Did Mike McCarthy Make A Mistake Giving Up Play-Calling Duty?

The practical effects of the Green Bay Packers’ historic collapse in the NFC Championship Game have started to be felt. Brandon Bostick, the tight end who made the fatal mistake on the onside kick that opened the door for the Seattle Seahawks to win, has been released. Perhaps more interesting though is that head coach Mike McCarthy has given up playcalling duties to focus on the rest of the team.

It’s possible that McCarthy might have made this move regardless of how things went down in Seattle, but it’s difficult for me to separate the two. The Packer head coach has drawn criticism for his game management for a few years now. The criticism has previously been  fairly quiet and limited to gamblers or analytical types. After the debacle in Seattle though, the head coach’s management of basic game situations drew fire around the country.

The purpose of this post isn’t to debate whether that criticism is justified or not—though living in southeastern Wisconsin, I know Packer fans who share the critical view even as they generally support McCarthy and clearly admire his overall record as head coach. The purpose of this post is to ask whether this fundamental change in approach is the right move for the Packers.

Mike McCarthy is a brilliant play-caller, one of the best in the NFL, if not the best. He’s got great chemistry with his MVP quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in orchestrating the offense. Over the last 2 ½ seasons, I think the head coach has come into his own.

Prior to early 2012, McCarthy had a little bit of Mike Martz in him, the old St. Louis Rams guru, who cooked up brilliant passing schemes, but could get overly absorbed in trying to outsmart people and sometimes forgetting the running game. McCarthy never went to the extremes Martz did—a reason McCarthy won a Super Bowl as head coach and Martz never did—but whenever the Packer offense went awry, the Martz-like tendencies were the reason.

Then came a watershed game—ironically, another one in Seattle. It’s remembered as “The Fail Mary Game”, where the Packers were robbed of a Monday Night victory by replacement refs. But prior to the officiating meltdown, the Green Bay offensive line melted down. McCarthy, completely neglecting the running game, had Rodgers repeatedly dropping back and he was sacked eight times in the first half. I remember texting a friend that night that Rodgers needed to file a lawsuit for unsafe working conditions.

Whether it was coincidence or McCarthy realizing that he didn’t want his meal ticket quarterback crushed, the head coach made needed adjustments. He began sticking with the run, even it wasn’t working, recognizing that there was at least some value in making sure defensive lineman couldn’t tee off in an immediate pass rush. He began using rolling pockets, buying Rodgers extra time. In spite of the fact the current Green Bay offensive line still has its holes, Rodgers has never been crushed like that again. And the points have kept coming.

Now McCarthy is giving up what he excels at to devote more time to a task of which his ability is, at best, suspect. Why not try the reverse? Why not make one of the assistants the game management coordinator and give them complete control of timeouts, fourth-down decisions and general direction on whether the offense should be aggressive or kill clock?

For a head coach to surrender such control would be unorthodox, which means that anyone in the NFL establishment will run screaming from the room. But is it really less radical then giving up complete control of the defense, something McCarthy and a lot of coaches already do?

Maybe this will work out fine. The new playcaller will be Tom Clement, a veteran of McCarthy’s staff and there’s certainly no reason to have anything against him. Maybe McCarthy’s game management problems are only because he’s been bogged down in the minutiae of playcalling and he’ll now start to be good at it. If that’s the case, all’s good.

What I do know is that if all things were equal, the Green Bay Packers were well-positioned to win the Super Bowl next year, with relatively few offseason decisions to make compared to rivals like Seattle. I still consider the Packers my early 2015 NFC favorite, but this move within the coaching staff upsets the applecart and it’s a significant risk.