GREEN BAY — Joe McCarthy was always working, from the moment he came home to Pittsburgh from his stint in the U.S. Army.
He got out and worked in a steel mill for several years. Then he joined the Pittsburgh police department. Was a silent partner in a local tavern. Became a Pittsburgh fire fighter. Increased his ownership stake in the bar. Purchased a series of rental properties. Got himself a dump truck and began doing hauling jobs. Started his own construction company with a couple of fireman buddies. Bought out his partners and opened Joe McCarthy’s Bar & Grill.
All the while, his son Mike was paying attention — although it wasn’t until later in his life that Mike McCarthy would fully grasp just what a defining quality his father’s work ethic was.
“I think of my father, and that’s the first thing I think of,” McCarthy, in his 12th season as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach, said as his team traveled to his hometown for Sunday night’s crucial game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. “To this day, if there’s something that needs to be fixed, he’s knocking you out of the way to fix it. That’s his personality.”
And it’s his son’s, too. That’s why McCarthy is still using the lessons he learned from his father as his Packers struggle without two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and try to salvage their season.
While other NFL head coaches made bold moves as their teams struggled — Denver’s Vance Joseph fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Oakland’s Jack Del Rio fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. — McCarthy steadfastly remained committed to the approach that has built a 129-74-1 career record (including playoffs) and a Super Bowl XLV title.
“Our main focus is coming back to work and working hard every day,” veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “I feel like he was raised pretty similar to the way I was — when things aren’t going the way you want them to, you continue to work and try to make them better.”
The Packers were 4-1 and a legitimate Super Bowl contender when Rodgers broke his right collarbone during the team’s Oct. 15 loss at Minnesota. Since then, McCarthy’s team has won only one game — a 23-16 triumph at Chicago on Nov. 12 — and enters Sunday night’s game against the Steelers at 5-5 and in danger of falling out of playoff contention before Rodgers is eligible to come off injured reserve.
If the Packers miss the postseason, it’ll end an eight-year streak that included the team surviving without Rodgers for seven games in 2013 (when they made the playoffs at 8-7-1 on a Rodgers-led victory at Chicago in a winner-take-all regular-season finale) and rallying from a 4-6 start last year (by delivering on Rodgers’ run-the-table premonition to reach the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three years).
All the while, McCarthy stayed even-keeled. During the playoff run and again during the offseason, Rodgers praised McCarthy for his “unwavering” approach, saying McCarthy’s steady hand allowed the team to reach its potential last year. Now, while the team waits not-so-patiently for Rodgers to return, McCarthy is again trying to keep the team on course by avoiding drastic measures.
“This is such an up-and-down game. This is such a momentum game,” said longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a former head coach with the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. “If you believe in things and you feel like you’re doing the right thing, you’ve got to be steady. Players are going to take the personality of the leader. If the leader’s up and down, those players are going to be up and down.
“I think the leader sets the course, and I think Mike’s done a great job with that. We’ve had some tough stretches, but we’ve always been able to pull ourselves out of it. ... Everybody wants to have it right now, but sometimes you’ve got to work your way through some of those bumps in the road and rough spots. To me, there’s only one way to do it. If you’re changing with those things, then you become like a ship without rudder. You’re over here a little bit today and over there a little bit tomorrow if you react to every little thing.
“It takes strength to fight your way through, to continue to believe in the things that you know will work if we do them better.”
But being steady doesn’t mean being soft. During Thursday morning’s Thanksgiving Day practice, McCarthy admitted, he “got after” his players for what he felt was a lackluster practice. After speaking several times after recent games about how great the week’s practices had been, McCarthy didn’t like what he saw. And while he felt some remorse for his choice of words, he also knew how vital it was for him to treat his guys just as he would if they were on a winning streak.
“Then I had my Irish guilt trip — I was going home to say the prayer at Thanksgiving, and I felt (bad) because I said some things that, you shouldn’t talk like that on Thanksgiving,” McCarthy recounted with a chuckle. “But to me, that’s part of being steady — being who I am and doing the job I’m supposed to do. Everybody needs discipline, everybody needs a kick in the ass — me included.
“I told the staff this on Monday: ‘You make damn sure that you are exactly the way you’ve always been. If you’re going to do anything, make sure you’re giving me more energy, give me some more accountability.’ We’re not making up things around here. We’re not going to start acting a different way here. We know how to win a championship around here.”
McCarthy isn’t blind to the optics of how poorly the Packers have fared without Rodgers at quarterback, however.
Since Rodgers became the team’s starting quarterback in 2008, the Packers are 3-8-1 in games he’s missed due to injury (0-1 in 2010, 2-4-1 in 2013 and 1-3 so far this season) and also lost the three games in which he was injured those years. Last week’s loss to Baltimore might’ve been the worst of the bunch, a 23-0 stinker that marked the Packers’ first shutout loss in 11 years — dating back to McCarthy’s rookie season in 2006.
Backup Brett Hundley’s poor play certainly hasn’t helped matters, and given McCarthy’s reputation as a quarterback guru, that too has led to questions about why Hundley hasn’t developed more during his three seasons in Green Bay.
“The facts are what they are,” McCarthy said of his record without Rodgers. “But I think it’s also, teams that have great players, you tend to center your team on where your strengths are. That’s what you’re supposed to do. So we built the offense around making the quarterback successful. And we’ve been blessed to have two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (in Brett Favre and Rodgers). That’s obviously the starting point.
“You look at the way we’ve played without Aaron, that part is fair criticism. But we’re talking about football here — the ultimate team game. Great player, but it’s 11 on 11. I understand how hard it is to win a game, I definitely understand how hard it is to win a Super Bowl. The fact that you’re successful over a long period of a time, that’s a sign of a good program. And good programs are led by good coaches.”
Sitting in an anteroom beneath Lambeau Field, McCarthy paused after that final remark, knowing that a little over a year ago, he’d called himself “a highly successful NFL head coach” and critics had a field day. After that, he vowed not to talk about himself in that manner again — even though he believed every word he said at the time, and the team went on an eight-game winning streak shortly thereafter.
For McCarthy, that public pronouncement was intended as a reminder to his team that the program they’d built together had generated plenty of success — and would again. Now, facing another challenging time, McCarthy hopes that lesson stuck with his guys, because he still believes wholeheartedly in his approach.
“I don’t know how long they’re going to bless me the opportunity to do this. I hope it’s for a lot longer. Izzie’s in kindergarten,” McCarthy said, referring to his and wife Jessica’s youngest daughter. “But for me to not believe in what we started as a coaching staff in February and shared with the players in April, and then say, ‘This didn’t work the way we thought it would …’ When you do that, the question I want to ask is, ‘What the hell were you doing in February and March?’ And why would you change at the toughest part of the season? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
“I believe in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. But most importantly, I believe in the players. It is a players’ game. And it always has been.”