MAn on A Mission Can Mike McCarthy lead the Packers to the promised land? by Brian Carriveau
ntering his fifth year as a head coach in the NFL, Mike McCarthy is no longer a spring chicken. He won’t be afforded the luxury of time to continue building his team without seeing definitive results in the form of winning seasons in the process. The Green Bay Packers headman will be held accountable if he can’t continue his winning ways. Thus far in his head-coaching career, McCarthy has compiled a 38–26 record including two playoff appearances, while going 1–2 in the postseason. The high water mark was an appearance in the 2007 season’s NFC Championship Game, while the team’s low point under McCarthy was a 6–10 record the following season. With a mix of peaks and valleys, it’s an appropriate time to examine where the Packers have been and where they are headed under McCarthy’s tutelage. When the Pittsburgh native was hired, the Packers released his mission statement that set the framework for his desired direction for the team. The document can still be found in the archives of the Packers’ website. With all capital letters, it reads in part: THE FOUNDATION FOR THE NEW DIRECTION OF THE GREEN BAY PACKERS WILL BE CONSTRUCTED WITH THREE KEY COMPONENTS OF OBTAINING “PACKER PEOPLE,” CREATING “STABLE STRUCTURE” AND CONCENTRATING ON “CHARACTER AND CHEMISTRY.” There’s a little more, although the text is brief, and its introduction serves as a roadmap in which the final destination is a Super Bowl victory. But has Coach McCarthy
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achieved his mission? The Packers obviously haven’t become Super Bowl champions yet, but are they on their way? It’s time to find out.
Packer People Ever since the day Mike McCarthy was hired the term “Packer People” has entered the vocabulary of Green Bay football fans, but the term has never really been defined. It’s a popular hobby of Packers fans to debate whether potential free agent targets are or are not “Packer People” or even what it means to be one. One user on the PackerNation.org discussion group wrote, “To me, it’s tough, smart, high-energy, hard-working, solidcitizen type guys who’ll rise to the occasion. I’m sure it means other things to other people.” And that seems to be the prevailing attitude. What it means depends on whom you ask. Former Packers fullback and running backs coach Harry Sydney, who was on the staff of the 1996 Super Bowl-winning team and now covers the team as the co-host of a sports talk radio show at WDUZ in Green Bay, has his own idea when it comes to the expression that has become part of the nomenclature among Packers fans. “I think when you hear the term ‘Packer People,’ I think
Mike McCarthy brought the term “Packer People” into the consciousness of Green Bay fans through his mission statement.. 86 | Maple Street Press Packers Annual 2010
what Mike McCarthy is talking about are people that are willing to work hard, that have the same goals in mind, the same focus,” said Sydney. “And him being the head coach of the mission statement, making sure everybody’s on the same page.” What Sydney said isn’t a whole lot different from the fan posting on the online message board. While McCarthy’s term may still be unknown to the public at large, it apparently doesn’t take a former professional football coach to understand the gist of the expression. Ask almost anyone to characterize what it means, and a strong work ethic will come near the top of the list. “It’s just hardworking people,” said Sydney as if to boil it down to its most essential element. “People that aren’t going to expect somebody else to do something that they’re not doing.” It’s possible the term’s simplicity, as well as its alliteration, has allowed it to catch on and become a part of the lexicon among followers of the team. Whatever its connotation, few people will doubt that the team has become comprised of so-called “Packer People” since McCarthy took over the reins of the ballclub. They’re a far cry from the days of Charles Martin and Mossy Cade, two players from the Forrest Gregg-era Packers who made questionable decisions on and off the field respectively. This past offseason the Packers focused heavily, once again, on signing their own free agents to long-term contract extensions instead of going outside the organization for help. Included in the re-signings were former Pro Bowlers safety Nick Collins and offensive tackle Chad Clifton, in addition to fellow offensive tackle Mark Tauscher. And as good and team-oriented as those players might be, one more among them seems to exemplify what it means to be “Packer People,” defensive tackle Ryan Pickett. As hard as it might be to believe, being a solid locker room presence and all-around team player may have played a larger role in Pickett receiving the club’s franchise tag this past offseason than his on-field play. In the end, it earned him a four-year, $28 million contract extension through the 2013 season. It’s not that Pickett would ever be considered an average player or J.A.G. (just a guy). But he’s never been so close to stardom as to even be named an alternate to the Pro Bowl either. “Ryan has been a good teammate and productive player for us on the field and also a good representative of the Packers in the community,” said general manager Ted Thompson in a statement when the Packers placed the franchise tag on Pickett. “We look forward to having him be a part of our future.”
Photo on previous page: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Photo this page: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Man On A Mission Even though Pickett may play as few as one-third of the defensive snaps in any particular game because the Packers will switch to sub-packages employing better pass rushers than the run-stuffing nose tackle, he will also do some of the seldom noticed dirty work. Most fans probably don’t even realize that Pickett played on the team’s field goal and extra point protection squad last season when healthy. Maybe most important, Pickett wants to be in Green Bay. He now makes his year-round residence there, and his children go to school there too. At the end of the ’09 season with the possibility of free agency staring him in the face, Pickett expressed his desire to the media to stay put. Then he echoed those sentiments once he inked his long-term contract extension this past March. “I’m from a small town myself,” said Pickett. “I like small town living. I’m not a big city guy. I like to fish and stay outside and play with my kids and stuff like that. So this town just suits me. It kind of fits my personality. It’s great. The people are welcoming. Around here, my wife loves it. She loves going to the stores around here, just a great place for my family.” Not every player may fit the mold like Ryan Pickett, but there seems to be very few bad apples on the roster. Defensive lineman Johnny Jolly got mixed up in drugs, which had resulted in a drawn out legal battle. And tight end Spencer Havner faced DUI charges after getting in an off-season motorcycle accident. Yet in both of those cases, it was a one-time malfeasance, not a pattern of continued wrongdoing. “Most of the guys aren’t getting in trouble,” said Sydney. “They’re staying focused on their football. They’re saying all the right things. There’s no drama involved with any of the players on the team, and I think that’s what [McCarthy] means.” Even the players sometimes portrayed as the bad guys aren’t really as roguish as they’re made out to be. Look no further than guard Daryn Colledge. His future with the Packers organization not withstanding, Colledge was put in a tough situation due to the NFL owners’ decision to opt out of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2009 season, the offensive lineman instead was forced to become a restricted free agent and accept the smaller contract that came with it because of the NFL’s labor troubles. The Packers ended up offering him a one-year tender but didn’t talk long-term contract extension. To display his displeasure with the situation, Colledge decided to sit out the team’s off-season workout program despite McCarthy stressing the importance of player attendance. “Daryn Colledge and every member of our football team understands the importance of the off-season program,” said
Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett exemplifies the term “Packer People.”. McCarthy. “But once again, there’s a business side of this, and we respect what everybody has to do at this time.” The off-season workout program is voluntary, and seeing as Colledge didn’t initially sign the tender offered to him, he technically was a free agent and not obligated to attend. But he had both the option to sign his tender or come to an agreement that covers the team from an insurance standpoint in case of injury. Colledge instead chose to take a stance about a business decision that he thought was in his best interest. Even though both the head coach and fans of the team would have liked to see Colledge swallow his pride and participate in off-season workouts with his teammates, he’s far from a locker room cancer as could be. Colledge was the team’s 2009 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner for community service. Among the charities he has supported include the March of Dimes, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Salvation Army. And that’s just a sampling. Colledge is most definitely “Packers People.”
Stable Structure Even the most casual fan knows that the Packers aren’t profligate spenders in free agency. Their modus operandi is to build from within. This past offseason’s focus on signing their team’s own free agents is a testament to that. Related to this, the Packers have been the NFL’s
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Daryn Colledge was named the Packers’ 2009 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his work in the community. youngest team for four years running. They’ve added depth to the team by accumulating players via the draft and rarely from the outside. One of the byproducts has been competition for jobs from younger players coming up through the system. That, in one sense, has created stability. Players trust that the front office isn’t going to go out and acquire players simply to take their place. They know there’s going to be competition for their job, but it’s more than likely going to come from the inside. The delineation of jobs among the staff is clear. Mike McCarthy coaches and Ted Thompson manages. And that’s part of the reason the previous administrative regime is no longer in charge any more. Mike Sherman was stripped of his responsibilities as general manager once Thompson was hired in 2005 as the team’s record regressed after putting together consecutive 12–4 seasons during 2001 and 2002. He was then relieved of his duties as head coach after the team’s 4–12 2005 season. Since McCarthy became coach in 2006 there’s been little turnover in the team’s starting lineup. Former Pro Bowlers like Brett Favre, Bubba Franks, William Henderson, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, and Aaron Kampman are gone, but some level of turnover has to be expected. And for the most part, younger players coming up through the ranks, and not some free agent, have replaced those players. But while there’s been stability among the personnel on the field, there’s been large-scale change among the men
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coaching them, especially on the defensive side of the football, and also on special teams. In 2007 the Packers compiled a 13–3 regular season record and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. They followed that up with a 6–10 season in 2008. To go from the doorstep of the Super Bowl to a losing record was a major disappointment. The defense finished 20th in the NFL in total yards allowed and 26th against the run. The defensive coaching staff was held accountable. Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and all his defensive assistants, save linebackers coach Winston Moss, were fired. Gone were defensive ends coach Carl Hairston, defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn, secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer, and nickel package/cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington. In addition, special teams coordinator Mike Stock probably would have been fired had he not retired. The Packers’ results may have warranted such a change, but did this seismic shift among the coaching staff go against McCarthy’s maxim of “Stable Structure”? “No, because I think when you talk about ‘Stable Structure,’ it’s about doing the things necessary to win, being on the same page,” said Harry Sydney. “I don’t think under the old regime that the defensive secondary had it. Now with the new guy in, Mike McCarthy really doesn’t have to worry about defense. [Dom] Capers is handling that. So now everybody’s in their place. I think in the old structure, they weren’t all on the same page.” As Sydney noted, McCarthy brought in Capers to take over the defensive coordinator duties. Shawn Slocum was elevated from within to the special team coordinator’s role. Also brought on board were former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac to coach the defensive line and former Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker Kevin Greene to coach the outside linebackers. Joining them were Darren Perry and Joe Whitt Jr. to coach the safeties and the cornerbacks respectively in the secondary. It’s possible that McCarthy didn’t necessarily want such sweeping change, but rather it was necessitated by the instability of the outgoing defensive coaching staff. “Think about it,” said Sydney. “He gave Winston Moss a different title two years ago to oversee what was happening with the defensive coordinator. That’s not stable. I think because of that, he didn’t trust what was happening. I think now he trusts what’s going on. So it takes time... it takes time for those things to fall in place.”
Character and Chemistry Perhaps the best way to understand “Character and Chemistry” is to analyze the system of negotiating player contracts occasionally referred to as “accountability and
Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
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Man On A Mission bonuses, but were released for different reasons, Johnson because of production and Wahle because the Packers could no longer afford him. Had the Packers given either one of them workout or roster bonuses instead of a large signing bonus, the team might not have endured such financial hardship. Even though there is a 53-man regular season roster in the NFL, there is also a 45-man gameday roster. For every game of the regular season and the postseason there are eight players who will not be allowed to play. This is meant to take into account injuries that invariably will happen through the course of a season, but there’s always a few healthy players every game that aren’t activated, hence the Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was brought on board to bring stability to the Packers defense. “availability” part of the equation. There is a responsibility on the part of the player to do availability” by Mike McCarthy during press conferences. everything in their power to be available for every game and Gone are the days of handing out exorbitant signing earn their bonus, whether that means seeking treatment from bonuses that paid a player for simply signing a contract. Sure, the trainers, taking in extra film study, or putting in more there might still be small signing bonuses to thank a player practice time. In essence, they need to do whatever it takes to for past performance and commitment, but for the most part prove to the coaches that they deserve to be activated and play they’ve been replaced by workout and roster bonuses. This on Sundays. has been done to avoid complacency. By giving out huge In terms of “accountability,” workout bonuses are meant signing bonuses, there’s a school of thought that believes a to get players practicing together as a team during the offseaplayer has received his payday, and there’s no incentive for son, when changes are instituted, plans are implemented, and him to continue to perform. Does the name Joe Johnson ring the framework for the upcoming season is put into place. a bell? “One of Mike’s initiatives coming in was to make the With workout and roster bonuses, players stay hungry. off-season program more of a priority than in the past, where They have to earn their bonuses. And when they earn them, previous regimes had allowed for looser attendance due to the the team is happy to pay them. Former Packers vice president resistance players had in spending the winter and early spring Andrew Brandt—who was in charge of negotiating player months in Green Bay,” said Brandt. contracts and managing the team’s salary cap and is now the This is where “accountability and availability” turns president of the National Football Post—explained the process. “We made it a priority to change the attitude about the program, negotiating off-season workout bonuses into all veteran contracts,” said Brandt. “Although the insertion of these clauses always met with resistance, it was important to set a precedent with the veterans so that other players would follow.” This has allowed the team to remain fiscally responsible. Brandt has since left the team, but they appear to be navigating the same course with new salary cap manager Russ Ball in his stead. By offering such bonuses, the Packers can, in theory, offer a slightly lower base salary. Players are responsible for raising their own value. In addition, they avoid having to release players for monetary reasons, such as offensive lineman Mike Wahle a few years ago. The Packers were forced to release Mike Wahle in 2005 Both Wahle and Joe Johnson received large signing when they couldn’t afford him any longer.
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packer nation into “Character and Chemistry.” It’s during this time period where players bond and really become a team, according to Harry Sydney. “Look at the [organized team activities], how many guys that are working out at voluntary workouts,” said Sydney. “You’ve got those things, and that happens because guys are working in the locker room and seeing each other. That’s when chemistry is built. Chemistry’s not built on gamedays. Chemistry’s not built just at practice. Chemistry is built in the offseason, guys hanging out, playing dominoes, guys talking, having conversations, getting to know each other. “I think that’s what [McCarthy’s] talking about with chemistry. He seems to have that chemistry or that character, when you can count on people to be there. When you look at what’s happening now with the Packers, you’ve got a lot of young guys that have grown up that are all starting to count on each other and believing in what they’re doing.”
Meeting a Mission At the end of McCarthy’s mission statement, it reads:
It’s interesting to note that McCarthy personalizes the document making it specific to Green Bay by mentioning Vince Lombardi rather than just saying “Super Bowl champions” or “World champions.” But has he met his mission? The Packers have yet to win the Lombardi Trophy under McCarthy’s watch, but are they making progress? “They’re on their way,” said Harry Sydney. “Last year they were 11–5. They did a great job of signing their free agents, and those things are excellent, but you got to do something to bridge the gap between 11–5 and 13–3 and eventually getting home field. “It’s great that they’re signing their own free agents, but they’ve got to do something to get this team get to the next level.” If that seems too critical of a team that’s coming off a playoff appearance with the NFL’s youngest team, you have to understand from where Sydney is coming. The former Packers coach won two Super Bowls as a player during the Bill Walsh dynasty years with the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. He then won one more as a coach with the Packers. Sydney has experienced excellence and knows there’s a world of difference between being just a playoff-caliber team and a Super Bowl-winning team.
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The Packers aren’t there yet, but McCarthy has his eyes set on winning the Lombardi Trophy. Sydney knows the Packers could be just a player away from reaching the next step on the NFL ladder. He doesn’t know if that player is going to come from free agency or the draft or wherever, but he knows the Packers are going to have to acquire that missing piece of the puzzle somehow, someway. “Hopefully they get the right people to get to the next level,” said Sydney, “because right now I think they’re still knocking at the door.” Observers of the team know that the Packers aren’t likely to acquire that player in free agency. Ted Thompson generally doesn’t operate that way. More than likely, he’s going to have to draft that player, a “Packers Person.” And then it’s going to be Mike McCarthy’s job to develop that player, to insert him into the “Stable Structure” he’s created. By doing so, the player will be cultivated into the sense of “Character and Chemistry” already existing on the team. But will that one player be enough? Only by the end of the season will there be sufficient evidence whether or not to declare, “Mission accomplished.” MSP Brian Carriveau is the creator and managing editor of the Green Bay Packers blog Railbird Central on JSOnline.com, the website home of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Photo: Tom Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images
I AM HONORED AND PRIVILEGED FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD THE GREEN BAY PACKERS ON A NEW JOURNEY BACK TO THE PINNACLE THAT BEARS THE NAME OF “COACH LOMBARDI.”