You don’t have to be a great head coach to win a Super Bowl. Barry Switzer (Cowboys), Brian Billick (Ravens) and Jon Gruden (Bucs) proved that in recent years. So don’t label Mike McCarthy a great head coach just because the Packers are the reigning world champions. Label McCarthy a great head coach because of how he got his team to the promised land. In over 30 years of watching professional football, I can’t think of a single coach who did a better job with his team than McCarthy did with the Packers last season. And that includes Bill Walsh (49ers), Bill Parcells (Giants), Bill Belichick (Patriots), Joe Gibbs (Redskins) and Jimmy Johnson (Cowboys). Now look, I’m not saying McCarthy is as good a coach as those legends; he has to capture another Super Bowl or two for me to even consider going there. But for one season and one season only, the tough-talking Pittsburgh native doesn’t have to take a back seat to anyone.
I bring this up because I’m still surprised at how relatively little credit McCarthy has gotten from the national media. It’s been nice to see all the accolades afforded to players like Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. They deserve it. But nobody – including the star quarterback – deserves a bigger pat on the back than McCarthy for bringing the Lombardi Trophy home. What he managed to do from game 1 through game 20 was nothing short of spectacular. Fans and the local media know what I’m talking about. It’s about time for the rest of the country to get clued in.
In a season filled with great coaching, here are three examples that stand out from the rest:
1) McCarthy set the tone in August for what would eventually happen in February. He began talking to his team about winning Super Bowl XLV before the very first training camp practice. More importantly, he was able to convince 80 players that it was not only possible, but it should be expected. Don’t believe me? Remember what star wide receiver Greg Jennings said to McCarthy just a few seconds after the Packers won their 13th world championship: “Thanks Mike. Training camp, you put the vision there.” And while every head coach talks about winning the Super Bowl, not every coach has the ability to make his players firmly believe it can be accomplished. McCarthy was able to do just that, and that’s a big reason his players never wavered in their faith during what proved to be one of the most up-and-down regular seasons any Super Bowl champion has ever had to endure.
2) After only 1/4 of the season, the Packers had already lost two of their very best offensive players. Running back Ryan Grant (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) were on injured reserve and neither had a quality backup. So McCarthy improvised. He ran the ball fewer times and targeted the tight ends less frequently. Instead, he wisely made Jennings the focal point of the offense and dramatically increased Jordy Nelson’s snaps. As for the running game, the coach did more with less than anyone could’ve imagined. Journeymen Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are extremely limited with the ball under their arms, but clever designs and smart play calling by McCarthy enabled the pair to function well enough during the regular season to at least keep defenses semi-honest.
3) The Packers fell to 8-5 after a devastating loss to the Lions. Their next game was at New England, and they’d have to play the team with the best record in the league without Rodgers (concussion). Even the most diehard fan had put that game in the loss column. In fact, not being embarrassed on national TV seemed to be the best possible outcome. But McCarthy wasn’t willing to concede a thing to the big, bad Patriots. “We’re nobody’s underdogs” was his mantra all week and his team backed up his powerful words. Green Bay dominated New England behind backup quarterback Matt Flynn, but fell three points short in the end. Still, it proved to be one of those rare times when a team could actually claim a moral victory. The Packers now knew they could play with anyone – even without their best player. That new-found confidence helped carry the team over the next six games.
After winning Super Bowl XXXI, Mike Holmgren was hailed as a genius by almost everyone. Nobody’s calling McCarthy a genius, but you can make a pretty compelling argument that his championship is even more impressive than Holmgren’s. Regardless, there’s no denying that McCarthy is now on the Mount Rushmore of Packer coaches. Vince Lomardi is George Washington, Curly Lambeau is Abraham Lincoln, Holmgren is Thomas Jefferson and McCarthy is Theodore Roosevelt. That final pairing is àpropos because, as strange as it may seem, there are some similarities between the two men – including this famous quote uttered by the former president nearly 100 years ago?: “I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do. That’s character.” Something tells me the humble and plain-speaking McCarthy has said the same thing on more than a few occasions in his lifetime – just not quite as eloquently.