GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The sun was still ascending before one of the Green Bay Packers' early-morning training camp practices, and Mike McCarthy was tired.
He'd driven north to a resort town to squeeze in a birthday visit with his adult daughter a couple of nights earlier, then returned the next afternoon to his Lambeau Field office, which was a ghost town on the Packers' off day -- perfect for playing catch-up. Next thing he knew, McCarthy looked up and it was 11 o'clock at night.
"I'm blessed. I'm fortunate," McCarthy told me recently of entering his 12th season as Packers coach, looking out at Ray Nitschke Field's already-packed bleachers around 8 a.m. from his seat on a shaded bench. "But also, I keep in tune with why I am at 12. I've got to watch the same amount of film. I've got some real regiment components to my process, and I don't ever give them up. And to me, that's our foundation. We go about it the right way and got to keep that energy, keep motivated, [find] different ways of being creative.
"I love it, man. Look at this place. Got my Starbucks, cruising down Holmgren Way, made a left on that other guy's street and coming to this. It's unbelievable."
The "other guy's street," of course, is Mike McCarthy Way -- a tribute reserved in this city for legendary players and coaches who have delivered titles, as McCarthy did after the 2010 season. He choked back tears when the street was dedicated three years ago. It just so happens to be the route to the parking lot of the Packers' practice facility, providing a daily reminder of where McCarthy has been trying to get back to ever since, and what it takes to do so.
There may be no NFL locale this side of New England with higher expectations than Green Bay, as evidenced by Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy's mention at the team's annual shareholders meeting last month that he hears "from a lot of fans that they're disappointed that I've accepted mediocrity and I'm just happy to be in the playoffs and that I should fire Ted (Thompson, the Packers' GM) and Mike and then after I do that, retire." This amidst an eight-year postseason streak -- one shy of tying an NFL record -- in which the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and made two other NFC title games, running the total to four under the 53-year-old McCarthy. His .642 winning percentage (124-69-1) ranks second among active coaches (minimum 50 games). Only the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis have been in their respective jobs longer. The lone Packers coach with a longer tenure was Curly Lambeau.
"Raising children in this town is a blessing," said McCarthy, a father of five. "Things like [naming the street] -- you say, 'This isn't normal. They may take that sign down at any moment.' This business that you're in is not always that nice."
Say what you will about how many titles the Packers should have with superstar Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. (Plenty of those fans did so to Murphy and on social media during the Packers' 4-6 start last season -- probably the most adversity faced by McCarthy's program since The Brett Favre Exodus of 2008 -- before they ran the table and shocked the Dallas Cowboys on the way to another conference title game in Atlanta.) But if there are roadblocks here to another championship drive, complacency from their coach isn't one of them.
McCarthy is constantly evaluating everything, from messaging (his "I'm a highly successful NFL coach" line amidst the slide last November was surely no accident) to his staff (shuffled annually, though with substantial continuity among his assistants) to the identity of his football team. A proponent of an "across the hall" mentality among coaches, McCarthy and his offensive and defensive staffs spent their first two weeks this spring on a rather extreme self-scouting exercise: breaking each other down in every game last season, then going through a full game-planning process (offense vs. defense and vice versa), including presenting to players. That meant a lot of dinners at the facility and late nights for coaches during a normally slow time in the offseason, but McCarthy wanted to make sure the 2017 Packers know who they are.
"Sometimes you need to say, 'Hey, you might not be quite as good-looking as you think you are,' " McCarthy said. "I'm developing younger coaches, too -- that's part of my mission with that. 'Across the hall,' it's been beneficial for us. Our players love it, and you can see why. At the end of the day, professional football players, they want to be coached. They want to get better. If you're making them better, they'll jump over the moon for you. That's what I'm always focused on."
McCarthy also evaluates his own role, which has continued to grow. He readily admits he got too far away from his strengths in 2014 and '15, when he eventually handed over the offense to assistant Tom Clements, only to take back play-calling duties after less than a full season. He told me last summer he'll never give them up again, despite the amount of time needed to put together his call sheet each week and the value he found in being in defense and special teams meetings. Again this season, he intends to spend every moment possible around Rodgers, who McCarthy says is dialed-in mentally, in the best shape of his life at age 33 and embracing his role as a mentor to the Packers' young QBs and coaches alike. "Our quarterback meetings are -- shoot, I hate missing one," McCarthy said. "That collaboration we have in the quarterback room is the best we've ever had."
Developing young players is essential to a program that relies heavily on the draft to stock the roster. But Thompson was uncharacteristically active in free agency, signing five veterans who spent last season with other teams -- moves that McCarthy call "healthy, especially for our locker room, because we can be so 'this is all they know.' " He's particularly excited about the additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, whose blocking ability can open up some things schematically. He likes the size and length of this roster, particularly in the interior. He likes the depth on the perimeter (cornerback, safety, receiver) and the overall athletic ability. They're stocked with weapons on offense (Ty Montgomery, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Bennett, et al.), a very good O-line, studs to build around at each level of the defense (Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) and, of course, that guy who wears No. 12.
So yeah, McCarthy is probably only half-joking when he says he feels his job keeps getting harder and he feels busier than ever in Year 12. But he's quick to say he means that in a good way. Because every day he gets to keep making that left turn and feels confident he's doing what it takes to get the Packers in the right place.