This week, ESPN’s Rob Demovsky conducted the first in-depth interview with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy since the team fired him, and it provides a fascinating window into his philosophy as a coach (and in life). It also illustrates how complacency and accountability can mean different things to different people.
McCarthy comes across as an honorable man who believes in doing things a certain way. He objects strongly to the process of his own firing because of how it happened more than the fact that it did happen — because when he let people go, he would go about it in a certain way. That way generally involved treating players as family, being upfront and respectable, and yes, when they did mess up, holding them accountable. It is also pretty clear that McCarthy’s code and routine were the cause of some disconnect between McCarthy and the front office:
A big part of the success I’ve had in this league is due to a tireless work ethic. All coaches work hard, but the accountability comment was totally inaccurate. I held my coaches and players accountable every year. Our internal fine process would support that. All I know is I did my job every day and was accountable to winning in line with the standards and the values of the Green Bay Packers that were established by the likes of Ted Thompson and clearly Bob Harlan a long time ago.
McCarthy took offense to charges of complacency and lack of accountability, and from his perspective I can see why. The internal structure and relationships he built within his team did seem to be solid, and fostered an air of mutual respect. McCarthy ran a close-knit, tight ship. The issue is that the Packers are not a family. The Packers are a cold, heartless business focused on results. I found this quote particularly intriguing:
Demovsky: “Yeah, (in) 1986, you were a senior in college. How are you handling (the change)?
McCarthy: I guess I’m nervous about it. Routine is such a big part of being efficient and successful in your daily structure when you’re involved in football, and I have to create that at home now. Anytime there’s something new there’s definitely some nervousness to it. The initial transition was a challenge, no doubt. But now things are set up and getting into a semi-routine, and I’m excited about what I’m going to be able to accomplish in this next year.”
McCarthy famously focused on execution on the football field. His entire coaching strategy was based on creating routine and a process around executing his plays as well as they could be executed. While there is nothing wrong with executing at a high level, the current NFL requires that coaches not just accept change, but embrace it.
Criticisms of McCarthy focused on his lack of innovation. The Packers’ offense grew stale, and while the league reacted to an ever-changing landscape, he stayed the same. That lack of innovation is its own form of complacency, and the lack of insight in this interview is revealing. No one accused McCarthy of a poor work ethic or lack of discipline, and the way he takes offense is interesting because he doesn’t seem to understand why his team struggled or why he was fired. McCarthy was fired because his scheme failed to stay ahead of the curve strategically, and executing on a poor strategy doesn’t win you anything.
The flavor of the day in the NFL is the innovative young mind, but that’s a fairly superficial oversimplification. Andy Reid is still getting it done, as is Bill Belichick, and neither are exactly babies. The biggest successes in the league do a different kind of homework than McCarthy, and until he realizes that, he won’t be effective in his next role either.