Packers: Meeting of the minds
GREEN BAY — With a classroom full of curve-wrecking honors students, Professor Mike McCarthy decided he had to find a new way to teach his tried-and-true, proven curriculum.
So the Green Bay Packers head coach issued a new syllabus for 2015. After years of following the traditional teach-to-the-lowest-person-in-the-room approach to installation meetings, McCarthy did the opposite.
He altered how meetings were structured, relying more on film work and less on Xs-and-Os diagrams of the same plays his veteran players had seen over and over and over again. He then shifted the remedial portions of the offense into separate meetings – office hours with teaching assistants, if we’re going to keep the college metaphor going – for the young players, where they could ask questions and get the basics down without holding their more experienced counterparts back.
“We have a core group of guys that know what they’re doing, so we’re trying to take this education to the next level in the meetings,” veteran fullback John Kuhn explained. “The rookies, they don’t understand everything, the nuances, because it’s kind of at a 300 level now. But we’re dragging them along.
“We have extra meetings for them to review and go over their 100-level stuff, the rookie stuff, the base rules – kind of the skeleton of the playbook – and then they come into meetings with us and we take it to a higher level and really educate them fast.”
Family Night on Saturday marked the eighth and final installation of training camp; as the Packers returned to practice on Monday after having a day off, they came back to an in-season style schedule. That included some game-plan work for Thursday’s preseason opener at New England – “We’re not sitting there trying to game-plan the crap out of them, but we’ve still got to get our list of plays we’re going to run and what-not,” Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton clarified – now that the entire offensive, defensive and special-teams playbooks have been taught.
McCarthy must think he’s hit on something with this approach, since he’s usually a close-to-the-vest coach with what he views as potential trade secrets. But he actually shared the new meeting structure with reporters during his first press conference of organized team activities on May 28 and has talked about it multiple times since.
“There’s a teaching philosophy that you always teach to the lowest guy or youngest guy in the room. We’ve kind of flipped that,” McCarthy said. “We’re challenging the older guys to bring the younger guys up and then coach those younger guys in more of a one-on-one fashion. It’s just finding as many different ways as you possibly can to motivate and continue to grow as a program.”
Coaches and players alike have long said that there have been two versions of the offense: The one drawn up on paper (or in iPads nowadays), and the one that NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers runs. Another benefit of the approach, Rodgers said, is that he can talk to his veteran players in the quarterback-receiver meetings, letting them know what he wants on each route, without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the basics.
“We’re definitely tailoring things to the older guys this year, so the younger guys are expected to keep up,” said Rodgers, who is entering his eighth season as the team’s starting quarterback. “It’s been a good group. The guys are taking notes and paying attention.”
Logistically, Clements said, the young players have no choice but to study on their own, because teams aren’t allowed unlimited meeting time. Then, it’s incumbent on the young players to ask good questions in their non-veteran meetings to improve their grasp of the basics.
“They probably have to do a little more work, but they have certain meetings where they can go back and ask questions when the veterans aren’t in the room,” Clements said.
As for how the structure of meetings has changed, Clements explained using pass plays as an example.
“Historically, if you have 50 pass plays going in, you look at all the pictures, you talk through them,” Clements said. “Aaron’s probably seen those pictures hundreds of times, so it’d be kind of boring for him – and we have veteran receivers, too.
“So we did more film work, talked through it, and then in the individual meetings with the young guys we go back and do it the way we used to. So they kind of get it both ways, and the veterans get it the way it hits them best.”
While there is probably some danger of young players not fully understanding things – and then being called upon to contribute when injuries strike later in the season – youngsters like third-round pick Ty Montgomery have picked things up quickly. Montgomery hypothesized last week that he might be annoying the veterans with all his questions, but instead, he’s actually endearing himself to them.
“I don’t want to say [it’s your job to] get in Aaron’s head, but you have to know what the quarterbacks are thinking before it happens,” Montgomery said. “So I should know what they’re going to alert to, what they’re going to audible to before they even do it. And that’s something that the vets have done.”
The altered teaching philosophy isn’t the only change, of course. With McCarthy surrendering play-calling duties and promoting Clements to associate head coach/offense, new offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett has been at the front of the offensive meeting room more than ever before, and with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt adding wide receivers to his responsibilities, those two groups are meeting together more than they have in the past, too.
In the end, though, this is all geared toward achieving McCarthy’s stated goal of getting off to a faster start this season. Although the Packers have won four straight NFC North division titles and made six consecutive playoff appearances, they’ve started the season 1-2 each of the past three years.
“It goes along with the starting-fast thing,” Sitton said. “It gets our minds working more and earlier and more often. As compared to the past, you’d go through the base offense every day, it seemed like, for three weeks. That got monotonous.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.