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McCarthy’s play-calling duties under microscope as Packers enter playoffs

So much goes into calling plays in the NFL that several high-profile coaches who have run prolific offenses have abdicated play-calling duties. Can Mike McCarthy handle it his second time around?

Eddie Lacy spins off a defender in the backfield before crashing to the turf amid a swarm of bodies. The play clock resets and begins to tick down: 40, 39.

The first-down play didn’t work. “Second-and-nine,” Mike McCarthy’s headset crackles, information sent down from the booth.

35, 34, 33.

Despite playing against a soft defensive front with two-deep safeties, the offensive line is struggling to get push and failed to handle an A-gap run blitz on first down.

32, 31, 30.

We need safe yardage here, and the tight end has a mismatch.

29, 28.

We need ‘12 personnel’ out there.

27, 26.

“Alright, let’s go, West left slot, 322 Y-stick ... watch the blitz, now.”

Aaron Rodgers has the call. The play is now out of the hands of McCarthy, who likely already has a third-down call ready before the second-down play is even snapped. He has to give Rodgers enough time to get everyone lined up, survey the defense and make protection calls, audibles if necessary, and snap the ball.

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So much goes into calling plays in the NFL, in fact, that several high-profile coaches who have run prolific offenses have abdicated play-calling duties. Jason Garrett did in Dallas two seasons ago, and the Cowboys’ offense, when healthy, has been highly productive.

McCarthy, following a painful, dispiriting loss to the Seahawks in the NFC title game, gave up play-calling duties last February. This, as the Packers were coming off the year as one of the best offenses in football. Rodgers was the reigning league MVP.

A midseason offensive swoon caused McCarthy to retake the reins this fall, and the switch paid some initial dividends. Green Bay scored 28 and 30 points in back-to-back wins in McCarthy’s return to the headset, but then eight and 13 in two straight losses to wrap the regular season, with the offense looking somewhere between discombobulated and outright awful. 

Former Packers coach Mike Holmgren, who also called the plays for many of Green Bay's high-powered offenses in the 90's, tried to talk McCarthy out of his decision over the summer when Holmgren was in town for Brett Favre’s team hall of fame induction.

“I said. ‘Don’t [give up playcalling],’ ” Holmgren recalls. “‘You’re really good at it. You’re feeling the pain because of what happened in the playoff game, but that’ll pass and you’re reacting to that. And you’ll want to take it back, and that’ll become even harder.’ ”

Harder not because McCarthy suddenly lacks the wherewithal to call plays, but because he’ll have to look a trusted, loyal coach in Tom Clements—a coach with whom Aaron Rodgers is very fond—in the eyes and demote him. That’s exactly what happened, and now there are questions as to whether Clements will be in Green Bay beyond this season. How badly does this damage Clements’s credibility with the players? Or McCarthy? Is there strife among the coaching staff?

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The Packers’ head coach will be the first one to tell you he mismanaged that Seahawks game, playing conservatively and timidly. The Packers kicked field goals twice at the goal line and decided against attempting to convert a critical fourth-down play. Rodgers accused the offense of playing conservatively.

Can one man implement the game plan and call a game, as well as make sure the rest of the team is prepared all week, not to mention making every single in-game decision, weighing injuries, weather conditions and analytics? Is the job of play-caller and head coach just too much?

Holmgren insists it’s not.

“The feeling of having control during the football game was really important to me. The best way I could control things was to be the signal-caller.”

His mantra was clear: Put in the time preparing, always be two or three steps ahead of the current play and keep out the clutter. No one talking on the headset while we’re on offense unless I ask a question.

As far as defense goes: Trust your coaches to do the job you pay them to do.

“My contribution was ‘Can we stop them, please?’ ” Holmgren jokes.

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Brian Billick, the offensive coordinator behind one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history in Minnesota and a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Ravens, falls on the other side of the spectrum. Offensive coordinator and head coach are two separate jobs. You need two separate people.

He calls it the 3 a.m. rule: When you kick yourself out of a deep sleep, what are you stressing about? If you’re waking up in the middle of the night worrying about plays, how do you also have time to deal with the myriad other administrative duties of a head coach?

“McCarthy is one of the best play-callers in the game,” Billick says. “When you’re a play-caller, that’s an all-consuming job. And then you become a head coach and you say, ‘Well, I can do both jobs.’ Well, maybe you can’t.

“You have to separate yourself from the ego of ‘Well, I’m just better at it than anyone else.’ ”

Steve Mariucci, also a former coach under Mike Holmgren, sees both sides, having called plays as a head coach, but never believing that to be the optimal way to operate.

“I was always looking for that play-caller who could do it during the games. And when I found someone like-minded, I would turn it over to them,” Mariucci explains. “There’s a lot of things you have to juggle on the sidelines and it happens in a lot less than 40 seconds. It happens in about 10 seconds.”

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Mariucci admits he’d get distracted by trying to get an injury update or yelling at officials and would be late to get a play call in. There’s so much information to digest, it can be hard to process and make a decision in real time.

He even remembers one time he’d berated an official for so long, he had to call a timeout in the red zone because he wasn’t going to call a play in time to run it.

“If I were to coach again, I wouldn’t want to have [play-calling duties],” he says. “I would find a play-caller with me. It allows you to manage the game in every facet and stay on top of every call, defensive calls.

“There would be times, especially with the challenge flag now, if I’m sitting back on the bench going over pictures with the quarterback or talking to the receivers, and all of a sudden there’s something on the field that requires my attention, I wasn’t paying attention.”

Head coach as play-caller may have cost the Packers critical seconds last Sunday night against the Vikings. With 2:18 remaining in the game, Green Bay down 20–13 and a fourth-and-goal looming, McCarthy couldn’t make a decision to go for it—as opposed to kicking the field goal and playing defense or attempting an onside kick—and get a play in. Rodgers had to burn a timeout, one the Packers ultimately could have used on their final possession, when the offense ran out of time attempting to drive for the game-tying score.

Pick a cliché: Attitude reflects leadership. Straw that stirs the drink. The head coach sets the tone each week. He’s not looking around at coordinators wondering why this went wrong or that went right. He’s got skin in the game like everyone else. Is there a trickle-down effect to the players?

Perhaps. At least when the head coach has proven success, the way McCarthy has. A steady hand at the controls breeds confidence in coaching much like it does at the quarterback position.

McCarthy and Holmgren each won Super Bowls calling plays as head coaches. Brian Billick won one without doing so.

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For McCarthy and the Packers to return to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to get past Washington on Sunday afternoon, a team ranked 25th in pass defense, 19th in pass defense efficiency, and 21st in overall defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders.

Washington ranks 28th in the NFL at stopping opposing No. 1 receivers and 30th at defending No. 2s. In short, if there’s a time for the key playmakers of the Packers’ offense—perhaps Randall Cobb in particular—this is the week to exploit a favorable matchup.

Veteran James Jones has clearly been the player McCarthy wants to get more involved, earning 28% of the offensive targets since McCarthy retook control of play-calling as opposed to just 13% under Clements. Though that may be a product of the fact that Cobb, Davante Adams and running backs Lacy and James Starks have been both inconsistent and underwhelming this year.

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The Packers have employed more bunch formations, motion and varied personnel groups since McCarthy retook the reigns, but the results of those changes have been mixed. Occasionally, the offense will sail down the field with Rodgers throwing darts, Eddie Lacy bowling over defenders, and Green Bay looking like Green Bay again, but that form has always been fleeting.

What’s more, four times this season the Packers have had the ball in the final minutes with a chance to either tie or win the game with a score, only to come up empty. Two ended with goal-to-go failures, another with a missed field goal, and the fourth a failed heave into the end zone.

If just one of those goes a different way, it’s possible we aren’t having this discussion at all. 

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And maybe that’s the secret: However the head coach decides to run his team, it just has to work.

His plan is put into action amid a swirling vortex of reactionary criticism and outcome-based analysis. If it works, the coach is a genius. If it doesn’t, fire him (and the crowd calling for McCarthy’s head in Cheesehead Nation seems to be growing by the day).

Add that to the list of things head coaches like Mike McCarthy, whether he calls plays or not, must handle. And this week he has to take his team on the road and try to win a playoff game.

“This is a chance to showcase who the hell we are,” a salty McCarthy told reporters Wednesday.

Perhaps the centerpiece of that “we” is McCarthy the play-caller.