I was an fill-in guest on Around the Lounge over at Packers Lounge the other night (a great experience, if not a little harrowing for someone who never used a webcam before), and we were asked a question that I wish I had more time to think over before I answered.
And, so I have. And, here it is. Less stammering and stuttering, which is probably for the best.
The question was: was the loss to the Cardinals a great game, or a Packer meltdown?
And the answer is: yes.
The Packers were essentially out of that game. Foolish errors on our first two possessions led to a 14-0 hole before A-Rodge got the offense moving. The ballyhooed defense was shredded by Kurt Warner, particularly in the middle of the field, and our #1 rushing defense looked somewhere closer to the mid-twenties. Mason Crosby missed a kick that would have prevented overtime. Dom Capers had no answer for the Cardinals, and Kurt Warner brashly claimed that there wasn't anything he saw the whole game in which he didn't know what the Packers were doing.
So, yes, it was a meltdown.
But, the Packers came roaring back, sailing on the arm of Aaron Rodgers and some fantastic receiving by Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, and Donald Driver. McCarthy made a gutsy onside kick call that was executed perfectly by Crosby and Brandon Underwood. They came back from being 21 points down and sent the game into overtime.
So, yes, it was a great game.
Some of my fellow Loungemates really decried the game as being a complete and utter debacle, which I find it hard to agree with. After all, in a world of "what ifs", what if Scott Green would have thrown the flag he should have for the illegal late hit on Aaron Rodgers in overtime? The Packers would have had offsetting penalties and would have repeated second down from the 20-yard line instead of trying to go for it all (again) on 2nd and 20 from deep in their own end zone.
(Incidentally, I still think that the facemask non-call is the one we focus on too much. It's a judgement call that wasn't made, just like how you could call holding on every offensive lineman on every play. When the NFL comes forward and fines a player for a late hit, they are admitting they missed it, and that one made a big difference in how the Packers approached their next two downs.)
The point is, if the Packers had driven down the field and scored a field goal and won that game, that would completely change how we saw the game...and we certainly wouldn't be calling it a complete and utter debacle anymore. With a week to cool down, looking objectively at the game, the Packers shot themselves in the foot (actually, both feet), and then nearly overcame it to win anyway.
So, what's the impact? It's interesting, because I don't think we're really going to know for a couple of years. It really depends on how the Packers organization responds to it. If this was the kind of game that leaves a bad taste in your mouth and makes everyone work harder to get past that point next year, it's a good game.
If it deflates the entire organization, and the Packers don't even get back in the playoffs in 2010, well, it was a very negative loss.
I hearken back to the 1990's and some of the important playoff losses the Packer endured. We can look back now at the early part of the decade as the ascension of a great team that had to repeatedly take its lumps in the playoffs whenever they matched up with the Cowboys. And, let's be honest, as the Packers were escorted out of the playoffs by Aikman and Co. in 1993, 1994, and 1995, none of the games were remotely close at the end (27-17, 35-9, 38-27).
Today's Packers have much in common with those teams in the early 1990's: they're young, fiery, have all the potential in the world but haven't quite figured out how to put it together against formidable competition yet.
Fast-forward now to the end of the 1998 season, and the frustrating first-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Like the Cardinal game this year, the defeat of the 49ers was almost a foregone conclusion in the minds of most Packers fans (and perhaps the Packers), and it was a surprisingly close game. And, just like this past week (and unlike the earlier Cowboy losses), this game came down to the wire. And, just like last Sunday, a late bad call by the officials left the Packers wondering what could have been.
The following year saw a huge transition...the loss of Holmgren and Reggie White, and a 17-15 record over the next two seasons, missing the playoffs in both years. It took two head coaching changes and some considerable rebuilding before the Packers returned to the playoffs in 2001.
In retrospect, that 49er loss in 1998 was more of a harbinger of chaos than a stepping stone to greatness. Obviously, our present-day Packers have little in common with that aging 1998 team, but the way both teams left the playoffs are uncomfortably familiar.
The Packers have a lot going their way for next year. Many players have already stated that this game was indeed a stepping stone, and the team is loaded with young talent that should only get better. The team went on a 7-1 run to finish the season, and can look forward to a strong draft class.
But there are omens that are looming on the horizon, too. An unsettled collective bargaining agreement may put the Packers in a disadvantage when it comes to free agency, both this offseason and in the future, getting in the way of Ted Thompson's usual patterns of re-signing players from within. Thompson will not have the ability to sign veteran free agents to fill out his roster and special teams like Ron Wolf did in the mid-1990's.
The potential is there to lose several key players...Kampman, Spitz, Colledge, Collins, Jolly...and not have the resources to adequately replace them, much less fill the holes already on the team.
So, there is the potential for the Packers to rise or to fall. We've seen it before, and one way or another, we'll see it again. Either way, I have a strong feeling we will be looking back at last Sunday's game as a watershed moment in the tenure of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson: either a stepping stone to better days, or a meltdown that will take years to recover from.
Time will tell.