Don’t be fooled by the visual of a head coach with his eyes glued to his play sheet, immersed in his role as chief play-caller. Yeah, Mike McCarthy is one of the bright, young offensive minds in the game and, yeah, his Packers offense is one of the NFL’s high-octane, high-tech units, but McCarthy’s philosophy of football is rooted in the dogma of some of the game’s hard-liners.
“Marty Schottenheimer: In times of crisis, think in terms of players, not plays. That’s something Marty always said,” McCarthy told his inquisitor, a reporter cursed with the same affliction of dialect, which made this a conversation easily understood by the two men having it.
McCarthy’s reputation for being a multiple-formations wizard is in sharp contradiction to the sign on his coaching staff’s meeting room: “Less volume, more creativity.”
The Packers head coach, a man who possesses one of his profession’s most interesting routes to the top, explained that “less volume” is to read “fewer plays” and “more creativity” is to mean “doing more with less.”
“If I’ve made mistakes as a young coach, it’s that I’ve overdone things. I trust my players a lot more than I did my first couple of years,” McCarthy said.
This is the new McCarthy. This is the McCarthy of a Super Bowl championship and a street that may soon bear his name.
Inside this McCarthy, the brash, young play-caller still exists, but he’s been tamed. We got a glimpse of him last season with that sneaky quarterback sneak that sent the Miami game into overtime, but we’ll probably see less and less of that coach and more and more of the one that turned the game over to his players late last season, and rode them and led them to the Super Bowl title.
After all, assistant coaches coach, head coaches lead, and McCarthy proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, as the Packers weathered the storm of injury and then got hot to win their final six games, that he can lead. Hey, he may have a little bit of Lombardi in him. People are going to begin making that comparison, especially if the Packers go on a run, right?
“I know they will, but I’m not built that way,” McCarthy said. “The coaches in today’s game, we’re all beneficiaries of what the coaches before us established. I came in here and history and tradition were already in place. In a place where it’s not in place, it’s a lot harder to coach. It’s an incredible asset here. It’s something to point to.
“I believe in brand name,” McCarthy added. He was on a roll now. “Play to your brand. That’s who we were and that’s the brand we were taking into the playoffs.”
The brand, even for a coach who loves plays and has a reputation for being one of the game’s best play-callers, is players, not plays. When he took the Packers job on the heels of a 4-12 season, he knew he needed plays. Now, he knows he’s got players and it’s with players, not plays, that you win big games and championships.
“I go back to the things I laid down the first year I got here. I believe in team identity. The best football players I’ve been around in this league are the smartest ones. Smart, disciplined coaches aren’t always successful, but smart, disciplined players are always successful. It’s a player’s game,” McCarthy said.
The McCarthy that replaced Mike Sherman as the team’s head coach in 2006 was somewhat unknown, unless you followed his incredible path to the top. Here’s the scoop:
Growing up in a classically tight, Pittsburgh neighborhood, McCarthy didn’t have the advantage of the facilities that belonged to the kids in the suburban mergers; there were no weight rooms or indoor facilities. His school practiced at another school.
“Where I grew up, we didn’t have organized football,” he said of the Pop Warner-type leagues that have become so popular. “Everything was baseball and basketball.”
McCarthy’s father owned a bar, still does, in the family’s Greenfield neighborhood, and the legendary basketball coach at nearby Bishop Boyle High School moonlighted by selling ice-makers. The story starts there.
“My father bought an ice-maker off him and the next thing I knew I was going to Boyle,” McCarthy said.
It was at Boyle, where he was recruited, so to speak, to play basketball, that McCarthy found football. What a stroke of good fortune that is for Packers fans.
After high school, he went off to Salem College in West Virginia for a year, then went back to work in his father’s bar for a year, then made the unnatural progression to Scottsdale, Ariz., Junior College, followed by a sterling career as a tight end at Baker University in Kansas. No USC. No Notre Dame. No need for either.
It was at Pitt, as Alex Van Pelt’s quarterbacks coach on a staff that included Jon Gruden, Marvin Lewis, John Fox and Chris Petersen, that McCarthy’s career got the nudge it needed. Two years later, he was coaching for Schottenheimer, a Pitt alum, in Kansas City, where McCarthy was an offensive assistant who worked with Joe Montana.
“You look back on that stuff. I was so blessed. That was a helluva staff,” McCarthy said of his days at Pitt.
He was on the move: a year with the Packers as quarterbacks coach, five years as the Saints' offensive coordinator, one year as the 49ers' coordinator and then, presto, head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Who was this guy who had also spent time collecting tolls at the Pennsylvania Turnpike?
Now, we’re starting to find out. We’re starting to find out he’s one of the top coaches in the game. We’re starting to find out he’s the perfect fit for a town such as Green Bay and an organization such as the Packers, which is to say accomplished, yet, understated.
“It’s about doing things the right way. The culture in the locker room is outstanding,” McCarthy said.
He attended the premiere of “Super Bowl XLV Champions” on Monday night. It had an impact on him, as he talked about having been too close to the daily rigors of his and his team’s pursuits to have gained a full appreciation for what was accomplished and what had to be overcome.
“Watching that film, that was really a big dose of reality. That was a special season, just the things we overcame. We were never behind more than seven points the whole season. That’s an incredible statistic,” he said. “The most difficult game down the stretch was the Chicago home game. They were playing with house money.”
The Super Bowl against the Steelers?
“That was our toughest opponent of the year: big-time quarterback, defense. Our preparation was excellent. There was no doubt in my mind we would win the game.”
Soon the question will be asked; actually, it already has been asked.
“How does it feel being on top of that mountain and everybody’s trying to kick you off?” McCarthy was recently asked, to which he said he responded: “Wadda you mean? We’re not going to be there.”
There’ll be no mountain after he first meets with his team to begin defense of its Super Bowl title. McCarthy will make sure the land has been satisfactorily flattened.
“It’s kind of over already. I think the labor situation is going to clear (the air) for us. Our celebration is kind of over because of what’s going on with the labor situation,” McCarthy said. “You have to re-create every year. You make a mistake when you try to have a carryover. I’m looking for new ways to change the training camp schedule; more physical, stay away from the shells.”
He has players now.
Vic Ketchman is a veteran of 39 NFL seasons and has covered the Steelers and Jaguars prior to coming to Green Bay.