In 2000, Belichick was hired by the Patriots, who went 5-11 in his first season. In the second game of the 2001 season, Tom Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe. The rest, as they say, is history. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls and Belichick is hailed as one of the finest coaches in NFL history.
We offer the example of Belichick as a preface as we look back at the Packers' decision to hire Mike McCarthy as coach in 2006. We do so in light of fellow Class of 2006'ers Sean Payton and Brad Childress battling for the NFC championship two weeks ago and Payton's ultimate advancement with his New Orleans Saints to Sunday's Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts.
Both were on general manager Ted Thompson's list. The Packers were interested in Childress but the Vikings put on a full-court press and Childress never left for his interview in Green Bay. Thompson interviewed Payton on Jan. 5, 2006 — a few days before he met with McCarthy and exactly one week before he hired McCarthy as the 14th coach in franchise history.
With Payton's Saints upsetting the Colts for the championship on Sunday, Part B of Thompson's first big decision — Part A being his dismissal of Mike Sherman — will be scrutinized until either McCarthy wins a Super Bowl or Thompson starts looking for a new coach.
Based solely on records, it's a three-horse face for best of the Class of 2006. McCarthy and Payton are 38-26 in regular-season games, with Childress just a tick back at 36-28.
Payton is the only one of the 10 coaches hired in 2006 to reach a Super Bowl. Including the Saints' feel-good run in 2006, Payton has led two teams to conference championship games. That equals the combined total of the other nine on the list — with McCarthy doing it in 2007 and Childress this season. He's won two NFC South titles and is now 4-1 in playoff games after Sunday.
Childress has won the last two NFC North championships. His teams have gotten better every year, from 6-10 to 8-8 to 10-6 to 12-4. He's 1-2 in the playoffs, with the championship game loss to the Saints sure to stick in his craw for years after his Vikings turned it over five times and lost in overtime.
McCarthy has been up and down in his first four seasons, including 13-3 and his sole NFC North crown in 2007 and 11-5 in 2009. Like Childress, he's 1-2 in the playoffs, and like Childress, the loss in the title game — also in overtime, also with a killer turnover — still stings.
Of the seven other coaches hired that offseason, only Houston's Gary Kubiak remains on the job. He's 31-33 in his four seasons and has not reached the postseason.
While wins and losses and playoff success are the only barometers that count in judging a coach, it's not exactly the most accurate measuring stick. Hence, why we opened with Belichick.
That's because talent trumps coaching acumen and motivation skills practically every time. It's no coincidence that Belichick lost in Cleveland with Vinny Testaverde but won with Tom Brady. Quarterbacks win games, and while Rod Marinelli got fired by going 0-16 with Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper in 2008, Payton has won big with Drew Brees, McCarthy has had the luxury of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers and Childress got off the hot seat by signing Favre.
Beyond X's and O's, a coach's big job is building his staff. While Childress comes off as condescending and not much of a motivator, he brilliantly hired Mike Tomlin as his first defensive coordinator and, after Tomlin went to Pittsburgh to become the Steelers' coach, replaced him with Leslie Frazier.
McCarthy blew it with Bob Sanders — though, it must be pointed out, Sanders was good enough to get the Packers to one NFC title game. At least McCarthy recovered nicely with Dom Capers. The special teams have been dismal, but the rest of the assistants are top shelf.
Payton blew it on his first defensive coordinator, Gary Gibbs, but hit the jackpot this year by shelling out some of his own salary to woo Gregg Williams. Like Capers did with the Packers' defense, Williams turned the Saints' defense into a turnover-producing machine.
Childress has benefitted from an aggressive front office that hasn't been afraid to spend lavishly to upgrade talent. Thus, his lack of playoff success with a roster full of Pro Bowlers is a black mark on his resume.
While Childress and McCarthy sport identical playoff records and nearly identical regular-season marks, McCarthy gets the edge because he's developed Rodgers into a Pro Bowl quarterback while Childress had to get Favre because of his failings with Tarvaris Jackson. Plus, McCarthy has won with the NFL's youngest roster.
Payton, however, gets the nod as the best coach of the Class of 2006 — a fact only amplified after Sunday. In the playoffs, when teams are closer in terms of talent, Payton has excelled. The Saints were outclassed by the Vikings two weeks ago but found a way to win, just as they did against the Colts. In similar dogfights against the Giants two years ago and the Cardinals last month, the Packers fell short.
Maybe with a more experienced roster, McCarthy can close the gap next season. But until proven otherwise, Payton is best of class — and he'll have the jewelry to prove it.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.