Silverstein: Timeouts part of Mike McCarthy's vow to take risks

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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When it comes to the in-game decisions Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes every week, none leaves him more vulnerable to second-guessing than when he tries to steal an extra series at the end of a half.

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is shown during the third quarter of their game Sunday, September 10, 2017 at Lambeau Field.

Some might call him reckless. Others might say he’s ill-prepared.

When he used his final timeout with 43 seconds left in the first half of a 0-0 game last Sunday against Seattle, stupid entered the discussion.

Whatever the interpretation, people are going to have to get used to that kind of decision making because McCarthy said he is not going to sit on his hands this season and play it safe. He said his slim-to-none-chance-for-success decision was as much a message to his team as it was an attempt to score before the half.

"I can do the easy way out and never do it and just run out the half,” McCarthy said Friday, a day before his team left for a Week 2 game in Atlanta. “Conservativeness is the easy path if you’re trying to keep the criticism down. I don’t think you can win championships being conservative.

“I think you can get to 9-7. 10-6. You play it down the middle of the road, punt, play great defense, play special teams. I’ve coached in those programs. I know what that looks like. I’m trying to win it all.”

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McCarthy obviously heard the criticism that his mentor, Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer, received for being too conservative. In 10 seasons with the Chiefs, Schottenheimer had a record of 101–58–1 in the regular season and 3-7 in the post-season.

The Chiefs never made it to a Super Bowl.

The gamble McCarthy took against the Seahawks would have appalled Schottenheimer.

Seattle had just gained four yards on a run, setting up a third and 3 at its own 18-yard line when McCarthy used his final timeout. The Seahawks appeared content with running out the remaining 43 seconds and heading for the locker room, but the timeout meant they had to run off another three to four seconds – depending on if there were any tenths of a second remaining on the clock.

A running play would take care of that easily. McCarthy still thought of it as an opportunity.

“Best-case scenario, we fair catch it and it’s a free-kick situation and Mason (Crosby) gets a shot at a 60-yarder (field goal) at the end of the half,” McCarthy said “We had the wind. That was worst case. Best case is if he throws the ball we may get one play. That was my thought process.

“It’s all about assessing risk. That’s a little higher (than normal).”

The only way the Packers would have had a chance to get the ball back was if the Seahawks threw quickly and incomplete or they committed a turnover. McCarthy said he felt the Seahawks might try to get the first down throwing to keep the drive going.

The way his defense was playing, he thought there was a chance he could pull off the risky maneuver.

““You have to look at all the variables,” he said. “How’s your defense playing? We’re kicking ass. We’re dominating. I believe our defense is going to stop them there.”

His faith in the defense turned out to be a mistake. The Seahawks got the first down on a running play and immediately called a timeout. Then quarterback Russell Wilson completed a 34-yard pass and scrambled for 29 more.

Wilson had two shots at scoring a touchdown, but the Seahawks settled for a 33-yard field goal after he threw incomplete to the end zone both times.

Instead of receiving the ball in the second half with a 0-0 tie, McCarthy had gambled and lost trying to get the ball back for back-to-back possessions. Despite dominating the first 30 minutes, his team trailed 3-0 at the half.

Had the Packers lost instead of winning, 17-9, McCarthy would not have blamed the loss on that play.

“The only way I’d say it lost me a game is if I didn’t try it and I got backed-to-backed,” he said. “I think it affects you more if you don’t try it. To me that’s believing in who you’re playing. That’s why the one against Seattle, I thought based on the way we were playing defense I was very confident we were going to stop them there.

“At the end of the day your team should reflect the personality of the head coach. I was brought here as an offensive coach. So, I’ve always taken a lot of pride and extra effort in getting that done.”

McCarthy’s record in calling timeouts at the end of the half is actually better than most people would guess.

What is fresh in people’s memories is that four of the last five times he has done it, the opposition has scored. The only time it really cost him was against Dallas last season when he called two timeouts with the Cowboys pinned inside their own 10-yard line with a minute left.

Dallas drove five plays, 75 yards in 33 seconds for a touchdown, increasing a 10-6 lead to 17-6.

Prior to that, he had gotten the ball back seven of the 10 times he had used timeouts at the end of halves. There were a number of times during that span – dating to the 2013 season – that he could have done it but didn’t.

He said his analytics department studies the results of his decisions and provides him information on when he’s most likely going to succeed. But most of the time he doesn’t even consult with defensive coordinator Dom Capers on how he’s feeling about the play of the defense.

“End of the day, I’m going off what I’m seeing on the sideline during the game,” McCarthy said. “A lot of these decisions are based on how I feel the game is going. You don’t open up a book (to make the decision).

“There’s guidelines you follow. The energy and momentum; (other people are) going to feel momentum differently than I’m going to feel it, just based on where (they’re) sitting. It’s based on communication I’m involved in, too.”

McCarthy has been accused before of being too conservative. He tried to run off clock and wound up punting after three plays in the NFC Championship game against Seattle during the 2014 season. Perhaps sensing the tenor, safety Morgan Burnett slid down instead of trying to score after an interception on Seattle’s ensuing possession.

In his 11-plus years as head coach, McCarthy has portrayed himself as an aggressive coach willing to take chances, but his comments this past week are the strongest he has made about not holding back. Perhaps he sees what many others do – that the Packers are as talented as they have been since their Super Bowl XLV season seven years ago.

“I think he’s aware of the type of players he has,” linebacker Nick Perry said. “It allows him to make calls freely knowing everybody is going to do their job. It might come out good or bad, but nevertheless it shows (aggressiveness).”

Added center Corey Linsley: “I think in the moment it does show confidence in us, especially with the way the game was going. I know we appreciate the confidence.”

Maybe McCarthy will change his approach if the gambles consistently fail, but he feels he won’t know whether they will if he doesn’t try. At this early stage of the season, he wants his team to know he is willing to push the envelope.

“It’s that whole thing about when do you put your foot on the gas and pull it off,” McCarthy said. “You have to train your team, too. You can’t just say, ‘OK, I’m going play it straight all the time,’ and then all of a sudden turn on the gas.

“I want my guys feeling like I’m pushing. When I take a risk and I’m aggressive, I’m telling them I believe in them.”

Even if it might not be the smartest thing.

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