Something was off. No one could pinpoint it, and it was driving the Green Bay Packers crazy. A 2010 season that opened with Super Bowl expectations had already yielded three losses in the first six games, and a presumably world-class offense was inexplicably moving in fits and starts.
So after the Packers managed only 33 points in consecutive losses to the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins, coach Mike McCarthy huddled with his most important player for an extended midweek meeting. McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked through the offense literally for hours, realizing along the way that their extended history with one another had spawned a mental complacency that contributed to the dulling of their overall performance.
At least once and sometimes twice a week thereafter, the quarterback and the coach/playcaller scheduled one-on-one meetings to re-sharpen their relationship and push the offense to greater heights. The meetings were one of many reasons the Packers won 11 of their next 14 games, including Super Bowl XLV, and they continued this week as the Packers prepared for Thursday night's season opener against the New Orleans Saints.
"I just think it's important that you're working through your plan," McCarthy said. "It's not that you're not on the same page, but it's a matter of working through the thought process. To me, preparing for a football game is no different than working out every day. You still have to go through the mental process, trust the preparation and have the conversations you need to have.
"The worst thing you can do in the game of football is say, 'Hey, we've got that.' That's where you lose your edge. We didn't have that at the beginning."
In interviews this spring and summer, McCarthy and Rodgers stressed that their relationship neither soured nor even hit a rough patch. They simply and unintentionally took for granted their unspoken understanding of each other. Rodgers, for one, seems to be the type of student who needs full insight into an authority figure's thinking in order to accept direction, and McCarthy has occasionally been known to veer into mad-scientist mode in his role as a playcaller.
In retrospect, McCarthy traced the issue back to his 2010 decision to spend more time with the Packers' special-teams group, which had struggled in 2009. "I think I just got a little too far away from the quarterbacks," he said. It was an understandable decision from a head coach, but McCarthy's multiple roles should make the time he spends with Rodgers the highest of his priorities.
Both men said the meetings not only served to re-focus the Packers' offense, but they also deposited the pair into the kind of lockstep that is critical for a playcaller and his quarterback.
"It was great for our relationship as head coach-to-player and friend-to-friend," Rodgers said. "It was important for us to get on the same page as far as football goes, the X's and O's stuff. But it went a long way for our personal friendship. I have a lot of respect for Mike, and the kind of person he is, and the way he coaches as well. But that was as beneficial to what we did on the field as it was for him and I getting along off the field as well."
The meetings usually occurred on Thursday of a regular game week, after the game plan had been installed and after a 30-minute quarterback meeting to review some game-planning ideas. McCarthy said he typically sat with Rodgers from about 2:30 p.m. until at least 5 p.m. and sometimes as late as 6 p.m. on Thursday evenings.
"We would talk about the game plan," McCarthy said. "We'd talk about life and everything else. I thought it was helpful for him. I know I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of talking between two guys that have too much to say. I already knew it, but I once again found him to be a special kid."
Neither McCarthy nor Rodgers could point to a specific Eureka moment where they realized they needed to emphasize one personnel grouping over the other or, say, a different approach to their first 15 scripted plays. The true benefit was building a level of trust that ensured McCarthy would devise game plans and call plays in a way he knew that Rodgers would buy into. And for Rodgers, it was about getting to a point where he understood how McCarthy thought and where his ideas were coming from.
"Mike and I have a great relationship and I think we needed that," Rodgers said. "You need to be able to understand each other and understand the way we think and the way we react to certain situations. A lot of that was life experience, and there was definitely some storytelling going on, but it was just a great experience all the way around."
As the chart shows, the Packers became a much more efficient offense after Week 6 last season. They didn't necessarily start grinding out more yards, but they saw a 33 percent surge in their point totals and a dramatic elevation in their third-down conversion percentage. Most importantly, the only games they lost thereafter came when Rodgers was sidelined by a concussion (against the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots) and a three-point defeat to the NFC's eventual No. 1 seed, the Atlanta Falcons.
"I look at it like this," McCarthy said. "The playcaller and the quarterback got better. We just didn't start the season the way we needed to. Once we got rolling, we played the way we wanted to."
Yes, they talked it out -- and then some.