Mike Vandermause column: With steady hand, McCarthy matches Holmgren's legacy

Dec. 29, 2012
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy keeps his players grounded and focused regardless of distractions. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy keeps his players grounded and focused regardless of distractions. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

Mike Holmgren carved out an unforgettable legacy during his seven-year tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1990s, and he left big shoes for his successors to fill.

Ray Rhodes followed Holmgren in 1999 and lasted just a year before getting fired, and although Mike Sherman produced a respectable overall record during his six seasons on the job, he too was shown the door.

Who could have guessed that Mike McCarthy, who served as an assistant in the failed Rhodes regime and started his Packers head coaching career in 2006 with an inauspicious 4-8 record, would be able to duplicate Holmgren’s success in Green Bay?

Let the record show that McCarthy is every bit as good as Holmgren.

In seven years in Green Bay Holmgren produced a 75-37 regular-season record and guided the Packers to six playoff berths, three division titles and one Super Bowl championship.

Heading into the final game of his seventh season as Packers head coach, McCarthy has produced a 74-37 regular-season record and has led the Packers to five playoff berths, three division titles and one Super Bowl crown.

When told this past week that he could match Holmgren’s record with a victory over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at the Metrodome, McCarthy sounded surprised.

“Is that right?” said McCarthy. “I didn’t know that. That would be kind of cool.”

McCarthy has great respect for Holmgren.

“I think he’s a fantastic football coach,” said McCarthy.

“I’ve always been a fan of what he’s done offensively, what he’s been able to do both in Green Bay and in Seattle. I had a chance to go to his (Packers) Hall of Fame induction this year. … I just think what him and Ron (Wolf) were able to accomplish in the ’90s was special.”

Some day, a future Packers head coach will look back on what McCarthy has accomplished and consider it equally special.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two head coaches is that Holmgren had ambitions to serve as a coach and general manager and left the Packers for a more lucrative job in Seattle, while McCarthy is content to stay in Green Bay in his current role for the foreseeable future.

“I like to think I’m a blue-collar person,” said McCarthy. “That’s the way I was raised. I’m proud of the way I was brought up and where I came from. That’s the way it is here in Wisconsin. This is a great place to live. It’s a great place to raise a family. My wife and I, our roots are dug deep here and this will always be our home. Hopefully I can keep working for a while.”

Packers administrators, players and fans should take comfort in those words. While McCarthy doesn’t receive as much national recognition as he deserves, he has clearly emerged as one of the best head coaches in the NFL.

The Packers’ record speaks for itself, but beyond that, McCarthy’s even-keeled demeanor makes him a perfect fit for the demands of his job.

McCarthy’s ability to manage distractions is admirable. He has proven he can handle just about any type of drama, from Brett Favre’s controversial departure in 2008, to the replacement officials’ debacle in Seattle earlier this season, to the overwhelming number of injuries that plagued the Packers in recent seasons.

Through it all, McCarthy has displayed an uncanny ability to keep his players on point.

“I know it comes from McCarthy, it starts with him,” said 12-year veteran Ryan Pickett. “We do a good job of moving on.

“He’s like, ‘Stay focused, stay focused on our goal ahead, don’t let anything sidetrack us.’ He always has that message every day for us.”

McCarthy’s consistent and confident approach rubs off on his players.

“He never lets any of the BS affect him,” said guard Josh Sitton. “We’re able to keep on playing no matter where we’re at. We always have confidence that we’re going to be fine.”

The Packers have been fine despite getting robbed of a victory against Seattle in September due to an official’s horrendous call on the final play of the game.

They have been fine even after blowing a 21-3 halftime lead and losing to Indianapolis in October, which dropped their record to 2-3.

They have been fine despite enduring a rash of injuries to starters, something that also happened in 2010 when the Packers won the Super Bowl.

It’s inevitable bad things will happen. The important thing in McCarthy’s mind is how you handle adversity when it arrives.

“If there’s a storm outside, that stuff don’t matter to coach,” said Pickett. “If there’s a storm outside you’d never know it in this building. That’s how we are. That’s how we go about our business.”

What Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji respects about McCarthy is that he’s demanding but also understanding, something that became obvious following the Packers’ 38-10 loss to the New York Giants in November.

“Coming back that Wednesday, guys were expecting to get like a fire-and-brimstone type of speech,” Raji explained. “And he comes and he reads us St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the Bible. It was talking about different aspects and everything, it kind of like threw us off guard. But it also shows you the type of person he is. He understands that obviously if you’re a Green Bay Packer you’re expected to win, but it’s not going to happen every week. I think he’s very realistic. He’s about the next game and the next play and everything like that.”

McCarthy doesn’t believe in wasting time or energy on things that can’t be controlled.

“There’s so many different elements around our game that cause distraction,” he said. “They knock you off point. That’s the challenge of everybody in this business.”

One of the biggest challenges this season was getting his team in the right frame of mind after the Seattle game. He admits that in his younger days he would have lost his temper.

“To be volatile in that situation is the easy way,” said McCarthy.

“That’s the most natural reaction. The hardest thing to do is what we did, it was to take the high road.”

In the days after that game McCarthy essentially told his players not to gripe about the unjust loss and to forget about it. In a stunning gesture of good sportsmanship, McCarthy even reached out to one of the replacement officials to offer words of encouragement.

One thing McCarthy won’t allow his players to do is feel sorry for themselves, no matter what the circumstances.

“It’s just not going to happen here,” said Pickett. “I mean he doesn’t believe in that. He doesn’t believe in excuses. Even after the Seattle game, the way that everything worked out, he was still saying how we could have done thing better … not leaving (the outcome) to the refs. I think that’s indicative of the type of person he is and why he’s had so much success."

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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