Have at It: Mike McCarthy as coach of year

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
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Mike McCarthyMatt A. Brown/Icon SMIFollowing a championship season, Mike McCarthy has led the Packers to a 14-1 record.

The very first comment on this week's Have at It illustrated why it needed to be a very NFC North-centric discussion. I asked you to debate who was most deserving of the NFL's Coach of the Year award, and mike feuerborn wrote: "Jim Harbaugh. No brainer."

Yes, I would expect Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers coach, to be the top candidate in a national, 32-team vote. But on an NFC North scale, the question boils down to Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers and Jim Schwartz of the Detroit Lions. Your discussion revolved around three points:

  • Those who think the coach of a 14-1 team deserves more recognition than the coach of a 10-5 team.
  • Those who think McCarthy had more talent to work with and less obstacles to hurdle, making Schwartz's performance more impressive.
  • Those who think the Lions' midseason loss of control traced back to Schwartz's chasedown of Harbaugh in Week 6, making him at fault for a stretch that nearly scuttled their season.

Let's hit all three points.

McCarthy's 14-1 record this season and 20-1 mark since last December, including the 2010 playoffs, generated the most civil discussion. Wrote BigSlammy: "The Packers played all season with a target on their backs, especially late in season when their record made them every other team's Super Bowl. Throw in the O-line injuries and there you have it. More success on a bigger stage: McCarthy."

Added mikedr9: "No denying what Schwartz has accomplished in Detroit, and in any other year he would be my choice. But it just came in the same year as McCarthy has guided the Packers through a phenomenal stretch."

"Give it to McCarthy," wrote LKP The Fever Wins, "but then he hands it directly to Aaron Rodgers."

Which of course, leads to the second point. McCarthy has the NFL's presumptive MVP playing quarterback and seven of his players were named to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. The Lions have what many would consider a talented roster, but in the end only one of their players -- receiver Calvin Johnson -- made the Pro Bowl.

"When Schwartz got to Detroit there were only about five NFL-caliber players on the whole team," wrote bobbyg640. "He has got the team in the playoffs. I thought McCarthy deserved it last year, but this year I believe Schwartz is more deserving. It is a lot harder to create success than to continue it."

Gandychr wondered "how hard is it to coach a team with Aaron Rodgers and a team with no new players" and added: "[Schwartz] has been able to manage the injuries with the offense and the shenanigans on the field while managing the media. 10-5 as a Lions fan is a dream come true."

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh, Jim Schwartz
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDid Jim Schwartz's postgame dust-up with Jim Harbaugh, left, contribute to the Lions' 2-5 midseason slide?
It's an undeniable accomplishment to take a team to the playoffs three years after it finished 0-16. But many of you weren't willing to consider Schwartz through that lens. Ryaninhof57 wrote that the Lions' "lack of discipline" during portions of this season "falls onto Schwartz for losing control of his players and encouraging the stupidity." AllHaleMegatron described him/herself as "a lifelong Lions fan" that "bumped my head on the car door" and "bled Blue & Silver" but still sided with McCarthy: "That doesn't make me blind to what has been going on this season as I watch EVERY game I can. Schwartz is definitely an honorable mention but I think he tainted his COY chances with the HarbaughGate scandal. It was stupid and unprofessional of him to get so bent out of shape about a slap on the back.

"I GOTTA go with McCarthy on this one. He led his wildcard team to a SB championship and then turned right around and almost ran the board through the regular season."

My take? I think it's an awfully slippery slope to start grading coaches on a curve based on the perceived advantages they've been handed. Why do we hold a talented roster against a coach's performance? Who is to say the coach didn't play an important, or even the critical, role in developing those players into elite performers? Or in putting them in position to maximize their skills? Aren't both of those part of a coach's job?

I understand how boring the Coach of the Year award would be if it was awarded annually to the coach whose team has the NFL's best record. The job Harbaugh did in ending the 49ers' eight-year playoff drought, for example, and resurrecting the career of quarterback Alex Smith merits substantial recognition.

I was among those who was critical of Schwartz's postgame charge toward Harbaugh, and a reasonable person could argue that it at least indirectly contributed to some of the incidents that held the Lions back during a 2-5 stretch. But in the end, there is no disputing Schwartz had one heck of a season. He has the Lions at 10 victories, and of his five losses, four have come to playoff teams. The fifth was to the Chicago Bears, who probably would have made the playoffs were it not for quarterback Jay Cutler's broken thumb.

With that said, however, McCarthy hasn't just presided over the NFL's best record. He has elevated the Packers' overall performance over what won Super Bowl XLV, even as his defense has slipped. The Packers didn't just have a great season. They went on a ride that put them among the best teams in the history of the league based on consecutive victories.

I'm not sure how it will shake out in the voting, but I don't see how you can ignore the coach's role in matters of such achievement. If I had a vote, McCarthy would be my choice for both the NFC North and NFL Coach of the Year award. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the right one, even if it's not initially obvious.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
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