Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fluidity Makes McCarthy a Surprise Success

They were few decision made in recent Packer history that dropped as many jaws as Ted Thompson’s coaching hire of an offensive coordinator from a last-ranked offense. I remember vividly stating in the weeks leading up to the hire that I would have been happy with nearly any of the major candidates at the time—Russ Grimm, Tim Lewis, etc.—as long as it was NOT Mike McCarthy. Anybody but Mike McCarthy.

Why? I saw McCarthy not only as a guy who appeared to be an ineffective offensive coordinator, but a guy who struggled in a power tug-of-war with Aaron Brooks and was a part of a horrid 1999 Packer coaching staff that seemed to begin the cycle of unaccountability for Brett Favre. Worst of all, he appeared to be ego-free, low-key, and little more than a yes-man for a general manager who just fired previous coach Mike Sherman.

Now, once hired, I elected to give Mike McCarthy every chance to prove himself and look for the good in what he did, as well offering criticism. One of my biggest concerns was that when he coached Brett Favre in 1999, he set his then-career high in pass attempts, a record he broke in his final year with Mike Sherman. The fact that Favre broke that record again last season (as well as a bottom-quarter rushing offense) didn’t exactly bring a lot of bubbly confidence that McCarthy had progressed as a cultivator of quarterbacks, much less an NFL offense.

But, I noticed quickly, even before the four-game winning streak to finish the 2006 season, that McCarthy was great at what I called “spit-and-wire”, the ability to take what wasn’t working and somehow make adjustments to get it up and operational. This was particularly important that season, as the unheralded first-year coach was given a lot of raw and NFL-E talent to work with along the interior line, while trying to shoehorn a zone blocking scheme that wasn’t working.

By choosing to keep back seven or eight blockers, and going against the zone blocking grain by pulling guards and implementing more traditional schemes, I praised McCarthy for being able to piece together some success with his flexibility. However, I was still concerned that piecemealing and patching was not going to be a successful strategy in the long run.

But, this season, we saw the maturation not only of Mike McCarthy, who grew much more comfortable in his role on the sideline, but in his ability to adjust as the season went on. Unlike many coaches, who “stay the course” and try to get players to fit their scheme or continue a strategy when it is clearly not working, McCarthy showed a tremendous ability to create and re-invent his team, particularly the offense, to find the easiest path to success.

Call him the anti-Coughlin. I call him “fluid”. Like a mountain stream, water will always find the easiest route down the mountain, even if it takes on some unusual twists and turns along the way. It’s easier to go around the boulder, than to spend the time trying to grind your way through it. It is that fluidity that McCarthy has implemented, and that fluidity that has made him a gem for the Packers.

After just one game, despite his repeated statements that he was going to remain committed to the run, McCarthy realized that the stable of horses he was given to work with wasn’t going to be able to consistently be a threat. He revamped the whole offense. He utilized the shotgun with a short passing game that many of us found uncomfortably familiar from previous seasons, but got his talent to execute consistently. As the running game continued to find its footing, he brought in a spread formation that became as exciting as any offense run in Green Bay in decades, and amazingly, as reliable.

However, games against the Cowboys and the Bears foiled the offense as one-dimensional: perhaps the giddiness of the pass-happy playcalling made it look more like the run-and-shoot than an offensive juggernaut. McCarthy took his diamond-in-the-rough in Ryan Grant and began using him in a more consistent manner, implementing a more traditional running game with the hybrid zone blocking scheme that the line finally began grasping.

He’s also shown a fluid and patient ability to work with players who struggle and make adjustments with them. As the offensive guards struggled mid-year, he shuttled Daryn Colledge, Ryan Spitz, Tony Moll, and Junius Coston around trying to find the right combination, without seeming to injure any egos in the process. As Atari Bigby continued to hurt the team by making critical errors early in the season, McCarthy continued to work with him until he ended up turning into the December Defensive Player of the Month, and a monster in the first playoff game.

But perhaps, his biggest feather has been the ability to rein in Brett Favre, not turning him into a cautious game manager, but not allowing him to remain the careless gunslinger he had been allowed to turn into, either. Favre has not only recaptured the command of his game he lost under Mike Sherman, but sent his loudest critics into hiding. Can you imagine had Favre been playing under McCarthy for the last eight years?

Mike McCarthy was looked over as NFL Coach of the Year, losing to a man who he may face in a Super Bowl in a week or so. And, McCarthy, in all honesty, hasn’t earned that honor as yet. A good coach maximizes what he has to work with in the regular season, and McCarthy certainly has done that. But it is a great coach that is able to elevate that level once he gets to the post-season. It is the next game, and hopefully, the one after that will earn McCarthy and his fluid reboots of his team the honor of being called a great coach.

But, kudos to McCarthy, who has blown our view that a coach should come in with a vision of his schemes and how his team will execute his ideas. What McCarthy came in with was a vision of simply how to win football games, and impressed that vision upon those in his charge, from the wily veterans to the undisciplined youngsters. It is the fluidity of being able to change those schemes, invented and re-inventing the team as needed, finding the easiest path to winning a ballgame, no matter how unconventional it seems, that has made Mike McCarthy a success story for Green Bay fans to cherish.

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