The quiet (and still growing) legacy of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay: Entering a decade with the second-longest tenured leader of the Pack
This story appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On Monday, December 8, a strangely warm winter night in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy hit a milestone that many who follow the Packers might have seen as a surprise. By the time you read this McCarthy will have finished no less than his ninth regular season in Green Bay, the same amount that Vince Lombardi spent here as head coach – Bart Starr, too. Two more years than Mike Holmgren made it, three more than the Mike before him, Mike Sherman. McCarthy won a Super Bowl championship here at age 47, two years older than the age Lombardi began his time turning Green Bay back into Titletown in the late 1950s and ‘60s. McCarthy’s current nine-year tenure is a ridiculous 19 seasons fewer than Curly Lambeau, who, you know, also founded, got the Packers as we know them today going as an infant football team back in 1919, and, sometimes miraculously, kept them alive for nearly three decades before finally burning out the wick of his time in Green Bay.
On that Monday in December, though, McCarthy tied Lombardi for the second-most all-time (meaning both regular season and postseason) wins in team history, with 98. (Update: McCarthy now sits at 101 all-time wins.) If it feels like that snuck up on you, that’s probably fine with McCarthy, and maybe actually how he’d rather have it given the choice. After the Lombardi-tying 43-37 win over Atlanta, McCarthy, knowing it was coming, knowing he’d have to begrudgingly talk about the topic again, said of the mark:
“I’m excited about the tenth win of the year. I’ve answered this question for the last couple of weeks. It’s an honor to coach here. I think everybody clearly understands what coach Lombardi means, not only to the Green Bay Packers and the National Football League but really the impact he made on society during his time. I’m thrilled to be coaching here and to be able to win games.”
(Before going on we should address a few caveats. Lombardi’s teams played less games overall in those days, which only serves to make the Hall of Fame coach’s total mark that much more impressive. The Glory Years Packers, arguably the best collection of football players ever, also had shorter paths to championship games when compared to today’s postseason format. Of course, they still had to win five titles in seven years, and good luck to anyone attempting that reenactment. McCarthy’s Super Bowl championship, for comparison’s sake, required three road victories for a shot at the title. Anyway, there are differences in the league and game then and now. Beyond making the note, it’s more important to us to appreciate the differences and accomplishments of each coach.)
After addressing the landmark victory that Monday, McCarthy answered a question about his defense, burnt to a crisp by Julio Jones and the Falcons’ passing game. For McCarthy it seemed like the more comfortable question. If we know Green Bay’s current coach nine seasons into the second-most successful tenure – judging only by overall wins, that is – we’d know this shouldn’t be a surprise. We should know that McCarthy is a coach for the nitty gritty coachiness, for lack of a better word, of the position. One thing we don’t know, however, is how long McCarthy, who is only 51, will continue as leader of one of Green Bay’s sneakily longest runs of sustained success-as-a-benchmark runs in the team’s 93-year history in the NFL. But, as he climbs the wins ladder with only one name left above, it seems like a good time to think about how we got here and, especially in the league today, just how incredible consistency like Lambeau’s and McCarthy’s, and the team’s overall stability now, truly is.
First, the coach himself. Often defined by the tollbooth he worked nights in, McCarthy’s parents and his hometown of Greenfield, a neighborhood in southeast Pittsburgh and his parents, molded the coach’s quiet nose-to-the-grindstone approach most. It is not just that he works tirelessly, pushes constantly to be better, to get his team prepared and his playsheet just right. It isn’t that he values and understands what being a head coach in Green Bay means, or how he approaches his leadership role because of that. It is that McCarthy, if it was up to him, seems like he’d love the job all the more if he was simply left to pour over film and plays and practice tape, and never have to do something like attend a press conference again. If you want to see McCarthy as unvarnished and emotional as he might be in a public setting, watch him on the sidelines after a big moment as his players come off the field.
He grew up with the Pittsburgh Steelers, coached by the late Chuck Noll. If his upbringing and his neighborhood showed him firsthand, daily, the value of honest, quiet, work, it might have been Noll that provided McCarthy with his clearest vision for the coach he someday wanted to become. In a story by Elizabeth Merrill for ESPN.com in January 2011 (Update: Here’s her latest on McCarthy), in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy summed it up, even providing a rare glimpse into his views on himself, saying: “What I always remember about Coach Noll is that he was never the one doing the commercials. He wasn’t in the limelight. He was clearly about winning championships. I think I have a very similar personality. In today’s NFL, a lot more media and more attention are given to everything, but I’d rather stick to the coaching aspect.”
He isn’t a quiet coach, per se, or without a presence. His voice is deep and recognizable to Packers fans, his accents on phrases like “football team” and Pennsylvanian tones familiar enough by now to pick up and mimic. And he does have what we believe will be those someday-historic Cellcom “CHALLLLLENGE” commercials. But McCarthy often masters the art of saying nothing in many strings of somethings at the podium during the week before a game. It’s part gamesmanship, to be sure, without approaching Bill Belichick-ian levels of blatant disregard for anything close to a useful response. With McCarthy, it actually feels more like he’d just rather be doing the work than talking about it. He doesn’t create headlines, avoids non-stories that could serve as some periphery bulletin board’s material or fill up hours of content cycles. And if McCarthy’s shadow doesn’t loom on the sidelines like Lombardi’s or even Holmgren’s, it’s because McCarthy’s impact doesn’t need to be seen physically through him. (Nor did Lombardi’s or Holmgren’s either, for certain, but it’s pretty clear that part of Lombardi’s still-present persona was the way he roamed the sidelines like an active volcano, the way the “What the hell’s going on out here?!?” clip is still run when he’s brought up.)
Because we just got through them, a holiday season example: McCarthy seems like the family member who doesn’t say much at big gatherings, but who you know is smart, probably has awesome stories to tell about his life. He has guidance to impart, and if you’re not in his immediate circle you also know you probably won’t get to see that side or hear those insider tales. Simply put, McCarthy’s public persona is part who he is – a somewhat private, forever-planning lover of deep dives into the gruesome details – and another part practitioner of Automatic NFL Coachspeak.
Belichick, whom McCarthy bested in one of the regular season’s most memorable single games, a 26-21 Packers win at Lambeau, has been New England’s coach for 14 seasons now. He’s the longest-tenured coach in the revolving door, quick-fix-seeking, impatient NFL. Belichick consumes football like oxygen. There’s little reason to believe he won’t be around for awhile longer. But doesn’t it feel like 14 years is too short? Like he’s been there longer, maybe since somewhere between the Industrial Revolution and 1959?
We say this because McCarthy’s nine seasons in Green Bay really feel like they’ve flown by, haven’t they? Nine seasons in at 51 years old, with that desire to win of course, but also to work and work. With his relationship to the team’s core he basically started with in one way or another – Ted Thompson and Aaron Rodgers – it’s hard to see a reason for McCarthy going anywhere anytime soon.
So if we safely assume he’ll be here at least another year, McCarthy enters rare territory as only the second coach ever to be in Green Bay for a decade. Lambeau, man and institution, being the other. Think about the relatively short periods of time Holmgren and Lombardi spent as Packers head coaches, then the gigantic marks they made in the team and sport’s history in those years. Besides being a jolt to the brain, a reminder of what can change and how quickly, it also furthers how unprecedented McCarthy’s tenure has been to date. In terms of success (Super Bowl championship, five division titles with 2014’s result, about a 66 percent winning percentage), team stability, a late resurrection of Brett Favre and, right, also the development of the best quarterback in the game today. We’ve felt the frustrations you’ve had from time to time along the way – the defensive failings, lingering playoff defeats, the weird challenges. Nobody is perfect. But the bottom line is that this is and has been a contending team every year under McCarthy. Taking that for granted is like forgetting that the plane flies and can take you across the country in a day because of something much smaller, like security making you throw out your Diet Coke.
And really, forgetting that or not giving McCarthy credit for keeping this giant assembly of people constantly moving forward – while the rest of the division and, to a degree, conference targets you because of the G on the helmet – is both plain wrong and also not really enjoying how good it is. How much fun it can be when his teams are breathing fire and leaving anything in front of them in ashes. Some years have ended in really, really bitter fashions. Some games will be ones we remember forever.
The players play and will be the first memories; the lasting byproducts of the exciting teams put on the field. That’s probably how McCarthy would want it. But putting credit where it’s due means plenty should go his way, too.
We were curious, so we did some math. Not counting the 2014 season, McCarthy has averaged 11 wins (regular and postseason) per season over his first eight years in Green Bay. At that clip – again, not counting 2014, but Green Bay’s 12-4 mark won’t hurt – McCarthy would need to average 11 wins per season for just over 10 more years to go over 212 total career wins, Lambeau’s final mark. If anything could be tougher to match than Lambeau’s win total, it’d be his insane coaching shelf life. Another decade with McCarthy as head coach feels downright foreign in the NFL circa now. But at the same time it doesn’t feel impossible, either.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter if McCarthy coaches another decade in Green Bay or even comes close to Lambeau’s total amount of wins. He is the second coach in the team’s long history to notch 100 victories, a major accomplishment by itself. He’s already tied Holmgren’s lone Super Bowl win and appears to be in place to at least be in the mix for another appearance if we continue to be as ridiculously lucky as we, as fans, have been since, oh, 1992 or so. McCarthy will and should be forever tied to the ascension and world takeover of Rodgers, for getting the team over the postseason hump Sherman never could, for beating the Bears and other divisional opponents many times, for the old reliability of expecting the Packers to play very well each and every week.
Mike McCarthy’s legacy appears to be so far from over and done that the need for postmortem career reflection at all is very far away. For now the pillars he’s built are there, though: A well-maintained blend of consistency, longevity, and success.
Again, it’s actually pretty crazy to be going through the attributes of his tenure at this point on the timeline. But then you remember how his 98 career wins snuck up on you in early December 2014. You remember it has been nine years that we’ve spent with McCarthy’s Packers, and we might only just be starting to realize what we have.