McCarthy, Smith Just Get It Done

Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Bears coach Lovie Smith have longevity and a winning record, which is more than most coaches can say. As McCarthy and Smith square off for a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday, Matt Tevsh offers this commentary on two coaches who mirror each other in successes and failures.

If football games were won based on public perception, Mike McCarthy and Lovie Smith would probably never get to a Super Bowl, let alone the playoffs.

There is nothing particularly cool or colorful about each, compared to, say, AFC counterparts Mike Tomlin or Rex Ryan, and neither would win any award for greatest speeches of all-time, be it in the locker room or at the podium.

Yet here they are, both of those "boring" coaches, ready to meet in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday at Soldier Field.

Smith, the leader of the NFC North champion Chicago Bears (12-5), is shooting for his second Super Bowl appearance in the last five seasons.

McCarthy, the leader of NFC's sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers (12-6), is making his second NFC Championship appearance in the last four seasons.

Such success has brought out a mutual respect between the coaches in the NFL's oldest rivalry.

"They play the right way. We play the right way," said McCarthy. "But this is about winning championships, and we're going down there to play for the NFC Championship Game, and you have to beat teams like the Chicago Bears that achieve that goal."

Winning championships always has been on the mind of McCarthy and Smith. Both made special mention of it the day they were hired by their respective teams. In straight-forward terms, without even an ounce of bravado, they laid out long-term plans that have come to fruition in the form of a showdown this Sunday.

Smith went a step further the first time he met the press after being named Bears coach seven years ago when he singled out beating the Packers as one of his main goals. Thus far, he has done that with an 8-6 record against the Packers — including 5-5 vs. McCarthy — earning the respect of the Green Bay coach.

"I think Lovie Smith is an outstanding coach," said McCarthy. "I think he's a fine gentleman. I don't know him very well on a personal level. But I really enjoy competing against him and his football team."

Such sentiment never would have been uttered by Mike Ditka or Forrest Gregg or even George Halas or Curly Lambeau, coaches who had a high level of disdain for each other in Bears-Packers battles of past decades.

But this is a new era in the rivalry. McCarthy and Smith are of a different breed. While their consistent temperament earns points with their players, it also has a way of diminishing their impact and effect on outsiders.

So does their results, which have fluctuated year-to-year. Smith has had four winning seasons and three losing ones, and McCarthy has had three winning seasons and one losing one with a .500 season mixed in.

Before this season began, Smith was on the chopping block after missing the playoffs in three straight seasons. Signing prized free agent Julius Peppers this past offseason and quarterback Jay Cutler the year before only added to the pressure for he and general manager Jerry Angelo.

Then Smith all but banked his future on the marriage of Cutler and Mike Martz, whom he hired before this season to lead an offense that he hoped could match a consistently strong defense. It was a similar move to the one McCarthy made just a season earlier, when he hired Dom Capers to lead the Packers' defense.

As much as Smith's critics had their doubts about the union of Martz and Cutler or, for example, Smith playing his starters the whole way in the season finale (in what basically amounted to a meaningless game for the Bears) or his ability to get the Bears back into title contention, everything has come together.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a better leader, someone that the guys rally around better, than Lovie," Bears tight end Greg Olsen said in a ChicagoBears.com article this week. "It's a long season. We've had some ups, we've had some downs. With Coach Smith's personality of being even-keeled, it's never as bad as it seems, it's never as good as it seems.

"It's ‘Let's just keep on going down the path that he's planned out for us.' It can't help but trickle down to the rest of us. He sets the tone for this team, and it's not a coincidence that he's been so successful."

McCarthy likewise had big expectations to fill in 2010. There was ample Super Bowl talk in the preseason, then adversity with a rash of injuries before the team rose up the last four weeks by winning four straight elimination games — two just to get into the playoffs and two more to advance.

Through it all, Packers fans on talk shows and in online chat rooms found plenty to complain about — from play-calling to game management — even as the Packers stayed in the playoff hunt.

Some of it was based on sound reasoning. There was the clock debacle last month at the end of a big game against the Patriots, and earlier this season at Chicago, McCarthy chose not to let the Bears score in a situation late in the game when he basically thought the chance of Robbie Gould missing a 19-yard field goal was a better option than Aaron Rodgers trying to lead a game-tying touchdown drive with less than a minute to go.

On the flip side, Smith could have been criticized as well for trying to score a touchdown near the end of that game, thus giving Rodgers a chance to tie. Why not take a knee a couple times, run the clock down, and make a chip-shot field goal on the last play of the game?

As is turned out, the Packers stopped the Bears' touchdown attempt and lost 20-17 on Gould's field goal. The outcome not only changed the course of the season for both teams, but it also presented a situation in which both McCarthy and Smith could be questioned about giving their teams the best chance to win.

Neither coach is perfect, but then again, no coach is. That is why the best judgment of success only can be measured over time instead of by the scrutiny that comes from the weekly banter between media and fans.

Despite their flaws, McCarthy (51-34 overall) and Smith (66-51 overall) find a way to get it done. And this season, with what each has gone through, that never has been more evident.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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