Today is Pittsburgh-native Mike McCarthy’s 56th birthday. He achieved his ultimate professional goal in the 2010 season at the expense of his boyhood team, the Steelers, when his Packers beat them 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. McCarthy had not been the first choice of Packer fans when he was hired in 2006, but the underrated coach delivered Titletown’s 13th NFL championship.
McCarthy got his start as the tight end for Baker University in Kansas and captained the team in 1985 and 1986. Upon graduation, he worked as a graduate assistant at nearby Fort Hays State from 1987-1988. Former Bill Walsh assistant Paul Hackett hired Mike in 1989 as the quarterbacks coach at the University of Pittsburgh and trained him in the West Coast Offense. During his four-year stint with the Panthers, two other future NFL coaches, Jon Gruden and Marvin Lewis, also joined the Pitt staff. McCarthy made the leap to the pros in 1993 by joining Marty Schottenheimer’s staff in Kansas City as offensive quality control coach. Two years later, Mike was promoted to quarterbacks coach and served the Chiefs in that capacity from 1995-1998. When Schottenheimer resigned in 1999, McCarthy took the quarterbacks coach job with the Packers under Ray Rhodes. However, Rhodes only lasted one year in Green Bay, so Mike was on the move again in 2000, joining the Saints as offensive coordinator. In the off-season, McCarthy persuaded New Orleans to obtain the Packers’ third string quarterback Aaron Brooks, and the raw Brooks started most of the Saints’ games while Mike was in charge of the offense. Although McCarthy was NFC Assistant Coach of the Year in 2000 largely for his work with Brooks, the team and the offense began to slip by 2005 and Mike was let go. He moved on to San Francisco as new head coach Mike Nolan’s first offensive coordinator and worked with first round draft choice Alex Smith, who the 49ers selected over Aaron Rodgers, the other top-ranked college quarterback that year.
One year later, McCarthy was hired as head coach of the Packers, where Rodgers had landed. Packer fans were skeptical of a man whose main claims to fame were working with terminally inconsistent Aaron Brooks and draft bust Alex Smith, but Ted Thompson saw a winner, “There are a lot of good Xs and Os guys. To be a head coach, I think you have to be a good people person, know how to push the right buttons. I was hiring the man, not the coach.” Green Bay had slipped to 4-12 under previous coach Mike Sherman, but McCarthy led the team back to 8-8 in 2006 by closing the season with four straight wins. Behind a rejuvenated Brett Favre, the Packers swept to a 13-3 record in 2007 that led all the way to the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field. However, Favre’ last pass as a Packer was intercepted in overtime, enabling the Giants to kick a game-winning field goal and reach the Super Bowl. Favre subsequently retired. Then he unretired and wanted his job back. McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson told Favre he could come back as Aaron Rodgers’ backup, but Favre wanted to start. After a month of Favre agonists, Thompson traded Brett to the Jets and the Aaron Rodgers era began.
McCarthy had trained Rodgers well in the past two years. Despite the added pressure, Aaron kept the offense humming at a high level. However, the defense collapsed, resulting in a 6-10 record in 2008. Mike brought in Dom Capers to fix the defense in 2009, and the veteran defensive coordinator did just that. Green Bay went 11-5 but lost the division crown to the Vikings led by Brett Favre who twice beat Rodgers during the regular season. In the playoffs against the Cardinals, Green Bay came back from 21-points down in the third quarter to force overtime, but Rodgers was stripped of the ball in the first series, and his fumble was recovered for the game-winning score.
McCarthy used that defeat to motivate his team in 2010 through a flurry of injuries to key starters that dropped the team to 10-6 and the last wild card spot in the playoffs. Mike led the Packers on the road in the postseason to beat the Eagles, Falcons and Bears in successive weeks to reach the Super Bowl where they outlasted the Steelers. Throughout the entire tumultuous season, Green Bay never trailed in any game by more than a touchdown. In addition, they beat Favre’s Vikings twice to vanquish the past forever.
Under McCarthy, Green Bay has featured an aggressive passing attack that relies on three and four wideouts. Seven times, his airborne Packers finished in the NFL’s top five in scoring. Mike used his running attack as a counter to the explosive passing game, but nearly abandoned it against the Steelers in the Super Bowl because he felt he could pass at will against them. Bringing in Capers to coach the other side of the ball ensured an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that mirrored the offense and created a dangerous team that no one wanted to face as it rambled through the longest route possible to the championship. Despite the setbacks, McCarthy’s team displayed unswerving confidence that Mike exemplified when he had the players measured for their Super Bowl rings before the game.
That continued in 2011 when the Packers won their first 13 games and clinched the top seed in the postseason. Although the defense declined to an alarming degree, the hyper-efficient offense averaged 35 points per game and led the league in scoring behind NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. Unexpectedly, the team was upset by the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, the only home team to lose in the first two rounds of the postseason in 2011.
McCarthy’s team followed that disappointment with playoff losses in the next four seasons, two times in the Conference Championship and two times in overtime. He seemed to rely more and more on whatever magic Rodgers could muster as the offensive scheme stagnated and the defense cratered. When the team declined to the point that not even Rodgers could lift them to a winning record in 2017 and ’18, he was canned before the end of the 2018 with a cumulative 125-77-2 regular season record and a 10-8 mark in the playoffs. There was speculation that Mike would end up as the Jets coach for 2019, but inexplicably that dysfunctional franchise chose blundering retread Adam Gase rather than a successful pro coach. McCarthy had grown stale in Green Bay and his firing was overdue, but, much like Andy Reid in Kansas City, it is easy to envision this coach having a second act in another city.
(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches.)
Custom card in Topps style.