Mike McCarthy: the Evolving Coach Not Afraid of Change and Risk

We’ve all heard the adage that the NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Either you keep up and adapt, or you find a new line of work.

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has received plenty of criticism for hanging onto loyalties and not making the change when he probably should have. The most notable examples include sticking with defensive coordinator Dom Capers and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum through several successive years of struggle.

Capers appears to have a job for life, but at least McCarthy finally wrote the pink slip for Slocum after a disastrous 2014 season. McCarthy understood that special teams were one of major factors preventing the Packers from winning another championship.

However, over the years, McCarthy has made several shrewd changes that led to positive results, so he has a track record of evolution. He’s definitely not afraid of change when change is needed.

Let’s look at some of these major changes.

Quarterback Brett Favre seemed irreplaceable and set for life as the Packers’ starting quarterback as long as he wanted it. Yet, McCarthy showed that was definitely not the case.

There are reports that McCarthy wanted to give Favre the hook at halftime during the 2007 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants. Maybe he should have, and there might have been a different result. I guess we’ll never know, but it’s worth noting because of what happened next.

The following off season proved to be Favre’s end in Green Bay. After a protracted retirement drama, general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy refused to allow Favre to come back, signifying the beginning of the Aaron Rodgers era. McCarthy had groomed Rodgers for three years, and knew he was ready. Rodgers was in fact ready, and he just needed an opportunity to get on the field.

That was a pretty gutsy move by McCarthy, and it’s the kind that can end a job if you’re wrong. You’re taking a hall of fame quarterback and replacing him with an unknown who everyone passed on in the draft. Not to mention that McCarthy also passed on him during his time in San Francisco as offensive coordinator.

Botching the quarterback position has cost many coaches their jobs. Just ask Rex Ryan and anyone who coached in Cleveland the last 15 years.

However, not only did McCarthy get it right, he hit the jackpot. Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL right now. If he would have hung on to Favre for another year or two, we might have never seen the Aaron Rodgers show.

Next, after a disappointing 2008 season when the Packers fell to a 6-10 record, McCarthy once again made a major change, and it was also a change of considerable risk.

He scrapped his 4-3 defense by firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. Dom Capers replaced Sanders and brought a radically different 3-4 defense with him.

This type of change is no small feat because not only does it require different vocabulary and playing technique, but oftentimes very different personnel to execute the scheme.

The switch to Capers and the 3-4 defense cannot be understated and glossed over because he made the transition after his third season as head coach. In the era of “win now,” head coaches are given four or five seasons to show they belong and can turn a program around.

Had the switch to Capers’ 3-4 defense not gone smoothly, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that Thompson would have fired McCarthy after his fourth season. The 2007 NFC Championship Game likely bought McCarthy some time, as did the switch to Rodgers, but back-to-back losing seasons are usually the death knell for many coaches.

McCarthy couldn’t predict the future, but those drastic moves at the quarterback position and the entire defensive scheme paid off very quickly and the Packers won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. That’s pretty remarkable, and would only have been possible if a coach was willing to make changes. High risk, high reward.

This following off season McCarthy has also made another major change. While he claims it’s not an overreaction or anything fans need to consider too seriously, we all know differently.

After coming close to the top, but falling short, McCarthy decided to shake up his coaching staff’s responsibilities.

He removed himself as play caller, promoted Tom Clements to associate head coach and play caller, and promoted Edgar Bennett to offensive coordinator.

McCarthy claims these changes will free him up to manage more of the game as a whole, including paying more attention to special teams and defensive strategy.

Play calling is one of the most highly sought and enviable positions on the coaching staff, so it took a major change of heart and trust in his assistants to abdicate that responsibility. Furthermore, the Packers’ offense has been a well oiled machine as of late, so it’s easy to scream “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” That’s true, but McCarthy obviously felt he could improve his entire team by handing over the offense to someone else. Another huge risk.

Also, somewhere in that transition, Alex Van Pelt was given the dual responsibility of being both the quarterbacks and wide receivers coaches. This is actually a very interesting event because now Van Pelt has joint meetings of quarterbacks and receivers in the same room. It’s intended to prevent anything from falling through the cracks and to ensure that everyone sees the same thing.

This sort of outside-of-the-box thinking isn’t very common in the “Not For Long” football world where everyone else copies everyone’s script.

It’s way too early to tell if any of these changes will have a positive effect, or even a negative effect for that matter. But, they are exciting to think about as we approach training camp.

The bottom line is that McCarthy doesn’t make changes very often, but when he does, they make headlines. I admire that he doesn’t make changes for the sake of change, but only when he truly feels he needs to make a transition. His changes aren’t without risk, but they usually pay off.

I’m very excited to see how the 2015 season season unfolds. Based on McCarthy’s track record, his changes bring quick success. He has managed to win 101 games, five division titles, and a Super Bowl.

Maybe 2015 will bring about something special.

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Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.

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  • croatpackfan

    Very good article Jay. I agree completely with you. Mike McCarthy is everything but dishonest to himself. I bought his explanation why he delegate play calling duties, because I really think his play calling duties was preventing him to feel the pulse of the whole team, which came to the utmost importance in the last 4 minutes of the NFC Championship game. He did not know that Clay was worn out and not presented on the field. He was preparing his offense for next possession instead to be involved in ST play call for that TD. He was not in the situation to feel that his players, after Morgan intercepted Wilson, thought the game is over. Everything after that was just wondering from his position. He understands that and he did only thing he might do. Became full time Head Coach of his team. I bow to Mike McCarthy, because I follow Packers from 2008 and I saw man willing to take all decisions which must be taken to improve team and himself, as well as his coaching staff. All of his changes make sense today, despite how desperate or unnecessary was looking at the moment of making them. Thank you for acknowledging that…

    • Jay

      Great points! I agree with what you say.

  • TedTomsin

    Great article on the evolution of McCarthy. I know it has to kill him inside thinking about last year’s finale and the 2007 NFC Championship. I am sure he wanted to make the switch at halftime from Favre to Rodgers in 2007 but was too young in his coaching tenure to do it. If he makes it they win that game but good ole no. 4 had the most power in WI at that time so he didn’t and lost. Same with Slocum. MM could have three super bowls and be mentioned with the greats. He knows it and it haunts him. Throw in his brother dying shortly after losing to Seattle and now I see a changed man with an aggressive but unselfish attitude now delegating authority to others more than ever.
    He’s hiding emotionally inside that newly grown beard of his but inside there’s a ferocious beast that is out to conquer the world and this time isn’t going to hold back. That’s why I am predicting tons of NFL records are going to be shattered this season by the Packers especially offensively. The beard he grew said it all.
    Ted

    • Jay

      I share in your optimism. This season could be special.

  • Since ’61

    Overall McCarthy has done an excellent job as Packers HC. Through 3-4 seasons with injuries too numerous to count or remember he held the team together and kept them in playoff contention, even winning the SB in 2010 with about 15 players on IR. He has integrity, he is resilient, he believes in his players and his program and he wins consistently with one of the youngest teams in the league. His winning percentage as a HC is second only to Belichec since he became Packers HC in 2006. For all of his positive qualities, MM has stuck with some players (AJ Hawk) and coaches (Slocum) far too long. The changes which he has ushered in since the loss at Seattle is a way of getting over that game and also reflects his personal growth. However, they are changes that could have been made following any of the previous early playoff exits. The question now is what happens if the Packers suffer another early playoff exit. I hope that we don’t need to find out in 2015. Thanks, Since ’61

    • croatpackfan

      I agree with you Since ’61 barring one little thing. My opinion is that Dom Capers did not want to release A. J. Hawk, not Mike McCarthy. As far as I can understand, MM trust his coaching stuff to do the job properly. So, I assume he is not the person who was deciding all those years about A. J. status with the team. There is one detail to support my claim: A. J. Hawk was released from Packers only one year after Mike McCarthy said that he will be looking over teams defense and he claimed Packers defense will improve. Packers defense improved and A. J. Hawk had another couple of eyes to decide his future – this time those eyes where Mike McCarthy’s eyes… And we now know how his future looks like…

  • aaronqb

    McCarthy isn’t perfect, but he is about as good as there is in football. The things that he talks about and does such as people development, process orientation, being self-critical, ability to adapt are all things that top CEOs do and talk about. McCarthy is raising the bar for NFL coaches. He was a special teams meltdown and an injured Rodgers calf muscle from a second Super Bowl win last year.

  • Tundraboy

    I have thought and said for some time now, he was too immersed in that dam play card sometimes to see the big picture or the sometimes obvious swings in momentum that have cost us a game or two, These usually happened at critical points and sometimes at the worst possible time. Looking forward to this year to see Rodgers run the offense and MM to fully coach up the players on game day. O,D, and Special teams.

  • TedTomsin

    Tearin, more personal attacks? Did I mention your name? Nope. You have about 4 hours to go before sundown. Man up and get it done.
    Ted

  • TedTomsin

    and again with more personal attacks. Keep em’ coming Caitlyn. Sundown is quickly approaching.
    Ted

  • Oppy

    I agree 100%, Jay, and have long said that Mike McCarthy is perhaps the most progressive HC coach in the NFL.

    Consistently from his hire through to today, every season under McCarthy has seen him pick apart every tiny detail of the previous season’s operations to be analyzed and assessed, looking for new ways to tweak and change anything and everything in hopes of gaining increased returns in his coaching staff, players, execution and production. He certainly has embodied the expression “detailing your work.”

    The routine for MM is to always search for positive change. It doesn’t always work out, but this is one guy who certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels as a coach.

  • Nice article, and persuasively written. One could note that MM did not in fact yank Favre at halftime. One could note that TT took most of the heat for not taking Favre back, but I am sure that MM had a lot of input into that decision. MM could have hedged his bets on that decision w a few off the record quotes, as it was indeed a career maker or breaker decision for MM.

    In 2007, the defense allowed 291 points, but in Rodgers’ first season, they gave up a whopping 380 (23.75 pts./game). One should give a lot of credit to MM for hiring Dom Capers. The change to a 3-4 rendered one of GB’s best defensive players, Aaron Kampman, positionless. It also meant that TT had to use two #1 picks on NT (Raji) and OLB (CM) to make the scheme work, and TT hit on both, at least initially in Raji’s case. Capers immediately improved GB from the 21st ranked defense in 2008 to 2nd in 2009 and 2010.

    MM hired Mike Stock in 2006, who was a friend of MM’s in KC during the 1980’s. This was a lackluster hire at the time, despite Stock’s 41 years of experience in football. Stock’s units ranked 32nd, then 7th, and then the bottom fell out again in 2008: zero forced fumbles by the coverage units, 7 KO returns for over 40 yards, several of which came late in games and led to winning drives by the opponents, 2 game-winning FG misses, and the rock upon which Stock sunk, punter Derrick Frost. It didn’t help that GB cut some veteran ST players, including Tracy White mid-season. [That 6-10 record in 2008 obviously easily could have been 8-8 or better just on STs.] Stock officially “retired” but he clearly was fired. Good move by MM, who unfortunately promoted Slocum from within the organization. Slocum’s units were rated by Dallas Morning News as (I’m missing ranking for 2009), 29th in 2010, then 31st, 12th, 20th and 32nd in 2014. Way too long to fire Slocum. Zook so far has failed to instill confidence in me, but his effectiveness is TBD.

    Clements’ ability as a play caller is open to question (recall his failure in Buffalo when those duties were unceremoniously stripped from him in October!) but he is a good QB coach and OC, and has a strong relationship with Rodgers (see link). I thought MM was okay as a play caller. This move is TBD. The move to consolidate WR and QBs under Van Pelt is interesting, and I agree that it is innovative. The move’s effectiveness is TBD.

    Finally, I think it is a reasonable bet that the moves that free up MM to better oversee all operations including STs and the D will help overall. Personally, I suspect that any competent play caller will have the offense scoring copious amounts of points, especially since Rodgers will audible out of any inappropriate play calls. It is on MM to show that his personal supervision will improve ST and the defense. That is TBD.

  • funcrusher

    I wish McCarthy would start making changes in-game when the Packers are struggling, specifically against good defenses. Instead, he keeps doing the same things that aren’t working and ends up apologizing in the post game conference for not making adjustments. Also, did you notice all these great changes, in your article, come in the offseason? If something’s not working, fix it. Don’t wait till we get knocked out of the playoffs before you do anything about it.