In Memoriam: Mike McCarthy

by Andrew Hetzel, thirdeyegraphics.net

It dawned on me shortly after he was fired: Mike McCarthy is my all-time favorite coach. Not the best, but my personal favorite. I hadn’t realized this, even with my Twitter handle—borrowed from one of Mac’s classic phrases—staring me in the face.

McCarthy was hired exactly a month before Muddy Udders’ first show—my longest-running band. I’m a sentimental guy, but my admiration for Big Mac wasn’t just tied to time. Nor did it have to do with all the mileage we got joking about him over five seasons of my Packers comedy show. Just like with Ted Thompson, or anyone else Tommy or I impersonate, it’s good natured, and we’d only send up someone we like.

Why I Like(d) Mike

In a broadcast of one of McCarthy’s first games, the commentator (thinking Joe Buck [sorry]) smugly remarked Mike looked more like an equipment assistant than Head Coach. Maybe that got me defensive and endeared me right away, but I always rooted for McCarthy.

He’d occasionally baffle or even infuriate me, particularly his decisions in the last minutes of first halves, and the old fullback dives—I could go on. But overall I think he’s a great coach. Bill Belichick agrees.

In fact McCarthy purposefully modeled himself on Belichick, particularly in his press conferences, where he wanted to fulfill his duties at the podium and leave without revealing anything significant to his competition. McCarthy once called this intentional approach Boring By Design™. Some of us saw it as a hilarious art, especially when Mike allowed the mask to slip. Others grew frustrated with Mac’s lack of charisma and his dull answers.

Creating headlines was never as important to McCarthy as the messaging he sent to and about his team. Up until Ty Montgomery’s game-killing gaffe in Los Angeles this year, I’d never heard McCarthy single out one of his players publicly, and even then it was just shortly before Montgomery was jettisoned.

As long as his locker room was on board and guys had “bought in,” McCarthy was allowed to impart his philosophy, and while he’s no Jung or Nietzsche, I’ve taken two of his concepts to heart. Perhaps for these two ideas alone I’ll always appreciate Mac’s tenure. Please forgive my paraphrasing and misquotes.

  1. “Our biggest challenge will be handling success.”

McCarthy gave this response during his first press conference as Head Coach. He said it matter-of-factly—he’s not a cocky guy, he’s Pittsburgh Macho. McCarthy’s been proven right, too—Aaron Rodgers claimed in years after winning Super Bowl XLV that the team wasn’t hungry like they used to be. (Mac just as easily could have been referring to spoiled Packer fans.)

Real success (allegedly) is a result of commitment to principles and passion, and ideally enjoying the process, rather than tunnel vision on the reward. Once achieved, though, success can warp the mentality of a person or unit. Imagine a band that starts out wanting to, say, rock, who then makes a hit album, and suddenly becomes more concerned with making another hit album than, say, rocking. Good life advice from an unexpected source.

2. “Don’t let fear dictate your decisions.”

McCarthy responded with this bit of wisdom when a reporter asked if Mac would consider sitting a player who had just been cleared from injury (I believe Jordy Nelson). And I love it. Fear can sink so many otherwise positive pursuits. Yes, I actually think of Mike freaking McCarthy when I catch myself justifying surrender, or start to talk myself out of something, and I’ll instead try to focus on the upside and potential rewards. If I’m driving and being tailed by a cop, good ol’ Mac’s advice helps me focus on driving well, instead of trying to just not drive poorly. Maybe this stuff is natural to you, but I’ll continue to get value from it, long after the Big Mac Era.

Goodbye, Big Guy

Should the Packers have fired McCarthy? A serious concern with any long-tenured coach is whether players will grow numb to the message and tune out. Perhaps one person’s voice can only be a source of inspiration for so long before it loses impact, and perhaps McCarthy had finally lost his locker room.

On the other hand, was that locker room simply lacking talent? Examinations of the Packers’ last three drafts have shown how bare the cupboard’s become, and between Aaron Rodgers’ struggles in 2018 and other significant injuries, there was an argument to be made in McCarthy’s favor—that he just did not have the (experienced) players to run the type of team he wanted. Still, coaches are supposed to coach the team they have, not the team they wish they had. I’m not sure McCarthy did that well enough this year.

Maddening officiating, injuries, and lapses in individual players’ judgment or execution all factored into this season’s failures, which could’ve helped make the case for keeping McCarthy—that these misfortunes weren’t his fault, that not even Belichick could’ve overcome them. But these issues all fall under the blanket term of adversity, which was something Mac had always handled with solemnity. Other than Rodgers’ individual Week 1 heroics, the Packers did not handle adversity well enough in 2018, and that’s on the Head Coach.

I was shocked that McCarthy was fired mid-season. However, I was also shocked his team lost to a very bad Cardinals team, at home, in the first game of a potential run. Mac’s future depended on how his team played out the season, though. Sunday’s brutal loss sealed his fate, and he surely knew it.

Mike was especially emotional in his press conference immediately following the Packers’ loss at Seattle, but since then he seemed more resigned, if not delivering his words as an audition for his next job in the NFL. Though no Packers Head Coach had ever been fired mid-season, breaking precedent and letting McCarthy go early not only spares him a four-game humiliation lap, but also grants a head-start on finding his next gig.

Some other team will be lucky to hire him. If McCarthy’s in-game decisions could drive me nuts, I think he was the right guy for a very unique job, whose leadership skills we either took for granted or flourished outside public view, and though it’s time to move on, he deserved to be Head Coach as long as he was.

Who Will the Packers Hire Next?

I mildly worry the organization has overestimated the appeal of being the next Packers Head Coach. A case can be made as to Rodgers’ insubordination this year: anything from a bad attitude to changing his coach’s plays.

I’d written something about McCarthy in January 2018:

We only see a fraction of McCarthy’s relationships with his players, but by all accounts, Mac’s a players’ coach. Sure, Aaron Rodgers probably thinks he’s smarter than Mac, but as long as Rodgers doesn’t rebel, what team wouldn’t want a quarterback that competitive?

We saw signs of rebellion this season. At 35, Rodgers has a right to feel a sense of urgency, but he himself was hardly blameless, missing throws, not seeing open receivers, handing off to Aaron Jones resulting in a game-changing safety. I also wondered what role in the mess now-interim Head Coach Joe Philbin had played as Offensive Coordinator. Were Rodgers’ comments of offensive staleness veiled barbs thrown at the OC in his second stint in Green Bay?

While Rodgers never criticized McCarthy outright, he sure didn’t stand up for him. As Rodgers—deservedly—has influence in the organization, I don’t know how positive a message his (in)actions have put out to potential Head Coach candidates.

I know, it might be nothing—maybe every coach alive wants to work with Rodgers regardless. I hope Aaron learned well from witnessing Favre’s special treatment his last few years in Green Bay. Then again, Favre was about Rodgers’ age when McCarthy was hired, and that was fruitful.

What’s clear is the team must find someone Rodgers will genuinely respect. This probably means someone with NFL experience, as opposed to some hot college coach with a flashy playbook that’s never been tested in the pros.

This is hardly a hot take, but, gun to my head, I’d take Josh McDaniels as McCarthy’s successor.

My son—who was two years old when Mac was hired—had a wild idea: what if the Packers got McDaniels as Head Coach, and the Patriots got McCarthy as Offensive Coordinator? A Belichick-McCarthy partnership could be terrifying for other teams. Wherever Mike ends up, we have zero say in where he takes his talents next. Will haters be forced to retroactively respect him?

I’m a die-hard Packer fan, and I’ll manage to trust in whoever Gutekunst/Murphy/Rodgers choose to hire. But Big Mac’s left some giant shoes to fill.

Thanks for reading. Go Pack,

-Matty

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