Fully Engaged

With minicamp, the OTAs and an NFC Championship loss in the rearview mirror, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is keeping his team and staff focused on the right things headed into training camp, and in the process, is evolving himself.

Photo by Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY

This training camp could be a bit more of a chess match for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

And to him, at this stage in his career, that is quite all right.

“I love to compete. And it’s a little different this year because Mike (McCarthy) has gone over there and told some of our secrets to the defense,” Rodgers said with a smile after OTAs last week. “So, it’s a little more difficult. They know some of our stuff a little bit more and it makes it kind of fun. We’ve, over the years, obviously playing against Dom’s defense, learned a lot of the stuff that they do. This year, they’ve changed that up and I think Mike’s input over there has really helped those guys to do some more disguising and some more personnel groupings and coverage types behind some of their fronts and pressures. That’s an exciting part for me, anytime you get an opportunity in a competitive drill, whether it’s red zone drill or a two-minute drill, to be able to finish it off is fun.”

The culture of the offseason and training camp has changed dramatically since McCarthy took over as coach in Green Bay. Long gone, thanks in part to the collective bargaining agreement, are the days of McCarthy trying to establish a “Pittsburgh macho” attitude with veteran William Henderson and rookie A.J. Hawk going head-to-head in the nutcracker drill. Having arrived instead is a less violent, more limited practice environment. McCarthy enters this camp more as an overseer head coach than ever before.

On Tuesday, McCarthy let reporters in on his team-wide focus this year to “raise the football IQ,” including assistant coaches on opposite sides of the ball learning from each other.

“We actually had a contest where coaches were paired together, given a topic and 50 minutes to present it, and then there was a reward — it wasn’t cash or anything, no CBA rules were broken — and it was very competitive,” said McCarthy. “We actually had a first place, second place, third place and fourth place… we’re trying to educate as much as we can defensively how the offense thinks, offense more about how the defense thinks and things like that. It’s something I think we all realize players grow as they’re here — two, three, four, five years — but, frankly, you don’t have that long. We’re just always trying to increase the learning opportunity particularly for our young guys and it stimulates the conversation with the older guys.”

McCarthy, 51, about to enter his 10th season as head coach, is not immune. Earlier this offseason he made perhaps his toughest personal decision — giving up play-calling duties to top offensive assistant Tom Clements — in an effort to spend more time with the defense and special teams units.

Some believed the decision was a direct reaction to the way the NFC Championship game ended with the Packers stunningly blowing a 12-point lead late, even after a Morgan Burnett interception appeared to seal a trip to the Super Bowl. But, as McCarthy told a small group of reporters at the Scouting Combine, the change may have been made more in part because of the first game of the season at Seattle.

Looking back, it was that season opener that stuck with McCarthy when communication issues and key responsibilities in that game went awry. On defense, the Packers were experimenting with new personnel packages that never really panned out and on offense they famously avoided Richard Sherman, not throwing even once to the All-Pro cornerback’s side. The result was an embarrassing 36-16 loss to the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Packers started 1-2 in 2014 and easily could have gone 0-3 had it not been for an 18-point comeback against the New York Jets in the home opener. That, and previous seasons, has McCarthy and his team also focused on starting faster this season.

Much of that preparation has taken place. With staff, personnel, and self-imposed changes to his own job, McCarthy said this has been the busiest offseason for him since his first year in Green Bay. Yet he remains true to his job.

“Coaching is still coaching regardless of what position you work with,” said McCarthy. “I think as long as you’re around the players coaching – that’s where I want to be. I think the frustrations that every coach goes through is when he’s pulled away from the X’s and O’s, he’s pulled away from the field, the administrative responsibilities are a little too high. But this has been a very fun year for me, personally. Just the fact to be in there with the defense, the specials teams, the offense is doing a great job, the creativity that the coaching staff has put into the new installs, the feedback of the veteran players that they’ve been giving us during the Phase Two, the classroom segments, it’s been great.”

Added the 10-year veteran Rodgers: “He’s a ball coach. I think he’s really enjoying the opportunity to sit in on some of the special teams meetings and the defensive meetings and he’s been to some of our meetings, but I think he’s really enjoying the opportunity to have an input in other places and I think the coaches on special teams and defense are enjoying having him around.”

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

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