After a crushing loss in the NFC title game he made a rare, drastic move: He gave up play-calling duties. How will it affect one of the NFL’s elite teams?
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
When Packers coach Mike McCarthy was forced to defend his ultra-conservative play calling after Green Bay’s NFC championship meltdown, few imagined that the Super Bowl-winning coach and renowned quarterback guru would soon give up play-calling duties entirely. But that’s exactly what he has done, declaring in February that he’d like to take a more supervisory role and focus his energy on the rest of the team.
That January day in Seattle, when the Packers were a botched onside kick recovery from a Super Bowl berth, McCarthy three times settled for field goals rather than try to convert on fourth-and-1. Two of those instances were on the goal line.
“If you want to question my play calling, I’m not questioning it,” McCarthy said that night.
Yet less than a month later the job was handed to Tom Clements, his offensive coordinator since 2012. It was McCarthy’s biggest organizational move since firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and hiring Dom Capers in 2009.
Whether McCarthy is giving up the job in part because of NFC title game failures, we may never know. But the decision to give up the play sheet was anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Consider how he got to the Packers job in 2006, 17 years after he took his first major job, in 1989, as University of Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks coach under Paul Hackett.
Hackett, now retired after coaching stints with seven NFL teams (most recently as Oakland’s QB coach in 2010), remembers hiring McCarthy, then a 26-year-old former graduate assistant at Fort Hays State who played college ball at Baker University, an NAIA outpost in Baldwin City, Kans.
“I think he was just a college tight end, but the day he walked into the office in Pittsburgh he was a sponge,” says Hackett, who also brought McCarthy with him when he took the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator job. “He just wanted to learn, and he jumped on the quarterback part of it. He was inquisitive. He worked like a dog.”
At 26 years old, without any experience as a QB, McCarthy had worked his way into relaying plays from Hackett to the quarterback. He became intimately familiar with the process at a young age, and that pedigree carried him into his first play-calling gig, under defensive-minded head coach Jim Haslett in New Orleans in 2000. And he’s been calling the shots ever since, during three coaching stops and over nine seasons as the Packers’ head coach, including a Super Bowl championship in the 2010 season.
“When you become a head coach, in most cases you got there because you were a good play caller,” Hackett says. “Mike’s greatest strength is his understanding of quarterback play. The thing you have to consider is whether you have the time to be involved enough with the quarterback to be the best play caller in the organization. There’s only 24 hours in the day.”
Hackett gave up play-calling responsibilities to his offensive coordinator after two seasons at Pitt, feeling overwhelmed by the non-football responsibilities of the job. It’s a decision he now feels came too soon. McCarthy’s boss in San Francisco, Mike Nolan, called defensive plays as early as 1993, as the Giants coordinator. As Washington’s coordinator in the late-90s, Nolan returned to his desk one day to find a container of vanilla ice cream melting on his desk. Owner Dan Snyder was sending a message: “Too vanilla.” Later in the season, per Rick Maese, he sent three more tubs of vanilla and a note: “I wasn’t joking. I do not like vanilla.”
“I feel like, if you give up play calling, it shouldn't be a concession,” says Nolan, now San Diego’s linebackers coach. “It’s gotta be a show of faith, and I think that’s how it is in Green Bay. Mike found somebody he could trust with that role. The moment you give up playcalling because you think you are slipping, you might as well quit.”
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Most recently in the NFL, Jason Garrett ceded the duty in Dallas before the 2013 season; the Cowboys went 8-8 that season with Bill Callahan calling the shots, and improved to 12-4 in 2014 under Scott Linehan’s direction. The biggest change was a philosophical one: Garrett committed to running the ball early and often, and let his new assistant do the rest.
Will taking a step back work for McCarthy and the Packers? A few reasons for optimism:
• The Packers have had tremendous continuity on the coaching staff. Clements arrived in Green Bay with McCarthy, as quarterbacks coach in 2006. Alex Van Pelt, McCarthy’s quarterback at Pitt in the early ’90s, succeeded Clements when Clements was promoted in 2012.
• If you're going to entrust more autonomy to your quarterback, Aaron Rodgers is going to give you a pretty good comfort level.
• A coach calling plays from the sideline can get buried in the minutiae and miss the big-picture view afforded a coordinator calling plays from the booth. McCarthy learned as much watching Hackett transition out of his play-calling role.
• The much-criticized special teams unit, which was responsible for two major blunders in the NFC title game and saw its coordinator, Shawn Slocum, fired this offseason, could benefit from added from McCarthy.
The only concern, and it’s a big one, revolves around the relationship between Clements and Rodgers, and whether that pairing can continue to produce top-five offenses while McCarthy irons out the kinks elsewhere. It could very well mean the difference between a trip to Santa Clara and another winter of restructuring in Green Bay.
90. Bill O’Brien, Head Coach, Houston Texans
After he led Houston to nine wins as a rookie head coach, expectations for Bill O’Brien have ballooned. This summer, so will his national profile, as the fiery 45-year-old will inevitably become a star of HBO’s Hard Knocks (remember: He was the Patriots assistant who got into a sideline screaming match with Tom Brady). Priding himself as an offensive mind—among his accomplishments was overseeing the 2011 New England unit that rolled up 428.0 yards of offense per game, 10th-most all time—O’Brien operated without an offensive coordinator last year but will relinquish play-calling duties to newly installed offensive coordinator George Godsey in 2015. O'Brien still has plenty to shoulder, especially since he has seemingly hamstrung Houston’s offense at quarterback; the three signal-callers he has brought in are ex-New England back-ups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett and 2014 fourth-round pick Tom Savage. O’Brien further re-worked the offense this offseason when he parted ways with franchise cornerstone Andre Johnson; the receiver says O’Brien asked him to take a reduced role (O’Brien will see Johnson twice this season when the Texans play the Colts). With J.J. Watt in his prime and the AFC South shaping up to be one of the NFL’s weakest divisions, anything less than the playoffs will be a disappointment in 2015.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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89. Jason Licht, General Manager, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The unassuming second-year general manager for the Bucs, Jason Licht led the charge for the franchise to pick Jameis Winston, with all his baggage, first overall last April. There’s little doubt Licht knew what he wanted to do with the pick for quite a while. “Bad guy or immaturity?’’ he said over breakfast at the scouting combine, way back in February. “I’m leaning toward the latter.” Licht, 44, also said in February: “This is the most important pick, potentially, in the history of the franchise.” That’s because Tampa Bay, in its 39 seasons of football, has never had a franchise quarterback. No Buc quarterback has led the team in passing more than five times. Five years was the tenure for Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer. You’d think, over four decades, Tampa Bay would stumble into one long-term franchise guy. But the Bucs never have. Make no mistake: As this year progresses, Licht (pronounced Light) will be judged by this pick more than any other decision he’s made or will make. General managers who make the right pick at No. 1 overall work for a long time. GMs who don’t have a potentially short shelf life. “When it was over, and we made the decision and we made the pick, I felt good,’’ said Licht. “I have the utmost confidence in the guy. I believe him. What it comes down is, I believe in him.” During a 19-year NFL scouting career, Licht worked on Bill Belichick’s personnel staff for eight seasons in New England. One of the lessons he learned under Belichick is to make a decision and believe in it—but if you’re wrong, cut the cord quickly. This is one decision that can’t be wrong.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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88. DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director, NFL Players Association
There were no less than eight challengers for the NFL Players Association’s executive director election, but DeMaurice Smith won a third three-year term as the union boss in March. Smith is a polarizing figure around the league, receiving criticism for perceived gains by the owners during the last round of CBA negotiations in 2011, while also scoring key wins for the players’ side in the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson appeals last fall. He considers being a thorn in commissioner Roger Goodell’s side part of his job description, and will push appeals like Tom Brady's challenge of his Deflategate discipline as far as the player lets him. Goodell’s retaining final say in player discipline is a point of contention, but Smith knows that every union win upon appeal is a hit to the commissioner’s power.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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87. Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach, University of Michigan
Just because he now dons Maize and Blue doesn’t mean the NFL is done with Jim Harbaugh. Quite the contrary. Harbaugh’s unsavory exit from San Francisco still lingers with his former players, not to mention Jed York and Trent Baalke. If the Jim Tomsula 49ers crumble (a scenario many expect with Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and now Anthony Davis walking away while the rest of the stacked NFC West only got stronger) while Harbaugh awakens a sleeping giant in Ann Arbor, the ghost of Harbaugh will loom large in the Bay Area. And while Michigan celebrates the return of its beloved son, the man known to wear out his welcome is guaranteed to be linked to future NFL openings—perhaps as early as next offseason. The Jim Harbaugh freight train has barely left the station.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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86. Nigel Eccles, CEO and Co-Founder, FanDuel
Fantasy football had remained relatively stagnant for decades: You draft a team during the preseason, play a head-to-head schedule during the NFL regular season, crown a champion in December or January. Over the past five years daily fantasy sports has changed that dynamic, and Nigel Eccles’s company, FanDuel, has been at the forefront. Eccles, who grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland and studied mathematics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, founded the fantasy gaming site in 2009 with wife Lesley Eccles (currently FanDuel’s marketing director) and Tom Griffiths (FanDuel’s CPO). They are able to operate above board in the U.S. by essentially exploiting a loophole in U.S. law—the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act banned credit card issuers and banks from working with poker and sports betting sites, but fantasy sports were considered a game of skill and thus exempt. Even if you haven’t played FanDuel, you’re likely still familiar with the game through its commercials, ubiquitous during sporting events: In a one-day (or, if you choose, one NFL week) mini-season, rather than a traditional draft, players assemble a team of anyone in the NFL, so long as FanDuel’s set salaries fit under the salary cap. Entry fees can range from free to a couple bucks to thousands, league sizes from head-to-head to hundreds. FanDuel takes a cut (around 10%) of the entry frees, the winning players take the rest. In 2014, FanDuel paid out $500 million, making $50 million in fees. In January, Eccles told Forbes those numbers are expected to double in 2015.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
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85. Khalil Mack, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
No player had a greater discrepancy between his performance and his statistics last season than Khalil Mack. That’s a good thing. His four sacks represented a small fraction of the damage he actually inflicted as a pass rusher. The litheness and bendability he showed at tiny University of Buffalo translated seamlessly to the NFL, where Mack consistently ate offensive tackles alive with his lateral burst and redirect ability. His sack total—the only mainstream stat for an edge defender—was the only statistic that misrepresented Mack. Unofficially he had 40 “hurries,” and he drew eight holding penalties, second-most in the league. He also shined against the run. The Raiders have fielded a consistently weak defense during their 12-year playoff drought, but in Mack they have a game-changing talent. Don’t be surprised if the second-year pro is a first-team All-Pro in 2015.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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84. Shahid Khan, Owner, Jacksonville Jaguars
Since Khan purchased the Jacksonville Jaguars in late 2011, his team has posted no more than four wins in a season. But Jacksonville has played an important role in one of the NFL’s most prized initiatives: London. The Jaguars are midway through a four-year agreement to play one regular-season home game per season in London, a lynchpin of the league’s efforts to grow its presence in the U.K. and test the viability of a London-based NFL franchise. The Jaguars have shot down speculation that they could eventually relocate to London (a Union Jax fan club already exists), instead portraying the international commitment as a lucrative investment that boosted revenue and stabilized the franchise financially since Khan bought the team. Either way, if the Jaguars extend their London arrangement past 2016, both the team and the NFL benefit.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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83. Brian Rolapp, Executive Vice President, Media, NFL
Sometime this summer, likely in August, Brian Rolapp will take a three- to five-day trip to Silicon Valley with commissioner Roger Goodell. It’s a trip they’ve been making for several years, totally on the QT, to meet with people who can tell them What’s Next. In the Goodell vernacular, “Next” is important. “Commissioner Goodell is one of those guys who will always want to know if there’s a better way for us to do things,’’ Rolapp said recently, “So he loves to see some of the innovations that are coming in media, and in all other areas too.” Rolapp has emerged as one of the powerful people in Goodell’s NFL. He’s an idea man. When the NFL convinced owners to take one of the league’s 256 regular-season games out of the network package and auction it to the highest/most innovative bidder to live-stream it around the world, it was Rolapp who engineered the deal with Yahoo for more than $10 million. (Getting multiple millions to live-stream Buffalo-Jacksonville… that should stamp Rolapp as some sort of genius.) But the money wasn’t big to Rolapp. This was: the ability for fans anywhere in the world to see an NFL game on Yahoo on their laptops or smartphones. The Bills-Jags game will be a window into the NFL’s future, and the media future will be incredibly intriguing once the current NFL TV contracts expire in 2022. Rolapp clearly believes the internet will be key. “There is this [Intel founder] Andy Grove quote,” he said last year. “ ‘There’s a fundamental rule in technology that whatever can be done will be done.’ It’s a healthy perspective for us because we have to plan for the day and understand that whatever you think technology can do, it will do.”
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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82. Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Green Bay Packers
After a crushing loss in the NFC title game he made a rare, drastic move: He gave up play-calling duties. How will it affect one of the NFL’s elite teams?. FULL STORY
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81. Eli Manning, Quarterback, New York Giants
In the context of relatively short NFL careers, every season is critical, but 2015 may be an especially important one for Eli Manning. It will be the quarterback’s second season in Ben McAdoo’s offense; the sixth (and final) year of the contract extension he signed back in 2009; and he’s trying to ensure it’s not the fourth straight year he misses the playoffs. The two-time Super Bowl champion has been the face of the franchise since he arrived in 2004, but the team has not rushed to give him an extension before his contract expires (like the Steelers did in giving Ben Roethlisberger a $99 million extension earlier this offseason). With a strong 2015, the Giants would gladly pay a hefty price tag for their quarterback, but even Manning would admit that despite two rings and 167 straight regular-season starts, he has something to prove.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)