Packers coach Mike McCarthy taking back-to-basics approach on offense
GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was hired in 2006, his staff included two coaches who had been coordinators in the NFL and none who had been a head coach.
The 14 members of his staff (not including strength and conditioning and quality control) averaged 46 years of age.
Their average years of NFL experience was 7.4.
As he addressed reporters Wednesday morning after announcing the hiring of seven new coaches and the reassignment of six existing coaches, McCarthy might as well have been at the beginning of his 12-year tenure again.
The degree to which McCarthy restocked and reshaped his 2017 staff suggested he wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over.
Only instead of hiring youngsters like Jeff Jagodzinski, Joe Philbin, Ben McAdoo, Edgar Bennett and James Campen as he did originally, McCarthy has assembled a crew well-schooled in the ways of the NFL.
This staff, 17 members strong (not including strength and conditioning and quality control), also averages 46 years of age.
But their average years of NFL experience is 10.2.
Both of McCarthy’s new coordinators, Philbin on offense and Mike Pettine on defense, have been NFL head coaches. His special teams coordinator, Ron Zook, was a head coach in the SEC and Big Ten.
Two of his new hires, pass game coordinator Jim Hostler and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti, have been NFL offensive coordinators.
Nine of the assistants have at least a decade’s time working in the NFL and only three — defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery (three), wide receivers coach David Raih (four) and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko (two) — have fewer than five.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in nine years, McCarthy has taken big steps to remove any stale air that had seeped into the building. He is counting on fresh faces and fresh ideas to stimulate the environment.
“We’re salesmen each and every day to our players, to do the things that are needed to do to win,” McCarthy said. “What our players do for a living is not natural. So, as many different ways you can teach and make them understand and connect with them from a different angle is very beneficial.
“It’s been exciting, the energy is over the top. We frankly waited until today to make it official. We’ve been busy.”
On offense, McCarthy isn’t scrapping his playbook. Far from it.
His new hires and reassigned assistants all have roots in the offense he began building as an offensive coordinator in New Orleans and San Francisco.
Philbin was an original member of McCarthy’s Packers staff, serving as offensive line coach (’06) and then offensive coordinator (’07-11) until being named Miami Dolphins head coach. During his time in Green Bay, he worked closely with Campen, who has been promoted from offensive line coach to run game coordinator/offensive line.
Jim Hostler, who was named passing game coordinator, has worked with Philbin the past two years in Indianapolis and got his start working with McCarthy in Kansas City (’00) and worked for him in New Orleans (’01-02) and San Francisco (’05).
Quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti spent the last two years teaching McCarthy’s offense as an assistant under McAdoo with the New York Giants and was mentored by McCarthy during his two years with the Saints (’01-02).
Raih, who was promoted from offensive perimeter assistant, is entering his fifth season with the Packers.
In a way, McCarthy has welcomed back some of his pupils after allowing them to explore the outside world and is giving them the task of stripping the offense down to its foundation and then building it back up.
“We’ve taken a little bit of a back-to-basics approach on offense,” McCarthy said. “We’re going back and building a playbook like you would if it was your first year as a staff. Joe’s such a great teacher. So, it’s been a lot of fun so far.”
McCarthy hired Pettine to install the defense he developed under Rex Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills and then further developed as head coach of the Cleveland Browns (2014-15).
But he kept several of Dom Capers’ assistants and allowed Pettine to hire only one former associate, quality control assistant Ryan Downard, who was a defensive assistant during his two years in Cleveland.
In an attempt to highlight cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.’s talents, McCarthy promoted him to defensive passing game coordinator. Whitt had laid out his preferred defensive scheme during his interview with McCarthy for the coordinator position and it turned out to be very similar to Pettine’s.
McCarthy kept associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss. He promoted defensive front assistant Montgomery to defensive line coach and assistant special teams coach Jason Simmons to secondary coach. Both are young assistants McCarthy didn’t want to lose.
Rather than let Pettine choose his run game coordinator, McCarthy jumped on former Giants defensive line coach Patrick Graham, who came highly recommended by McAdoo. Graham spent seven seasons in New England learning defense from Bill Belichick and may be able to add to Pettine’s existing scheme.
“I think if you travel around with guys you’ve always worked with, I think that limits you,” Pettine said. “I think this is a new set of ideas and these guys, when you build a staff, you want excellent teachers, excellent coaches, guys who have varied backgrounds that you can draw ideas from.
“Those (Whitt and Graham) are two guys in particular that I’m really looking forward to working with, and they’re well-deserving of the title of pass-game coordinator and run-game.”
By uprooting his staff and creating a chain of command where Campen, Hostler, Whitt and Graham have coordinator titles but still report to the offensive or defensive coordinator, McCarthy is at risk of having too many whistles in the room.
McCarthy is still in the process of sorting out who will do what in the meetings and on the practice field and which players will follow which assistants. Each member of the previous staff had responsibility for a part of the game plan (third down, red zone, goal line, etc.) and so the title creation might have been partly to lure some of the newcomers and pacify some of the holdovers.
But McCarthy said he wanted to give more coaches a voice.
He felt the previous structure with one coordinator doing most of the heavy lifting might have stifled some of the younger coaches and caused them to leave. From the ’17 staff, receivers coach Luke Getsy and defensive quality control assistant Tim McGarigle left for college jobs and Montgomery accepted a position at Texas A&M before changing his mind.
Whatever the case, it doesn’t appear the system will be as centralized.
“They’re going to do all my work and I’m going to get home early,” Philbin joked. “As I said to our staff the other day, we’ve got a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, a lot of talent in the room. It’s just like in the locker room.
“Talent’s one thing, but everybody being able to work together, kind of pick up on each other’s strengths and weaknesses, complement one another, and ultimately help our players reach their potential, that’s what it’s all about.”