A Meeting of the Minds

Monday December 1st, 2014

As far as the customary post-game handshake between coaches, New England’s Bill Belichick usually goes with the less-is-more approach, especially after close losses like Sunday’s 26-21 defeat at the hands of the Packers.

That’s why it was so significant that at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, Belichick and McCarthy embraced and then Belichick spent several seconds talking to McCarthy, with a few headshakes mixed in for emphasis. Translation: “That’s a damn fine football team you have that was hell to prepare and play against. You guys do a great job.”

“I’ll just say this: he was very gracious, and that’s about as far as I’ll go,” said McCarthy, who aced the first rule of Belichick Club—you don’t talk about Belichick Club. “He has set the standard for an NFL head coach, definitely in my time in the league. It’s awesome to go up and compete against his team and no one does it better than what he’s done.”

It certainly helps that the two teams are in different conferences and only meet once every four years (if McCarthy was in the AFC East, it wouldn’t happen regularly if at all), but that should not diminish the symbolism of the moment. It certainly wasn’t lost on me, someone who has covered both men up close in my career.

Here was Belichick, certainly the best coach in the NFL today if not ever, clueing us all on this fact: Michael John McCarthy is one of the great coaches in the NFL. And it’s time for everyone to regard him as such.

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There is a certain segment of the Packers’ fan base that compares all who follow to Vince Lombardi and think world championships are a birthright. They will not give McCarthy his due until he adds another Super Bowl ring to his résumé, and even that might not be good enough.

There are plenty of fans around the country who hear McCarthy’s name and say, “Yeah, well I coach pretty well with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers too.” (More on that below.)

I’ve certainly had my criticisms of McCarthy, who I think a lot of personally. On the rare occasions when his game plans are wrong he’s slow to adapt, if he adapts at all. He can get way too pass-happy. Calling the plays causes him to miss some game-management situations. McCarthy can coach emotional, whether it’s challenging plays or being too aggressive with play calling. He can be loyal to a fault when it comes to accurately assessing the talents of his players and coaching staff.

But the McCarthy I saw against the Patriots, and two weeks prior during the 53-20 victory over the NFC East-leading Eagles, was a more mature and evolved McCarthy. Mike 2.0? Maybe, considering that McCarthy said before this season, his ninth at the helm of the Packers, that he felt like he was at halftime of his career. He just seems much more in control of the game and his team.

McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers methodically took the Patriots apart throughout Sunday’s contest with 6.8 yards per play, converted 59 percent of third downs and had only one possession end in their own territory (prior to the game-ending kneel down). This was the first time since cornerback Brandon Browner returned from suspension that a Patriots opponent wasn’t flustered by how New England played them defensively. The Packers seemed to expect the Patriots would largely eliminate Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and they were prepared for that. When the Patriots changed matchups on third downs and in the red zone, or because of ineffectiveness, the Packers didn’t flinch. Usually that rattles an opponent (ahem, Peyton Manning).

McCarthy’s game-planning was superb. He hit the Patriots’ weaknesses on defense like he was spinning a dial (and even found a few new ones). The Packers hit them with the power run game. They put Nelson in motion and ran crossing routes against Browner because he doesn’t move well horizontally. They threw a touchdown on safety Patrick Chung.

McCarthy saw something in Darrelle Revis’ play that told him that in Cover-1, the skinny post was going to be there (and the Packers were really the first team to challenge free safety Devin McCourty). The result was Nelson’s huge touchdown before halftime. McCarthy used a variety of formations and personnel groupings to target matchups, especially with Cobb out of the backfield. He deftly straddled the line of not running the ball enough. It was as brilliant an offensive strategy against this version of the Patriots’ defense that you’re ever going to see. That’s part of what had Belichick so chatty after the game.

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Of course, the Packers’ execution of the game plan, led by the spectacular (after the first two erratic drives) Rodgers, was top notch. If anyone had any doubts going into this season or this game that Rodgers is the best quarterback—if not outright offensive weapon—in the league, then this game should have settled it for you. Rodgers is the best. Period. Has been for a while. That’s also why Belichick sought him out for a few words after the game by walking back across the field; another gesture that's rare and only reserved for the best.

Here’s the thing about that, and about Favre’s 2007 season when he would have been MVP if it wasn’t for Brady’s records and 16-0 regular season: Neither Rodgers’ ascension or the final act of Favre’s career happens without McCarthy. Favre was reckless in ’05 and ’06 (McCarthy’s first season), with 38 touchdowns against 47 interceptions. He looked like his career was slipping away. The ’06 season was certainly rocky for Favre and McCarthy, who was brought in to bring stability to the team and discipline to Favre. The team was undermanned and Favre wasn’t a happy camper as McCarthy’s refused to let him do whatever he wanted.

It all paid off in ’07, as Favre was in command and executing at a high level as he took the Packers to the NFC Championship Game. That probably doesn’t happen without McCarthy.

Then there’s Rodgers. For all his current greatness, people tend to forget that Rodgers was a completely different style of quarterback when he entered the league in 2005. Rodgers carried the ball high and operated like an athletic robot under Jeff Tedford at Cal (Tedford’s quarterbacks consistently failed in the NFL). But thanks to McCarthy’s legendary offseason quarterbacks school, Rodgers was completely reprogrammed into the perfect weapon you see annihilating opponents today. Many think Rodgers walked into the NFL like this. Even though Rodgers deserves all the accolades that have and will come his way, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Packers have established themselves as the Super Bowl favorite. McCarthy, with a career winning percentage of .655 (91-48-1), is now second among active coaches who have coached more than four years and 15th all-time, just behind Belichick (.658, 208-108-0). McCarthy has a Super Bowl ring.

If he didn’t do it before, McCarthy has established himself as one of the great NFL coaches. Belichick knows this. So should we.


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