GREEN BAY - There were 6 minutes, 12 seconds left in the biggest game of Mike McCarthy’s life when in front of 87 million viewers he held up a laminated call sheet, picked a play from a list of about 300 and radioed it out to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
That sheet, covered with words in the smallest typeface modern technology can legibly print – some of it highlighted with a rainbow of colors and some with smiley faces drawn next to it – is the Green Bay Packers coach’s baby. This particular one is the culmination of two weeks of thorough study and painful editing and is his lifeline with a game like Super Bowl XLV on the line.
Yet when McCarthy made that call, with the Packers clinging to a 28-25 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers and facing a third and 10 at their own 25-yard line, he made it not based on what the card might have suggested was the best call against the anticipated defense, but rather on his supreme confidence it was the best play for his offense.
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When Rodgers fired a strike over the middle just over the outstretched fingers of cornerback Ike Taylor and into the hands of receiver Greg Jennings for a 31-yard gain, it was a statement. McCarthy had just called his best against legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s best and won.
“That was more about Aaron and Greg,” McCarthy recalled during a break in training camp. “That was a perfect example of what we were going to do. They were in the right coverage, they were in a good coverage. The guy couldn’t have played it much better. That was a good defensive call against a basic, standard play that we had that we believed in.”
In a nutshell, it illustrates McCarthy’s football philosophy and highlights the love he has for calling plays.
A year ago, McCarthy gave up those duties because he thought he needed to pay attention to other aspects of the team he thought required his attention. As he soon found out, it was a mistake.
The main reason McCarthy got to the position he’s in is because of his play-calling ability. The wide net of responsibility that goes into implementing and executing a weekly game plan prepares a play-caller to become a head coach because he must always consider so much more than the football terminology on a piece of paper.
“I look at play-calling as No. 1, your plan,” McCarthy said. “No. 2, your personality, it has to be reflected on how you want your offense to play. And the end of that is the performance.
“The personality part of it is critical because it’s easy to get carried away with who you are. A big part is make sure it's who you are and not who you think you are. We need to pay attention to ourselves. We worry so much about what the other guy is doing, how they’re going to play you or what defense they’re going to play. Make sure you’re spending a big part of time on yourself.”
Anyone who has witnessed McCarthy call a football game might think he’s stubborn for calling two straight runs or throwing on first down five times in a row. They think he’s too conservative when he runs the ball and too reckless when he throws it.
Regardless whether any of it is true, it is all done for a reason. And it reflects the tone McCarthy tries to set for his football team. He learned that from his mentors: offensive coordinators Paul Hackett and Jimmy Raye in Kansas City, and Sherman Lewis in Green Bay.
Hours upon hours go into picking those 200-300 plays that now fill up three of the four laminated sheets McCarthy holds along the sideline each game. McCarthy’s offensive staff does most of the preparation, but the general principles and some of the plays come straight from the head coach.
After two days of practice, McCarthy retreats to his office and starts calling the game in his head, watching film of the opposition to see how it might react to some of the plays he’s calling. He has extensive notes on nearly every defensive coordinator in the NFL and he not only knows their tendencies, he knows their tendencies in breaking tendency.
“Away games are great because I’ll just sit in my hotel room and just get my workout in, watch the games and call the game,” McCarthy said from a planning room adjacent to his office. “When I’m at home, I’ll do it from here.
“I have a highlighting process; it’s more of a mental exercise. I’ll come in and have my highlighting. I do that on Saturdays, save some of it, then go back and do my smiley faces and circles and things. I start to prioritize. They (the colors and marks) can mean a lot of different things.”
On game day, McCarthy isolates himself and rarely breaks away from thinking about the game. For a noon game, he’ll come from Mass first thing in the morning to the stadium, where he’ll work out on an elliptical exerciser, and then retreat to his office to play the game through his head some more.
He doesn’t have the ability to zone out, so he runs through everything once, twice, three times, just to make sure he’s on top of it all.
“I hate the time before the game,” McCarthy said. “I don’t like sitting around. I just don’t.”
On a typical play sheet, McCarthy has many of the plays highlighted, some indicating run plays, third downs, red zone, “shot” plays or short yardage. He has a spot for 4-minute offense and a whole column devoted to 2-minute offense. Several of the columns are for when the Packers are in no-huddle, and they are broken down into personnel groupings.
There are reminders of what defense the opposition likes against his personnel.
“Anytime I call a play, I have two plays (ready),” McCarthy said. “If I call a shot play, I have the play called after the shot and I have got the second-down play (if it’s incomplete). Every time you call a play you have to have two plays that will react to the outcome of that play.”
Throughout the week, McCarthy has met with Rodgers and gone over the plays. He said he will not keep a play that Rodgers really isn’t comfortable with, although he will make his case to him and then to the team before giving up on it.
Rodgers said play-calling is a partnership between the two men. They’ve been together for 10 years and when it comes to calling a game plan, McCarthy’s No. 1 objective is to get his quarterback in rhythm.
“If a quarterback is struggling you have to adjust things a little bit,” Rodgers said. “If the quarterback is playing great, give him some opportunities.”
On the sideline, McCarthy requires minimal chatter on the headset when the Packers have the ball. Someone might inform him of a personnel change or a defensive adjustment, but suggestions are what he calls on a “must” basis.
McCarthy is dialed in on three plays, the one he’s calling and the next two and he has to relay to Rodgers as quickly as possible, especially when the team is in no-huddle. Rodgers said the two have been together so long, he often can predict the play that’s going to be read off.
“I can definitely anticipate things and it helps because he knows – we joke about it sometimes – Mike is a fast talker,” Rodgers said. “He gets going and there’s a lot of Pittsburgh coming out. So, you have to have a great grasp of the plan. You have to be almost like, ‘I got it.’
“Sometimes he’s over there and he doesn’t know the button is off. It happens mostly in the cold, like if his jacket gets in the way sometimes, I have to maybe read his lips or look over at him and see what he’s saying. I can anticipate based on the game plan and the tendency, what he likes.
“Because it’s a flow. I’m feeling the flow out there and he starts feeling it and we both get on the same page.”
Are there times that the flow isn’t there and the two get the feeling the opposing defensive coordinator has their number?
“We had a couple last year,” he said. “Did you watch the Denver game?”
It turns out that maybe 10-20% of the calls on McCarthy’s beloved sheet get used in the game. That’s OK, he says, because it’s about preparation, about being one step ahead of the opposition. It’s like Michael Jordan having his array of moves to the hoop written down on paper.
When he’s rolling, there’s no reason to worry about the defense.
“Life in competition is still about behavioral patterns, being in touch with behavioral patterns,” McCarthy said. “If you’re going to focus on their behavioral pattern or your behavioral pattern, if it comes push and shove, make sure you’re focused on your own.
“That’s where I think you have the highest level of success because there’s only so much to be said about what the other guy is doing.”