Mike McCarthy could have been greedy.
Mike Sherman was, at least in the 2003 divisional playoff game.
Philadelphia was a sneeze away from falling off the cliff. After 10 plays and 67 yards, Green Bay’s offense faced a fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ one-yard line. Sherman went for six and a possible 21-0 lead. Green was stuffed. In hindsight, a Ryan Longwell chip shot from 19 yards would have prevented the fourth- and-26/Freddie Mitchell/Brian Dawkins/David Akers fiasco and sent the Packers to the NFC Championship Game.
Monday night, McCarthy resisted temptation and it paid off.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from Denver’s 2-yard line in the first half, McCarthy opted for a Mason Crosby lay-up. It seemed like a missed opportunity at the time. But as the miscues and penalties continued to pile up for both teams, three points appreciated beyond its typical value. The Packers eluded disaster at the end of regulation and Brett Favre did the rest in overtime.
This is just one of the many subtle coaching decisions by McCarthy that have quietly shaped the youngest team in the NFL into a confident group of finishers. Week after week, the Packers are finding ways to win in all three facets of the game because McCarthy is picking his spots. He knows when to be conservative. He knows when to be daring. He never rides the fence.
Monday night’s game would have eaten up many coaches in the league. The frustration of moving the ball without producing points is a common cause of recklessness. McCarthy did not trash his game plan as laundry scattered the field drive after drive. He made slight adjustments and was constantly one step ahead of Mike Shanahan.
How many coaches would attempt two bombs against one of the NFL’s best cornerback duos?
Not to a No. 3 wide receiver straight out of the doghouse.
Not on the first play of overtime, when you’re supposed to count your blessings for even having the ball.
Certainly not one game after two long balls were underthrown and intercepted.
So there was Champ Bailey waiting for a slant, with his hips turned toward the quarterback. A so-called “possession receiver” then left Bailey diving for air. And there was Dre' Bly a step behind a receiver many NFL Draft experts pegged too slow to succeed.
They weren’t ready.
“If we’re in position, we make those plays,” Bailey said.
“I can’t recall getting beat like that on the last play of the game for that much yardage,” said Bly.
Credit McCarthy. If he would have folded his cards on these two plays, there is no telling how both offensive drives would have finished. (Probably with an Atari Bigby penalty)
Winning five of six games by a touchdown or less is a reflection of attitude. As the Broncos drove 89 yards in 2:27, the atmosphere on the Packers’ sideline wasn’t the deftly quiet, pale face, ‘Oh, S&$%’ tone many teams (and fans) usually feel. McCarthy has instilled a culture that prohibits doom. The transition from nearly losing on a Jay Cutler draw to winning on a Greg Jennings touchdown was alarmingly smooth.
“During the drive you’re managing the clock,” said McCarthy of Denver’s game-tying drive that began at their seven-yard line. “You’re getting your two-minute offense ready. You’re getting your four-minute offense ready. I really didn’t have time to ride the emotional roller coaster. I thought our sideline was excellent. I liked the way we responded to the overtime because it was electric in the stadium.”
Jennings, who earned bragging rights over his cousin Ian Gold, sees a team attitude evolving over McCarthy’s 21 games. The Packers haven’t won 10 of their last 11 games by accident.
“We want it all,” Jennings said. “That’s the thing we’ve been doing more this year. We’re going out there to set the stage, set the tone and win the game whenever we have the opportunity.”
Establishing a nothing-to-lose mindset, while maintaining sound judgment is a balance coaches spend their entire career searching for.
In one game, McCarthy had to make several such on-the-fly decisions.
Pinned against his own goal line twice, McCarthy boldly chose to throw his way out of disaster against the Broncos’ blitz-happy defense. At the start of second quarter, on second-and-9 from the 2, Favre hit Donald Lee across the middle for 14 yards and the Packers drove 14 plays for a crucial Crosby field goal. With 8:15 remaining in the game, Favre connected with Jennings for 18 yards, throwing out of his own end zone.
McCarthy will never be confused with Mike Martz. Conservatism is needed to keep the game in perspective. Without a proven running back, this has been McCarthy’s biggest challenge this season.
Ryan Grant possesses the downhill running demanded from a one-cut scheme and McCarthy used him wisely Monday. Once Grant and the offensive line found a rhythm, Green Bay found balance for the first time this season- 27 passes, 27 runs, 430 yards. McCarthy did what Shanahan should have done with Selvin Young- force feed a running game that is producing four yards a pop.
It paid off in the play action later. Bly wasn’t ready and he was on an island- a situation Favre took full advantage of.
Guts is meeting trust and it’s building confidence throughout the entire team. During training camp, the entire coaching staff never appeared overly worried about any particular position or player. Optimism is high for every team in the summer, but now it’s clear that July’s confidence at Clarke Hinkle Field was genuine.
Mike McCarthy is picking his battles, and the Packers are winning the war.