What Happened to Mike McCarthy?


Mike McCarthy

When I look at the coach of the Packers today, I see a guy that I almost don’t recognize anymore. Early on in McCarthy’s tenure it was easy to see that he was one of the more creative offensive minds in the game. Some of the concepts that you see in use elsewhere around the league, McCarthy was on the forefront of the innovation in the NFL, here in Green Bay too. Since 2007, each year it seems that the innovation has declined, to the point where this year, the offense is dead and lifeless with almost no creativity.

Trick Plays: McCarthy early on used to run a good number of trick plays. Fake kicks, punts, unexpected onsides, end arounds, flea flickers, single wing option (AKA “the Wildcat”). Has he called a single trick play this season? It used to be fun, it seemed at least once a game we’d get something early in his tenure. It seems that nobody even remembers McCarthy running the single wing option in ’07 with Brett and Don. It was ignored in the press at the time (“McCarty being creative”); Sporano in Miami is widely given credit as the innovator of using the formation in the NFL. Remember how often we used to run end arounds with Don? Enough so that we also faked the end around fairly often.

Not that trick plays always work. They don’t work more than they work. But the keep the opposition guessing. When the opposition sees it on tape, they’ve got to talk about it, come up with a way to counter it. Time not spent coming up with ways to shut down Grant and Jennings. On the field the players have to look for it, even if for only a split second. Which slows their reaction, if only slightly. Every now and then though you get an explosive gain out of it. Almost midway through ’07 when our best looking and seemingly longest running play was a fake punt by Jon Ryan.

Innovative Formations: Sure 5 wides spread, 4+1 WR bunch, 2 FB inverted wishbone, H-Back/dual H-back are not themselves totally new in the NFL, but people were not doing these things, in the form that McCarthy was doing it, in the NFL. Every year we’ve seen something new from McCarthy, aside from this year.

In 2006 the H-Back thing grew out of necessity to protect Brett, being more of a protection scheme than release point. It worked quite well, other teams used their RB’s to do what we were doing with our TE’s, the TE’s did a better job being the QB’s protector. This allowed the RB/FB to release into various routes. The largest man available helped out the kids. Many fans (and the papers) used these “max protect” concepts as a spear to throw at Thompson for his lack of getting free agent guards, but the fact is they worked, and worked quite well. When you see other teams max protect, and us today, you don’t nearly see the effectiveness that we had doing it in 2006.

In 2007 5 wides came into vogue with us. McCarthy actually used the formation in 2006 as a short yardage play, calling it A LOT on the goal line. Robert Ferguson’s last TD as a Packer came from a 5 wide set less than 3 yards from the end zone. New England did something similar to Minnesota in a game in 2006, using a TE and RB on occasion as the split guys, with eye popping effectiveness. Of course the concept is huge in college football right now. In 2007 though, McCarthy morphed the formation with us into something that could be used on any down. And preyed on the fact that our 4th-5th WR was a mismatch in the fast passing game agaisnt their #4/#5 cover guys. Simply put, to stop it every CB has to be able to press. Young players and S’s, especially on primarily zone coverage teams, were simply not that good at playing press coverage. Later on in the season McCarty started running bunch formations with the same personnel. Today we still run this formation on occasion, but it doesn’t seem that it is used for the same thing. It was a play that was deadly effective at gaining a yard or two, and fairly good for 3 to 5. Rarely was anything more picked up, but the occasional broken tackle led to bigger gains. But it led to 3rd down situations that were easily converted with the same play.

In 2007 we also saw the first appearance of the inverted wishbone formation. It was used for running only in 2007. In 2008 we got our first taste of passing out of the formation. Later in 2008 McCarthy did the fairly innovative concept of creating the formation out of motion, with a true FB as one of the spots, and a TE or WR (Jordy) as the other. I actually saw that coming with Jordy on draft day, the guy is perfectly built for the job. We still run it a lot, but really no further innovation has taken place. Sean Payton has borrowed the concept in New Orleans and they run it quite a bit this season, but he’s gone outside the box with the formation moreso than McCarthy. I’ve seen other teams running it as well in spot duty. Credit McCarthy with resurrecting the formation in the NFL, one that had been dead for seemingly decades, but he hasn’t let his creative juices flow with the formation like other coaches have. It has been a good goal line formation for us, but rarely has its potential to be a mismatch nightmare that creates explosive plays been explored. Its like Mike brought it to a point, then stopped tinkering.

Innovative Concepts: Mike has run two concepts that while not unique, the way he ran them seemed to be genius. Namely the slant game and the high tempo offense. The way he did it in GB caused defensive reactions that you don’t often see.

The slant game simply grew out of it being Brett’s best route, and three WR’s that excelled at it. But we ran it so much, over and over and over, that it caused a unique defensive reaction that really opened up the whole offense. Opponents began to fear our slant game so much, that OLB’s would peek on the receivers, safeties would sneak into the outer box / slant zone, OLB’s would regularly drop into slant zones. Even when run blocking, we threw slants. Keying on the line was not an option. The consequence of this of course, this fear of the slant, is that the inner box opened up immensely, LB’s were a step slow; Ryan Grant had great running lanes. The safety coming short, even without a big fear of the run game, put WR’s in single coverage on the outside with no safety help. Of all the run to pass or pass to run concepts, this is almost totally unique. Generally pass to run is to get the S’s to move deeper, to give the CB’s more help. Or in the case of spread type WCO attacks, move wider to help the CB’s, Moving the safety into the box (the outer portion) with the pass is odd to say the least. The effect on the LB’s was really special though. With them so afraid of the slants, they couldn’t blitz, and they opened up the run. After that run in ’07, this part of our offense really died. Aaron can run it just fine, but goes elsewhere much more. It’s almost like McCarthy didn’t realize what our slant game did, how it opened up everything else. The run game and long pass in ’07 owed a lot of its effectiveness to the fearsome slant game we got going early in the season. Looking back after the ’07 season, it seemed absolutely genius. But has simply slipped away now into the past. Opponents still fear our slants, but not to the point of opening up other things like it did.

The high tempo offense is another item that while seen elsewhere, McCarthy’s use was a little odd. The no huddle offense is an NFL staple. But a fast huddle, to the line fast offense, with every play substitutions that caused defensive substitutions, and presnap motion, led to lots of defensive mistakes. Substitution errors, coverage errors, call errors, time outs, penalties, and big plays. The high water point of this concept in my mind was the first half of 2008. We did this with Brett, but it really came alive early on with Aaron. It seemingly left the opponents head spinning on the field. It only came in spurts, a drive here and there. But when it came, it was lethal. But its use has declined to the point of non-use seemingly. We run a standard huddle offense, and a standard no huddle, only in standard no-huddle situations. Presnap motion is still frequently used, but it seems that what I thought was coming, long stretches sustaining this up tempo high substitution offense, something unique (almost Indy offense like in uniqueness), has simply been forgotten and discarded.

One could say that our offenses in years past were built on smoke and mirrors, and in a way that is true, but almost every great NFL offense has some smoke and mirrors going. This season it seems that Mike has given up on that, and is just running a standard conventional offense. And the results have been, disappointing. At one time I viewed Mike as clearly the most innovative and creative offensive mind in the NFL. Just a year ago at this time I wholeheartedly believed it. It seems though somewhere late last season, that died, and it hasn’t come back. Mike’s offense today is simply standard NFL fare, with a little spice from his earlier years. Nothing cutting edge. I used to think that his playcalling was genius. He’d be working to set stuff up all game, and have lots of various things going. On a first watch it was hard to notice, but after 2-3 times watching the game, you could really see his strategy come out. This year there is almost no overriding strategy that I can detect. I just don’t see what he is trying to do anymore.

What happened to Mike McCarthy? It is like part of him died halfway through 2008. The creative offensive mind has been seemingly reduced to a robot.

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3 Responses to “What Happened to Mike McCarthy?”

  1. The 3rd Quarter « Where's Lambeau? Says:

    […] Out of the Slump McCarthy: Something is off with Mike. Any creative endeavor, play calling and coaching included, is subject to slumps. It goes with the […]

  2. Guiness Says:

    hello from PR!

    You touched on two things I noticed – the lack of the inverted wishbone. We kept 3 FB’s on the roster…why else than for that formation???

    The other I miss is the high tempo offense. Did we use it much with Rodgers? I always thought it left with Favre.

    The lack of slants is much belabored, of course. And I don’t know why the 5WR as a short yardage package has gone away. Our top 4WR + Finley should work so well for that.

  3. Lars Says:

    Kinda touch to be “creative” when you don’t have an offensive line. Maybe draft an OT this year, instead of workout/pro-day/combine wonders like Harrell and stiffy AJ Hawk.

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