Mike McCarthy extracts himself from a rental car and emerges into the drizzle of a spring afternoon in Santa Clara, a bright little toy of a town in California’s Silicon Valley.
“Whaddya think?” he asks me, surveying a cluster of restaurants, trying to decide where to eat.
“It’s your call,” I reply.
And so it comes to pass that on this day, nearly 90 years after the birth of the manliest team in the manliest sport in the manliest country in all the world, the new coach of the Green Bay Packers turns to his companion and pronounces a single word. An odd word. A word that travels across time and stands defiantly in its weirdness next to all of those fine, hard words uttered over the years by all those fine, hard Packers coaches. The word Mike McCarthy speaks is this:
McCarthy is a 42-year-old former tight end with a thick neck and boxy frame. Making his way across the parking lot, he presents, in his jock mufti, a big and blowsy figure: black ball cap stretched across his scalp, loose black pullover, gray warm-ups rippling like a pair of spinnakers, sneakers. The day before, he had flown into the Bay Area – where he served as the 49ers offensive coordinator in 2005 – to pack up the last of his belongings. “Everybody raves about [San Francisco],” says McCarthy, who actually lived here in Santa Clara, little more than a mile from the 49ers headquarters. “But it’s a lot of people, man, know what I mean?” A native of Pittsburgh, he says he’s very happy to be in the Midwest. Small town or not, Green Bay feels “natural,” he says. Almost like home.
When we meet, it’s just months into his tenure as the Packers’ 14th head coach and professional football’s most baffling hire. Here, after all, was the architect last year in San Francisco of the league’s worst offense in a decade. In New Orleans from 2000 to 2004, he was the coordinator of an overrated offensive unit that had stagnated on his watch. And he was on the Packers sideline in 1999 as quarterbacks coach, watching a beat-up Brett Favre, in the worst season of his career, play catch with everyone else’s secondary.
Some criticized the Packers for hiring a coach without a track record. In truth, he has a track record; it’s just not a good one. When Green Bay announced his hiring, one Bay Area columnist pronounced, “Mike McCarthy: Hero to Underachievers Everywhere.”
“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to that,” says McCarthy, who has powered through the edamame and is now moving on to the California rolls. “I learned at a young age you can’t please everybody. But coming off the year we had here [in San Francisco], I ain’t gonna lie to you, I didn’t think I was gonna have 20 chances to be a head coach. But I never for once doubted my ability to be one. I knew I was ready.
“I’m not apologizing to anybody,” he continues. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity that Ted Thompson, Bob Harlan and John Jones [Packers general manager, CEO and president, respectively] have given me.”
It’s hard not to feel sorry for McCarthy, who has been dropped square in the middle of what may be the NFL’s most awkward situa-tion. He will be coaching a Packers team stuck somewhere between contention and a face-lift, whose starting quarterback is in decline and whose future quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was notably passed over in the 2005 draft by McCarthy’s last team. It’s an organization caught between eras, led now by the youngest coach in football. The issue that should be of greatest concern to Green Bay fans, how-ever, is not simply who was hired but how he was hired.
In introducing his new coach, Ted Thompson (who, it bears noting, is the dramatis persona of such -vituperative Web sites as firepack-ersgm.com, firetedthompson.com and cantedthompson.com) explained the decision thusly: “I kind of liked that Pittsburgh macho stuff. I like the fact that he’s a tough guy.” That Pittsburgh macho stuff? If a vice president of anything but a pro football team said something so baldly inane, he’d be spending his emeritus years working at a Blimpie.
Certainly, McCarthy has his share of blue-collar bona fides. Indeed, the only time he seems to break out of the willful dullness practiced by all football coaches is when he talks about his upbringing.
The son of a firefighter and barkeep, McCarthy was raised in Greenfield, on Pittsburgh’s south side, and spent much of his child-hood working in his father’s saloon. That latter fact has now found its way into so many stories that McCarthy says he finally told his family: “You guys need to quit talking about that damn bar. We sold that thing 20 years ago.”
Nonetheless, it was a formative experience. Says McCarthy: “Talk about a great environment to learn how to judge people. Everybody sat in the same chairs everyday. They’d drink the same thing. That’s what you did back then – you got up, went to work, got off work, went to the bar, went home, showered, ate, went to bed. That’s it.” McCarthy coached in Kansas City in several capacities from 1993 to 1998, and for one home game, his father brought along some of the “old-timers” from Pittsburgh. “They were almost crying,” McCarthy recalls. “They’d never left the neighborhood. Just blue-collar, hardworking guys.”
His backstory has an undeniable charm (while a volunteer coach at Pitt, McCarthy moonlighted in a tollbooth on the Pennsylvania turnpike), and the sportswriters dutifully filled their Sunday profiles with all of the up-by-the-bootstraps talk. “The slick, pretentious trappings that surround some head coaches in the National Football League don’t apply to the new coach of the Green Bay Packers,” began one Journal Sentinel story, indulging in a bit of strawmanism. McCarthy, we were told time and again, is “tough as steel,” “no-nonsense,” “down to earth,” “macho.” The implication was that he’d coach in the same manner – biography as gridiron destiny. The question nobody seemed much interested in answering, though, was the obvious one: Does any of this stuff actually make McCarthy a great coach?
In today’s NFL, it’s often said that the head coach plays a role not unlike a corporate CEO. The head coach is responsible for much more than the playbook. He is a manager who must handle the inflows and outflows of personnel, who has to deal with, or at least understand, the myriad constraints of the salary cap. One look at the league’s top coaches shows how dramatically the model has changed. It is no longer Vince Lombardi’s NFL – a cigar and some sharp words won’t do. It is the NFL of Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach and a one-time Wesleyan economics major.
For these reasons, the NFL has entered a new sort of Great Man Era, an era of head coaching primacy, in which the right leadership can have a profound effect on a franchise’s fortunes. Under Belichick, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls since 2001, not on the backs of any stars but due to the shrewdness of the guy in the ill-fitting sweatshirt on the sidelines. It follows, then, that the hiring of a coach may be the most important move an organization will make. Last year, San Francisco devised a scientific approach. Analyzing the past 25 years of NFL history, the 49ers identified the league’s most successful coaches using criteria like playoff appearances, average victories per season and team improvement over the coach’s first two years. They then homed in on the traits those coaches had in common, traits that became their screening criteria. The best coaches, the 49ers found, have usually worked for winning programs, frequently under other top coaches. They were disciplinarians. They weren’t fresh out of a college job.
The search produced Mike Nolan, who had been Baltimore’s defensive coordinator and who went 4-12 in his first year in San Francisco. His debut was anything but promising at times it was simply embarrassing. It’s still too early to judge the 49ers’ hire, but their method, at least, is laudable. With so much at stake in choosing a head coach, San Francisco backed up its decision with more than a hunch.
The Packers search, it would seem, was little more than an exercise in psychobiography. It was a simple process, really. It was Thompson alone with McCarthy in a boardroom. Thompson wanted “a communicator,” says McCarthy, who was flown in for an inter-view just days after the season had ended and the aloof Mike Sherman had been fired. “He was looking for a partner,” McCarthy adds, “someone he could build the program with. Communication was huge. That came up over and over again.” Two days later, McCarthy had the job and Thompson had his communicator.
Around the league, eyebrows arched. Says Aaron Schatz, who runs the astute footballoutsiders.com web site and co-authors the annual Football Prospectus: “If you had drawn up a list of the top 50 candidates for a head-coaching position, including coordinators, position coaches, college coaches, he wouldn’t have even been on the list. Not the top 50. Probably not the top 100.”
The issue wasn’t that McCarthy was unproven. To the contrary: The evidence suggests McCarthy had proved himself, to that point, unworthy of a head-coaching job. His work in New Orleans, for instance, which is frequently marshaled in his support, was more a trick of the eye. According to footballoutsiders.com, which, instead of brute gauges like yards and touchdowns, uses a statistic called Defense-adjusted Value Over Average that measures an offense’s performance in a given situation against the league average. The Saints’ attack under McCarthy was never great, and for three years, it was genuinely bad. More importantly, it “stagnated,” Schatz says. Its rankings: 18th in the league in 2000, 24th in 2001, 10th in 2002, 11th in 2003 and 20th in 2004, McCarthy’s final year.
“And then he went to San Francisco, and they were horrific,” says Schatz. “It’s not entirely his fault.” There were injuries up and down the roster, for one thing. For another, the season became a learning lab for rookie quarterback Alex Smith, last year’s number one pick and a seven-game starter. The results were abominable, though it’s up for debate how much McCarthy should be blamed for Smith’s lack of improvement. The 49ers finished 4-12. McCarthy’s offense managed only 14.9 points and 224.2 yards per game. Its DVOA was -65.9 percent, which means the Niners’ offense was nearly twice as bad as Indianapolis’ was good. “It was terrible,” Schatz continues. “Okay, worst offense of the year, sure. But worst offense of the decade? You usually don’t get a head-coaching job after that.”
If there is indeed a meritocracy at work in the NFL, it failed miserably in Green Bay.
Why McCarthy then? One initial theory was that McCarthy, having worked with Favre in the past, would be able to bring back the quarterback, who was mulling retirement. But that makes no sense, Schatz says: “If you think you’re going to compete for one more season, you keep the same coaches.”
Another line of thinking suggests that Thompson, by installing a new coach and new system, was actually trying to shove Favre into retirement and thus reboot a franchise he could then build from scratch.
Both notions seem too reductive to be plausible. But the fact that a coach’s hiring could inspire such conspiracy theories suggests that Packerdom has come a bit unmoored in the Ted Thompson era, just a year and a half old. The Cheeseheads are now wearing tin foil hats.
Take a look at, say, firetedthompson.com, which, with its yellow text on green background and its mix of all caps and italics, is more manifesto than blog. The arguments against Thompson here, and on the other sites, coalesce around a few points: that he a.) needlessly fired a winning coach; b.) prefers to build through the draft than free agency (which, given the inefficiency of the free-agent market, is a perfectly reasonable philosophy); c.) generally behaves, in his capacity as a general manager, like the kind of guy you’d want at your poker table. From firetedthompson.com: “All I see is someone who has taken a perfectly salvageable team, and in the timespan of a year, he managed to trash it.”
And then there’s his choice of a head coach. McCarthy may very well succeed stranger things have happened in the NFL. But the way the search for him was conducted raises nagging questions. There’s a world of difference between Thompson shrugging and saying, “Trust me,” and the Niners holding up a bunch of spreadsheets and charts and saying, “Trust all of this.” It’s the difference between using the gut and using the brain. These days, the NFL belongs to those who use the latter.
Still, if you care more about plain humanity than Excel spreadsheets, witness McCarthy as he edges his car around the streets of Santa Clara, talking about growing up and trying to remain a Steelers fan. “We’re Pittsburgh proud,” he says of his family, then launches into a story from his time in Kansas City. It seems that one year, the Steelers were visiting the Chiefs on a Monday night, and it fell to McCarthy to find some 20 tickets for his family.
“I tried to be a good guy,” says McCarthy. “I wanted to get everybody in the same area. My tickets were in the section with all the other [Kansas City] coaches’ and players’ wives. Well, my cousins, assholes that they are, are rooting for the Steelers, okay? And my cousins are not gonna take shit from anybody. So the game goes on. The Steelers beat us. My family goes back to my house. By the time I get home from the game, my sister – she’s the toughest one in the family – she’s just getting after her husband like there was no tomorrow.” Apparently, a couple of McCarthy’s cousins had mixed it up with other people in the section. “My sister tried to break it up. ‘You’re embarrassing Michael’ and all this. The husband was like, ‘That’s bullshit. They’re allowed to root for the Steelers.’ She’s like, ‘Hey, this is family, you know? F–k the Steelers. He’s fighting for his paycheck.’”
When McCarthy got the Green Bay job, he recalls, people told him, “We’re so proud of you.” Then a pause. “God, I hope you don’t play them Steelers.”
McCarthy is rolling now and getting saltier by the minute. It is perhaps a glimpse at the man with a so-so record who nevertheless won over the league’s most storied franchise. That Pittsburgh macho stuff. Using the -quintessentially American measure of a man’s worth, I would have a beer with Mike McCarthy. My guess is Ted Thompson felt the same way. And maybe that’s the problem with Thompson, a sort of slack-ness in his approach that all of those Web site writers are sensing. Thompson conducted his coaching search not as a general manager evaluating the heir to Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren but like a man looking for a drinking buddy.