Mike McCarthy Q&A
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The new place isn’t so much an addition as it is a full-fledged second building.
The new construction on Mike McCarthy’s lot in suburban Green Bay doesn’t just provide more garage space, an indoor basketball court for the kids and an art studio for wife Jessica. It also says that the Green Bay Packers head coach plans on sticking around for a while.
Quite a long while.
If the 48-year-old McCarthy, who enters his seventh season as Packers coach with a career record of 68-36 (including 5-3 in postseason play), has his way, he’ll be coaching the Packers into his 60s.
“That’d be great,” McCarthy said, leaning back in a leather chair in his office last week and smiling at the thought. “Absolutely.”
In the NFL, the saying goes, you’re hired to be fired. In the Packers’ case, some coaches were; others left for what they thought were better opportunities. As the NFL begins its 93rd season, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid (a former Packers assistant) is kicking off his 14th season coaching the Eagles, under a win-or-else edict from owner Jeffrey Lurie. Most coaches don’t last half as long as Reid has in the City of Brotherly Love.
The last guy to lead the Packers to a championship, Mike Holmgren, only lasted seven seasons before his wanderlust and desire for the dual head coach/general manager job led him to Seattle in 1999. The legendary Vince Lombardi held the job for nine seasons before turning the coaching duties over to loyal assistant Phil Bengston – and then leaving to coach the Washington Redskins. And Bart Starr, who quarterbacked those unforgettable Lombardi championship teams, lasted nine years as coach despite a 52-76-3 ledger and had only one playoff appearance (in a strike-shortened 1982 season) to show for it.
Even McCarthy’s immediate predecessor, Mike Sherman, had a terrific five-year run as coach (including four years as general manager) before being stripped of the GM job after the 2004 season and finding himself out of a job after a 4-12 finish in 2005, when GM Ted Thompson took over. Like McCarthy, Sherman wanted the Packers job to be his last. Instead, it may simply turn out to be his last NFL head-coaching job. (He’s currently the offensive coordinator for ex-Packers assistant Joe Philbin in Miami.)
But with an MVP quarterback in his prime, a roster stocked with talent and no interest in total power over a football operation, the stage is set for McCarthy to get his wish. He could be overseeing his second championship team in 2012, and while he may not stick around as Curly Lambeau, the franchise’s first coach from 1921 through 1949, did, he certainly looks poised to do this for as long as he desires.
In a 26-minute interview in advance of Sunday’s regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field, McCarthy discussed the importance of handling success, adjusting to teams who spent all offseason trying to figure out ways to slow the Packers’ juggernaut offense, and how he goes about fixing what ails his team.
Q: Wisconsin: We’ve talked about this before, but one of the most interesting things you’ve ever said was when you got this job and told everyone that the biggest challenge your program would face would be handling success – as you took over a 4-12 outfit. How did you think your guys handled the success of winning Super Bowl XLV, and how do you think they’ll handle the difficult mix of success from last season of going 15-1 with the failure of losing in the NFC Divisional Playoffs to the New York Giants?
McCarthy: There’s only two categories – success and failure. Definitely the 15-1 regular season would go down as an experience of having success. And how you handle regular-season success is important, because I like to think as we sit here and talk that we’ll be talking about 15-1 regular seasons every year. But that’s probably not reality. And the ability to learn from that successful season is to really take the components that you feel you can carry forward. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in a very successful season like that. First, the fast start. What defines a fast start? What are the attributes of a fast start? Those are the things you try to continue to coach and train. And players can adhere to that, but at the end of the day, they have to go out and perform. There’s a lot to take out of the 15-1 regular-season record because there’s a lot of things that we learned about ourselves throughout the season and hopefully we can educate and apply that to the new members of our team and it’ll have a positive effect in the regular season.
At the same time, you have to look at the postseason, the loss, and it was a failure. I think we have answered those questions respectfully too much, and I think we’re in tune with why we feel we weren’t successful. And God willing, we’ll apply those lessons to this postseason.
Q: You’ve spoken at different times about how you’re going to do some different things with your offense. Without tipping off the 49ers, can you explain in general terms what that means? I know the no-huddle offense is part of your plan, but that was something you did a fair amount of last year, too.
McCarthy: I think we had 250-plus snaps of no-huddle last year, so I thought it was an effective situational offense for us. But other than that, I do believe the preparation for the first game is unique, and I talk about this it seems every year, but I’d like to keep it to that. It may take a few weeks for that uniqueness or our new ideas to come forward. The flow of the game dictates that. We’re not going to come out in some new formation that no one’s ever seen before in the game of football. It’s important to try to change year-in and year-out. Because I think a) you can’t stay the same and b) trying utilize your people the same way every day is probably not in your best interest because I do feel teams do a good job in the offseason of studying you and trying to take away your main concepts and things you do best. And we’ve got to protect against that.
Q: Having done this as long as you have, in your experience, is that the greatest challenge in coaching? Is there a fine line between anticipating how people are going to attack you because of your success and saying, “We do what we do,” and not overcompensating?
McCarthy: To me, that’s the excitement of being a coach, especially the head coach. I mean, you don’t have the individual room anymore. To me, the essence of being a successful football coach is going into the team meeting room, breaking up into groups and then breaking it down to the individual room and taking those individuals that you’re solely responsible for and helping them grow as professional football players. That’s something that I think every head coach misses. So with that, still being involved in the offense, the game-plan meetings are my favorite part of the week. Outside of Sundays, because there’s nothing like Sundays. But the practice field and the game-plan meetings are the things I really enjoy. That’s really part of the excitement of every year – going through the offseason, being honest in your evaluations, and trying to get better through scheme. And the other part of it is challenging the Aaron Rodgerses and Greg Jenningses and the Donald Drivers, these veteran players, challenging each of those guys to be better. The best way of doing that is to continue to try to put them in the best position as possible.
Q: It seems to me, the football coach stereotype is a control freak …
Q: You don’t think so? It sure seemed to me that Mike Holmgren and Mike Sherman, for example, wanted to control everything that happened – or at least try to exert control on as much as they could, so they felt like they were doing everything necessary to win. Does doing the no-huddle require you as a coach to kind of set that component of your personality – and maybe some ego – aside, to allow your quarterback to do as much as he will do?
McCarthy: I don’t know. I never thought of it that way. I think it’s more a reflection of a coach and a player’s relationship growing, and the strength and trust of a relationship being evident. I always felt like you have to have that with your quarterback. That’s my background. But more importantly, it’s playing to a strength. I think Tom Clements and Ben McAdoo do an outstanding job of training our quarterbacks. And it’s the whole room. That’s a room that I think you definitely have to rely on. To me, you talk about pressure points and stress points in your football team, and when things get heavy, where do you lean? I want to lean on the quarterback. I’ve told him (Rodgers) that from Day 1. I said it when I was an offensive coordinator, too: When push comes to shove, I believe in the quarterback.
Now, he may run the ball – that doesn’t mean he’s going to throw the ball every play. But I believe in building the offense around making the quarterback successful. I learned it from Paul Hackett in 1989 and I’ve believed it ever since. I have no reason not to.
Q: What does Aaron Rodgers do for an encore? How does he follow up that kind of success? And how do you and Tom and a guy who was the tight ends coach last year challenge the reigning NFL MVP?
McCarthy: Aaron understands that yesterday doesn’t guarantee today. I mean, not only am I so impressed by what he does as a football player, but it’s been really neat to watch him grow as a person. Some of the conversations that we have, the non-football/life conversations, he’s a very deep, spiritual, intelligent, well-schooled, experienced young man. Now I lost my train of thought.
Q: How do you challenge that deep, spiritual, young man?
McCarthy: The challenging of him is really tapping into his strengths and you know when you put a new scheme in, he’s going to go, “I see why you’re doing that.” And it’s probably part of a conversation that happened in a practice (ages ago), and it’s probably a product of the relationships he has on the coaching staff and with everybody, even the defensive staff. He does a great job of talking football and life with those guys. I mean, the guy is truly intertwined in our organization but more importantly intertwined with his teammates and this coaching staff. That’s huge. That is so important. I think it’s a big part of our success and his success.
Q: What about his relationship with you? How does that grow after this much time?
McCarthy: Oh, we’ve got plenty of room for growth. I don’t spend the time that I sometimes think I should spend with him anymore. But once again, there’s a tremendous amount of trust and belief in him, in his relationship with Tom, and the growth that I’m seeing with Ben. I trust those three in that area. If I didn’t, I’d be in that room every day. They do a very good job. And more importantly, they put their stamp on it, too. They’re not running Mike McCarthy’s Quarterback Program. Those guys have added to it and Aaron’s added to it. And Aaron’s an excellent mentor, too. I mean, I don’t want to sit here and make this The Aaron Rodgers Show, because I want to talk about the team, but he’s a unique, special guy.
Q: OK, then just one more thing about him. Since 1992, the Packers starting quarterback has essentially missed one start due to injury.
McCarthy: Let’s keep it going.
Q: I’m sure you’d love to keep it going for the next 10 years. What if it doesn’t? How certain are you that, if you lost Rodgers for say four games, you wouldn’t go 0-4 with Graham and you’d be out of the playoff picture?
McCarthy: I’ll say this: Graham will benefit from our approach this year. Because it was a big topic of discussion in terms of playing safer and smarter with Aaron. And with that, I feel like we’re doing not a better job but we’re more focused on that going into this season and Graham’s part of that training. I think that’ll help him. But yes, I am confident in Graham Harrell. Graham Harrell needed to play the way he played in the final preseason game really for himself and really the second-(string) offense. But I was confident in what he was doing up to that point. He still has a lot of growth in front of him.
To me, there’s two things a backup quarterback has to do. Obviously he needs to win. But No. 2 is, he has to be able to run the offense to where you don’t have to take a step back. We have a lot of experience now with our offensive group, and for you to have an injury and now have to change the whole way we play, that’s probably not what you want in your backup quarterback. And I definitely feel Graham gives us that.
Q: So all this stuff about you trading for Colt McCoy or Tarvaris Jackson, there was nothing to that? That was never going to happen?
McCarthy: To me, and I think you know me well enough by now, I truly stay focused on the target, and that’s improving the 90 guys here. I believe in that. It’s funny. Now that you know all the news (as a head coach), you don’t worry about stuff like you did as an assistant coach. I used to think as an assistant coach, you’d sit around and talk about things a) you had no control over, and b) you didn’t have any of the information, but you had an opinion. What a waste of time that is. Now, no different than trusting Tom and Aaron, it’s the same thing with Ted Thompson. My goodness. I think everybody has learned a lesson that you have to trust Ted Thompson. I always have. He trusts us to coach the ones here to get better, and our conversations are usually pretty seamless when we talk about where we are as a team and the individuals on our team.
Q: Even if you run the ball more this year, you’re never going to be a 50/50 run/pass operation. So why was it important to add a guy like Cedric Benson? In what ways does he change your offense?
McCarthy: He’s another good football player. He’s a playmaker. He’s an individual who’s very productive and dangerous with the football. You never have enough of those. And people who know me best know I actually like to run the ball. I think I learned football the right way in the NFL from Marty Schottenheimer. So it is in my DNA, whether it’s evident or not … [Pause.] … Was I believable?
Q: Yeah, sure. Anyway, Jermichael Finley had a concussion, a quad injury and a baby during training camp. What he did not have was a ton of game action with your starting quarterback. What makes you confident that he’ll realize his vast potential this year?
McCarthy: Jermichael’s workload is something we’re very conscious of, something he’s conscious of, and you have to trust the training environment and the practice environment. He puts a lot of time in. He practices extremely hard, so I’m confident through this week of work that he’ll be where he needs to be.
Q: Is he still the one guy that you monitor more than anyone else in terms of what he might say or do?
McCarthy: I think he’s gotten a lot better at that. He’s still a young man. Still extremely young. Jermichael has really had a couple bumps with these injuries. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He’s got a tremendous work ethic. The guy puts everything he has into it. I think like a lot of things in life, he needs to let the game come to him and not chase the game.
Q: But you’re not disappointed he gave up Twitter?
McCarthy: Has he really given it up? You guys (in the media) are probably sad if he has.
Q: Heartbroken. You sure talked confidently about your offensive line the other day, even though you only have seven guys on your 53 …
McCarthy: As opposed to eight? Nine?
Q: Eight or nine who can play, yeah. Guys you can count on. Is that not something that if you have a couple bad breaks injury-wise, you could short-circuit your entire offense, regardless of having the NFL MVP and the best pass-catching crew in the business?
McCarthy: That’s life. Every situation you’ve ever been in in team sports, there is a vulnerability. It doesn’t matter how you shake it. I don’t think there’s ever been a team you look at at the beginning of the year and you say, “They’ve got plenty of everything.” That’s what team sports are all about. Especially when you draft and develop and you believe in the development of young players. To me, it’s not really about the linemen. It’s about staying true to your philosophy of trying to keep the best 53 players. And when you do that, sometimes you’re heavier in some areas and short in some others, compared to the traditional numbers. So I’m comfortable with the people we’ve selected to be on the team, why they’re here and more excited about the guys we have a chance to develop. If 2010 proved anything, it proved it takes more than 61 players to win the championship. So we adhere to that philosophy.
Q: Let’s talk about your defense. After how last year played out, how have you seen Dom respond, and have you gotten any more personally involved with the defense?
McCarthy: I have a lot of faith in Dom Capers and the defensive staff. We probably spent more time together through the evaluation period, (talking about) the exit interviews and the information to come out of that and really the direction that we’re going. Dom is an extremely experience, detailed, hard-working guy. I feel we will definitely be better there this year. We have more depth than we’ve had on defense in quite some time, so I think not only will we be better this year, but we have a chance to really get better as the season goes on. And that’s something that as I forecast the season – once again, health plays into these types of outlooks – but I feel like we definitely have a chance to be better to start the season, but I really think we have a chance to grow.
Q: We spend a lot of time talking about “last year” every year, but I’ve always thought that last year is only significant in the way it influences what you do in the here and now and how you apply the lessons you learned from it.
McCarthy: I agree.
Q: So what did you learn from having the 32nd-ranked defense in the league last year?
McCarthy: It’s one statistic. We all know how this works now. You take the worst statistic of our defense and it was on every broadcast and in every story. It’s something our defense has been tagged with. Disappointingly, even our players are acknowledging it.
Q: So what do you take from that defensive performance last year?
McCarthy: Reality. Stay true to the film, the evaluation, utilizing the personnel, scheme, trying to play better to the offense. To be honest with you, I think we were caught off-guard a little by how well we played on offense. I mean, we had the lead every game.
Q: So you think that’s a legitimate explanation for your defense’s struggles? That your offense was so good?
McCarthy: Absolutely. A very good study, and I’m sure everybody does it, but we’ve always done it, but when you play the season, and you go back and look at all the calls and (compare that) to what you scripted in the spring and in training camp, how close are you from this to that? I made some mistakes. Like 2010, with Jermichael Finley. We had a big chunk in our offense – probably more than we’ve ever had for one player – and Week 5 in Washington, he gets hurt. So that year, we were really out of balance. To me, that’s what I focus on. I focus on the training and the application of the scheme to how you forecast the season will go. But it never goes the way you think it’s going to go. But if you can be in the ballpark, you know you’ve trained your guys to get ready to play. When you’re still able to hook into things you did in training camp when you’re well into your season, you did a good job preparing them for the season, then you did a good job. But when you’re changing directions all the time, I think it’s more of a challenge.
Q: You were here in 1999, and Ray Rhodes used to get up there at the podium every week and say, whenever something went wrong, “We’re going to get that fixed.” And yet, it never got fixed. To your credit, every time you say that, it seems to get fixed – special teams, penalties, whatever. Are you going to get the tackling fixed next? Because you have admitted what a problem that was. Have you done what you needed to do to get that fixed?
McCarthy: Marty Schottenheimer told me this as a young coach, and it’s so true. He said, “Coaches are teachers and problem-solvers. That’s all you do. And if you get outside of that, you’re not doing your job.” He’d say, “You have to give the players the answers to the questions. Now, you should be giving them to them before they encounter the situation (that leads to the question). But, when something goes wrong, you have to find as many different ways as you can to keep emphasizing the same thing over and over and over again. That’s your job. You’re a problem-solver. And you have to be proactive with it.” And the other part of it is, you have to have teaching skills. Frankly, that’s all it is, in my opinion. I mean, now it sounds simple, but that’s the approach. And we need to get results. We (as coaches) need to do it for ourselves, for one.
Tackling is a fundamental of football that is required to have as a team to be successful. But also, our opponents know it. And it gives them more confidence. They’ll take the checkdown and try to break a couple tackles and try to get through you. It changes the way that the opponent plays against you and they rely on those things and it gives them more confidence. It’s no different than taking care of the football or taking it away. Those are all basic fundamentals of the game that if it’s not a strength of yours, you have to stay after it.
Q: Last question. The popular thing to do in these Q&As when we do them with Ted is to ask him how long he’s going to keep doing this. He’s 59. What about you? You’re going to be 49 in November, how long do you want to keep doing this? Have you ever thought about doing something else? The last Super Bowl-winning coach here, Mike Holmgren, decided he wanted to be both a coach and a GM. Does that interest you at all?
McCarthy: I am very blessed and honored to hold this position, and I would like to hold it for a long time. And when I don’t have the enthusiasm to walk in here every day, then it’ll be time to give it to somebody else. And I don’t see that happening for a long time. I love my job, I love where I work, I love the people I work with. This place is special. People say it all the time. What do they mean? To work here, particularly with the people who have been here forever, it’s just such a great place to work, and I’m very proud of what Ted and I have created, the environment here, and I just want to keep trying to make it better and better and better. Because it is about winning championships, and I know that when I come to work every day, we have the resources to go forward towards that goal. And that’s something I enjoy doing very much.