had reached its nadir.
In the wake of a desultory, 20-17 defeat to the lowly Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Lambeau Field, which dropped the Packers to 4-7-1 and essentially extinguished their flickering playoff hopes, it was time for the organization to confront the inevitable: For Rodgers, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, to have the best shot at winning a second (or third, or fourth) Super Bowl, finding him a new collaborator was a necessity.
It would be an oversimplification -- and an exaggeration -- to say that Rodgers, who turned 35 on Sunday, privately regarded this move as the birthday present of his dreams, just as it would be a stretch to say that McCarthy no longer relished the prospect of joining forces with the two-time NFL MVP. Their working relationship was mostly cordial, even as this season degenerated, and this was neither a mutiny nor a power play that left one man standing.
Rather, there was a stale component to everything about the McCarthy-Rodgers connection -- from game planning to play calling to overall philosophy -- that gradually sapped the offense of its magic, and it was obviously trending downward. With McCarthy's bosses, Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy and first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst, clearly convinced that a change was necessary, it made sense to make the move now.
For one thing, the timing might benefit McCarthy, whose record (125-77-2 in the regular season, 10-8 in nine playoff appearances) and reputation may well land him another NFL head coaching opportunity within the next five weeks.
Creating the vacancy also allows the Packers to mount an open search for McCarthy's successor over the next month. And make no mistake: This job -- primarily because of Rodgers -- will be highly, highly desirable among prospective candidates, especially those who regard themselves as creative offensive minds.
Whatever becomes of the Packers in the latter years of Rodgers' career -- and whatever regrets their fans harbor over the feats the duo didn't achieve -- a history lesson is in order. In the wake of Favre's departure, the transition to Rodgers, who'd spent three years sitting behind the living legend, was viewed skeptically by most outsiders. By most people's standards, McCarthy and Rodgers vastly outperformed initial expectations, even if it doesn't seem that way now.
After a choppy first season, Rodgers blossomed into a force in 2009, losing an epic overtime playoff clash against future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals. The next postseason, Rodgers took over the league, propelling the Pack to a Super Bowl XLV triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Rodgers, in 2011, led the Packers to a 15-1 record and won his first regular-season MVP award, it looked like multiple Lombardis were in his and McCarthy's future. But while the Packers continued to win consistently -- and while the quarterback produced some of the NFL's most thrilling and indelible moments of the 21st Century -- they continually fell short.
The most crushing defeat occurred in the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle, when the underdog Packers came out with purpose and precision and pushed the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks to the brink of elimination. The late-game collapse was surreal and brutal -- and then, for McCarthy, things got even worse.
Three days later, the coach's younger brother, Joe, collapsed and died at a Pittsburgh-area gym, setting in motion an emotional period of soul-searching. During that time, the coach decided to give up play-calling duties to then-assistant Tom Clements, a decision he would rescind during the latter part of the 2015 campaign.
In my December 2014 profile of Rodgers, I likened the creative tension between him and McCarthy to that of the cinematic parody band Spinal Tap's *two visionaries*, Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins. Rodgers laughed at that assessment, but both he and McCarthy acknowledged that they were exacting and competitive co-workers, and that things sometimes got heated.
"Coach McCarthy always talks about alpha dogs -- well, they're like two alphas going at it," former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said at the time.
Seneca Wallace, who spent 2013 as Rodgers' backup, described the relationship this way: "It was interesting. You hear different stories about coaches and quarterbacks (clashing), and when the head coach also calls the plays, it's a whole other dynamic. They're both very opinionated. Aaron's a very intelligent quarterback, and Mike is a very intelligent and headstrong head coach who wants things done his way.
"When you've got two headstrong guys going at it, it's kind of like a chess match. Each one is trying to figure out what the next move is. They're going to war together, and if something goes on, they'll come back and hug it out. It's not like it gets out of hand. Whatever they've got going on with their chemistry, it works for them."
The Packers reached the postseason in 2015 and 2016, pulling off a dramatic and impressive divisional-round upset over the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the latter season, but came up short of the Super Bowl twice more.
Then, last year, Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6, and the whole operation crumbled. If anything, the team's ineptitude in his absence exposed the front office's philosophical shortcomings, rather than McCarthy's coaching failures.
Throughout McCarthy's tenure, the Packers' front office ethos was to build through the draft and, with few exceptions, avoid splashy signings in free agency or trades of any kind. That relatively passive approach came to frustrate both McCarthy and Rodgers, who, on so many occasions, would cover up all shortcomings with feats of brilliance -- enabling then-general manager Ted Thompson to justify continuing to do things the way he always had.
After last season, Murphy took a more active role in football operations, with Gutekunst, a highly regarded member of the front office, succeeding Thompson as GM. The Packers were more aggressive over the past offseason, and with Mike Pettine having replaced longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers, there was a sense heading into the 2018 season that the team had been energized.
It wasn't to be, though the early results were promising: The Packers won their opener in dramatic fashion, with Rodgers returning from what had seemed to be a severe knee injury to lead the team to an instant-classic comeback victory over the Chicago Bears.
The quarterback did it again in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers, pushing Green Bay to 3-2-1 before the team's bye week. Then, beginning with a late-October game in Los Angeles against the Rams, things unraveled quickly.
With Rodgers and the Packers poised to pull out a dramatic victory over the team with the NFC's best record, return man Ty Montgomeryignored the orders of the coaching staff and took a kickoff out of the end zone, fumbling away the Pack's chances -- a move that seemed to be a direct challenge to McCarthy's authority. Two days later, Montgomery was traded to the Baltimore Ravens.
Then, in a "Thursday Night Football" game in Seattle in mid-November, the Packers jumped out to an early lead but failed to put away the Seahawks, ultimately suffering a 27-24 defeat that evoked unpleasant memories of the 2014 NFC title game. Afterward, veteran defensive back Tramon Williams questioned McCarthy's passive approach, saying he'd wished the team had gone for it on a late fourth-down play, rather than punting away the ball to the 'Hawks, never to get it back.
After last Sunday's defeat to the Vikings, Rodgers spoke boldly of closing the season with a five-game winning streak, and getting help elsewhere, to mount another playoff drive. As with all things Rodgers, it didn't seem impossible, especially in the eyes of fellow players, coaches and talent executives, many of who revere his abilities even more than the average Packers fan.
One example: Jared Goff, the third-year quarterback who is having a stellar season for the 11-1 Rams.
"Physically, I don't think it's even close -- he's the best ever," Goff told me before facing the Packers in October. "Just his arm talent, and what he does. I know Tom (Brady)'s incredible, and Joe Montana's amazing, but when it comes to straight physical ability -- and this is my 24-year-old, third-year-in-the-league perspective, so take it for what you will -- it's not even a contest. His hand control, his arm power, where he puts the ball ... it's freakish."
When a quarterback is regarded as that good, the expectations are huge -- and when the Packers lost on Sunday, it became obvious that McCarthy would fall well short of meeting them in 2018. The loss of his job was undoubtedly jolting for a man whose daily drive to Lambeau included a trip up Mike McCarthy Way, the street named in his honor shortly before the 2014 season.
That's a reminder that McCarthy's legacy will live on in Titletown, even as the quarterback with whom he once had such a tight bond forges ahead with a new offensive visionary. Rodgers and McCarthy produced a lot of success and enjoyed a lot of glory, creating an incredibly high standard along the way -- and ensuring that many critics would question the head coach's approach when the team fell short, and even sometimes when it didn't.
Two seasons ago, after an opening-round playoff blowout of the New York Giants at Lambeau, McCarthy summoned me into his private locker room for a postgame interview. In this instance, we talked about a call that had arguably been too *aggressive*, a failed fourth-down play from his own 42-yard-line with the team holding an eight-point lead in the third quarter.
In retrospect, McCarthy knew he'd blown it, and that he'd be vilified for the move even as the team advanced to the next round.
After answering a couple of questions, he smiled and asked, "Why is America so tough on me, Michael?"
It was a rhetorical question, and anyway, we both knew the answer.