GREEN BAY - When something vital needs attention, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t mess around; he usually rips out walls and lifts up floors rather than patch up a hole or cover a crack.
And often when it’s time to rebuild, the construction team isn’t the same.
It happened in 2009 when he cleaned house on defense and gutted the strength and conditioning program. It happened in 2012 after he lost offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to the Miami Dolphins.
And it happened last after the NFC championship game loss to Seattle when he gave up play-calling duties and tore up special teams.
This off-season, following the worst year statistically for a McCarthy offense (23rd overall), the coach had to decide whether the underachievement was mostly the result of losing his best receiver to a season-ending knee injury or a flaw in the operation.
Heading into his 11th training camp in Green Bay, McCarthy made some changes that would imply he stripped down to the studs once again, replacing his running backs and tight ends coach and naming a full-time receivers coach.
But how far he really went won’t be known until later this summer. Because of the rich history of his offense (ranked in the top 10 in nine of 10 seasons before last year), it would be tempting to assume that with Jordy Nelson healthy and McCarthy calling plays again, the offense is going to be just fine.
“Well, I think like anything in life, when it doesn’t go the way you anticipate it to go, it doesn’t hit the standard you’re accustomed to, you have to go back and take a hard look at it,” McCarthy said Monday, a day before the first training camp practice.
“And we definitely did that. I know more times than not my natural reaction is go back to the basics and that’s really what we’ve done as an offensive staff, and I would think our players echo that.”
If this is the season the Packers finally get past their knack for sudden-death playoff elimination, it should be because quarterback Aaron Rodgers is putting up the kind of passing numbers that regularly place him near the top of the passer rating leader board. It should be because wide receivers are catching passes instead of dropping them and tight ends are running down the field instead of being tackled on the spot.
And it should because Eddie Lacy is running through the cracks between his offensive linemen and not into their backs.
McCarthy’s blueprint for rediscovering all that is to force-feed his players visions of the sloppy play that marked 2015 and spend all of training camp purging it from their systems. It’s hard to imagine a McCarthy practice having more time devoted to fundamentals, but that’s what he plans.
“We need to be much better offensively in the area of fundamentals,” he said. “Last year was not good enough and the numbers reflected that. We clearly addressed that and had a chance to go back and view all the cut-ups. Those cut-ups and lessons learned will be part of our installation phase in training camp.
“But we need to improve on a number of things fundamentally and that’s what training camp is for.”
Luke Getsy’s appointment to full-time receivers coach will play a sizable role in cleaning up fundamentals. Outside observers thought the wide receivers were undisciplined and sloppy in their route running last year, and it’s likely McCarthy’s decision to have Alex Van Pelt coach both quarterbacks and receivers played a role in that.
Nelson’s return to full health is practically a given. He indicated that had he not been put on injured reserve and had the Packers made it to the Super Bowl, he would have been able to play, which is saying a lot for someone who tore his ACL in August.
Health is one thing, however, and performance is another. There are no guarantees for Nelson, who turned 31 in May, will be the same player he was in 2014. McCarthy has expressed confidence Nelson will be himself.
“I think we’re all confident, Aaron and Jordy included, that they’re going to get it back,” McCarthy said of the combination that accounted for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns two years ago. “It’s just getting back out on the field and getting the reps.
“You’re talking about two players that have, shoot, thousands of reps invested in their time together. Yeah, I have great confidence they’ll get that back.”
Privately, McCarthy has to be pitching pennies in a fountain that someone from the group of Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis and rookie Trevor Davis will provide him the insurance he needs. Nelson will start the summer on the physically unable to perform list, which isn’t totally unexpected and probably just a way to keep him from over-doing it, but it will remind everyone what it’s like not to have the veteran.
Another area McCarthy needs cleaned up is at running back, where Eddie Lacy’s weight and poor conditioning caused him to go from 1,139 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in ’14 to 758 yards and three touchdowns in ’15.
Lacy has been working out in California, presumably with P90X founder Tony Horton, and his weight will be the most popular topic around the perimeter of Ray Nitschke Field on Tuesday morning. Even if he is in condition, Lacy has to stay healthy and get back to the form he exhibited his first two years.
“You’re talking about guys that know the system, that know the details of the system and really when you’ve reached that level with both Jordy and Eddie — because I’d definitely put Eddie in that category because he’s a polished player — it’s about making players around you better, too,” McCarthy said. “I think both of those guys have that ability.”
As far as schematic or philosophical differences, McCarthy mentioned none. The offensive line will have to perform better, but no change there either. And the quarterback is definitely the same.
The big change from a year ago will be McCarthy as the play caller from the very first day. It’s the same offense, but it’s called his way. Training camp is for him, too.
“I think last year was definitely, just for me personally, was a different year,” he said. “I know the off-season was extremely demanding — the summer break wasn’t much just because of all the different things I was attempting to do.
“It’s something I’ve done for a long time, so I haven’t given much thought to it,” he said. “I think just on a personal level, I’m excited about it. It’s great to compete against the guy that’s calling the defenses on the other side. I think every coordinator loves that. It’s part of the competition, so I’m looking forward to that.
“I don’t really feel any different to the prior years. I know last year was different just because you’re thinking about other things.”