Mike McCarthy sets lofty goal for Packers' defense

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy addresses media on Jan. 4, 2018, at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - Three days after the Green Bay Packers were eliminated from playoff contention, coach Mike McCarthy laid the groundwork for what everyone rightly assumed would be the firing of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. It was the morning of Dec. 21, and McCarthy told reporters the final two weeks of a desultory regular season offered ample time for evaluation.

“I think you have to make sure you look at everything and be direct and honest and keep the emotion out of it,” McCarthy said at the time. “I think having two weeks to think about it will take the emotion out of it. We have to get better through the adversity that we’ve been through this year. We have to be honest about the patterns of negativity and positivity. What comes from that, how do you learn from that, how do you improve?”

It was a short leap from McCarthy’s piercing phrase — patterns of negativity — to the eventual dismissal of Capers, whose defense had been dismantled by seemingly every quarterback in the league, talent levels notwithstanding.

But in the aftermath of a deflating loss to the Detroit Lions, a frantic 72-hour window revealed the breadth of McCarthy’s disillusion. He dismissed Capers, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley. He did not renew the contract of quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. He removed Edgar Bennett as offensive coordinator. He saw wide receivers coach Luke Getsy and defensive quality control coach Tim McGarigle pursue other opportunities, at Mississippi State and Northwestern, respectively.

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As it turns out, the patterns of negativity touched nearly all corners of a franchise that appeared stable prior to the broken collarbone suffered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Yet in the end, McCarthy’s message was crystal clear: The Packers need fresh blood. 

“This is the same process I go through each and every year, you look for changes, adjustments, and things you need to continue to emphasize, an opportunity to grow,” McCarthy said Thursday in his season-ending news conference. “It's important to set the course, set the vision, the path to win the next world championship. That's the same focus I have each and every year. You always look first internally, you feel you that you can accomplish that. This year, which is out of the norm over the way we've operated particularly the last nine years, we will be adding external resources.

“This is the course that I'm taking that I feel gives us the chance to be successful.”

McCarthy’s retooling of the defense surely will receive the most pointed scrutiny, from his choice of coordinator to the selection of assistant coaches. Juxtaposed with an offense capable of scoring 30 points per game — at least when Rodgers is healthy — the defense has been a glaring weakness each of the last two years, especially as injuries thinned the secondary.

His new goal, outlined Thursday, is for the Packers’ defense to outperform opposing offenses on a weekly basis, as difficult as that may be.

“I mean, that has to happen,” McCarthy said. “So you’ve got four ways to do it: You get player acquisition, player instruction, obviously player finance, who you pay to build your roster, and you get player performance. I mean, there’s so many things out there that we can advance in as far as analytics, more science. We have a strong history of developing young players, maximizing their abilities, but we can always get better. And that’s really where I’m at with it. So the defense, we need to be better.”

While McCarthy plans to interview both internal and external candidates, he wanted to begin the process with his three in-house options: cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr., safeties coach Darren Perry and associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss, who interviewed for the Lions’ head-coaching vacancy this week. That trio, along with defensive front assistant Jerry Montgomery, are the only coaches remaining on the defensive side of the ball.

How long they remain employed is another story. Ideally, McCarthy said the new defensive coordinator will help choose assistants to ensure continuity among the staff, thus opening the door for an external candidate to clean house if the vibes with Whitt, Perry, Moss or Montgomery turn out to be poor.

“Philosophically, I think it’s important for the coordinator to be involved in the hiring of every assistant coach,” McCarthy said. “I know when I was a coordinator, if (there were) assistant coaches that you may not have been part of (their hiring), that can cause some situations that are totally unnecessary, and sometimes that’s avoidable, too. You’ve got to be realistic about the coaching industry and the mark of coaches with what’s going on right now, too. But preferably you like to have the coordinator involved in hiring all the assistants.”

McCarthy said there is no timetable for choosing a defensive coordinator and he declined to describe the characteristics he’s looking for in potential candidates. He was also non-committal when asked if the new coordinator will be required to play a 3-4 defense like the Packers used under Capers.

“How we communicate and structure player acquisition, whether it's particularly through the draft and fitted to our defense, that's really my focal point," McCarthy said. "How can we improve in that area?”

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Across the ball, McCarthy must replace a minimum of two assistants after the departures of Getsy and Van Pelt, but it’s possible their successors are already in Green Bay. McCarthy said he is in discussion with Bennett about potentially returning to the Packers in a different role next season. Bennett was highly successful as the Packers’ wide receivers coach from 2011-14, and McCarthy might view that as the best fit moving forward.

Van Pelt’s situation played out differently. Beginning in 2016, McCarthy said Van Pelt expressed a desire to let his contract expire in order to explore other options. It meant both sides entered this season knowing it would be Van Pelt's last in Green Bay as he looked to find a coordinator position somewhere else. 

“He's pursuing other opportunities,” McCarthy said, “a personal contractual decision that him and I both mutually agreed on, so he will not be back as our quarterback coach. … Frankly, this decision was made last year. I don’t want to speak on his thoughts, but this is a moment he’s prepared himself for.”

So for now, the wheels of change keep turning. 


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