GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy’s coaching philosophy isn’t predicated on constantly reminding his players and assistant coaches of his demands and expectations.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers 47-year-old coach can be demanding, and he has set high expectations for his team coming off its Super Bowl XLV title. But when it comes down to it, he’d rather not have to constantly tell his guys about what he wants from them. Simply put, he expects them to do their jobs. Period.
Which is why, as he and his wife Jessica put their kids to bed one night last week and sat down to watch an advance copy of the NFL Films production America’s Game, a documentary about the 2010 Packers, McCarthy was ticked off about a minute in.
You see, in McCarthy’s world, if you’re quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you go through your progressions, find the open receiver and make the throw. If you’re left tackle Chad Clifton, you block the guy in front of you. If you’re veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, you make the plays that tilt the field defensively. If you’re wide receiver Greg Jennings, you run a crisp route and catch the ball when it’s thrown to you.
And if you’re the makeup artist for America’s Game, well, you don’t make a guy look like …
“An idiot,” McCarthy said, shaking his head. “That was the first thing Jessica said. I was like, ‘[Expletive.]’ It was the same gal that used to do it for the TV show. I even asked her. ‘Are you sure this looks OK?’ She just kept adding it – you’re in there for four hours, you know – and it pisses me off. Because look at me. I look like an idiot. I hated it. It was terrible.
“Put that in there so she reads it. ‘Hey, what did you think of America’s Game?’ ‘I think the makeup was awful.’ That was the first thing my wife said to me. She said, ‘Aaron and Charles were great, but who did your makeup?’ It didn’t feel right, that’s for sure. It felt like I had paint on. Or clay. It was bad.”
If that turns out to be the biggest setback McCarthy faces this season – after overcoming a whopping 15 players on season-ending injured reserve en route to the Super Bowl XLV title last year – then the Packers will be in the running to repeat as NFL champions in February in Indianapolis. And maybe he can pick his own makeup artist for the sequel.
Last week, in advance of Thursday night’s 2011 NFL Kickoff regular-season opener against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field, McCarthy sat down in his office for an extended Q&A session to discuss what last year’s team accomplished, what he expects from this year’s team and a myriad of other topics. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Q: The last time I did one of these – before the 2008 season while I was still at the Wisconsin State Journal – we were in the throes of the Brett Favre saga, and I asked both you and Ted Thompson, simply, “Do you know what you’re doing?” People took that in a variety of ways, but the point was simply that there were a ton of folks – including roughly half of Packer Nation – who were asking that question. Now that you have a Super Bowl ring and the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy, do you feel any sort of vindication? Do those people owe you an apology?
A: I never gave it any thought. I think it’s like any path in life, there’s people on both sides of the road. I don’t care who you are. I was fortunate to be here as an assistant coach and understand what happened in 1999, but I always felt and knew I belonged in the head-coaching ranks. It was a goal of mine, I felt like I was ready. Ted Thompson gave me the opportunity, and I never really listened to the other side of the road. I just think it’s our business. But I don’t feel like I’m vindicated in any way. In a lot of ways, I feel like we’re just getting started.
As far as that (the quarterback situation in 2008), I had no doubt that we were making the right decision. Now, how it was going to turn out, only the good Lord knew the answer to that. But if I was put in that situation again, I’d make that decision 10 times out of 10, just based on all the information that was available at that time. Regardless of what people think happened or what they think the information was, based on everything that came across my desk, I have no regrets about making that decision. It’s easy to say now after you win the Super Bowl. I get that. But I never regretted that decision. Never questioned it. Never doubted it.
Q: It is remarkable how far you’ve come in your career. Watching America’s Game,I particularly enjoyed the flashbacks to 1999 when you were the Packers quarterbacks coach. Since your quarterback has made training-camp facial hair an annual tradition, will you consider bringing back the mustache next year?
A: He’s asked me to do it a couple times. But I think my days of mustache-growing are over. It’d probably offset what’s going on with the rest of the hair my head. My daughter Alex didn’t know me without a mustache until 2005, so I figure these two young gals, Gabrielle and Isabella, they’ll never know their dad with a mustache their whole life. I have no desire. I think there’s a time in your life when you can do those things.
Q: As you know, some media members – me being one of them – love to write about the drama of the NFL. For us, it makes the storylines about more than just the Xs and Os of football. In the America’s Game documentary, you talk about falling to your knees after the overtime playoff loss in Arizona and how you don’t like drama or being dramatic. What do you do inside this building to keep the drama to a minimum? How do you limit it, and when it does come up with 53 different personalities plus countless coaches and staff, how do you manage it?
A: Drama is part of our business. I don’t think you can limit it. Plus, it’s part of what people perceive the marketing of the game to be about. I don’t share that belief. I believe in, ‘I’m here to coach the team,’ and I stay focused on that. That’s why, just how I approach different public situations, I really focus on keeping it about the players – because I think it needs to be about the players. They’re on the field. The head coach of the Green Bay Packers gets a lot of attention and gets all the face time that he needs. I don’t ever feel the need to try to get any more. If anything, I’d prefer to get less. And that’s a credit to just this position. It’s a great position to be in. Drama, it’s part of it. I don’t think you’ll ever eliminate it. But, for example, I’m competing as a coach. But then, like I said in the video, I felt like an idiot that I was on my knees. When NFL Films asked me the question about that, they said, “You got up so fast.” I said, “Yeah, I got up so fast because I felt like a fool for being down on my knees like that.” It wasn’t about me. It was about the team competing. I had a Jason Wilde Moment, as I like to call it.
Q: The last guy to win the Super Bowl as the head coach of this football team, Mike Holmgren, changed a lot in the aftermath of that. Why won’t you?
A: Well, time will answer that question. I don’t feel I’ve changed from the day I got the job ‘til today. But I will say this: As I’ve moved up the scale in this profession, people do change. I’m not denying that people don’t change with success. I’ve seen that; it happens a lot. I agree with that. But in fairness to those individuals and even myself, people change the way they look at you and the way they treat you and their expectations of you change, too. Sometimes, it can be six in one, half-dozen in another. That’s something I’ve learned. There’s a certain expectation about you once you become a head coach, and once you’re head coach of the Packers.
It can be challenging at times. I remember when I got to the point in my career when someone asked me for my autograph. I thought, “Wow, that’s really special. That’s cool. I will never turn down an autograph.” But now, being in this position, I understand how some people get frustrated with autographs. It can be challenging, overwhelming at times. What I’ve learned to do is, you have to be able to separate your profession and your family – something I didn’t do a very good job of as a young man in this profession. I was all into the job. But you definitely need to separate the two, and I’m very blessed to have a great home, a great wife, a tremendous family. That has made that easy for me. Because I am different – when I’m with my family, I’m with my family. I don’t really want to tolerate the onslaught of the notoriety you get with this job. It actually makes me nervous when I have my children with me. But I don’t want to change. I like who I am. I think I could lose some weight. But other than that, I don’t think there’s any need to change.
Q: When you said in your very first press conference that, “This team’s biggest challenge will be handling success,” I must admit I rolled my eyes a bit. Here was a guy who’d been the offensive coordinator of a San Francisco 49ers offense that ranked dead last in the NFL the year before, taking over a team that had been 4-12 the year before. Why did you say that, why did you believe that, and how big of a challenge is it going to be now that your team has had the ultimate success, winning Super Bowl XLV?
A: I believed it because that’s been my experience. Success comes on different levels. Having the opportunity to work in Green Bay before 2006, I knew I was coming to a place that was going to give me every opportunity to be successful. I had no doubt in my mind that I was going to have the chance to build a program the right way. Ted made that very clear in the interview process. I knew I was going to have a legitimate head-coaching opportunity, and I was very confident that we were going to be successful. And I wasn’t just talking about a Super Bowl, I was talking about stacking successes. It’s all part of my plan, it’s part of what I say (to the team) all the time. You have to handle success at every level. And every level creates new devils. We have now reached the ultimate success, but we have to go back to stacking it again to get back to that level. It’s the essence of our business. You get a new journey, a new challenge every year. There’s nothing like it. I mean, I love coming to work every day. I love my job, I love the challenges of the National Football League. There’s nothing I’d rather do.
Q: Do you have any desire to become a head coach/GM?
A: It’s interesting you say that, because it’s really just a title. It’s two jobs. There’s a reason why it’s two jobs. And to have control over the other, I mean, who has the final say … the most important thing between the two people isn’t who has the final say, it’s the relationship between those two guys that when you do get to that point you’re truly going to listen to each other. And I have that relationship with Ted Thompson. We disagree, but you work through it.
Q: Has it become more collaborative in the last few years?
A: Clearly. Hey, Ted hired me, but my first year, we were 8-8 and I’m sure he was looking for me to improve and grow in some areas. When we were 8-8, I don’t think he was saying, “McCarthy’s got it all figured out.” That’s something I had to earn with him, and a little bit of him with me. He’s my boss, don’t get me wrong, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a two-way relationships. I have a great respect for him professionally, and I have even more respect for him personally. I think the world of him.
Q: You have five kids now, from a college sophomore to a newborn. In what ways is coaching like parenting, and in what ways is parenting like coaching?
A: I think I have the perfect family to draw parallels to my coaching. Because I have the sophomore in college who’s like the old veteran – they have it all figured out, they know how to push your buttons, they’re smarter than you are, or so they think. And then I’ve got the whole boat of rookies who are still in diapers. So it’s the perfect parallel. I mean, parenting is coaching, because coaching is teaching. Paul Hackett, who’s a mentor of mine, he’s an incredible teacher, and I learned that mindset and philosophy from him. It’s about teaching. And as a parent, you really are teaching your children to be able to not survive life, but to live life. I think there’s a big difference. I think that’s something we all go through as parents: Are you trying to get your kids through, or are you trying to get them to thrive and grow? Parenting and coaching, there are a lot of parallels.
Q: You always talk about how you’re a draft-and-develop outfit with players, are you that way with your coaching staff, too? Obviously you made the defensive change in January 2009, but how vital has it been to keep that core together and how has that group grown?
A: That’s the vision. We’ve had a lot of stability. The hiring of Jerry Fontenot (as running backs coach), and for Edgar Bennett to move (from running backs to wide receivers) and develop his career, that’s definitely the priority. Now, at the end of the day, as a coach you have to make the best decision for the Packers, and I’ll do the same with the staff, no different than we do with the players. I would definitely like to think that’s our approach. I was a young guy who was given a chance; I was a young guy Marty Schottenheimer brought in and then elevated me. I would hope our staff is going to develop that way.
Q: How much of a difference has Dom Capers made? What were you thinking when you hired him?
A: The philosophy of having a defensive coordinator who’s a former head coach, it really comes down to structure. If you go back to the first year when you’re building your staff and you’re distributing your job responsibilities, as a head coach … Being a head coach who’s also involved in the offense – and our offensive staff has been together for so long, they’re outstanding – you want somebody who can control the room. Not just the players, but the assistant coaches. If you don’t structure your assistant coaches, you’re going to have issues down to the players. Having head-coaching experience over there (on defense) was something I was really looking for after going through my first hiring experience. And also, I was looking for the 3-4 scheme, with multiplicity, the philosophy of pressure, and Dom has been excellent with that. He’s an excellent coach, he’s a great guy. Anybody who’s ever worked with Dom, he’s just such a professional. He’s been great.
Q: Rodgers has a close working relationship with you, but he also raves about quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. As an old QBs coach, how important is he to what you do?
A: I like to look at Tom and Aaron’s relationship as the example. You want your players to feel that way about their assistant coaches. I appreciate that Aaron acknowledges Tom’s expertise the way he does. Because an assistant coach doesn’t get enough credit and he gets too much blame, in my opinion. There’s a lot of one-on-one time that these assistant coaches spend with their players, and you want the result to be Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn. The assistant head coach position is so important. Tom does an outstanding job. He’s the same guy every day, I really enjoy working with him. I’ve done that position for a long time. You have to have that in that room, and doing that job, I clearly understand that. Tom keeps that room so even-keeled, and that’s a very good match for Matt and Aaron personality-wise. I have great comfort that I don’t have to be in that room. Because the natural reaction is, I’m a quarterback guy, and he’s not doing this exactly the way I did it. That’s a bad mindset to be in. When I got here, we laid the foundation for quarterback school, and Tom has put his stamp on it and he’s done a great job. I really like that room. When I think of offense – and I’ve taught it this way ever since I became a coordinator – that’s the room I want to rely on. Tom Clements makes that happen.
Q: It’s not an easy job to be the offensive coordinator for an offensive coach who calls the plays. What kind of coach is Joe Philbin?
A: He doesn’t get enough credit. Joe doesn’t need me. I try to stay out of the way. I know what it looks like when someone gets in the way of the coordinator. And don’t ask me where I saw that. But I’ve heard that happens. (Smiles.) Joe does a great job. We did a lot of things together initially, but that is Joe Philbin’s offense. I am still involved in it, I’m the play-caller, but Joe has his fingerprints all over that deal. He’s done a great job of taking the original offense and grow and adjust it each year, because our goal is to stay in front of the curve. I don’t have a guy on my staff where I go, “He’s a management issue.” That’s all part of that culture. If you’re going to spend that much time away from your family, you’d better be around people that fit. And fit is probably the biggest characteristic I look for when I put together a staff. There’s a lot of outstanding coaches, but if they don’t fit, they’re not going to work here. I’m just not going to do it.
Q: You have a new empty frame up in the team meeting room for 2011, utilizing the same motivational tactic you had for last year. Is that an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it thing?
A: That phrase fits. It’s a special room. Like I told them (the players), “I talked to all the guys on the walls. I couldn’t get ahold of the guys from the ‘30s. But they’re OK if we fill the whole front wall up. They said they’re fine with that. So I’m going to put this blank one over here, and (the picture) is going to be (taken) in Indianapolis. That’s the goal. I’ve never shied away from talking about it.
Q: You’ve made it very clear that this team’s mentality is about climbing a new mountain, not repeating as champions. But the truth of the matter is, Super Bowl champions have had a hard time ...
A: It’s hard to win two Super Bowls in a row. It’s difficult. I realize that.
Q: So what have you done to improve your chances?
A: Really, to try and keep the focus on us and not on what other people are thinking when they play us because of what we’ve done in the past. I think that’s a bunch of wasted emotion, it’s wasted conversation. Some people believe that. If other teams need that to get their game to another level to play us, so be it. We can’t control that. All we can control is centering our energy on our game, our performance, increasing the quality of our performance. The two things we’ll talk about every single day as a football team is winning and quality of play. And we will never get far away from those two points of focus.
Q: The no-huddle offense has obviously been a very hot topic because of all the preseason success you had with it. You mentioned at one point about wanting to put the responsibility more on the guys “on the front lines,” meaning the players. That seems a bit counterintuitive for a coach who just won a Super Bowl and coaches in general, who usually want more control, not less.
A: The level of letting go of control is already in place. That’s the way we play, on both sides of the ball. It’s the frequency. Our quarterback’s been ready. Now, is the whole offense ready? For as much as we practiced (the no-huddle offense) last year, if Aaron was sitting here, he’d say, “Yeah, why didn’t we use it every game?” And the receivers, of course (would say the same thing). But I have to trust my information and my instincts and what I see every day. First of all, we went through a ton of injuries early in the season, so we weren’t going to do it then. But Aaron has always been ready for it. But I think now as an offense we’re ready for it.
Q: It would seem that you have at least five players on your roster who legitimately tilt the field in your favor. Give me your rapid-reaction answer to each of them. Aaron Rodgers.
A: Physically, mentally, his best quality is his consistency.
Q: Charles Woodson.
A: I’m trying to do the one-word thing here, and that’s hard to do with Charles. Production. I mean, he has to be one of the most decorated players I’ve ever been around. He’s such a versatile, productive player.
Q: Clay Matthews.
A: He’s rare. Different. I’m not talking about his hair. He’s a difference-maker. He has the full complement, the full skill set, for that position. He’s strong in every category.
Q: Greg Jennings.
A: The thing that jumps out about Greg Jennings is just how athletic he is. He’s so smooth. His fluid athleticism.
Q: Jermichael Finley.
A: He’s a freak. I’ll tell you what, he is physically gifted, but he has one gear. What I like most about Jermichael Finley is, he practices and plays on Sundays the same way. He only has one speed. Now, he has only one speed when he pulls out of here, too. But his one speed is unique.
Q: Do you worry about him at all at this point? He doesn’t have much of a filter when it comes to speaking his mind.
A: I’m optimistic. I think the young man is growing up.
Q: When you look at, say, the last three years, what’s been the best thing you’ve done – the best decision you made, or the smartest thing you did – and what’s maybe the one thing you wish you could have a do-over on?
A: The smartest thing we did was build a program. Ted was looking for a partner, and we built a program that the design of the training is in line with the design of the player acquisition. Player instruction and player acquisition are on the same page, so it’s built for the long haul. It’s built to get better every year, it’s built not to stay the same based on what you did the year before. It’s built on growth, it’s built on trusting the coaching staff. You guys get tired of me talking about it, but I’m proud of the program we built. But I’m also conscious of the fact that it can’t stay the same, either. We’ve got to keep trying to make it better. My mulligan? Job responsibility for the first (defensive) staff. I think anytime there’s failure, you have to look at it as a leader. When people lose their job, when someone gets fired, having gone through it personally, I was definitely a part of that. You have to look at your structure and job responsibility and people. You hire qualified people, but it’s your responsibility to put them in position to be successful. I obviously changed my job responsibilities in the way I viewed the staff after that experience.
Q: What have been the one or two biggest challenges of a post-lockout training camp, and in any way – given how wholeheartedly you believe in the value of the offseason program – do you have any apprehension about whether you’re really, truly as ready as you’d like to be for the Saints?
A: Look, everybody’s in the same boat, No. 1. The biggest challenge is the balancing of the targets, the objectives. That was the biggest challenge. I thought we had a good plan. I thought the plan was good. We had the adjustments ready when we needed it – we pulled out of the night practices a week earlier than we were scheduled. We had a lot of time to talk about these things during the lockout, so I had a pretty good idea where the stress points were going to be in training camp for the players, and we reacted accordingly. They never complained, but you could see it. We hit our targets for training camp. We definitely hit them. But now we have to go out and play the games.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.