Philbin helped lay offensive foundation

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin (right) and coach Mike McCarthy (left) still share a bond.

Joe Philbin was barely a year into his tenure as Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator when he and the rest of the coaching staff were called upon to coach the NFC in the 2008 Pro Bowl, a consolation prize for losing to the N.Y. Giants in the NFC title game.

Philbin and Packers coach Mike McCarthy made it a point that week to watch as many of the game's elite players as possible, an old trick McCarthy picked up from his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer, 15 years earlier.

As practices commenced, the coaches' eyes turned to the six quarterbacks in attendance — Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Hasselbeck, Jeff Garcia and Derek Anderson.

That's when Philbin made an observation to his boss. The Packers' backup quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, could throw just as well as any of them. Never mind that he'd never started an NFL game.

"I remember (coaching in) the Pro Bowl before Aaron ever started a game and watching guys throwing the ball and just thinking to myself, 'Geez, we've got a guy that hasn't really played but it certainly looks like he can throw the ball like some of these guys that were there," Philbin said.

Philbin's comment was a precursor to one of the most productive offensive periods in franchise history. Two months later, the Rodgers Era began when Brett Favre retired for the first time.

When Favre unretired less than five months later, the Packers' brass set the course for the future of the franchise when they made the decision, unpopular at the time, to stand by Rodgers.

With McCarthy calling the plays, Philbin organizing the agenda and Rodgers running the huddle, the offense never ranked outside the top 10 in four seasons together. The Packers were 42-22 during that stretch with three playoff appearances, including a 2010 campaign that culminated in the team's fourth Lombardi Trophy.

The union lasted one more season until the Miami Dolphins hired Philbin away after the Packers' offense posted team records with 35.0 points and 405.1 yards per game in 2011.

Rodgers will play his 100th NFL game this Sunday at Sun Life Stadium with Philbin's Dolphins looking to play spoiler. The competition is real for Rodgers, but so are the memories.

"I always appreciated his way of kind of bringing it all back together on Saturday mornings as he would give a talk and talk about what he did the night before," Rodgers said. "What he was thinking about during the week, maybe a book that he read in the offseason that was applicable or a quote that he saw. I always appreciated hearing his voice.

"I knew from really my second or third year that he was head coach potential."

Rodgers wasn't alone on either account. Although Philbin has had his share of ups and downs in South Beach, he's still a beloved figure in the Packers' locker room.

Philbin, 53, started working for the Packers in 2003 as an assistant offensive line coach under Mike Sherman. He coached tight ends for two seasons before taking over the offensive line during McCarthy's first season in 2006.

Even after his promotion to offensive coordinator in 2007, Philbin could be found in the linemen room on occasion. All-Pro guard Josh Sitton fondly recalls him sitting in on meetings and dropping a few tidbits of advice here and there.

Philbin doesn't possess a U-rah-rah personality, but he had a way of getting his point across to every player in the Packers' locker room with his popular "Cup of Joe" motivational morning speeches.

"Joe was great here," Sitton said. "One of my favorite coaches of all-time. We butted heads a little bit early in my career, but we got over that. I'm really, really fond of Joe. He was great here for what we did and what we've built. Definitely miss Joe around here."

As a rookie in 2008, Jordy Nelson didn't enjoy Philbin as much because the veteran coach liked to playfully jab the younger players. Once the young receiver began to understand Philbin, he saw it was his way of trying to keep things light.

The bond Philbin developed with his players never was more evident than late in the 2011 season when his 21-year-old son, Michael, passed away. Even then, Philbin didn't lose his resolve.

He departed for Miami shortly thereafter, but also left a blueprint for how to run and organize an offense for years to come.

"I think he had a huge part in it," said Nelson of Philbin's role in the Packers' offensive success. "He ran all the meetings, all the walk-throughs and everything and I think just did a great job of keeping everyone on the same page. A very smart guy. Knew the ins and outs. He worked his way up to the position, so obviously you give him a lot of credit for that and what he put in."

Under new coordinator Tom Clements and McCarthy's direction, the offense still ranked third in the NFL despite losing Rodgers to a broken collarbone for the better part of eight games in 2013.

Meanwhile, things haven't gone as smoothly in Miami. Philbin is 17-19 in two-plus seasons and likely faces a make-or-break third attempt at getting the Dolphins into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Some reports last year suggested Philbin might not survive his second season following the allegations of Richie Incognito's harassment of fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin.

An investigation showed Philbin and the front office were unaware of the hazing and he was allowed to continue coaching. Still, a nondescript 8-8 record forced him to fire a handful of assistants, including Sherman, his former boss and offensive coordinator.

"I think that's one of the things that maybe last year taught me is while you certainly want to know what the other team is doing and you want to be involved from a football standpoint," Philbin said, "there are other things that sometimes require more of your time than perhaps I was used to giving."

McCarthy said his team hasn't spent much time this week reminiscing about Philbin's time in Green Bay. He's a close friend, but it's also a road game against an opponent coming off a bye.

As he thinks back, the Packers' ninth-year head coach still credits Philbin for helping lay the offensive foundation in Green Bay.

"Joe Philbin was a big part of our success, no doubt about it," McCarthy said. "Excellent football coach, great family man. I've always admired Joe, just the love he has for his family and his ability to be dedicated to this profession.

"I'm looking forward to competing with Joe and I'm sure he's looking forward to competing with us."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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