Mike McCarthy vs Vince Lombardi

I read an article the other week that nearly made me spit out the Mountain Dew that I was drinking. I couldn’t actually believe the words that I was reading. Jim Souhan, a columnist for the Star Tribune actually wrote that the current Green Bay Packers coach, Mike McCarthy, is a better coach than the immortal Vince Lombardi. You can check out the full article here http://www.startribune.com/sports/vikings/114175784.html but here is the opening statement he made:

“McCarthy will need to win about five Super Bowls before most Packers fans will elevate him to Lombardi’s exalted status. I say he’s already a better coach than Vinny, and any Packers fan who doesn’t agree should get with the century and embrace modern developments. Such as electricity, and the forward pass.”

 Maybe we should embrace giving Mr Souhan an electric shock instead. This is so absurd that I couldn’t let it go. It’s been simmering inside of me for a week. Now, I never saw Lombardi coach but I have seen McCarthy coach and lets just say that he has made a lot of curious calls at times.

Let’s take a couple of minutes and break down some of the arguments that were made that McCarthy is a better coach.

1.) Lombardi dominated the league at a time when teams played a 12 or 14 game regular season, needed only one or two wins in the playoffs to win a Championship and there were only 14-16 teams in the NFL at the time.

In the 10 years that Lombardi coached in the NFL, 2 of those season operated with a 12 game schedule after which the NFL moved to a 14 game schedule. Does the fact that McCarthy has to coach 2 more games each season or that he has to coach one or two more games in the postseason make that big of a difference?

Lombardi finished is coaching career with the Washington Redskins with a record of 96-34-6 and a winning percentage of 73.8%. The more impressive record is that he went 9-1 in the playoffs, winning 5 championships in the process, including 3 straight. He also won 9 straight playoff games, a record that wasn’t broken until this decade by Bill Belichick. In fact only two coaches, Guy Chamberlin and John Madden, have a better regular season winning percentage and no one has a better playoff winning percentage than good old Vince.

On the flip side, Mike McCarthy is 48-32 record with the Packers for a winning percentage of 60%. I’m not necessarily knocking McCarthy either because in today’s NFL, that is a really good record. He also did manage to lead his team to 3 playoff wins this season and a Conference Championship. However, before this season he was 1-2 in the playoffs and had only 1 Division Championship under his big belt.

I find it hard to believe that McCarthy would have any more success if the NFL all of a sudden went to a 14 game season and contracted the league to 16 teams. Especially considering in those 2 extra games he is most likely playing one of 12 horrible teams that populate the NFL ranks every season. Just take into consideration that the Packers get to play the Detroit Lions twice a year.

Also, the suggestion that it was easier to win the NFL Championship back then because you only had to win one or team times in a league with fewer teams is a stretch. That can easily be twisted around and say that it might be just as difficult considering fewer teams made the playoffs back in the day.  In 1963 Lombardi’s Packers went 11-2-1 and didn’t make the playoffs.

2.) The run game dominated the league and the forward pass was a second thought.

Wouldn’t this mean that it was harder to win in Lombardi’s time than today? The opposing defense only really had to focus on one aspect of the game, stopping the run. This means that Lombardi had to coach his team to perfection and design great running plays in order to win the game on the ground.

Souhan notes that when the Packers won the 1961 NFL Championship, they ranked 9th in a 14 team league with 168 yards passing per game. To put that in today’s context, the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 14th in passing yards per game and are going to this years Super Bowl.

Lombardi won consistently with his run to perfection and antiquated “power sweep”. Every defense the Packers faced knew this play was going to be run over and over again yet none of them could stop it. Imagine if McCarthy kept running the same play action pass on every down. I think it is safe to say that the Packers wouldn’t be winning many games and McCarthy would be out of a job. Of course not before he fired his offensive coordinator.

Yes the NFL is a lot more complicated today and the playbook can sometimes be up to 500 pages thick, but all that means is that it is more difficult to figure out what the offense or defense is doing. Not really so in Lombardi’s time.

Lombardi won the same way many teams win today, by running the ball effectively and by having a great defense. His defense ranked in the top 3 of the league in defensive yards allowed in 7 of his 9 years as coach and his running offense ranked in the top 3 yards per game in 7 of his 9 years as well. Something the author for some reason failed to mention. I guess it didn’t have any bearing on comparing the two coaches.

3.) As Souhan puts it “In Lombardi’s NFL, he could line up his assortment of indentured Hall of Famers and run over the opposition” and that free agency or the salary cap did not exist yet.

This one is probably the most difficult to argue against actually and the only valid point that I believe Souhan makes, although there are some flaws. Before free agency and the salary cap was put into place, teams could put a strangle hold on their best players. There wasn’t hardly any turnover. The star running back didn’t jump ship to Chicago for more money. Like I just said, this was somewhat of a valid point but there are some flaws. Lets explore them.

First off, I can definitely argue that the reason Lombardi had so many Hall of Fame players is because he created them. He was an unbelievable motivator and got the most out of his players. I’m not saying that Bart Starr or Ray Nitschke or Paul Hornung wouldn’t have been great players if they didn’t play for Green Bay, but it’s just silly to think that Vince didn’t make them better players. He coached those players up and put them in a position to become winners.

Second, free agency works the other way too. Because of free agency, McCarthy can also bring in great players to fit his scheme every off-season, something Lombardi didn’t really have an option to do. Souhan writes that “McCarthy has been forced, because of free agency and injuries, to remake his team almost weekly.” Free agency has nothing to do with McCarthy having to remake his team on a weekly basis Jim. That once again is just a ridiculous statement. Mike isn’t losing his starting running back because of free agency in the middle of the season. 

I also love this quote by Souhan; “Lombardi relied on one Hall of Fame quarterback, Bart Starr. McCarthy reinvigorated one Hall of Famer, Brett Favre, and may have created another in Rodgers”. What does that even mean? I don’t even understand this argument from him. He starts one of his arguments that the Packers rarely passed then and that the quarterback was a glorified UPS delivery man. Isn’t he sort of contradicting himself there? I also don’t think McCarthy really “reinvigorated” Favre. He wasn’t there that long before he “retired” then went on to the New York Jets. By that token, Brad Childress got the most of Favre in Minnesota when he had his best year as a pro. I guess that means that Childress is a better coach than McCarthy. In regards to Rodgers, maybe McCarthy had a hand in developing him into the top 5 quarterback that he has become, but I think we may be giving the man too much credit.

4.) Physical Fitness and the Tough Guy

Souhan asserts the reason Lombardi’s Packers had such an advantage was that he made his team work out. He doesn’t really elaborate on this point other than the level of physical fitness is much greater in today’s game. Once again, I’m not really sure I understand his point here. If Lombardi’s team worked out harder than the rest of the teams in the league and got them in better shape, then that just means that Lombardi was better at pushing and motivating his players than other coaches in the league. I’m pretty sure that is what makes a good coach. I also find it hard to believe that the rest of the players in the league were not in that great of shape and didn’t work out. I will agree that the league has changed and athletes today (not just football players) are more physically fit than their predecessors but I’m not sure how this means that McCarthy is a better coach.

The other point here that Lombardi demanded toughness and players were expected to play through injuries that they wouldn’t be expected to play through today. Outside of concussions, most players are still expected to play through injuries today. Also, medicine has come a long way since Lombardi’s day. Players can now tear their ACL’s and come back 6-8 months later. If Nitschke had torn his ACL, it might have ended his career. McCarthy actually has more of an advantage in this category than Lombardi does. I’m sure Lombardi lost players to injury and he was forced to come up with a solution just like every other coach has.

5.) Lombardi’s Lambeau Field was different from today’s Lambeau Field and offered more of a home field advantage.

Lombardi had an advantage because the field wasn’t heated like it is today. Read that last sentence again. Yeah, Vince Lombardi won 5 championships and 73% of his games because it’s cold in Green Bay. He never coached a game on the road either. I bet you didn’t know that. Also, due to global warming, it’s now 80 degrees year round in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Packers no longer have to play the two dome teams in their division at Lambeau Field.

The point of this post wasn’t to sit here and blast Mike McCarthy. I think he is a good coach but I do also think he is a bit overrated. In the five years he has been head coach he as led the Packers to one Division Title. He definitely deserves credit for guiding his team past the division rivals Chicago Bears for the Conference Championship and a shot at a Super Bowl. With that said, McCarthy is considered one of  the poorer time managers in the game. Just take a look at the end of the Conference Championship game. The Packers up 21-14 with a few minutes left in the game and the Packers have the ball. Instead of running three straight plays to run down the clock and force the Bears to use their timeouts, he called three straight passes, all of which were incompletions. This gave the Bears a chance to tie the game, which they almost did until Caleb Hanie threw the game icing interception inside Packers territory. That is bad coaching. That’s just one example of some of those questionable calls I mentioned at the beginning of the post and this was in the biggest game of his coaching career up to that point.

Would Lombardi have made the same mistake in such a crucial moment? From everything I have read or seen about the man, I highly doubt it. He was a great coach who knew the game inside and out. He inherited a team that was terrible when he took over as coach and immediately turned the Packers around. Not only was he a great motivator and leader who demanded excellence from his players and got it, he was an innovator. He perfected the “power sweep” and introduced football to the zone blocking scheme which is still used by every football team today. Vince Lombardi helped to make the game what it is today.

Maybe Souhan had meant this article to be tongue in cheek and I just happened to miss it. I sincerely hope so because saying McCarthy is a better coach than Lombardi is just stupid and shows that the man knows absolutely nothing about football or its history. Maybe we can have this debate again in 10 years once McCarthy has lifted the Lombardi Trophy over his head for the fourth or fifth time but until then, the idea that he is a better coach than Mr. Lombardi is laughable.




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