Have at It: Judging McCarthy vs. Linehan

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
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Mike McCarthy & Scott LinehanIcon SMIMike McCarthy and Scott Linehan call plays for two of the NFL's top passing attacks.
This week's Have at It covered the NFC North's four offensive playcallers. It quickly turned into a debate between two men: Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy and Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

I asked who you would hire to call plays on a new staff. Most of you eliminated Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave based on his thin two-game résumé in the NFC North. And let's just say that Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz isn't high on many lists -- at least those who want to see the Bears win games.

Wrote duckieduck78: "Usually OCs call plays that emphasize teams' strengths. Martz calls plays that expose teams' weaknesses."

Our SportsNation poll left McCarthy a clear winner with about 60 percent of more than 8,000 votes. Your comments were a bit less definitive, but sgunderson17 offered this blunt assessment: "MM, hands down. You don't win a SB with a coach that can't shred the Steelers defense."

I was a little surprised by how many of you are down on McCarthy's fourth-quarter play-calling, presumably when the Packers are leading. Biggest Cheese: "Play calling goes ultra-conservative, and we basically let teams back in. I'd take McCarthy in Q1-3."

Wrote ellamont76: "McCarthy needs to improve his 'four-minute offense' where they need to run out the clock at the end of a game with a lead. They seem to have trouble transitioning from pedal-to-the-metal to grind it out and chew up clock."

3c3PO19 termed this debate "a weird one for Packer fans" and added: "He does seem to back off the offense's strengths later in the game to try and grind out wins. While we understand that 'grind-out' nature limits turnovers and eats clock, I think we have all seen enough teams 'catch' the Pack to know he is playing with fire by not utilizing the weapons he has for a full 60 minutes. I still think MM is at the top based purely on past performance. But he's not perfect."

I think I get what you're saying, even if it might be an overreaction relative to the big picture. In Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, for example, the Packers took a 42-27 lead early in the fourth quarter. Then they ran on five consecutive plays to open their next possession, had two unsuccessful passing plays and punted.

The series took nearly five minutes off the clock but obviously left enough time for the Saints to make things interesting. But if the Packers had opened that drive with a few passes that stopped the clock, I imagine many of you would be just as upset, if not more.

Few of you had anything bad to say about Linehan. In fact, the only time I've heard him criticized as a playcaller came when he was with the Vikings in 2004, when he got a little too cute at the end of a game against the Seattle Seahawks; a reverse pass by receiver Randy Moss halted a Vikings comeback.

For the most part, however, you recognized Linehan as flexible, open-minded and humble enough to recognize that what works best isn't always what he would prefer to do.

Wrote Zumayander: "Linehan seems to take Mike Martz's best quality, his aggressiveness as a playcaller, and temper it by making the scheme fit the personnel and maximizing potential."

Bobbyg640 thinks "Linehan gets the best out of his players" and praised his ability to craft an increasingly productive scheme without the benefit of a strong running game: "In spite of their weak ground game, they have been one of the highest scoring offenses over the past two seasons."

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer offered some kind words in his weekly Insider column, writing that he likes Linehan "because he succeeds without being overly complicated." Linehan, wrote Dilfer, "finds successful plays, then runs plays off those plays, adding deception out of familiar setups. Defensive players will tell you, the gimmicky formations aren't as hard to deal with as teams that use the same formations to do a lot of different things. That's Linehan."

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMike McCarthy has displayed creativity and a willingness to try new things in his play calling.
My take? Dilfer listed Linehan as an "underrated playcaller," and if anything, I hope this exercise brought to light that Linehan is running one of the NFL's top offenses. Regardless of what you might think of his time as the St. Louis Rams' head coach, Linehan has successfully developed quarterbacks and offensive schemes at every stop of his career as a coordinator.

With that said, I'm not sure if McCarthy gets enough credit for his creativity and his willingness to try new things. And I would classify your objections to his "four-minute" offense under game management rather than play calling.

Otherwise, let's not forget that on the way to their Super Bowl XLV victory, the Packers used more five-receiver sets and more three-back formations than any other NFL team. You don't see teams finding more distinctive spots on the NFL spectrum than that. And this season, McCarthy has unveiled a modified no-huddle offense that will give opponents a new wrinkle to consider.

Some of you might be tempted to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers credit for making calls or changing some plays at the line of scrimmage. That's fine. Rodgers is following the template McCarthy has established. After last season and the first two games of 2011, I think McCarthy deserves the benefit of our doubt.

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