Big Picture: McCarthy Has Pack on Right Track

Three weeks ago, the vultures were swirling around the Packers' fourth-year coach. Calls for Mike McCarthy to be fired were premature and unfounded, as Matt Tevsh explains in this thought-provoking piece that is a must-read for those who have been vocal critics.

About a month ago, the vultures were circling around Lambeau Field. They wanted a piece of everyone. President Mark Murphy. General manager Ted Thompson. Head coach Mike McCarthy.

Those ravaging birds have since left, at least for the time being.

Three straight convincing wins have quieted critics of the Packers' brain trust. The Packers enter December's schedule with a good shot at the playoffs, which is all that really matters.

The most visible of Green Bay's figure heads, McCarthy, has seen his team rise from the ashes. A loss to the winless Buccaneers on Nov. 8 could have burned the Packers, but instead it rallied them. There was a signature win vs. the Cowboys on Nov. 15, then a solid victory over the 49ers, and finally a Turkey Day blowout of the Lions, all within the span of 12 encouraging days.

Said McCarthy on Monday: "We really like where we are as a football team."

The same could not be said on Nov. 9, a day after the embarrassing loss in Tampa that sparked debate about the team's direction and the possibility of McCarthy's firing. The chatter was premature and unfounded.

That the Packers have taken a back seat to the red-hot Vikings has clouded judgment among much of Packerland. How soon many will forget that this team, with much of the same roster, has more wins than it did a year ago. The 6-10 mark of 2008 is but a blip on the radar. The 7-4 mark of 2009 much more closely represents what the team is all about.

Though McCarthy's Packers have lacked the annual steady rise of Mike Holmgren's teams or the consistent winning seasons of Mike Sherman's groups, McCarthy has done his part well. Consider the main reason that he was hired by Thompson was to tutor quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and it is difficult to argue with the results. Rodgers is a top-five quarterback in the league even while being the most sacked this season.

The wins for Rodgers are starting to match the talent, and almost impossibly, the Packers have had no drop-off in production at quarterback following the exit of Brett Favre. For this, McCarthy has equaled Holmgren's effort coaching the most important position on the field.

Not to be overlooked was McCarthy hiring defensive coordinator Dom Capers, all but linking his future in Green Bay to the choice. Firing Bob Sanders was the easy part, but finding a replacement who could give him the defensive unit he wanted was tough.

McCarthy's reported top two candidates — Gregg Williams and Mike Nolan — went to other teams. A third candidate, the Eagles' Sean McDermott, was passed over. Then Capers emerged, and like the 24-year NFL veteran has done with several other teams, he turned the Packers' defense around from near the bottom to the top.

McCarthy deserves praise for his tutoring of Rodgers.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Entering Monday night's game against the Ravens, the Packers' defense is allowing a league-low 281.5 yards per game. Perhaps more importantly, the unit has forced 26 takeaways in 11 games while allowing just 17.9 points per game.

By contrast, the Packers' defense in 2008 ended the season ranked 23rd in the league. A late November/December dive made it feel worse. Look no further than a Dec. 7 game at Lambeau (with a game-time temperature of 3 degrees), where the Houston Texans dropped 549 yards on the Packers, the most surrendered by the franchise in 25 years. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, a warm-weather quarterback throughout his career, threw for 414 yards.

Exactly a calendar year later, McCarthy's decision to bring in Capers looks like pure genius. The Packers are poised to shut down the Ravens with Capers' imprints all over the defense. Though Capers is working with almost the same personnel as Sanders, Capers' calls — and his proven 3-4 scheme — have made all the difference.

Not to be taken lightly, either, is McCarthy's bold approach during the Favre saga in the summer of 2008. While Murphy and Thompson primarily remained hidden, McCarthy put his fist down. His famous "the train has left the station" comment and corresponding press conference all but ended the media circus. From that day forward, the Packers have shown confidence in their new direction.

Only four of 10 coaches hired from McCarthy's 2006 class remain with the same team that hired them. Besides McCarthy, the others are Brad Childress (Vikings), Gary Kubiak (Texans) and Sean Payton (Saints). Eric Mangini, formerly of the Jets, was hired by the Browns this season, but at 1-10, he could be out of a job soon.

Including McCarthy, only 11 coaches have posted winning records over the past four years. McCarthy's ranking among them might be a surprise:

— 1. Bill Belichick, Patriots, 46-13

— 2. Wade Phillips, Cowboys, 39-20

— 3. Tom Coughlin, Giants, 36-23

— 4. Jeff Fisher, Titans, 36-23

— 5. Sean Payton, Saints, 36-23

— 6. Andy Reid, Eagles, 34-24-1

— 7. Brad Childress, Vikings, 34-25

8. McCarthy, Packers, 34-25

— 9. Lovie Smith, Bears, 33-26

— 10. John Fox, Panthers, 31-28

— 11. Jack Del Rio, Jaguars, 30-29

By season's end, McCarthy could move up a couple of spots. As it stands, he is close to the top three, which is impressive in itself. Because wins are perhaps the best measure of a coach, the next step for McCarthy will be getting it done in the playoffs.

Packers fans can complain about McCarthy's play-calling, his clock management or even personnel decisions, but looking at the big picture, the fourth-year coach has the Packers in a good spot. There should be no argument about that.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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