The Green Bay Packers’ season came apart thanks in large part to a defense that consistently blew fourth-quarter leads. Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and most of his staff were let go Monday as a result.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy released six assistants, including five on defense: Sanders, defensive ends coach Carl Hairston, defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn, secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer and nickel package/cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington.
Also let go was strength and conditioning coordinator Rock Gullickson.
“These are difficult decisions,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I hold each of these men in high regard on a personal level, and I want to thank them for their service to the Green Bay Packers.”
Assistant head coach/linebackers Winston Moss and defensive quality control coach Joe Whitt Jr. were the only defensive coaches to keep their jobs. Moss is a likely candidate to take Sanders’ place, but is also a candidate for the St. Louis Rams‘ vacant head coaching job.
Monday’s moves were the Packers’ latest reaction to a disappointing 6-10 season. Special teams coordinator Mike Stock announced his retirement last week after presiding over a unit that also took a significant step backward in 2008.
Sanders, the Packers’ defensive ends coach under Mike Sherman in 2005, was tabbed to lead the defense after former defensive coordinator Jim Bates left the team. Bates, a finalist for the head coaching job after Sherman was fired, did not stay after McCarthy was hired.
The Packers’ defense got off to a shaky start under Sanders in 2006, giving up too many big plays and occasionally showing signs of confusion on the field. The unit improved in 2007, tying for sixth-best in the league in scoring as the Packers went 13-3.
But the defense regressed in 2008. The Packers’ big-play problems returned as they struggled to shake off several significant injuries. Consistent pass-rush pressure was a season-long concern.
After giving up 291 points in 2007, the Packers yielded a whopping 380 in 2008.
The Packers allowed 135 points in the fourth quarter in 2008, second-worst in the league behind Houston. Before their season-ending victory over Detroit, the Packers had blown fourth-quarter leads in four straight games.
Sanders took responsibility for the defense’s shortcomings.
“I take responsibility for everything,” Sanders said on the Monday after the Packers’ season finale. “It’s my responsibility. Certainly, I try to get our guys in the best position I can to be successful, and when it doesn’t happen, certainly I understand that. There were a lot of good plays. The scheme has brought a lot of good plays and a lot of good wins. Certainly I know what this scheme can do. At times, I didn’t get the job done. I understand that.”
At the time, Sanders knew it could cost him his job.
“If you’re a coach, certainly that’s part of the situation that you sign on to,” Sanders said. “I just work to the best of my ability.”
McCarthy did not rule out coaching staff changes in his season-ending news conference last week, but said he intended to move deliberately.
“We focused very hard on hiring quality people, good teachers, and men that demand,” he said. “On a personal side of it, I think we did an excellent job with the quality of people we have on our staff. That’s definitely always tough if you go in that direction.”
The Packers’ next step could be to promote Moss. But with several experienced coaches looking for jobs, McCarthy could look outside the building for Sanders’ replacement.
His list of candidates could include former San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, McCarthy’s old boss with the 49ers.
McCarthy said last week that he wasn’t necessarily committed to the style of defense Sanders ran, a 4-3 alignment that featured aggressive press coverage by cornerbacks and relied mainly on pass rush pressure from the front four instead of blitzes — a major problem this season after defensive end Cullen Jenkins was injured.
“All of our schemes are under evaluation right now,” McCarthy said. “That’s what you do right now. That’s what this time is for.”