Football coaches rarely deviate from their own established strategies. It’s often why formerly successful coaches struggle to win years later. For example, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli were once the most brilliant defensive masterminds in the NFL. Their Tampa 2 defense had almost single-handedly won the Buccaneers a Super Bowl. But when the Cowboys brought in the duo nearly a full decade later, it quickly became apparent that the game had passed them by. Ultimately, a lack of evolution and adaptation is what sealed the fates of Kiffin and Marinelli in Dallas.
It’s also a part of what sealed Mike McCarthy’s fate in Green Bay. Like Kiffin and Marinelli, McCarthy had tangible proof that his approach worked. He had won a Super Bowl in his fifth year as the Packers head coach and won more career games than any other Green Bay coach not named Curly Lambeau. His teams went to the playoffs eight straight seasons, including four consecutive division titles, and McCarthy even had a street named after him outside of the stadium.
The great Bob Sturm joined RJ Ochoa on this week’s episode of The Ocho to discuss the idea of Mike McCarthy and credit. You can listen to the episode right above, but make sure to subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network so you don’t miss any of our shows. Apple devices can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
But as the years progressed and the league trends changed, McCarthy more or less remained the same. While much of his demise can be attributed to the toxic relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers - on which a more in-depth summary can be found here - McCarthy also allowed his scheme and overall approach to the game to become stale and outdated.
So when Green Bay decided to fire him with four games left on the schedule - making him the first ever Packers coach to actually be fired in-season - it was a welcome moment for change. That is, after the initial shock wore off.
A month later, when hiring cycles opened up, McCarthy was only interested in the Jets. However, New York’s unwillingness to let McCarthy put together his own staff led the Super Bowl-winning head coach to take a year off. That’s when McCarthy did some real self-evaluation, caught up on the league trends by watching film of other teams more closely than he had the opportunity to do as a head coach, and even visited the Pro Football Focus headquarters in Cincinnati.
This was a significant moment for McCarthy. Not just because he was the first NFL head coach to ever visit PFF HQ, but because he had on many occasions derided analytics and other advanced stats - the exact sort of thing PFF produces - during his time in Green Bay. McCarthy was an old-school football coach who scoffed at the idea that numbers and spreadsheets could provide any insight into a physical, inherently violent sport. That version of McCarthy, who once said “statistics are for losers,” likely would have felt a close kinship to his current division rivals Joe Judge and Ron Rivera.
However, that version of McCarthy also went 11-16-1 in his final two seasons and didn’t even make it to the end of the year before getting fired. Things had to change if McCarthy was going to have any success wherever his next job would be. So he went to Cincinnati in an attempt to learn more about how analytics could help make him a better coach.
“I was surprised he was there to begin with,” said George Chahrouri, PFF executive director of research and development and content, in a phone interview. “He’s obviously super accomplished. It was cool to see someone like that going out of his way to just try to learn and ask questions. They were particularly interested in ways to make their study and process more efficient. And then, when we started talking through some things about WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and how to value players, they found that very interesting as well as the decision-making in-game.
“Everything from, ‘How much should I be rethinking my fourth-down strategy?’ but also, ‘What is the right second-and long strategy? What is the right third-and-short strategy?’ It was a really good conversation around play-calling versus decision-making and how those things kind of vary together.”
McCarthy emerged from the meeting a believer, and pitched a 14-person technology branch to all the NFL teams he interviewed with as a method of integrating analytics into the game. Some expressed doubts about how serious McCarthy was about this, considering just how massive of a reversal this was for him. But not only did McCarthy back that up in Dallas, his fourth-down decision making has proven that he is, in fact, using analytics more than he ever used to:
Weekly Browns (and Cowboys!) tweet pic.twitter.com/lxWnan7Ese— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 18, 2021
Analytics wasn’t all that McCarthy evolved on, however. When he was in Green Bay, McCarthy was always the one who called the offensive plays, save for one season in which he handed those duties off to his coordinator Tom Clements. It didn’t go well, McCarthy took back play-calling duties, and vowed to never do it again.
Obviously, he broke that vow, as Kellen Moore calls the offense under McCarthy now. It was a big decision for McCarthy, but one he made because he understood how good Moore was as a play-caller and how good his chemistry with Dak Prescott was. Once again, this moment drew a clear line between the old McCarthy - the one who was stuck in his ways and preferred he be the one in control at all times - and the new McCarthy, one who sees the value of delegating certain tasks to people who are better at it than him.
Is this new version of McCarthy perfect? No. Does he get every call right? Certainly not. And McCarthy probably pales in comparison to the likes of Kevin Stefanski, Brandon Staley, and John Harbaugh when it comes to using analytics as much as possible. But it’s easy to see that McCarthy is a much better coach than he was in Green Bay, at least towards the end, and it’s because he did something coaches rarely do: evolve.