|Photo from Packers.com|
But beyond this, if you go into the Championship game as heavy underdogs, on the road in one of the hardest places to win on the road, then you have to make the most of the chances that you make for yourself, or that fall your way. To play it safe, taking the "sure" 6 points instead of a chance at 7 or 14 points, is not, in my mind, playing as aggressively as you need to in those circumstances. Now I can almost hear Coach McCarthy, bellowing that "we are nobody's underdogs," to justify playing it safe rather than "panicking" by taking risks that he would not normally take. But that, in my view, is really the problem. His normal approach to these decisions is too timid. We see too many "run, run, pass, punt" series, especially if Rodgers is injured, as now, or out of the game, as he was last year. We see too many dive plays to John Kuhn inside the 5 yard line. And we see too many field goals kicked on 4th and short yardage.
Pete Carroll takes chances to win games (such as the fake field goal Sunday). Bill Belichick takes chances to win games (among other things, think of the weird, trick formation plays last week). You could probably also think of spying on opposing teams and deflating footballs as risk-taking in order to win games, but I am talking here only about perfectly legal risks in play-calling and game strategy. And Sean Payton takes chances (remember the surprise onside kick in the Super Bowl a few years ago).
This is by no means black and white. Sometimes, Mike McCarthy takes those kind of chances. But not often enough for my taste. Even last week, against the Cowboys and with an injured Rodgers, the Packers were more aggressive in their four-minute offense, and they won the game. Earlier in the year, in the Jets and Patriots games (but with a healthy Rodgers), the Packers were more aggressive in the four-minute offense, and won those games. Why so tight and risk-averse this time? I think the magnitude of the game got to him, and when taking into account Rodgers' injury, he basically came to the conclusion that the Packers were lucky to be ahead, and so he started playing not to lose, not playing to win. I really like McCarthy, and I think he is an excellent coach. I don't think he should be fired. But this is my single biggest criticism of him - the unwillingness to play more aggressively when it is needed. It is possible to like McCarthy, and respect him as a coach, and still assign a lot of responsibility to him for excessive timidity in his game calling. If you want to have an example of the opposite approach, take the Patriots. They were still throwing the ball and playing aggressively in the fourth quarter, when they were already ahead by 38-7. You could perhaps accuse them of piling it on, but one thing is for sure: in the same circumstances, the Patriots would not have found the game slipping away in the face of a furious and miraculous comeback such as the one mounted by the Seahawks.
There were many manifestations of this lack of aggressiveness on Sunday. The field goals on the 4th and short plays in the first quarter. Kicking on the other two 4th and 1 situations in the game, one at the Seattle 22 and the other around midfield. I can't really blame the coaching staff for it, but what in the world was Morgan Burnett thinking when he slid to the ground after making what should have been the game-clinching fourth interception in the 4th quarter? He had some easy yards available in front of him, and it is not as if there were 2 minutes left - there was 5:13 left on the clock. Unfortunately, he got the "go down" signal from Julius Peppers, which I think is sort of tragic - there was so much effort to get him another shot at the Super Bowl, and here his signal to Burnett contributed mightily to the Packers missing that chance.
So, after Burnett slid to the ground, the Packers take the ball at that point, needing 2 or three first downs to run out the clock, and instead they go run, run, run, punt. Then, given the onside kick recovery, they never got another chance to try to run out the clock, but instead were skillful enough (and a little lucky) to get the field goal to tie the game and go into overtime. That aggressiveness, born of necessity, was, alas, too little and too late. With all the momentum on their side, and maybe the Packers' defense tiring a little, the Seahawks won the toss and marched downfield in 6 plays to score the game-winning touchdown, to win 28-22.
If you have not seen it, you should watch Aaron Rodgers' post-game press conference. The body language, the clipped answers, the tone of voice, the unwillingness to elaborate on some questions. "We gave it away." "We weren't playing as aggressive as we usually are." "That is how you lose games." He, like all players, is hyper-competitive, and he is disappointed to the point of being despondent by what he saw. If we, as fans, hurt after a loss like this, imagine how someone as competitive as Rodgers, and who actually plays the game and is trying to build his legacy, must feel. I may be mis-reading him, but I hear in his comments and in his tone something beyond the disappointment. I think he is disgusted by the lack of aggressiveness in the play-calling. "You can't let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal, you can't give up an onside kick and you can't not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Rodgers said. "And that's on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together and that's how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp."
Don't get me wrong. This loss was not all Coach McCarthy's fault. There was John Kuhn failing to get the ball over the goal line, and Rodgers having a mediocre day, and receivers dropping passes, and Bostick not playing his assigned role on the onside kick, and Burnett following Peppers' instruction to drop to the ground. Change one or two of those plays, and we are all looking forward to the Super Bowl. But to say, in effect, "oh well, mistakes are made, and there is nothing anyone can do about it" is to miss the bigger picture - the fact that there is a problem with in-game management, and no apparent intent to try to do things differently in the future.
This game is in the books, and the Packers are into off-season mode. The question is: what happens now? Ideally, the Packers would learn something from the mistakes made, and have a better chance to avoid making those mistakes next year. So far, I don't see anything that signals to me that the Packers have learned any lessons. In the post-game press conference, Coach McCarthy said "I have no regrets. I don't regret anything." It is almost impossible to believe that that is really true, but if it is, I don't know if this will ever get fixed. The Packers have had special teams problems, off and on, for a number of years, but Coach Slocum is still the special teams coach. Coach McCarthy has, for some time, had a tendency to play too cautiously in big games when the game is still in question. A friend called it a combination of the "prevent defense" and the "kill the clock offense." We certainly saw both in the fourth quarter of the game on Sunday. All I really want is to hear Coach McCarthy acknowledge that there are problems, and that he intends to work on solving those problems in the future. Or, if he is constitutionally incapable of doing that, then let him put on his Pittsburgh tough guy bluster about having no regrets, as long as we have some reason to believe that, in his heart of hearts, he knows and will work on it. So far, there is no indication that is true. Maybe in his Wednesday press conference, the Coach will send us a signal. I certainly hope so.
UPDATE: As most readers probably know by now, Coach McCarthy's younger brother Joe died on Wednesday, January 21, and as a result his press conference was postponed. A really bad week for the Coach just got exponentially worse, on a personal level, reminding us all that football is, after all, just a game. Prayers for the McCarthy family. There will be time to get the Packers' problems resolved when he is back.