Green Bay – Back in November, when the sky was falling and Mike McCarthy was headed for the unemployment line and the Packers were looking uglier than color rush uniforms, few people outside their locker room could have imagined where they’d be today:
Getting ready to host a playoff game against the New York Giants as the NFL North Division champions.
Win or lose Sunday, what McCarthy and his assistants have done this season to turn around a foundering team is nothing short of remarkable. To follow a four-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak just doesn’t happen in the NFL.
When I asked him Monday if it ranked among his staff’s best coaching jobs, McCarthy gave one of his typical wandering responses:
“We have a great coaching staff,” he said. “The one thing is, we’ve been very consistent in getting our players ready to play. … This is a threshold we knew we needed to get over. We dug ourselves a hole at 4-6; we’re out of it now and now the real challenge is starting. It’s playoff football. It’s a one-game season and we’ve got the Giants here Sunday. We’ve done a lot of great things as a coaching staff. We’re optimistic and energized to maybe make this our best year.”
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For reasons that mystify, it’s hard for some fans to give McCarthy credit for anything. Super Bowl XLV was a fluke. He’s won it all just once with Aaron Rodgers and is wasting the quarterback’s career. He’s built the bulk of his 122-68-1 record by beating up on teams in a weak division.
They’re all ridiculous criticisms. There is no such thing as a fluke Super Bowl champion. Is it possible one of the reasons Rodgers is so good is that McCarthy is his coach? And is it McCarthy’s fault the Vikings, Lions and Bears can’t beat him?
No doubt, Packers fans have been spoiled by success. The team has won at least 10 games eight times in McCarthy’s 11 years. Green Bay has had one losing season since he took over in 2006 and has made the playoffs eight consecutive years.
In a league built on parity – everything from the draft order to the schedule helps the weaker teams and punishes the stronger ones – those accomplishments should not be taken lightly.
Ask tight end Jared Cook, who labored for seven seasons in Tennessee and St. Louis, how easy it is to win one division title, let alone the five McCarthy’s Packers have won in the last six years. Cook has never played in a playoff game.
“Coming from my perspective, you know how tough it is and you know how much of a blessing it is for somebody to be able to reach postseason play as many times as they do here,” he said. “How awesome it is to do that.”
Said McCarthy, “It’s a big deal. And it should be. It’s a big deal to win a division championship in this league.”
Some would argue that the Packers shouldn’t have been 4-6 in the first place, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is that they won six straight after being written off by just about everybody.
Plenty of other head coaches would have lost the locker room after those four ugly defeats. Plenty of other young teams would have lost confidence in the culture, the message, the system.
McCarthy and his assistants rolled up their sleeves and attacked the problems and challenges. They didn’t fix everything, but they stayed consistent in their approach, got backups and third-stringers ready to play and got the players to stay together, no easy feat.
The offense, which was struggling at midseason, caught fire behind a rejuvenated Rodgers. Surely, McCarthy’s ability to conceive and execute changes helped get his quarterback untracked. He moved Ty Montgomery to the backfield and Jordy Nelson to the slot. He got Geronimo Allison involved in the passing game. And who could have guessed he would get 61 rushing yards and a receiving touchdown out of fullback Aaron Ripkowski on Sunday?
The Packers are peaking at the right time. It doesn’t mean they’ll beat the Giants, but it’s better than the alternative.
“This is definitely the way we want to come in,” McCarthy said. “We’ve limped in (to the playoffs) before. (We’ve) rested players and didn’t play very well. Did it carry over to the next game and so forth and so on?
“There’s no doubt with this team. Last night’s (victory over Detroit) was a microcosm of the season. Guys are going down and the next one jumps in and you keep going. With that comes a lot of confidence that you can do whatever you have to do to win the game.”
You can reach Gary D'Amato at email@example.com or on Twitter @garydamatogolf