GREEN BAY – Camaraderie was what Mike Pettine missed the most during his two-year sabbatical from the football field.
A notorious workaholic, Pettine still got his football fix doing consultant work for the Seattle Seahawks last year, but hours of grinding film and writing reports lacked one of the key areas Pettine appreciated most in coaching – human interaction.
As the son of a high school coaching legend in Pennsylvania, Pettine had spent every fall he could remember with a football in his hands in some shape or form. That was until he stepped away from coaching in 2016 following his two-year stint as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Feeling refreshed and revitalized, Pettine chose to dip his foot back into the coaching waters this offseason, agreeing to become the Packers’ new defensive coordinator.
Now five months back on the job, the 51-year-old coach’s return to the field has been everything he hoped it would be thus far.
“It has,” said Pettine last week. “Being out, the miss is that interaction, not just with the players but with the coaching staff. And it's been great. But obviously here we're still in the honeymoon phase. We haven't given up a yard or a point, so it's all good.”
Pettine can’t guarantee wins, sacks or takeaways at this point. Even if he did, those words would ring hollow until production is realized on the field. However, Pettine’s renewed passion for the sport has been obvious to everyone he’s crossed paths with in during his short time in Green Bay.
It’s what sold Head Coach Mike McCarthy on hiring Pettine back in January and convinced highly regarded defensive assistant Joe Whitt to stay on board as Green Bay’s new pass-game coordinator.
Pettine’s defensive mantra of “keep it likeable and learnable” has won over a locker room full of hungry players eager to devour an exciting, yet digestible, playbook.
His scheme, an offshoot of the 3-4 defense Rex Ryan deployed with Baltimore and the New York Jets, has been retooled and streamlined over the years to conform to offseason requirements of the most recent 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
No longer, Pettine says, does he carry 50 or 55 calls into a game. Instead, he slants toward 25-30 calls, affording his players the necessary reps to get comfortable while remaining complex enough to keep the opposing offenses wary.
“I think he’s handled everything well,” said defensive tackle Kenny Clark of Pettine. “He has us locked in. He has us focused. When he speaks, everybody is listening. Everybody is just trying to get better and we’re just enjoying playing for him.”
Two rounds of offseason installations gave returning players their first introduction to the defense, but it was equally imperative to Pettine for players to also get to know the person behind the call sheet.
So Pettine sat down with each defensive player and his position coach during organized team activities, put down a piece of paper in front of the player and asked him to write down personal goals for the season.
“The difference is he met with each guy on defense,” defensive end Dean Lowry said. “It was very helpful to get his perspective of what he sees … and his overview of where he sees you in the defense and your goals, to make sure we’re on the same page and in this together.”
Pettine explained every player is going to have different aspirations outside of winning a Super Bowl and staying healthy. Some simply will hope to be on the 53-man roster when the Packers open their 100th season against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9.
In the end, successful defense is predicated on having all 11 players on the field understanding their role and pulling in the same direction. For the handful of players surveyed in the locker room last week, the exercise proved enlightening.
“I think Coach Pettine really hit it on the head,” linebacker Vince Biegel said. “It’s putting goals down that are tangible and realistic, but also goals you want to reach for.”
Clark never experienced anything like the exercise at any level of football he’s played, but he appreciated the gesture. More than anything, it gave the Packers’ former first-round pick a chance to bounce questions off Pettine and his defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to fully understand the big picture.
“I think that’s pretty cool because you actually get to talk to him,” Clark said. “Instead of guessing and being in the meeting room like, ‘Am I going to be able to do that? Does he see me as this kind of player?’ You actually get to sit down with him and put something on a piece of paper, and he gets to tell you, ‘I like this and this is how I see you in our defense.’”
Excitement and energy have defined the opening months of Pettine’s tenure as defensive coordinator. During spring practices, neither he nor his coaches have been shy about keeping players on task if a drill is getting disorganized or lapses occur on the field.
Pettine feels the “buy-in” with his direct approach, but knows how crucial production will be in turning that honeymoon phase into a successful defensive foundation, like he did during his time coordinating defenses in New York and Buffalo.
With a vision in place, Pettine is counting down the days to training camp, while his defense is ready to chart a new path.
“The big thing with this offseason is accountability,” Lowry said. “When your coach is more hands-on with you, he expects more out of you and you have to elevate your game because of that. We’re excited about the energy Coach Pettine brings to this defense and that’s one of the many reasons.”