McGinn: McCarthy must turn tide on turnovers

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Washington – Talk of turnover differential oftentimes creeps into Mike McCarthy’s opening remarks after games.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy watches the action during a preseason game against the Cleveland Browns.

The subject of giveaways and takeaways isn’t often broached in Green Bay. Just the fact that McCarthy keeps bringing up turnovers speaks volumes for the importance the 11th-year coach of the Packers attaches to them.

Frequently in interviews over the years, McCarthy has pledged allegiance to what he considers by far the most telling statistic in football other than the final score.

For a decade, McCarthy’s remarkable success in this area has served as the foundation for his many accomplishments. Now, however, there is softening in the Packers’ dominance, and if he doesn’t get a handle on it quickly this season will be doomed and his tenure threatened.

Through nine games, the Packers have turned the ball over too much while not taking it away enough. They rank 25th in turnover differential at minus-4, a dive into the netherworld of losing teams where McCarthy hasn’t ever been and surely doesn’t want to remain.

Talk about uncharted territory. A 19th-place finish in 2013 (minus-3) was the worst for a McCarthy-coached team. The Packers haven’t been awful in giveaways (14, tied for 19th) or takeaways (10, tied for 20th) this season, but rest assured that the minus-4 weighs on the coach as much as 4-5.

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Some say there’s nothing McCarthy preaches more to his players and his coaches than turnover differential.

“We talk about it and practice it every day,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Eventually things are going to work our way.”

McCarthy is accustomed to owning turnover differential. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has crushed the opposition by an even greater margin than McCarthy, but no other team even comes close.

From 2006-'15, New England ranked first in turnover differential at plus-129 followed by Green Bay at plus-92. Tied for a distant third were Carolina and Seattle at plus-36.

Rounding out the top 10 were Atlanta (plus-35), Chicago (plus-28), San Diego (plus-25), San Francisco (plus-25), Baltimore (plus-24) and Cincinnati (plus-18).

The cellar-dwellers were Oakland (minus-82), Detroit (minus-49), Cleveland (minus-32), the New York Jets (minus-31) and two teams, Denver and Jacksonville, at minus-30.

The Packers also stand at plus-6 in 15 playoff games under McCarthy. His exhibition record always has hovered around .500, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in 11 preseasons the Packers sit plus-14.

“It’s one of the biggest things he advocated when he was hired,” said Mike Eayrs, the Packers’ research and development director and a McCarthy confidant from 2001 until his retirement in September 2015. “His commitment to it has been absolutely outstanding.”

Tackle Bryan Bulaga, who has been listening to lectures and watching power-point presentations on the topic for seven years, knew immediately the Packers were mired at minus-4. After guessing the team was “plus-25, plus-26” in McCarthy’s first decade, he was taken aback to learn it was almost four times that.

“As a coach and as a man, I don’t think there’s anyone better than coach McCarthy,” Bulaga said. “His messaging to me is very clear, it’s very precise. He tells you exactly the way it is. That’s exactly the way it’s been since I was a rookie here.”

The preeminent relationship between turnover differential and winning has been unquestioned since the 1960s.

“It’s as clear a path to victory as exists in sports,” said Eayrs, who spent 45 years in football. “We always divided it into two categories: giveaways and takeaways. They’ve been the dominant variable, to my knowledge, every year but two.

“That was when the Rams had the ‘Greatest Show on Turf.’ Obviously, it’s a copycat league. People put a premium on explosive gains with vertical stretch. That eclipsed it for a couple seasons, but not by much. Otherwise, it’s the prime correlate with winning.”

The worst record for a team that finished No. 1 in turnover differential over the past 10 years was 11-5.

Vince Lombardi’s plus-115 in 122 regular-season games has to rank as one of the NFL’s best turnover marks ever. He was followed by coaches Phil Bengtson (minus-15), Dan Devine (plus-15), Bart Starr (minus-52), Forrest Gregg (minus-6), Lindy Infante (minus-22), Mike Holmgren (plus-7), Ray Rhodes (plus-5) and Mike Sherman (minus-14).

Sherman’s collapse in this area during his last two years resulted in bad football and general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to fire him and hire McCarthy.

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Due in large part to a defense coordinated by Ed Donatell that tied for second in takeaways (39) in 2001 and led the NFL (45) in ’02, Sherman found himself sitting pretty at plus-24 after four seasons.

At that point, Sherman fired Donatell and promoted secondary coach Bob Slowik to replace him. Slowik was canned after one year and succeeded by Jim Bates.

Green Bay’s minus-14 differential in 2004 was its worst since 1983. The minus-24 in ’05 was its worst ever.

“Ed Donatell was a big buy-in and coach Sherman was a big buy-in on turnover differential,” Eayrs recalled. “I’m reluctant to say a lot about it other than we changed members of our coaching staff and they didn’t have the degree of buy-in.

“Essentially, the priorities of practice and our culture completely shifted. We went essentially from a swarm-type defense to a pressure defense. Our pressure percentage went way up, but the problem with that is you get away from the profile what it takes to win.”

Sherman’s fall should serve as a cautionary tale for the current coaches and players. They might think the turnover differential will swing their way soon but there’s no guarantee that it will.

McCarthy and Eayrs regularly used the example of corporate giant General Electric to show players the importance of establishing a culture that would stand the test of time.

“The problem with everything, even GE, is eventually your continuous improvement (ends),” Eayrs said. “Complacency kind of sets in. You still have problems. It’s just the problems change.”

Eayrs called 2009-'11 the “golden age” when not even the Patriots (plus-51) could surpass the Packers’ plus-58. Green Bay led the NFL in turnover differential in 2009 (plus-24), finished fourth in ’10 (plus-10) and was second in ’11 (plus-24).

“Regardless of who was in the lineup, the players really understood the message,” he said.

McCarthy began devoting even more practice time to protecting and taking the ball. Spirited ball-security drills were standard early in every practice, and in recent summers McCarthy has ended workouts with every position group, even the linemen, handling the football.

Nothing was more vital than Aaron Rodgers’ aversion to turnovers. According to Sportradar, not only did the Packers rank second behind New England in interceptions (120) from 2006 to the present, they ranked third in fumbles lost (64).

Coordinator Bob Sanders led the defense to respectable rankings of tied for fifth, tied for 17th and 12th in takeaways from 2006-’08.

Persuaded by Thompson not to hire a 3-4 coach initially, McCarthy fired Sanders and brought in the fire-zone scheme of Dom Capers. He turned Green Bay into the interception capital of the league with 85 in his first three seasons. The Packers led the NFL in takeaways in 2009 before tying for first in ’11.

“He was big on that because of his association with Marty Schottenheimer,” said Eayrs, referring to McCarthy. “The old Browns and Chiefs, giveaways and takeaways were a huge pillar of their culture.”

The Packers established a club record for fewest giveaways in 2014 with 13 en route to another NFL title in turnover differential (plus-14). But since 2013, when the Packers finished with their first negative turnover differential (minus-3) under McCarthy, the bloom has been wearing off.

Capers’ defense has been middle-of-the-pack when it comes to takeaways in the last 3½ years.

Since 2013, the Packers at plus-12 trail Kansas City (plus-43), Seattle (plus-41), Carolina (plus-29), New England (plus-29), Buffalo (plus-23), Arizona (plus-16) and Cincinnati (plus-15). Eighth place is a nice place to be, but it’s undoubtedly not what McCarthy had in mind.

Another statistic from Sportradar was startling. Just as the Packers’ interception total of 219 over the last 10½ seasons ranks No. 1 in the NFL, their total of 84 opponents’ fumbles recovered ranks dead last.

Look at the first nine games this year. The Packers are tied for 30th in fumbles forced with seven, and their three recoveries are tied for 22nd.

The opponents’ three lost fumbles came on a pair of sacks and Randall Cobb’s strip of Viking safety Andrew Sendejo on a fumble return.

It’s an awful indictment that the Packers haven’t forced a single fumble on the 214 running plays.

Primarily a man coverage team under Capers, Green Bay’s defenders charge downhill less often than a zone coverage team like Seattle and theoretically could be in less advantageous positions to cause fumbles. Julius Peppers and Burnett dismissed the idea that the defense lacked in hustle and physical play, but gang-tackling and explosive tackling haven’t stood out.

Of the seven interceptions, three were tipped and two were terrible throws. The best play was made two months ago when Damarious Randall ripped the ball away from Lions tight end Eric Ebron.

Defining turnover plays as picks, fumbles recovered and fumbles forced, the only players with more than one are Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (three) and Joe Thomas (two). It’s not that the Packers are wasting chances for interceptions; they’ve dropped just five all year.

Sam Shields and his 4.3 career average of turnover plays have been missed. San Diego’s Casey Hayward, with a 4.0 average in Green Bay, shares the NFL interception lead with five.

Clay Matthews, who averaged 3.7 turnover plays, has none. Peppers, who had 11 two years ago, has one. Burnett, with a career mark of 4.8, has one. Quinten Rollins doesn’t have any since his two interceptions in a game 13 months ago.

Ball hawks like Charles Woodson (15 turnover plays in 2009) and Tramon Williams (12 in ’10) haven’t been replaced. Even Atari Bigby had nine in ’07, more than twice as many as anyone had last year.

What you have are some young players in the secondary who appear more concerned about doing what they’re supposed to than going and getting the ball.

Some veterans on the defense urged patience last week, insisting takeaways will be right around the corner. Meanwhile, offensive coaches pledged renewed commitment to fundamentals and ball security.

If quarterback play, offensive design and play calling represent McCarthy’s area of expertise, turnover differential has been his meal ticket.

A season hangs in the balance. McCarthy can ill afford to dally in that minus-4 neighborhood much longer.

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