Dave Choate: I couldn’t lead with anything other than Mike McCarthy. How do you think Packers fans feel about the firing, how do you think Aaron Rodgers is feeling, and who are they going to replace him with?
Jason Hirschhorn: The end of the Mike McCarthy era seemed inevitable for weeks. I called the time of death on his tenure back on Nov. 5, and the way the season has unfolded for the Packers in the time since only reinforced that position. Still, it came as a surprise that the team parted ways with McCarthy prior to the end of the season, something the franchise hadn’t done since 1953.
While Packers fans predictably differ on how they felt about the McCarthy era, it seemed most agreed the time had come for a new head coach à la Andy Reid’s final season with the Eagles. Whether Aaron Rodgers shares this view remains unclear. The MMQB reported that the two battled over play calls and other elements of the offense, but Rodgers had offered praise for McCarthy since the firing. Everyone will read those comments differently.
As for the Packers’ next head coach, a few candidates seem to have emerged. The situation could change rapidly once the 2018 regular season comes to a close, but at this stage Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks like the favorite to land the job.
Dave Choate: Aaron Rodgers has had an uncharacteristically poor season. What’s the deal with that--is it injury, aging, or something else--and are you at all concerned about his long-term outlook?
Jason Hirschhorn: The knee injury certainly affected Rodgers during the first half of the season, limiting his mobility and forcing him to throw with awkward mechanics. However, the knee has made considerable progress since the Packers’ Week 7 bye, and it no longer seems to limit him as significantly.
Obviously, Rodgers’ play hasn’t recovered accordingly. His ball placement and timing remain inconsistent and the offense hasn’t always made life easy for him in recent games. Some of that fault lies with him too, as Rodgers changes plays at the line frequently. Perhaps that part of the problem changes under interim head coach Joe Philbin, but it will likely wait until the next head coach arrives to resolve it.
Dave Choate: Aaron Jones: Greatest Packers running back since peak Ahman Green, or nah? How much of him can the Falcons expect to see on Sunday?
Jason Hirschhorn: Eddie Lacy had some fantastic season early in his career, but Aaron Jones has reached historic levels of efficiency as a runner. In the common-draft era, only four running backs with at least 150 rush attempts have averaged more during their first two seasons than Aaron Jones’ 5.7 yards per carry, putting him ahead of legends such as Bo Jackson, Adrian Peterson, and Barry Sanders.
How much the Packers use Jones against the Falcons remains unclear. Under McCarthy, Jones’ workload fluctuated largely without warrant. Philbin might have a stronger commitment to the ground attack, but he might also keep things the same. Sunday will reveal a lot about Green Bay’s plans the rest of the season.
Dave Choate: The defense has been far better than I would have expected this year. How much of that is Mike Pettine, how much of it is the new additions to the secondary, and is the improvement sustainable?
Jason Hirschhorn: Mike Pettine and the revamped secondary personnel share in the Packers’ defensive improvement. Pettine has brought creative blitz and pressure concepts that have kept a somewhat thin group of pass rushers effective most of the season. Meanwhile, rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander has already established himself as the team’s best corner while Tramon Williams has become a steadying force since transitioning to safety. Make no mistake, the Packers don’t have a great or even good defense, but the unit has made strides since its final season under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
The Packers could maintain the improvement into next season if the next head coach retains Pettine as defensive coordinator or hires someone with personnel preferences. Alternatively, the next staff could decide to use the coaching change as an excuse to makeover that part of the roster, especially given the expected and/or possible departures of Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, and others.
Dave Choate: The classic: What will be the outcome of this game, and where does this Packers season end up?
Jason Hirschhorn: Given that the Falcons have their own issues to contend with and the possibility of a dead-cat bounce post-McCarthy firing, I think the Packers emerge victorious on Sunday. Ultimately, that means little other than moving a few spots in the upcoming draft, as the Packers effectively (though somehow not mathematically) have no playoffs for which to contend.