You can say this about the Ted Thompson Era of the Green Bay Packers: it hasn’t been boring. Perhaps never in the history of the franchise has there been more soap-operatic storylines accompanied by roller-coaster curves. Once-glorified heroes have become reviled traitors, and once-despised newcomers like Thompson and Aaron Rodgers have not only found redemption in their Super Bowl win, but their harshest critics have had to admit their own fault in even tossing unfair criticism their way.
But one mystery still remains, and to me, it is the continued under-the-radar respect given to head coach Mike McCarthy. Despite owning one of the best winning percentages (.647) among active coaches, McCarthy is still seemingly an afterthought when national voices speak of the most respected coaches in the league.
While McCarthy has not only has his team on a 14-game winning streak and is the skipper of the defending Super Bowl champions, he doesn’t even seem to get top billing on his own team. In fact, you might even be able to make the case that the reclusive and enigmatic Ted Thompson gets a little more press and credit than his head coach. The Packers’ Wikipedia page covers McCarthy’s tenure in two parts: The Brett Favre Era and the Aaron Rodgers Era. Number of times McCarthy is mentioned in the Rodgers Era article? Once, when they discuss how he fired his defensive coaching staff after the 2008 season.
Why the lack of notoriety for a man who won a Super Bowl in grand fashion, rising from the ashes of a sixth-seed wild card? The man did it with the tinkering skills of McGyver, fixing gaping holes left by injury with spit and wire. In fact, there may have never been such a story in NFL history, with so many starters landing on the IR and still making it all the way to the end. Ask any coach in August what they need most to make it to the playoffs, and invariably they will say, “If we stay healthy, we have a chance to go all the way.” They never say, “I hope we lose at least five primary starters and have to see how good our unproven depth really is.”
But that is what McCarthy did. No matter the measuring stick you use, the job he did not only keeping that team together, but taking them on an improbable journey to the promised land is one more folk story in the long litany that is Packers' history.
One of the biggest reasons that McCarthy doesn’t get the spotlight is his own blue-collar attitude. You do get the feeling that he’s far more at home in the film room than in front of reporters at a presser, where he has become infamous for stock answers and his “are we done yet?” disposition. In many ways, his is the finest approach we could ask for in a coach: my success is the team’s success, nothing more, nothing less.
Last year, the 2010 AP Coach of the Year Award was given to The Greatest Coach In The NFL, Bill Belichick, which is naturally based on regular-season results, not the post-season. One would imagine that if the Packers’ unlikely playoff run to the Super Bowl was considered, McCarthy might have garnered more votes than he received, which was zero. Heck, Lindy Infante can brag he has more Coach of the Year honors, having taken the award home during the Cardiac Pack season of 1989…a team that didn’t even make the playoffs.
But even we as Packer fans have struggled to give McCarthy his due over his tenure. An endless wrangling in Green Bay over where and when to place a street in his honor has reached comic proportions, even resorting to calling for a bridge to be renamed (despite the fact most bridges are only named posthumously, a realization that McCarthy had to find somewhat unnerving).
No, McCarthy hasn’t always had the easiest road even among Packer fans. Mike Sherman was fired following a miserable 2005 season in what was, now admittedly, a rebuilding year for new GM Ted Thompson. The man brought in to right the ship and quote-unquote Bring Brett One More Trip To The Super Bowl was McCarthy. Truth is, I remember writing about the various candidates at the time, and formally announced that I would be content with any of them…except McCarthy. I had serious doubts about a guy who was Favre’s quarterback coach in 1999, when he threw 23 interceptions while setting an NFL record for attempts.
But I resolved to give McCarthy his chance to prove himself. But he came under plenty of criticism without my help, implementing a zone blocking scheme with a bunch of rookies that didn’t seem to actually allow running plays to work. Sloppiness on the field became his weekly litany of “pad level” excuses and how “we have to clean that up”. As many Favre fans watched the time ticking away on his career and begged for Randy Moss to join the team, impatience grew and the pressure mounted.
But even then, I saw what I called McCarthy’s ability to “spit-and-wire” through weaknesses in his team. Unlike his predecessor, he was able to make adjustments at halftime, and was always willing to go back to the drawing board during the next week. In 2007, McCarthy quickly showed he was worth his salt, taking Favre and the Packers to the NFC championship game. Ted Thompson was awarded the GM of the Year award. McCarthy finished second in the Coach of the Year voting to Bill Belichick.
Any public momentum that season generated for McCarthy, however, was quickly erased the following off-season. Favregate polarized the entire Packer fan base, and McCarthy inserted himself right in the middle of it the day Favre forced the Packers’ hand by reporting to training camp in early August. Famously, it was the head coach who took the errant quarterback to task in purportedly wildly emotional closed-door meeting that ended with Favre leaving, no longer a Green Bay Packer.
As Packer fans took sides and all parties involved found their daggers being tossed their direction, McCarthy suddenly became a target of criticism. It didn’t help that the Favre hangover led the Packers to a disappointing 6-10 season and ended with an axing of a dozen or so coaches. The national viewpoint tended to side with perennial golden boy Favre, and many attributed the 2007 success more to the quarterback than to the coach.
Calls have been made, even as late as last season, for McCarthy to be fired. I remember the “Dumb and Dumber” photoshopped picture someone created of Thompson and his head coach. But Mike continued his methodical approach, shrugging off the criticism, and got the Packers to reach the playoffs in 2009 as a wild card. Momentum began to build once more.
But last year’s “Super Bowl or Die” season may have been far more literal than we think. With early injuries to key cogs in the machine like Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, and Mark Tauscher, the season looked bleak and McCarthy’s playcalling was coming under fire, even as late as December.
But the Packers went on that winning streak and brought home a Lombardi Trophy to stunned Packer fans, who cheered and hollered and screamed Mike's name. Surely, McCarthy should have garnered some national credibility now. Right?
And then came the lockout. Whether we like to admit it or not, the lockout put the NFL on hold, and with it some of the Packers’ ability to revel in their success. Events involving player appearances were cancelled, and training camp was shortened. A political firestorm also contributed to the abrupt end of the kumbaya feeling all Wisconsinites were feeling following the Super Bowl victory.
Perhaps some of McCarthy’s ability to carry over his visibility on the national stage was also diminished. July should be all about the defending champs getting ready to make another run, but all the NFL news revolved around DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell.
Perhaps one of the biggest impediments to McCarthy getting the credit he deserves are Packer fans themselves. As I wrote last week, there’s a surprising number of fans for whom 8-0 isn’t quite enough, going as far as to call for coaches to be fired...apparently for not “winning every week well enough”. When something as special as a perfect first half of the season (and a 14-game winning streak AND a Super Bowl trophy) can’t be appreciated by Packer fans, how can we expect the national stage to start including McCarthy’s name among the “great coaches”?
So McCarthy continues to fly under the radar, an afterthought after the titanic Belichick, folk hero Sean Payton, larger-than-life Rex Ryan, steady Mike Tomlin, and archaic Andy Reid. Perhaps this season, he will finally get his due. However, as Rob Demovsky muses, Jim Harbaugh may still be the odds-on favorite for the award this season. There’s a penchant to give the award to the new guy who brings about a quick turnaround (see: Infante), and the 49ers head coach certainly fits that bill.
In the end, the good news is that I have sincere doubts that McCarthy has given such awards or his national credibility nearly as much thought as I have given it ink today. McCarthy doesn’t seem to thrive on the attention, as perhaps former coach Mike Holmgren did. Holmgren was trying to build his case to rise in the ranks, but McCarthy seems perfectly content doing what he does…just going to work and coaching.
I’m sure he won’t begrudge us Packer fans shilling for him a little bit. After all, we are fans, and that’s our job to speak up for our team, our players, and our coaches. I’m sure he’s perfectly happy letting us do our job.
And we’re perfectly happy letting him continue to do his job. As far as I'm concerned, he's my coach of the year.
- Like Like
- 0 points