BEST IN CLASS [ GREEN BAY ] COACHING: UNASSUMING MCCARTHY PUSHES RIGHT BUTTONS
ARLINGTON, Texas – He sat in a private office adjacent to a nearly emptied locker room, surrounded by his past, present and future. Two hours after he had hoisted the Lombardi Trophy amid red, white, blue and silver confetti swirling above him at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy reflected on a life’s journey that took him from humble beginnings in Steeltown to an enduring immortality in Titletown.
Soaking up the aftermath of the Pack’s 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy looked at his parents, Joe and Ellen, his wife, Jessica, and his daughter, Alex, and shook his head back and forth like a man humbled by the magnitude of his accomplishment.
Mike McCarthy, who grew up in Pittsburgh and is married to a Green Bay native, coached the Packers to their first Super Bowl title since the 1996 season.
“It’s a numbing sensation,” McCarthy said. “It feels great to share it with family, and to share it with the players. You’re so focused on the game, and it’s fourth-and-5 and the ball hits the turf, and it’s total chaos – they’re pulling you here and pushing you there and you can’t get any air.
“It’s definitely personal that it was against Pittsburgh, because that’s where I’m from. I was very blessed to grow up in a great football town, and now I’m fortunate enough to coach in the mecca of football. I’m married to a Green Bay native. It’s our home. And now, to be a permanent part of the tradition? Oh, man, it’s unreal.”
If the reality of his team’s unlikely achievement hadn’t yet sunk in – winning a championship as a No. 6 seed after overcoming an unrelenting run of key injuries from start to finish – McCarthy couldn’t completely dodge the stamp Sunday’s game would leave upon his legacy. Chances are he will have a street named after him in the quaint Wisconsin city he plans to call home forever. That’s what happens to coaches who bring Super Bowl championships back to Green Bay, whether they’re living legends like Vince Lombardi, franchise revivers like Mike Holmgren or, as seems inevitable given Sunday’s outcome, deceptively brash catalysts like Michael John McCarthy.
You want bold? In a move that would have made Rex Ryan proud, McCarthy dismissed his players from their final team meeting on the night before the game and had them fitted for Super Bowl rings. As their fingers were measured in a hallway at the Dallas-area hotel where they’d spent the week, the Packers couldn’t help but feel their coach’s swagger.
“It gave us a subtle confidence,” said middle linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes), whose fumble recovery on the first play of the fourth quarter was one of the game’s pivotal moments. “It let us know that we’re right there on the cusp of going down in history, and it made us want it so badly.”
McCarthy might have been crucified for his motivational ploy had the Steelers won the game, but the fifth-year coach wasn’t sweating it. “See, I don’t really think about those things,” he insisted. “I just care about what’s best for the team, and I really believed what I’d told them: That Super Bowl XLV was our time, that given the path we’d taken to get here we could handle anything Pittsburgh would throw at us. They’re a great, championship football team. But this is our time.”
For the Packers, Super Sunday was the culmination of a three-year process that began after the team’s painful 2007 NFC championship game overtime defeat to the New York Giants at frigid Lambeau Field. That triggered the chain of events that led to the messy departure of quarterback Brett Favre(notes) as McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson put their faith and career fortunes in the right arm of Aaron Rodgers(notes), the young backup who’d spent three tense years waiting to succeed a beloved Titletown icon.
Had that gamble failed, McCarthy likely would have been forced to relocate by now. Instead, Rodgers burgeoned into a star and led the Packers on a three-game postseason tear through the NFC – and, on Sunday, past a Steelers team that boasted the NFL’s top defense in 2010.
If Rodgers’ golden right arm was the reason for his Super Bowl MVP performance – a 24-of-39, 304-yard, three-touchdown, mistake-free effort that was even more brilliant than the numbers suggested – McCarthy’s mindset was surely the catalyst. With a game plan that featured only 11 James Starks(notes) runs (along with a pair of Rodgers kneel-downs), McCarthy didn’t bother with balance. When he sent out a five-receiver alignment on Green Bay’s first play from scrimmage, it was clear the coach was in full attack mode.
“Totally,” McCarthy said. “Aaron and I talked about it all week. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to throw the ball away two or three times, check it down a few times and make some plays with your feet, ‘cause I’m gonna put my foot on the gas all day long.’ He threw bullets all day.”
Said veteran wideout Donald Driver(notes), who missed a good portion of Sunday’s game after suffering an ankle injury: “[McCarthy] knows exactly what we’ve got – a great group of receivers who can make plays at any time. If our backs are ever against the wall, he’ll put the dogs out there and let ‘em go to work. He let the dogs loose [Sunday night].”
Hines Ward's eight-yard touchdown reception just before halftime cut the Packers' lead to 21-10.
With Rodgers throwing ridiculously crisp and well-placed touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson(notes) and Greg Jennings(notes) in the first half and safety Nick Collins(notes) racing 37 yards for a first-quarter score after intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger(notes) floater, the Packers took a 21-3 lead and looked to be headed for an old-fashioned, ’80s-style Super Bowl blowout. Roethlisberger, however, led a scoring drive late in the half that culminated with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward(notes), and intermission grew significantly more tense for Green Bay.
McCarthy, likening the game to a heavyweight fight, exhorted his players to “keep working the cut,” a reminder to try to exploit Pittsburgh’s vulnerability. The Packers, however, had issues of their own. Driver, rookie cornerback Sam Shields(notes) and veteran corner Charles Woodson(notes), a team captain and emotional leader, had all suffered first-half injuries, though Shields would fight through a shoulder injury to play much of the second half.
After McCarthy’s halftime speech, Woodson tried to say a few words but apparently degenerated into a screaming, crying mess. Woodson, who also addressed the team before the game, had suffered a broken collarbone while diving to defend a deep Roethlisberger pass to wideout Mike Wallace(notes) late in the first half and essentially told his teammates, I can’t be out there, and it’s killing me, so you’re all going to have to step up and lead.
“We’ve got you!” numerous Packers screamed at the wailing Woodson. “We’ll pick you up!”
The Packers did, as they have all season. Having endured season-ending injuries to key starters such as halfback Ryan Grant(notes), tight end Jermichael Finley(notes) and middle linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) (among the 16 players who ended up on IR), Green Bay possessed a resilience that McCarthy had clearly helped instill.
“He’s tremendously positive for our team,” Packers president Mark Murphy said of McCarthy, who is in line for a lucrative contract extension. “The way our season played out, he never let the players let injuries be an excuse. He never let the players or coaches get down about it. He made sure we just kept plugging away.”
The Packers stayed energized on Sunday, even when things got tense. When the Steelers cut the Green Bay lead to 21-17 on Rashard Mendenhall’s(notes) eight-yard run with 10:19 left in the third quarter, it looked like Pittsburgh was poised to take control of the game.
In going 10-6 during the regular season, Green Bay had suffered each of its defeats by four points or fewer. However, if there was a lingering criticism of McCarthy, it was his team’s shoddy record in close games – and this looked like another opportunity for a heartbreaking defeat.
McCarthy’s players, however, wouldn’t let it happen. After a dismal third quarter, the Packers forced their third turnover on the opening play of the final period. After Roethlisberger handed off to Mendenhall on second-and-2 from the Green Bay 33-yard line, defensive end Ryan Pickett(notes) burst into the backfield and smacked the running back from behind as All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) popped him in the midsection and dislodged the football. Bishop, who played a terrific game (eight tackles, three for loss), scooped up the ball and returned it to the Packers’ 45.
Charles Woodson gave an emotional halftime speech after suffering a broken collarbone while defending a pass.
“I wanted to score,” said Bishop, who added that Woodson’s passionate halftime speech had inspired him and his fellow defenders. “Everybody took a little piece of Wood out there with him, and we knew we needed to get it done.”
Rodgers did much of the rest, marching the Pack 55 yards and extending their lead to 28-17 on another glorious scoring pass, an eight-yarder to Jennings in the right corner of the end zone. He answered a subsequent Steelers score by getting Green Bay into range for Mason Crosby’s(notes) 23-yard field goal, but when the Steelers took over at their own 13 trailing by six with 1:59 remaining, the Packers still had reason to be nervous: It was Roethlisberger who possessed the chance to summon his second Super Bowl-winning drive in three seasons.
Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller(notes) on a 15-yard completion, then found Ward underneath for five before throwing a pair of incompletions. Then, as McCarthy later noted, it was fourth-and-5 and life was about to get very, very surreal: Suddenly, cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) was breaking up a high pass for Wallace, and an orange Gatorade bath and sweet satisfaction awaited the 14th coach in the franchise’s storied history.
General manager Ted Thompson, whose hiring of McCarthy (who’d struggled as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator the previous season) in January 2006 was somewhat of a surprise, had been vindicated once more.
“I liked him as a person,” Thompson said Sunday night. “I thought he had a lot of grit to him. I wasn’t hiring an X’s and O’s guy. I think there are a lot of people that can do that. I was hiring a man. I think he’s a good man who knows what buttons to push to motivate players and knows how to understand people.”
McCarthy is a reasonably simple man who is grateful for his many blessings, and the notion that he might someday cruise to work past street signs bearing his surname sounded a bit overwhelming as he sat with his parents, wife and daughter long after Sunday’s game.
“Shoot,” he said, “I don’t worry about those things. Those are for the big people.”
Earlier, I’d asked Murphy which Green Bay street seemed ripe for renaming, and he’d answered, “I don’t know. Ashland, maybe? We’ll see.”
Jessica McCarthy, who has spent her entire life in the NFL’s smallest municipality, didn’t have any thoughts on that subject, but she did have a suggestion for what to call a prospective street named after her husband: “I think McCarthy Mile has a nice ring to it.”
In the meantime, her husband will have a nice ring, as will his players, and the prospect of more to come as the 27-year-old Rodgers continues to blossom. And whatever happens down the road, McCarthy is pretty sure where he’ll end up living when all is said and done.
“I’ll be [in Green Bay],” he said, looking at Jessica. “I’m not leaving.”
That means his post-football future is a dead-end street located in Titletown. In the meantime, he has a parade route that may well include Lombardi Avenue and Holmgren Way in his very near future.
February 7, 2011
Posted by BEYOND RISK at 2/08/2011