D'Amato: McCarthy's steady hand a winner

Gary D'Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – A few weeks ago, when the Green Bay Packers couldn’t play dead and Mike McCarthy was getting shredded by couch-potato fans and talking heads, the coach gave himself a rare public pat on the back when he said, “Let’s state the facts: I’m a highly successful NFL coach.”

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy works the sideline during the team's Week 16 game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.

Once again, he is proving it.

Even the McCarthy bashers, who come out of the woodwork at the first weekly three-and-out, have got to admit he’s done some kind of coaching job this season.

He loses his bread-and-butter running back. He loses his No. 1 cornerback. His defense is a mess. His quarterback is in some kind of strange mid-season funk. His team loses four in a row.

Cue Jim Mora: Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?

Now, on the other side of December, the Packers — with an offense reinvented by McCarthy and a defense that scares no one — have won five consecutive games and head to Detroit to play for the NFC North Division title in the regular-season finale.

“It means that we’ve stayed the course,” McCarthy said Saturday, after the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings, 38-25, at Lambeau Field. “These seasons are always difficult. They’re never easy, and you just have to accept the challenges, get over thresholds.”

It’s instructive to compare the Packers and Vikings. The latter started the season 5-0 and appeared to be the class of the division but have lost eight of their last 10 and have tumbled out of the playoff picture.

Both teams were hit hard by injuries to key starters, but McCarthy was able to pull the Packers out of a nosedive while Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, with a well-earned reputation for toughness, watched his team fall apart.

“Come on, man. What are my emotions?” Zimmer said when asked about missing the playoffs. “Next question.”

“This season,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, “feels like a waste.”

Every year, Packers general manager Ted Thompson gives McCarthy one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. More often than not, the team struggles to find an identity early in the season but typically plays better as the weeks go by and particularly when the weather turns. That’s indicative of good coaching.

The Packers’ victory Saturday gave them a 21-3 record at home in December under McCarthy. They have won 10 of 12 December games overall since 2014.

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This season was especially trying, with Green Bay losing four straight in October and November. The team was outscored, 116-63, during that stretch and fans were calling for the heads of McCarthy, Thompson, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and just about anybody with a clipboard and a whistle.

But McCarthy made adjustments to get the offense untracked — spreading the field with multiple wideouts and putting receiver Ty Montgomery in the backfield — and, perhaps not coincidentally, Rodgers’ play took off.

“In that stretch when we had four losses, there was no panic,” said kicker Mason Crosby. “It was just find something else, find one little detail that will get us over the hump. We found it, and we’re rolling.

“That takes a lot of confidence for (McCarthy) to be able to say, ‘The way we’re doing things isn’t going to work with the personnel we have, so let’s adjust and go out there and make plays.’ Watching our offense today, and the last few weeks, it’s been awesome to see the different ways we can be effective.”

Rookie defensive lineman Kenny Clark said McCarthy’s message to the team throughout the losing streak was consistent: Stay together. No reason to panic. We’ll get this done.

“Especially me being a rookie, it was my first time going through something like that,” he said. “Just observing how all the players handled that situation, there was definitely no doubt we’d (pull out of it). Coach McCarthy did a great job. His messages were always about keeping us together.”

And so, the Packers have a chance to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. Think about that the next time you call for McCarthy’s head.

“We’ve got a date in Detroit,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari. “Simple as that.”

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