Mike McCarthy’s Achilles’ Heel Rears Its Ugly Head in Packers Loss
There is much to admire about Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. He is a good football coach and I think that’s a pretty obvious statement. He’s won a Super Bowl. He calls all his own plays. He has a steady approach and patience in developing players that he is often criticized for in the media, on message boards, and in everyday conversations. There have been plenty of times where the general football public, myself included, have been proven wrong by McCarthy.
The most notable recent one being Mason Crosby. I wanted Crosby gone, you likely wanted him gone… we all wanted him gone! But McCarthy stood by “the man” and let him get his groove back. Now Mason Crosby is one of the best kickers in the game again and everyone calling for him to be cut looks pretty foolish.
But if someone were to ask me if Mike McCarthy was doing his best to improve as a head coach in the NFL, I’m afraid my answer would be emphatic.
No he is not.
Over the years and time and time again, Mike McCarthy has proven himself to be one of the worst situational end-game football coaches in the NFL. In my eyes it is simply impossible to accept that he has attempted to improve upon it because he continues to make blunders in the crucial moments at the end of the game.
Yesterday McCarthy was responsible for three major errors that cost the Packers.
1) The Packers should have been dragging the Steelers Le’Veon Bell into the end zone on first down, allowing the Steelers to score on purpose and enabling the Packers to keep their one timeout. This would have given the Packers the best chance to score a game-tying TD on the final drive.
2) With 22 seconds left in the game and no timeouts, facing 2nd and 1, the Packers should have spiked the ball to stop the clock. This would have allowed them two opportunities to score from the 1-yard line, with the added help of being able to huddle and calmly approach the line of scrimmage. A false start penalty was the result of the panic and lack of preparation on the sideline for this particular situation and in essence doomed the Packers chances of winning.
3) After the Packers got the false start penalty and the clock began to run, Matt Flynn still could have spiked it again, made it 3rd and goal from the 5 with under 10 seconds to play. This would have allowed the Packers to huddle and approach the final play (or possibly two plays) of the game with poise. Instead, they looked like exactly what they were… a team totally unprepared for the situation.
I’m getting ahead of myself though.
In 2010, my opinion of McCarthy was nowhere near as positive as it is today. I had watched the Packers coach blow so many crucial situational decisions and watched players make less than optimum decisions in crunch time that it was painfully obvious it wasn’t part of the coaching curriculum. I was so effusive in my anger and negativity toward McCarthy I told anyone willing to listen, “We will never win a Super Bowl with Mike McCarthy as head coach.” I said it often enough that I even started promising to write a letter of apology if he did in fact prove me wrong.
See, I figured in the midst of any Super Bowl run that at least one crucial mathematical, situational decision would make or break a game. I was ultra-confident that during that moment Mike McCarthy would make the wrong decision and not give his team the best chance to win.
Well, we all know what happened in 2010 and early 2011. The Packers managed to go on the road, win all three playoff games and the Super Bowl without McCarthy facing one crucial situational decision the entire run. In fact, Green Bay never even trailed in the second half of any of those games. The Packers simply got out to early leads and then hung on for dear life.
Sam Shields did display complete lack of awareness in trying to return a late Caleb Hanie interception in the NFC title game, and we all remember the image of McCarthy telling Shields to give himself up to effectively end the game. But had Shields been coached t0 do that before the game? Based upon the numerous times he made similar mistakes after the title run, the only logical answer is that he was not. Even though Shields’ mistake didn’t end up costing the Packers, the whole point is that it could have. The Packers win percentage was about 99.9 percent when Shields made the pick, but as he started to make his return that percentage dropped.
One need look no further than the “Marty Schottenheimer: A Football Life” to witness the exact same scenario. However, in this case in 2006, Chargers defender Marlon McCree made the pick and got stripped of the football by the Patriots’ Troy Brown. Reche Caldwell recovered it for New England, giving the Patriots a first down. The Chargers would go on to lose that game and be eliminated from the playoffs after going 14-2 in the regular season and Marty Schottenheimer would never coach another NFL game.
This could have just as easily happened to Shields and the Packers.
Nonetheless, McCarthy and the Packers got it done and I cracked my knuckles and sat down at the keyboard to write a letter of apology to Mike McCarthy.
I told him about how I questioned him and that I didn’t think he was capable of getting it done and I explained some of the reasons why I questioned him. Hell… if I was going to be eating some humble pie and taking the time to write the coach an apology, you can best be certain I was going to try and explain how I thought the Packers could improve and why it was that I felt he was incapable of succeeding. The entire letter I wrote and sent twice (once during the lockout, once after) revolved around his poor decisions in regards to situational football.
Here’s an excerpt…
“But Coach… I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak my mind about situational football. Sometimes it just seems we’ve (the Packers) been in games where even though the situation is unique, as is each game, our team seems ill-prepared to handle the situation. Being the offensive play caller as a head coach must be a headache when it comes down to crunch time, and I feel the Packers have substantial room for improvement in being better-prepared to handle situations… by simply thinking more about potential situations before they occur.
Not allowing the Bears to score (in 2010 at Chicago) on purpose was a poor decision. You have to now know that was a mistake. You never did publicly say that it was, or if you did I never heard it. As a knowledgeable football fan and probability and stats geek, I wanted to hear that admission from you. I wanted to know that you learned from that and would think differently if presented with that situation again. I wonder if given the exact same scenario today… would you let them score on purpose?”
In yesterday’s press conference Mike McCarthy admitted that the Packers defense did let Pittsburgh score on purpose, but only after they blew their final timeout and passed up a golden opportunity to let them score on first down.
I am not a football coach, but I have researched statistics and situational football to the point where as I was watching the game live, I was screaming at the television to let the Steelers score. I knew this was the Packers best chance to win and yet I’m not paid millions of dollars a year to even think about these things. Yet, this head coach who has made similar mistakes before, felt the need to waste the crucial final timeout to come to that conclusion. To me, this is inexcusable just as it was when I wrote my letter back in early 2011.
I feel mathematical and situational errors by a head coach are inexcusable. You are calling the plays though, so someone needs to be in your ear who is only thinking of game management. It’s not fair to put that all on you. You need research before the fact. With access to detailed statistical information and creating scenarios before they happen, I know you could maximize your win percentage in key spots more often than you currently do, but more importantly maximize it more than your opponents do. Bill Belichick has a man named Ernie Adams in his ear at crunch time… do you have someone like that?
Maybe you have someone doing that already, but either you weren’t listening to that person, or he/she isn’t doing a good enough job.
So now we cut to three years later and Green Bay’s coach is still one of the worst situational coaches in the game. Did McCarthy’s game management errors cost Green Bay the game yesterday? No they didn’t. Did McCarthy’s game management decisions put the Packers in the best position to win? Absolutely not. There is an obvious lack of preparation by the Packers in this regard and it has gone on for McCarthy’s entire regime.
Although I now know it is possible for McCarthy to bring home a Super Bowl title, he has given me and the rest of Packers nation zero reason to believe he has ever addressed this major deficiency in his game. Until the Packers do start taking mathematical analysis and situational football more seriously, we can expect more ill-fated decisions from the Packers head coach when the game is on the line.
Andrew Chitko is a Packer fan who enjoys the mental and mathematical side of football just as much as the action and excitement on the field. "Cerebral Football" will focus on key coaching decisions, situational football, and other NFL-related topics deserving deeper analysis.