McCarthy's low-key approach is ideal
Mike McCarthy will hear these two questions repeatedly should his Green Bay Packers continue winning.
If the Packers have the chance for an undefeated regular-season record with the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed already secured, will McCarthy rest starters down the stretch for the playoffs like Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell did with his squad in 2009? Or will he try to maintain momentum and continue the pursuit of perfection even at the risk of injury a la New England’s Bill Belichick in 2007?
“The politically correct answer is that it’s a hypothetical,” McCarthy said after the topic was broached Monday during a FOXSports.com interview. “But as a head coach, you have a plan for everything.”
That plan should include an NFL Coach of the Year acceptance speech should the Packers finish 16-0.
McCarthy will be the first to tell you this isn’t something on his mind right now. The Packers (10-0) have a tough remaining schedule, including Thursday’s much-anticipated game against rising NFC North challenger Detroit (7-3) on FOX.
But through the season’s first 11 weeks, McCarthy and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh have emerged as the clear frontrunners for the award. Harbaugh deserves praise for helping the 49ers (9-1) recapture some of their past glory in his first year.
Then again, there’s something to be said for McCarthy’s continued success — especially after a Super Bowl-winning season. No defending champion since the 1998 Denver Broncos has opened 10-0.
McCarthy admits how the Packers would handle the pressure and trappings that come with being the league’s kingpins was his biggest concern after the NFL lockout was lifted in late July. Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said McCarthy already had “kept the hammer down” on his assistants during the work stoppage to “fine-tune our coaching.”
“He emphasized that when the players come back, it was going to be on us,” Greene said. “We put a lot of time in as a staff grinding away.”
McCarthy then made sure Packers players were too busy to live in the past. In what McCarthy calls the “most mentally exhausting” preseason he was every involved in — and that says something considering the Brett Favre fiasco of 2008 — Green Bay coaches made nine different installments into the team’s playbook during the first 10 days of training camp.
McCarthy also continued to rely on his team leaders to set the tempo in the locker room. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said McCarthy’s decision to lean on him and cornerback Charles Woodson more heavily during the 2010 campaign helped key the team’s Super Bowl run.
“He gives players entitlement,” Rodgers said of McCarthy. “He’s always talking about wanting to make this our team — police ourselves and take ownership of practice and meetings. I think he really understands the dynamic of the players setting the vision, laying out the schedule and the plan, and allowing us to make the best of it.”
As the Packers began extending the six-game winning streak they brought into this season, McCarthy started using other tactics to prevent complacency. Staff member Mike Eayrs did an offseason case study researching the methodology of success that other individuals and teams have enjoyed and how to maintain it. McCarthy said he has Eayrs address the team about the topic “when I feel the focus is being lost.”
Before a Week 9 game against Minnesota, McCarthy told players that five of last year’s 10 regular-season wins were “decisive” victories and that the performances of the 2011 Packers “haven’t been as significant this year” despite the spotless record. Green Bay responded with a 45-7 rout of the Vikings.
“He knows the ultimate goal is not just to be good but to be great,” said Packers wide receiver Donald Driver, who was with Green Bay when McCarthy was the team’s quarterbacks coach in 1999. “He’s always stressed that — you want to be part of greatness.”
The key word in Driver’s quote is “part.” McCarthy is such a big believer in the team concept that he has declined commercial requests that would raise his individual profile. He isn’t as drab as Belichick can be during news conferences but McCarthy won’t generate headlines with outrageous statements or actions.
“I always felt not having the opportunity to play (in the NFL) that the attention should be on the players,” said McCarthy, who veered into coaching after playing tight end at tiny Baker University in Kansas.
“I’m the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. I get more attention than I ever dreamed of. I have great respect for the position but the focus needs to be about the team. Not being recognized on a national level, I’m fine with it.”
Such a low-key approach has kept McCarthy from receiving more national media praise. For example, Rodgers is so dominant with 31 touchdown passes and just four interceptions that it’s easy to forget McCarthy is on the sideline calling the plays. The same would never happen with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets’ defense.
“Mike’s not a guy who’s going to talk about himself a lot or stir things up with another team and give them bulletin-board material,” Rodgers said. “He doesn’t have that big personality you see with other teams where a lot of times the focus is more on the coach than the team. Mike wants the focus to be on the team and the players. We appreciate that.”
McCarthy’s personable, straight-shooting style also has earned him the trust of Packers players. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews remembers McCarthy yelling at the team to get practice organized, then approaching him on the sideline to ask about his bye week. Matthews said the conversation quickly evolved into conversations about both of their families and upbringings.
“The next thing you know, you’ve got a life story in the middle of practice,” a smiling Matthews said. “That’s the thing. It’s not just Xs and Os. It’s the way you can relate to another person personally rather than just a business relationship.
“For the most part when you come in here, you think, ‘Another coach. Do this X, Y and Z.’ However, when you get to know him, he’s another one of the boys. That’s what makes me as well as most of these other players so comfortable with him leading us and demanding certain things. We believe and know he’s on our side.”
That is what Packers general manager Ted Thompson had hoped when hiring McCarthy in 2006 despite the fact he had never previously served as a head coach at any level.
“I was looking for the person more than I was the coach,” said Thompson, who assembled the talent that gives Green Bay one of the NFL's youngest and most talented rosters. “There’s a lot of guys who can do Xs and Os. You have to be able to do that. I understand that. But I was looking for a good man. He had that going in.”
Like with Super Bowl-winning Packers coaches Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren, local politicians wanted to show their appreciation by name a street after McCarthy during the season. While honored, McCarthy declined because he didn’t feel the timing was right.
Maybe it’s best to wait anyway. By the time the 48-year-old McCarthy is done coaching the Packers, he might be worthy of an entire block in Titletown, U.S.A.
“There are more high-profile coaches out there but he seems to be doing something right here,” Matthews said. “We’re glad he’s our coach.”