Unassuming McCarthy pushes right buttons
ARLINGTON, Texas – He sat in a private office adjacent to a nearly emptied locker room, surrounded by his past, present and future. Two hours after he had hoisted the Lombardi Trophy amid red, white, blue and silver confetti swirling above him at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy reflected on a life’s journey that took him from humble beginnings in Steeltown to an enduring immortality in Titletown.
Soaking up the aftermath of the Pack’s 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy looked at his parents, Joe and Ellen, his wife, Jessica, and his daughter, Alex, and shook his head back and forth like a man humbled by the magnitude of his accomplishment.
“It’s a numbing sensation,” McCarthy said. “It feels great to share it with family, and to share it with the players. You’re so focused on the game, and it’s fourth-and-5 and the ball hits the turf, and it’s total chaos – they’re pulling you here and pushing you there and you can’t get any air.
“It’s definitely personal that it was against Pittsburgh, because that’s where I’m from. I was very blessed to grow up in a great football town, and now I’m fortunate enough to coach in the mecca of football. I’m married to a Green Bay native. It’s our home. And now, to be a permanent part of the tradition? Oh, man, it’s unreal.”
If the reality of his team’s unlikely achievement hadn’t yet sunk in – winning a championship as a No. 6 seed after overcoming an unrelenting run of key injuries from start to finish – McCarthy couldn’t completely dodge the stamp Sunday’s game would leave upon his legacy. Chances are he will have a street named after him in the quaint Wisconsin city he plans to call home forever. That’s what happens to coaches who bring Super Bowl championships back to Green Bay, whether they’re living legends like Vince Lombardi, franchise revivers like Mike Holmgren or, as seems inevitable given Sunday’s outcome, deceptively brash catalysts like Michael John McCarthy.
You want bold? In a move that would have made Rex Ryan proud, McCarthy dismissed his players from their final team meeting on the night before the game and had them fitted for Super Bowl rings. As their fingers were measured in a hallway at the Dallas-area hotel where they’d spent the week, the Packers couldn’t help but feel their coach’s swagger.
“It gave us a subtle confidence,” said middle linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes), whose fumble recovery on the first play of the fourth quarter was one of the game’s pivotal moments. “It let us know that we’re right there on the cusp of going down in history, and it made us want it so badly.”
McCarthy might have been crucified for his motivational ploy had the Steelers won the game, but the fifth-year coach wasn’t sweating it. “See, I don’t really think about those things,” he insisted. “I just care about what’s best for the team, and I really believed what I’d told them: That Super Bowl XLV was our time, that given the path we’d taken to get here we could handle anything Pittsburgh would throw at us. They’re a great, championship football team. But this is our time.”
For the Packers, Super Sunday was the culmination of a three-year process that began after the team’s painful 2007 NFC championship game overtime defeat to the New York Giants at frigid Lambeau Field. That triggered the chain of events that led to the messy departure of quarterback Brett Favre(notes) as McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson put their faith and career fortunes in the right arm of Aaron Rodgers(notes), the young backup who’d spent three tense years waiting to succeed a beloved Titletown icon.
Had that gamble failed, McCarthy likely would have been forced to relocate by now. Instead, Rodgers burgeoned into a star and led the Packers on a three-game postseason tear through the NFC – and, on Sunday, past a Steelers team that boasted the NFL’s top defense in 2010.
If Rodgers’ golden right arm was the reason for his Super Bowl MVP performance – a 24-of-39, 304-yard, three-touchdown, mistake-free effort that was even more brilliant than the numbers suggested – McCarthy’s mindset was surely the catalyst. With a game plan that featured only 11 James Starks(notes) runs (along with a pair of Rodgers kneel-downs), McCarthy didn’t bother with balance. When he sent out a five-receiver alignment on Green Bay’s first play from scrimmage, it was clear the coach was in full attack mode.
“Totally,” McCarthy said. “Aaron and I talked about it all week. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to throw the ball away two or three times, check it down a few times and make some plays with your feet, ‘cause I’m gonna put my foot on the gas all day long.’ He threw bullets all day.”
Said veteran wideout Donald Driver(notes), who missed a good portion of Sunday’s game after suffering an ankle injury: “[McCarthy] knows exactly what we’ve got – a great group of receivers who can make plays at any time. If our backs are ever against the wall, he’ll put the dogs out there and let ‘em go to work. He let the dogs loose [Sunday night].”
With Rodgers throwing ridiculously crisp and well-placed touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson(notes) and Greg Jennings(notes) in the first half and safety Nick Collins(notes) racing 37 yards for a first-quarter score after intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger(notes) floater, the Packers took a 21-3 lead and looked to be headed for an old-fashioned, ’80s-style Super Bowl blowout. Roethlisberger, however, led a scoring drive late in the half that culminated with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward(notes), and intermission grew significantly more tense for Green Bay.
McCarthy, likening the game to a heavyweight fight, exhorted his players to “keep working the cut,” a reminder to try to exploit Pittsburgh’s vulnerability. The Packers, however, had issues of their own. Driver, rookie cornerback Sam Shields(notes) and veteran corner Charles Woodson(notes), a team captain and emotional leader, had all suffered first-half injuries, though Shields would fight through a shoulder injury to play much of the second half.
After McCarthy’s halftime speech, Woodson tried to say a few words but apparently degenerated into a screaming, crying mess. Woodson, who also addressed the team before the game, had suffered a broken collarbone while diving to defend a deep Roethlisberger pass to wideout Mike Wallace(notes) late in the first half and essentially told his teammates, I can’t be out there, and it’s killing me, so you’re all going to have to step up and lead.
“We’ve got you!” numerous Packers screamed at the wailing Woodson. “We’ll pick you up!”
The Packers did, as they have all season. Having endured season-ending injuries to key starters such as halfback Ryan Grant(notes), tight end Jermichael Finley(notes) and middle linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) (among the 16 players who ended up on IR), Green Bay possessed a resilience that McCarthy had clearly helped instill.
“He’s tremendously positive for our team,” Packers president Mark Murphy said of McCarthy, who is in line for a lucrative contract extension. “The way our season played out, he never let the players let injuries be an excuse. He never let the players or coaches get down about it. He made sure we just kept plugging away.”
The Packers stayed energized on Sunday, even when things got tense. When the Steelers cut the Green Bay lead to 21-17 on Rashard Mendenhall’s(notes) eight-yard run with 10:19 left in the third quarter, it looked like Pittsburgh was poised to take control of the game.
In going 10-6 during the regular season, Green Bay had suffered each of its defeats by four points or fewer. However, if there was a lingering criticism of McCarthy, it was his team’s shoddy record in close games – and this looked like another opportunity for a heartbreaking defeat.
McCarthy’s players, however, wouldn’t let it happen. After a dismal third quarter, the Packers forced their third turnover on the opening play of the final period. After Roethlisberger handed off to Mendenhall on second-and-2 from the Green Bay 33-yard line, defensive end Ryan Pickett(notes) burst into the backfield and smacked the running back from behind as All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) popped him in the midsection and dislodged the football. Bishop, who played a terrific game (eight tackles, three for loss), scooped up the ball and returned it to the Packers’ 45.
“I wanted to score,” said Bishop, who added that Woodson’s passionate halftime speech had inspired him and his fellow defenders. “Everybody took a little piece of Wood out there with him, and we knew we needed to get it done.”
Rodgers did much of the rest, marching the Pack 55 yards and extending their lead to 28-17 on another glorious scoring pass, an eight-yarder to Jennings in the right corner of the end zone. He answered a subsequent Steelers score by getting Green Bay into range for Mason Crosby’s(notes) 23-yard field goal, but when the Steelers took over at their own 13 trailing by six with 1:59 remaining, the Packers still had reason to be nervous: It was Roethlisberger who possessed the chance to summon his second Super Bowl-winning drive in three seasons.
Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller(notes) on a 15-yard completion, then found Ward underneath for five before throwing a pair of incompletions. Then, as McCarthy later noted, it was fourth-and-5 and life was about to get very, very surreal: Suddenly, cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) was breaking up a high pass for Wallace, and an orange Gatorade bath and sweet satisfaction awaited the 14th coach in the franchise’s storied history.
General manager Ted Thompson, whose hiring of McCarthy (who’d struggled as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator the previous season) in January 2006 was somewhat of a surprise, had been vindicated once more.
“I liked him as a person,” Thompson said Sunday night. “I thought he had a lot of grit to him. I wasn’t hiring an X’s and O’s guy. I think there are a lot of people that can do that. I was hiring a man. I think he’s a good man who knows what buttons to push to motivate players and knows how to understand people.”
McCarthy is a reasonably simple man who is grateful for his many blessings, and the notion that he might someday cruise to work past street signs bearing his surname sounded a bit overwhelming as he sat with his parents, wife and daughter long after Sunday’s game.
“Shoot,” he said, “I don’t worry about those things. Those are for the big people.”
Earlier, I’d asked Murphy which Green Bay street seemed ripe for renaming, and he’d answered, “I don’t know. Ashland, maybe? We’ll see.”
Jessica McCarthy, who has spent her entire life in the NFL’s smallest municipality, didn’t have any thoughts on that subject, but she did have a suggestion for what to call a prospective street named after her husband: “I think McCarthy Mile has a nice ring to it.”
In the meantime, her husband will have a nice ring, as will his players, and the prospect of more to come as the 27-year-old Rodgers continues to blossom. And whatever happens down the road, McCarthy is pretty sure where he’ll end up living when all is said and done.
“I’ll be [in Green Bay],” he said, looking at Jessica. “I’m not leaving.”
That means his post-football future is a dead-end street located in Titletown. In the meantime, he has a parade route that may well include Lombardi Avenue and Holmgren Way in his very near future.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• Since I’ve undoubtedly written more glowing things about Rodgers over the past seven years than any journalist, I don’t feel badly about going light (and leaving the heavy lifting to colleague Jason Cole). I’ll simply note that his fantastic performance could have been even better: There were at least five dropped passes, including one by wideout James Jones(notes) that likely would’ve gone for a long touchdown that would have pushed Green Bay’s lead to 28-10 early in the third quarter. And that ridiculously accurate ball that he somehow threaded over the middle to Jennings on third-and-10 from his own 25 with a three-point lead and six minutes remaining? The word that comes to mind is crazy. How Rodgers placed that 31-yard ball over the outstretched arm of cornerback Ike Taylor(notes) and into that window is beyond me. I can’t believe he had the audacity to throw it – and I know he was doing it on purpose. This will not be his last championship.
• There was a trivia question going around before Super Bowl XLV: Which college has produced the most Super Bowl starting quarterbacks? The answer was Cal, though it was kind of dubious: While Craig Morton (Cowboys, Super Bowl V; Broncos, Super Bowl XII) and Joe Kapp (Vikings, Super Bowl IV) were legitimate Golden Bear standouts, as was Rodgers, Vince Ferragamo (Rams, Super Bowl XIV) struggled during his two seasons in Berkeley before transferring to Nebraska and growing into a big-time pro prospect. Still, we proud alums will take it – and we’re especially gratified that Rodgers became the first former Cal quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl (and remember, another former Bears quarterback, Gale Gilbert, lost five consecutive Super Bowls as a backup for the Bills and Chargers in the ’90s). Given that Bishop, Rodgers’ teammate and fellow alum, also had a great Super Sunday, and another ex-Golden Bears great, the late Les Richter, was one of seven players voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday, it was a momentous weekend for those of us who bleed blue and gold. Now if we can just get that first Rose Bowl berth since 1959 taken care of, a whole lot of us can die happy.
• Though Roethlisberger threw a pair of interceptions and didn’t come through on that final drive, I stand by my assertion that he’s the most underrated quarterback in the NFL. And given that his off-the-field issues caused the Steelers to consider trading him last spring, I think Roethlisberger will end up looking back at the 2010 season as a highly successful one. If he can continue his apparently sincere efforts to be a better teammate and person, he still has a chance to leave an incredible mark upon the game. He is 28, and he has won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He has been exceptionally clutch for most of his career, and he plays for a perpetually strong franchise with the game’s best young coach in Mike Tomlin. Both men will get over Sunday’s disappointment and get back to work; both are far from done.
• Yeah, yeah, I know – Christina Aguilera botched the words to the pregame national anthem, and a lot of people were up in arms. Not this proud American: I love our great country, but I’m not a big Star-Spangled Banner literalist, and I believe “America The Beautiful” (among other patriotic offerings) is a superior song. And while I don’t particularly enjoy Aguilera’s music catalog, she has an amazing voice, and, respectfully, I’d rather listen to her sing the anthem “remix” than someone with less-impressive pipes get it right. But hey – maybe that’s just me.
• I was especially pleased that former Colts and Rams halfback Marshall Faulk, with whom I’ve been enjoying good times off the field for more than a decade, was elected to the Hall on the first ballot. He was the ultimate thinking-man’s running back, and his former Rams coach, Dick Vermeil, once told me Faulk belonged on the short list of the best backs of all time. And among other things I love about Faulk: His cynicism about authority includes a belief that the plot of the 1978 film “Capricorn One” – which, incidentally, co-starred another of the great all-time running backs, O.J. Simpson – might not be so far-fetched.
TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND
1. That for the second time in the last three media days, I busted out some dark sunglasses for a guest spot on the NFL Network – only unlike last time, last Tuesday’s shady appearance was unintentional. The explanation: Last month I told you about the XtrActive Transitions lenses that have become my new go-to glasses. Apparently, they can be activated by TV lights, even indoors. Who knew?
2. How Jacksonville could possibly have competition for its previously undisputed ownership of Worst Super Bowl City Of All time honors. I had high hopes for this year’s sojourn to North Texas, largely because of my pronounced faith in Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ ability to entertain. Sure enough, Jones hosted an incredible party the night before the game – the Foundation Room at the Dallas House of Blues was a celebrity-laced, fun-drenched, rockin’ good time – but the man can only do so much. A combination of unfortunate weather, unconscionably slow civic response to the ensuing weather-related issues, league preoccupation with an impending labor showdown and bad luck conspired to create a fiasco of a Super Bowl week.
You had icy freeways and city streets that went unplowed, and instead of laying down salt (which melts ice) local officials inexplicably chose sand (which doesn’t). You had a taxicab strike in downtown Dallas – perhaps this could have been settled, at least on a short-term/Band-Aid basis, by some aggressive intervention from the league, host committee and elected officials? You had ice falling from Cowboys Stadium and injuring workers last Friday and, on game day, complications that included entry delays which lasted well over an hour and angered fans. Worst of all, 850 fans in temporary seating sections were displaced while another 400 didn’t get to sit inside the stadium at all. Don’t blame Jones for this, by the way – the Super Bowl is entirely an NFL production, and the league controlled everything about the stadium. I can’t imagine what a bummer this must have been for some of those 400 fans, especially if they were passionate backers of either the Packers or Steelers. Think of how you’d have felt if you’d paid big money to, say, bring your kid or aging parent to the event, only to be told your ticket didn’t entitle you to a seat. Not good. Anyway, I’m willing to give Dallas another chance as a host city, but I’d like to see Jones’ role expanded and Ft. Worth’s role reduced. Spread-out Super Bowls suck for those of us who have a job to do, and there needs to be a way to consolidate the week-long activities to a smaller geographical area, if possible. Also, I want experts from cities like Boston or Chicago flown in (along with the appropriate equipment) to cope with potential weather issues next time. And if this whole thing seems a bit personal to me, it may be because I took a spill while walking on ice Thursday night, fell straight backward onto my head and suffered what appeared to be a mild concussion – and I didn’t start to get really worried until former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who saw me a few minutes after my accident, urged me to head to the ER. Given that people were driving about 10 miles per hour on the snowy freeways, that in and of itself would have been a daunting proposition. Anyway, I survived, and so will the Super Bowl. And on a positive note, now I can better relate to the people I cover when it comes to the very serious issue of head trauma.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
When Collins picked off that errant Roethlisberger pass in the first quarter and charged into the end zone, the Pro Bowl safety dropped to his knees in excitement. To Collins, it was a deeply personal moment – he likely was reflecting upon his late father, William, who died of cancer before the 2009 season. To millions of casual football fans, Collins’ post-touchdown move was an unremarkable and tasteful act. And to the NFL? Well, naturally, Collins was penalized 15 yards for his dastardly deed, an unsportsmanlike-conduct call due to excessive celebration. Technically, Collins was cited for “going to the ground” after his score. Realistically, the rule is unevenly applied, unduly punitive and downright embarrassing. I personally like even the gaudiest of end-zone celebrations, but I can’t imagine that those with tamer tastes would begrudge a player like Collins doing an end-zone slide after he’d just taken a pick to the house in the biggest game of his life. He was feeling joy, exuberance and triumph – and who, exactly, was his trip to the turf hurting? The ridiculous thing is that if Collins had simply made a conspicuous prayer gesture, his sin would have gone unpunished by the officials who represent the No Fun League. Now forgive me while I pray for this lame rule to be struck by lightning.
TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text early Monday morning from Steelers receiver Hines Ward.
“OOHHHHHHHH MY GOD IT GETS BETTER!!!!!! DUDE! good job”
– Email Friday night from my 14-year-old daughter, after seeing a photo of me at the GQ Party with “American Idol” host Randy Jackson (a day after I’d sent her a photo of me and “Jersey Shore” star The Situation from Radio Row) and again forgetting that my proper name is DAD.
“I’d like to give them a black eye …”
– Text Sunday evening from my buddy Malibu, on the halftime show.
“See u soon buddy, let the good times roll!”
– Email Wednesday from Dallas native Owen Wilson – and that, my friends, is the ultimate name-drop signoff as we head into an uncertain offseason.