I’ve been there. I was a wingback in high school and ran all the receiving drills. And, I could catch the ball, believe it or not.
But, I dropped them, sometimes several of them in a row. There were a multitude of reasons why I dropped a pass. Maybe I took my eye off the ball to look upfield. Maybe I was preoccupied with my footwork or where the sideline was. But more often than not, it was because I assumed that the catch was an automatic, that because I had made it so many times before, I didn’t have to concentrate on it.
And so it went for Green Bay’s receivers in a shocking loss against the Chiefs on Sunday. Guys getting paid millions of dollars a year dropping them, left and right. In the end, if you wanted to attribute this loss to any single factor, the Packers not executing in the area of their greatest strength, the passing game, is right up there. But, I wouldn't.
Today was a microcosm for a team that has, predictably, taken their eye off the ball under the media glare of an undefeated season. It’s a defense that has sometimes shirked some of the fundamentals of the game (pad level, communication) while worrying about making a big play.
But most of all, this is a team that has become accustomed to being able to play soft or uninspired ball, and still come away with a win. And, simply put, that is not Mike McCarthy Football. They’ve come to expect that the defense can give up a ton of yards, or the running game can disappear, and somehow, the win should still be an automatic at the end. And for nineteen straight games, it has been.
Until the day we went into the stadium of a team that recently hit rock bottom, with essentially a home crowd to play in from of, and that win didn't show at the end. And I am here to say it is a good thing.
In fact, I’ve been suggesting it would be a good thing for the Packers for quite a number of weeks now. The Packers have gone up against middling to poor teams and allowed them to hang around until the end of the game. There’s a reason the Packers rank 31st overall in defensive yardage yielded this season, but as long as you had Rodgers passing and receivers catching, we always scored just enough to stay ahead at the end.
Until today. The magic hit a brick wall, just as many of Rodgers’ passes hit the bricks of his passcatchers, and a desperate team with nothing to lose did just what it needed to in order to pull off the upset. And it might be just what the Packers need. After all, it’s far better to have this happen in the regular season than in the postseason.
A Mike McCarthy team can be defined in many ways, but one of the most important traits is that it performs best when its back is against the wall. So many times, we've seen this team have to nearly hit rock bottom before it rediscovered the wherewithal to play up to its potential. Remember the Week 9 loss in 2009 to the Buccaneers, where it seemed all was lost, requiring the “Come To Tebow Jesus” meeting in the locker room? The Packers, reeling at 4-4, won seven of their final eight games to nab the fifth seed in the playoffs.
Remember the Patriots game last season, following a humiliating loss to the Lions and playing their first game without Aaron Rodgers? Despite the loss, the rest of the team elevated their game and almost pulled out the win. When Rodgers returned, it was a different and more complete team…and it had to be in order to win out to get the sixth seed, and win four playoffs games on the road to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
That’s what has defined the Mike McCarthy version of the Packers: perseverance through adversity. Let’s face it: this isn’t the first time we’ve seen uninspired play from the Packers. It also isn’t going to be the last time we’re going to see them rebound and play like they have nothing to lose.
I’ve been worried about this lackluster play, particularly on defense. But it’s hard to say it’s a “problem” when you’re 10-0, 11-0, 12-0, 13-0... You had the feeling that, sooner or later, pass rushers strolling into Rodgers’ backfield was going to catch up to them. Or, that another “communication issue” with the two young safeties would eventually lead to more points than the offense could counter. Or, allowing opposing quarterbacks to sit for four, five seconds without any pressure before passing was going to bite us in the butt someday.
Even MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers has fallen off his torrid pace the past few weeks. But, it is fitting that the one aspect of the team that has almost always been reliable...the receivers...were the ones that fell apart today. It’s not that the receivers were wholly responsible for the loss.
It’s that none of the other squads elevated their games to make up the difference.
When the Packers get home and look in the mirror, they have some hard questions to answer. Dom Capers has to face the fact that the defense can no longer be a sieve and still come out with a win each week. Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett have to get their act together and worry more about their assignments than making a big hit. Jermichael Finley has to close his mouth, stop doing his ridiculous first down celebration, and focus on one thing: Catch. The. Ball.
And McCarthy has to impress upon his team that they are indeed standing with their backs against the wall, and quite honestly, it’s not a stretch of the imagination despite their gaudy 13-1 record. Injuries have mounted, and whatever pixie dust the Packers had in 2010 has run out in 2011. No longer can the Packers counter the loss of Nick Barnett with a superior player in Desmond Bishop. No longer can Mark Tauscher be replaced adequately with Bryan Bulaga. When Bishop and Bulaga get hurt now, there’s isn’t better stock sitting behind them, as the Packers were fortunate enough to have last year.
The offensive line was a turnstile today, and the defensive pass rush looked like it was running in molasses. We know that's not going to get you far in the playoffs. Period.
No, there’s no reason to panic, but there’s reason to put a chip on your shoulder, a hard hat on your head, and get back to work. As McCarthy himself said many times, “We gotta get that cleaned up,” and there’s nothing like an ugly loss to make those issues obvious. The Packers may have lost their chance at meaningless statistical history, but that was the distraction that took the Packers’ eye off the ball. Is it more important to win another Lombardi Trophy, or to go undefeated?
Go ask the 2007 Patriots if they would have traded a regular season loss for a Super Bowl win. The Chiefs may have given Packer Nation a world of hurt today, but in the long run, it may be the best thing to make sure the Packers keep their eye on the ball.
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