GREEN BAY — The playbook has been misjudged by its cover before. Often enough, in fact, that Mike Pettine is used to it now.
With a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper goatee — not to mention a default setting that, at least while coaching, could be best described as glowering — Pettine knows he can appear a bit menacing.
“I’ve heard that,” the Green Bay Packers’ new defensive coordinator said last week, when coach Mike McCarthy introduced him as the man charged with improving the side of the ball that has let his team down far too often in recent years.
“I’ve been told my natural resting gaze is not a pleasant one. But there’s not much I can do about that. I blame my parents for that. (But) I get it.”
The reality, though, is that beneath an intimidating exterior is a football intellectual.
The son of a legendary high-school coach — Mike Pettine Sr., who died in February at age 76, retired in 1999 as the winningest coach in Pennsylvania history, having gone 326-42-4 in 33 years at Central Bucks West (Doylestown) — Pettine, 51, played quarterback for his dad in high school before playing safety in college at Virginia. When he started coaching at North Penn High School, where he coached for five years in the same conference against his father, Pettine called the offense, not the defense.
And when he got his big NFL break in 2002, when he was hired by the Baltimore Ravens as a video assistant, it was again with a focus on offense.
“I was always more geared toward the offensive side of it,” Pettine said. “It’s what I got hired (to do) in Baltimore, (and then) I just kind of got thrown in with the defense and it stuck.”
And what effect did that have?
“I think it’s important that the players see things a certain way but they understand, too, the thinking that goes behind it,” Pettine said. “I always like to explain the ‘Why.’”
‘Genuinely good guy’
Former Packers cornerback Tramon Williams was among those who misjudged Pettine. A free agent after the 2014 season, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, who’d hired Pettine the previous offseason as their head coach after defensive coordinator stints with the New York Jets (2009-2012) and Buffalo Bills (2013). Pettine’s football IQ and personality were among the deciding factors in Williams picking the perpetually struggling Browns.
“What’s funny, man, (is) if you just look at Mike, he looks like an intimidating guy. He can command a team, a defense, just by his look,” Williams said. “But, man, when you get to talking to him, he’s just such a nice guy. It’s as simple as that. He’s just a genuinely nice guy. When you guys get talking to him, you will see that right away.
“You look at him and you’re intimidated but then you start talking to him and it’s, ‘Oh, man, this ain’t who I thought I was talking to.’ He’s a genuinely good guy.”
And a genuinely good coach.
“Very, very smart. Very smart and articulate,” Williams said. “Obviously, his resume shows over the years that he’s done a good job as a defensive coordinator.”
The five defenses Pettine coordinated in New York and Buffalo never finished outside the top 10 — and now he’s taking over a defense that hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2010, the year the Packers won Super Bowl XLV with defensive coordinator Dom Capers in his second season in Green Bay. Among the seasons that followed, Capers’ units notably finished 32nd, 11th, 25th, 15th, 15th, and 22nd. After McCarthy fired Capers on Dec. 31, he planned an exhaustive search for a replacement — until he heard more and more about Pettine and met him.
“Frankly, when Mike and I got into the room together — I had some other ideas because I had a couple of options of how I was looking to build a staff — and when we started going, I felt that we really connected,” said McCarthy, adding that he only knew Pettine “from a distance” before interviewing him. “You look for people that kind of view the game the way that you do. His background in analytics, the ability to teach and being in tune with today’s athlete, there’s a number of things (where) I thought Mike really knocked it out of the park. I knew early in the process that he was the right man for the job.”
Ask University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons on defenses connected to Pettine, about his mentor’s approach, and the reply is instantaneous.
“Two words come to my mind when I think of him: Flexibility — his system will be flexible to find the most talented playmakers and the matchups week-in and week-out,” Leonhard said. “And then creativity — to be able to put those guys in position to make plays on a consistent basis.
“A lot of my thought process and how I approach the game comes from (that).”
For Packers fans who saw too many instances of confusion on defense the past few years — with young players forced into early action by the convergence of the team’s draft-and-develop approach and injury issues, miscommunication was frequent in Capers’ veteran-oriented scheme — a new system that puts a premium on intelligence may not seem like such a good idea.
But for Pettine, the key is outsmarting the offense, and making the opponent see things that aren’t necessarily there.
“I like to appear multiple. I know people have said the system can be very complicated. (But) we like to appear multiple without necessarily putting that much stuff in,” Pettine said. “So, it’s not a system that is overwhelming to learn.
“The league has changed. When I first got in the league it was easy to put in 50 or 60 defenses up for a game. Now, you’re 20-25. Why? Because a lot of time you’re dealing with young players that haven’t been veteran guys in a system that know it, and also you’re dealing with the new (practice rules) where you have limited time to get with them, especially in the offseason for them to learn that foundation.”
“I think as a coach you have to adjust. (When) you look at us, you’re going to see we’re going to be multiple and we’re going to be aggressive.”
And, Pettine hopes, smart.
“If NFL quarterbacks know what you’re in pre-snap, you’re in trouble,” Pettine said. “I think the disguise element and mixing up coverages and making things look similar but having the ability to play something different out of it —that chess-game part of it — I think is important. And that’s something we’re going to emphasize.”