“Adversity reveals genius; prosperity conceals it.” – Horace
Today, somewhere in America, football is being played on the gridiron, as two teams battle it out for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers were expected…no, certified to be playing this weekend, if it weren’t for that loss to the Giants on their home turf last week. The gamut of emotions ran all over the spectrum, from anger and rage, to sadness and blame.
And those emotions weren’t limited to just the fans. Players, forced to face the press after the loss, showed many of the same reactions; public apologies to the fans, sound bites tinged with anger, but most of all, a sense of confusion and surprise. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We weren’t supposed to lose. And I can even begin to tell you why.
But, as theories blasted through the blogosphere and radio talk shows (ranging from resting starters in Week 17 to poor fundamentals), the one guy who may have hit the nail squarely on the head was none other than head coach Mike McCarthy.
"We did not play to our identity," said McCarthy. "No excuses. There was nothing in our preparation that had led me to believe this was going to occur today."
What exactly is the Packers’ identity, and perhaps more specifically, what is the identity of a McCarthy Packer team? In a nutshell, the Packers have always used adversity to light the fire underneath them, from the first day McCarthy took over as head coach.
This is the team that has always relied on the Big Play to make up for any deficiencies elsewhere on the team, making timely interceptions or quick-strike, down-the-field passing plays to thwart the other team’s efforts. There was always that feeling that the Packers needed their back against the wall in order to dig down deep and leave it all out on the field, whether it be in one individual game or the course of an entire season.
We all remember the come-to-Jesus moment when the Packers lost to Tampa Bay in 2009, when the team hit rock bottom with the formidable Cowboys next on the docket. The Packers were in serious trouble that week, but pulled together to pull off the upset and string together another six wins out of seven games to just eak into the playoffs as a wild card. No one expected them to even be close to contention after that Buccaneer game, but that is the way this team has been wired.
Last season was the epitome of adversity, with injuries all but erasing all those pre-season expectations of “Super Bowl or Die”. With a humiliating loss to the lowly Lions and the loss of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a second concussion, with the formidable Patriots next on the docket, all again looked to be lost.
But Matt Flynn nearly led the upset over the Patriots, failing in just the last moments of the game. That game was critical, however, for the Packers’ playoff hopes, even if it didn’t help them in the standings. With momentum and playoff hopes in serious doubt, the rest of the team rose to the occasion, rallying around their young backup quarterback. With the return of Rodgers the following week, and do-or-die games against the Giants and Bears, the whole team came together to pull off a series of inexplicable wins, often relying on Big Plays late in the game to preserve a win against a desperate opponent.
The Packers won a Super Bowl on that surge of never-say-die, facing adversity in the eye week-in and week-out, winning games not just on talent and execution, but a synergy and common purpose that you see when teams really are teams.
So, what happened in 2011? The Packers were suddenly no longer under a microscope, no longer doubted, the presumptive favorite to return to the Super Bowl. They rattled off a team-record thirteen straight wins to start the season, and the tickets for Indianapolis were as good as ordered. No longer were the Packers playing with their back against the wall. They were putting other teams’ backs against the wall.
Fans, despite the season of superiority, still found reasons to raise concerns...if nothing else, out of habit. Why is the defense so porous? Where is the running game? Why are we dropping so many passes? But criticism was quickly dismissed, any analysis dogged by “How can you be so negative when we’re undefeated!?”
But the adversity was gone. And, if you weren’t able to put your finger on it then, and even if McCarthy can’t quite find the right words to explain why the Packers lost their identity now, you can’t deny this was a completely different season than last year. This was a team of confidence, coming into each game with the expectation of winning…an expectation that grew larger and more ominous each week.
Perhaps the keystone of thriving under adversity was the man who was baptized into it in 2008. Certainly, we’ve all seen ESPN’s E:60 feature on Aaron Rodgers, who, when asked for the one trait that helps define who he is, insisted it was keeping a chip on his shoulder. He thrives on being doubted, and proving those doubters wrong. He had no shortage of second-guessers when asked to step in for a disgraced Brett Favre, and handled himself perfectly while keeping his play on the field ever-efficient.
But you have to wonder if the Packers, who have seemingly taken on the persona of their quarterback, ran out of chips to keep putting on their shoulder this year. How do you keep proving doubters wrong, when no one is doubting you anymore? How do you reach deep inside to claw back out of the well when you’re on top of the world?
Simply put, the Packers have never thrived on efficient, consistent play, but by being opportunistic. If made a mistake against the Packers…rushed a throw, took a risk…they made you pay. You could even outplay the Packers and still lose the game, simply because the Packers took advantage of your errors, then made the Big Play when it counted. At 15-1, the Packers tried to convince themselves they were a team like the Patriots: methodical, confident, and fundamentally sound, year in and year out.
But last Sunday, the Giants beat the Packers at their own game. It was they who put the chip on their shoulder, went on the road to the #1 seed’s home field, and proceeded to take advantage of every mistake they made. A couple Big Plays (like an impossible Hail Mary), and the Packers were trounced out of the playoffs by a team that, quite simply, had fought their way out of their rock bottom a mere month ago and came loaded for bear.
You saw the looks in the eyes of the Packers as the game went on, in their body language. This wasn’t a team that looked beat…it was a team that looked confused. They kept searching, waiting for what was supposed to happen. Aaron Rodgers was supposed to hit some huge hail mary for a touchdown. Charles Woodson was supposed to intercept a pass for a touchdown. Defensive backs bit on play fakes when Eli Manning had six or seven seconds in the pocket, looking for phantom interceptions they were used to popping up last year.
But those plays never came, and the Packers looked like they didn’t know how to overcome their own mistakes. When Mike McCarthy said the Packer lost their identity, he wasn’t kidding. A lot of us believed that the Packers were going to go all the way, and many of our irrational theses were blown out of the water.
We had stood and declared that, in today’s NFL, it didn’t matter if you had a porous defense in the playoffs, as long as you had an amazing passing game. You can eschew the run game completely and just keep passing, mark it down. No one in the playoff field should have even challenged us, because we had Aaron Rodgers. We convinced ourselves that these were truths, when in essence, we should have known that defense wins championships and anyone can kick your arse on any given Sunday. Always has been, always will be.
In the end, Aaron Rodgers didn’t lose this game for the Packers. The Giants played Rodgers completely different than every other team this year, all of whom thought sending blitzes and containing Rodgers was the right plan. New York, instead, rushed four and let Rodgers run, choosing instead to blanket his receivers and not give him anyone to pass to. It worked.
The Packers didn’t lose this game because they rested their starters in Week 17. The fear with resting starters is a loss of momentum, and quite honestly, the Packers had already been losing momentum on both sides of the ball since Thanksgiving. The Packers were in a position to rest up and come back at full strength and start building some new momentum in the playoffs.
But, they couldn’t generate that momentum, or create a new come-to-Jesus epiphany, when they didn't feel like their backs were against the wall. Adversity has always been the juice of the McCarthy Packers, and without it, they lost their identity.
While the 2012 season already holds its anxieties, waiting to see how general manager Ted Thompson plugs some holes and upgrades some positions in the draft, the larger onus may rest of Mike McCarthy. He is going to have to find a way to make this team believe they have to put that chip back on their shoulder, to prove to the doubters they will fight and claw their way out of every tight spot.
Perhaps an embarrassing playoff loss at home is enough to restore that feeling of adversity, because prosperity didn’t guarantee nearly as much when playoff time rolled around.