Monday, November 23, 2009

McCarthy Plays To His Strengths Again...Just In Time

Like many Packer fans, it was only two weeks ago that I felt it was a foregone conclusion that Mike McCarthy was a goner at the end of the season. Two embarrassing losses to Brett Favre and the Vikings, followed up by a cataclysmic collapse against a winless team meant the writing was on the wall and the clock was ticking.

But, hold on now. The Packers have beaten two decent opponents (including their first quality win of the season against the Cowboys), and suddenly the lynch mob has retreated into a holding pattern.

I'll tell you a secret. It's not just because of the wins. It's because McCarthy is finally getting back to what he does best. Hopefully, it's not too little, too late. But there is no one happier than me to see Mr. Gruff and Ornery finally giving us something besides coachspeak and excuses.

When McCarthy was hired, I wasn't happy with it, but pledged to give him my benefit of the doubt until he proved otherwise. And what I noted several times in his first year or two as head coach of the Packers was his ability to tinker with what he had to work with. And trust me, McCarthy has not always been given the mother lode of talent to work with, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

In 2006, his first season, he was given a stable of mid-round draft picks to make up the interior of his offensive line, and it was painfully clear that the line was unable to provide enough protection for the quarterback to throw the ball. But what McCarthy did in those days, instead of blaming gap control or pad level, is to go out and spit-and-wire a solution. No, they weren't ideal solutions, but they worked.

With veteran Brett Favre under center, McCarthy started utilizing max protection sets to give the receivers time to open up their routes. At times, the Packers sent only two receivers out for passes, but Favre was able to do more in the passing game. Bubba Franks became almost a blocking-only tight end, often lining up in the backfield for either pass protection or run blocking.

And, as the season went on and the zone blocking scheme continued to slug along, McCarthy wasn't afraid to tweak it, adding pulling guards and sweeps that allowed old Ahman Green to start being a threat on the ground again.

In 2007, it was clear again that the Packers were dealing with an ineffective ground game and poor blocking. McCarthy again adjusted the offense to play to the strengths that he had to work with. Almost completely abandoning the run game in the first half of the season, he introduced a five-wide set that spread the defense and allowed Favre to have more time and more targets.

As the season went on, defenses were forced to play honest pass D against Favre, and this then opened up the running game for newcomer Ryan Grant. As a result, the Packers went 13-3 that year.

Sure, max protection schemes and the run-and-shoot are far from the textbook answers to problems on offense. But, McCarthy was willing to make it work in those days.

However, McCarthy's problems started last year, following FavreGate and the advent of Aaron Rodgers. As the running game again sputtered and offensive blocking had its difficulties, we also stopped seeing McCarthy make those adjustments he used to make. Instead of obvious changes we could see on the field, the explanations given to us starting becoming vague and subjective. "Gap control" and "Pad level" were cited as reasons why things weren't going well. And each week, he vowed to go into practice to fix those things, and every week, they didn't get fixed.

Why the sudden change? Why did McCarthy suddenly go from being the problem-solver to the excuse maker? Did the 13-3 season and the accolades he earned give him a sense of complacency, that somehow he must had hit the right combination and was loathe to change it? Did he feel an increased sense of urgency to insure that Aaron Rodgers would succeed, either allowing him to carry the team or refusing to change what he thought was the right setup for him? Did he simply develop a huge ego, believing that he no longer had to adjust his setup for anyone else?

Whether it be complacency or ego, it is pretty clear that 2008 and much of the beginning of this season has been the definition of insanity: believing if you keep going back and doing the same thing, that you'll eventually get different results.

But desperate times call for desperate moves, and in the dark despair after the loss to Tampa Bay, it appears that McCarthy has decided to move beyond his pride and began retooling the offense, moves that seemed obvious before and are clearly changing the face of the offense now.

For one, McCarthy has placed Rodgers in more quick-drop situations. It was painfully clear that Rodgers was struggling with his pressure awareness and decision making in eight-step drop situations, so those were eliminated. With quick three-step and five-step drops designed to emulate the original West Coast Offense, Rodgers has been more productive and reduced the number of sacks and pressures.

Secondly, McCarthy has shaken the dust off of the screen play, an old WCO dinosaur if there ever was one. He brought in Brandon Jackson and convinced the linemen to get out there and escort him downfield. You rarely see screens anymore in the NFL, and certainly well-executed ones are even rarer. But on Sunday, the screen thrived against the 49ers, adding another new wrinkle that defensive coordinators have to guard against.

And that's the advantage you get with adding those wrinkles: the more DC's have to gameplan for, the more effective your traditional plays become.

It's too bad that the Mike McCarthy we grew to love in his first couple of years, before the massive success of the 2007 campaign, somehow lost his way. I don't know if he's a "great" NFL coach, but I do know what things he does best.

And what he does best is making adjustments to play to the strengths of the talent he has to work with. What he does worst, of course, is making excuses for not getting them fixed.

It's too bad you have to figuratively get to your last letter of Hangman before you realize that it is time to make those kinds of changes again. For whatever reason, however, it is good to have McCarthy being proactive, creative, and getting awarded game balls by his players for doing his job.

Will we see the five-wide set, or a double tight-end attack with Jermichael Finley back? Will we put Quinn Johnson in the backfield and allow him to smash some holes open for Grant in more of a power run game than the ZBS (that still hasn't quite blossomed)?

True, the number of wins he has between now and the end of the season will ultimately decide whether or not Mike McCarthy keeps his job. But those wins will be predicated on how McCarthy decides to continue to spit-and-wire this team, and particularly the offense, to put it in the position to get those wins.


Kevin Purcell said...

Agree or disagree, this is excellent writing! Good job!

Anonymous said...


When you spend so much time celebrating a win over teams like the lions and browns then it is not surprise to see a win over the 49ers is a


wow, they are 4-6 you know? on their way to another under 500 finish

they beat the rams, bears, cards and the seahawks

and just like GB last year they LOSE close games that prove they are better than their record

yet how many times to coaches in the NFL play to run up the score? are there now style points?
does it count more to win by a TD than a FG?

this is not much different than the smack talk after beating the lions and browns

it means nothing other than that if games were 65 minutes long the 49ers would probably have beaten us too

C.D. Angeli said...

actually, Anon, you misread. A quality win is generally defined (per ColdHardFootballStats) as a win against a team with a winning record, updated as the season goes on. The quality win I referred to was the one against Dallas, who presently has a winning record.

no one has bemoaned the lack of quality wins more than me, but by definition, the Packers now have one on the year, assuming Dallas stays above .500.

PackersRS said...

Great article, as allways, C.D. And I totally agree with your main point. It's not the wins, it's the way we're winning. But because of the way we were losing, he's still on the hot seat.
Actually, your post was terrific, and pretty much everything I think about MM is written in there. Second post, I believe, that I fully agree with you. And I don't tend to fully agree with people.
Anyway, my point is it's a great piece, I really enjoyed reading it.

IPB said...

CD - I know of 3 other games we would have won had MAC initiated his tactics (ala da Niners) sooner than he has. Do you have any conception that maybe we would have beaten Favre at Lambeau had he avoided those 7-step drops all game long? The Dallas win was righteous. I just wish we would have skunked 'em.

MAC took away the 5-wideout set just as soon as Favre left town. It's barely been outta the toy box since then, as well. You give Rodgers 3-step drops and 5 choices to throw to and we can win just about every game we have left.

Not sure about where you see us having a viable Tiger Set with Donald Lee still dropping passes. Finley is a catch and we need to clone that guy in the offseason. Sherman spent too much time using TE's for blocking only. And, it's a weakness with Coaches who can't think outside the box during games.

I said since the first game of 2008 - when I saw Rodgers wasn't getting the same setups we saw all thru 2007 - tht if you can't let Aaron have what he gave Brett, then we would lose games .... and we did. Rodgers was used to 2007 play scheming and had to believe he would get his chance to do the same exact thing, and MAC pulled the leash back real hard. It was the wrong move at the wrong time.

Personally, I don't think Rodgers gets scared out there. It's more like he gets mad at being held back. Mad at not getting the adjustments he needs to have time out there.

The one who's showing fear is MAC.

Now, you've commented a bunch on the good things that MAC has done over the seasons. For me, I see him slipping right back where's been over the last 20 games. I could be wrong, and I hope I am. Yet, I just don't see it.

If MAC gets new life, then fine, I suppose. I won't shed any tears if Mark Murphy pushes TT to let the guy move on to some other pasture, tho'. He's had plenty of time to get it straight with what he had success with in previous seasons and has (what) written all that off ?

I'm already looking at who's available. Not saying all that many would want to come and work for Ted Thompson (at least with the Media nonsense being what it's been). But, I do read that there are a few who want to get back in the water with the rest of the sharks.

Have you read "Do You Love Football?"

IPB said...

I forgot to ask ...

You wrote:
"With veteran Brett Favre under center, McCarthy started utilizing max protection sets to give the receivers time to open up their routes. At times, the Packers sent only two receivers out for passes, but Favre was able to do more in the passing game. Bubba Franks became almost a blocking-only tight end, often lining up in the backfield for either pass protection or run blocking."

Question is: Why would MAC go away from his 'utilizing max protection' concept, just because he finally had HIS quarterbsck under Center?

If the fans had that answer, they might be a little more understanding, at least .... but only a little.

Got any extrapolations for us?

packerbacker1 said...

hey, happy holiday and some great football

One of the things to be thankful for is good writing and you provide it.

Anonymous said...


happy thanksgiving to all

but I am still waiting for the names of the five WRs you want to be in on a 5 wr set

dont you follow the injury list?

did you not watch the queen game closely? it was not just 7 step drops that got rodgers hit

IPB said...

I'll take it that the 5-wideout set comment is directed at myself.

In 2008, we did lose James Jones almost right away, and then MAC tried to bring him back too early later on in the season which negated his potential effectiveness. Still, MAC hardly ever used even the 4-wideout set. It was basically 3-man of just two with a TE on passing downs and Donald Lee hasn't got the greatest hands in the League, does he?

Overview of the Rosters and how GBP goes about replacing players that are let go or injured for the season - nominally TT will invariably elevate a Wideout of the Practice Squad or go and sign one, as he just recently did earlier this season. So, it isn't like we don't have available personnel at that position. What we're dealing with is a HC who won't make the opportunity for his QB when he actually should.

Last week, we got everyone back - you can doublecheck that fact on the Dope Sheet (for today's Lions game). Finley was back, as was Jordy Nelson. Did we see a 5-wideout play during the Niners game? I may be busy taking care of our Membership throughout the game, but I don't remember seeing it used at all.

The great thing was we saw Rodgers doing his 3-step drops and getting rid of the ball -- a situation MAC wasn't using hardly at all for the first 8 games. Only recently has he re-employed that option, as CD as deftly described.

As far as Rodgers getting hit all the time - 2 things stand out:
1) Wideouts running the route and then stopping their attempts to move beyond that and get open. Donald Driver keeps his motor going, but the others seem to pause.
2) No matter how you slice it, Daryn Colledge IS the weak link on the Line. Rodgers has just commented on Deitrich-Smith stepping in for a series while Colledge sat down nursing his ankle and it was instantly noticable who should really be out there. This week, we get to see him step in at Center. I'll keep my fingers crossed, but as Bootlegger comments, the guy has a nasty streak in him and that's what this O-Line needs. Campen ain't nurturin' it.

It's nice to have Tauscher back, but everyone has to seeriously understand that this has to be the last season for both Markus and Cliffy. TJ Lang, I think, is ready to step in at RT. But, we'll need to replace Cliffy.

Right off, I'd rather replace our Offensive Line Coach and then see how things turn out. No one has improved as they should under Campen. But, that's another Blog.

PackersRS said...

IPB: It was because of the 5 wide set that Rodgers was sacked, the first play of the 4th quarter.

Also, in this game, they went 5 wide and Rodgers was sacked, too, but because Clifton stood still expecting the tooth fairy to give him some money or something...

Now, I don't remember exactly if it was 4 wide with a TE or 5 wide per say, but it was definitely an empty backfield, with only the OL protecting...

Brady Augustine said...

This is a great post on the other strength of coach McC. He has always been very organized and hits his "targets" but you bring up another strength that he is creative. Creativity motivates players...there was excitement about the "big five" players were talking about it and for the most part, I liked it (except when it was third and goal on the one yard line). You are also right that wins (though money is also a factor) will determine whether he keeps his job. I am still skeptical but if McC keeps A-Rod on his feet, we will be scoring over twenty a game. This will make a big difference since even with Woodson, our D will struggle to keep up against teams like Saints or Vikings who have QB's playing at a high level AND a deeper group of wideouts. McCarthy still has a lot to prove to me, but you are completely right that when a coach gets a team three wins in a row when their backs are against the wall, they need to get props. I think your post alluded to the mystery that is still looming over this whole scenario..."Why did it take so long to figure out what worked?" Everybody else knew it and the fact that we have no solid answer to that question leads one to wonder if we can be sure of what offense we will see in the future.

Brady Augustine said...

Also, there was some mini discussion of "quality opponent". The definition of quality opponent will always be a bit nebulous. The definition of "quality win" as against a team with a winning record is practical but it is circular too because each team's win/loss record is dependent on the "quality" of opponent they played. A middle of the road team may be defined as "quality" three games into the season when two of their wins were against the Browns and Lions, and I think the 49'ers have played some very good teams - Cards, Vikings, Texans, Colts. All this to say that "quality" win is pretty relative and though for the team, it is wins and losses that count and there are no moral victories (close games lost are losses too) I would disagree with anonymous about the 49'ers not because they are that great a team wins v losses but on a relative scale. Our team needed badly to put together a couple good performances in a row and in particular, protect the qb. We needed to show that our offense had a new identity, not just that we played one game running slants and screens and sticking with the ground game. The 49'ers are great against the run and though they don't get a lot of sacks (tied for 12th I think) they do get pressure and so to our offense, this was a quality opponent, not the best, but not terrible. They lost to the Colts by 4. This team was one dropped INT away from beating the Vikings (the Brett Favre TD would never have happened). Now, our defense against their offense, yes, they don't have a great qb, but Vernon Davis was (not sure if he still is) the TE scoring the most TD's in the league and Gore is another quality running back so they presented challenges that way as we saw later on in the game when we were playing softer D. So though C.D. you, didn't include them as quality, I do based on the matchups they presented to us and the timing of the game. We will certainly face much tougher foes and will have to come away with wins against upper eschelon teams if we ever expect to be considered one ourselves which is another case for the relativity. We are 7-4 and most fans are still questioning whether we are a "quality" team or not when our record and standing in the Wildcard race clearly state that we are.