Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Evaluating Mike McCarthy - Positives and Critiques

Well, the 2006 regular season has come to an end for the Green Bay Packers, and the time hasMM come to start offering our expert assessments of how the players, coaches, and general managers did this past year.

I am going to offer my expert opinion first on Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who completed his first season calling the shots from the sideline, following his unlikely hiring last January.

The offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers elicited a bit of a reaction when he was named head coach, following a rather unimpressive season in his former role. Some were cautiously optimistic. Others, like me, were bordering on furious that one of the winningest coaches in franchise history was replaced with what was speculated upon as being a weak guy that the general manager could “control”.

Now, mind you, I was rather critical of the hiring, and suffered the repeated bleating of the masses telling me to “Wait and See”, “Wait and See”. That expression reverberated through my head like a bell clanging on Sunday. “Wait and See”. I couldn’t wait to be rid of that chant.

Now, while I wasn’t thrilled about the hiring, I did decide that I would withhold passing any judgment on Mike McCarthy until he had one full season under his belt. That, I felt, was fair: I did the same thing for Ted Thompson in his first year, and certainly, McCarthy had a long road to hoe.

I’m certain that, as an offensive coordinator, looking at the talent he was given in preseason to work with along the offensive line made him realize how difficult his job was going to be. You can’t judge his coaching based on the talent he was given in July.

So, I have withheld giving out midseason grades, offering too much criticism (or even too much praise) until he’s had enough time to show what he can do. And, now, finally, I can unload on him with the Official LA Evaluation of Coach Mike McCarthy. Now, I will finally give him my grade for the job he’s doing. Ready?

My Official Grade: “Wait and See”.

Yes, I am going to withhold my grade for Coach, but it’s not a bad thing. Frankly, if I would have given a grade to him a month ago, it would have looked much different and much bleaker. But, that’s the point for the “wait and see”.

The last four games of the season were won by McCarthy’s Packers, a four-game streak that brought a little bravado back to Titletown. Now, the argument could easily be made (and I’ve done it myself) that the opposition wasn’t exactly playing like they wanted to win. San Francisco looked a bit lost, Detroit and Minnesota looked like they wanted to just end the season then, and even Chicago looked like they were just biding their time as they had nothing to play for.

That’s the big positive I am giving Mike McCarthy: even though we were 4-8 and essentially means out of the playoff picture, he was able to bring a team onto the field that still had faith in themselves and their coach. Those other teams didn’t look like that.

Last year, it could easily be stated that an injury-riddled Packer team may have given up on Mike Sherman. Some have even suggested that Mike Sherman gave up a bit on Mike Sherman. We all know the end result: Ted Thompson gave up on Mike Sherman, too. For as much money as these players are getting paid, it seems unfathomable that any of them would just be punching a time card and watching the clock until it was time to punch out, and even more unfathomable that a coach wouldn’t be able to kick some clocks back in gear.

Working in the education field, I am well aware that there are paradigm shifts to move away from the old A-B-C-D-F grading scale, and to move anecdotal assessments that explain exactly how those grades might have been achieved. I don’t think I want to give McCarthy a grade, primarily because I don’t think his job is finished. There’s a finality to a letter grade. He also has too many positives and negatives at this point that we still would like to see shaken out with more exposure (as well as how he handles more talent).

So, my anecdotal assessment (in lieu of a grade) for Mike McCarthy would be “Showing Progress”. I think that’s pretty fair, and I’ll tell you why. As I go through some of my observations, both positive and negative, there’s still a lot of room for conjecture. I don’t think it’s fair to place some final branded mark on him at this point, as it is to say “I think I like the way this is heading. Let’s keep it going and see where we end up.”


I think that McCarthy’s biggest positive has been keeping the ship afloat, despite some really rocky games and some tough growing pains along the way. When we lost those games to the Eagles, Patriots, Seahawks, and Jets, I really thought this team had been taken to the woodshed too many times, and they would just throw in the towel. But this team kept their head afloat. This team is blessed with some veteran leadership (Favre, Driver, Kampman, Woodson, Harris, Green) to give some guidance to the raw talent that’s been brought in this year. But you have to give some kudos to McCarthy for making the ingredients simmer together in the pot just right.

I also like the way McCarthy isn’t afraid to get in and make adjustments, even on the fly. He’s still green and it was obvious at times he was making mistakes, but he seems like the guy who will learn from them. While committing to the zone blocking scheme, he was able to make some adjustments as the year went on, bringing on some more traditional run schemes.

He finally made the move Packer fans have been harping on for years, and moving Gbaja-Biamila to a specialist role, and allowing a young player in Cullen Jenkins to shine. He took risks, leaving Brady Poppinga and Jason Spitz in the mix, when conventional wisdom would have told you to take them out and learn for a while. Eventually, that decision made them look pretty good, and those players made McCarthy look pretty smart.

He got clobbered on the head enough times by our poor secondary coverage that he finally stuck his nose into Bob Sander’s work and we saw the improvement. This was a big step from a guy who announced in the preseason that he was going to be very hands-off with his assistants (to the point where he didn’t even know Driver was returning punts). There’s a point where you try to avoid your predecessor’s faults, but you also have to realize that you have to do some of those things, some of the time.

MMHe maintained a good rapport with Brett Favre, holding him accountable on the sideline when he got reckless. He got him to play with control, cutting his interception ratio nearly in half from last season. At the same time, he was still able to utilize Favre’s veteran leadership and skills, even if he wasn’t throwing three touchdowns a game for 400+ yards.

He cut Ahmad Carroll, cap acceleration be darned.

And he made good use of the spending and drafting spree on defense, turning it by season’s end into one of the stronger defenses in the league. He located some diamonds in the rough, particularly Jenkins, Corey Williams, and Patrick Dendy, who grew into roles as the season went on.

And, finally, he seems to have the ability to “spit and wire” as the game and/or season goes on. When the pass protection was far less than acceptable in the early parts of the season, he utilized the shotgun formation 45 times in the Saints game in order to give the quarterback time to pass. He used max protect schemes and extra blockers to compensate for their weaknesses, and again, worked with Favre to use his incredible evasion skills to create more time for passing.

This final point, however, segues into the criticisms…


Any coach has to work with the talent they are given, and McCarthy was no exception. His ability to “spit and wire” at times got us through games, but his tendency to try the unconventional also cost us at times. The zone blocking scheme worked well at times, but other times, was almost completely negated (and forgotten).

The infamous “passing on the goal line” finally appeared enough on tape that a defense made us pay dearly for it.

Overuse of the shotgun, particularly with an empty backfield, turned our offense into a one-dimensional passing game that defenses were able to attack easily, focusing on only rushing and coverage, not guarding against the run.

There seemed to be a fear, at times, of putting the ball in there and jamming it down the opponent’s throat, especially in the early part of the season. Cute passes and calls that seemed to run away from the defense often ended up in punts. McCarthy seemed to develop a little more confidence in his power game as the season reached December, but to me, I would like to see this improve for 2007.

Obviously, McCarthy came under a bit of fire for some of his coaching hires, not the least of which was a coach whose last name rhymes with “Crappenheimer”. McCarthy came in with precious little street cred compared to some of the coaches that we could have gotten at the time, and I think some of his hires reflected that.

McCarthy has a job to do this offseason, particularly in replacing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who left for a college job. Our offense, in case anyone noticed, wasn’t exactly scaring anyone this season, and it will be important to get in a solid coach who will be able to maximize the talent for whomever the quarterback is next season. He also has to make the big decision on his secondary coaches, who by all rights should be wondering if they will be back next year. How that is handled will reflect highly on McCarthy’s respect with his coaches and players.

The failure of our offense to produce in the red-zone also has to rest, at least in part, on McCarthy, who should be able to “spit and wire” some sort of ability to get the ball across the goal line.

One of the biggest criticisms I had with McCarthy, however, was with his willingness to eschew the run for the pass. At the start of the season, McCarthy stated unequivocally that in order for this team to be successful, they had to commit to the run, and stated they would do as such. Nothing was sweeter to my ears, as the Packers had run for a franchise-worst performance last year, and asked Brett Favre to set a franchise record in pass attempts with 607, leading the league.

What happened? For whatever reason, Favre passed even more this season, breaking his own record with 613 pass attempts, good enough for the eighth most attempts in a season in NFL history.

Why? Why say you’re going to commit to the run, and then only attempt 30 more rushes than the franchise-low last season? Why place so much pressure again on your quarterback?

As I stated, these aren’t absolutes in my criticisms, and neither are my praises. There’s two more years to go on Mike’s contract, and I think we’ll get more of an idea of what kind of coach we really have.

We haven't even seen McCarthy deal with true injury problems. Face it...the 2006 Injured Reserve list doesn't have one starter's name on it. A far cry from 2005, a year in which many felt the team had at least 8-8 talent before having its offense decimated. It's a lot easier to win close games when you have the fully loaded gun.

But, let it be stated: Mike McCarthy is moving this team in the right direction so far. He’s proven himself to be a personable coach who believes in developing a rapport with his players. I predicted this team to be a 6-10 level of talent, that with the weak schedule and staying healthy, that’s where we’d probably finish.

In finishing 8-8, he showed that this team has the capability to be more than the sum of its parts; that passion, attitude, and motivation can compensate, to some degree, over talent and the play on the chalkboard.

How far this team can go under Mike’s leadership, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But from this Packer fan to a guy who had the crosshairs on him before he even accepted the job, I say, you’re “Showing Progress”. Keep up the good work, and we are all looking forward to seeing our 2007 squad and how it shapes up under your influence.

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