GREEN BAY — Being back in the game has reminded Mike Pettine just how much he loves coaching it. It has also confirmed for him what he felt when he became the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator 11 months ago: He’s not interested in being a head coach again.
At least, no time soon.
“Despite the struggles we’ve had this year, this is probably the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” Pettine said as the Packers (4-7-1) prepared to face the equally disappointing Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Lambeau Field on Sunday. “And it just validated for me what I truly missed was the interaction in the staff room on a day-to-day basis, building a plan and then just the day-to-day with the players, (which) you really kind of miss out on that as the head coach.”
When Mike McCarthy hired Pettine to replace Dom Capers last January, Pettine had been out of football for two seasons in the wake of an exhausting two-year stint as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach.
At the time, Pettine was only half-kidding when he said, “It took me a while until I felt like I could smell smells and see colors.” The Browns went 10-22 before firing Pettine; his successor, Hue Jackson, went 3-36-1 before being fired earlier this year.
While Packers team president/CEO Mark Murphy called interim head coach Joe Philbin a “legitimate candidate” for the permanent job, Murphy was non-committal when asked if Pettine was a candidate and whether the team would urge the next coach to keep him on as defensive coordinator.
“Those are questions we’ll answer down the road,” Murphy replied. “I don’t want to get into any of those details yet.”
The Packers might want to take a page out of the Chicago Bears’ hiring playbook, based on the early returns with Pettine’s defense. Despite a thin outside linebacker corps and injuries across the defensive line and throughout the secondary, the Packers entered the week ranked 17th in scoring defense (23.9 points per game) and 13th in total defense (351.8 yards per game), although only five teams in the 32-team league entered the week with fewer takeaways than the Packers (12).
Last year, after firing head coach John Fox, the Bears hired ex-Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, a young, offensive-minded coach who brought new ideas to Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky-led offense. The Bears entered the week leading the NFC North at 8-4, and while their offense has improved with Nagy at the helm, it’s been their defense — fourth in both total defense (317.9 yards per game) and scoring defense (20.1 points per game) — that’s made the biggest difference.
Although the club passed over defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for the head-coaching job, the Bears and Nagy convinced him to stay on as coordinator. At the time, Nagy called it a “very important hire for me,” and he was right.
Would Pettine be open to doing the same thing for the Packers’ next head coach?
“When something like this happens, you at some point begin to think of your own future, and it’s just been really tough to do that,” Pettine admitted. “Especially with Joe stepping in (as head coach) and all of our thoughts (focused) on Atlanta. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah. (I’m) not open to it, open to it.’ I mean, that’s a bridge that will definitely get crossed. I just don’t think now is the time to do it.”
Pettine is under contract for next season, although that doesn’t mean much — other than him getting his salary if the team goes another direction.
There’s no guarantee veteran outside linebacker Clay Matthews will be back next season, either — he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent — but the team’s longest-tenured defender believes Pettine has made a “great deal” of difference on defense and the team should do everything it can to keep him.
“The thing I really enjoyed about Dom, and this kind of speaks to the generation of player — I don’t want to date myself that much — but when I first came in, there was a lot more accountability put on the players to get their job done,” said Matthews, who was one of two 2009 first-round picks and was a rookie on Capers’ first defense. “I think a little bit more pressure needs to be put on the young guys when they come in here, and (Pettine) has done exactly that.
“You look around the league, young guys are expected to play right off the bat. It’s no different with our team. Young guys are playing, so it’s important that they be held accountable, know their playbook and get the job done when their name and number is called. I think (Pettine) has done a great job of putting us in the right direction.”
To be fair, although the Packers defense finished lower in the rankings last season under Capers — 26th in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense — the raw numbers are nearly identical to this year’s stats. Capers’ last defense allowed 24.0 points per game and 348.9 yards per game.
Nonetheless, the unit certainly feels improved, and Pettine would like to see what kind of progress would come with a second year in the system.