GREEN BAY – Any other job interview, Mike McCarthy might have first broached a candidate’s resume. Or perhaps opened with a conversation about schematics. There are any number of ways for a head coach to acquaint himself with a new, potential assistant.
But this wasn’t any other job interview.
The considerations hovering over Joe Philbin’s return to Green Bay, where he was announced as the Packers' offensive coordinator Wednesday for a second time in his career, extend far beyond football. Philbin returns to a region where he experienced some of his greatest professional joys, and undoubtedly his deepest personal sorrow. Six years ago this month, Joe Philbin’s son, Michael, was retrieved from the Fox River near the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh after drowning.
Returning to Green Bay, where the Fox River slices through the middle of town, could not have been easy.
“That was probably my first question,” McCarthy said.
In the interview, Philbin eased concerns much like he did in Wednesday’s introductory news conference.
Yes, of course, it’s “very, very emotional” to be back in Green Bay, Philbin said. But those emotions aren’t entirely mournful. At mass last weekend, attending the same church he frequently visited in his previous stint as a Packers assistant, Philbin said he quickly was welcomed when members of the congregation recognized him.
For Philbin, Green Bay felt like a home he never left.
“At the end of the day,” Philbin said, “we care and love a lot of people here, and a lot of people care about and love us. So it’s not easy, but this is what’s so special about Green Bay. … Yeah, it’s very emotional, but ultimately you want to contribute, you want to help people you care about and want to be with.
“At the end of the day, that, I feel very good about when I put my head down at night.”
Philbin returns to Green Bay a different coach than when he left, wiser and perhaps hardened after gaining experience across the NFL. He left after the 2011 season to join the Miami Dolphins, where he was head coach for three seasons and a quarter of another. He never had a winning record in Miami and was fired four games into his fourth year.
One year later, Philbin joined Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s staff as associate head coach and offensive line coach. He worked two seasons in Indy, but when Pagano was fired earlier this month, McCarthy said it was “a no-brainer” to hire Philbin as offensive coordinator.
“I think I’ll be a better assistant coach than I was the first time around,” Philbin said, “because I know the terrain a little bit better. I know ultimately a head coach is hired to handle a certain area. It doesn’t matter what your role is. So I think hopefully I will be a better offensive coordinator today than I was the last time I was here.”
McCarthy said the Packers' offense is taking a “back-to-basics approach” this offseason. Working with a new staff, he expects to rebuild the playbook like it’s his first season. McCarthy said Philbin’s skill as a teacher lends to that process.
Philbin will lead staff meetings on offense, just as he previously did as McCarthy’s offensive coordinator.
“He’s the guy at the front of the room,” McCarthy said.
Philbin, who predated McCarthy in Green Bay, originally was hired to the Packers' coaching staff as an assistant offensive line coach under Mike Sherman in 2003. McCarthy retained him as an offensive line coach when he was hired as head coach in 2006, and promoted him one year later.
As coordinator, Philbin had a key role in the Packers' offense during Aaron Rodgers’ rise from backup to one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. He had a succinct way of describing his job back then, as well as how he envisions his role now.
“Making Mike McCarthy look like the smartest playcaller in the National Football League,” Philbin said. “Honest to God, I think that’s part of your job when you’re an assistant coach, when you’re a coordinator, when you’re an assistant offensive line coach. In that chain of command, your job is always to make the person above you look really good, and look really smart.”
McCarthy’s offense has never looked better than when Philbin was by his side.
In 2011, the Packers set franchise records with 560 points (35 points per game), 70 touchdowns and 6,482 yards. Their points and touchdowns ranked second in NFL history at the time, behind only the 2007 New England Patriots.
Like that Patriots team, which finished the regular season undefeated but lost in the Super Bowl, the Packers saw perhaps their greatest regular season end in playoff disappointment.
They flirted with perfection in 2011, starting 13-0. The Packers secured a top-overall seed in the NFC with a 15-1 record, but lost at home to the New York Giants in the divisional round. Of course, disappointment on the football field paled to the team’s personal sorrow.
Days before the Packers were to host the Giants, Michael Philbin’s body was retrieved from the river.
“It’s something that is close to all of us,” McCarthy said Wednesday.
It’s also close to those who were unfamiliar with Philbin at the time, but worked with him in the past.
Jim Hostler, who followed Philbin to Green Bay as the Packers' passing-game coordinator, didn’t know his new boss until they coached together in Indianapolis. Hostler said he enjoyed working on the same staff, in part because they view the game similarly. But another reason, Hostler said, is how Philbin approaches a job that can often have an exaggerated importance.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Hostler said. “He’s fun to be around in the office. He doesn’t take himself too serious. This isn’t life or death.
“He’s been through some things in his life personally that will let anybody know what really this is all about, especially if you’ve got a family.”
The interview was not Philbin’s first trip back to Green Bay. He returned when the Packers hosted the Colts during the 2016 season. Philbin said it was “a whole different feeling” experiencing Lambeau Field as an opponent.
Now, he’ll once again experience Green Bay as a citizen, a working professional. His return brings all kinds of memories, good and bad. Before arriving at a decision, Philbin said he discussed the idea with his family.
The deciding vote might have come from his daughter, Colleen, a high school senior.
“She came up to me in December,” Philbin said, “and said, ‘Dad, if you have to go somewhere, I want to go with you.’ As a father, you don’t really want your daughter to go to three different high schools, but we’re a family. We’re kind of an all-in family. If I’m coming to coach somewhere, I’m not going to leave my family behind. So that was comforting. If she had said, ‘Dad, I want to stay in Indianapolis and finish my senior year,’ you probably wouldn’t be interviewing me right now.
“It just felt right. At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to trust your gut and your instincts. At the end of the day, Joe Philbin’s a football coach. That’s what I am. That’s what I’ve done for 35 years, and coming to Green Bay feels good and feels right.”