Mike Takes Back the Mike as Packers' Offensive Play-Caller

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s offseason decision to give up play-calling duties to associate head coach Tom Clements lasted all of 12 games. On Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy was back in charge on the headset, unbeknownst to many on the team.

An old but familiar voice came over the headset. The quarterback has heard it thousands of times before in his helmet radio, just not this season. That might begin to explain, in part, the confusion for Aaron Rodgers when he heard the call that led to the Green Bay Packers’ first touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

“(I’m) just trying to understand what he’s saying, to be honest with you. He has that Pittsburgh dialect,” said a smiling Rodgers of his head coach. “That touchdown to James (Starks), I had no idea what he was saying. I thought he was talking about a pressure alert and I was just looking over at him like ‘What? I don’t know the play.’ About the fourth time, thankfully, (quarterbacks/wide receivers coach) Alex (Van Pelt) was right next to him and he was doing the signal to me, so I was able to understand what he was saying maybe the fourth time.”

It was a deviously designed play, something that the Cowboys could not have seen during video study. Fullback John Kuhn split out wide left. Wide receiver Randall Cobb lined up in the backfield with running back James Starks. Receivers Davante Adams and James Jones stacked together on the hash marks right. Rodgers takes the shotgun snap and fakes a handoff to Cobb going left. Starks runs to the right. Adams and Jones clear the right side. The misdirection works perfectly.  At least four Cowboys pass defenders bite for a moment, allowing Starks to take a short swing pass 13 yards untouched to the end zone.

If the Hail Mary pass on Dec. 3 at Detroit was a springboard to a big finish to the season for the Packers, then Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements might be the spark the Packers need to turnaround a substandard season on offense. That development came about during a 28-7 victory over the Cowboys.

“I think it’s really an adjustment in our process, and we’ve been, most of us have been together for a long time as a coaching staff,” began McCarthy.  “You know, Tom and I spoke on Monday and the reality of it all is Tom has been calling it and I’ve been suggesting things, and we just shift gears where I called it today and he was suggesting things. So, it worked out, the decision was made because I feel as the leader of this football team I’ve got to make sure we maximize all the opportunities and resources to give our team the chance to win. Personally, it didn't feel very good. It didn’t feel good at all. That’s a challenge with these types of decisions but professionally it was what I felt I needed to do. In regards to Tom Clements, he’s a big part of our success here, has been since Day 1, and will be as we continue forward. So, this is an adjustment in our process and this is the way we’ll go forward.”

For his first nine years in Green Bay, McCarthy called the plays. This offseason he made the decision to give them up to Clements in order to be more of an overseer on game day and spend more time with the defensive and special teams units during the week. But along the way, the Packers’ offense could not find its identity – even with an MVP quarterback.

“We’ve had a lot of success under Coach Mike calling the plays,” said guard T.J. Lang. “I’m not trying to bash Coach Clements. I mean, it’s not his fault we’re not executing throughout the year. I feel like it’s more of the players’ responsibility but I think Coach probably made a move there to give us a little extra spark and obviously we had one of our better games of the year.”

Coming off back-to-back ugly home losses (18-16 to the Lions and 17-13 to the Chicago Bears), the Packers shifted into December/January mode against the Cowboys. They ran 30 more plays than the Cowboys, thereby winning time of possession by more than 15 minutes. McCarthy called 39 run plays vs. 39 dropbacks. “Offensively, the balance that we were able to have I thought was key,” he said. And despite a midgame stretch of five drives that netted just 60 yards in 23 plays to keep the Cowboys in the game, the Packers put together three drives of at least 11 plays -- sustained drives that have often eluded them.

An 84-yard clinching drive in the fourth quarter that ran the clock down from 11:18 to 4:44 featured eight runs and one key Rodgers scramble for 11 yards on third-and-9. Starks capped the drive with a 30-yard touchdown run, untouched up the middle, to put the Packers up 21-7.

“With our front,” began Lang, “I feel like if we just stick with the run, keep sticking with it, we’re going to break a couple and we’re going to have a good day and obviously we did that.”

The Packers ran for 230 yards, their most in a game since the 2004 season, primarily behind the one-two punch of Eddie Lacy (season-high 124 rushing yards) and Starks (71 rushing yards). Unseasonably warm weather aside - a kickoff temperature of 53 degrees, the warmest recorded at Lambeau for a December/January game - the constant rain that fell throughout called for a ground game-type of game plan. The Packers prepared with wet footballs in practice this week and also played the Bears on Thanksgiving in the rain. So, they were ready.

But there were differences in other areas, too. Rodgers referred to taking more snaps under center than normal. The play-action game, buoyed by the success of the run, was more prominent than in any contest this year. And the Packers seemed to have better tempo on offense and were sharper in the short passing game.

“I think we made a point of doing it. I think we stressed the checkdowns a little more this week and we hit three or four,” said Rodgers. “If you look at our offense production-wise the last four or five weeks especially, it’s hard to think of a time we hit the checkdown for a positive gain. I think a lot of that starts with if you’re running it well, you’re going to have the opportunity to draw them up and then have them react out. As they react out, you have the opportunity to hit the checkdown in transition.”

In his postgame press conference, Rodgers was short in his response about the change in play-callers and the timeline of when he knew during the week. Like many of the players, he deferred to execution more as the root of the Packers offensive problems and not the play calls.
McCarthy’s plan to change the game day duties between he and Clements appeared to be a covert operation to many. Cobb even went as far to claim that he was unaware until the fourth quarter of the game when he walked by McCarthy and saw him with the play sheet. At least one other player, however, could sense the change.

“I mean, there was no official announcement,” said Lang. “I think everybody kind of got the hint throughout the week. Coach McCarthy spent a lot more time with the offense. It’s like, ‘OK, everybody can kind of see through the smoke there.’ I guess it was confirmed today when all of the reports came out. But to us, you kind of feel bad for Tom a little bit. You don’t want him taking the heat. As players, you take that personally. You feel like if we would’ve been executing up to our standard we wouldn’t have to make a change. But it is what it is, and we obviously played one of our better games today.”

The Packers piled up 435 net yards, their most since a Week 3 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Rodgers hit on 15 of his first 19 passes as the Packers built a 14-0 lead into the second quarter. There was a different energy to the game with the old play-caller and the quarterback back together.

”Nothing’s going to change, the meetings, the way we go about things,” said McCarthy. “So play-calling is a lot about rhythm and flow. I’m a big believer in that. And you’ve got to have the quarterback that can manage it. And really it’s the play-caller’s responsibility to feed him, keep feeding him, spit it to him as fast as you can get it to him and he does the rest. And there’s no one better at it.”

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