The next five days will tell the tale of the Green Bay Packers' season. Sitting and 5-5 and a game out of first place, the possibilities are as polarized as they come.
The Packers could beat both the Vikings today and the Lions on Thursday, and wind up sitting at 7-5 and in first place in the NFC North, if not by tiebreaker then outright possession.
However, if the Packers lose both games, they will sit at 5-7 with four games left to play, with infinitesimal scenarios that put them back into the playoff hunt.
A split of games is almost as equally as damning for the Packers, particularly if the loss comes on Thursday. 6-6 is a tough hole to climb out of without a division tiebreaker advantage.
One thing is for certain, however. The Panthers and 49ers stand firmly ahead of the Packers in the wild-card standings even now. In other words, if Green Bay is to make the playoffs this year, they will likely have to win the division to make it there.
In any other season, teeing up against the miserable 2-8 Minnesota Vikings and the whatever-whatever Detroit Lions, I'd already be looking ahead on the schedule. In any other season, wins against the Vikings and Lions are invariably a sure thing.
Also, in any other season, looking up at the Lions in the standings is about is a likely as Aaron Rodgers' collarbone miraculously healing before noon today.
But without Rodgers and a host of other important starters playing due to injury, even a win at home against the miserable Vikings isn't a sure thing. And it needs to be a foregone conclusion going into Thanksgivings' game against the division-leading Lions. The Packers can't afford any more losses.
Moreover, they can't afford any more self-doubt.
And, whether we like it or not, this adversity is going to be a test of head coach Mike McCarthy's resolve and ability to hold the team together.
He's done it before. Can he do it again?
There are two seasons you can look at polar opposites in how a head coach managed the adversity of injuries and repeated losses: 2005 and 2010.
2005 was a miserable season, a 4-12 record marked not only by long injured reserve and weekly injury lists, but repeated injuries at the same position. There's a reason you end up with street free agents like Samkon Gado and Taco Wallace starting for your team by the end of the season, and that's because the starters and backups have all resigned themselves to not playing.
But more importantly, as the season wore on, it became more and more clear that some of the players were giving up. Minor injuries became major injuries, and major injuries became season-enders. In the end, Brett Favre walked out onto the field surrounded by almost a completely different cast the the one he started the season with, and proceeded to try and win games all by himself by throwing interceptions.
But 2005 was marked by what I still call to this day "Harlan's Folly", the insistence of the team president to ask his new general manager, Ted Thompson, to keep Mike Sherman on as head coach. And, of course, Thompson's willingness to go on with it.
Now, I would never begrudge any newly-hired general manager for hiring his own guy to coach a team. But to keep the guy you just demoted from his dual role as GM/HC? Ludicrous.
Sherman had been losing respect from his players for years, evidenced in part by the stand-off between him and petulant cornerback Mike McKenzie the previous year. At the end, Sherman blinked and traded him away. While we can look back and congratulate ourselves that Thompson turned that second-round pick received in exchange from the Saints into future Pro-Bowler Nick Collins, the damage done to Sherman in the eyes of the players was set in stone.
It's very difficult to be both a head coach and general manager unless you have the presence of a guy like Vince Lombardi. The same face controls your contract negotiations, and at the same time controls your playing time. For a cerebral coach like Sherman, who regularly capitulated to Favre's ego trips, it was a mistake to put him in that lofty dual role.
It was even worse to keep him, defrocked of his GM duties, on the sideline in 2005. Sherman barely kept his bitterness hidden as the season went on. And as the season wound down, the players stopped playing for him, and the blistering rate of games missed due to injury skyrocketed at the end of the year.
You doubt that the Packers would allow a minor injury to take you out for the season? Let me introduce you to Seneca Wallace.
On the other side of the spectrum would be the 2010 Packers, under the firm leadership of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson. Both had demonstrated not only the leadership to finally end the capitulation of authority to Favre, but circled the wagons around his successor, Aaron Rodgers. Those decisions let the Packers know who was in charge, unlike Mike Sherman.
You can't deny the injuries were similar to that of this season, though you can make the case that the Packers seemed to have a deeper roster that was able to adequately fill the holes left.
It didn't change the fact that the Packers lost three out of four games near the end of the season, Aaron Rodgers' future was murky, and the team was sitting at 8-6 and looking up at the Bears in the standings.
McCarthy (certainly helped by the return of Rodgers from his concussion injury) kept the team together and went on perhaps the most wild run ever seen in the history of the franchise. A team that many fans had lost faith in never lost faith in itself.
The end result, of course, was a Super Bowl victory by perhaps one of the unlikeliest of teams. One could make the case that the 2010 team was more than the sum of its parts, that it exceeded its own abilities simply through sheer will and dedication to the goals set forth by its coaches.
The 2005 team? You could say the complete opposite: a team that wasn't even worth the sum of its parts. A team that gave up on itself and gave up on its coach.
As these two games over the next five days give us an indication if the playoffs are even a whisper of a dream for this team, it becomes yet another trial for McCarthy. Can he recapture the magic of 2010, turn this team around against the ods, and put them in the thick of the playoff battle?
Will the players truly believe in themselves and their coaches, and strive to exceed even their own expectations? Or will they give up, play sloppily, and just let the season end.
Some might say it is unfair to place this burden on McCarthy, who is already wearing a Super Bowl ring. Unfortunately, no head coach can rest on his laurels based on past success. The trial never ends, and like players, you're fighting for your roster spot every season. Coaches aren't much different.
It starts at noon today.
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