Ryan Wood and Aaron Nagler wrap up the high points of the Green Bay Packers' minicamp on Thursday. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Two years ago, Mike McCarthy was determined to avoid the 1-2 starts that had cost his Green Bay Packers crucial playoff seeding the previous three seasons.
Starting in offseason practices and through training camp in 2015, McCarthy emphasized a fast start, and he got it: The Packers won their first six games.
And how did that turn out? A 10-6 regular season and a road trip for the divisional round loss in the playoffs at Arizona.
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Last year, McCarthy didn’t make the same spoken emphasis on starting fast. And what did that get his Packers? A rough first two months, and then a scorching run to the NFC championship game.
Is there a lesson in there somewhere about best-laid plans?
I asked McCarthy that in an interview last week, and his answer, in part, was not really. He doesn’t see the success or failure of whatever he emphasizes strictly in wins or losses (black and white, as he put it), but in whether the process was conducive to the goal (gray, as he called it) even if the results don’t show it.
So the Packers start fast in ’15 but don’t challenge for the Super Bowl. They struggle the first half of last year yet get all the way to the championship game. In effect, the lesson is that the process should be geared toward the most important part of the season.
“The finish is the most important, we all know that,” he said. “Your history will reflect that we’re a strong finishing team.”
McCarthy last week wrapped up his 12th offseason of work since becoming Packers coach in 2006, and his emphasis, though it’s implicit, has been more football-specific than, say, starting fast. It’s been on pass coverage for a defense that allowed the second-most passing yards in the NFL last season. And it’s been on evolving offensively to exploit player-safety rules changes that have opened the middle of the field the last few years.
The emphasis on pass coverage has shown up in personnel and practice plans.
The most obvious is that general manager Ted Thompson drafted coverage players with his first two picks (cornerback Kevin King and safety/linebacker Josh Jones) and signed another (cornerback Davon House) in free agency.
King basically hasn’t practiced because of the NFL’s laughable rule for rookies whose schools are on the quarter system. But his draft status (No. 33 overall) suggests he should be a starter this year, sooner rather than later. Odds are House will start too.
And Jones? Well, take this for what it’s worth, because it’s based on a limited number of practices open to reporters, and on practices conducted in helmets and shorts, not in pads. But I have to say, Jones has jumped off the field as much as anyone on defense with his closing speed and plays on the ball.
We’ll know a lot more after the preseason, but Thompson at least for now has to feel OK about that pick.
“(Jones) has made a lot of plays. He’s made a lot of space plays,” McCarthy said.
Practice more than ever also was geared toward the passing game. McCarthy scaled back running calls in 11-on-11 work for a couple reasons — he thinks the unrealistic look on many run calls in no-pads practices develops bad habits for linemen and running backs, for one. But defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ cover men needed the extra work, too.
You get the sense from the way defensive players on the sidelines celebrated every broken-up pass that Capers and his staff have been hammering coverage, coverage, coverage all offseason.
“We’ve really focused on the pass,” McCarthy said.
On offense, the signing of two tight ends said plenty about plans on that side of the ball. Regardless of whether it had been Jared Cook or Martellus Bennett, the Packers were going to end up with a good receiving tight end. That it surprisingly ended up being Bennett, who’s a far superior blocker, was a bonus.
But even before that quick-strike move, the Packers had been working on signing Lance Kendricks. So they were looking to add him whether it was to team with Bennett or Cook. And McCarthy wanted the upgrade because he thinks tight end is getting close to joining quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher and cornerback as a primary position in the league.
One reason is that the position’s block-catch versatility fosters uncertainty for defenses. But more importantly, rules changes protecting defenseless players have eliminated much of the danger for receivers going over the middle.
“You can’t have enough big-body types running through the middle of the field,” McCarthy said. “… I think we have a chance to be the best (tight end) group we’ve had in my time here.”
As for McCarthy’s theme for the season, he won’t reveal that to his team until the roster is down to 53 players at the end of training camp. The black-and-white goal is the Super Bowl, but McCarthy prefers that message to be more subliminal.
At the first team meeting in the offseason and again at the start of training camp every year, the first slide he shows is of the Lombardi Trophy. There also are the team pictures of the Packers’ 13 championship seasons on the walls of the main meeting room as a daily reminder.
Maybe McCarthy at some point also will tap into the hunger from recent close calls. The Packers have lost the NFC title game twice in the last three years.
“It’s starting to (tick) me off a little bit,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “You’re not guaranteed another year. Keep getting close and not making it is stressful. We’ve got to collectively — we’ve got to do more. … The Green Bay Packers — I mean, the trophy is the Lombardi Trophy. We have to get back there and win it.”