Green Bay Packers: Mike McCarthy deserves credit for dramatic turnaround

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Three weeks ago we were calling for his head. Now Mike McCarthy leads a red-hot Green Bay Packers making a December charge for the playoffs.

The jury is still out on McCarthy. A team featuring Aaron Rodgers should always contend deep into the playoffs. Its offense shouldn’t struggle as McCarthy’s did for over a year. Questions about his future should, however, be put on hold until this year’s story is complete.

With a season in disarray, the Packers season and potentially his job crashing and burning in front of him, McCarthy made necessary changes that have sparked a three-game winning stretch. He took the brunt of fans’ frustrations during the team’s struggles, and for good reason, but it’s only fair he now receives praise for their dramatic turnaround.

Often criticized for his stubbornness, fears grew that McCarthy’s message had grown stale in the locker room. If the past three weeks has taught us anything, it’s that this team believes in their head coach’s message.

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Rewind to September. McCarthy’s offense relied on balance between the run and pass. Rejuvenated and displaying more burst in his rushing, Eddie Lacy‘s role was to steamroll defenses and present a legitimate threat on the ground. At his best Lacy commands stacked boxes, which in 2014 was a crazy prospect given the Packers’ success through the air.

McCarthy wanted a balanced offense. One that runs the ball effectively and burns defenses deep with play-action, much like they did two years ago. It was particularly jarring then, when not only Lacy but backup James Starks went down with injury. Starks would return from knee surgery, but his production has plummeted in 2016.

The addition of Jared Cook was supposed to give Rodgers a pass catcher capable of stretching the seam. He, too, has missed much of the season and failed to produce consistently when healthy.

Left shortchanged by Ted Thompson, who gave his coach inadequate depth at the running back and tight end position, McCarthy was forced to make drastic changes to his offense, not an easy task midseason.

We’re now seeing the benefits.

Lacy’s absence means the Packers lack a consistent run game. McCarthy resolved this by putting the ball in the hands of his two-time MVP. Shorter, more frequent passes have helped Rodgers get in rhythm while giving the offense something close to a steady run game.

Between 2008 and 2015, the Packers’ passing play percentage was 56.2, according to This year it’s 62.6 percent. Rodgers is on pace for 402 passing attempts this year, a career-high. Rodgers averaged 344 passes in his previous seven seasons, not including 2013, when he missed half the year with a broken collarbone.

McCarthy also recognized that a change in the backfield was necessary. After multiple disappointing performances, James Starks’ role has dramatically reduced in favor of Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael. Starks saw just two carries versus Seattle to the tune of three yards. Montgomery and Michael had a combined 19 rushes for 77 yards (4.05 yards per carry) and a touchdown.

The Packers’ offensive funk early in the season can’t be pinned solely on injuries, just as last season’s struggles weren’t all on the loss of Jordy Nelson. The offense lacked an identity, and this falls on McCarthy. But just as he should be held accountable for over a year of subpar offense, he should also receive praise for a dramatic rise that culminated with a blowout victory over a Seattle defense allowing fewer points than any other team.

Sunday’s 28-point margin was the heaviest defeat suffered by Seattle since Russell Wilson became their quarterback. This was the first time the Seahawks had lost a game by more than 10 points since 2011.

Jordy Nelson’s usage in the slot

One of the changes McCarthy has made is Jordy Nelson’s usage in the slot. Nelson is no longer the deep threat he once was, taking on the role of a reliable possession receiver. He’s found success in the middle of the field, McCarthy regularly featuring him in favorable matchups.

Between Weeks 1 and 3, Nelson lined up in the slot on just 16 percent of the Packers’ passing plays. During Green Bay’s three-game winning run from Weeks 12 to 14, that number increased to 37 percent. Versus Seattle, Nelson spent more time in the slot (14 passing plays) than outside (12).

This was a smart approach by McCarthy to keep Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target away from Seattle’s top corner Richard Sherman.

As Nelson reaches the final stretch of his career, spending more time in the slot may be the best way to utilize him. Of the 12 touchdowns he’s caught this season, six came with Nelson lined up in the slot, including all three of his scores over the past two weeks.

Managing Rodgers’ injuries

First it was a strained hamstring, now Rodgers has a calf injury to go with it. His ailing hammy wasn’t severe enough to draw a questionable tag on the injury report last week (it had done in Week 13), but there’s a good chance his calf issue is due to overcompensating with his hamstring.

Although NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported Rodgers’ calf injury isn’t expected to be as severe as the one he suffered two years ago, his lack of mobility on Sunday suggests otherwise.

The Packers will need to alter their gameplan slightly. Oddly, Rodgers being forced to remain with the pocket has its benefits. He often rolls out too easily before pressure arrives, which can lead to missing open receivers while he’s scrambling. Remaining in the pocket could benefit the timing of the passing game. It certainly seemed that way Sunday.

Of course, an immobile Rodgers takes away one of the biggest strengths of his game. His ability to extend plays and add yards with his legs is up there with the Russell Wilsons and Cam Newtons of this world.

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For now, at least, the two-time MVP will have to remain a pocket passer.