McCarthy’s ring ploy pays off for Packers

Some NFL coaches would never invoke the majesty of the Lombardi Trophy or the personal treasure that is a Super Bowl championship ring before players even take the field.

Superstition? False bravado? Looking beyond the finish line is traditionally verboten in sports.

That’s not Mike McCarthy.

The Green Bay Packers head coach did something fairly extraordinary at the team hotel Saturday night, hours before his group was to take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

After all the rah-rah speeches had been delivered, McCarthy told the team it was dismissed. Then he ordered each player and coach to be fitted for his Super Bowl jewelry.

“I talked to our football team a lot about having real confidence, and those are just examples and opportunities to express that. I felt that the measurement of the rings, the timing of it would be special, it would have a significant effect on our players doing it the night before the game,” McCarthy said Monday morning, reflecting on Green Bay’s 31-25 victory Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

Good move, coach.

“So that’s pretty unusual, huh?” linebacker A.J. Hawk asked. “Well, I liked it. It made things real for us.”

Packers players admitted it was difficult not to linger over the bands used to size the Super Bowl rings that are indeed coming their way. In the hallway outside their meeting room, as jewelers took their measurements, they imagined those giant rings on their fingers, that they had earned the right to wear them. And the image ultimately became reality.

“It was the night before the game,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “And we could see that it was right there. Everything we wanted was right there in our hands, literally and figuratively.”

You can call this a true measure of a coach’s faith in his team.

“That’s our head coach. He’s been the same way all year,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “He said he thought we were going to win it all, so we should have the rings fitted. After the meeting, we just went out (of the meeting room) and they had people there to measure us.”

Another touchstone for motivation? An emotional halftime speech by veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who left the field with a broken collarbone in the second quarter.

Throughout the season, Woodson and another revered veteran, wide receiver Donald Driver, stood as vocal reminders to the Packers’ younger players that the postseason and a Super Bowl berth are remarkable achievements. Those opportunities, the veterans implored, should never be squandered.

Woodson’s only other opportunity at a Super Bowl championship came after the 2002 season, when his Oakland Raiders met the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Bucs destroyed the Raiders 48-21, in part because Oakland played without starting center Barret Robbins, who disappeared the night before the game during a horrible bipolar episode that ultimately ended his NFL career.

All week, Woodson was reminded of that previous title shot and how it ended so badly. During halftime, with his left arm trussed to his body in a sling to keep his fractured collarbone immobilized, Woodson spoke to his teammates about how close they were to winning it all. He begged them to do it, even though he couldn’t help them physically anymore.

He couldn’t finish. A few sentences into his speech, Woodson was sobbing.

“I broke down,” Woodson, 34, said Sunday night as he cradled the fingerprint-smudged Lombardi Trophy in his arms. “I don’t think I’ve cried that much since I was a kid, but I was confident in our guys, that they’d go out there and get it done, and they did.”

Neither Woodson nor Driver, who injured an ankle, finished the game. McCarthy was eager to seek each player out after the outcome was final, once the confetti shower ended and the interviews were over. He wanted them to know what their contributions, their leadership, meant to the arduous process of bringing a fourth Super Bowl title to Titletown, USA.

“I had a chance to see them both briefly after the game. That’s one of the toughest things about the Super Bowl. You don’t really have the opportunity to get your team together in the locker room,” McCarthy said Monday. “We’ll do that (Tuesday) in Green Bay.”

By then, the message that The Ring is the Thing will truly hit home for the Packers. Their coach? He already knew it would.