GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine needed a break.
The son of a high school football coach, Pettine hadn’t taken a single year off since breaking into the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh in 1992.
Admittedly, however, Pettine needed to recharge after his second and final season as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2015.
“I came out of it and I was just beat up physically, mentally,” said Pettine, who was introduced as the Packers’ new defensive coordinator Wednesday. “I just needed the time off. It took me a while until I felt like I could smell smells and see colors.
“By the time late spring rolled around, I had some friends in Kansas City and I went out there and visited them during their OTAs and it clinched it for me. ‘Hey, this is what I do.’”
Being an NFL head coach was Pettine’s dream, but it also opened the 51-year-old coach’s eyes to inescapable realities of being the principal rather than the teacher.
In Pettine’s mind, a coordinator’s job is 90 percent football and 10 percent administrative. That ratio flips as a head coach, which made Pettine long to run a defense again like he did successfully for four years with the New York Jets and one season in Buffalo.
The chance to spend time in Kansas City spurred Pettine to pick up a consulting job with the Seattle Seahawks this past season, allowing him to stay current watching film and providing advance reports from the comfort of his home.
It all led to Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Pettine getting in touch earlier this month about the Packers’ opening for a defensive coordinator. Green Bay, in addition to being a place he’d never traveled to before until his interview earlier this month, gives Pettine the opportunity to do what he loves most.
“I missed the camaraderie of the room, the interaction with the staff, the interaction with the players,” Pettine said. “The chess-game part of it – the designing a game plan tailored to your opponent. (Being a head coach is) the furthest thing from my mind. I’m here to coordinate an outstanding defense and win a Super Bowl.”
Working as a consultant, Pettine had a chance to study Green Bay’s defense a little last season and sees a cupboard that’s anything but bare of talented personnel.
After recently getting a chance to meet Clay Matthews for the first time, Pettine said he looks forward to maximizing the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker’s versatility and building around the defense’s talented nucleus of Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
When asked the type of defense fans can expect from his unit, Pettine says he likes his scheme to be multiple yet simplistic. His defenses have been known to use both 3-4 and 4-3 concepts, though the widespread evolution of spread offenses has increased the deployment of nickel and dime sub-packages.
In his five seasons in New York and Buffalo, Pettine’s defenses never finished outside the top 10 in total yards. He accomplished that by stressing details and fundamentals. He wants his players to play with an aggressive mindset and believes his scheme has adapted to be successful in the NFL’s current CBA environment, which limits player-coach offseason contact.
“I always want our guys to know that scheme is worthless unless you play with great passion and great technique,” Pettine said. “I know people have said the system can be very complicated. We like to appear multiple without necessarily putting that much stuff in. So, it’s not a system that is overwhelming to learn.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he jotted down five “clear components and characteristics” he was looking for during his search for a defensive coordinator.
While he praised in-house candidate Joe Whitt Jr. for his “outstanding” performance in the interview, McCarthy said Pettine “knocked it out of the park” and proved to be the “right man for the job” in the end.
McCarthy is looking for Pettine to spark a turnaround after injuries and inconsistency hampered the league’s 22nd-ranked defense in 2017. After talking with new General Manager Brian Gutekunst, McCarthy believes everyone from the front office down to the coaching staff is rowing in the right direction.
“There’s specific areas where we need to improve on defense, starting with the pre-snap,” McCarthy said. “We need to do a better job of winning the pre-snap when you get into scheme and so forth. At the end of the day, we have a certain level of experience on defense and we’ll try to build off of that. We need to add players to our roster. That’s clearly a focus.”
Pettine prioritizes pass defense and agrees with McCarthy’s assessment of pre-snap disguises. It’s an uphill battle for a defense if a quarterback knows what it’s doing before the ball is snapped.
The installation of a defensive pass game coordinator (Whitt Jr.) and run game coordinator (Patrick Graham) is intended to improve communication between all levels of the defense.
While initially disappointed not to get the defensive coordinator job, Whitt Jr. came away impressed with Pettine after getting a chance to sit down with him and compare playbooks.
In his new role in the secondary, Whitt Jr. will be tasked with bringing the defensive backs and inside linebackers together to make sure everyone is on the same page in coverage.
“At the end of the day, (McCarthy) made the right decision, I believe, because Mike P. and I, our packages were very similar,” said Whitt Jr., who’s been on staff since 2008. “Being in that room with him and having an opportunity to share ideas, we're on the same page. We see defensive football the same way. Terminology is the only thing that we're really working on, trying to make sure we streamline.”
The coaching staff is in midst of the roster evaluation phase of the offseason, but Pettine likes what he’s seen so far. His job, over the next three months, is putting together a playbook that complements the players the Packers have and those that will be added in the months to come.
Pettine jokes he’s coached everywhere around the Great Lakes besides Canada, but after two years of sitting on the sidelines, the lifelong coach is ready to get back to work.
“The NFL, it’s all about the players. I can’t wait for them to get into town,” Pettine said. “I’ve already reached out to all of them, just to tell them how fired up I am to be here. At the same time, you’ve got to get with the players and get to know them. You can’t broad-stroke approach when you’re coaching players or when you’re teaching. You have to learn to learn, and that’s a big part of getting to know your guys.
“Do they learn better through working with it, seeing it on video, going through it on the greaseboard? The more that you can get involved and get to know your players, the better off you’re going to be.”