McCarthy leans on confidence, captains for stretch run
The NFL playoffs don't start for another two weeks, but don't tell Mike McCarthy that.
The way the Green Bay Packers' coach sees the postseason picture unfolding, the final two weeks of the regular season carry a playoff-type atmosphere with them. Each week adds another shot of urgency.
That's why McCarthy stepped in front of his team Monday. Less than 24 hours after a disheartening 21-13 loss to Buffalo, the coach had his players select playoff captains, a vote traditionally reserved for after the regular season is concluded and a playoff berth is secure.
Four remained the same as last year: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Jordy Nelson, safety Morgan Burnett and special teams stalwart Jarrett Bush. Joining them were outside linebacker Julius Peppers and receiver/returner Randall Cobb.
McCarthy didn't make the decision because he's overlooking Sunday's opposition, the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Actually, it's the opposite. It's a must-win game for the Packers, who could go far in clinching their seventh consecutive postseason appearance with a win.
"Clearly, this is an opportunity to give people more credibility, more opportunities to take the platform," McCarthy said. "I think leadership is something every coach is focused on. I've always looked for ways to create opportunities for leadership. You can't assign it. Leadership has to come from the locker room, credibility has to come from the locker room."
Since taking over as head coach in 2006, McCarthy has been known for his motivational techniques. He's built them into his presentations before training camp and the start of every regular season and developed phrases like "Team 93" and "Alpha 94" to express the individuality of every Packers team.
Rodgers is familiar with the philosophy of his coach. The same coach who had players sized for rings the night before Super Bowl XLV, though Rodgers said he missed the occasion. It's about determining your identity.
So it's only natural the day after the letdown in Buffalo, where Rodgers had one of the worst showings of his career, that McCarthy immediately fast-forwarded to the next act. Rookie receiver Davante Adams said with a laugh Wednesday that McCarthy even instructed the players not to even discuss the Bills anymore.
Whatever direction the coaching staff takes the team, history has taught the players to follow. Some teams identify captains for the entire season. McCarthy always has found ways to mix it up.
Now, he's shuffling the deck again.
"Well, he trusts his gut instincts and they haven't let him down or let the team down," Rodgers said. "But I don't think it's anything other than a mindset for him. He likes to ooze confidence out of himself. It's a toughness from his Pittsburgh roots, but it's a confidence that he trusts the guys that he's going to get it done. This just ups the urgency."
Peppers' inclusion speaks to the respect he's developed in less than a year on a team that's perennially among the league's youngest. There's only a handful of players on the roster that have played in an NFL game for a team other than Green Bay.
Peppers, 34, has a quiet intensity about him that seems to draw players to him. Known for his reclusive nature, he's stepped up multiple times this season with speeches that have rallied the team. McCarthy even noted how he's quietly reached out to players one-on-one on both sides of the ball.
Leadership has taken many forms in Green Bay's locker room. Johnny Jolly rallied teammates with his words. Ryan Pickett did it through his actions. Peppers has done it this year with his timing. No wasted energy on the field. No wasted words in his sentences.
"You know, it's that time of the year," Peppers said. "It's the playoff time of the year. So, yeah, if you want to say it's that time to turn it up, then you can say that. Again, it's an honor to be voted by your teammates. Anytime you're voted captain, you've got to accept that responsibility and step up and be a leader."
Nelson laughs briefly when asked about being voted into the elite group for the second consecutive year. He's always been more of the lead-by-example guy, not one giving speeches. Now considered one of the league's elite, Nelson signed a four-year extension with the organization in training camp.
He's lived up to that contract on the field with 83 catches for 1,320 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he also understands his role demands more than that. Nelson must be a leader for the next generation of receivers and offensive players.
That starts with understanding the gravity of each game. In its simplest form, wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit would clinch the Packers their fourth consecutive NFC North title and likely a first-round bye.
How valuable is the chance to host a divisional playoff game at home? The Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field and are averaging more than 40 points per game.
"It's almost playoff time, but for us it kind of is," Nelson said. "We need to win these games to get into the playoffs and start playing good football. Just trying to be proactive and just making sure guys step up and be those leaders."
Each veteran takes his turn at the front of the cart. Rodgers said there have been a few times this season when he's talked to the team during Saturday practices before games. If a younger player has questions, he's there to lend an ear.
It all falls in line with McCarthy's vision and his buzzword for this season: Grit. It's that attitude — and a little "R-E-L-A-X" — that helped pick the team up after a 1-2 start and what the Packers feel will help them rebound after the Bills halted their five-game winning streak.
A recovery will take mental toughness. Last Sunday was rough, but there's another opportunity that awaits them this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium and they're not taking the Buccaneers lightly.
"I don't think it was necessarily assuming we were going to make the playoffs," Peppers said. "It's just that time of the year, you want guys that's going to emphasize having that sense of urgency and leading that time of the year. It's the playoff time of the year. We're not assuming we've already made it."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.