Mike McCarthy came up through the coaching ranks during a different era in the NFL.
Everyone worked on Christmas during his early years as a position coach and coordinator. It didn’t matter what team you worked for. Personal lives were set aside for playbooks and presents were postponed for game plans.
During his tenure as the Green Bay Packers' head coach, McCarthy began giving players and coaches off on Christmas Day when possible. If someone doesn't have family in town, he and the coaching staff make sure that individual has somewhere to spend the holiday.
Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals might be the most important game of the Packers’ season, but it’s not enough to make McCarthy forsake his principles. On Wednesday, he explained why those moments are so central to his coaching philosophy.
“Every program I was a part of in the ‘90s and early 2000s you worked on Christmas,” McCarthy said. “So I think with that, you learn, you have different experiences. You know, I had an experience where I missed my brother’s wedding. And that affected me.
“So Christmas is,” said McCarthy, pausing to hold back emotions. “Important.”
His players appreciate the gesture. While it forces the team to cram more into the first four days of preparation for game day, it hasn’t really thrown anything out of whack in recent years. The Packers have won their first game after the holiday break in each of the past two seasons and even a Christmas tilt against Chicago three years ago.
“It's great. I think the thing about the NFL a lot of times is we don't get to celebrate those holidays,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We're working for a lot of them. It's fun to play on them sometimes to give people back home something to watch. But it's great when you can have those off. I think we've repaid him over the years by having some pretty good performances, if you look back at some of the memories we had. I think that makes you feel a little better about it, too.”
McCarthy doesn’t view the holiday as a distraction, but rather a “big dose of positive energy.” Position groups exchange presents. Christmas music is piped in between practice periods. Everyone seems to put a little more energy into their work in the week leading up to games.
Players and coaches have their own plans to spend the day. Running back Eddie Lacy said he plans to sleep in and watch cartoons. Defensive back Micah Hyde is getting together with teammates. Many veterans will spend the day with their wives and children.
The coaches suggest that players get in a little film study on their own before the team travels to Arizona, but otherwise they were free to go once meetings wrapped up on Thursday. The Packers will conduct their final practice of the week on Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Players hope the off-the-field personal investment pays dividends when the Packers try to upset the Cardinals (12-2), who enter Sunday’s game as 3½-point favorites.
“I think you have to keep everything in perspective and what drives players,” outside linebacker Mike Neal said. “Football is just a game, but ultimately you know when you’re done playing this game, you’re going to have to walk into the house one day and look at your family. I think Mike understands that you don’t want to piss too many moms off, too many kids off. I think he’s good that he does that. I think he’s a very family-oriented coach.
“I think when you keep those type of things in perspective, you get a lot of respect from the players. It just all works from the top down. I think he does a good with that.”
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