The Green Bay Packers don’t look any different on game day now that Mike McCarthy no longer is calling plays.
But they are 4-0, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that McCarthy’s decision early in the offseason to give up those duties for a more panoramic role as head coach has helped him and his team.
The NFL season is only a quarter old, and much can change in the next three months. But any fears of disaster have proven unfounded, and in fact the Packers haven’t played like this complete a team since their stretch drive to winning the Super Bowl in the 2010 season.
“I’m an advocate of you have to be a head coach,” said Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. “I very much applaud Mike McCarthy making the move this year. And Mike McCarthy is one of the great play callers we have in this game. But because of (last season’s NFC Championship Game in) Seattle, I imagine, he felt like he had to have that bigger view on a more consistent basis.”
McCarthy’s decision to relinquish play calling goes to the quandary for all head coaches.
They get their jobs because they’ve excelled at coordinating one side of the ball and calling plays during games. Play calling has a huge role in winning or losing games. But being a play caller also distracts from game management and monitoring other phases of the team.
After nine years on the job, McCarthy early last offseason decided to change. He’s now more involved in game planning for defense and special teams, and freed from calling plays, he has time to monitor those phases on game day.
“I look at my job, ‘Go manage the game,’” McCarthy said this week. “I’m not calling plays in all three areas, but I’m giving input based on how I feel the pulse of the game. My overall feel of the pulse for offense, defense and special teams is clearly better than it’s been.”
According to a survey by ESPN.com, only 10 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches call plays. Billick, who called plays for 2½ of his nine years as Baltimore’s head coach, thinks the list of consistently winning current head coaches is strong evidence that eschewing play calling is the way to go for most.
Among the head coaches who don’t call plays are New England’s Bill Belichick, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and now McCarthy. The most successful play-calling head coaches are Arizona’s Bruce Arians, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Kansas City’s Andy Reid.
It’s much easier to see why a coach would give up play calling when you delve into what goes into it during the week and on game day. While hardly a no-brainer, the case for not calling plays is strong. Especially in the case of McCarthy, who made the change going into his 10th season as Packers coach.
“Bill Walsh was very much a believer that you can’t be (a head coach) in one place for 10 years,” Billick said. “You’re good enough to get there, God love ya, and maybe it was time to change things up a little bit. And I’d bet Mike would tell you he’s been a better head coach. Whether it’s exhibited itself specifically in a game it would be hard for me to tell. But I imagine if he chose to (he’d say), ‘Oh yeah, it’s already shown up just by that play, or this quarter in that game.’”
Billick said that years ago he learned an important concept about game-day coaching from a talk by Rick Pitino, the Louisville basketball coach. Pitino said his job was to acquire as much talent as possible, give the players some structure and then make four or five key strategic and tactical decisions during the game.
“It can be whether you’re going to go for two (points),” Billick said, “or where are you going to be in four-down territory? Or the ebb and flow of the game offensively and defensively in terms of triggering your offense to be more aggressive because you get the sense your defense isn’t going to hold up, or vice versa.”
But if the head coach calls plays, he’s not always attuned to what could be a key decision.
In the NFC Championship Game last year, for instance, a seemingly routine play — a 37-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter — became a huge one when the Seahawks faked it and scored a touchdown. If McCarthy hadn’t been immersed in offensive play calling, would he have nixed special-teams coordinator Sean Slocum’s call for an all-out block on a relatively short kick with a 16-0 lead? Or would McCarthy have known the extent to which Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s shoulder was injured and attacked him when the Packers were trying to run out the clock late in the game?
“From an analytical standpoint you could say, Well, maybe something was missed when you’re thinking as a play caller instead of the head coach,” Billick said, “when the guy across the way, Pete Carroll, was truly a head coach and putting his offense, defense and special teams in the modes to come back the way they did. I’m sure that was part of (McCarthy’s) conversation.”
To understand how preoccupying play calling is, here’s a thumbnail look at what goes into it.
First, during the week, the play caller has to assemble the game plan based on his own film study and input from his assistants, who are responsible for studying specific game segments (third down, short yardage, red zone, etc.). Then the play caller has to determine what plays to practice against what defensive calls in the limited time the team spends on the practice field.
On game day he’s consulting a call sheet that includes at minimum a few plays for each potential situation he might face: backed up, open field, high red zone, regular red zone and goal line. Each of those is further divided by down and distance (short, medium and long). Each coach has his own system, but Billick said he usually had 120 to 130 calls on his sheet in anticipation of about 70 offensive plays in a game.
Many coaches also have reminder boxes on their call sheets. Billick said he always had several blitz beaters, and a call or two that he liked for the play after hitting on a long pass. Also, he had a box listing plays to get the ball to a key player, such as for receiver Cris Carter when Billick was offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.
The play caller also regularly solicits key information from assistant coaches. Billick, who like McCarthy is a descendant of Walsh’s West Coast offense, had his offensive line coach watch the point of attack; the assistant offensive line coach monitor backside blocking; the receivers coach watch the secondary; and the running backs coach watch quarterback drop backs and handoff exchanges.
The play caller also has to consider the context of a given call. A second-and-10 after an incomplete pass might warrant a different call than second-and-10 after a failed run.
Then when the offense comes off the field, the play caller prepares for the next series based on what he's seen from the defense.
“Your emotions and flow of the game can get away from you when you’re immersed in that all-consuming mind-set of calling games,” Billick said.
McCarthy still carries an offensive game plan on the sidelines, but it’s a condensed version of the call sheet he used as play caller. He also has the defensive and special teams game plans and a game-management reminder sheet. When the offense is on the field, he’s switched into the headsets of the offensive coaches. Same for defense. Special teams coach Ron Zook is on whatever line McCarthy is.
Tom Clements calls the plays on offense, Dom Capers on defense, and Zook for special teams. McCarthy said he sees his role mainly to remind, and because he’s not preparing to call the next offensive series he’s fully attentive to whatever phase of the game is on the field.
“If I feel something based on conversations during the week or what I’ve seen on video, (I'll say) ‘Hey, don’t forget about this,’ or ‘Don’t forget about that,’” he said. “I try not to do too much, but it can be tough sometimes.”
The differences for McCarthy aren’t limited to game day. He says he now spends more time during the week in defensive and special teams meetings. He also meets longer with each coordinator individually to go over the game plan, especially in their final talk on Friday afternoons.
And every week on either Wednesday or Thursday, McCarthy delivers a short presentation in the team defensive meeting to offer his perspective on the offense its facing that week. He never had time to study that as a play caller.
“Raise the (team’s) football IQ,” McCarthy said. “If you have a coach that’s coached a lot of football on offense (and he’s) talking to the defense about specifics of an opponent, their education is improving. Will it show up Sunday? I don’t know, I hope so. But if you keep doing it I promise you on Sundays down the road it will.”
Since giving up the play calling, McCarthy has said his priority is to ensure his offense, defense and special teams complement each other. That’s broad enough to mean almost anything, and he doesn’t like to go into detail, but he seems to be saying that play calling on game day needs to gibe with the panoramic game plan going in.
Billick said that giving up play calling helped him achieve that because he could use a tactic he learned from former Minnesota Vikings coach Denny Green.
In practice he’d coach the scout teams. Watching the practice scripts play out from the other side of the ball gave him a full grasp of his coordinators’ game plans. Then during the game he was removed enough from play calling to remind a coordinator when he strayed from the plan.
“That (perspective) can get away from you because (play callers) are very focused on doing their thing,” Billick said. “Four or five times a game Denny would click over and for example he’d say, ‘You haven’t run your screen yet.’ It wasn’t, ‘Run the screen now,’ it was just an observation. Nine times out of 10 I’d go, ‘Damn, he’s right.’ That helps you. You can only do that by being the head coach and monitoring the flow during the week and during the course of the game, and providing that handful of insights. That’s what being a head coach is about.”
Dropping play calling was a big risk for McCarthy. If the Packers’ offense had struggled early, he at some point might have had to consider taking it back, which would have been highly disruptive and a potential disaster. But he’d worked with Clements since hiring him in ’06, and familiarity had to make the decision easier, as did having a perennial MVP at quarterback.
“From Day 1 (since the change) the emphasis has been on running the football and stopping the run, and having our coverage units, kickoff and punt, cover (well),” McCarthy said. “That’s the personality on the football team that I want to stand out as a primary focus. So far we’re heading in that direction.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.