PHOENIX – Marvin Lewis’ smile said plenty, but his blunt assessment was even better.
Lewis and Mike McCarthy have known each other for going on 25 years now, dating back to when they worked together at the University of Pittsburgh in 1990 and ’91. So when Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals head coach, was told Tuesday morning that McCarthy, the Green Bay Packers coach, had been criticized in some quarters for his team not being physical enough last season, he smirked and shook his head.
“I’m sure it hurt Mike,” Lewis said during the AFC coaches breakfast at the annual NFL Meetings at the Arizona Biltmore hotel. “But we all suck unless you win.”
Both Lewis’ Bengals and McCarthy’s Packers did win – but not enough. The Bengals went 10-6 before losing an AFC Wild Card game to the Houston Texans. The Packers went 11-5, won the NFC North for the second straight year, beat the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the playoffs but then lost for the second straight year in the NFC Divisional round.
For the Packers, it wasn’t so much that they lost but how they lost their 45-31 decision to the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers, with their physical reputation, reached Super Bowl XLVII, which they lost to the Baltimore Ravens, another team with a physical persona. Mix in the Packers’ 2011 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants, their regular-season loss to the Giants last November and their season-opening loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field, and two years removed from winning Super Bowl XLV, suddenly their toughness and entire approach were being questioned.
Which McCarthy did not appreciate.
“Obviously, we’re a physical football team. One play – or a segment of plays that you want to highlight – I don’t think speak for how your team plays, the mentality of your team,” McCarthy said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month. “There are things that we will improve on, there’s things we will re-emphasize when the players get back here April 15th.
“But, hey, Baltimore is the champion. Obviously San Francisco is the NFC champion. Those compliments to their football team are well-deserved and I think they’re accurate the way they play. But I have all the confidence in the world in our football team, and I’d do take them anywhere to play anybody.”
Next season, the Packers will face all kinds of tests on how physical they are. Not only do they have a rematch on the schedule with the 49ers at Candlestick Park, they also play the AFC North – meaning they’ll play the Super Bowl-champion Ravens and the Bengals on the road and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns at home. They’ll also play the Giants for the third straight regular season.
The problem with questioning how physical a team is or isn’t, of course, is that it’s hard to quantify or define. What makes a physical football team? Is it a hard-hitting defense? A ground-and-pound running game? Is it built by choosing a specific type of player? Running a particular offensive or defensive scheme? Is it a mentality?
Or is it simply what McCarthy would call a “convenient criticism” that invariably follows back-to-back playoff disappointments?
“I think ‘physical’ means finish, fourth quarter, mental toughness – you know what I’m saying? (But) it’s more than just words on paper,” said Lewis, who was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator when they won Super Bowl XXXV, following the 2000 season. “It’s work ethic and how you go about how you approach, your preparation for a game, how you go into the game. It’s really a culture more than anything.”
That culture, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, has to show through in every aspect of your team. It’s not just about having an aggressive defense or bruising running backs.
“I think we’ve had a vision in this organization for quite a long time and we built on that the last few years. You know the type of player you want to bring into your organization,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “We don’t bring anybody in that we don’t think has that type of a mindset – guys that love football and love the tough part of football, the physical part of football. (Guys) that like to work and play a good, physical game.
“I think it’s in all three phases, every aspect. It’s run, pass, run defense, pass defense, every part of special teams. You have to be physical in everything you do. It’s a physical sport, it’s one of the things that makes the game great. It’s who we are. It’s who we are as a football team. You look around the league, most teams try to be that. Our division, all four teams have taken on that mindset.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose team lost Super Bowl XLV to the Packers, said personnel is a factor in being viewed as physical, but that it’s also an approach
“Combative. And I think that’s a word that I look for in regards to being physical,” Tomlin said at the AFC coaches breakfast. “Put together a team that’s combative, one that doesn’t run away from combat situations or circumstances. I believe that year in and year out we’re capable of producing that kind of team.
“I just think it’s a mentality more than anything else. We understand that there’s going to be confrontation in the game of professional football and we’re not running away from it.
On defense in 2012, the Packers finished with 47 sacks, fourth-most in the league. A year after missing a mind-boggling 109 tackles on defense, they missed just 81 last season – and one-third of those (27) came in their three games against the Minnesota Vikings and running back Adrian Peterson. They also played the entire season without their most physical player (inside linebacker Desmond Bishop) and were without their two biggest defensive leaders – Charles Woodson (nine games) and Clay Matthews (four games) – for lengthy stretches.
One stat did stand out: The Packers forced only eight fumbles in the regular season last year, recovering four. That would seem to be a physical statistic, right? There’s just one problem with that theory: Only two teams forced fewer fumbles than the Packers last season: The Indianapolis Colts, who made the playoffs, and the Ravens.
On offense, the Packers non-quarterbacks ran the ball 375 times while quarterback Aaron Rodgers and backup Graham Harrell had 556 pass attempts and 51 sacks. Throwing out Rodgers’ 54 rushing attempts (and Harrell’s four) even though most of those were scrambles on called pass plays, the Packers ran 982 plays. Of those, 38.2 were runs by running backs, and 61.8 were clear-cut passing situations.
In addition, the Packers haven’t had a running back rush for 100 yards in a regular-season game since Brandon Jackson carried 10 times for 115 yards (71 of it on one run) at Washington on Oct. 10, 2010. That’s a streak of 43 consecutive regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher. (If you count James Starks’ 123-yard effort against the Philadelphia Eagles in a 2010 NFC Wild Card playoff game, the streak is 38 games including playoffs.)
“You have to be able to run the ball effectively. That’s what Benny brought to us more consistently,” Lewis said, referring to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whom the Bengals signed from New England. “Even when we weren’t doing things ripping and roaring up and down the field for a 100-plus yards a game early in the season, we were much better on short-yardage and goal-line, and I think that mentality was a different mentality. That was something that he excelled at with the Patriots, so when he came to Cincinnati he’d get excited about because he was used to being very good at that in New England and that was his forte.”
Short yardage was not the Packers’ forte. According to NFL statistics, the Packers faced third-and-1 on 35 occasions during the regular season. They ran the ball on 18 of those plays, converting the first down on 11 of them (61.1 percent). They threw the ball on 15, converting eight (53.3 percent). And on two, Rodgers scrambled and converted both for a total conversion rate of 60 percent (21 of 35) – which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Overall, the Packers finished ninth in the league in third-down conversion rate (42.9 percent).
Rodgers accounted for five of those first-down runs on called QB keepers, so the Packers’ running backs were 6 for 13 (46.2) on third-and-1 situations.
It certainly didn’t help the short-yardage game – or the running game as a whole – that veteran running back Cedric Benson, who was starting to round into form and was looking very capable of being the workhorse back the team has lacked, went down with what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury in Week 5. That led to a revolving door at running back, where late-season addition DuJuan Harris showed an intriguing physical running style for his 5-foot-8 height, but the running game was still a non-factor.
For another team that has developed a physical reputation, the Seattle Seahawks, it starts at running back with Marshawn Lynch, whose punishing running style proved to be a perfect complement for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, taking pressure off the passing game until the ex-University of Wisconsin star hit his stride.
“He’s a tone-setter. There’s no question about it,” said Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who traded for Lynch during the 2010 season, when he was willing to pay a steeper price than Packers GM Ted Thompson would. “The other players see how hard he plays and he gives it up. He’s a guy that’s really been a tempo-setter for the younger players on the team.”
“(Being more physical) was a goal of ours when we got there (in 2010). We had played the Packers that (previous) year, and we knew that we wanted to establish a certain identity and that was a long-term goal of ours – to become a strong, tough, fast, physical football team. That you knew when you came to CenturyLink (Field) that you were going to have to deal with the noise and you were going to have to deal with the toughness. And then if we went somewhere and played on the road, that you weren’t just going to be able to walk out on your home field and walk all over us.”
For Schneider, who was Thompson’s director of football operations before leaving to join coach Pete Carroll in Seattle, the idea of getting physical begins with player acquisition.
“I think when you’re scouting players, you’re scouting the guys you’re attracted to because they play through injuries, they present themselves with a certain mental toughness, a certain swagger,” Schneider said. “Then you have a staff that can instill that confidence in them to play with that certain swagger. Pete’s always, wherever he’s been, done a great job of instilling confidence in people and letting them be themselves.”
And if the Packers are themselves, they will be a pass-oriented offense with arguably the league’s best quarterback and a bevy of pass-catching talent (even after Greg Jennings’ free-agent defection to Minnesota and the retirement of franchise all-time leading receiver Donald Driver). They can certainly improve in the run game on offense become a more attacking, hard-hitting defense – especially in the secondary. Maybe the draft will yield a hard-hitting safety, some linebacker help and another defensive lineman who’ll eat up blocks. And perhaps after two years of playoffs disappointments, there’ll be more urgency and intensity that could lead to being more physical – which the Packers have always aspired to be under McCarthy.
“We always wanted to be,” said Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, McCarthy’s offensive coordinator from 2007 through 2011. “There was a certain way we wanted to play. I thought we did a good job with the players that we had in terms of putting them in a position to be successful, and utilizing the talent we had at our disposal. … But we were a throwing team a little bit."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.