New England at Green Bay features the two best teams with the most potent offenses in the NFL at the moment.
It’s being billed in some quarters as a Super Bowl preview and, if so, watch how Pats coach Bill Belichick and Packers coach Mike McCarthy react to each other’s moves. If nothing else, this meeting figures to be a test of their wills.
Belichick is the NFL’s version of a mad scientist, a strategist who’s willing to overhaul his game plan from week to week, in part because he has quarterback Tom Brady to anchor the offense and enough mix-and-match defenders to play a variety of schemes.
McCarthy, too, has proved plenty adaptable during his nine seasons in charge at Green Bay. But his coaching philosophy was formed early in his career.
McCarthy learned the virtue of patience nearly 30 years ago, as a skilled but undersized Pittsburgh prep star looking to play tight end in college. He wound up at tiny Baker University (enrollment: 3,200) outside of Kansas City, a football powerhouse in NAIA play. What McCarthy didn’t know at the time was that the Wildcats were built on an option running game.
“It could be third-and-15, third-and-16, third-and-whatever and we’d almost always run. Poor Mike,” said Scott Rampy, who played QB at Baker during McCarthy’s time there and remains a good friend. “I’m pretty sure he wound up blocking a lot more than he ever imagined.”
Baker is where McCarthy first became a student of the game. He learned the value of preparation from the late Charlie Richard, a Hall of Fame coach. But his first real hands-on experience came when then-assistant Dan Harris turned over responsibility for line calls to McCarthy his senior year.
“That was the first sign of his coaching potential,” Harris said. “He began to analyze the game in more detail.”
Both Harris and Rampy said McCarthy was an instant hit at Baker. The Wildcats finished second and fourth in the NAIA playoffs, but those around him sensed McCarthy’s football days were just beginning.
“After graduation, we worked to get Mike a graduate assistantship in college and the rest,” Harris said, “is history.”
Not quite. McCarthy went from Baker to Fort Hays State and coached linebackers. After two years seeing the game from the other side, he went back on offense at Pitt under coach Mike Gottfried and quarterback guru Paul Hackett. Stints as an assistant in Kansas City, Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco followed before McCarthy returned to Green Bay as the boss in 2006.
Given the chance to draw up his own game plans, McCarthy went back to his Baker roots.
Preparing for a Belichick-coached team is particularly tricky, as New England’s seven straight wins attest. The Patriots found a way to disarm Denver’s Peyton Manning and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck during the run, and would love to shut down Rodgers for the trifecta.
Belichick won both previous meetings and while he and McCarthy approach the game differently, there are some important similarities.
Asked to compare the two quarterbacks early in the week, Belichick replied tersely, “They both wear No. 12,” before ending his media session.
Faced with the same question, McCarthy replied “They’re both from California.”
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