GREEN BAY – Pete Carroll was the least of Mike McCarthy’s problems when he took over the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010.
Carroll was older at 58, an NFL retread with short stints for the Jets and Patriots in the 1990s. Despite his wonderful record at Southern California, some personnel people sensed Carroll would be in over his head as not only the coach but also the preeminent voice in all football matters.
Besides, the Seahawks hadn’t posted a winning season in three years and the quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, was 34 and near the end.
Then 46, McCarthy was beginning his fifth season with a hot young quarterback and a hot young team that was just about everyone’s pick to win the Super Bowl.
McCarthy won his Super Bowl that season just as Carroll was losing more games than he won. That 7-9 record still won the putrid NFC West title, and while the Packers were soaring to 15-1 in 2011 the Seahawks slipped to third in their division after another 7-9 finish.
At least Seattle would have a quarterback for 2012. Matt Flynn received $10 million guaranteed to depart Green Bay and lead Carroll and general manager John Schneider to the promised land.
When McCarthy and Carroll met for the first time on the field, the controversial finish of the Seahawks’ 14-12 victory masked their suddenly dominating defense and the remarkable poise of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
Now they will meet again, Sunday at Lambeau Field, and in some ways the roles are reversed. Carroll’s team owns the second-best record in the NFC whereas McCarthy desperately needs a signature victory to turn around a disappointing season and make an eighth straight playoff berth realistic.
Carroll, who won his Super Bowl three years ago, was 3-0 against McCarthy, all games played in Seattle, before the Packers dealt the Seahawks a 27-17 defeat in Week 2 a year ago in Green Bay.
It’s moments like this that sustain and/or cement legacies. They also provide an opportunity for McCarthy to buttress what he said last month:
"Let's just state the facts: I’m a highly successful NFL head coach.”
Actually, McCarthy couldn’t have been more spot-on.
His overall record of 118-68-1 places him tied for 31st in victories, and his winning percentage of .634 is better than all but six coaches among the top 35 in wins: George Allen (.686), George Halas (.682), Bill Belichick (.672), Don Shula (.666), Tony Dungy (.652) and George Seifert (.649).
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Among active coaches with 40 or more victories, McCarthy ranks third in winning percentage behind Belichick and Bruce Arians (.648), and fifth in victories.
Each coach, however, must prove himself over and over again. This is another reason why Sunday afternoon is so critical for McCarthy.
First and foremost, his overwhelming record of 47-17-1 (.731) against the NFC North got McCarthy where he is today. Lovie Smith had his number for a while, but in the end he couldn’t beat McCarthy and suffered the same fate as division brethren Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz in Detroit and his successor in Chicago, Marc Trestman.
Nevertheless, the Packers, in effect, currently reside in third place in the NFC North with a coach who is 4-4 in his last eight divisional games.
Smith and the others in the division weren’t the only coaches McCarthy put out of business on his way to the top.
Hired by the Falcons in 2008, Mike Smith beat McCarthy that first year in Green Bay, and again in Atlanta two years later. His young quarterback, Matt Ryan, wasn’t as good as Aaron Rodgers, but Smith worried McCarthy because Smith was pursuing (and achieving) turnover differential almost as much as he was.
Then McCarthy massacred Smith, 48-21, in the 2010 divisional playoffs at the Georgia Dome. McCarthy beat Smith three more times, too, and that was the end of him.
McCarthy went 4-1 against Andy Reid, another turnover-savvy coach, and helped grease the skids for his departure from Philadelphia.
When the Packers took the field against the Giants in that divisional game at Lambeau Field in January 2012, McCarthy’s record against Super Bowl-winning coaches was 11-10. To be the best you must beat the best, and McCarthy was holding his own against big boys like Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and the others.
The 37-20 defeat to the Giants was the second playoff stunner dealt McCarthy by an underdog New York team coached by Tom Coughlin. Since that game, McCarthy has a 5-9 mark against coaches with a Super Bowl ring.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh took over a 49ers franchise from Mike Singletary that hadn’t had a winning season in nine years. The power immediately shifted to the NFC West and the NFC North (read Packers) has yet to get it back.
Harbaugh went 4-0 against McCarthy before losing a power struggle with management and exiting for Michigan in December 2014. Like Carroll, Harbaugh gained the upper hand on McCarthy with a mobile quarterback, a physical ground game and superior defense.
Not only that but Harbaugh’s four teams finished plus-56 in turnover differential, a tremendous accomplishment on par with Carroll’s plus-64 since 2011. If the key to coaching is turnovers, and in some ways it is, Harbaugh and Carroll found the way to match and eventually beat McCarthy.
The return by Harbaugh to college football removed a major obstacle for McCarthy. However, the hiring of Arians in January 2013 by an Arizona franchise with little going for it presented him with another most-worthy adversary.
When the teams met late last season, Arians’ defense exposed McCarthy’s offense with nine sacks in a 38-8 rout before the Cardinals claimed an overtime victory three weeks later in the playoffs.
Mired in their 11-13 funk since Week 6 a year ago, the Packers find themselves as a home underdog (by three points) Sunday for the first time since the 2013 playoffs against the 49ers and just the 10th time under McCarthy at Lambeau Field.
The Packers are 22-29 overall as an underdog under McCarthy, a total that includes 5-5 at home, 3-9 in the last 12 and 10-18 with Rodgers as the starting quarterback.
What McCarthy could use against these ultra-competitive Seahawks is the type of performance he wrought from his team in late November 2014 against New England when arguably the greatest coach of all time was working on the opposite sideline at Lambeau Field.
In a beautifully played, turnover-free game, the Packers outgained the Patriots, 478-320, and won, 26-21. Some saw it as a preview of the 49th Super Bowl.
After a gracious, extended handshake-chat at midfield, Belichick said, “Coach McCarthy does a good job with this football team. They are tough to beat.”
Nonetheless, nine weeks later, it was the Seahawks, not the Packers playing the Patriots in Phoenix. McCarthy was among many to blame for the all-time collapse in the NFC championship game that never will be forgotten.
McCarthy never stops preaching about players having to take advantage of their opportunities. The same is true for head coaches, even “highly successful” ones.