The doomsday clock is ticking for the Green Bay Packers, and it's dangerously close to striking 12.
Aaron Rodgers' career reached a low point Sunday on his 35th birthday, as the Packers lost 20-17 to the hapless Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field.
The window for another championship is closing if the Packers front office doesn't make the necessary changes this offseason to turn a 4-7-1 team into one worthy of its best player.
"I think the whole organization got lazy," a source told Sports Illustrated's Kalyn Kahler. "We're relying on Aaron. Aaron is going to do it."
Green Bay's coaching staff remained clueless.
"I mean, I've never been in this spot," head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters after the game when asked how he'll coach the team now that it's essentially out of the playoff race. "I'm not going to act like I know what the hell I'm going to do tomorrow [Monday] when they get in here. So, we're going to do what we always do; we're going to represent the Packers the right way, I know that. Other than that, we'll focus on what's in front of us."
The Packers announced McCarthy's dismissal shortly thereafter and named offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as the interim head coach.
Four games remain against poor competition, except for a Week 15 meeting against the NFC North-leading Bears in Chicago. The Packers will need a miraculous four-game winning streak to even sniff the postseason, as six other NFC squads already have five or more victories in the battle for the two wild-card spots.
The resiliency once seen in Green Bay with Rodgers leading the way seems to be gone, with internal strife ruining opportunities to win big. According to Kahlen, the coach and quarterback were at odds over the play-calling. Rodgers was given autonomy to change plays, yet McCarthy grew frustrated when he couldn't establish a rhythm on game days.
A good personal relationship isn't a necessity for a star player and a head coach. However, respect is. As long as both sides believe the other is doing his best to place the team in a position to succeed, a mutual understanding can be reached.
Once the two parties no longer see eye to eye on how to be successful, contentiousness starts to fester. Rodgers and McCarthy reached this point, and it cost the coach.
"McCarthy wants credit for Aaron Rodgers, who he is," another source said. "I think too many people have tried to say they created Aaron Rodgers."
Though the Packers have to take several steps to be a title contender again, the biggest one is finding the right coach to lead the offense.
Hire a Respected Offensive Mind
Green Bay needs a strong personality to pair with Rodgers, someone who knows how to handle a superstar while being an exceptional offensive mind in his own right.
Two names immediately fit the bill.
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is once again a hot name after last year's Indianapolis Colts debacle, in which McDaniels accepted their head coaching job only to withdraw from the agreement at the last minute.
The 42-year-old assistant has spent 12 years of his career working with the famously diligent Tom Brady. The five-time Super Bowl champion is as demanding as they come. The two have endured multiple sideline blowups while working together and still get the best from each other.
"I always talk to him about everything and, like I said, he's a great friend of mine," Brady said of McDaniels after his return to the team this offseason, per Melissa Zhang of USA Today's Patriots Wire. "You work with someone for that long, you have a great rapport and relationship and I'm happy he's on our team. I'm happy he's coaching me, and I want to go out there and do well by him."
Brady and Rodgers are friends, and the respect McDaniels has earned from the former should travel well if he is willing to leave New England. The final point is crucial, though.
"I know the Patriots want him coaching for us," Brady said Thursday on the Kirk & Callahan show, per WEEI's Ryan Hannable. "He's under contract with our team for a long time and that is a great thing for the Patriots."
While McDaniels' availability remains a sticking point, Eric Bieniemy's candidacy improves with each passing week.
Bieniemy is the latest in Andy Reid's successful string of offensive coordinators. Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy are doing well at their current stops, and Bieniemy should be the next to earn a head coaching job since the Chiefs offense is more explosive than ever.
Yes, Reid calls the plays, but Bieniemy's influence exists throughout the team.
According to ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, the Chiefs offensive coordinator helps assemble the playbook and weekly game plans, runs the offensive meetings and is in Patrick Mahomes' ear signaling plays during games.
"[Quarterback] is a detailed position," Reid said, per Teicher. "It's very easy to go, 'Ah, we can let that one slide.' That's [not] how [Bieniemy] goes about it. He's going to make sure everything is covered. I trust him for that. I can't be there every second. He jumps in and just takes charge, and I have full confidence in him so I can go be the head coach and he can run the offense. He does a heck of a job with it."
Not only is Bieniemy a large part of a cutting-edge offense, but he demands respect from his players, even superstars. The 49-year-old coordinator spent five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings as their running backs coach.
"He coached Adrian Peterson as hard or harder than anybody," former Vikings head coach Brad Childress said. "He was unmerciful. He was not about to let him be just a guy. Eric made sure he stepped with the right foot. He made sure he understood pass protection and how he fit into the passing scheme. For years he had just been a tailback and they handed him the ball and told him to run. Eric taught him how to play the game."
Both McDaniels and Bieniemy fit the mold needed to maximize Rodgers' final years. That's not where this to-do list ends, though.
Add Offensive Playmakers
Brian Gutekunst should spend his second offseason as Green Bay's general manager focusing on how he can improve Rodgers' weapons.
Plenty needs to be done, with only Davante Adams sticking out as a certified playmaker. Adams caught eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown Sunday. Tight end Jimmy Graham also caught eight passes. No other receiver had more than three.
Defenses can take away one weapon if others can't make them pay.
Aaron Jones finally has a featured role in the backfield, but he can only do so much. Green Bay must concentrate on adding more.
The front office placed so much emphasis on improving its secondary this past offseason that wide receiver wasn't addressed until the draft's third day, even though three—J'Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown—were eventually chosen. Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown are now regulars in the rotation, but the rookies are far too inconsistent. A few late-round talents will rarely (if ever) match the value of an elite wide receiver prospect.
Gutekunst can look in both free agency and the draft to better situate Rodgers, especially after the team makes one obvious move. Last year, the Packers released Rodgers' favorite target, Jordy Nelson—to the quarterback's chagrin. Randall Cobb is almost certainly the next to go since he's a free agent after the season. With only 29 receptions, Cobb hasn't been much of a factor this season.
Ted Thompson based the Packers' entire approach on a draft-and-develop philosophy. Gutekunst has already proved to be more aggressive in free agency, having signed Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson and Marcedes Lewis prior to the regular season. The current general manager needs to ratchet up the team's approach.
Larry Fitzgerald and Golden Tate are older, proven options to immediately step in and contribute as slot receivers. Tyrell Williams, Devin Funchess, Donte Moncrief and Adam Humphries are all in their primes after proving themselves as, at worst, second or third options.
An investment in the offensive line is never foolish. Green Bay's guard play has been suspect this season, so adding the likes of Mike Iupati (team option), Rodger Saffold, Quinton Spain or D.J. Fluker couldn't hurt. A stronger interior helps build the depth of the pocket.
According to Spotrac, the Packers have $41.7 million to spend next year. How the team decides to proceed with its impending free agents—including Wilkerson, Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan—will determine the next steps.
The old guard may be pushed out the door in favor of fresh blood, but some patience is required for the team to realize its potential.
Prioritize Rodgers' Health
Rodgers has dealt with a sprained left knee since Week 1, and it has impeded his play.
Sure, each week he makes the types of plays everyone expects from a player of his caliber. But it's clear that the knee has given him some trouble and that the Packers offense isn't operating at peak efficiency. Despite entering Sunday as the league's eighth-ranked passing offense, the group struggles to build any rhythm.
Even so, Rodgers doesn't plan on resting at any point over the next four weeks.
"Hell no," he said when asked whether he would, per Zach Kruse of USA Today's Packers Wire. "Come on."
Once the postseason is completely out of reach (which will happen with another loss), the Packers must be proactive and bench Rodgers even if he still wants to play. There's no reason to risk his health when nothing is on the line.
The team took the same approach a year ago when Rodgers came back from a broken collarbone. The Packers lost (knocking them out of playoff contention), and he didn't play during the final two weeks.
Rewind the Clock
Quarterbacks are playing into their late 30s and even early 40s without much of a drop-off. Rodgers should be able to do what Brady and Drew Brees are doing as long as he has good health and the Packers surround him with a talented supporting cast.
Right now, he has neither.
At 35, Rodgers has at least three more good seasons if injuries don't continue to be a problem. But that's only part of the equation.
The Packers must find a coach who can mesh with the franchise quarterback and acquire more offensive playmakers through free agency and the draft.
Otherwise, Rodgers' window will close and the clock will strike 12.