Inside the two-year 'sabbatical' that steered Mike Pettine to Packers

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers defnesive coordinator Mike Pettine watches training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Monday, July 30, 2018 in Ashwaubenon, Wis. 
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

GREEN BAY – On the day his career was torn down, Mike Pettine was building.

Building for the future, sure. He had a vision in Cleveland. “My plan to fix the Browns,” he called it. After the 2015 season, Pettine met with owner Jimmy Haslam to unveil his next steps. The Browns were a wretched 3-13, eroding after an optimistic 7-9 record in Pettine’s first year. In his mind, he wasn’t done in Cleveland. There was light at the end of that deep, dark tunnel, if only Haslam could see it.

He couldn’t. Pettine was fired Jan. 3, 2016.

“I felt confident,” Pettine says now, “that, hey, listen, if I’d been given the time, we would’ve gotten it right.”

Pettine was also building, structurally.

He had a log cabin on Johnson’s Island, across the Sandusky Bay from Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio. An hour west of Cleveland, Pettine planned to spend summers there. Given additional time with unemployment, Pettine instead knocked his cabin to the ground.

He built from scratch, hiring a contractor to turn his summer home into a full-time residence. The interior is an open-space layout, designed for hosting. “Beautiful,” one lifelong friend says. “It’s a perfect setup.” There’s a dock in the back with a sliding board and 24-foot pontoon boat. You can see roller coasters and fireworks from his backyard.

Pettine didn’t just hand over the money and leave his builder to work.

“I took all my energy,” Pettine says, “and put it into that. Designed it and was a big part of all the decisions being made, and just the layout and where we want things. My fiancée and I were in lockstep with the builders as far as every square foot of the house, how we wanted it to look.

“The builder probably didn’t appreciate me being in his ear almost every day.”

Perhaps not, but at least Pettine got to finish something.

He shut himself out from football for five months, with minimal exceptions. Pettine couldn’t prevent his thoughts from wandering back to the Browns, retracing what went wrong, the mistakes he made, but also the things he wouldn’t change even in hindsight. He had long conversations with his father, the legendary Pennsylvania high school football coach Mike Pettine Sr., analyzing every angle.

“I think his father really took that harder than anybody,” says Dick Beck, one of Pettine’s best friends and his successor at North Penn High, located 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia. “He just lived and died every play for his son.”

Pettine was detached from the NFL. Literally, secluded on an island. He made his home, but there was another set of blueprints Pettine began formulating, a revisionary plan for his next coaching job.

It was around then, in the spring of 2016, Pettine realized building wasn’t what he needed at all.

It was time to rebuild.

‘He got a raw deal’

Mike Pettine sits inside four white walls on the third floor of Lambeau Field, where the team holds its offices. There’s a whiteboard hanging across the room, but little else to provide character. The no-glitz environment seems to fit Pettine as well as the no-nonsense Packers, an organization where football is paramount.

It’s been almost nine months since Pettine was hired as the Packers' defensive coordinator, bringing hope to a defense that ranked among the NFL’s worst the past couple seasons. There are built-in expectations. Play even adequate defense here, he knows, and Aaron Rodgers could lead the way to a Super Bowl ring.

But Pettine is not here to play adequate defense. In a message he shared with his players on the practice field this spring, he’s here to dominate.

It only made sense the son of Mike Pettine Sr., who won 326 games and four state titles in 33 seasons at Central Bucks West High, would be a coach. Junior, as his father called him, went from a high school program to NFL head coach in 13 years. His journey started with a job — and a pay cut — on the Baltimore Ravens' video operations staff.

He spent five years as a defensive coordinator with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, yielding top-10 defenses each season. “My right-hand man,” friend and former Jets head coach Rex Ryan calls him. Pettine’s career was pointing straight north, taking the fast track to a job most coaches never reach.

That it was over so soon — midway into a four-year contract with the Browns — could crush anyone’s spirit.

“He was bummed out beyond belief,” Ryan says.

Yanking the Browns back to success would have been perhaps the NFL’s most monumental achievement. Many have tried. The firing line out of Cleveland is long with dashed hopes.

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Beck acknowledges it was a difficult time. “We all thought he got a raw deal,” he says. But Pettine recognized a rare chance in his career. With the Browns paying the final two years of his contract, Pettine could step back and reevaluate. He treated his time away from coaching as a “sabbatical” more than unemployment, learning as much as he could.

“I haven’t talked to any coach,” Pettine says, “who took time off that didn’t enjoy it. You’re always a little bit apprehensive at first, because you’re like, ‘OK, if I get out, am I going to be able to get back in?’ But when I got let go in Cleveland, I was beat up physically, emotionally.

“It was just — I needed a break.”

After five months, his break was over. Pettine was ready to lay a new foundation.

He just needed a way back into the league.

Learning ‘less is more’

Mike Pettine felt the grass beneath his shoes. It had been a while since he stepped onto a football field. He missed everything about it — the sound of clacking shoulder pads, the side conversations, the unbridled action.

He hadn’t planned on returning so soon. Pettine, half joking, says it takes a lot to get him to cross the bridge connecting Johnson’s Island to mainland Ohio. Not long after the 2016 draft, a friend with the Kansas City Chiefs — defensive coordinator Bob Sutton — mentioned Pettine should observe their organized team activities.

He attended two Chiefs practices at the end of May in 2016.

“That really clicked it back in for me at that point,” Pettine says. “Like, ‘Yeah, this is who I am. This is what I do.’ I was very much looking forward to getting back in.”

Pettine took an assortment of odd jobs during the 2016 season, projects for friends in the league. He watched film for Ryan, who was in his final season coaching the Buffalo Bills. In 2017, Pettine consulted for the Seattle Seahawks remotely, watching film from his home.

He was also introspective.

No matter the team, Pettine hadn’t dealt much with inexperience. Terrell Suggs, already a Pro Bowler, was in his third season when Pettine was promoted to be the Ravens' outside linebackers coach, a job he held four years. Bart Scott had played seven seasons in the defense when he followed Pettine and Ryan to the Jets. In Buffalo, Pettine inherited an experienced defense brimming with potential, but the Bills also signed safety Jim Leonhard, whom he coached three years in New York.

Pettine inherited a Browns defense that ranked in the NFL’s bottom half in points allowed the previous two seasons. It improved overnight, ranking ninth in the league with 21.1 points allowed per game in 2014, significantly better than the 25.4 points per game it allowed the previous season. Leonhard, now the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, was an unsung part of the improvement, following Pettine to Cleveland in 2014.

Leonhard retired after the season. On paper, the Browns lost a safety who started only five games. His presence meant much more. “He’s smart as (expletive),” Ryan says. “He’s an extension of us out on the field.” It wasn’t the only reason the Browns' defense regressed badly in 2015, but Leonhard’s absence didn’t help a unit that consistently blew assignments and ranked 29th in the NFL with 27 points allowed per game.

The decline, Pettine says, emphasized a reality check for coaches that started with the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011. With less practice time during the offseason, coaches are limited with what they can teach young players.

“You’re dealing with so many guys on first contracts,” Pettine says, “and just the way the rules have changed and just the lack of time that you have with them. I think scaling back the scheme was one of the biggest things I took from it. Sometimes, when you have insecurities as a coach, you sort of want to make up for it with scheme, and just feel better, sleep better at night knowing you have so much in, depending on which direction the offense goes.

“I just don’t think you can be that way anymore. You end up not very good at a lot of things.”

Pettine realized in 2015 he had to simplify his defense. (It also underscored the value of veterans who know his system, hence the Packers signing defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and cornerback Tramon Williams, who have played for Pettine in the past.) Base principles still apply — “the pressure is omnipresent,” Ryan says — but Pettine changed the way it’s taught.

He combed through his playbook on sabbatical, abridging the terminology. His goal was to retain the same complexities that have given offenses problems, while making it easy for young players to learn.

“I’ve evolved,” Pettine says, “to the point where less is more.”

His playbook isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years.

‘Pretty boy’ Pettine

There are two Mike Pettines.

The first is a caricature. With his bald head, full goatee and stare-through-your-soul scowl, Pettine personifies the “blunt force trauma” nickname that has followed him for several years. He’s direct, yes. Tough. A crusty football coach nobody wants to cross.

“He’s not a wimp,” is how Ryan puts it. “Some of these guys coaching these days, they’re a bunch of (expletives), where Pettine is not. Pettine is just a real dude. He’s a hell of a football coach.”

Beck, who has known Pettine as long as anybody, assures it wasn’t always that way.

“He’s actually the opposite of a meathead football coach,” Beck says.

Go back to high school, he explains. Pettine played quarterback for his father at CB West, not linebacker. At 165 pounds, he was hardly intimidating. And, yes, he had a full head of hair.

“He was a pretty boy,” Beck says, chuckling the way friends do when they’re in on a secret. “I think it’s funny that he comes across as Bronko Nagurski now as a defensive coordinator. He’s got that scowl and bald head, and his eyebrows always look like he’s angry. Which is hilarious to what he was like when he was in high school.”

Pettine also has a sharp wit, and a sense of humor, a natural foil for his father’s my-way-or-the-highway rigidity. “All of his dad’s idiosyncrasies,” Beck says, “Mike would go after them a little bit.” Pettine famously quit his father’s team temporarily as a high school sophomore.

At rival North Penn, Junior’s playful sense of humor didn’t disappear. During one game week, Beck says, Pettine slapped a “North Penn football supporter” bumper sticker on the back of his father’s car. Senior drove around town, unaware until his players mentioned it seemed strange their coach was pulling for the opponent that week.

“Senior was angry about it,” Beck says. “Then Junior was like, ‘Well, heck, it’s just a joke.’ Senior was like, ‘It’s not a joke,’ and got all pissed off.”

Pettine, whose dog Cal was named after Callahan Auto Parts in the movie "Tommy Boy," uses comedy as his weapon. Don’t make a grammatical error in his presence, Beck says, lest you be the subject of a sniping one-liner. His players aren’t immune to the jabs.

Wilkerson cracked a smile when Beck’s “pretty boy” comment was relayed. “I don’t see no pretty boy,” he says. Indeed, Wilkerson has drawn Pettine’s ire, especially as a younger player back in New York.

Cornerback Kevin King also can’t help smiling. His version of Pettine fits more with Ryan and Wilkerson. During OTAs this spring, Pettine stopped a 30-minute walkthrough after only 10 minutes. He called a huddle, digging into his defense for its lack of focus.

It was an illuminating introduction, King says.

“New coaches,” he reasons, “they have to insert their dominance early, because that first impression is huge. If you come off as a pushover, then it’s hard to get away from that.”

Pettine has been no pushover in Green Bay. He speaks of accountability as a foundational belief. Every practice snap is graded, Pettine says. No free passes.

Back in east Pennsylvania, Beck saw signs Pettine would develop his hardened persona. He’s a natural introvert, Beck says, until you know him. Then you’re one of the guys. He rarely shows emotion. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of his father, the apple not falling far from the tree.

Which, Beck says, is why a phone call he got early last year still gives him chills.

‘It was a shock’

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Pettine began.

Beck took the call 19 months ago. It was a bitter, February day, and he was working.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Pettine stammered again on the phone. “My dad just had a heart attack and died.”

Mike Pettine Sr., retired and living north of Tampa, Fla., was on a golf course when he had sudden cardiac arrest. There was no warning. He was 76 years old but in perfect health, as far as everyone knew.

“It was a shock,” Junior says.

His dad, Pettine accepts, died exactly the way he would want, just prematurely. Pettine visited his father in Florida days before the heart attack. He returned to Johnson’s Island on a Wednesday.

Senior went golfing that Friday.

“He certainly would’ve wanted it to be another 10 or 15 years,” Pettine says, “but very proud Italian, he wouldn’t have ever wanted to have been debilitated and have people taking care of him. He and I, we had talked about that.”

In hindsight, Pettine says, it was a blessing the Browns fired him when they did. Over the next 13 months, Senior and Junior were both out of coaching for the first time. Their conversations still centered on football — “we weren’t talking about carpentry,” Pettine quips — but he treasures the quality time.

Pettine, who Beck calls a “master” at editing video, channeled his grief into organizing a celebration of life for his dad. He mined through old game clips, family videos, pictures. Players across the decades attended the three-hour program.

“I think it was very therapeutic for him,” Beck says, “to be able to set some of that stuff up.”

Eleven months after his father’s death, Pettine was in Green Bay.

Before coach Mike McCarthy hired him to be his coordinator, Pettine watched film of the Packers' defense. He inherited five coaches who worked on predecessor Dom Capers’ staff, but Pettine said the low turnover has been beneficial. He spoke with each to gauge what needed to change, eager to hear their perspectives. Pettine also studied a copy of last year’s playbook, so he could know what his players knew.

This summer, he retreated to his home. Before leaving Green Bay, Pettine said his plans were minimal. “Smoke a couple cigars,” he said. “That will last about a week, and then I’ll start thinking about football.” Turned out, Pettine had something else in mind.

With Beck at his house on the Fourth of July, Pettine proposed to his fiancée, Meghan. “In typical Pettine fashion” Beck says,” he did it in front of nobody, up in his bedroom.” When Meghan came down the stairs to say it was official, Beck says, it took everyone a moment to understand what “official” meant.

Meghan, Beck says, is good for Pettine. He saw their relationship blossom while Pettine grieved his father’s death.

“I thought Meghan was extremely supportive through that for Mike,” Beck says, “and I think it was important to him. I think he thought he would never get married again. I think when he went through that with Meghan, that’s where he kind of said to himself, ‘You know what, I think I do want to get married again.’”

Life now isn’t what Pettine expected when the Browns hired him in 2014. Yet his satisfaction is clear. In his introductory news conference nine months ago, Pettine said he didn’t anticipate being a head coach again, something neither Beck nor Ryan believe.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” says Ryan, who's now an ESPN analyst. “When you win, that’s what happens. Everybody is smart as (expletive) when you win, and he’s going to be one of those. They’re going to win, and win big.

“He’s ready, man. He can’t wait. Sometimes, I think when you’re out of it, you can’t wait to get back in and light them up like a Christmas tree. I think that’s what he’s going to do.”

First, there’s a game to play Sunday. After two years away from coaching, Pettine will unveil his new defense against the Chicago Bears. For the first time, he’ll coach a game and not hear from his dad. For the first time, he’ll coach as Meghan’s fiancé. So much has changed since Cleveland, it feels like a lifetime ago.

Pettine hopes the way he spent his sabbatical pays off. The lessons he learned, the changes he made, each decision was for what’s ahead. He’s picked up the pieces since Cleveland, rebuilt his life and career. But Pettine isn’t done.

Now, he knows, it’s time to build.

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