'Mutual respect': Mike Holmgren's guide to coaching elite QBs

Bruschi and Woodson both take Packers over 49ers (0:34)

Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson both see Aaron Rodgers and the Packers taking care of the 49ers without Jimmy Garoppolo. (0:34)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was less than a month ago when Mike McCarthy sat in the green room adjacent to the Lambeau Field media auditorium on a Thursday afternoon to discuss how he and Aaron Rodgers would deal with the quarterback’s recently injured knee.

It wouldn’t be easy, McCarthy conceded, but their 13-year head coach-player relationship would help.

"I think [the relationship] is taken for granted probably more so for him and I, and that's easy to do because we've done it for so long," McCarthy said at the time. "There's really no surprises."

Ten days later, McCarthy had to be surprised when Rodgers stood in the auditorium after the Week 4 win over the Buffalo Bills and trashed the Green Bay Packers' offensive performance and, in the process, questioned the game plan.

McCarthy did his best not to add any fuel to the rekindled discussion about the relationship between the two-time MVP quarterback and the longtime successful coach. Instead, he publicly chalked it up to Rodgers’ competitive nature.

But how could a coach, especially one who worked with Rodgers for so long, not feel blindsided and even a little hurt?

"Absolutely," former Packers coach Mike Holmgren said when asked if those comments would have been hurtful.

"I’ll tell you, I never had to deal with that," Holmgren said this past week in a phone interview. "I would not have liked that. And you know me and my personality, and I want to say I’ve matured, but I would not have liked that."

The hot-tempered Holmgren may have mellowed in retirement, but he didn’t shy away from sharing his feelings on this.

"It’s a different time now with social media and the stuff that gets out that previously would have been behind closed doors, it’s out there now," Holmgren said. "But still, my approach to those types of things was, first of all, I’d want to find out if in fact that’s what was said. Then if it was said, let’s talk about this. I had a rule -- I didn’t have a lot of rules -- and one of them was we’re going to operate from a mutual respect. I won’t embarrass you, and I don’t expect you to be embarrass me.

"When I read stuff like that, first of all I don’t know exactly what to believe. But secondly, it’s sad to me a little bit. I certainly did not want to hear that, no one does. I know both of those guys. I know Aaron a little bit, and I know Mike pretty well. I have tremendous respect for those guys. If in fact he was critical, then I would say, ‘Don’t do that. You don’t have to do that. You’re too good to do that.’"

Holmgren had as much experience with elite quarterbacks as anyone. His first NFL job was as Joe Montana’s position coach in San Francisco. He coordinated the 49ers offense with Steve Young as quarterback and spent seven years as Brett Favre’s head coach in Green Bay, leading them to consecutive Super Bowl appearances before leaving in 1999 for the Seattle Seahawks, where he developed Matt Hasselbeck into what Holmgren called "a very good player for me."

"I was probably too scared to ever cross Mike Holmgren," Hasselbeck joked. "In all seriousness, sometimes he would privately tell me he was going to criticize me before he did it publicly. He wanted me to know the importance of it and why he was doing it. That obviously helped a lot because I was sort of in on it. It was a powerful move that I had also seen him do with Brett in Green Bay.

"Mike would often tell me that I needed to ‘get the players to care more than the coaches do.’ That’s how it turned around for them in San Francisco. That’s what he saw for us in Seattle -- players taking ownership of the team."

"... sometimes (Holmgren) would privately tell me he was going to criticize me before he did it publicly. He wanted me to know the importance of it and why he was doing it. That obviously helped a lot because I was sort of in on it." Matt Hasselbeck

The hardest part about coaching elite quarterbacks, Holmgren said, is they’re typically strong-willed people.

"They are, and you love that about them," Holmgren said. "Everyone has to understand what the role is -- what the role of the player is, the role of the coach is. You’re hired to do something. You’re paid to do something. He’s paid to play. I’m paid to coach. I used to tell them all the time, ‘Listen, this is your team when we’re on the field. My pledge to you is I will do everything in my power to put you in the right place to be successful, and then what I’m asking you to do is prepare and get it right.’"

McCarthy and Holmgren never worked together, but those who know both describe their personalities as similar.

"McCarthy definitely has some Mike Holmgren in him," said a mutual acquaintance who still works in the NFL. "Both fiery. Both can run hot. Both understand the quarterback position. This would not have sat well with Holmgren."

The biggest difference for McCarthy and Holmgren was their time frames with the elite quarterbacks. Other than with Montana, who was 35 during his last year with Holmgren in San Francisco, Holmgren’s time with Young and Favre came earlier in their careers.

"I never ran into this issue with Brett," Holmgren said. "I don’t know if Mike did later on."

Most of McCarthy’s time with elite quarterbacks has come in the latter stages of their careers, which, according to Holmgren, presents a whole different set of challenges. Holmgren’s task, especially with Favre and later Hasselbeck in Seattle, was to break them in. That didn’t happen immediately.

"It wasn’t right away," Holmgren recalled. "Brett did it on an airplane coming back from a game we won, and he goes, ‘Mike, today it slowed down. I got it. Now I’ve got it.’ But it had been two years of strangling him. And then Hasselbeck said the thing, came into my office and he goes, ‘Now I understand what you were doing.’ Then I’d say, ‘I’m glad because all that time, didn’t you think I was trying to help you?’ But it’s about developing a relationship of trust with the player.

"I get the job with the 49ers, and I’m four years removed from my high school coaching days, and I’m going to be coaching Joe Montana, and I’m going ‘How do I approach this? How am I going to do this?’ And Bill Walsh brought him into my office -- I had been there two weeks -- and he goes, 'Why don't you guys go down to the cafeteria and get to know one another a little bit over a Coke or something?'

"We hadn’t taken 10 steps, and he just said ‘Mike, before we even get going here, I want you to coach me hard. You see something, you just let me know.’ He was that way. He had every reason to ... heck, he’s the most valuable in the Super Bowl, he’d done it all, yet he chose to be that way."