GREEN BAY — Being back in the game has reminded Mike Pettine just how much he loves coaching it. It has also confirmed for him what he felt when he became the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator 11 months ago: He’s not interested in being a head coach again.
At least, no time soon.
“Despite the struggles we’ve had this year, this is probably the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” Pettine said as the Packers (4-7-1) prepared to face the equally disappointing Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Lambeau Field on Sunday. “And it just validated for me what I truly missed was the interaction in the staff room on a day-to-day basis, building a plan and then just the day-to-day with the players, (which) you really kind of miss out on that as the head coach.”
When now-departed coach Mike McCarthy hired Pettine to replace Dom Capers last January, Pettine had been out of football for two seasons in the wake of an exhausting two-year stint as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach. At the time, Pettine was only half-kidding when he said, “It took me a while until I felt like I could smell smells and see colors.” The Browns went 10-22 before firing Pettine; his successor, Hue Jackson, went 3-36-1 before being fired earlier this year.
While Packers team president/CEO Mark Murphy called interim head coach Joe Philbin a “legitimate candidate” for the permanent job, Murphy was non-committal when asked if Pettine was a candidate and whether the team would urge the next coach to keep him on as defensive coordinator.
“Those are questions we'll answer down the road,” Murphy replied. “I don't want to get into any of those details yet.”
The Packers might want to take a page out of the Chicago Bears’ hiring playbook, based on the early returns with Pettine’s defense. Despite a thin outside linebacker corps and injuries across the defensive line and throughout the secondary, the Packers entered the week ranked 17th in scoring defense (23.9 points per game) and 13th in total defense (351.8 yards per game), though only five teams in the 32-team league entered the week with fewer takeaways than the Packers (12).
Last year, after firing coach John Fox, the Bears hired ex-Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, a young, offensive-minded coach who brought new ideas to Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky-led offense. The Bears entered the week leading the NFC North at 8-4, and while their offense has improved with Nagy at the helm, it’s been their defense — fourth in both total defense (317.9 yards per game) and scoring defense (20.1 points per game) — that’s made the biggest difference.
Although the club passed over defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for the head-coaching job, the Bears and Nagy convinced him to stay on as coordinator. At the time, Nagy called it a “very important hire for me,” and he was right.
Would Pettine be open to doing the same thing for the Packers’ next coach?
“When something like this happens, you at some point begin to think of your own future, and it’s just been really tough to do that,” Pettine admitted. “Especially with Joe stepping in (as head coach) and all of our thoughts (focused) on Atlanta. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah. (I’m) not open to it, open to it.’ I mean, that’s a bridge that will definitely get crossed. I just don’t think now is the time to do it.”
Pettine is under contract for next season, although that doesn’t mean much — other than him getting his salary if the team goes another direction.
There’s no guarantee veteran outside linebacker Clay Matthews will be back next season, either — he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent — but the team’s longest-tenured defender believes Pettine has made a “great deal” of difference on defense and the team should do everything it can to keep him.
“The thing I really enjoyed about Dom, and this kind of speaks to the generation of player — I don’t want to date myself that much — but when I first came in, there was a lot more accountability put on the players to get their job done,” said Matthews, who was one of two 2009 first-round picks and was a rookie on Capers’ first defense. “I think a little bit more pressure needs to be put on the young guys when they come in here, and (Pettine) has done exactly that.
“You look around the league, young guys are expected to play right off the bat. It’s no different with our team. Young guys are playing, so it’s important that they be held accountable, know their playbook and get the job done when their name and number is called. I think (Pettine) has done a great job of putting us in the right direction.
“If you strictly look at the numbers, we’ve made strides, we’re playing better, playing more consistent. The reality is we’re missing those one or two plays a game that change games that we’ve had in the past. We need to figure out a way to continue to be accountable, which we have, and continue to play well and continue to play with the guys in which we have. Injuries have obviously played a huge role in where we’re at in the season. Being able to force those (game-changing) plays, whether it’s a sack-caused-fumble, interception, whatever it may be, those plays that really change the course of a game that — unfortunately — you’ve seen from teams playing us rather than the other way around.”
To be fair, although the Packers defense finished lower in the rankings last season under Capers — 26th in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense — the raw numbers are nearly identical to this year’s stats. Capers’ last defense allowed 24.0 points per game and 348.9 yards per game.
Nonetheless, the unit certainly feels improved, and Pettine would like to see what kind of progress would come with a second year in the system.
“Just in general, the first year is always the hardest,” Pettine said. “You invest so much time because, first, you’ve got to coach the coaches and get all on the same page there and be able to pass that information on to the players. And there’s no substitute for the reps, so you just feel like when you do head into Year 2 of a system that you’re just that much further ahead, assuming you have the bulk of your core players back.
“And, two, I think you also find out during the course of that year, what are we built to do? What concepts are we good at? What are we not good at? What do we need to work on? What do we need to focus on? So it also, I think, helps narrow just our staff thoughts on the inventory. ‘We are this type of team and these are the three, four things that we do best and we’re going to build around it.’ Whereas a lot of times early on this year, it was more throwing darts and trying to figure out what it is. So, just in general, the bulk of the investment comes from Year 2. But that’s the way the NFL is. That’s something that we’ll know soon enough.”
The Packers likely will be without at least one — and maybe more than one — offensive lineman Sunday as veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) was listed as doubtful on the injury report. Right guard Byron Bell (knee), who like Bulaga left last Sunday’s game against Arizona and did not return, is officially questionable, as is left guard Lane Taylor (foot).
“We’ll see,” Bell said.
Meanwhile, long-snapper Hunter Bradley (ankle) also was listed as questionable but said he will play. He did not practice Thursday after injuring the ankle Wednesday but felt he’d made significant progress over the past two days.
“It was just a sprain. It feels good. I was out there today and going through all the motions – snapping, getting back and covering – and there was no issue,” Bradley said Friday. “Luckily it wasn’t serious, so you just give it some rest and ice and let the swelling go out.”
While special teams coordinator Ron Zook wouldn’t say who would replace Bradley if he couldn’t go, Bradley said outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell handled the snaps Thursday in practice and looked good.
“He can sling it,” Bradley said. “He’s good.”
King must be ‘more of a pro’
When you’ve finished both of your NFL seasons on injured reserve, cornerback Kevin King admitted Friday, you have to take a closer look at how you do things. So while the 2017 second-round pick is “doing good” after being placed on IR this week with a recurring hamstring injury, he’s also doing some deep thinking about his approach. King played in only six games this season after playing in only nine as a rookie because of a shoulder injury that required surgery.
“You mourn over it for 24 hours, then you face the situation and you deal with it accordingly,” King said. “In this situation, dealing with it accordingly is getting healthy for next year, looking at it as a good opportunity to get my body extra-right — a month better than it would have been if I would have been playing. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m in a good space.
“I’ve got to learn how to be more of a pro. I’ve got to learn how — not that I’ve been lacking — but there’s always room for improvement in terms of learning how to take care of your nutrition and learning little things like that. You talk to veteran guys and the things that they wish they would have done when they were younger. That’s something that I can get ahead of. There’s things about my body that I’ve learned.”
Julio Jones expects to play
After missing practice Wednesday and Thursday with a foot injury, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had limited participation on Friday and is expected to play in Sunday's game at Green Bay.
Jones was removed from Atlanta's injury report.
Backup tight end Logan Paulsen was ruled out with knee and ankle injuries. Kicker Matt Bryant is questionable with a back injury.
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley (hand, elbow) and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (shoulder) also were limited on Friday but are expected to play.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.