Air show aside, McCarthy's roots are in the ground game

Green Bay Packers fans should have known the team's running game eventually would come around.

Coach Mike McCarthy spent five of his first seven NFL seasons tutoring quarterbacks, but his roots in the ground game might run deeper.

They run through Marty Schottenheimer, his first NFL boss, and even back to McCarthy's initial days as a tight end at Baker (Kan.) University. As a junior college transfer in 1985, McCarthy reported for camp expecting to catch passes, only to have a coach hand him gloves made for offensive linemen. McCarthy put them to good use.

"It was amazing that a running team ran a draw," said former Baker offensive line coach Dan Harris, now athletic director at the NAIA school, "but we ran it to perfection and it involved the tight end making a slight hesitation off the line so he wouldn't get hooked up with the defensive end."

McCarthy would then take out a linebacker.

"We have on film a lot of plays where a linebacker is just de-cleated when Mike came down on him," Harris said. "I don't think I had a stronger blocking tight end, ever."

While McCarthy's Packers won't face any NAIA defenses in the playoffs, Green Bay did rush for 235 yards during a 42-20 victory over Seattle in the NFC divisional round last week. The Packers have rushed for 577 yards in their past three games, matching their total through the first eight games of the season.

With McCarthy calling plays, the Packers' formerly pass-happy offense has developed into a versatile, highly efficient unit -- one that is peaking at the right time. A victory over the New York Giants in the NFC title game (Sunday, 6:30 ET, Fox) would deliver host Green Bay to a Super Bowl for the first time since the 1997 season -- not bad for a team that finished 4-12 in 2005 and 8-8 last season, its first under McCarthy.

"I thought it would be hard for him to come in last year [after the 4-12 record in 2005] and say we're going to the Super Bowl and be very believable," quarterback Brett Favre told reporters this week. "But right from the get-go this year, he said that has to be our focus. I'm looking around and I'm thinking, 'Some of these guys are just happy to be here.'

"You wonder how young guys will handle that sometimes. Our guys have handled it well."

The Packers have been grounded in more than one way.

Yet, for all their rushing success against Seattle, their offense hit stride during a first-quarter stretch featuring seven consecutive pass plays. McCarthy showed variations of four personnel groupings over those seven plays, and he was only getting started. Green Bay ran the ball on 10 of the next 15 plays, showing everything from four receivers on first down to groupings with three running backs, one receiver and one tight end.

Green Bay averaged 6.7 yards per carry against Seattle.

"Mike McCarthy knows the running game," said Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was with Green Bay in 1999, when McCarthy coached QBs for the Packers.

"Everyone talks about how they didn't have the run game early on this season, but he's committed."

By birth, perhaps. McCarthy grew up in Pittsburgh, where physical football is part of the DNA. His father, a firefighter, owned a bar popular with steel workers. When McCarthy entered the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Fort Hays (Kan.) State, the passing game was a sworn enemy.

"He was cutting his teeth to be a defensive ball coach," said Baker coach Mike Grossner, who played quarterback on McCarthy's Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College team and coached with him at Fort Hays State.

McCarthy's career took off after he returned home and volunteered to coach at Pitt. He worked the overnight shift at a toll booth before reporting to work in the morning, an experience sure to become part of the McCarthy legend if the Packers win a championship under him. Two other current NFL head coaches -- Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden -- worked with McCarthy at Pitt.

McCarthy worked his way up to coaching receivers and quarterbacks under Pitt coach Paul Hackett, now an assistant on Gruden's staff. McCarthy went with Hackett to Kansas City in 1993, the year the Schottenheimer-coached Chiefs added Joe Montana and Marcus Allen.

McCarthy spent two seasons as the Chiefs' offensive quality-control coach and four coaching quarterbacks, all under Schottenheimer. Kansas City ranked among the NFL's top six in rushing attempts in three of those six seasons.

"I think we're all a product of our past, and I've been very fortunate to be around those types of people and to go through those experiences," McCarthy told reporters.

McCarthy emphasizes pass protection, running the ball and making big plays on offense.

The Packers are succeeding on all fronts. They allowed 19 sacks during the regular season, third fewest in the league. Running back Ryan Grant, acquired from the Giants on Sept. 1, ranked second to NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson in rushing yards over the final 10 games. Green Bay's offense finished with 17 pass plays of 40-plus yards, two more than New England and the most in the league.

"McCarthy has some really good hard play-action-sell deep throws that were made famous back in Kansas City when he was there with Rich Gannon and Elvis Grbac and those guys," Hasselbeck said.

Favre appears as comfortable as ever, posting his highest passer rating since 1996, the season Green Bay defeated New England in the Super Bowl. The Packers aren't back in the big game yet, but McCarthy has them headed in the right direction, through the air and on the ground.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.