Ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy eyes NFL return in 2020

DE PERE, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy's right thumb bounces back and forth on the remote as he sits in his outsized mancave, controlling the video that plays on a TV in the corner while debate ensues around him about how to cover one NFL team after another's version of the deep cross.

When a clip comes up of Aaron Rodgers and the 2019 Packers, McCarthy's expression doesn't change, though he admits later it can be emotional watching his old team at times. Right now, McCarthy's watching like a coach. Studying. Analyzing. Comparing what the Packers are doing now to how he did things the previous 13 years in Green Bay, before an unceremonious in-season dismissal last December.

"If you truly want to learn about yourself, you probably need to look at your last opportunity and keep an eye on it, because you have to be transparent," McCarthy told me. "You have to be honest about, how can you do things better? And it's all part of this process. Once you get past the emotion -- the negative emotion of it all -- it's a great opportunity to shine a bright light on it and grow."

Yes, McCarthy fully intends to be an NFL head coach again in 2020. And by any objective measure, his resume alone should make him a top candidate in any search. He won over 61% of his games with the Packers, who reached the playoffs nine times (including eight in a row) in 13 seasons, with four NFC title game appearances and a triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. He has an excellent reputation within the league for his work with quarterbacks, including two Packers legends. Practically the entire history of the West Coast offense lives in tapes and binders at Packers Hall of Fame Inc. (a donation McCarthy made years ago), as well as his garage and the upstairs office of the barn behind his house outside Green Bay, where he chose to spend the first year out of football in his adult life with the family that has never lived anyplace else.

Someday, McCarthy sees himself retiring here. But at age 56, he's not looking for a cushy gig or one last payday. The theme of his year away has been self-improvement, in every area, and thus was born The McCarthy Project -- a collaboration with fellow coaches Jim Haslett, Frank Cignetti Jr. and Scott McCurley that McCarthy says has made him "definitely a better coach" than ever before. Together, they've spent months preparing as if they're the NFL's 33rd coaching staff, from studying league trends and rebuilding playbooks to deep dives on analytics and mapping out a calendar for practices and meetings all the way through training camp. McCarthy also did a deep dive on himself, going through boxes dating to his early days as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and with the Kansas City Chiefs to study how his philosophies have evolved over the past 30 years and where he needs to go from here.

During a wide-ranging recent interview, McCarthy touched on numerous topics, including the bitter moments after his Packers firing, his relationship with Rodgers, the deeply personal meaning to his family of returning to the sidelines and how he intends to go about building another perennial contender.

"To do it right and to be in position to win it every year, that's what I'm looking for," McCarthy said. "So that's the opportunity, that's who I want to be paired with. And I'm not trying to just go win one, I'm trying to win them all. And I've always taken that approach. That's always been my outlook. And every decision that's ever been made towards the football team, it was A, number one, what's best for the locker room? And it's about moving that locker room forward, 'cause nothing ever stays the same. You're either getting better or you're going the other way. And that's in life and in football."

Better, not bitter

To understand how a coach who won more games with the Packers than Vince Lombardi (and everyone else except Curly Lambeau) could have his tenure end the way McCarthy's did, you have to go back to Green Bay's last playoff season in 2016 -- the year Rodgers famously said an injury-depleted team could "run the table" to make the playoffs after starting 4-6, setting the stage for an eight-game winning streak.

"I thought that was clearly the best coaching job that I was part of, in maybe my whole career," McCarthy says, steering his truck through the dark on the way home from an early-morning coffee run. "The players were tremendous. We just couldn't stay healthy. That first half of the season was one of the worst stretches that we had, and the team just gutted it out. We got to the NFC Championship Game (a 44-21 loss at Atlanta). That was a very difficult year. And then '17, we were getting hurt up there in Minnesota, and so it kind of spilled into that year."

After a 4-1 start in 2017, Rodgers broke his collarbone on a hit by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, sending the team spiraling to a 7-9 finish and its first non-playoff season since Rodgers' first year as the starter in 2008. Longtime general manager Ted Thompson -- who for years had almost entirely dismissed free agency and trades in favor of a strict draft-and-develop approach, lumping pressure on Rodgers to cover up the Packers' weaknesses and coaches to play young players -- had been in declining health and stepped down after the season. Then Rodgers suffered a significant knee injury in Week 1 last season, requiring him to wear a brace for weeks and changing the way the Packers could play offense for much of the year. They were 4-7-1 at the time of McCarthy's dismissal.

The red-faced coach captured so many times by TV cameras yelling at officials in frustration the past few years looked like a different person than who McCarthy had been throughout his tenure.

"I agree with you," McCarthy said. "There was a lot more going on within our organization that I didn't experience the first 10 years. And I think that's a product of being successful. It's part of that challenge. Failure comes more in that arena than any other. (But) we're all fighters. You don't make it in this business if you don't have that part of your DNA."

McCarthy doesn't believe the Packers needed a culture change, but they probably needed a climate change -- a break from all the speculation about their coach's future that surely crept into the locker room via social media, along with relentless criticism from fans and media about Rodgers' prime slipping away without a second title, which McCarthy understood. ("You get up past eight, nine, 10 years, you can't just say, 'Hey, let's get back to the playoffs again,' " McCarthy said, chuckling. "I can't even say it with a straight face.")

There also were persistent hints and reports of friction between McCarthy and Rodgers, who defended McCarthy after a controversial Bleacher Report article in April took aim at both men, saying in a radio interview with ESPN Wisconsin: "I love Mike McCarthy. Mike has been a huge part of my success in my career, and I've had some amazing moments on and off the field with Mike. We have had issues, no doubt. Any long relationship has issues, but the way that we dealt with those issues, Mike and I, was face to face."

Back in McCarthy's office, a baby-faced Rodgers is smiling on the TV screen, taking a snap in his first videotaped session in McCarthy's renowned "Quarterback School" in 2006. Scrubbing around the video, which is intercut with shots of Joe Montana and others as part of his updated QB training tape, McCarthy smiles back, praising the future two-time NFL MVP's natural talent and the way he progressed in other clips from 2010 and 2017.

"When you take a step back and you think about how long a relationship that is, and what you were able to accomplish -- in the meeting rooms, on the practice field ..." McCarthy said. "It's the long conversations (with Rodgers), particularly in the early years -- you miss those things. The Thursday meetings where you knew it was going to be an hour or it could be three hours, and it was supposed to be a first-15-play meeting, but it always turned into a life experience meeting."

McCarthy empowered Rodgers more and more to take ownership in the offense as the years went on. And the Packers were constantly evolving in other areas, whether McCarthy was shuffling the roles of his assistant coaches (and occasionally regretting it, such as when he handed over offensive play-calling to Tom Clements in 2015, only to take it back by season's end) or overhauling their weekly practice schedule to take care of players' bodies.

At this point, McCarthy says, he has to be past his emotions toward the Packers organization and president and CEO Mark Murphy, who curtly informed McCarthy shortly after a home loss to the Arizona Cardinals last Dec. 2 that he was making a change. McCarthy still takes prides in the development of the Packers' young players when he sees them on tape. And McCarthy has praise for new coach Matt LaFleur and his team, saying: "I've enjoyed their balance. I think they've done an excellent job." Still settling into a new offense, the Packers' scoring is up just slightly this season (23.8 points per game vs. 23.5 in 2018) and Rodgers' numbers are similar, too, but they lead the NFC North at 10-3, buoyed by new GM Brian Gutekunst's big-ticket free-agent additions of Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith to a defense coordinated by Mike Pettine, whom McCarthy hired before last season.

"My focus was always to be better, not bitter. And obviously, there was bitter moments, frankly, early in that transition," McCarthy said. "I think that's natural. And I think anybody goes through it, that those are natural feelings. At the end of the day, I'm thinking more about beginnings. And I've had time to think about the whole 13 years and there's been a tremendous amount of positive reflection with that. This has been an extremely healthy time for me, personally."

It's impossible to live in the Green Bay area and never drive by Lambeau Field. McCarthy's sons go to high school a short drive down Ridge Road. He underwent knee surgery at a clinic across the street from the stadium, and laughs at one of countless awkward moments over the past year: speaking with a maintenance worker there on a ladder, who said he was really sorry once he noticed McCarthy could see Lambeau's video boards playing highlights from last season behind him. (Replied McCarthy: "Hell, don't be sorry. I called that damn play.")

McCarthy did some traveling the past year with his wife, Jessica, and their kids. They visited scenic Door County during the normal dog days of training camp in July and August and saw his oldest daughter, Alex, an actress and producer in Los Angeles. He spent time on his boat. He attended his stepson Jack's football games on Friday nights. (Jack plays middle linebacker; another stepson, George, a quarterback, missed the season because of an injury.) He picked up his youngest daughters, Gabrielle, 11, and Isabella, 8, from school and developed a strategy for getting the closest parking spot. He underwent an overdue knee surgery and got into a regular workout routine with help from a personal trainer. He gave up his skinny vanilla lattes (no foam) on his early-morning Starbucks runs in favor of blonde roasts with steamed almond milk.

"There's days where I thought, 'I could do this. Do I want to go back to the grind of coaching?' " McCarthy said. "And after about the first month, I think my kids were just kind of like, 'So Dad, you need to go to work.' "

The vision

Cignetti -- a fellow graduate assistant with McCarthy on Paul Hackett's staff at Pitt in 1989 who later joined him on Haslett's Saints in the early 2000s and spent last season as the Packers' QBs coach -- recalls McCarthy telling him in early January he planned to coach again. McCarthy just wasn't sure it'd be in 2019. He received inquiries from several teams last winter and took one interview with the New York Jets, though he knew after that meeting it wasn't the right fit.

The idea for The McCarthy Project sprung from a mutual desire to watch tape and stay on top of trends in the NFL and college football in anticipation of a return in 2020, and it quickly expanded into a full-fledged operation. Haslett had connections to obtain "All-22" coaches tape, often faster than even NFL teams get it. The group traveled to Cincinnati for a six-hour meeting at Pro Football Focus, which collaborated on some ideas and provided resources that expedited the process of filtering tape and creating cutups. Justin Rudd, a former DV Sport software executive, pulled together the technology.

Most mornings, Haslett (who lives in Cincinnati) and Cignetti (New Jersey) get on the phone together and talk through tape all day. McCarthy does the same in person with McCurley, a longtime Packers defensive assistant. Then for one week each month, Haslett and Cignetti travel to Green Bay and stay in the upstairs living quarters of the barn, which is outfitted with a bed, sofa and kitchenette. Downstairs, there's a full-sized gymnasium, golf simulator and exercise room. A few steps away is the mancave, its pinball machines and pool table covered up by whiteboards and laptops, with the furniture rearranged around tables to face the TV like an NFL meeting room.

"I've watched more tape this year than I've ever, ever watched in the offseason," said Haslett, a pro and college coach for over 30 years who had planned to sit out 2019 after undergoing ankle fusion surgery. "We started doing cutups. We started doing games. We started saying, 'What do you want to run? Let's look at the pass concepts.' "

How has Andy Reid successfully incorporated college concepts to flood the wide side of the field into his version of the West Coast offense? How do the Cowboys get Dak Prescott in rhythm on the deep cross? How are other teams borrowing the "Fish" concept on deep shots that McCarthy made a staple of his Packers offense? It's all been part of one long conversation throughout the season, and the Xs and Os are just a piece of it. What worked before? What needs to be done better?

"It's nice to have time to think about it, to watch, discuss, and you're not (saying), 'Hey, we gotta make this decision by end of March 'cause OTAs start in April,' " McCarthy said. "The whole 360 (degree) view, whether it's watching the games, watching the officiating, game management, scheme, technology, analytics ..."

The plan for all of it is laid out on two whiteboards, covered with notes on every scheme project they've completed and every aspect of the football operation they intend to build.

No matter where he ends up, McCarthy doesn't envision a total teardown. ("I'm not a believer in [that]," he said. "I think every one of these opportunities that will be available, there's resources in there that you have to make sure you're aware of and try to utilize.") He wants to better use technology and analytics. ("We were definitely on the average side at best in my time in Green Bay there. I've looked at every team in the league and their commitment to analytics, and football technology and video. Because everybody has analytics, but it has to be part of your everyday operation to show up on Sundays.") At the forefront of the program will be player wellness, including dedicated resources for mental health. ("You have to develop the locker room from every possible angle. It can't be a subcontractor. It needs to be part of your everyday operation.")

Said Cignetti: "Mike had a vision. Once we had the video and we had each other, the sky's the limit."

'We need football right now'

McCarthy says the biggest regret of his time in Green Bay was not having his family prepared for defeat -- his firing, the suddenness of it and the unique conversations it created with his children, such as one of his young daughters asking before a school pride day whether she can still cheer for the Packers.

He became emotional in our interview when I asked, why does he need to do this? Why move the family across the country to get back on the sideline?

"It's a very selfish profession," McCarthy said, his voice cracking. "Coaching in the NFL, I think that's a given. But what I've found through this transition is ... our family needs this. ... We need to do this ... just 'cause of everything that's happened, and this will be a great opportunity for us."

Why does he say, "We need to do this?"

"I just think it's how you handle things in your life," McCarthy said. "Coaching in this league's a way of life. And then you think it's a way of life for a coach, but it's for your whole family. We need football right now. We won't need it forever, but we need it right now.

"... Jessica's born and raised here. We love it here. But in the same breath, this is not just an opportunity for me to grow as a coach, it's an opportunity for our family to really grow. And there's more out there. And Jessica and I want to give these kids that experience. So, that's what I mean when I say we need football. I'm not talking about the games. I'm talking about the challenges that it gives you as a family."

They're challenges McCarthy needs, too.

"And there's no doubt in my mind that he'll put another Super Bowl trophy in his case," Cignetti said. "Because I know the type of person he is and I know the type of coach he is. I've got total belief in Mike McCarthy."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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