Dougherty: Mike McCarthy taking Packers' playbook 'back to Page 1'

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) talks with coach Mike McCarthy during practice Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 in the Don Hutson Center in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

Bill Walsh famously said that a head coach should remain with an NFL team for no more than 10 years.

League history shows that somewhere around the 10th to 12th year with a franchise, a coach’s record much more likely than not will tail off.

Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Bud Grant, Paul Brown, Mike Shanahan and Steve Owen are among the highly accomplished coaches who saw their teams drop after the 10- to 12-year mark. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots are as good as ever as he enters his 19th season with them. But he’s not the norm in the NFL.

Which brings us to Mike McCarthy, who is entering his 13th season as the Green Bay Packers’ coach. He well knows Walsh’s stance and the history of the all-time greats listed above, and it’s hard not to think that his long tenure played into major offseason decisions to remake two important facets of his team: his coaching staff and offensive playbook.

The big move publicly was on the coaching staff, where McCarthy turned over more than a third of his assistants (seven coaches gone, six added), including a big change at defensive coordinator (Mike Pettine for Dom Capers).

But in a subtler yet potentially meaningful move, McCarthy also is making over his playbook this offseason.

“We’ve gone back to Page 1,” McCarthy said at the NFL owners meeting last week.

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The changes on the coaching staff, especially the new defensive coordinator, are the kind of moves we’ve come to expect after a bad season. But why make over the offensive playbook, since McCarthy was and remains in charge of that side of the ball?

At the owners meeting, McCarthy said time and opportunity were reasons for comprehensively revisiting his offense. The Packers had made the playoffs the eight previous seasons, so he didn’t have as much time to tinker each of those offseasons. Last year, though, the Packers played their last game on New Year’s Eve.

But that can’t be the entire story, because twice in that playoff run the Packers were bounced in the wild-card round of the playoffs, so their offseason was shortened only a week. Three other years they lost in the divisional round, or two weeks after the regular season ended.

Also, McCarthy spent much of the first two weeks in January this year researching and interviewing defensive coordinators and offensive assistants, not reworking his playbook.

“You forget how much time and energy goes into the background checks,” he said.

The turnover on the offensive staff — gone are Edgar Bennett, Alex Van Pelt and Luke Getsy, added are Joe Philbin, Jim Hostler and Frank Cignetti — made this a good time to revisit the offense. McCarthy’s playbook had evolved over the last decade, but he has been working with the same system and quarterback for most of that time.

Staleness for McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers and anyone else who has been around a while had to be a real concern. Now McCarthy has three new assistants who’d coached for him in the past but could offer ideas from recent work with other teams.

“Everything was open for discussion: every definition, every formation,” McCarthy said. “So we’ve taken a scrub-brush approach to the whole system, whether we’re talking about formation, defensive identification, at the line putting the ball in play, all those different areas that you tend to gloss over year to year, particularly when you’re in the same offense for so long.”

McCarthy said the new staff went over the most basic elements and finest details, including even a thorough discussion of the huddle. For the record, he ultimately decided to keep that the same.

“There’s things that (Rodgers) does when we’re in the huddle, that he can see and vantage points — I don’t want to get into all that, but just … I didn’t see the benefit of changing it,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy didn’t go into details about what he has changed in his offense, because he’s not going to hand over that information to opponents. He didn’t quantify the changes but said it was far more than in past offseasons, when the list he’d go over with Rodgers at the start of offseason workouts usually ranged from 45 to 55 “items or topics.” 

That means Rodgers and his veteran offensive teammates are in for a much different offseason. McCarthy didn’t put it quite this way, but he’s obviously hoping Rodgers finds it stimulating.

“These will be good changes for him,” McCarthy said. “It’ll probably be a little frustrating for him at first because the volume (of changes) is higher than it’s been, but he’s always up for a challenge.”

It’s always smart to be wary of offseason storylines. An annual rite of spring and summer is that every coach extolls changes to his scheme, every GM is thrilled about his new players, and every player changed his workout regimen or diet and is in the best shape of his life.

Sometimes they’re right. But far more often, all that’s forgotten by September.

We won’t know until the games are played whether McCarthy’s revamped playbook helped his team. But this was far from his usual offseason.

For good reason. McCarthy has a lot riding in his 13th season as coach. With the Packers’ new front-office structure, he has a greater voice in personnel. He has won a lot of games but hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl since winning it in the 2010 season. The heat is on to deliver.

And he knows that he’s the rare coach to last this long with one team — only 15 others have had 13 or more consecutive years with the same franchise in NFL history.

At this point, McCarthy’s greatest foe might be staleness. He took it on this offseason. We’ll see in January whether that was enough.

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