NFL coaches don't question McCarthy playcalling move

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy looks on in the second quarter during Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

PHOENIX -- Joe Philbin knows Mike McCarthy perhaps as well as anyone in the NFL.

The two started working together in 2006 when McCarthy was hired as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. A holdover from Mike Sherman's staff, Philbin coached the offensive line for one season under McCarthy before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2007.

The yin and yang of the Packers' high-octane offense, Philbin was responsible for game-planning and organization, while McCarthy was the mastermind and play-caller on game days. In their final year together in 2011, Green Bay's offense obliterated a litany of franchise records.

Philbin then left to become coach of the Miami Dolphins, and McCarthy called plays for three more seasons. That changed last month when he surprised many with his decision to step back in an effort to have better oversight over other aspects of the team.

Philbin doesn't know reasons behind the switch. He says he hasn't talked to his old friend about it, but like many surveyed Tuesday at the NFL annual meeting's AFC coaches breakfast, Philbin doesn't require an explanation and acknowledges there's no right or wrong way when it comes to play-calling.

"Mike is going to do whatever he feels is best for the football team," said Philbin, the only NFL head coach on McCarthy's coaching tree. "Whatever he feels is right, he's going to do. I know that about him. He's a guy with conviction. I don't know the reasons, but he must have felt that was going to be the best thing for the football team and he did it."

Many seem to agree. According to an ESPN Nation study, less than a third of head coaches handle play-calling themselves. Only two — Buffalo's Rex Ryan and Minnesota's Mike Zimmer — are in charge of defenses.

Ken Whisenhunt has done it both ways. He originally called plays in Arizona, but passed them off to offensive coordinator Todd Haley a year later. Whisenhunt moved back into the role a year later when Haley was hired in Kansas City.

Bill O'Brien orchestrates the offense for the Houston Texans but leans heavily on quarterbacks coach George Godsey, a relationship that dates back to their time together in New England. That familiarity allows Godsey to take on a greater role if needed during a game.

Whisenhunt agrees you must have confidence in your coaching staff, like when former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher placed his faith in Whisenhunt to guide the Steelers' offense in the mid-2000s, including the team's Super Bowl championship season in 2005.

"It's really about a comfort level doing it," said Whisenhunt, who's entering his second year as head coach in Tennessee. "You have to have somebody who you can trust that can take it over if you have some kind of situation you have to address as a head coach. In the situations where I've done that, I've always had that. We've got some guys on our staff in Tennessee I feel that way about."

McCarthy has a track record for being proactive with big-picture situations. He was on the cutting edge in implementing a no-huddle offense and helped remedy the team's injury situation last season with GPS technology and schedule changes.

The new play-caller, associate head coach Tom Clements, has worked under McCarthy's wing for nine years and oversaw the development of two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who increasingly has gained more autonomy in the offense.

Philbin doesn't remember it being a point of emphasis to place more decision-making in Rodgers' hands, but his football acumen and mental aptitude creates a natural advantage at the line of scrimmage in presnap adjustments.

In Miami, Philbin has tried to foster a similar environment with young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

"Going back to when I was with Mike, it was more an evolution from what I remember," Philbin said. "Sometimes I remember doing things in the offseason program and OTAs to challenge the quarterbacks and keep things fresh. I think that was one of the ways it started. With Aaron being as intelligent and sharp as he was, it just kind of kept building upon getting bigger every year.

"That's the interesting thing and kind of the fun part of putting the whole offense together. Some systems I've been around where the quarterbacks it's like musical chairs and he gets everybody in the right chair."

Marvin Lewis shed play-calling when he was hired away from Washington in 2002 to rebuild the Cincinnati Bengals. In his mind, it's easier for an offensive coach to wear two hats because you're in charge of the flow of a game whereas the defense must react to what the opposition is doing.

That can make it difficult to break down your defense and make adjustments when you're also tasked with deciding whether to go for it on fourth down or waiting until the end of a quarter to keep the wind at your back when switching sides of the field.

The one thing Lewis has learned in his decade as an NFL head coach is the need to constantly change and keep things fresh. So far, he likes what he sees when looking at the alterations McCarthy has made to his program.

"They went through a transition in Green Bay that was very positive," said Lewis, the league's second-longest tenured coach. "Mike and I have talked a lot about it. Mark Murphy and I have talked about it. I've talked to A.J. (Hawk) about it. I think that's something we're all looking for; a way to coach the team, handle the team differently, train the team differently, how you practice, how you meet, and we've been through some transitions that way at our place."

McCarthy has gained the respect of the NFL's longest-tenured head coach Bill Belichick, who heaped praise his way following Green Bay's 26-21 victory over the Patriots on Nov. 30. It's the last game the eventual Super Bowl champions would lose the rest of the season.

Belichick has epitomized the overseer role of an NFL coach. He's coached all three phases during his 40 years in the league and clearly sees something in McCarthy's style he admires. From his perspective, if a Super Bowl-winning coach who's 45 games above .500 wants to make a change, who is he to question it?

"I'd say Mike's one of the best coaches in the league, one of the best coaches I've ever gone up against," Belichick said. "I'm sure whatever he's doing is the right thing. I have a lot of respect for him. I'm sure whatever decisions he's making for the Green Bay Packers are good ones and ones that he thinks are right. I personally wouldn't question anything he does."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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