Mike McCarthy

There is likely a paragraph or two of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s legacy that has yet to be written —  just to get what is both obvious and understood out of the way. Many times the way one goes out has a lot to do with how they are remembered.

One might say that it is too early to discuss McCarthy’s final legacy. However, consider this not a prediction of what that legacy might be, which would be a inane waste of time, but rather, an analysis of where it is currently headed.

When McCarthy walked out of Jerryworld on the night of February 6th, 2011, he was the fourth head coach in Green Bay Packers’ history to have won an NFL title, and thus his place in Packers’ lore was already set. Clearly he had forever separated himself from the Mike Shermans of yore and entered into territory for which streets and buildings in Green Bay bear your name.

In fact, the comparison with the last coach to bring the trophy back to Green Bay — Mike Holmgren — was striking. When Holmgren was lifted onto the shoulders of his players during a confetti downpour on January 26th, 1997, he too was just finishing his fifth season as head coach. He too had lost an NFC championship game before winning the big prize. He too had taken over a 4-12 team and made it a consistent playoff team after just one season of righting the ship.

However, in some ways, McCarthy’s resume was better. His teams had done it with two different quarterbacks, and his championship team was younger and had overcome a mountain of adversity during its title run, including 18 players on injured reserve and a team record 328 games missed due to injury. With the youth of the team and the number of players coming back from injury, many predicted a dynasty was possible.

What virtually no one predicted was that the injuries would keep coming, but the playoff wins wouldn’t.

Here is a comprehensive list of the Packers’ injuries during Mike McCarthy’s tenure.

YEAR IR Preseason During Season Total Games Missed Total Games Missed by Starters Record
2013 17 5 12 314 108 8-7-1
2012 17 9 8 317 102 11-5
2011 6 2 4 143 60 15-1
2010 18 5 13 328 134 10-6
2009 10 3 7 209 62 11-5
2008 14 7 7 6-10
2007 11 7 4 13-3
2006 14 7 7 8-8

Perhaps because so many players were rested coming into 2011, or because the defense appeared to play specifically to avoid injury, that year was the healthiest one during McCarthy’s tenure with only 143 total games missed, 60 by starters, and six players on IR. It should be no surprise that the team posted their best record during McCarthy’s run, finishing 15-2.

However, that season, more than 2010, now appears to be the aberration. In 2012 and 2013, the Packers returned to the astronomically bad 300+ games missed due to injury mark. They had over 100 games missed by starters both seasons, and almost comically, both years had exactly 172 games missed thanks to IR.

Notice there is little correlation between the number of players on the IR and the team’s record that season. However, clearly, the number of players that have to be put on IR during the season is a more important stat than how many start the season on IR. Notice that the two seasons the Packers only had to put four players on IR during the season were the two best regular seasons during McCarthy’s tenure — 2007 and 2011.

There are a lot of ways to measure injuries, and because of that, you might have heard different media sources report different teams as being the hardest hit by injuries. Don’t believe it. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they also don’t lie.

Here are the top teams the last two years in the category of games missed due to injury.

2013 2012
Packers 314 Packers 317
Panthers 309 Colts 301
Jets 283 Patriots 295
Broncos 275 Jaguars 285
Colts 269 Ravens 272
Patriots 269 Redskins 249
49ers 258 Titans 242

As you can see, the Packers have been the grand champion of games missed due to injury for the last two years running. In fact, the Packers are not only the lone team to clear the 300 mark both seasons, but they did it with room to spare.

Of course, though this is a small sample size, this table makes it pretty clear that bad luck and coincidence aren’t the whole story here. Notice that the Packers, Colts and Patriots are listed both years. Is this partially because injuries from 2012 could have lingered on to affect 2013? Sure. That’s a small factor, but it is also undoubtably a factor how these teams handle their injuries. Are these three teams more likely to sit an injured player? Almost certainly. Are these three teams more likely to use IR to maintain the rights to a player that other teams would have cut? Almost certainly.

However, it should be noted that none of those three teams were in the top 10 for games missed in 2011. That means that how they are handling their injuries and their use of IR isn’t the whole story either. Rather, it is a combination of those factors AND bad luck with injuries. The fact that, unlike the Patriots or Colts, the Packers also topped this dubious list in 2010 suggests that a more chronic problem exists — that there might be something underpinning this apparent bad run with injuries.

Neither I nor McCarthy obviously know what that something is, but it would behoove one of us to find out.

You may have also noticed that the Packers aren’t the only team overcoming injuries. It may seem ironic that six of the top seven in 2013 and five of the top seven in 2012 were playoff teams, but don’t make too much of that. My tabulations include playoffs, which means that the deeper a team went, the more games it played, and therefore the more opportunities to have games missed. If a team had 10 players on IR, for instance, two playoff games meant 20 more games missed. This partially explains why playoff teams top the list.

It is also possible that other successful teams are copying the Patriots/Packers model of handling injuries and IR, which would be no surprise. That is how the NFL operates.

Finally, let’s take a look at the rest of the NFC North in the last 5 seasons.

Packers Total Games Missed Bears Total Games Missed Vikings Total Games Missed Lions Total Games Missed
314 103 137 130
317 117 84 173
143 115 73 171
328 72 109 233
209 119 39 224

Looking at this, it is hard to believe that the Packers are in the same league. The stark contrast between the Packers and their NFC North rivals suggests ALL factors are in play here. It suggests the Packers handle injuries differently, handle IR differently, and have a chronic injury problem.

Remember when this was the “Black and Blue” division? Ha! Only for the Packers!

Props to the Lions, with their own poor history with injuries, for topping the Packers in games missed due to injury for 2011 and 2009. At least someone is.

We see again here that rather than comparisons with other teams, it is the comparison against yourself that is the most important. The year the Packers had their fewest games missed they went 15-1 in the regular season. The year the Bears had their fewest they went 12-4 and to the NFC championship game. And in 2009, when the Vikings went 12-4 and to the NFC championship game, they had their fewest — an unbelievably low 39 games missed due to injury.

So, though injuries can be overcome, there is a definite correlation between being healthy and getting wins.

This all leaves Mike McCarthy and the question of his legacy with a straightforward answer.

I don’t doubt that some nights he leaves his office and heads down a few floors to the Packers Hall of Fame. He goes to the room where the four Lombardi Trophies shine in their cases. He doesn’t necessarily think of his legacy, not yet, but of that one moment of glory and where we’ve gone since. He wonders — how has it all slipped away?

Mike Holmgren left town without ever having to answer the question.

But maybe if Mike McCarthy stands there in the dark and listens closely enough, he’ll hear the whisper.

Solve the problem.