Dougherty: McCarthy plays change game

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy questions a call.

Think what you will about Mike McCarthy, you have to credit him with this: He’s good at making big adjustments on the fly.

It’s an important trait for an NFL coach, because more often than not things don’t go in the fall as planned in the spring. And the Green Bay Packers' coach over the last 11 years has made several crucial in-season changes that have helped produce some of his best teams. We’re talking in 2007, ’09, ’10 and ’14.

This season’s home stretch will show whether he’s done it again this year with his bid to revive a stagnant offense that had been wiped out at running back to boot.

This time, though, I’d argue he was more reluctant, and thus slower, to commit to the big change than in the past. Late enough that the Packers’ season was in jeopardy after a four-game losing streak. But now that he has embraced a more wide-open offensive approach, plus gotten healthier in the secondary, his team’s prospects heading into the final three games are reborn.

Let’s start with a revealing look back. It’s notable, because McCarthy’s key in-season adjustments have helped produce, in order, the Packers’ trip to the NFC championship game in ‘07, their first playoff berth with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback in ‘09, a Super Bowl win in ‘10 and another appearance in the NFC championship game in ’14.

In ‘07, the big change came early (Week 2) and in mid-game. McCarthy was in his second season as coach and wanted a credible, physical running game. So he hammered it in training camp and tried to force the issue for the first game-and-a-quarter of the season.

But with Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn as his top halfbacks, his offense went nowhere. So in the middle of the game at Giants Stadium, McCarthy junked his plan, threw four receivers on the field and went to a more wide-open, short passing game to replace the run.

Over time the offense evolved off that. Ryan Grant later emerged at halfback, and the Packers went on to rank No. 2 in the NFL in passing and No. 4 in scoring. They finished with the best record in the NFC and lost to the Giants in the conference title game.

In ’09, the issue was Rodgers taking sacks at an alarming rate. Through nine games he was on pace to threaten the NFL record for most times sacked. The Packers ranked No. 10 in scoring, No. 15 in yards and were 5-4.

Then McCarthy tweaked his play calling to quicker throws and emphasized to Rodgers to get the ball out. Over the last seven games the Packers ranked No. 4 in scoring, No. 7 in yards and went 6-1. In the wild-card round of the playoffs they put up 45 points in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

In 2010, McCarthy spent the offseason building his offense around multi-talented tight end Jermichael Finley. In training camp, it seemed like Finley was the target on about every other pass in team drills. He was going to be a key player.

Then in Week 5 at Washington, his season ended with a knee injury and those plans were shot. (“It threw us in a totally different direction,” McCarthy said this week). McCarthy reacted by building the passing game around receiver Greg Jennings. That season ended in Dallas with the Packers raising the Lombardi Trophy.

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In ’14, the critical adjustment came on the other side of the ball. At midseason, the Packers’ run defense was a disaster. After a blowout loss at New Orleans they ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and No. 19 in scoring defense.

During the team’s bye, McCarthy had defensive coordinator Dom Capers move their best player on that side of the ball, Clay Matthews, from edge rusher to inside linebacker. It was a radical decision. And over the last eight games the Packers ranked No. 6 in rushing defense and No. 9 in points allowed. They went 7-1 to finish the regular season before their infamous meltdown at Seattle in the final four minutes of the NFC title game.

Maybe that history will give pause to some of the McCarthy bashers out there.

But it also made the month of November perplexing this season.

In late October, McCarthy appeared to have again adjusted in trying times – in this case, an already struggling offense that then was wiped out at running back – with a radical change. Against Chicago and Atlanta, he abandoned the run and deployed four- and five-receiver sets in a quick-hitting passing game. The offense showed life while splitting those games.

But McCarthy’s actions thereafter say he was reluctant to stick with it. He went back to a heavy dose of  the conventional three-receiver, one tight end, one running back set that had been the staple of his stagnant offense earlier in the year.

Against Atlanta, tight ends Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo combined for only 29 snaps; the next week in a bad home loss to Indianapolis they played 71. The week after, a blowout loss at Tennessee, it was 79.

A week later at Washington, Jared Cook, who in reality is more a tall receiver than a true tight end, returned. Richard Rodgers’ snaps plummeted. But even in that game McCarthy opened with a conventional approach. His first nine plays, which were three three-and-outs, consisted of five passes and four runs. On series four, he threw out the game plan and opened things up (14 pass calls to three runs) in a 42-24 loss.

That’s more like the offense we’ve seen since then. Plenty of four- and five-receiver sets, more and more Ty Montgomery at running back and a quick-rhythm passing game that sets up everything else.

Even Aaron Rodgers’ 66-yard bomb to Davante Adams on the third play last week against Seattle was designed as a quick-hitter. All five receivers on that play ran five-yard routes, but when the secondary sucked up and Rodgers drifted out of the pocket, Adams improvised, turned up field and broke wide open for the big play.

I talked with McCarthy this week about in-season adjustments, and he disputed that he was reluctant to commit to a more wide-open game. He warned to not read too much into the early, run-oriented play calling at Tennessee and Washington.

“How you’re trying to attack them has a lot to do with how you match up to them, but you’re also gathering information, too,” he said.

But I still think he was reluctant, and I get why. It’s really hard to win a title, especially when your late-season home games are in Green Bay, without a decent run threat. The more predictable you are, the easier it is for good defenses to stop you. And throwing down after down in the snow or bitter cold is a tough way to make a living.

“I know just in theory you have to be able to do both,” McCarthy said. “Last year is a perfect example. We threw the ball way too much from a drop back, so our (play) action passing game was limited and the tendencies were way up.”

I also realize more goes into NFL play calling and game planning than laymen can fathom. We don’t know what we don’t know about matchups and tendencies and players’ health.

All we have to go on is what happens on the field. And what we saw for a good part of November was the reluctance to commit to an unconventional style of play, regardless of the reasons.

You wouldn’t spend an offseason planning to play this way. But now that McCarthy has embraced it, he has given his team real hope yet again.

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