GREEN BAY – Sometime after Start Me Up and It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and before Gimme Shelter and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Mike McCarthy looked around and found inspiration.
The Green Bay Packers coach had broken one of his rules – “I always said I’d never leave the country,” he confessed – and traveled to England in early July to visit his eldest daughter Alex, who was studying abroad as part of a program through the University of Kansas. During his visit, he’d secured tickets to the Rolling Stones show at London’s Hyde Park, so in a move that is sure to earn him a few Dad of the Year votes, he took Alex and a half-dozen of her girlfriends to the show, which drew roughly 100,000 people.
“It was 10 times better than I thought it was going to be. It was a neat experience,” McCarthy says, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis. “What was cool about that was, you had people there who were in their 80s, you had parents there who took their kids – 5, 6, 7 years old. And everyone in between.
“I haven’t gone to a lot of concerts; I’m not a big concert guy. But I’ve never seen an environment like that.”
McCarthy is in full-on Trip Advisor mode now, describing the scene as if he’s explaining the Xs and Os of his favorite play-action pass call.
“Have you ever been to London? Hyde Park is like Central Park in New York. But it’s not as fancy as you’d think,” McCarthy continues. “They’re on this huge stage, and I was trying to figure out how many people were there. So I was doing it by football fields. We were like the fourth football field (back). Everybody’s standing up, and the whole place is just dancing. Every song was a hit, and Mick Jagger looked like he was 50 years old (again). He was running all over the place. It was unbelievable.
“I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I mean, the girls were like, ‘This is the greatest night of my life.’ It was really neat.”
This year will be a landmark year for McCarthy. He’ll turn 50 years old on Nov. 10, and he is about to kick off his eighth season as the Packers coach – meaning by year’s end only two men, icons Earl “Curly” Lambeau and Vince Lombardi, will have lasted longer in Green Bay. He enters Sunday’s regular-season opener at San Francisco with a 74-38 regular-season record and a 6-4 playoff record that includes the Super Bowl XLV title, so he needs two regular-season victories to surpass Mike Holmgren and 16 to pass Lombardi. And while he’d have to coach until he’s 71 to match Lambeau’s 29-year run, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon with a contract that runs through the 2015 season and no wanderlust coursing through his veins.
If McCarthy can bring people of different ages and backgrounds together like The Stones did that night at Hyde Park – a handful of old veterans, a couple of big-money superstars, some high-expectation draft picks and a bunch of hungry unknown or unproven players – then he’ll have Packers fans dancing in the streets come February.
But his team will have to do it much like that 2010 team did, improving as the season wears on and getting hot at the right time. The Packers open with a murderer’s row of tough games early, plus an inconveniently early bye week, meaning Sunday’s opener truly is only the beginning.
Taking a break from his preparations for that game in the meeting room adjacent to his third-floor Lambeau Field office, McCarthy spent 28 minutes answering a variety of questions about the upcoming season. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
ESPN Wisconsin: So you’re about to start your third season removed from your Super Bowl title, and this is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. I don’t think you can call the last two years failures by any means, but when you look back on them, what good things do you think you did, as a team and as a coach, and maybe what mistakes did you make during those two years that you don’t want to repeat this year?
McCarthy: Well, a lot of good things that the football team accomplished the last two years. You’re talking about 26 regular-season wins in the last two years. We lost close games, besides that. I have to say, No. 1, those are pretty productive regular seasons. But it really came down to the playoff games. Those were momentum plays, they were those type of games. If you look at those losses, that’s how it kind of went against us.
The Giants game (in the 2011 NFC Divisional Playoffs) is always going to be a hard game on a number of different fronts. It got away from us, clearly, and they did a great job and obviously went on to win the Super Bowl. And San Francisco (in last year’s NFC Divisional Playoffs), we got caught into a one-sided game defensively, and we couldn’t keep up on offense. Special teams had the turnover that resulted in seven points.
So I think you have to really stay in tune with reality each and every day. The emotional can tilt the opinion extremely down different roads that you really don’t want to go down because it really keeps you further from the truth. And if you stay in tune to truth, then you obviously have a chance to grow and learn from it. And I think our team has done a pretty good job of that.
ESPN Wisconsin: What emotion did you have to make sure you didn’t let get away from you? Anger? Frustration?
McCarthy: Criticism. The thing about today’s generation – not even the players, it’s everybody – I just think the information revolution that we’re in the middle of, it climbs to higher levels each year. The days, of ‘Hey, I don’t read a newspaper’ are over. That’s fine. You may not read a newspaper but these guys are aware of what’s said about them and the marketing value of everybody is something that’s part of their makeup. And I get that. But I think our guys have done a good job of, if you stay in tune with the values and morals of the Green Bay Packers, everything you want to attain individually will come from that, and part of that is staying in line with the message of, ‘Hey, this is what happened, this is why it happened.’ Take out the B.S. of it, and we need to do a better job of this, this, and this. I feel good about the progress we’ve made. We’ve had a number of hard meetings back in the offseason. Things that needed to be said were said, and things that needed to be changed, changed. And we’re still doing it. Now we get to go out and find out how good our processes have been leading up to this season.
ESPN Wisconsin: When you look back on 2010, that team obviously got better and better. Do you see this team potentially in that same vain with so many young guys, and maybe a little bit of unproven guys that you’ve got to be counting on as the season goes on?
McCarthy: That’s a great question for on paper, but in the NFL, it doesn’t work that way. That’s the goal. We’re young, we want to practice together every day. We practice a certain way every day with the intention of getting better throughout the year. We have 61 players on our team; I don’t break them out as 53 and 8. I tell them that the first day: ‘It took 77 players to win the Super Bowl. We have 61 right now. We’re going to need everybody.’ So that’s the way we go about it, with that mindset and that method, it gives you the opportunity to grow and get better every week.
ESPN Wisconsin: You talked about how you have to ‘trust the process’ after the Seattle game in preseason. You guys are always going to be young around here because of the way Ted Thompson builds his teams. What specific challenge does that create for you as a coach or for you as a coaching staff?
McCarthy: Well, the challenge is really getting the young guys playing with the veterans. That’s going to be a challenge regardless of any dynamic of your football team because everybody’s going to have a draft class. You look at our veterans, what is it, 20-25 percent of your team changes every year? We’re in line with probably the higher end of that, but we’re talking about a couple of players on the 53. So that part of it is something that you’re always going to work for.
The offseason, to me, I was very concerned about the offseason limitations because I felt that that works against young football teams. The development of players going onto their second and third (seasons). Hell, if I can just at least go here into the classroom. I’m not trying to practice any more, but there’s things that you can get done, especially when you have an organization like ours that’s committed to the facilities and the upgrading constantly of making this a place where our players want to stay here and train in the offseason.
The days of ‘You can't have an offseason program in Green Bay’ are over. I didn’t accept it when I got here in ’06 and what we’ve done since then illustrates the emphasis and importance of it. Mark Murphy and our organization just putting the money where our mouth is, or whatever that phrase is. So that’s the way we go about it.
ESPN Wisconsin: But that’s not going to change for you, right? You’re a coach of some prominence. You’ve won a Super Bowl. Is there any chance the structure of the offseason is ever going to change? Or with the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, it is what it is?
McCarthy: Oh, it’s not going to change. It is what it is. I just think you have to … I’m not complaining because everybody has the same rules…
ESPN Wisconsin: But not everybody has the same annual youth movement.
McCarthy: Right, philosophy. Yes. Well, I’d say more people have gone that way. I think people have looked at our success – and I’m not saying they’re doing it because we’re doing it – but there is a method here that works. That’s usually when you win a Super Bowl, everybody takes notice. So the value of draft picks and all that is always of high importance here, and I think it is becoming even moreso around the league. You don’t see the crazy trades that you saw five, six, seven, eight years ago.
ESPN Wisconsin: Your quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, made a comment about how he didn’t think last years’ team had the hunger that the 2010 team had. Now, I always think that these are kind of nebulous things, that if you win the game, no one’s talking about your hunger. But did you sense anything at all from your team? Any complacency, any guys thinking about their contracts instead of thinking about what it was going to take to win?
McCarthy: I’d say the only thing about last year’s team that was evident once all the evaluations were done and the team was able to come back this offseason is, things didn’t click as well as they needed to. Whether it was player-to-player, coaches-to-player, we weren’t in sync as well as we should have been. One of the things is the no-huddle. I made a mistake in some mechanical things in the no-huddle in the early part of the year, just to use an example. There are some things we’ve learned and you move on.
ESPN Wisconsin: Those hard meetings, were they coach-to-coach, coach-to-player?
McCarthy: Everybody. I mean, all the exit interviews. I just went through the books of my notes over the weekend just because there were some things I wanted to use in the Monday meeting, just a reminder. ‘These are five things we talked about on May 20, these are five things we talked about at the beginning of training camp …’ Just to make sure we talk about it one last time because we’ve got 61 guys who need to make sure we learn these lessons from the past.
ESPN Wisconsin: The other thing I wanted to ask regarding the quarterback, we talked a little bit about it on his radio show. We didn’t talk about Donald Driver and Greg Jennings specifically …
McCarthy: I thought we were done with the show.
ESPN Wisconsin: No, the show’s still going. Sorry. He said that whatever criticism there’s been isn’t going to change his style of leadership, and that it shouldn’t. You’ve always been very supportive about his leadership. I’m just wondering specifically, what kinds of things does he do that you see that make him a good leader? You always say, “Aaron’s a good leader,” but why do you think he’s a good leader?
McCarthy: First off, I think the fact that these things that have happened … If anybody would take a step back, and say, ‘What is leadership?’ and the intangibles, the reactions that happened to a person during the course of his time in the leadership role, that they would look at those incidents, and say, ‘That guy’s leading.’ It’s not a popularity contest. He’s probably had to say things, do things not everybody agreed with. That’s part of being a leader.
I think those whatever you want to call them – incidents, opinions, or whatever – are clearly a compliment to him as a leader. He’s doing what he feels is in the best interest of the team to win. And if that’s telling someone that you need to do this instead of that, and I’m not taking the blame for it, or whatever all was said, that’s leadership.
But to answer the specifics of your question, he does all the little things. He does all the little things. He touches every player in that locker room. That’s what a leader does. He doesn’t just talk to these three guys, or talk to one or two coaches. He has relationships with every coach on this coaching staff, he has tremendous relationships with the support staff. So with that, he has a foundation of when he has to do the sometimes unpopular thing, he is able to do that because he has established relationships, he has established foundations that are only going to continue to grow. I’m proud of him. He’s trying to get better. We had our first player council meeting…
ESPN Wisconsin: Is that a new thing?
McCarthy: I had it in ’06 and ’07 and it didn’t go very well, and I'll leave it at that. I was disappointed.
ESPN Wisconsin: How does that go wrong?
McCarthy: Nothing came out of it. Just like anything in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it. It just didn’t go. It just kind of fell to the wayside. I wasn’t just going to do it to do it, but this group that the team voted on. It was their first meeting and first meetings go well. It was a long time, a lot was said. It was good.
ESPN Wisconsin: Who else is on it?
McCarthy: I don’t want to put that in the paper.
ESPN Wisconsin: You have always gone out of your way, you have never ripped Rodgers publicly, not even at times when maybe he deserved it. You two had some run-ins last year, whether it was when you threw the challenge flag in Minnesota or when he criticized the trick play on the punt return at Chicago. Where would you say your relationship is now? How do you think it’s grown, and were those teachable moments last year?
McCarthy: I think conflict is your best opportunity for a teachable moment. You know that as a parent, and it’s no different in coaching. I’m very comfortable with our relationship. I could do a better job, put more into it. It’s difficult with my position at times, but I think he’s a special young man. Outside of even how he plays the game. He’s young, very educated; he’s very diverse in his interests and his level of intellect. I enjoy our off-the-field relationship. I think it’ll definitely be a relationship that will last a lifetime.
ESPN Wisconsin: He’s been very durable. He missed that one game in 2010 with the concussion. When you look at how the backup quarterback situation played out, do you feel like you mismanaged it in any way? Or do you feel maybe because you guys have been so good at developing quarterbacks, that maybe you thought guys that weren’t good enough, you might be able to develop them, and it turned out they weren’t good enough?
McCarthy: You have to look at the big picture, too. That’s why the coaches develop the players that are here, and that’s why the personnel department keeps their finger on the pulse and the standard of the quality of play of the other players in the league. That’s what it comes down to. Every decision you make is in the best interest of our football team. If we were worried about our reputation of developing quarterbacks, then we probably would have never gotten rid of any of the guys that were here. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about trusting what the scouts are watching during the preseason, and trusting what they’re seeing every day in the film, and you collaborate.
We’ve had continuous conversations about the quarterback position, throughout training camp – more so than we’ve had in prior years, or felt that we needed to in prior years. And this is the result of it. I enjoyed coaching all those guys and they’re fine young men. I wish I could have been able to get them to produce more. I look it as, what could I have done? I was asked earlier, do we need to look at how we develop quarterbacks, whether we’re doing it the right way. And I’m confident in how we’re developing the quarterbacks.
ESPN Wisconsin: Is it possible that you fell into a better situation with Seneca Wallace? This is the first time Rodgers is going to have a veteran quarterback in the room with him as a starter, a guy who’s older than him.
McCarthy: That’s a great observation. It’s something I talked to Seneca about when I met him, and frankly, that was clearly one of the aspects of what Seneca Wallace brought to the table that I was very interested in. Because the quarterback room is a very important room in our building. And for Aaron to have that is something that he’s never had. I thought that was something we could benefit from, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m very impressed with Scott Tolzein. He’s a very bright young man and has an incredible work ethic. Anyone who’s worked with him echoes that. I think he’s going to bring a lot to our room also.
ESPN Wisconsin: How do you feel about your offensive line right now? Do you feel good about your decision in the offseason to reshuffle the deck, and what gives you confidence that you’re going to be able to sufficiently protect your franchise quarterback with a rookie fourth-round pick in David Bakhtiari and a former undrafted rookie free agent with six games of experience in Don Barclay at the tackle spots?
McCarthy: I mean, you can’t factor in Bryan Bulaga getting injured. It’s part of the game. It’s unfortunate, it happens, and it’s unfortunate for Bryan, but David has done an excellent job. And how we utilize David and Don and Marshall (Newhouse) is really our responsibility. They have to perform the fundamentals, the techniques and the game plan that we’ll lay out there in front of them, but it’s our responsibility to put them in position to be successful and I think those guys will do a hell of a job. I like Josh Sitton at left guard. I think he looks great. He’s got a big matchup this week. T.J. Lang is healthy, he looks good. And Evan Dietrich-Smith, I always refer to the two guards and the center as the core. I really like the core, and our young guys are going to get better every week. So I’m very comfortable with our offensive line.
ESPN Wisconsin: As a play-caller, are you going to maybe have to be a little more conservative or cautious, or to more protection stuff, because of those tackles?
McCarthy: Really, you do the game plan the same way every week. Their names are up on the board, you look at the matchups of who’s going to get what, and you go forth. And it’s no different this week. We understand who’s playing on the left side and who’s playing on the right side. But I feel good there.
ESPN Wisconsin: Your run game has obviously been a very popular topic all offseason. What about your running backs and your offensive line make you confident about that group? And how much of a loss is DuJuan Harris? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you that bummed out about an injury to a player before.
McCarthy: I just felt bad for the kid. We had plans for him, but it’s not about me and our plans. I hope I didn’t present it that way. I mean, he was shut down for 12 weeks, and his workouts had been great, and then he goes out there and hurts it again. I mean, jeez. He’s had no luck.
ESPN Wisconsin: So do you feel like with Eddie Lacy you might have a special back,
McCarthy:I’m excited to see Eddie run. I’m excited to see how teams play us. I hope they play us how they’ve always played us. With Aaron back there, I don’t know why they’d change. I think that’d definitely help Eddie. I think James Starks has had his best training camp. He practiced every single day, that’s something he hasn’t done before. He’s gotten better. Johnathan Franklin is an ascending player and John Kuhn is a steady hand, too. We feel good about it. We’ve got a couple new plays, too.
ESPN Wisconsin: You’ve said that, that you’ve made some changes schematically.
McCarthy: Let me ask you something: How come no one ever asks about how many points we score?
ESPN Wisconsin: What do you mean? You led the league in scoring in 2011 and last year you were still fifth even though your kicker went through a period where he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
McCarthy: I mean, isn’t it about scoring points?
ESPN Wisconsin: The run thing is a big deal because you have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and defenses have zero respect for your run game. Both of you have talked about all the two-shell defenses you saw and what that did to your big-play opportunities. Isn’t there cause-and-effect there, that they play their safeties back and don’t bite on play-action fakes because they think your run game stinks?
McCarthy: I just think you guys find the one statistic …
ESPN Wisconsin: Let’s talk about how the preseason played out. Has it changed completely? Because from the outside looking in, it looks like you might have focused too much on evaluation of guys who might be on the 53 and not enough on preparation of the guys who are going to be playing the most important roles in Sunday’s game.
McCarthy: I’m with you. I don’t know. The obvious answer is look league-wide. We have 58 players on active rosters – 53 on ours and five on others that were in our camp. But where do you strike the balance between creating opportunities and getting the 53 that you think are going to be there, ready? I know there’s teams that had separate meetings last week where they worked on the first-week opponent with one group and sent another group to another meeting. I’m not going to do that. That’s just not the way I’m going to go about it. But some people do that, and they may feel better prepared for Week 1. We’ll find out.
ESPN Wisconsin: So as you get ready to turn the big five-oh, what does that number mean to you?
McCarthy: Slow down.
ESPN Wisconsin: Do you feel old? Your hair is grayer than when you first got here.
McCarthy: I’m just glad I have some left. I probably go home to the same thing you go home to – activity, energy, everybody’s glad to see their dad. There’s nothing like it.
ESPN Wisconsin: You seem to have found a really good balance in your life between family/normalcy and the demands of your job. Has your growth as a dad mirrored your growth as a coach? Have you gotten better at both jobs?
McCarthy: God, I hope so. I think I could do better at both. I think that’s the natural thought process when you’re involved in this profession, because you feel like your family from a time commitment doesn’t have their father and husband there like they should. But there are benefits of being in this profession, too. We all recognize that. Parenting and coaching, I think there’s parallels in almost every way: Communication, emotion, discipline, work ethic, listening – all those things apply. I’m trying to be a better husband, better father, better coach, better person every day.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonESPNWisconsin.comilde.