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Packers coach used 49ers as springboard

Before Mike McCarthy began his highly successful stint as Packers head coach, in 2005 he was the 49ers offensive coordinator.

Associated Press photo
Published: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 10:55 a.m.

SANTA CLARA — The 2005 San Francisco 49ers were to offensive football what “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is to high culture.

That year, the Niners ranked last in the NFL in total offense (224.2 yards per game), passing offense (118.6) and passer rating (53.6), and were 30th out of 32 teams in scoring (239 points). The total yardage figure is the worst among all NFL teams in the past 10 years. The passing yardage is worst in the past 20 years. It was an offense that dreamed of mediocrity.

“It was a brutal time because Pittsburgh is known for defense, Chicago is known for defense and that city responds to that, and this city responds to offense,” Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said of San Francisco. “They appreciate defense, but they want the ball flying. They want to see the scores and ... they want to see the quarterbacks. I think that 2005 was, you know, kind of as low as you can go.”

And yes, heads rolled. Of San Francisco's 11 primary starters on offense that year, two (running back Kevan Barlow and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd) were with different teams the following season, and three (fullback Fred Beasley, receiver Johnnie Morton and center Jeremy Newberry) were out of football altogether.

The man who presided over the grisly scene also wound up elsewhere in 2006. But offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy wasn't fired or demoted. He was hired away as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

The move proved to be a stroke of genius. The Packers have made the playoffs five times in McCarthy's seven seasons, with an overall winning percentage of .661. They won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, and had the NFL's best regular-season record (15-1) in 2011.

The Packers are again a dangerous group as they head to Candlestick Park for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers.

McCarthy used his year in San Francisco as a springboard to success, and he'd like nothing more than to haunt the Niners with that history.

“The opportunity to work in San Francisco was really a great one for me personally, on a number of different fronts,” he said by phone this week.

“As a young coach, when I was at the University of Pittsburgh with Paul Hackett, we always studied the 49ers film. It was something that we were always trying to emulate.

“And then go to Kansas City, the six years that I was in Kansas City, all three quarterbacks (Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac) had come from San Francisco, so you had a lot of time you spent being in touch with the way they did things out there, particularly on offense. And then finally having the opportunity to go out there and work, it was definitely a year that I enjoyed.”

As you might guess, McCarthy's hiring was greeted with shock, skepticism and no small degree of outrage in Green Bay in January of 2006. Back in San Francisco, though, the 49ers understood.

Only three offensive players from that '05 team remain with the 49ers today: quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore, both rookies in 2005, and long snapper Brian Jennings, who also has played tight end. All three said they were unsurprised when Green Bay opted for McCarthy.

“He seemed like a head coach when I was with him, just the way he carried himself, the respect everybody had for him,” Smith said.

All three players praised McCarthy and defended his work in 2005, citing the factors stacked against the team that year.

The 49ers had been so bad in 2004 that they wound up with the first overall pick in the draft, and took Smith, a spread quarterback from Utah. He played as a rookie in 2005, probably well before he was ready, behind an offensive line that simply wasn't very good.

"Yeah, if you were to look at us statistically and were to go, ‘Oh, I want to hire that offensive coordinator,' just based on statistics, you probably wouldn't,” Smith said. "But you just look at where we were the year before. ... Not all these No. 1-pick teams are created equal. You know, Kansas City has the No. 1 pick this year and I think they have like five Pro Bowlers. That was not us.”

Smith recalls McCarthy's legendary attention to detail, noting that he brought stacks of binders from his previous stints with the Chiefs, Packers and Saints.

That sounds familiar to former NFL quarterback and current Sirius XM NFL Radio host Rich Gannon, who played under McCarthy (then a quarterbacks coach) for four seasons in Kansas City.

The first spring they were together, McCarthy presented his players with a 15-page quarterback test that covered protections, coverages and other concepts of the position. It began with an essay, then moved on to multiple choice and true-false.

“He was one of the best coaches I ever had, and certainly the best position coach,” said Gannon, who also calls Packers preseason games.

“He was my quarterbacks coach, but he was much more than that. He was like an offensive coordinator, like an extension of Paul Hackett. He was so detailed, so organized.”

Gannon played 17 NFL seasons, his final six with the Raiders, and he experienced something in Kansas City that he insists was unique.

“If you went to Paul Hackett and asked about a particular read or progression — if you said, ‘Why this read?' or ‘Why do we do this a certain way?' and then you went to Mike and asked him the same thing, you'd get the exact same answer — but I mean verbatim,” Gannon noted. “There was zero misinterpretation.”

There is an ironic twist to this whole story. After going 2-14 in 2004, the 49ers wound up with a new head coach (Mike Nolan) and a new vice president of football operations (Scot McCloughan) in addition to the first pick in the draft. A lot of analysts thought the Niners might select Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the No.1. They took Smith instead, and Rodgers fell to the Packers at No. 24 overall.

A year later, McCarthy went to Green Bay to coach Rodgers, and helped make him a star. Gannon believes he could have done the same for Smith, but we'll never know for sure. McCarthy was just a memory down here when the 49ers finally cracked the playoffs under Jim Harbaugh last year.

And yet at least one person believes McCarthy contributed to the 49ers' rise as much as they contributed to his.

“I would say that year was the beginning of our course correction as a franchise,” Jennings said of 2005.

And I attribute that very much to Coach Nolan and the job that he did here ... and the job Coach McCarthy did for that year that he was here. I think he's a big part of that course correction, to change the trajectory of this organization.”

The Packers have been on a similar trajectory since McCarthy joined them in 2006. But only one of these teams will continue skyward on Saturday.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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