GREEN BAY - Since their second season together as the coach and quarterback in charge of the Green Bay Packers' fortunes, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have presided over a team with championship aspirations.
The Packers thought like a playoff team, acted like a playoff team and, from 2009 to 2016, were a playoff team. Other than two times when injuries caused Rodgers to miss a stretch of games, they were universally regarded as one of the NFL's elite teams.
That glorious era officially ground to a halt Sunday at wintry Lambeau Field, first with one of the more dismal home losses in Green Bay history, a 20-17 defeat at the hands of the woebegone Arizona Cardinals, then with the Packers taking the unusual step - for them - of firing McCarthy with four games to play in the season.
The move will mean nothing unless it signals the start of widespread changes in the organization, but at least it was a sign that team president Mark Murphy finally recognized that Green Bay, now 4-7-1 with five losses in its last six games, is no longer a good team. In fact, it is a bad team. A really bad team.
A shortage of starting-caliber talent, an outdated offensive scheme and growing locker-room unrest have turned the Packers into a team that couldn't beat the Cardinals even though it had everything going for it.
The Packers needed to win to keep their oh-so-slim playoff hopes alive, the Wisconsin weather was frightful and the Cardinals were a warm-weather dome team with a 2-9 record, a decimated offensive line and a rookie quarterback. And still the Packers couldn't win.
McCarthy is one of many people in the organization responsible for the team's steep decline this season, but he was the first one to take the fall. I'm not sure what handing the team over to interim coach Joe Philbin will accomplish, but Murphy had to do something after the Packers came out flat against the Cardinals in a must-win game.
Such an unceremonious firing should do nothing to affect how people regard McCarthy's 13-season tenure in Green Bay. Indeed, the Packers owe McCarthy a great deal. He won a Super Bowl, took the team to the playoffs for eight straight years and, despite their growing tensions, helped mold Rodgers into one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
McCarthy's contract status made this a pivotal year for him even before the season began and he probably needed to make a solid playoff run just to remain the team's coach. It has been obvious for weeks that such a run wasn't going to happen, but many felt McCarthy had earned the right to finish out the season. However, when the Packers hit rock bottom Sunday, the handwriting was on the wall and Murphy simply couldn't keep him on the job any longer.
McCarthy's final game wasn't a pretty sight. Throughout his tenure, the Packers were a motivated, efficient, talented, resilient team. They were none of the above Sunday against one of the NFL's worst teams.
Although the Packers experienced a run of injuries that was excessive even by their standards this season, it was a frightful fall for a team that had realistic playoff hopes in August.
"I think it was (a playoff team) for sure starting the season," Rodgers said. "We've had a number of injuries and made some roster moves. ... It is frustrating because you get to seven losses now and you start to think about the possibilities - or the lack of possibilities - and you go over in your head a number of times what's gone wrong and it is frustrating because I really like our squad. I'm proud of them, they battled, especially (Jason) Spriggs and (Justin) McCray coming in (Sunday). And we've had that all season long. But we just had too much of that. We've been playing a lot of young guys and I think there's better days in the future for this squad. We're just going to have to go through this tough period right now and stick together."
Sticking together doesn't seem likely, at least not after this season.
Long-time stalwarts such as linebacker Clay Matthews and wide receiver Randall Cobb are impending free agents and seem likely to move on. Oft-injured veterans such as offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and linebacker Nick Perry have hefty contracts that could lead to their departure as well.
No one wants to hear it, especially with Rodgers turning 35 on Sunday, but the Packers need to start over. The Cardinals loss showed just how bereft of talent the roster has become.
Indeed, all the signs of a bad team were there for the Packers. They failed to convert 11 of their 14 third-down plays, a problem all season. They struggled to finish off drives, another season-long issue. And even facing a rookie quarterback, the Packers couldn't force a turnover, giving them just three takeaways in their last six games.
Those are all things good teams do and do consistently. The talent-challenged Packers, on the other hand, have made almost no game-turning plays on either side of the ball.
Green Bay's demise wasn't due entirely to coaching and firing McCarthy won't be a cure-all. As recently as last week, the Packers were talking about winning the final five games and making the playoffs. If nothing else, Sunday's events showed just how delusional such talk was.