McCarthy: 4-0 Packers have room for improvement
Well before the Green Bay Packers became the elite team they are today, Mike McCarthy already was talking about something he believed would become one of the biggest challenges his players would face: handling success.
It seemed like an optimistic but not particularly relevant sentiment in 2006, when the then-relatively unknown McCarthy took over a Packers team that went 4-12 in its final season under Mike Sherman.
Now the Packers are right where McCarthy thought they would be: The reigning Super Bowl champions are 4-0 after Sunday's 49-23 rout of the Denver Broncos and look virtually unstoppable at times on offense.
Their record can't get any better, but their play certainly can - a point McCarthy is driving home these days.
''It comes at different levels,'' McCarthy said Monday. ''It's just not all about winning the Super Bowl. That's obviously the ultimate level of success. But that's last year. That's not really our focus right now. It's handling what goes on day to day, week to week, the opportunity to improve as a football team. The focus on winning games and, secondly, improving the quality of play.''
Coaches, of course, get paid to nitpick about such things, even after lopsided victories.
Perhaps especially after lopsided victories.
McCarthy had the team's statistical guru, director of research and development Mike Eayrs, put together several case studies in the offseason. Many of them dealt with the pitfalls of handling success, and Eayrs presented one of them to the team last Thursday.
McCarthy considers Eayrs' work valuable - so much so that he's hesitant to share specific conclusions in public.
''He's an old-school professor that can go from Fortune 500 companies to any direction,'' McCarthy said of Eayrs. ''I don't want to get into anything specific. We had a long offseason, I think we had 18 different powerpoint presentations that we prepared, and we've used a few of them already.''
With Sunday's win, the Packers and resurgent NFC North rivals Detroit are the only unbeaten teams left in the NFL. But outside of their record, not everything is perfect for the Packers.
On defense, they're giving up 335.8 yards passing per game, second-worst in the league behind New England. According to STATS LLC, they've given up an eye-popping 25 plays of 20-plus yards. And they'll be without Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins for the rest of the season because of a neck injury in Week 2.
And for all of Aaron Rodgers' majesty on offense, the Packers could be even better. Even after a career day where he threw for 408 yards with four touchdowns and ran for two more, Rodgers felt as if the offense got off to a disjointed start.
''You know, it felt a little funny starting off,'' Rodgers said Sunday night. ''I just felt like we weren't in a great tempo and a great rhythm. We made a play down to Greg (Jennings) but then we were stopped on downs on that first drive. It didn't feel like we were going to put up 42 points on offense at that point. But that's the thing about our offense. If we just continue to be patient, there's going to be plays out there.''
As Rodgers' comments indicate, the talk at Lambeau Field about getting better isn't all coming from coaches.
''We have some times, I guess, where we're aren't fundamentally good,'' defensive back Charles Woodson said. ''What I mean by that is just tackling, missing some assignments. We get killed when that happens. It's happened to us, but what we have been able to do is make plays - interceptions, fumbles, whatever - to give ourselves a chance to win.''
Sure, the Packers' defense has been playing with big leads at times, meaning they've faced a lot of pass-happy, hurry-up offenses. To some extent, you'd expect them to give up a lot of yards and come up with their share of interceptions against gambling quarterbacks.
''Now, that's no excuse,'' defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. ''We should be able to line up and make plays.''
They've made plays - the Packers have eight interceptions this season - but they've also given up a lot of big plays.
''Guys come in and go over the game plan against the champions and try to see what they can do to move the ball,'' cornerback Tramon Williams says. ''People see something but we just have to make adjustments. We've got time to do that.''
The Packers take pride that they've generally been able to limit or stop teams when they're in the red zone.
''That's been the story all year long,'' Williams said. ''People look at the stat sheets and see the yards that we've given up, but when it comes to crunch time, the defense stepped up and made a play. That's the way we've been getting by so far. We have to tighten up more consistently as a defense. We haven't been playing the ball that we know we can play but that's the most exciting thing about what's going on. We're 4-0. A lot of growth left. I'm looking forward to it.''
The Packers want to be dominant on defense, not just play well enough to win.
''We're not OK with it,'' Williams said. ''We know this is the NFL and guys are going to move the ball, but it's not OK. That's not the way we do things around here.''