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.