Next men up: The coaches
As Mike McCarthy sat in Ted Thompson’s office at Lambeau Field that day in January 2006, he had no idea what he might be getting himself into.
McCarthy had never been a head coach at any level, and now he was trying to convince Thompson that he was the right guy to be the 14th head coach in Green Bay Packers history. So if the Packers general manager, at any point in the interview, had shared with his prospective new coach his philosophy on building a team, McCarthy doesn’t remember it.
And it wouldn’t have mattered if he had.
“I was just trying to get the job. (So) whatever he said, I agreed with,” McCarthy, now in his eighth year in charge, said with a laugh Saturday. “He didn’t sit here and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to draft guys, you’re going to be the youngest team in the league for the next eight years.’ No, he didn’t say that to me. Because if he would’ve said it to me, I (still) would’ve said, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s go!’”
But it didn’t take long for McCarthy to get a lesson in Thompson’s philosophy. After accepting the job on Jan. 12, 2006 and filling out his staff over the next several weeks, McCarthy sat down with then-offensive line coaches Joe Philbin and James Campen to look at the depth chart. Free agency had come and gone, and with the draft approaching, Thompson hadn’t added anyone to the line list.
“I can remember sitting there with Joe Philbin and James Campen and talking about the offensive line. I mean, we had probably two or three, maybe four names on the board, and we’re going into the spring,” McCarthy recalled. “So that’s how it started, and you just keep building every year.”
Indeed, that April, Thompson drafted three offensive linemen – Boise State’s Daryn Colledge in the second round, Louisville’s Jason Spitz in the third round and Nevada’s Tony Moll in the fifth round – and all three would end up starting at least 10 games apiece as rookies.
While Thompson did make his only noteworthy foray into free agency that year – signing cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett – it was the way that Thompson rebuilt the offensive line that would become the norm. For a rookie head coach who’d signed only a three-year contract, the prospect of having to win now with a collection of youngsters could have been alarming. Not to McCarthy.
“I believed in my abilities,” said McCarthy, who’d spent 1999 in Green Bay as quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes. “I just felt that I knew the opportunity I was going to be given here. I knew one thing about Green Bay and the Green Bay Packers: They’re going to give you everything you need to win. So that was really my belief going into the job.
“Now, things happen, and I’m very blessed with the coaching staff. I was smart enough to surround myself with outstanding people. We have excellent players that we’ve been able to develop, so all of those things kind of came to place.”
All those things coming into place have also allowed the Packers to build a roster that’s unlike any other in the league. With 50 of their 53 players being home grown – meaning they’ve never played a snap for any team other than the Packers – and only nine players having reached age 29, McCarthy knows the drill. Thompson won’t be spending lavishly in free agency. He won’t be swinging a last-minute trade-deadline deal to get a big name and give up one of those ultra-valuable future draft picks to get him. And when injuries strike, like they have again this season, the fallen will be replaced on the roster not by household names but by practice-squad players already in the fold or young players available because other NFL teams haven’t seen in them what the Packers scouting staff might.
And the reason Thompson feels he can build his team his way, of course, is that he knows McCarthy and his staff have developed into a group of high-caliber teachers who can, more often than not, get the new guys up and running quickly. Whether they’re young, promising players who were in camp with the club or waiver-wire or street free-agent pickups, the staff has a knack for getting them ready quickly.
“I’ve said this before: It’s really a reflection of the coaches’ teaching ability and willingness to take guys – young guys, guys with very little experience – and coach them up and get them ready to play,” Thompson said of his roster-building approach. “Mike’s good with it. You have to have a head coach and a staff that will do this. They’ve been good with it the whole time – since everybody came on board.
“I think there’s a confidence level in the personnel people, and we know that if we find a guy who has certain traits, and he can play, these guys will figure out a way to get him ready to play. And I think that’s what they do.”
They’ve certainly done it this season. At times while both four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry have been sidelined, the Packers have played with undrafted rookie free agent Andy Mulumba and rookie sixth-round pick Nate Palmer at outside linebacker, the money position in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. Jamari Lattimore, who’s started the past three games at inside linebacker, was fourth on the depth chart to open the year, behind A.J. Hawk, injured starter Brad Jones and veteran backup Robert Francois, who was lost for the season (Achilles’ tendon) in the same Oct. 6 game against Detroit as Jones was sidelined with a hamstring pull.
On offense, with wide receivers Randall Cobb (broken leg) and James Jones (knee) and tight end Jermichael Finley (bruised spinal cord) out, the Packers have more than made do with Jarrett Boykin and Myles White as the No. 2 and 3 receivers alongside Jordy Nelson and a foursome of little-known tight ends.
After a 1-2 start, they’ve won four in a row entering Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, just as some of their injuries players are starting to inch toward their returns.
“It starts with Mike. We have a group of coaches who are very good teachers. Every coach is an expert at what he’s teaching,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “We help each other out. We coach across the hallway – where the offensive guys help the defensive guys, the defensive guys help the offensive guys.
“There are really no egos with this coaching staff. We all want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes to help each other out to get it done. So, I think the combination of coming from the head coach’s lead and the ability to teach and demand from our players, it’s just a very good coaching staff.”
While all the coaches interviewed for this story said that they don’t in any way enjoy the number of injuries the team has had to endure, they also admitted that the challenge of figuring out how to win games without such high-profile players gets the creative and competitive juices flowing.
“Obviously you’d like to have everyone healthy, but we train everybody, not just this week when they have to play but from the spring and then throughout training camp,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements explained. “We try to get everyone ready to play because you know in the NFL you’re going to lose guys. It’s just the nature of the beast and you have to have guys ready to replace them.
“There are good coaches throughout the NFL, obviously. But, I think, the individual coaches (here) take pride in the fact that they can get guys ready. You kind of live vicariously through your players, and when you get guys ready to play and they do well, it’s gratifying.
“I think that’s what coaching is – it’s teaching guys what they’re supposed to do and then demanding that they do it within your personality. And the guys on our staff do that well.”
But the philosophy starts with McCarthy, who doesn’t refer to the 53-man roster with his team. Rather, McCarthy talks about having a 61-player roster – the 53 on the active roster, plus the eight-man practice squad – and coaching all of them as if they will be playing on Sunday.
That’s paid off so far this season, as four players – running back Michael Hill, cornerback James Nixon, tight end Jake Stoneburner and White – have been promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice-squad. Last year, four other players – center/guard Greg Van Roten, wide receiver Jeremy Ross, running back DuJuan Harris and defensive tackle Jordan Miller – received practice-squad call-ups.
“At times when you get on veteran teams, the veterans get coached a certain way and the younger guys sometimes get left behind a little bit and have to keep up on their own,” said running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, who played nine seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback and coached in Buffalo and Tampa Bay before joining the Packers staff in 2012.
“But we’re such a young team here, so there’s so much teaching that goes on for our starters because a lot of our starters are young players. So, we do coach them all, coach them all the same, because you never know – especially with the way it’s gone in our room. It’s the-next-guy-up mentality, so we have to get everybody ready to play because you could be one or two games away from being the starter.”
While McCarthy credits the players – “They are the ones out there performing, putting the work in, doing the little things getting ready for the opportunity,” he said – the reason they are ready is the preparation the coaches provide. McCarthy says his philosophy on coaching 61 players dates back to his quarterback coaching days, when he had high-profile veterans like Joe Montana and Brett Favre in his QB rooms but young quarterbacks to develop simultaneously.
That said, it isn’t always easy, as Thompson acknowledged that not every young player he adds is the right fit.
“(The coaches) take them and coach them and get them ready, sometimes in a matter of days. (But) there’s no guarantee it’s going to work,” Thompson said. “We’ve had guys come in and it just doesn’t work out. But you have to remain positive and if you get somebody nicked up a little bit, you have to say, ‘OK, what do we do now?’”
More often than not, though, the Packers have the answer.
“This is a true compliment to Ted’s vision and our partnership and everybody else included,” McCarthy said. “There’s a structure and a plan that we stick to. Hey, trust me, it’s not always roses (where we just) say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re going to get through it.’ We’re trying to get better every single day, too.
“We have a free-agent board, if you can believe it or not. We talk about all of the different players out there. Our personnel department works endless hours always trying to get better; there’s so many conversations that go on. But at the end of the day, we believe in the people we have here and the opportunity, the resources, the facilities and everything that we’ve been given to get these guys better. And they respond, so it’s working.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.