McCarthy pondering Packers' play-calling puzzle

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy looks on during organized team activities  at Ray Nitschke Field.

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to give up play calling last year didn’t stick.

But his reasons for relinquishing the role are as valid today as they were when he made the move.

That was illustrated this offseason when new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter added “game management” to the title of one of his coaches. Koetter will call offensive plays, and Andrew Weidinger will be his receivers/game management assistant.

“There is so much pressure when that clock is ticking, you have to have somebody who is on top of (game management) and looking ahead,” Koetter told Bleacher Report last month.

So one of McCarthy’s key tasks is setting up a plan for managing games now that he’s back in the play-calling saddle. It could be the difference between winning and losing a big game, as it might have been in the Packers’ NFC championship game loss at Seattle two seasons ago that helped spur McCarthy’s delegating of play calling in the first place.

In an interview this week, McCarthy said he won’t go as far as adding game management to one of his assistants' titles, mainly because regardless of the advice he gets, the ultimate responsibility for the decisions rests with him. He also wouldn’t go into many details of his assistants' specific game-day responsibilities, though he provided at least a hint of his game-management plans for 2016.

McCarthy has more manpower than ever to help with game decisions now that Tom Clements (assistant head coach-offense) and Edgar Bennett (offensive coordinator) are at the top of his offensive staff but free of play-calling duties. He also has three analytics assistants (Mike Halbach, Ryan Feder and intern Connor Lewis) in that fast-growing facet of the NFL.

“We’ll have more people involved (with game management),” McCarthy said. “Our job responsibilities on offense have changed. … The analytics people will be more involved. It will be a different structure.”

I still don’t blame McCarthy for giving up the play calling last year. He wanted a more global perspective during the work week and on game day, just like the other head coaches around the league who don’t call plays. Yeah, he owes his hiring as a head coach to his acumen as a play caller, but almost every head coach in the NFL can say that and plenty of them, including the league’s resident defensive genius, Bill Belichick, don’t call plays.

McCarthy also was right to take back the play calling in mid-December, though I’m still not sure how much difference it made. The offensive tempo clearly improved with his return, but for what it’s worth the Packers actually averaged more points (24.1) and yards (341.4) in the 12 games Clements called plays than the final four regular-season games for McCarthy (19.8 and 314).

The off-season change that probably hurt the offense more last season was combining the receiving and quarterbacks coach into one person. Aaron Rodgers said as much after Monday’s organized team activities session when talking about the team’s young receivers and their new, full-time receivers coach, Luke Getsy.

“I think a big thing for all those (receivers) is the roles are clearly defined in the coaching staff,” Rodgers said.

Given how 2015 turned out, it’s hard to fault McCarthy for retaining play-calling this year. When asked if he could see giving it up again in the future, he quickly veered off topic. But I’d wager he’ll call plays until he’s out of coaching.

“We’ve always been good here on offense,” McCarthy said, “and I need to make sure it stays that way.”

Still, he’s also giving up something. For three-quarters of last season, McCarthy sat in regularly on defensive and special teams meetings to offer his perspective on matters big and small. And on game day, he wasn’t consumed with calling the next offensive series, so he had a better feel for what was happening on defense and special teams.

Now his work week will be preoccupied with studying the next defense and preparing his call sheet. His game-day priority will return to running the offense.

“When you call games you have to be in there with the quarterback,” McCarthy said. “And I’ve gotten away from Aaron — not just Aaron, the quarterback room. If you’re not part of those conversations, that’s where the miscommunication gets through. I’ve spread myself thin. Now I’ve got to be in there full-time on offense.”

You do have to wonder how things will work out with McCarthy’s top-heavy offensive coaching staff. He said Clements’ primary responsibilities during the week will be installing the passing and third-down game plans, and taking part in all quarterback meetings. Bennett will conduct meetings for the entire offense, similar to Clements and Joe Philbin when they were the coordinators before him.

On game day, Clements will be in the coaching box watching the opposing defense and advising McCarthy from a quarterback’s perspective. Other assistants divide up responsibilities watching a specific part of the game or field. For instance, one, presumably offensive line coach James Campen, will monitor the line play, and another, presumably Getsy, will focus on the secondary. Other assistants make sure the offense is playing at a fast pace by making sure personnel and play calls are getting to the players in a timely fashion.

McCarthy said he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll have any of the analytics assistants on the field with him, or put them all upstairs.

McCarthy is right that no matter how he delegates game-day responsibilities, he’s ultimately responsible for the decisions.

But now play calling again will be his preoccupation. So he needs a system to do what he wanted to do on his own last year. There’s much to monitor — players’ snaps and health, clock management, whether to go for it or punt on fourth down, whether to challenge an officials’ ruling, and knowing what’s going on with the defense and special teams. And important information can’t slip through the cracks.

“A season ends, you’re one play away from going to the Super Bowl. In hindsight, how does a team get better two or three plays a game?” McCarthy said. “That’s what I chase every day, every year. I felt by going on to special teams and defense more (last year) I could help make them better two or three plays to change a game. Most games come down to a couple plays.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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