Kudos to Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers for somehow convincing the entire Packer team that last Sunday’s game was a preseason game.
Well, the Packers finally got the quality win that they so desperately needed—their first since the win over the Bears in week one. In between, there was a surprising—but in hindsight, not so bad—loss to the Bengals, two humiliating losses to the Vikings, and an inexplicable loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the plus side, there were wins against the Rams, Lions, and Browns—three of the worst teams in the league.
What are we to make of all this? It beats the heck out of me. The most encouraging thing is that the defense just played its best game of the season by far. The Cowboys may be notoriously undisciplined and poorly coached, but there’s no denying that they are loaded with talent, and they beat the Packers convincingly in Green Bay last year. So maybe this is progress.
Watching the defense get home on blitz after blitz, I was reminded of those warm summer nights when the Packers were the kings of the NFL preseason. I’ve always thought that, if you know what to look for, the NFL preseason can provide some useful clues about how the regular season is going to play out, but whatever remained of that belief was smashed to bits by this year’s Packer team, as their preseason momentum evaporated almost immediately when September rolled around. It got me to wondering what the most important differences are between the preseason and the regular season. Beyond the obvious difference that the starters don’t play as much in the preseason, there are two factors that stand out: game planning and motivation.
Of course, teams do not game plan nearly as much during the preseason as they do when the games count. This is actually one of the things I like about preseason football. I enjoy watching the one-on-one matchups. I often think that all of the complicated schemes employed by NFL teams may actually detract from our enjoyment of the sport. But the significance of preseason game planning (or lack thereof) for this year’s Packers is that the team’s starters seemed to match up well athletically against all of their opponents--heck, even Allen Barbre showed an ability to block pass rushers--yet when the real scheming began, the Packers suddenly looked like the same sorry team that took the field in 2008. This would not appear to reflect well on the coaching staff.
The struggles of the defense in the regular season have been less surprising than the struggles of the offense. In the preseason the Packers blitzed way more than most teams do, simply because they needed to practice their blitzes. It was expected that opposing teams would be better prepared to handle the blitzes in the regular season. But the decline of the offense has been a little harder to figure out. And maybe that’s where motivation comes in. Nobody is fully motivated during the preseason—or at least they shouldn’t be—but the regular season is what separates the teams that want to win from the teams that REALLY want to win.
On this web site, Jersey Al was quick to question Mike McCarthy’s ability to motivate his players when the Packers began to falter. I was initially skeptical. I’ve always been inclined to let the season play out before passing judgment on coaches and GM’s anyway. But after watching the Packers get kicked around by the Vikings at Lambeau Field, in a game where they HAD to play their best and clearly did not, then watching them crumble up and blow away in the fourth quarter in Tampa, I had to admit that Al may have been onto something. This win against the Cowboys at least gives us some hope, however.
Maybe the motivation needed to come from the players rather than the coaching staff. I would prefer to have a coach who can lift the team’s spirits almost singlehandedly, but if we don’t have that kind of coach, the players need to do it themselves. And maybe that’s what happened in the “Come to Jesus” team meeting after the loss to Tampa Bay. I wouldn’t bet on this new attitude having any staying power, but at least for now, it gives the team something to hang its hat on going into Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers. Maybe the Packers have finally recaptured some of that spark that they seemed to have in August. It seems like that was a long, long time ago.