Why Has Mike McCarthy Been Overlooked So Often?

Head coach Mike McCarthy will enter his 12th season as the Packers’ head coach in 2017, and it’s been a wild, successful ride.

Whether you’re a fan of his or not, you can’t argue with these results:

  • McCarthy is the fourth coach in NFL history to lead a single franchise to eight or more consecutive playoff appearances, joining Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick.
  • McCarthy has led the Packers to five NFC North titles in six years – no other NFC team has won more than three division titles over the past six years.
  • McCarthy’s Packers are the only team in the NFL to have a winning streak of four or more games in each of the last eight seasons, and 10 of the 11 seasons he has coached the Packers.

The ever-negative @JSComments on Twitter even shared a begrudging nod to the coach’s prowess.

If you’re unfamiliar, this is a Twitter account that catalogues and reports the good and bad (well, mostly just the bad) things Packers fans write as comments on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website.

It stirs an interesting thought, though. The yearly “NFL head coach power rankings” lists that will start popping up in about a month will hold McCarthy as an above-average coach, but below trendier names like Pete Carroll or Mike Zimmer.

Just last offseason, McCarthy finished 9th in a USA Today list of the top NFL coaches. On this list, the Saints’ Sean Payton, who hasn’t made the postseason in three years, finished ahead of him.

Even when he’s in a more deserving spot – this Yahoo! Sports list from 2012 ranks him 4th – he’s behind then-Detroit’s Jim Schwartz, who was fired after the 2013 season.

Just why has McCarthy been overlooked time and time again? Let's examine the evidence for and against three common arguments against the coach to find out.

His quarterbacks

Mike McCarthy has had either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback.

Evidence for: A study of quarterback’s passer ratings and their team’s performance from 2014 found a team won 81% of their games when their quarterback had a passer rating over 100. Over McCarthy’s 11 seasons, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have had a season-long passer rating over 100 eight times. Because Green Bay has had elite quarterbacks, it’s easy to win games.

Evidence against: When McCarthy was hired in 2006, Brett Favre was contemplating retirement and had played back-to-back poor seasons under Mike Sherman. Aaron Rodgers played under Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who had yet to produce a star NFL quarterback and was the early-2000’s version of Chip Kelly. McCarthy, along with his coaching staff, have coached up their quarterbacks to get the most out of two all-time talents.

His defense

Mike McCarthy is an offensive guru, and doesn’t get involved on the defensive side.

Evidence for: McCarthy, according to a November 2016 report by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, is so loyal to his assistant coaches that it has caused concern inside the organization. Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator since 2009, hasn't fielded a defense that has finished in the top 10 since 2010. The “Fire Dom Capers” crowd has an annual meeting after each Packers’ playoff loss, and this year’s meeting was noticeably louder than previous years. Still, McCarthy stuck with Capers.

Evidence against: Pete Dougherty has covered the Packers since 1993, and lists Capers and Super Bowl XXXI’s Fritz Shurmur as the best of the team’s defensive coordinators. Green Bay hasn’t found the right playmakers to put around Clay Matthews since Nick Collins’ retirement in 2011 – more of a fault of Ted Thompson’s instead of McCarthy.

His clock management

Mike McCarthy makes mistakes on when to call time outs, and does not manage a game efficiently.

Evidence for: Mistakes or missteps in game management – play calling, timeouts, challenges, or player substitutions – are easier for fans to spot than a strategic mistake. Whether you’re watching football or working at your job, our brains do a lot of second-guessing. If a coach follows the plan we are confident will work and it does not, our brains will backtrack. What seemed like a sure-fire decision now “probably could have worked” instead.

Evidence against: The Cardinals faced 2nd and 8 on the Packers’ 22, nursing a 17-13 lead with 2:34 left in the 2015 Divisional Round. Instead of running the ball down to the two minute warning, Arizona threw a deep pass that was incomplete and kicked a field goal with 2:00 left.

It was a decision that gifted Aaron Rodgers 40 extra seconds, which he used to throw one of the best Hail Mary touchdowns in playoff history.

Bruce Arians and Arizona won the game in overtime, and he’s hailed as a great game manager despite making a fatal mistake in a playoff game.

Because we rarely evaluate the decisions (throwing a pass when you should have run) independent from the end result (winning a playoff game), we only focus on the instances where clock management has failed the Packers.

The bottom line: McCarthy is an elite coach

In my opinion, the improvisational skills that make Favre and Rodgers great hurt the public opinion of McCarthy.

When Favre started his Packers career under Mike Holmgren, Favre's erratic, gunslinging throws created moments like Holmgren telling Favre, "No more rocket balls, please." The cameras would show the two frequently talking on the sidelines.

Once McCarthy began coaching Favre in 2006, it was Holmgren who had been associated with his development. McCarthy's impact on Favre – limiting his interceptions and making quicker, smarter decisions – has largely been forgotten in the wake of the messy divorce between the legendary quarterback and the Packers.

Along came Aaron Rodgers, who took sacks over throwing the ball into a tight window and was not as emotionally expressive as his predecessor. His improvisational skills were less about his risk taking and more about his athleticism and arm talent – an incredible back-shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson or scrambling around in the pocket for ten seconds before rifling off a touchdown pass.

Then, there were no memorable moments captured by the cameras between McCarthy and Rodgers that fans could point to and go, "Now there's a great coach." Instead, we saw the two quietly discussing a situation after a timeout. Don't expect any classic mic'd up moments from Rodgers any time soon to remedy this, too.

Rodgers, unlike Favre, refuses to wear a microphone when playing. "I don't feel comfortable mic'd up," Rodgers said on A.J. Hawk's podcast in 2016. 

There's an old idiom that holds true for McCarthy: play the hand you're dealt. When he was hired as head coach in 2006, he inherited a roster with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks at opposite ends of their careers.

Once he started working with both Favre and Rodgers, it was as if McCarthy unwrapped the Wonka bar only to find the golden ticket every coach craves.

Plenty of coaches have elite quarterbacks and don't consistently win – John Harbaugh in Baltimore, Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, Sean Payton in New Orleans. McCarthy has the piece he needs to win in the NFL, and gets the job done.