After Sunday’s home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers decided to part ways with longtime head coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy was approaching his 13th full season as head coach of the team. His tenure included a Super Bowl championship during the 2010 season. Ultimately, the Packers’ recent struggles under McCarthy became too glaring to ignore, and so the team decided to move on.
Over the past several seasons, McCarthy has acquired a reputation for his overly conservative in-game decision making. The unfortunate truth is that McCarthy often did not give his team the best chance to win. Looking over his largest play call errors from the most recent season, we see a common theme emerge: McCarthy repeatedly showed an unwillingness to go for it in fourth-and-short situations, despite having one of the most talented quarterbacks in NFL history. Below is a list of McCarthy’s three largest play call errors this season.
Mike McCarthy’s largest play-calling errors during the 2018 Season:
- Week 11, GB at SEA, GB trailing 24-27, 4:20 left in the 4th quarter, GB has 1 timeout remaining, 4th and 2 from the GB 33
- McCarthy elects to punt instead of going for it, an error worth 13.0 percent Game-Winning Chance (GWC).
- Packers lost 24-27
- Week 1, GB vs CHI, GB trailing 0-10, 12:56 left in the 2nd quarter, 4th and 1 from the GB 34
- McCarthy chooses to punt instead of going for it, a 6.3 percent GWC error.
- Packers won 24-23
- Week 13, GB vs ARI, game tied 10-10, 3:41 left in the 3rd quarter, 4th and 1 from the GB 34
- McCarthy elects to punt instead of going for it, an error of 5.4 percent GWC.
- Packers lost 17-20
It’s worth noting that McCarthy’s conservatism on fourth down is not a recent phenomenon and has been noticeably present throughout his career. In the Packers’ 2014 NFC Championship matchup against the Seahawks, McCarthy memorably chose not to go for it on four separate fourth-and-one situations. Two of these decisions came on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. In this crucial game, his fourth down decisions cost his team a total of 12.7 percent GWC. The Packers eventually lost the NFC championship game in overtime, and ultimately McCarthy’s poor choices were quickly forgotten when Brandon Bostick stepped in front of Jordy Nelson and botched the recovery of an onside kick that would have sealed a victory for the Packers.
While Mike McCarthy has cost his team dearly through his fourth down decisions over the years, he is representative of a much larger systemic bias among NFL coaches. Risk aversion, particularly on key fourth down decisions, continues to disable teams from optimizing their GWC. To put McCarthy’s blunders in proper perspective, a 13% loss in GWC per game would cost a typical NFL team two wins per season on average. Most NFL front offices would be hard-pressed to pick up that amount of value in the off-season.