It's not easy being green: Mike McCarthy's tough, complicated season in Green Bay

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Wednesday December 7th, 2016

This story appears in the Dec. 12, 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here

On a sun-splashed summer Tuesday, Mike McCarthy stood on the asphalt outside St. Rosalia Academy in Greenfield, in the east end of Pittsburgh. “Every morning we lined up by class,” recalled the Packers’ coach, who attended this Catholic school from first through eighth grade. Stragglers, chatterboxes, gum-chewers, students exhibiting bad posture or bad attitudes—all were subject to the swift discipline of Sister Dolores. “We called her Big D,” said McCarthy, now 53 and in his 11th season at the helm in Green Bay. “You definitely wanted to stay on her good side.” Removing his ball cap, he stepped into the vestibule of the parish church, dipping his right fingertips into a font of holy water for a swift sign of the cross.

Greenfield is a neighborhood stamped onto a hillside rising dramatically above the Monongahela River, whose banks once bristled with the coke ovens and blast furnaces that sustained generations of steelworkers. By 1981, when McCarthy graduated from Bishop Boyle High, just across “the Mon,” the region’s steel industry was in extremis. Thousands of well-paying jobs, many from the mammoth Jones and Laughlin mill at the foot of Greenfield Avenue, had gone away for good.

After surviving that 10-count, this area has rallied impressively. On this morning St. Rosalia bustled with volunteers pulling out kneelers for reupholstering. “Hey, Coach,” said a man walking past, carrying one over his shoulder like a shotgun, “your mother was down here lighting candles for you on Saturday.” He pronounced “down” dahn.

“She lights ’em like she’s trying to break the record,” McCarthy replied in his own thick Pittsburgh accent (“trying to” comes out trahna), and they shared a laugh. Around them parishioners went about their duties. And while they’re happy to see the township’s most famous native son—even if McCarthy’s Packers did beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV—no one gets too carried away. They take his presence in stride, if not for granted.

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That would seem to sum up McCarthy’s status in NFL circles as well. For a QB-whispering offensive guru whose .642 winning percentage ranks second among active coaches (minimum: 75 games), a guy who’s taken his team to the playoffs seven straight seasons, you’d think he might rate a little more love, a little more slack, especially from Cheesehead Nation.

Not happening. During Green Bay’s most turbulent season in eight years, the sniping has given way to full-on broadsides. As the Packers staggered to a 4–6 start—their last two wins nudged them up to .500—one heard more and more about the staleness of McCarthy’s shape-shifting version of the West Coast offense, set up to capitalize on the agile mind and feet of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose mojo went missing for long stretches early this season. McCarthy’s play-calling and effectiveness as a motivator have also been questioned. Following a listless, 31–26 loss to the Colts in Week 9, Rodgers made remarks that were widely construed as criticism of his coach, wondering aloud about the team’s pervasive lack of “juice” and “enthusiasm and encouragement” over “the entire sideline.”

Yet there was Rodgers, following Green Bay’s next mortifying loss to the Titans, dismissing criticism of McCarthy as “ridiculous,” extolling the coach’s “work ethic” and “the standard” he’s set.

That tracked with what Rodgers told SI in the preseason, when asked about the occasional tension between them. Describing McCarthy as “a friend,” the QB went out of his way to debunk the notion that there’s any sort of underlying problem with their relationship. Yes, they’ve barked at each other during games. That’s to be expected, he says, “when you’ve got two strong competitors who believe things should be done a certain way. Sure, we have occasional disagreements. But at the root of it, there’s always respect.”

And genuine affection, it seems. Said Rodgers, “He likes vodka; I enjoy Scotch. We make sure to get together off the field a few times a year so we see each other as friends, rather than just player and coach.”

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It is one of the more stunning developments of this NFL season that the social calendars of both men could be wide open much sooner than anyone expected. At a time when most pundits believed they would be salting away wins to ensure home field advantage, the Packers are fighting for their playoff lives. Just as Rodgers started to find a midseason rhythm—quarterback rating over his last six games: 105.1—the defense went all weak in the knees, allowing 153 points during a recent four-game losing streak. Ravaged by injuries, most notably to sackmeister Clay Matthews and the team’s top three cornerbacks, Green Bay found itself unable to rush opposing passers, who had plenty of time to torch a makeshift secondary.

Those struggles have served to cast a brighter-than-usual spotlight on the methods of Ted Thompson, the club’s general manager since 2005. Deeply committed to a philosophy of drafting and developing his own players, Thompson has long been averse to ordering off the dessert menu, so to speak. Rather than throw cash at veteran free agents, the GM prefers to sink or swim with his own draft picks. This season the Packers are doing equal amounts of both.

Publicly, McCarthy has always expressed contentment with his boss’s preference for home-grown talent, though he does point out that having so much youth on the roster (average age at the beginning of this season: 25.4, third youngest in the NFL) forces the Packers to put relatively green players on the field before they’re primed to succeed. “You’re coming out of the gate,” he says, “with some guys that aren’t necessarily ready.”

That all adds up to something quite unacceptable to the partisans of Green Bay, who accuse the coach and GM of squandering the prime of Rodgers, who turned 33 last Friday. The NFL’s smallest city can also be its most unreasonable—call it Entitletown—though perhaps the judgment of its citizens has been impaired by heartbreak. McCarthy is 8–7 in the postseason, with five of those losses coming on the final play. (Circling back to his point about youth: Many of those defeats have boiled down to mistakes by in-over-their-head draftees.) Whoever’s to blame, the question has been amplified annually since that last Super Bowl season, in 2010: What have you done for us lately, Mike?

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In trying to earn trophy number two, McCarthy has been unafraid to shake things up. Following the 2014 season he fired himself as his team’s play-caller, delegating those duties to coordinator Tom Clements, who subsequently flopped; McCarthy reclaimed the laminated call sheet last December. Promoting Clements was the wrong decision, made for the right reasons. McCarthy puts his trust in his coaches and is fiercely loyal to them.

Still, that misjudgment was “maybe the biggest mistake he’s made in his career,” says Rich Gannon, whose own NFL star rose dramatically after four years in Kansas City under a QBs coach named McCarthy. “He was as good a teacher as I’ve ever had,” recalls Gannon, now an NFL analyst. “His level of detail and sophistication was something I’d never experienced before.”

For better or worse—depends which week you’re asking—McCarthy is toting the Packers’ play sheet again. “I was personally disappointed when Mike gave up play-calling,” says Paul Hackett, a retired coach and walking repository of the finer points of the West Coast offense that Green Bay runs. “I’m thrilled he’s back doing it, because I think he’s brilliant at it.”

Hackett is hardly impartial. He was McCarthy’s most significant mentor, the guy who saw the potential in a bright 25-year-old and helped him execute a career quantum leap.

Fred Vuich

Heading down Greenfield Avenue from St. Rosalia in his rented SUV, McCarthy bangs a right just before the railroad tracks. We are officially dahn the Run (or down the Run, shorthand for the Four Mile Run, a stream that empties into the Mon). To our right is Zano’s Pub House, a redbrick tavern formerly owned by Joe McCarthy, Mike’s father, who was also a fireman, policeman, contractor, landlord—whatever it took to feed his and Ellen’s five children.

On fish Fridays, when observant Catholics abstained from meat, Joe and his oldest son would put a few dozen fish sandwiches in a box with some bottles of ketchup, then make the short drive to the J&L steel mill. Mike recalls standing on the hood of the family station wagon, passing sandwiches over the fence, receiving in return a brown bag full of rolled-up dollar bills with the parting words, “See you at four!” (In those days, when the mill made steel around the clock, the bar filled up after each shift, at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and midnight.)

Further up the Run, across Saline Street, is the windowless Slavonic Political Citizens Club, a nod to the concentration of transplanted Eastern Slavs who immigrated to Greenfield to work in the mills. The Hunky Club, as it is known, resides in the shadow of the Parkway East, a section of I-376 that rumbles overhead. “If you walked along here,” says McCarthy, pointing to the railroad tracks running north toward Schenley Park, “it was a shortcut dahntahn. We’d jump the”—he catches and censors himself—“we’d walk the tracks up to Panther Hollow and go fishing.”

So you’re saying you didn’t hop the train?

“They did go real slow.

“Whenever it rained,” McCarthy continues, pointing to a nearby basketball court sheltered by the overpass, “my brother and I would come down here and shoot baskets. You’d end up dirty, from all the s--- falling off the parkway, but at least you were out of the rain.”

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Joe III, Mike’s younger brother, was a clever, hard-nosed point guard who played at Boyle, then two more years at Penn State McKeesport. A former state deputy attorney general, he ran a law firm in Pittsburgh until Jan. 21, 2015, when at age 47 he suffered a fatal heart attack playing racquetball. The subject makes Mike’s voice crack. “I can’t get past it,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

As an adult, Joe III ran a rec basketball league at nearby Magee Field, an athletic complex that is the beating heart of this community. Sitting in Magee’s bleachers, overlooking the field where he once competed in the township’s annual Fourth of July footraces, Mike’s mind wanders back to the nights when he and his buddies would sneak through a hole in the fence and climb the pole housing the light switch. After playing pickup hoops on the outdoor courts until midnight, they’d take a dip in the pool. “This place,” he says, “was our inner-city country club.”

Every other building, it seems, jostles a memory. “That was one of my dad’s rentals,” he says, pointing to a handsome box house. “We were working on a scaffolding, doing the siding and shingles.” The McCarthy patriarch was in a rush; he had to work at the bar that night. But a section of scaffolding swung loose, impaling his hip with a spike. “The doctor told him, ‘Come over and let me look at it,’” says Mike. “And my dad said, ‘How about I come over in the morning?’ Then he went to the bar and worked a shift.”

Joe was a tough guy, and he was toughest on his eldest son, who worked in the bar on Sundays after church. It always fell to Mike to swab the restrooms—“Not a pretty sight after Saturday night.”

Big for his age, Mike was a dominant athlete in middle school. His sixth-grade hoops team went 39–1 and won the Pittsburgh diocesan championship in 1975. St. Rosalia played its basketball games at nearby Central Catholic High, where Dan Marino, older than McCarthy by three years, was forging his legend.

McCarthy looked forward to joining Marino—until the evening his father mentioned he’d bought an ice machine from a gentleman named Francis (McGee) Mannion. “He’s the basketball coach at Bishop Boyle,” Joe said. “You’re going to Boyle. You need to play for this coach.”

“And that was it,” says McCarthy, who did enroll at Boyle, in nearby Homestead, and played for Mannion, who reinforced the work ethic and discipline Mike had learned from his parents. Mannion also taught McCarthy to tap into a deeper intensity on the court, to “let himself go.”

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” recalls McCarthy, who might as well be describing himself, “but he walked on that court—you saw the fire, the Irish. He was so intense. He got it out of you.”

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Football was McCarthy’s third-best sport, after basketball and baseball, yet that’s what he played after graduating, as a tight end first for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College Artichokes, then at Baker University, in Baldwin City, Kan. After blowing out a knee during his senior season, in 1986, he watched from the sideline as the Wildcats lost to Linfield 17–0 in the NAIA championship.

McCarthy’s next stop was 250 miles west on I-70. At Fort Hays (Kan.) State he coached linebackers and enrolled in the M.B.A. program while living in the offensive coordinator’s basement. Halfway through his first semester McCarthy took a course called Coaching Today’s Athlete and had an epiphany. He’d seen his future, and it was not in sales.

“Well,” said his father, learning that Mike had scrapped his M.B.A. plans to pursue a master’s in sports admin in order to become a coach, “you blew it again.”

Maybe the old man was right. Home again in Greenfield in 1989, Mike’s search for a coaching job was going nowhere. He sent his résumé to Pitt, but no one got back to him. Not that Dad was buying that as an excuse. If Mike wanted a job, why didn’t he walk into the football offices and introduce himself? Reluctantly, the son did. “I was shaking like a leaf,” he recalls. “I just said a little prayer and found some peace. I mean, what was the worst thing they could do, tell me to leave?”

That they did—but only after McCarthy spoke to the Panthers’ director of football operations, Alex Kramer, who assured him, while showing him the door, that they’d keep him in mind.

Kramer called the next day: A volunteer graduate assistant’s position had come open. McCarthy accepted the job before Kramer finished describing it.

“So much of this business is having things line up for you.” That’s Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, referring to McCarthy’s arrival in Green Bay one year after Rodgers. Kismet was at work as well when McCarthy made a pest of himself that day at Pitt. As a GA, he joined a staff that included seven past and future NFL assistants. But the coach who would have the most influence on him was the one intent, it seemed, on working him into the ground.

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Hackett, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator—who would soon become their coach—was four years removed from a three-season stint with the 49ers. During that time, Bill Walsh had imparted upon him the tenets of the West Coast offense, which was then cutting edge. McCarthy peppered Hackett with questions and spent most of his spare moments devouring the coordinator’s tomelike playbook. McCarthy’s most productive study sessions came during his graveyard shift in a tollbooth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Pitt job wasn’t paying, and the kid still ate like a horse. So Joe got him a job he could do at night. More than a quarter-century later, McCarthy remains grateful to one particular colleague, who drove a station wagon to the toll plaza. Sometimes, “after the 2 a.m. rush, when the bars closed,” McCarthy would steal an hour of Z’s in the backseat of the colleague’s car, “my feet sticking out the window,” he says. “That was the best sleep of my life.”

“I’d get in at 6 a.m.,” recalls Hackett, “and Mike would be there before me, having come from the turnpike. He was doing that, plus everything I asked him to do—and I ground on him pretty hard. I remember thinking, This guy is something.”

Fired by Pitt in 1992, Hackett caught on as the Chiefs’ OC. On his recommendation, K.C. coach Marty Schottenheimer interviewed McCarthy, who during his time at Pitt had driven, along with a young Panthers assistant named Jon Gruden, to South Bend. There they attended a four-day computer course on game analysis that entailed, McCarthy recalls, “creating a spreadsheet and collecting as much data as you could on one play. Everybody had the basics back then—down and distance, the front, the formation—but we learned to do much more within that.”

Intrigued, Schottenheimer brought him on as a quality-control assistant. Not quite four years after barging into Pitt’s offices, a 29-year-old McCarthy found himself sitting in QB meetings with Joe Montana.

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Hackett invited McCarthy into those meetings only if he’d completed his other tasks, which he always had, even if it meant sleeping in the office. Whenever he got the chance, McCarthy would peruse the playbooks of certain Chiefs. He was most interested in those belonging to Montana and his backup, Dave Krieg. “I wanted to see how they were taking notes,” he explains. “Joe was very regimented in his preparation.” McCarthy, not surprisingly, is to this day a voluminous note-taker, very regimented in his preparation.

When Hackett took the head job at USC, in 1998, McCarthy stayed in K.C. Purged along with Schottenheimer after the next season, he landed on his feet as Green Bay’s QBs coach, welcoming the chance to work with Brett Favre, whose grit he witnessed firsthand. McCarthy and his impetuous pupil clicked—this was nine years before Favre’s protracted, bitter divorce from the Packers—but his first stay in Green Bay was brief. Coach Ray Rhodes was axed after an 8–8 season. For McCarthy, it may have seemed like a lost year. Turns out it wasn’t.

Seven years later (after OC gigs with the Saints and the 49ers), he was interviewing for Rhodes’s old job. That search came down to him and Sean Payton. Both men were offensive savants, but Payton was more polished and charismatic. In explaining his choice of McCarthy, which raised eyebrows, Thompson mentioned the new guy’s “Pittsburgh macho.” In the end, according to a member of that Packers front office, the decision may have come down to fit and familiarity. People remembered McCarthy, and liked him.

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I forgot I was liked,“ McCarthy quipped to a packed ballroom, and the friendly crowd obliged him with laughter. This was in June; he’d just been introduced at his foundation’s annual fund-raiser for the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wis. As he stood at the dais, it became clear he’d left his Pittsburgh macho back at the table. Ten minutes into his speech, McCarthy posed a series of existential questions: “Why do children get sick? Why am I blessed with this beautiful family?“ Choking up, he continued, “Why do I cry up here every damn year?”

Smiling back at him was his wife, Jessica, and their happily blended brood. Shortly after McCarthy was hired, John and Traci Schneider had begun plotting. Schneider, then a Packers analyst and now the GM of the Seahawks, is a native of De Pere, Wis. He and Traci were good friends with one of his high school classmates, Jessica Murphy, an elementary-school art teacher and the single mother of two boys.

“As soon as Mike got the job in Green Bay,” says Jessica, “John and Traci couldn’t wait to set us up.” At their first outing, a triple date at an Irish pub, McCarthy was blissfully oblivious to the forces at work. Still, he and Jessica became friends, then started dating. Married in March 2008, they’ve had two daughters together. Gabrielle and Isabella joined Jack and George as well as Alex, McCarthy’s 25-year-old daughter from his first marriage, which ended in 1995.

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While many NFL coaches are empty nesters, McCarthy’s home life is a happy anarchy, with four kids under 16. He carves out time where he can. After taping his TV show on a recent Monday, for instance, he zipped over to George’s middle school in time to see the 13-year-old QB lead his team to victory. There, spectators heard a familiar, husky, Pittsburgh-inflected voice imploring, “Fundamentals, George!” Afterward, McCarthy headed back to the office.

Marriage, children—“it’s definitely changed him,” says Rodgers. “He’s got a softer side to him off the field, but he hasn’t lost his passion on the field.”

McCarthy, in turn, isn’t buying the narrative that Rodgers’s talent is fading, that the quarterback’s clock is ticking. “The way he’s playing,” says the coach, “he’s got at least six years.”

So how much time does McCarthy have? With each loss this season the grumbling has grown louder. As happened to Andy Reid in Philly, some critics contend, his freshness date has gone by. McCarthy doesn’t have to leave the profession, they say, but he can’t stay here.

The coach doesn’t just hear the criticism—part of him seems to embrace it. Yes, the journey of this season has been bumpy, he acknowledged the day after the debacle in Tennessee. “To me, it’s always bumpy, and that’s the joy of it. That’s this game. That’s how hard it is in the NFL.”

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He’d begun that press conference with the memorable, unapologetic statement, “Let’s just state the facts: I’m a highly successful NFL coach.” With that assertion, McCarthy was reminding the world that he hadn’t forgotten how to coach overnight. He was climbing out on a limb—which was promptly sawed off a week later when his D made Redskins QB Kirk Cousins look like Doug Williams in his prime.

But beware the Pack, which have since won two straight and remain very much in the mix in the mediocre NFC North. The defense has patched its biggest holes, it would seem, and Rodgers is once again looking like Rodgers. As the QB recently affirmed, he and his teammates still believe in the coach whose motto might as well be, When the going gets tough, it helps to be from Greenfield.

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