Mike McCarthy smiled as he was told the news. Apparently, McCarthy was busy prepping for his eighth training camp as the Green Bay Packers head coach when his boss, general manager Ted Thompson, had stepped to the podium 24 hours earlier at the team’s annual Shareholders Meeting at Lambeau Field.
“He’s not only a good coach but an excellent motivator and excellent leader,” Thompson told the estimated crowd of 13,000 during his 10-minute football report to stockholders Wednesday. “In January 2006, we were looking for the right man to lead this football team. ... I thank God every day that he’s the Green Bay Packers’ head coach.”
Told during his annual pre-training camp press conference Thursday morning of what Thompson had said, McCarthy appeared surprised and genuinely touched: “Did he really? That was nice.”
Only three coaches in the NFL have been with their teams longer than McCarthy: New England’s Bill Belichick, who is entering his 14th season as coach of the Patriots; Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, who begins his 11th season coaching the Bengals; and New York’s Tom Coughlin, who is entering his 10th season as coach of the Giants.
McCarthy, meanwhile, is one of three coaches who were hired in 2006 who remain with their teams, along with New Orleans’ Sean Payton, who was suspended for all of last season for his role in the Saints’ bounty program; and Houston’s Gary Kubiak.
Of those coaches, McCarthy’s .661 regular-season winning percentage (74-38) ranks second only to Belichick (151-57, .726) and ahead of Payton (62-34, .646), Coughlin (83-61, .576), Kubiak (59-53, .527) and Lewis (79-80-1, .497).
Belichick (three), Coughlin (two), Payton (one) and McCarthy (Super Bowl XLV) have all won NFL titles during their tenures.
But after back-to-back disappointing playoff exits in the NFC Divisional round, including last January’s humiliating loss to San Francisco, McCarthy was facing an interesting challenge as he prepared to address his players Thursday night in advance of Friday morning’s first practice of camp: How to keep his message fresh after being in the same job so long. Although the Packers’ roster turnover means lots of new faces every year, McCarthy acknowledged that it’s a consideration.
“I think that’s a great question, and I think if it’s (no longer) fresh for me, then I probably need to step aside,” McCarthy said. “Every season is so unique, every challenge in this business is, frankly, easy to get up for because you’re challenged every single day, you’re challenged from so many different angles.
“A lot of thought goes into the start of training camp, how you feel about each team because they are different. The starting point’s always different, so it’s very fresh for me, and I’m excited to talk to them.”
In fact, McCarthy started to get the itch to return to work while still vacationing with his wife Jessica and their children.
“If you’re in this league long enough, (you enjoy) your chance to be away with your family and take a break, and then the Fourth of July comes, the fireworks go off and it just seems like that’s the time you start looking (at the calendar), ‘When do things start?’” McCarthy said. “I think everybody starts to get excited.”
During organized team activity practices, McCarthy said that this year’s team “has a different edge to it,” and after being displeased with how the offseason went a year ago – leading, in his mind, to a poor training camp and poor start to the regular season – McCarthy said Thursday that he felt much better about where the team is entering Friday’s practice.
“I always look as the offseason program as a launching pad into training camp. We clearly had a better offseason program this year than the prior year, that’s clear and evident to everybody,” McCarthy said. “We definitely got it back the way it needs to be as far as the approach, the demand, the heightened awareness, and I know I’m talking about a team that hasn’t played any games, but that’s a fact. We clearly understand it’s about winning the world championship here in Green Bay and our goal will never change.
“I really like the approach that’s coming into training camp. It’s all about stacking success. It’s putting two practices back-to-back that are two quality practices that you can learn and grow from, and it’s no different for the coaching staff as far as how you prepare and have meetings.”
A number of people – from McCarthy, to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to ex-Packers and now Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings – have observed that the team’s “hunger” wasn’t what it had been during the Super Bowl-winning season of 2010. According to Rodgers, that hunger has returned, and McCarthy led the way during the offseason.
“I think the coaches in general are demanding more, and I think that’s a good thing,” Rodgers said. “Mike always talks about the roles of coaches and players. Coaches are to demand and teach and communicate, and players are to prepare, perform and communicate. The players are doing a better job of preparing; we performed better in the OTAs. The coaches are doing a better job of demanding more. There’s a higher level of getting on guys and making sure guys are doing the right things. There was guys flying around at the OTAs a lot more, and I think the teaching level – we have an incredible staff – has gone up noticeably as well.
“But the biggest thing that may have changed to get this thing going the way we want it to go is the communication. I think Mike really laid out how he wanted this thing to go from Day 1 of the offseason and Day 1 of OTAs. And the guys have bought into it. There hasn’t been any complaining or dissenting opinions during OTAs. It’s been very refreshing seeing guys get on board and be leaders. Especially guys like T.J. (Lang) and Josh (Sitton) and Evan Dietrich-Smith and Bryan (Bulaga) and Marshall (Newhouse) – when your offensive line is leading by example in practice and in the meeting rooms and on the field, the rest of your team is going to follow. I believe that, and I know Mike does as well. And those guys have done a good job of that.”
Players went through testing late Thursday morning, then had multiple administrative meetings, including an NFL security meeting, before getting part of the afternoon off. In the evening, players had not only a team meeting but position-by-position and installation meetings in advance of Friday morning’s practice.
Then, it’ll be time to go to work, an opportunity McCarthy says he doesn’t take for granted, no matter how thankful his boss is to have him.
“Ted’s awesome,” McCarthy said, appearing to still be processing what Thompson had said about him. “I’m very thankful for Ted Thompson and the opportunity he’s given me, but also for the program that we’ve been able to build here and the consistency that we’re able to give to the people around us. I think that speaks volumes about the confidence we have in our people, the confidence we have in one another.
“We’ve built this thing for the long term. It’s a product of how we’ve built and designed player acquisition and the ability to coach these guys up. We feel it’s very important for our fans that we have a very good football team every year.”
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.