Oh, what a week it has been. Last Saturday, we were excited at the thought of punching our playoff tickets, hosting a game, and how deep this team might be able to go toward that whole "Super Bowl or Die" concept.
Seven days later, the Packers are not only reeling from a devastating loss to the 2-10 Detroit Lions, but have finally announced that the twice-concussed Aaron Rodgers will not be starting on Sunday night against perhaps the best team in the NFL on national television. The Packers' playoff chances were already dim, with only a Bears win over the Vikings necessary to knock them out of the division race, and the Giants, Eagles, and Saints all with pole position for the wild card spots. The loss of Rodgers all but shuts the door on that glimmer of hope.
But it is in these times the Packers need to learn their hardest lessons, and only a fool doesn't take anything from loss and failure.
The Lions: Michael Schottey, the excellent Lions' blogger for Bleacher Report, was indignant at Packer fans last Sunday who kept offering excuses for their loss, and he was in the right. The Lions have suffered far more over the last ten years than the Packers, and nearly every excuse they could have used over that time was exhausted.
The Packers had no excuse, the Rodgers injury notwithstanding. The Lions, 2-10 all they were, came out and hung in there. They didn't do a whole lot offensively....other than just what they needed to in order to win the game. On paper, the Packers outclassed in nearly every facet of the game, both tangible and intangible. And they lost.
And there's a huge lesson to be learned from this loss: tenacity.
The Packers have had their own issues with tenacity, losing several close games by thin margins. In fact, the loss to the Lions was the largest margin of the season: four points.
But take a look at the Lions, with their losing culture and struggles to keep up. The Packers are a good team that sinks to the level of their opposition. The Lions are a bad team that rises up and makes teams have to defeat them. The Lions have faced several teams that would make the playoffs today, and played them pretty well: two losses to the Bears by a combined 9 points, a loss to the Eagles by 3, the Giants by 8, and the Jets by 3. And the Rams, still a playoff contender, lost to the Lions by a score of 44-6.
The Lions don't have half the talent of, say, the Vikings or Dallas; but when it comes to bad teams, they are in a totally different class. When the Packers played the Vikings and the Cowboys, the Packers had them demoralized halfway through their games. They were defeated, then fired their coaches the next day. They quit.
But the Lions are throwing third-string quarterbacks in there and scrapping to stay in games. They force teams to exert their will and prevail at the end. You think the Jets weren't scared for a while? The Lions certainly may wither at the end of games against decent competition, but not without a fight.
And, as Packer fans, I don't think we've given enough credit to the Lions for that very trait. The Packers have faced poorer teams and kept them in games by not putting them away, not exerting their will upon them. A series of three-point losses earlier in the season put the Packers behind the eight-ball, and the Packers now face the tough games: the losses to the Redskins, Dolphins, and Lions seem extraordinarily costly.
The Packers can learn something from the Lions and the loss they suffered to them. The Packers have to learn that they cannot allow poor teams to stay in games. They have to learn that playoff-caliber teams aren't supposed to struggle against the also-rans in the NFL.
And you can't blame injuries on this front: injuries deplete the talent you might be able to put on the field, but not the tenacity of the players who still remain. If you begin to believe, "Oh, well...we have a lot of injuries. We can't play as well as we should be playing,"... you may as well join the Vikings and Cowboys as the poster children of giving up.
Give Jim Schwartz credit: he's maximized what talent he has to stay in games mentally and make the other guys have to beat you to win the game, even playoff teams. It's a lesson the Packers could do well to learn.
Matt Flynn: Many Packer fans see the emergence of Matt Flynn as the starting quarterback as the final nail in the coffin for the Packers' playoff hopes. And it might well be.
But it doesn't mean that Packers don't have an opportunity to learn some lessons here, too...and some pretty important ones at that.
Just as there is a losing culture in Detroit, the Packers have an interesting culture too, and it revolves around the quarterback position. Throughout Mike Sherman's reign as head coach, I often noticed the heavy burden placed on Brett Favre at the end of games. When the going got tough, Sherman and the rest of the team seemed to put their arms at their sides and wait for Favre to deliver in the second half. Sometimes he did. Sometimes, he threw a game-ending interception. But, in the end, the hero or goat was invariably #4.
The culture has continued with Aaron Rodgers, and to be honest, I think it has gotten even worse. It always became the Favre Show in the second half, but it seems to become the Rodgers Show in the second quarter. The offense doesn't just feature Aaron Rodgers as quarterback, it revolves around him.
The Packers offense has scored 32 touchdowns this year, and all but five have come either on the arm or legs of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has gone back to pass 437 times this year, and rushed the ball another 55. Those 492 offensive plays account for nearly 70% of the offense this year, and some games, he's been accountable for almost 90% of the offense.
Yes, the running game keeps disappearing and McCarthy keeps giving up on it, game after game. He keeps saying how important it is and that they need to "fix it". But why do you have to fix it when Rodgers can just keeps running the ball for you? He's the second-leading rusher on the team, has the best yard-per-carry average, and has the most rushing touchdowns on the team.
Not much of an impetus to commit or "fix" a running game, is it?
The offensive line has been, at best, a patchwork deal that, has declined as the season has gone on. Rodgers has taken 27 sacks this year (far less than last year at this time), but has also rushed more due to being flushed out of the pocket. Sure, McCarthy says they have to tighten up that line, week after week, and give the running backs room to run and Rodgers more time to pass. But when Rodgers can compensate for it by running or passing his way out of it, or taking a sack...and they've kept winning, mostly on the strength of the defense.
Not much of an impetus to "tighten up" that offensive line, is it?
No, the Packers have been getting away with overlooking one important thing: teaching this offense to play as a unit, a full unit that doesn't centralize around one player that everyone else waits to win or lose the game for you.
Has the security blanket of Aaron Rodgers given Ted Thompson to freedom to overlook certain areas on the offense that he might have been able to address in free agency or the draft, like depth at running back, quarterback, or along the offensive line? Sure, he has.
And now, with Matt Flynn in at quarterback, the Packers have an opportunity to give him a trial by fire against the Patriots. And if McCarthy continues to do the idiotic, such as continuing to run the offense as if it were run by Rodgers with Flynn under center, the Packers' lesson will be even harder (and may end up being pretty hard on McCarthy's job security).
But this is an chance for the Packers to get the team around Flynn to rally around him and do what they SHOULD have been doing along with Rodgers...to protect Rodgers instead of just watching him. The line has to stop letting defenders into the backfield within the first two seconds of the ball snap, either to bother Flynn in the pocket, or to make the running backs have to juke and change direction five yards in the backfield.
The running game is going to have to something different than what they've been doing, which has mostly been a set of pitches on zone runs that end up going for little yardage, if any. The Packers may have to line up those fullbacks and tight ends in the backfield and power some straight-ahead rushes. It might even make the Packers realize that the ZBS has run its course and needs to change.
In the end, this might be what the offense actually needs: the loss of their crutch. If having Flynn in the game, even for one week, makes McCarthy do more to fix things than just lip service, the offense would be that much better when #12 returns under center.
I said on Cheesehead Radio this week that Matt Flynn might be good enough to get the Packers to the playoffs, and I stand by that. But, in reality, he might just be limited enough to make the rest of the Packers' offense good enough to make it to the playoffs.