Ten years ago, a Super Bowl-winning coach saw just how polarizing the perception of play calling’s importance can become. His offense was floundering early in the 2006 season. The defense was being asked to do too much.
Through five games, something needed to change.
So over a mid-October bye week, the coach fired his offensive coordinator. He called plays the rest of that season. He was lauded as his Baltimore Ravens, bolstered by an offense finally able to carry its weight, finished 13-3.
The Ravens lost only one game after Brian Billick released Jim Fassel a decade ago.
“All of the sudden,” Billick said Wednesday, “I’m a genius play caller again. Once you do that, now you can’t go back. So I held onto the play calling.”
Billick sensed that same desperation from Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy last season. With the Packers' offense floundering under a new play caller, something needed to change. So McCarthy, later in the season than Billick, finally reclaimed play-calling duties from Tom Clements in early December.
By that point, the groundswell of criticism had McCarthy backed into a corner. Never mind quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing below an MVP level. Never mind an offense struggling to adjust without receiver Jordy Nelson. Play calling, once again, had become polarizing. A season that started with the Packers being trumpeted as Super Bowl favorites was stuck in the mud, going nowhere.
With a month left, Billick said, McCarthy really had no other choice.
“I’m sure he felt like something needed to happen,” Billick told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “He needed to change the dynamic. Whether he actually thought it would make a difference, like the change of the quarterback position sometimes ... Why did (the Denver Broncos) go back to Peyton Manning? Gary Kubiak said, ‘I just needed to make something happen.’”
McCarthy’s last-ditch audible didn’t work. The Packers averaged 24 points in their 12 games with Clements calling plays. They dipped to 22.3 in six games (counting playoffs) under McCarthy.
Even removing the Packers' first three games, the numbers suggest McCarthy reclaiming play-calling duties made minimal difference. Starting with Week 4 when the San Francisco 49ers unveiled the blueprint for how to stop the Jordy Nelson-less Packers, the offense scored 21.4 points in Clements’ final nine games calling plays.
The minimal change didn’t surprise Billick, who regards McCarthy as one of the NFL’s two best play callers (along with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton). In 2006, Billick said, it wasn’t his play calling that made the difference. He pointed to quarterback Steve McNair’s renaissance. A lack of severe injuries among key players.
That changed in 2007. The Ravens lost McNair and backup Kyle Boller to season-ending injuries. Three starting offensive linemen were limited with injuries, Billick said, including hall-of-fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. The Ravens finished 5-11 in 2007. Billick, unable to duplicate his play-calling magic, was fired less than 24 hours after the season.
“So now I’m a horse-(expletive) play caller,” Billick said. “Now that I’m no longer winning games, and I obviously can’t call offenses, they ran my ass out of town.”
That’s not to suggest McCarthy’s job security is on shaky ground. He has had more consistent success in Green Bay, including taking the Packers to the divisional round in each of the past two seasons. The Packers haven’t had a losing season since 2008. They once again will be a Super Bowl favorite in 2016.
But McCarthy’s decision to keep calling plays presents lasting challenges. Nothing is the same after a seismic shift in staff duties. Clements will hold the same title as last season: associate head coach of the Packers' offense. His role will be entirely different.
Billick, believing in human nature’s better angels, doesn’t expect internal strife amid the Packers' coaching staff. Professionally, Billick said, having play-calling duties stripped from Clements puts him in a tough position. It sure doesn’t sparkle on a resume.
“I’m sure they have a great deal of confidence in Tom Clements,” Billick said. “I don’t know how Tom Clements can move forward professionally if he stays there, as someone who has been given the play calling, and it didn’t go well. And probably not because of anything Tom Clements did. Professionally, where do you go from there?”
Clements staying in Green Bay is unusual, Billick said. He referenced Payton’s demotion in 2002 when he was Fassel’s offensive coordinator with the New York Giants. Fassel stripped play-calling duties from Payton in October of that season. Payton then took his career to Dallas the next year.
“I think Tom Clements is someone who covets being a head coach,” Billick said. “To stay in Green Bay? Yeah, that would be tough.”
It’s also worth remembering McCarthy first delegated the play calling for good reasons. Being a play caller is an “all-consuming, 24-7, 365” job, Billick said. He remembers waking up in the middle of the night, stressing over whether he should move the fullback to the flat. Which route to run on third down. Whether a certain pass protection could beat the blitz.
That obsession takes a toll. After the Packers' collapse in the NFC championship game at Seattle in the 2014 season, McCarthy decided to spend more time focusing on the other aspects of his job. Specifically, he wanted to help bolster the defense and special teams.
While the offense struggled, the other two units were significantly improved in 2015. It’s uncertain whether the Packers' defense and special teams can avoid a letdown without McCarthy spending more time in those meetings. Regardless, Billick said, McCarthy will have to structure his staff so he can call plays while ensuring the reasons he delegated in the first place are also covered.
“Mike McCarthy is one of the great play callers in the game,” Billick said, “but when you’ve been there long enough, most coaches – most – evolve into a position where they eventually delegate (play calling) because they feel the need to be more of the head coach. I’m sure Mike will structure it so that some of these things that led him to do that after the Seattle game are now addressed. You have to do that to make sure there are different people on the staff that are focused on those things that need to be focused on by the head coach when you’re a play caller.
“Maybe it’s just me – and I’ve done both – but something’s missing when you think you can do both. You have to have an awful strong staff covering you in one area or the other because (play calling) is a multi-layered job that is very all-consuming.”
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