Since the advent of the modern version of free agency in 1993, which might soon be at the end of the era, the fifth season for NFL coaches has been a pivotal one. For most, like the lineage of Packers coaches, there is no Year Five.
Of the 155 coaches who have paced the sideline over the past 17 years, just 38 (or 24.5 percent) have made it through five consecutive seasons with the same team. The Packers are one of the rare teams to have multiple coaches to do so, with Mike Holmgren manning the ship from 1992 through 1998 and Mike Sherman from 2000 through 2005.
Fifth-year coaches in this era have produced dramatic swings. The number who reached either conference title games or the Super Bowl (eight) is nearly equal to those who posted losing seasons (nine).
So could Packers fans be in for a surprise one way or the other this season?
History would suggest so.
How McCarthy stacks up
Records of Packers coaches (including playoffs) through first four seasons in Green Bay:
Curly Lambeau (starting in 1919): 26-7-6 (.788)
Vince Lombardi: 41-14 (.745)
Mike Sherman: 45-24 (.652)
Mike Holmgren: 42-29 (.592)
Mike McCarthy: 39-28 (.582)
Dan Devine: 25-28-4 (.473)
Forrest Gregg: 25-37-1 (.405)
Lindy Infante: 24-40 (.375)
Bart Starr: 21-36-1 (.371)
Lisle Blackbourn: 17-31 (.354)
Gene Ronzani: 14-31-1 (.311)
McCarthy offered this assessment of his team earlier this offseason at the NFL Combine when asked about heading into Year Five: "I definitely feel that the vision of the football team is coming into focus. … There is a lot of depth on our boards. I can remember coming to the Combine my first year and the depth charts in my office were probably half-full compared to what they are now. There are players now that we have been together two, three, four years, so that part of it is definitely. I think the way we are playing, our defensive versatility matches our offensive versatility, so I feel like that is definitely where it needs to be. Definitely the vision is what you are seeing, particularly this year."
Depth and vision aside, the Packers can learn from their past how quickly things can change. McCarthy's predecessor, Sherman, saw his most tumultuous season in Year Five after four solid campaigns. That 2004 season saw the Packers suffer their longest losing streak (four games) in 13 years before rebounding to post a 10-6 record and advance to the playoffs.
But the amazing bounce-back was just a mirage, showing its true colors in one of the worst postseason losses in team history. Facing the Vikings, a team they had swept during the regular season, the Packers were embarrassed in front of a home crowd, losing 31-17 in the wild-card round to an 8-8 team. It was just the second home playoff loss in 16 tries.
It was also the signal to an end that no one saw coming. The Packers would finish 4-12 in 2005 and Sherman would lose his job in Ted Thompson's first season as general manager of the Packers.
On the flip side, Holmgren returned the Packers to glory in Year Five. After showing steady improvement over the coach's first four years, the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 with a team that received a ton of preseason hype. Confidence matched talent, thereby producing a nearly unbeatable team. Some of that same hype is gaining steam with McCarthy's 2010 squad over the past few months.
An 11-5 season and a trip to the playoffs is certainly reason for optimism. But this Packers product has been an enigma, too, as indicated by an up-and-down past four years.
So what will it be?
A high five or low five?
For a fan base that ultimately judges its coaches by titles, this is a defining time for McCarthy.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org