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Coaches with the most to prove: Mike McCarthy’s record only goes so far

For one of the NFL’s winningest coaches, Mike McCarthy has taken serious heat in recent years as the Packers have failed to make a second Super Bowl trip. Only winning big will make all the noise go away.

With the notable exception of the mastermind in New England, no head coach in the NFL has a record of sustained success to match Mike McCarthy. In his 10 accomplished seasons on the job in Green Bay, McCarthy has rolled up 112 wins, five NFC North division titles and eight playoff berths, and the Packers’ franchise-record streak of seven consecutive postseason appearances is matched only by Bill Belichick’s dynastic Patriots.

But despite that gaudy résumé, to think that 2016 does not shape up as the most pressure-packed season yet for McCarthy is to ignore the reality of the situation in Titletown, where the bar of expectation has long been left in the sky-high setting.

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To wit, we hold these Cheesehead truths to be self-evident:

• Five long seasons have come and gone since Green Bay’s lone Super Bowl run of the McCarthy era. The 2010 Packers’ conquest of the Steelers in Dallas sparked dreams of a multiple-ring scenario as quarterback Aaron Rodgers entered the prime of his career with a bevy of talent surrounding him. Since then, Green Bay has lost in the NFC divisional round three times, in the wild-card round once and in that memorable NFC Championship Game in overtime in Seattle two years back. The past three postseason defeats have all been decided on the game’s final play, heightening the frustration level exponentially in Packers World.

• Last year’s season-long offensive struggles and play-calling issues were wildly uncharacteristic of Green Bay, and the level of underachievement can’t simply be explained away by noting the devastating loss of No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson to a preseason knee injury. As superb as Nelson is, his absence should not have wrecked the Packers’ entire offensive mojo, and the toll that injury wound up taking is an undeniable indictment on McCarthy.

• Rodgers, entering his 12th season, will be 33 in December, and there’s now an unprecedented urgency to maximize Green Bay’s window of Super Bowl opportunity while one of the league’s elite quarterbacks is near the top of his game. Boiled down to its essence, the ultra-successful Packers in McCarthy’s 10 years have been something along the lines of the NFL’s version of the 1991–2005 Atlanta Braves: a great team that somehow managed to put it all together just once in their perennial postseason runs.

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As good as the Packers have been for so long under McCarthy, this much I know from covering the league since 1990: A team staying at status quo, be it at the high end or the low end, is rarely a good thing in the NFL. It creates frustration that inevitably builds, and some of that frustration finally seeped out at times in Green Bay last season, when McCarthy’s attempt to delegate the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Tom Clements didn’t work and had to be reversed mid-year. Rodgers and McCarthy reportedly showed signs of a strained relationship beneath the surface, and there was even a persistent storyline that McCarthy had finally grown weary of Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s steadfast penchant for not partaking in free agency in favor of building Green Bay’s roster through the draft and capitalizing on undrafted finds. Alas, only winning big will make all that noise go away in 2016.

Some of 2015’s drama in Green Bay was simply the byproduct of a team that didn’t live up to its projections, and some of it is just what naturally occurs in the case of a franchise that has had the same head coach for a decade. The ever-perceptive Bill Walsh was largely right about the shelf life of an NFL coach being 10 years. After that, coaches, no matter how successful, are susceptible to being tuned out by their players to a degree, with a message and methods that can often grow stale and in need of rejuvenation.

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No, McCarthy isn’t on the hot seat in the traditional sense as the new season looms. The guy might one day be linked in the Packers’ coaching pantheon with Lambeau, Lombardi and Holmgren, and deservedly so. His record is that good. But this is still a very pivotal year for Green Bay’s creative head coach, and if there’s any sign of continued malaise on offense, or if the Packers lose any more ground to the resurgent Vikings in the division, some serious heat will undoubtedly descend on McCarthy.

Pressure takes many forms in the NFL, and there isn’t a coach in the game who doesn’t face it annually. But McCarthy’s Packers tenure is at a tricky enough point where his future no longer looks assured, and settling for perennial Super Bowl contention won’t be deemed sufficient forever in Green Bay.