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Second half of Packers season starts with uncertainty

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
November 10, 2013

GREEN BAY—Mike McCarthy can’t say it, so I will.

This was going to be the best of the eight teams that he has coached in Green Bay.

In a passing league, the Packers had perhaps the finest quarterback in the prime of his career and possibly the National Football League’s best squadron of wide receivers and tight ends, all four of whom also were in the prime of their careers.

I didn’t see enough of Eddie Lacy in August to go all in, but we now can see how special of a running back he might become.

Even after Bryan Bulaga went down early, David Bakhtiari performed so well so fast that it certainly appeared the offensive line would be covered.

General manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy didn’t import any veteran players of significance, but the broad changes in the roster that they oversaw during the off-season and draft were critical.

Namely, they got rid of almost a dozen players, most of whom were undersized, and in the draft and college free agency replaced them with bigger people so the Packers at least could go toe-to-toe with heavyweights such as San Francisco and Baltimore.

Neither of the two men cares to admit their team lost its physical edge after the 45th Super Bowl, but that’s a hard thing for football people to do. The important thing was both understood the need to get tougher, which was the message McCarthy has been hammering home incessantly to his players and assistant coaches since the start of off-season training in April.

The Packers have played a far more rugged brand of football this season, particularly on offense and also on defense, at least until Monday night against Chicago.

The gamble to bring back Johnny Jolly, at considerable risk to the image of the organization, has worked. Jolly’s serious mien made every teammate even more accountable, and his 330 pounds girded what had been a leaky run defense ever since his leave-taking.

Mike Daniels gave the Packers a legitimate interior pass rusher, something they hadn’t had since Cullen Jenkins.

Questions abounded opposite Clay Matthews, but once Mike Neal got healthy and switched to standing up, Dom Capers had the second big, talented outside rusher he had been hunting for. Nick Perry began perking up, too.

Casey Hayward’s hamstring injury forced shuffling at cornerback, but at least the Packers then had occasion to find out Davon House and Micah Hyde could play. One of the safety positions remains thin, but no team has everything.

The Packers made a supreme effort on opening day in San Francisco and again two weeks later in Cincinnati, only to fail at the end and lose close games. But even then, my sense was the season was breaking just the way McCarthy hoped it would.

At 1-2, Green Bay no doubt was residing somewhere in the 20s in those national power rankings.

Nevertheless, it was obvious to those watching the Packers play that this was an outstanding team facing a brutal early road schedule. Coaches love being under the radar. Slow starts, as long as they’re not too slow, mean the locker room stays on edge and coaches need not fear peaking prematurely.

Then the injuries really began to strike in Cincinnati, and in every game except one since, at least one vital player has suffered a major injury. A too-early bye made the situation even worse.

McCarthy told me he was primed to play wide open on offense like never before, perhaps not all the way like Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly but close enough.

Now he’ll never know how many points this Packers squad, either intact or with a modest number of injuries, might have rung up.

Given how much harder the defense played in San Francisco than it had against the 49ers twice last season, and with Lacy and James Starks beginning to crash behind a more nasty offensive line, it seemed a foregone conclusion to me that the Packers would finish no worse than 12-4 and be in excellent position to reach another Super Bowl.

For seven weeks, even with six to eight starters missing, there was a level of play and depth of personnel becoming consistent with the 1996 and 2010 teams.

Before getting to the second half of the season that begins Sunday against Philadelphia, let’s look statistically at the first half.

It was puzzling why the Packers didn’t just blow out more teams. Injuries were a factor, of course, but the overriding factor keeping this team from being even more impressive statistically was turnover differential.

The Packers are tied for fifth in giveaways with 10. McCarthy, his veteran staff and Rodgers always will keep that in check.

But McCarthy’s Midas touch when it comes to taking the ball away has vanished. After averaging 15.2 takeaways in the first halves of the past six seasons, the Packers find themselves tied for 28th with seven.

One can conjure up a dozen theories to explain this, but it’s hard to pinpoint just two or three.

When the Packers went 15-1 in 2011 and scored the second-most points in NFL history (560), they tied for first in takeaways (38) and posted 31 interceptions, their highest total since 1955. McCarthy, a fat plus-76 in his first seven years, is minus-3 at midseason as Green Bay has a paltry three picks.

Entering the week, the top 10 teams in turnover differential were 61-21 and the 10 worst teams were 30-53. It never seems to change.

Considering that Rodgers was even more lethal when afforded short fields and extra possessions, suffice it to say what they would mean to Seneca Wallace and, if he falters, Scott Tolzien.

Don’t look for a return by Matt Flynn unless injury strikes, and even then my guess is Thompson would go elsewhere.

Sources said the major reason Seattle gave the job to Russell Wilson in 2012 and then traded Flynn to Oakland was commitment. Flynn, according to sources, became a 9-to-5er and, not only was he outperformed, he also was outworked. One Seahawks teammate did say Flynn was a master on the ping-pong table.

In Oakland, the combination of Flynn’s mediocre work habits and an awful showing Sept. 29 in a start against Washington led GM Reggie McKenzie to cut him.

Can the Packers win a sufficient number of games with Wallace and Tolzien before the return of Rodgers in order to qualify for the playoffs?

Absolutely, they can. Scouts say Wallace ranks among the upper third of backups, and Tolzien is an attractive No. 3 that offensive coordinator Tom Clements seemed very high on.

Thompson drafted Wallace and McCarthy has coached him for 10 weeks. McCarthy said he expects to win, and he should be held accountable for doing just that.

A favorable schedule provides three losing teams in a row, Detroit, and a pair of two-win acts, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, around a trip to Dallas.

Now Wallace and Tolzien must perform; McCarthy has to overcome in what could be a defining moment of his career; teammates must elevate their games and close rank around the new quarterbacks; and, above all, the defense and special teams must start taking the ball away.

These backup quarterbacks can’t be expected to execute drives of 85 yards. Fifty yards? That’s within their capabilities.

“When Coach (McCarthy) designed this team he knew what Aaron was, but the identity was to be physical on both sides of the ball,” B.J. Raji said Thursday. “That doesn’t really include Aaron.”

There are a million cases in which the backup quarterback failed. Assuming coaches and players have rejected the defeatist approach of some “woe is us” fans, let’s look back at how two Super Bowl-winning coaches won with backups in the state of Wisconsin.

It was October 1986. The 49ers’ Joe Montana, the game’s greatest quarterback, wrecked his back in the opener and was replaced by 6-foot Jeff Kemp, who played well before suffering a serious hip injury in the sixth game.

That meant 6-4 Mike Moroski, a 29-year-old career backup, would start for the 4-2-1 49ers against the 1-6 Packers at Milwaukee County Stadium.

“Mike was a very bright man and competitive, but he had only been with us for a couple of weeks so he couldn’t be expected to know much of our system,” coach Bill Walsh said in his book, “Building a Champion.” “But the team’s character and personality asserted itself…the camaraderie and standard of performance that we had established demonstrated itself.”

Unconscious early, Randy Wright passed the Packers to a 14-0 lead. The Packers ran 95 plays, possessed the ball 41:10 and out-gained the Niners, 464-222, yet still lost, 31-17.

During the week, Walsh told the defense it must be responsible for 10 points. The defense accounted for 21, including two long interception returns for touchdowns.

Moroski was a tidy 17 of 29 for 147, one TD and one pick. His passer rating was 69.2.

“I reminded our team that, so often in battle, the best soldiers are killed early and the ones who replace them are the ones who win the battle,” Walsh wrote.

“For instance, at the Battle of Midway, many of our best pilots were lost in initial raids that brought no results. Later, as our other pilots arrived on the scene, the enemy had been committed and spent. Because of this, we dealt a devastating blow with those who participated later.

“In football, too, the best players are often injured early in a season, and it’s their replacements who must take over and carry the team to victory.”

Eight years ago last week, Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) came to Lambeau Field as a three-point favorite over Mike Sherman’s Packers (1-6). Problem was, Ben Roethlisberger, 18-1 in his young career, had undergone knee surgery three days before the game.

His replacement, soon-to-be 31-year-old Charlie Batch, was the Lions’ starter from 1998-2001 but had only eight pass attempts as a Steeler in 3 years.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know he was still in the league,” defensive end Aaron Kampman said a few days before the game.

Moreover, the Steelers were without running back Jerome Bettis, and then lost 1,200-yard rusher Willie Parker after his fifth carry. Cowher opened the game with a reverse.

With the Packers trailing, 6-3, in the third quarter, Brett Favre admitted he got greedy on one of Dick LeBeau’s weak-side blitzes from the Pittsburgh 12 on third and goal. The ball popped loose and Troy Polamalu returned it 77 yards for the decisive score in the Steelers’ 20-10 escape.

“I always have the greatest respect for Bill Cowher,” Green Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. “They didn’t panic. They did what they had to do.”

On one of the only times Batch threw downfield, his wounded duck was intercepted. But that was the only turnover for Pittsburgh, which won despite gaining 213 yards. Batch’s rating of 39.6 was fashioned from 9 of 16 for 65 yards.

“He managed the game well,” said Cowher, whose team went on to win the Super Bowl with No. 6 seeding. “Certainly, we didn’t throw the ball for a whole lot of yardage. I like to think (Batch) will get better, too.”

Those Steelers were coming off a Monday night game, as the Packers are now. They won, as current Packers safeties coach and then Steelers secondary coach Darren Perry remembered, with a defense forcing three turnovers and scoring once.

“We rallied around defensively,” Perry said. “We said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play better.’ It’s important for us to step up this week.”

The Packers have been waylaid by the law of averages after 21 years of quarterbacking bliss.

Seneca Wallace is better than Moroski ever was, and as good as an aging Batch. Tolzien might be as well.

“Opportunity,” so overused in sports, at last had meaning Friday when McCarthy revealed he had been preaching it to his players all week.

Green Bay caved in Monday night, partly out of self-pity. Well, McCarthy, his coaches and players are fresh out of excuses.

Either the Packers hold the fort with backups, or the lights flicker out on a season that still holds promise.



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