GREEN BAY – When the NFL’s head coaches lined up together for the equivalent of a class picture in a ballroom inside The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort earlier this week at the annual NFL Meetings, there were only two – the Cincinnati Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin – in the photo who’ve been with their teams longer than the guy in the navy sportcoat in the upper right corner: Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy
Of course, that’s partially because the longest-tenured coach of the bunch, New England’s Bill Belichick, missed the session. (“Maybe they can PhotoShop me in there,” joked Belichick, who’s entering his 15th year as the Patriots’ coach, having taken the job in 2000.)
Nevertheless, in a business where there’s very little job security – in that same photo, there were seven coaches who were just hired by their new teams, and seven more who are entering their second seasons with their clubs – McCarthy is getting set for his ninth season as the Packers’ man in charge, tied with New Orleans’ Sean Payton, who was hired by the Saints within days of McCarthy’s hiring in Green Bay. (Although Payton did miss one season while under NFL suspension for the Bountygate scandal.)
But if things are supposed to start getting stale for McCarthy, he’s not feeling it.
“I feel more challenged today than probably I've been in a number of years, just because of the challenges that our sports seen,” said the 50-year-old McCarthy, who is 82-45-1 (.646) in regular-season play and has led the Packers to six playoff berths in eight seasons, including the Super Bowl XLV title. “Our game is being challenged differently all the time. All those challenges really fall at the feet of the head coach.
“I didn't understand it when I first started but I understand it now. I fully understand why a head coach is only a head coach. It's a full-time job.”
Despite those challenges, McCarthy seemed very relaxed and at ease during lunch at The Capital Grille on Tuesday with a small group of Wisconsin reporters who were covering the meetings, regaling them with stories from his days growing up in Pittsburgh and recalling his first NFC Coaches Breakfast, when legendary NFL writer Paul Zimmerman ambushed the unsuspecting rookie coach with a barrage of hard-hitting questions before he’d taken his first bite of his cantaloupe.
Perhaps that’s why, while other coaches spoke of the difficulty of keeping things fresh the deeper one gets into his tenure, McCarthy seemed relatively unconcerned. Having a perpetually young team that has significant roster turnover on an annual basis and a draft-and-develop philosophy contributes to that, to be sure.
“I mean, I find it easy, I find it natural,” McCarthy replied when asked at the NFC Coaches Breakfast Wednesday if he has trouble staying energized. “I think you definitely have to be aware of your messaging, the fact you are in a place for a long time. I'm obviously aware of all that, but one thing that's very evident when you come here every year, the game's evolving, it's always adjusting and changing. So that keeps you going.
“Working in Green Bay, there's nothing like getting up every day and going to Lambeau Field. I love the people I work with, I love where I work, and more importantly I love what I do. I feel like I'm at halftime, frankly, [of my career]. Hopefully.”
Already, McCarthy has coached more regular-season games (128) on the Packers’ sideline than Mike Holmgren (112) and the legendary Vince Lombardi (122). He’ll pass Bart Starr (131) this season, leaving only Curly Lambeau (334), the man for whom the stadium is named, ahead of him.
Meanwhile, the 61-year-old Belichick, who spent five years as the Cleveland Browns’ coach (36-44 from 1991 through 1995), has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles (and two other Super Bowl appearances) and 11 division titles and playoff berths while going 163-61 (.728) in regular-season play.
The 55-year-old Lewis, who’s starting his 12th season in Cincinnati, is 90-85-1 (.514) with the Bengals, although he’s yet to win a playoff game (0-5). And the 67-year-old Coughlin, who’s starting his 11th with the Giants, is 90-70 (.563) in New York and has led the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl championships after eight years as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coach.
Asked at the AFC Coaches Breakfast why he keeps coaching, the man-of-few-words Belichick was, well, concise.
“I just enjoy it,” Belichick replied. “I don’t know why. I just do.”
Coughlin had a similar answer.
“What else am I going to do?” Coughlin said at the NFC breakfast. “I feel good. I feel healthy. [My wife] Judy is good towards it. My family is positive and supporting.”
Lewis, though, finds himself in the most similar situation to McCarthy, whom he’s known since the two were at the University of Pittsburgh together in the early 1990s. Although the Bengals have been to the playoffs each of the past three seasons, they’ve gone one-and-done. McCarthy’s post-Super Bowl XLV teams are 1-3 in the postseason and have not advanced past the NFC Divisional round with a defense that has frequently disappointed.
For Lewis, even with many of the same players, there’s value to pressing the reset button and doing some things differently after losing offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (Washington) and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) to head-coaching jobs.
“I feel like we really have to re-start again this year,” Lewis said. “That’s what we said after the season, ‘We have to have a new start.’ So that has been my message from our time we got back together as coaches, that we had to throw out the old and we were going to refresh things. I think that’s how you have to do it. I think Mike (McCarthy), I think they feel that way there this year in Green Bay. They’re not satisfied with last year’s outcome. I’ve spoken with (defensive coordinator) Dom (Capers) extensively on the phone after the season and over in Indy, and Mike and I spent some time in Indy. So I think they’re feeling the same way.”
“I think you’ve got to approach each year as a new year, and new season, and I try to do that.”
For some coaches, their time with a team – even after sustained success – simply runs its course and change is necessary. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid spent 14 seasons in Philadelphia before parting ways with the Eagles last year and leading the resurgent Chiefs to an 11-5 finish and playoff berth after the club went an NFL-worst 2-14 the year before, and Reid acknowledged that it was time for both the team and for him to move on. Both the Chiefs and the Eagles, under first-year coach Chip Kelly, made the playoffs last year.
“I thought change would be good for both sides. I thought Chip would bring something fresh, exciting. As long as the players were back healthy, he had a good nucleus of guys,” Reid said. “I thought I went into a situation in Kansas City where I felt change could possibly be good, too. And I had a good nucleus of players. I felt it would work out for both sides. I’m glad both did well.”
Asked about his approach during his time in Philadelphia, Reid replied: “I think you’re always growing in the business. I think that’s important, so you don’t get stale. I tell the players, ‘I have these little 3 x 5 cards. If I can’t get it on that card, you’re not going to hear it.’ So they’re not getting the same story over and over and over again for 14 years.”
McCarthy has vowed that he’ll be more involved with the defense this year, and he acknowledged that he worries about being spread too thin. While he said he’ll continue to call the offensive plays – “If I felt we would be better served to have someone else call the plays, frankly, I’d give that up,” he said – he knows he must be careful about how he budgets his time.
“[I am] very concerned about that, and have been since Day 1, since I got the job,” McCarthy said. “I think you have to be realistic. If you do more over here, you’re going to have to give something up over here. I think the way our defensive staff is structured reflects that, which didn’t reflect that when I first took the job.
“That’s a huge part of my job – to make sure responsibility is clear, detailed, and everybody is on the same page, starting with myself.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.