There had to be a breaking point. An incident, an argument, a loss, a moment that doomed the football marriage of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy.
Anyone could see the Packers quarterback and head coach were headed for divorce well before that inconceivable 20-17 loss to the lowly Cardinals in December, the one that finally got McCarthy fired. Death stares and defiance from Rodgers had been constant for years by then.
But how far back do you have to go to find the beginning of the end?
Was it Week 3 of the 2017 season, when cameras caught Rodgers barking "Stupid f--king call!" at his coach?
Or back further, to the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, 2015, when McCarthy coached with the ferocity of a sloth, calling for field goals from the 1-yard line twice in the first half and then running three straight times with five minutes left to infuriate his QB and effectively euthanize a Super Bowl season?
Or even earlier, to 2013, when Rodgers and McCarthy appeared close to throwing haymakers midway through a loss in Cincinnati?
Those who observed this relationship from the beginning say you have to keep going.
Back to the honeymoon period. Even as the Packers went 15-1 in 2011, with Rodgers as league MVP. Even as they won their last Super Bowl title, in the 2010 season, with Rodgers as Super Bowl MVP. Even then, Rodgers was already seething at his coach.
So keep going. All the way to when these two were first brought together. In early 2006.
The worst-kept secret at 1265 Lombardi Avenue was that Rodgers seemed to loathe his coach from the moment McCarthy was hired.
Nobody holds a grudge in any sport like Rodgers. When it comes to Rodgers, grudges do not merrily float away. They stick. They grow. They refuel.
No, Rodgers would not forget that McCarthy had helped perpetuate his four-and-a-half-hour wait in the NFL draft green room the year prior. His nationally televised embarrassment. McCarthy, then the 49ers offensive coordinator, chose Alex Smith No. 1 overall. Not Rodgers.
No, Rodgers would not take it as a funny accident. This is what ensured the two would never truly get along.
"Aaron's always had a chip on his shoulder with Mike," says Ryan Grant, the Packers' starting running back from 2007 to 2012. "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."
Another longtime teammate agrees: "That was a large cancer in the locker room. It wasn't a secret."
Through all of the winning seasons, it might have been easy for casual observers to overlook this cancer. To mistake success for bliss and harmony and assume life was good between the two.
But even in the best of times—when confetti should've still been stuck to their clothing—one person who was then close to Rodgers remembers he would regularly call to vent that McCarthy didn't have a clue what he was doing. He'd tell him that McCarthy frequently called the wrong play. That he used the wrong personnel. That they were running plays that worked one out of 50 times in practice. That McCarthy was a buffoon he was constantly bailing out.
"Mike has a low football IQ, and that used to always bother Aaron," this source says. "He'd say Mike has one of the lowest IQs, if not the lowest IQ, of any coach he's ever had."
Adds a personnel man who worked for the Packers at the time: "He's not going to respect you if he thinks he's smarter than you."
And then, as time moved on and the team plateaued, the facade fell away. Cracks in the foundation of this arranged marriage became impossible to ignore.
"You start arguing. You start losing. When the money's bad, you argue," says DuJuan Harris, a Packers running back from 2012 through 2014. "You start hating how somebody breathes. You start hating how somebody chews their food."
Then, poof, it's over.
Leaving behind what legacy? It's not like the Packers were epic failures this last decade. McCarthy has a street named after him in the shadow of Lambeau Field. Rodgers is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. The two made the playoffs together eight years in a row. But this should've been a Patriots-like reign. History. One former teammate says he thinks Rodgers should have won a minimum of six Super Bowl rings under McCarthy and that the 2011 team should be remembered like the '72 Dolphins.
Instead, a surefire dynasty never was.
Instead, Rodgers is hoping to rise again at 35 years old, McCarthy is unemployed, and everyone else is left asking one question: What the hell happened?
Bleacher Report talked to dozens of players, coaches and personnel men who shared time in Green Bay with Rodgers and McCarthy in search of an answer.
Virtually all of them agree this era of Packers football is missing rings. Many rings. And sure, there's blame to spread. Some cite former general manager Ted Thompson literally falling asleep in meetings by the end of his tenure. Some cite the defense's innate ability to self-destruct each January.
But central to it all are the two Packers who lasted the longest.
McCarthy and Rodgers.
Where Jermichael Finley, a Packers tight end from 2008 to 2013, sees a self-entitled quarterback and bad leader, Grant thinks it's idiotic for anyone to complain about such a transcendent talent. Where Greg Jennings, a Packers receiver from 2006 to 2012, sees Rodgers as an ultrasensitive source of toxicity, others lambast McCarthy for wasting a gift from the football gods.
One ex-Packers scout puts it on both. He describes Rodgers as an arrogant quarterback quick to blame everyone but himself—one who's "not as smart as he thinks he is"—yet kindly points out that McCarthy basically quit on his team.
Nobody's sure where Rodgers and the Packers will go from here. How long this next marriage with new head coach Matt LaFleur will last.
But one former teammate, lamenting this colossal "what if," makes one point on the past crystal clear.
"If you were going to write a headline," he says, "that would be it right there: How Egos Took Down the Packers."
At its peak, the Rodgers-McCarthy Packers offense carried a feeling of absolute certainty.
Coaches would try to build up opponents, and the players would chuckle inside. "We would literally say, 'They can't stop us,'" Grant says.
There was zero doubt.
Plays were simple and worked like clockwork. McCarthy identified and game-planned for endless mismatches. Defenses couldn't double-team Jennings. Linebackers couldn't guard Finley. Jordy Nelson was in unbreakable mindlock with Rodgers on back-shoulder throws. James Jones bullied corners. Randall Cobb added to the embarrassment of riches. And playing zone against Rodgers was like playing zone against the Golden State Warriors—a death sentence.
The cherry on top for Rodgers was ever-growing freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and an ever-growing propensity mid-play to wait, wait, wait for something grander to develop downfield.
McCarthy could live with that, of course. The Packers were winning. So much.
Yet as Green Bay's talent drained, that freedom became a problem.
Think of mankind's never-ending debate over artificial intelligence, Grant says. "When you put a quarterback in a position and you talk about how cerebral he is and you give him flexibility to make some changes, guess what? … You develop A.I., because it has the capacity to run without you. And then when it runs without you, it's like, 'Wait a minute!' But in the same breath, if you're not actually able to stay ahead of it, it's going to outthink you and it's going to say, 'Me making the decision is the better decision.'"
And so, Grant adds, "You live and die by his greatness."
The problem for McCarthy was that as the talent drained, he failed to innovate. His scheme went stale and he didn't adapt. As one personnel man puts it, McCarthy "got full off his own juice." He believed his system—not the Packers' absurd amount of talent—was the foundation for the offensive success. But raw rookies cannot bust free one-on-one like, say, Jennings or Nelson or Jones.
Tension with Rodgers over the play-calling became part of the DNA of the offense itself. Rodgers felt the system was bland, so he increasingly played Superman.
Many believe Rodgers, the QB with the best career passer rating (103.1) in NFL history, was 100 percent justified in overruling his coach's play calls, and that the Packers would've deteriorated more precipitously if he hadn't put that cape on. The personnel man says the Packers' passing offense was essentially "Get open" and that they basically ran the same routes for seven years straight, to the point where division rivals "constantly" called out plays pre-snap and jumped routes.
No wonder the slant route, once so lethal, went extinct.
Where were the route combinations? The motion? The misdirection? "It's like, '😉ude, you have to adjust! The league changes!'" the personnel man says. "You've got to be humble enough to follow it. If you can't adapt, you die. He definitely didn't adapt. You can't run 90 back-shoulders into coverage. I don't care who you are. Things got so stale."
Rodgers had no choice but to seize control, and each year, he took more.
That ridiculous throw to Jared Cook in the playoffs in 2017? Drawn up in the huddle. Rodgers told an uncovered guard to pull out with him, that he'd bait in a defender and dash left. "That's what you're dealing with," one former Packers coach says. "A guy who'll do that. He might screw up a play Mike called ... [but] you have to give him credit for the good, too."
That disconnect led to tension. A system that once seemed so unstoppable was rendered bland, archaic. Games devolved into weird contests of who could call the better play, and the grudge-fueled Rodgers felt more and more empowered to excel in spite of McCarthy, the man who dared to think Alex Smith was better than him.
McCarthy, on the other hand, seemed to be more and more checked out, leading many to sympathize with Rodgers.
The sight was strange at first.
About once a week, a meeting would start up and McCarthy was MIA. Players weren't quite sure where he was while, for example, an assistant coach would run the team's final prep on the Saturday before a game. Eventually, word leaked that McCarthy, the one calling plays on game day, was up in his office getting a massage during those meetings.
One player had the same massage therapist, and she let it slip that McCarthy would sneak her up a back stairway to his office while the rest of the team prepared for that week's opponent.
"That was when guys were like, 'What the heck?'" says one longtime Packer. "Everybody was like, 'Really? Wow.'"
Rodgers in particular was not thrilled.
Not that there wasn't logic to it all. As the years grinded on, McCarthy tried to take on more of a CEO-like approach with the team. He would routinely deny outside interview opportunities for assistants if they were under contract, so this was his way of giving them more responsibility, to prep them for an eventual promotion elsewhere. Back issues are common amongst all football coaches. And while McCarthy likely wasn't getting a massage every time he let an assistant run a meeting, the optics were bad. In stepping back, he came across as distant and lost respect from players.
"If you're not a part of meetings, and then you're trying to be pissed about execution, nobody's going to really respect you," says one former front-office member from the McCarthy-Rodgers era. "They're going to look at you like, 'Where have you been all week?' It sounded like he was really just chilling."
Put yourself in Rodgers' shoes—in the shoes of a player who eats, sleeps, breathes the sport. As some sources put it, "How do you think he felt?" Of course he'd seize control.
Rodgers may not be a Tom Brady-like locker room presence, but to one former offensive teammate, he's still "by far the best quarterback, skills-wise, in the history of the NFL." And it was on McCarthy to manage that, provide leadership and make his quarterback's life as stress-free as possible. Do everything in his power to let that talent shine.
"His No. 1 job, and Mike always missed this point, is to manage Aaron," the former teammate says. "That's your driver. That's your engine. Aaron's your engine for the whole team. Whether you want to or don't want to, you have to make sure that guy's happy. At the end of the day—and it doesn't sound like a fun job—if he's happy, you're winning.
"Your job isn't to go out there and throw and catch passes. Your job is to manage people."
And if Rodgers isn't Brady as a leader, McCarthy sure as hell never managed like Bill Belichick. Whereas Belichick despises the limelight and "removes himself" every way he can, this player says McCarthy loved anointing himself as a quarterback guru. The coach often bragged to players about his time with Joe Montana...in Kansas City.
"He tried to bill himself as this quarterback master," the player says. "It was like, 'Buddy, I just want to let you know, Joe Montana did a lot more before he was in Kansas City.'"
McCarthy felt he was the one who created this monster of an offense. A personnel man adds: "That was McCarthy's big mistake. He wanted to be The Guy. He wanted to be The Reason. And he wasn't that good."
It didn't help that McCarthy also was rotating his assistants between positions annually. He wanted them to gain more experience, but as Grant points out, this didn't necessarily help the players. Many times, they felt as though they knew more about their position than their own coach.
Many agree McCarthy could have saved himself if he had swallowed his pride and hired a bright offensive mind to challenge Rodgers. One beam of hope emerged in Alex Van Pelt, who coached running backs in 2012 and 2013 before moving over to quarterbacks in 2014. However, team sources say McCarthy felt threatened by Van Pelt, who became close to Rodgers. The Packers opted not to retain Van Pelt when his contract expired after the 2017 season, which didn't sit well with Rodgers.
Which cut that grudge deeper.
And the rest of the team? There were mixed opinions on McCarthy.
Some interpreted his laissez-faire style differently. It was refreshing. From backups like Jayrone Elliott ("I have nothing but respect for him"😉 to starters like Grant ("Mike's a great coach. I'm surprised he's not coaching right now"😉, again and again they describe him as a player's coach. But even one defensive starter who begins a conversation by praising McCarthy soon admits the culture he instilled created a soft team.
When Thompson hired McCarthy, he called him "Pittsburgh macho." And yet the coach rarely matched his no-bull rhetoric in press conferences with no-bull action. One personnel man calls him "a fake tough guy." McCarthy rarely fined or benched or sent messages to players and paid the price almost every season—never more so than in the game, the moment, that'll define him in the eyes of many Packers fans. Multiple sources from the team say McCarthy should have cut inept backup tight end Brandon Bostick months before the NFC title game in 2015. Instead, he was on the field for a late Seahawks onside kick attempt, and instead of blocking his man, he went for the catch. The ball bounced off his helmet, and Green Bay collapsed.