McCarthy, Capers adjust on the fly
The best laid plans of mice and coaches.
Last offseason, after his coaching staff's postmortem of the Green Bay Packers' 2013 season but well before free agency and the draft, Mike McCarthy ordered up a significant change on each side of the football.
On offense, it was in philosophy. Eddie Lacy's award-winning rookie season convinced McCarthy that he finally had a running back who could set up the pass just as well as the pass had set up the run in Aaron Rodgers' first six seasons as quarterback.
On defense, the change was in scheme. Coordinator Dom Capers added a 4-3 "quad" package to his 3-4 system to accommodate the several defensive end-outside linebacker 'tweeners on the roster (Mike Neal, Nick Perry and later, Julius Peppers).
Seven games into the 2014 season, both plans have been, shall we say, de-emphasized.
In Week 4 at Chicago, McCarthy decided to come out throwing, throwing and throwing. Rodgers passed on the Packers' first five plays, and 17 of 23 offensive snaps in the first half. The Packers have averaged 36 points while winning four straight games, and they've finally started to run the ball like they hoped to at the season's start.
And after his run defense hemorrhaged early, Capers scaled back the quad starting in Week 3, and he hasn't played it at all since Week 4. Sure, he could turn back to the quad occasionally depending on health and opponent, but it's clear the 4-3 won't play the prominent role envisioned in the offseason.
But if anyone sees these scrapped plans as a failure, they aren't. What matters most in coaching is adjusting to circumstance. That's one of the reasons teams often are much different in December than they were in September.
Say what you will about the Packers' coaching staff — everyone who follows the team has her or his opinion — but it didn't stubbornly stick with an approach that wasn't working. It adjusted on the fly.
"To me it's the biggest part (of coaching)," Capers said Thursday. "Sometimes you aren't sure of exactly what you have until you start playing games and see how you match up."
On the scale of in-season changes, the Packers' are noteworthy but hardly radical. Capers was part of much greater change early in his NFL coaching career, in 1992, as defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That team had a talented secondary that included future Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, future five-time Pro Bowler Carnell Lake, and current Packers safeties coach Darren Perry. But it lacked pass rushers. So later in the season, Capers and defensive backs coach Dick LeBeau started a blitz package that quickly evolved into the 3-4 zone blitz scheme.
Those '92 Steelers finished 11-5 and won the AFC Central Division.
"You have to have enough flexibility," Capers said, "where if things aren't working quite as well as you want them to, (you ask), 'What can we go to that's going to give us a better chance?'"
Similarly, in 2007, McCarthy in his second season as Packers coach wanted to be more run-oriented than he had in his first. But after his offense rushed for 46 yards and put up only 16 points in the opener against Philadelphia, and then went into halftime the next week trailing the New York Giants 10-7, McCarthy abandoned his delusions.
At halftime, McCarthy switched to a spread passing game, put the ball almost entirely into Brett Favre's hands and won, 35-13. The 2007 Packers had their identity, and all that throwing eventually set up Ryan Grant to be the decent running back McCarthy was searching for. That team went to the NFC championship game.
"You have to adjust in-game, and you have to adjust in the season," said Rodgers, who was Favre's backup in '07.
This isn't to suggest that McCarthy and Capers have solved all the Packers' issues. The second half of the season and playoffs will show whether other problems await.
But at minimum, the Packers are playing better run defense using the 3-4 instead of the quad as their base alignment.
Two of their past three opponents, Minnesota (111 yards) and Carolina (108 yards), put up OK rushing numbers but in games that were over early (a combined 56-3 score at halftime). The other, Miami, had running backs Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno combine for only 63 yards on 20 carries.
Likewise, after combining for only 23 points in early losses to Seattle and Detroit, the Packers' offense has played more up to the high-octane expectations going into the season. They're averaging 36 points and 353 yards in the past four games, and those numbers could have been higher if they hadn't stopped trying to score in the fourth quarter last week against Carolina.
Since passing the Bears into submission in Week 4, the Packers' run game has been more like what McCarthy was looking for at the start of the season. His offense has rushed for 121 yards or more in each of the past three games, and it's hard not to think that the threat of Rodgers throwing almost every down hasn't helped.
"You have to adjust accordingly," Rodgers said. "Play the hot hand when you have the hot hand, and kind of go in a different direction if that's needed to get your team going, or your side of the ball going.
"For us, I had to be a little more aggressive, especially early in the game, early in downs. It's led to scoring more points, being more efficient, and four wins in a row."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.