When you coach in Green Bay, where they name streets and stadiums after those who get the job done, it's not easy and perhaps not even advisable to dream of cracking the pantheon of Lombardi, Lambeau and Holmgren. But Mike McCarthy, head down and grinding away in his trademark no-frills fashion, is working on it.
And he's quietly making some pretty decent progress. Preparing for his seventh season on the Packers sideline, McCarthy, it might surprise you to learn, is at least beginning to make himself part of the lofty conversation when it comes to this storied franchise's Big Three coaching legends. He'll log his 100th regular-season game for Green Bay in Week 4 this season, and his .656 career winning percentage already ranks a strong fourth among Packers coaches, trailing the iconic Vince Lombardi (.754), the ultra-successful Mike Holmgren (.670) and the long-serving and pioneering Curly Lambeau (.668).
At 63-33 in his first six seasons, McCarthy is a 12-4 record away from tying Holmgren's 75-37 mark in his seven regular seasons (1992-98) on the job, and only Baltimore enters 2012 with a longer active playoff streak than the Packers' three consecutive trips to the postseason. Green Bay, under McCarthy, has endured just one losing season, with four playoff appearances, two NFC North titles, the memorable 2010 Super Bowl run as a sixth seed, and last year's record-breaking 15-1 regular season -- the best in franchise history.
Impressive, but in Green Bay, where winning famously became "the only thing'' under Lombardi's driven leadership, McCarthy never loses track of where he stands in relation to the men who made the history that made the Packers an NFL gold standard of sorts. He'll never raise the topic of legacy, but he doesn't have to. He's surrounded by it in the place they still call "Titletown.''
"I don't think about it, but you realize [legacy] matters because you have to answer the question enough times that it forces you to come up with an answer of some sort,'' said McCarthy this week, shortly after the close of a Packers afternoon OTA session. "I say this all the time and maybe people are just bored with the answer, but I thoroughly enjoy coming to work here every day because I understand how special this place is. It's such a great place. I was fortunate enough to work here as an assistant coach, so I knew what I was stepping into when I arrived here.
"I know that I don't want to be sitting here when it's all said and done, saying, 'Boy, I wish I did this or I wish I'd taken more advantage of that.' I fully know and am aware of the things this city and this franchise does for successful individuals, particularly coaches, and it's humbling, to be honest with you. I didn't get into coaching to have a street named after me, things like that. Coaching football is my job, and I'm blessed and thankful that I get a chance to compete on Sundays, because it's a great way to make a living. But it's also a great platform to be able to give back and really affect people's lives. When it's all said and done, I'd like to think people think about me more as a person than as a coach.''
It is that high-profile platform afforded him by his job that McCarthy tries to take full advantage of, especially at this time of year, when the long grind of the NFL calendar is at last approaching its slowest point of the year, in the last six or seven weeks before training camps open. He's about to hit the golf course, but with more in mind than just getting away from the pressures of the job and recharging his batteries before football season starts anew.
McCarthy's success on the sideline gives him entree to causes that take him away from the field, like next Monday's golf tournament that he and his wife, Jessica, will host in Madison, Wis., to benefit that city's American Family Children's Hospital. The McCarthys started their association with the hospital after touring the new facility in the summer of 2009, and the tournament and Sunday night benefit dinner that precede it are now in their third year. McCarthy called me this week to publicize the good work they do at AFCH, with a little football talk mixed in.
For the McCarthys, the children's hospital was an easy choice of a charity to give their time and energy to. The couple, who married in early 2008, already have two daughters of their own in Gabrielle, 3, and Isabella, 10 months. In addition, Jessica's two sons, Jack, 11, and George, 9, are joined in the family by Mike's college-aged daughter, Alexandra. As one of five kids growing up in his native Pittsburgh area, McCarthy knows his focus on children and family is part of the legacy he hopes to build off the field.
"This work with the children's hospital is really something we can share with our family, from a long-term mindset,'' McCarthy said. "We took a trip down there four summers ago, before training camp, and right then and there I knew it was exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to do something with children, and build a charity that we hopefully could pass on to our kids. With Madison being right in the middle of the state, the location was right and the purpose was right. With the hospital being still in the developmental stages, we just felt it was the perfect opportunity to give back.''
McCarthy isn't an attention-seeking type of coach, which is perhaps one of the reasons the Packers hired him over the more media-savvy Sean Payton in January 2006. His low-key style and no-nonsense approach fits Green Bay and its small-town feel like a glove. But he gets a little more animated and inspired than usual when describing previous visits to the children's hospital and what he finds there.
"It's an opportunity for these families to let you inside their world for a few minutes, with a chance to bring them some happiness and support for what they're going through,'' McCarthy said. "It's obviously a situation no parent wants to be in, but they are, and they can use all the support they can possibly get. Just getting a smile from one of those young kids is priceless, and it's a very emotional day. Seeing those children, it's something I struggle with every time I go down there.''
And how do the patients greet the Super Bowl-winning head coach of the Green Bay Packers, in the football-mad state of Wisconsin? Mostly like kids everywhere, McCarthy said.
"Kids are going to be kids,'' he said. "They don't really care who you are. Some of them want an autograph because they think they're supposed to ask for one, and then you've got some kids who want to talk about their favorite players and ask about them. But most of the children are probably not having a good day in there, so sometimes you don't get a big response from them. It's the families that really respond to you being there, and it's about supporting them. It's one of the reasons I get excited about the hospital and being able to give back to people in need.''
(For more information or to get involved in McCarthy's efforts on behalf of AFCH, visit their website.)
McCarthy has tried to find time to get his golf game in shape for Monday's 18-hole event at Nakoma Golf Club on the west side of Madison, but his offseason football schedule hasn't cooperated much. I asked for a brutally honest self-critique of his swing and current game, and got one.
"Well, it's not very good right now,'' he said. "Once I get past 10 rounds or so I'm a decent player. I can play a little bit. But I've played three rounds of golf this year so far and two of them have been scrambles. The other one was at Whistling Straits (in Kohler, Wis., on the shores of Lake Michigan), and I totally got my ass kicked. When the wind blows down there it's just a whole different world. We played there Saturday as a (Packers coaching) staff and it was ugly. I don't think we had one guy break 90.''
By late next month, golf will again give way to football for McCarthy, with the Packers reporting to training camp in DePere, Wis., for the 55th year in a row. Despite last year's run at perfection and franchise-best 15-1 finish, the season felt like a disappointment, thanks to Green Bay's one-and-done playoff showing, courtesy of that stunning 37-20 upset at the hands of the visiting New York Giants in the NFC divisional round.
I suppose it's the nature of the job that an NFL head coach can go 15-2 and get asked far more about the two defeats than the 15 Ws he records, but such was McCarthy's lot last season. The Packers started 13-0 in 2011, but lost 19-14 at Kansas City in Week 15, and four weeks later were rudely dismissed from the playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants, who forced four Green Bay turnovers and sacked Aaron Rodgers four times. The Packers' team-record 19-game winning streak over 2010-2011 was rendered something of a footnote, and their dreams of back-to-back Super Bowl titles died cruelly in a blizzard of mistakes against the same New York team that beat McCarthy's club in the 2007 NFC title game overtime classic.
Five months after the fact, McCarthy still has a hard time grasping how his team played its worst game of the season at the worst possible time. The meltdown against the Giants at Lambeau Field was both of out of character and complete, but it exposed a Green Bay defense that had finished last in the league in terms of yards allowed and passing yards in 2011, and featured a Packers offense that repeatedly shot itself in the foot with sloppy ball possession.
"The poor fundamentals we exhibited is the thing I really came away with from that game,'' McCarthy said. "We had had good practices leading up to that game, and had been able to practice outside nearly every Wednesday and Thursday, and we've never had that here before. I just felt the ability to be outside in the training environment getting ready for that game was huge, and then for us to go and play fundamentally poor the way we played was very disappointing.
"The handling of the football was poor, from individuals who handled the ball very well all year and throughout their career. The tackling was poor, and so on. We didn't deal well with the adversity of football in that game, and we didn't play with good fundamentals.''
The Packers rode the late-season "hot team'' role all the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2010, winning their last six games of the season after starting 8-6 and being on the cusp of playoff race elimination. But they experienced the other side of the momentum rollercoaster in 2011, starting out 13-0 but then losing twice in their final four games.
"The important lesson to learn about momentum is it's a week-to-week label,'' McCarthy said. "The Giants had the momentum last year. They won three games impressively going into the Super Bowl, and it carried them. Momentum is important, but I still say I liked our energy going into the Giants game and the way the game started for us was excellent. But we just didn't handle the hurdles very well.''
Green Bay's efforts to upgrade the defense were obvious this offseason, with the Packers spending their first six draft picks on that side of the ball, taking USC outside linebacker Nick Perry in the first round, and Michigan State defensive tackle/end Jerel Worthy and Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward in the second round. But McCarthy doesn't buy into the notion of quick fixes, and he cautions against expecting too much too soon from this year's rookie class.
"Getting into the mindset that you're one or two players away is foolishness,'' he said. "This is the ultimate team game, and rosters change every single year. You just have to get as many quality players as you possibly can and go from there. I understand where our statistics were on defense last year, but we won 15 games for a reason during the regular season.
"And this year, the most important people that will contribute, specifically early, in that opening four-game stretch, will be the guys who were here last year. The rookies are going to come on and help us out, but I think it's a (fallacy) to think that, 'Oh, we drafted six guys on defense with our first six picks and now we're okay on defense.' I don't believe that's the case. I think it's a little more competitive over there, and from that we're going to be a better defense.''
The bar is set ridiculously high for Green Bay coaches, but so far, McCarthy has lived up to those lofty standards. His predecessor, Mike Sherman, made the playoffs four consecutive seasons and got fired after his only losing record in his six-year tenure with the Packers. Holmgren was on the job for seven years, never had a losing mark and made the playoffs his last six seasons in a row. McCarthy, with 14 wins and a Super Bowl title in 2010, and 15 more victories in 2011, is more than keeping pace as he works his way up and inches closer to the elite section of the Packers' coaching history.
"I'd take 15-1 every year in the regular season if we could have that,'' he said. "But the goal here is always to win the Super Bowl. That will never change, and ultimately it's (general manager) Ted (Thompson) and I's responsibility to make sure the team is on course to achieve that. We understand that, and that's our priority.''
In Titletown, those are the stakes, and everyone understands. Win enough and they'll find a street to name after you.