No, not that loss to Seattle.
“Being very frank about it, and I haven’t told anybody this, if there was a Seattle game that made me make a change like that, it would have been the first one, not the last one,” McCarthy told a small group of beat writers on Thursday at a restaurant inside the J.W. Marriott hotel at the Scouting Combine when asked about his decision to give up play-calling duties.
“The things that went on in that game were very frustrating to me. Think about it. When the communication part isn’t as fluent through your football team – I tell the coaching staff your job is to teach, demand and communicate. They’ve got three responsibilities. Players are to prepare, perform and communicate. So when one of your three key responsibilities is not at the level it needs to be, then as the leader you better have an issue with that.” So, in a stunning decision from the man who had controlled the strings of an offense that led the NFL in scoring in 2014 and was second in the league in scoring since 2010, McCarthy handed the play-calling reins to Tom Clements and promoted Clements to associate head coach and Edgar Bennett to offensive coordinator.
“Whatever they’re doing there, they should keep doing,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said at the Scouting Combine. “I trust Mike McCarthy. He’s obviously one of the great coaches in this league, and has been. They’ve been one of the best teams during his tenure as the head coach. He has a great instinct and feel for the game and for his football team. He’s going to do what he thinks is best.”
Garrett is about as good of a source as there is on the subject. The Cowboys know too well the Packers’ offensive prowess under McCarthy. In 2013, with Matt Flynn at quarterback, the Packers staged an incredible second-half comeback to win at Dallas. In 2014, the Packers beat the Cowboys in a Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field. And Garrett served as the Cowboys’ head coach and play-caller before giving up those duties following the 2012 season.
“I do think that it really does allow you to get more involved with the other parts of the football team,” Garrett said. “I’ve spent a lot more time with the defense over the last 18 months than I had prior to that. I just think that’s good for your team when you’re able to do that, support your coaches, get a better feel for the players on that side of the ball. That’s worked for us. Trust me, I’d defer to Mike. He’s done a fantastic job. He’ll make the right decision for the Packers.”
It was the right decision for the Cowboys, especially after Garrett hired Scott Linehan last offseason. That loss to the Packers in 2013 cranked up the temperature on Garrett’s hot seat, but the Cowboys turned things around in 2014. Fielding one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL, Dallas went 12-4.
“I think when you’re a head coach and you’re calling the defensive signals or you’re calling the plays on offense, you still want to be the head coach of the whole football team,” said Garrett, who called the plays as interim coach in 2010 as well as in 2011 and 2012. “I made a concerted effort when I became the head coach, when I was calling plays, to do that. I tried to sit in meetings on the defensive side, be with the special teams group. But there’s a logistical aspect to it, too. When you’re the offensive coordinator and play-caller, you have to prepare for that. I just think as much as anything else, once we got Scott Linehan in here to handle that role, I could really, truly spend my time equally between and among those three different units. I think that’s an important thing. It’s not only the time during the week, it’s time during the game. It’s the emotions, addressing the different weaknesses that you might have on the football team, try to shore those up. I just think it allowed me to do that better.”
That’s McCarthy’s intention as a way of pushing his team over the hump after getting agonizingly close to getting back to the Super Bowl in 2014. If McCarthy weren’t considering what offensive package to send on the field before a Seattle field-goal attempt in the third quarter, would he have instructed his players to be alert to a fake? Could he have set a different tone with the game slipping away in the final minutes of regulation?
Those, of course, are questions without answers.
“I think it makes a great story but that’s not reality,” said McCarthy, never one to fall into the trap of answering a hypothetical question.
Can spending more time in the meeting rooms with defensive coordinator Dom Capers and special teams coordinator Ron Zook lead to more winning performances from those phases of the game? And can the offense be just as good without McCarthy providing the strongest voice in that meeting room?
Yes, McCarthy said, because of the experience of Bennett and Clements, plus Clements’ close relationship with MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. And, of course, there’s the ever-expanding role of Rodgers, who McCarthy put on the “level” of a coach because of his rare combination of intelligence and experience and the control he has at the line of scrimmage.
“I think the way we call plays is different than most teams,” McCarthy said. “Our operation of how the game plan is built, every team does it a little differently. To me, it’s not really about Aaron because of what Aaron has given us. He puts us in position to do this. If you sit there and watch him play as an individual football player, he’s really been playing at this level consistently about the last four years. It’s just the things that have gone on around him on offense have heightened. So, all these things. This has a lot of spokes to it. There’s a lot of spokes in this wheel to make this decision, and they’re all positive. That’s why I feel great about it. I think we’re going to be better as a football team, and I look for us to play to the standard that we establish on offense.”
All of which leads to the question of why now? If it’s not a reaction – or overreaction – to how the season ended in Seattle, then why is this the time to make such a bold move? The shuffling of the practice schedule proved to be a home run, with a sharp reduction in injuries and strong play most weeks. However, it meant a heavier midweek workload for McCarthy. Under the old practice format, he’d start his mock play-calling on Saturday. But with a practice on Saturday, McCarthy had to push that duty to Friday – in addition to the usual array of Friday meetings. It all added to an increased stress level.
With Rodgers and a veteran staff of assistants ready to take some of the burden, McCarthy believes his team will be in position to be the best team in football for 64 minutes longer than they were to end this past season.
“I’m going to spend more time in areas I haven’t spent time in. That’s the biggest change I’m going to make,” McCarthy said. “And I’m not saying that just because I’m there it’s going to be 100 times better. I felt like I was really stretched this year. I felt really, really stretched. And, frankly, the way your season ends always puts a dent on it if you (don’t) win it all. I thought it was probably one of my best years of coaching. So I was hoping to be able to say it was the best, and winning (the Super Bowl) in Phoenix would have done that. This was a hell of a football team we had this year. And it grew. We had some bumps there early. I thought every time we were hit with a challenge, they accepted it and they worked at it and we got better.
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