After the Green Bay Packers' preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago, coach Mike McCarthy said this was the best he's felt about his team coming out of training camp in his nine seasons as coach.
The Packers then went out to Seattle to play the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks in last week's NFL Thursday night opener and were beaten badly, 36-16.
So had McCarthy badly misjudged his team's preparedness? What went wrong?
"After the game in Seattle you reflect back," McCarthy said in an extended one-on-one interview with Press-Gazette Media on Friday. "The quality of practice was where it needed to be. I thought the preseason games we got better each week, that's what I always look for. So I don't question that part of it."
McCarthy, as he had the day after the game, said one of the team's main problems was the slow communication from the sideline to the players, especially on defense. The Packers had practiced functioning in noise regularly in camp, but those issues in the din at CenturyLink Field ended up limiting their personnel and scheme changes in the second half.
"I felt really good about our team going into it, and I still feel good about our football team," McCarthy said. "There are things we didn't do well in the game, obviously they're correctable. But I think the things we did as far as communication and the way that went was so out of character for us. Our game management, our boundary communication, I always thought that was a real strength of how we operate. We weren't in sync."
Before the opener each season, McCarthy conducts one-on-one interviews with several local media outlets. This year he postponed them until Week 2 because the Packers played early in the opening week. On Friday, Press-Gazette Media interviewed McCarthy in his office for about 30 minutes. Following is the bulk of the transcript of that conversation.
Why did you think your team was so far along by the end of camp?
McCarthy: Because our quality of work this camp was probably our best. Just the grades of the practices. The mental errors were way down compared to prior years. You have to give the CRIC (i.e., the team's new conditioning, rehab and instruction center located adjacent to the locker room) and the veteran players and the coaching staff credit for that. There was just a lot of statistical characters that pointed to that. Here's something for you. Every year we have a montage video we show the night before the first game. Basically it's the preseason highlights. (Team video director) Chris Kirby does the highlight tape. When we were building it up for the day-of-the-game meeting, he goes, 'Mike, we've never had this many highlights. I can't get all these into the video.' I said, 'Hell, make it longer.' There's another (piece of evidence). That tells you something. Now I'm not saying I'm going to hang my hat on it, 'OK, we have more video highlights than we've ever had, we're going to kick's Seattle's (butt).' That's not the point. But it kind of reinforced what you felt about your team.
When you talk about communication problems in Seattle, are you talking about in coaches' and designated player's headsets?
McCarthy: Yeah, just the speed of it. To me, communication is from the starting point to the ending point. The ending point is to make sure everybody gets (the call) and how they get it, the timing of it. It just has to flow. We didn't get into a real rhythm there defensively. Our second half start on offense probably was more something else. We've addressed it, we've been accountable for it. It's not an excuse. It will be better, it needs to be better, and it always has been better. I was disappointed because I felt we were ready for the environment, let alone the (Seahawks) football team.
With your new practice schedule in camp set up to avoid injuries, do you think you were on the practice field less than other teams? Was that a factor in the loss at Seattle?
McCarthy: I don't compare notes. Not to be egotistical. You have a general idea of what other people do, you get enough information. It gives you a check and balance. We have a nine-year history here now of how many reps we practiced. My concern has always been, are we practicing enough now compared to the old days? The quality of practice in this new training regimen is higher. How we're stressing the team out during the course of practice is segmented better, so it's healthier. But as far as the time on the field is less — I wouldn't be able to do that if I didn't have the CRIC. See the CRIC is a huge asset for teaching. You (used to) go down (to the practice field) and have a 24-play or 36-play walkthrough and then go into practice. That now goes in the CRIC. Now you're on the practice field 20, 30 minutes less. That's one of the biggest changes. You can spend more time on the audio-visual, the film. It gives more time to be creative with your teaching, and less time on the field. ... At the end of the day you have to get your work done. We're going to get this much work done (he holds his hands about a foot apart). Now how we do it is what's most important. It really starts in the offseason. In the offseason program you were able to get so much done, now you're not. To me, training camp is so much more important than it's ever been, and you have less time. I've always felt the offseason program is where you can gain an advantage in advancing your team. That's where we've been limited. That's the new world we're in.
Over the summer you hired Adam Korzun as team nutritionist. Has he made a difference yet?
McCarthy: I think you'll see those over the long term. That's something after the season we'll look back. The difference you'll see, you won't see it in the older guys. Aaron Rodgers had a great analogy after a couple weeks in this. He goes, 'What you're doing is awesome, because in hindsight, it takes you three, four, five years to really learn your body and really get accustomed to pro football.' Unfortunately, some guys don't have three or four or five years. So we're now making it mandatory to do it for everybody from Day One. It's mandatory that you have to get soft-tissue activation treatments. Before it was always there but you did it after your meetings or after you were done on Fridays. The more experienced guys were in tune with that. Now we're teaching it from Day One. It's like everything in this business, you can't teach 'em everything in the first year, but you know something? Let's try. The old adage that you have to learn to be a pro. Well, we have to teach 'em to be a pro. And there's certain things you have to mandate."
You changed the daily practice schedule (moving much of the jog-through work to the end of practice) and made a somewhat radical change in the the regular-season practice week (flip-flopping Fridays and Saturdays). Why this year? Why not last year?
McCarthy: They talked about the (football facility) expansion years ago. Then we went into the recession and they didn't do it. Then we did it here — we got in there last Thanksgiving. This facility has had a lot to do with my openness to change. Change to change, I've never been built that way. I'm not going to change just because someone else had success doing it. We're going to look at it, and that's the responsibility of our medical, training staff. They need to be on the forefront. Those guys take trips every offseason, they do research and development. We're very aware what's out there in other sports. (Strength and conditioning coach) Mark Lovat has had strong relationships in Australia for years. You have to do it that way. We were the first to do some things. It's because we felt strong about it. Some of the things other people do, we don't agree with. But they've got some great ideas, we've looked into them and said, 'Hey, we're using them.' It's been evident just the way our building is changing. It's going to change some more this offseason, there's some more construction going on down there.
Some of the practice changes were to reduce injuries after a seeming epidemic over the last few seasons. Last year in camp your players combined to miss more than 300 practices because of injuries. This year it was 164, or about half. Do you think the changes worked?
McCarthy: Well, we practiced less. We had two less practices this year if my numbers are right, because we started (camp) late and had to play the early game. We gave up the first preseason game because of the construction out here (on Oneida Street). Tennessee had control of it and wanted to play on Saturday. If we'd have had that first (preseason) game, we'd have been playing Thursday night just to get all the practice in. That's the other reason I went to the Family Night practice (rather than scrimmage), it just doesn't flow. You have to get all your installs in, that's all part of it. I think hydration is a big part of (injury prevention). To be honest we only had one heat practice, so things kind of fell nice for us this year. I thought it was a pretty seamless training camp as far as the environment.
You eliminated Friday practice and moved it to a shorter version on Saturday. What do the players do on Fridays now?
McCarthy: There will be a lifting segment, there will be a meeting segment, then there will be a CRIC segment for offense, defense and special teams. Then from 12:30, we call it the STAY program — soft tissue activation. At 12:30 the STAY program kicks in. It's an hour and a half, two hours. There's a menu of things they're mandated to go through. Massages, you name it. It's a different world down there. I can't even walk through there sometimes. I just can't believe I'm in a pro football facility.
You're winless in your last six games combined against San Francisco and Seattle, the top two teams in the NFC the last two seasons. Both have premier defenses and fast, athletic quarterbacks who run the read option. Is there something about those matchups that is especially difficult for your team?
McCarthy: No. 1, I don't know if there's ever been a dynamic football team that didn't have a great defense. I still believe defense wins championships. Our best defensive year here was 2010, and we know the result there. In '07 it was a good football team, that was a very strong defense. The common thread there is you're talking about two teams that have been in the top, what, three in defense the last couple years? There are a lot of teams that probably have that type of record against them. The read option is part of the trends in football. It's a trend for some teams. I think San Francisco caught us big time (with the read option) in that playoff game (in the '12 season). We didn't handle it very well, we didn't respond to it very well.
Speaking of defense, yours has been rebuilding since 2011, and this year you added some 4-3 elements to Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. How is that change going and what did you think of it in the loss to Seattle? (The Seahawks scored 36 points and had 398 yards in total offense.)
McCarthy: A little bit of (the problem last week) has been the product of not running (the 4-3) in the preseason (games). It's that risk you take. We all do it, sometimes more than others. Offensively you try not to show something, then you go out in the first game and think it's going to be great, and it's not game-ready. That's the balance you have to find. I think that was a little bit of our issue. To me, we're using schemes that we feel best utilizes our players' skills, and we're going to continue to do that. I feel great about the approach we're taking defensively.
Would you have been better off using the 4-3 in the preseason games even though that would have meant showing it to your regular-season opponents?
McCarthy: You can make that argument, yeah. The issue more than the execution was we were late getting the communication in. Our issue in that package was more about the communication, it wasn't really the scheme or the technique. If we tackle well, we're probably not even talking about it now.
Earlier in your time with the Packers, you changed offensive skill personnel after almost every play. With the no-huddle you're mostly running now there's not much substituting. Why is that on balance good for your team?
McCarthy: You're giving up personnel variation for speed and tempo. (It's) because of our quarterback and the maturity of our players. It gives us more attempts at the plate, it gives us more opportunities. And it's keeping our best personnel on the field more.
Are you still calling plays in the no-huddle or is Aaron Rodgers doing most of that?
McCarthy: I'm still calling the plays, but it's really how things are formatted. He has the toughest job. He has the biggest responsibility because of what goes on at the line of scrimmage.
Why are you willing to cede all that responsibility to him?
McCarthy: Because he's excellent at it. This is something we've been developing in the last three or four years. He's excellent at it. Real strength of his.
How is your relationship with him, and how has that evolved in the last few years?
McCarthy: It's good. It's amazing how time flies by. We have a meeting every Thursday afternoon. It's whatever percentage professional and the other personal. It's interesting the conversations about our personal lives, how much it changes from five or six years ago. We have a great relationship. Life changes. My life's changed, his life has changed. He's a very interesting young man. He's very blessed and he has a big heart. He does a lot of things for a lot of people. I'm very proud of him.
General manager Ted Thompson recently signed a contract extension believed to run through the 2018 season. Your contracts always have been negotiated to match in years. Is your contract extension finished, or are you close?
McCarthy: Business affairs are always — I never really talk about other people's, and I'm not going to talk about mine, either. When those type of things are going on during the season, they're challenging. I have nothing to report.
History shows that the records of top NFL coaches, including all-time greats such as Don Shula and George Halas, decline after they've been with a team for 10 to 12 years. You're in your ninth season. What do you make of that, and is there a shelf life for a coach with one team?
McCarthy: I think the theory of a shelf life is something you have to look at. But I think it's like anything, you have to look at the specifics. There's also a study about percentage of wins after a coach wins the Super Bowl. It usually goes (down). Our winning percentage here (since winning the Super Bowl in the '10 season) has gone up. You have to look at the program. We haven't stayed the same. We've been creative. Innovative. We have a lot of consistencies and strengths and resources that can continue to grow. I just feel that as long as we can continue to grow, we're going to be very successful here.
You're 50 years old, can you see coaching into your 60s?
McCarthy: Heck, yeah. I love it. I love coaching. I'll probably always coach. I feel sorry for my two younger daughters, because they're probably going to end up having me as their coach in something. I love coaching. I love Green Bay. I love the Packers. But what also makes this place so special is the people. There's nothing like this place. The people you walk in and see every day, it's priceless. You have to win, and I hope to be winning here for a long time.
Ever talk to Ted about being more active in free agency?
McCarthy: You have to remember, I'm in there, I'm part of the (decision-making) process, too, so I understand what goes on. Why things happen and they don't happen. I'm very comfortable with our personnel. I love our team.
What do you think of the Packers retiring Brett Favre's number next year?
McCarthy: I think it's awesome. It's well-deserved. I'm glad we're finally doing it. Just communicating with him, it's going to be great to get him back up here. It's a day everybody is looking forward to.
Have you talked to him since he was here the first week of camp in '08?
McCarthy: Yeah, we've been in communication.
McCarthy: I don't want to get into that, that's personal. He's doing great. Looks great. He's a triathlete now. I think so. I know Deanna is, and he's pretty active with it.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.