Having spent the last three days processing the Packers’ playoff loss and conducting exit interviews with every member of the roster, Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t have any sort of “a-ha” moment as to why last Sunday’s game went so horribly wrong.
In his season-ending press conference on Wednesday, he could only describe in greater detail the same, shorter explanation he gave immediately after the game – that his team simply failed to do what it normally does best, which is handle the football.
“I thought we emphasized it more than we ever did the last month, getting outside to prepare for this game,” McCarthy said. “But there was a reason why that ball was on the ground four or five times and we had four turnovers.
“It’s uncharacteristic of our football team, it’s uncharacteristic of our football team in the past. We weren’t good enough in areas of fundamentals to win on Sunday.”
That was true on both sides of the ball, as the poor tackling and penchant for giving up big plays that had plagued the defense all season continued against the Giants. McCarthy called tackling his defense’s “biggest fundamental flaw,” and a major part of the preparation for 2012 will be figuring out how to address it because the past season’s results were “not acceptable.”
On offense, the Packers seemingly had ball-security licked. The unit had lost only three fumbles in 16 games but matched that total in the playoff defeat. The number would have been four if not for a fortuitous replay decision on a catch by Greg Jennings in the first half.
The receiving corps got a case of the drops as well, with a handful of culprits against New York. Drops had cropped up from time to time before but appeared to have faded away as two different quarterbacks combined for 763 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in the final two regular-season games.
McCarthy brushed off rust as a possible reason, saying he believes “a fresh football player is the best football player,” and he said he had no way of knowing what effect, if any, the Philbin family tragedy had on his team.
He did say the team probably didn’t handle the highs and lows of the game itself as well as it should have, and even though the players were accountable for Sunday’s performance in their exit interviews, that doesn’t make it any easier to explain.
“What’s disappointing to me is we’re dropping and fumbling uncontested situations,” McCarthy said. “That leads me to believe it’s more of a mental focus or we’re looking onto the next element too fast. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
“We take a lot of pride in the emphasis of how we practice ball-security. We work on taking it away and protecting it, and statistically the last two years supports that. We did not play to our identity in Sunday’s game, and that’s hard to swallow.”
One key offseason question is whether any personnel changes might alter that identity. The Packers have two key free agents on offense in tight end Jermichael Finley and center Scott Wells, and though McCarthy said he won’t be sitting down with General Manager Ted Thompson until probably after the Super Bowl to address the roster, he made it clear on Wednesday he’d like both veterans back.
Finley suffered through bouts of the dropsies probably more than any other receiver, but McCarthy repeatedly spoke of Finley’s room for growth and development. To the head coach and offensive play-caller, the 24-year-old matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators will only get better, especially as he gets more distance from his season-ending knee injury of 2010.
McCarthy said he told Finley early this season that his primary goal should be to play in every game, which he accomplished, and which McCarthy seems to view as an important step in Finley’s young career.
“Jermichael probably brings a lot of criticism on himself because of his personality, but the man that I work with, he has a great work ethic,” McCarthy said. “There’s no one that’s more into the practice on a daily basis than Jermichael.
“He wants to be a great player and thinks he’s going to be a great player, and with his talent level, that’s half the battle. So I look for him to continue to develop and establish himself as one of the better tight ends, a Pro Bowl-type tight end in this league.”
As for Wells, he is going to the Pro Bowl for the first time and McCarthy called him the team’s best lineman this season.
“He’s the center in a multi-scheme offense, and more importantly, he’s a heck of a football player,” McCarthy said. “I make no bones about it. I told Scott I hope we’re working together again next year.”
It’s hard to envision next year going as smoothly as 15-1, considering only six teams in league history have won that many games in a regular season.
McCarthy admitted he’ll appreciate the team’s accomplishments more once he’s finished with the postseason evaluation process with the rest of his coaching staff, but the way the season ended won’t change one conclusion – 15-1 only goes so far.
“It means we took care of step one, but unfortunately step two is the most important,” he said. “That’s what it means to me.
“The reality is you put yourself in position to make a run in the playoffs, and we did that very well, but then once the second season started, we did not play to the identity that we were able to formulate all season, and that’s my frustration.”
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Two of the Packers’ Pro Bowlers were injured in Sunday’s game. Fullback John Kuhn sprained his knee and will not play in the Pro Bowl. Jennings bruised his ribs but is expected to play.
Various members of McCarthy’s staff, including Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin, Quarterbacks Coach Tom Clements and Assistant Head Coach Winston Moss, are reportedly in the running for head coaching jobs elsewhere. Depending on what happens, McCarthy could be facing his most significant staff changes since the end of the 2008 season. “There is activity going on around our coaching staff and rightfully so,” McCarthy said. “It’s a very talented staff. There are some men that may have some other opportunities.”
Safety Nick Collins has told McCarthy he “feels good” about where he is in his recovery from a season-ending and career-threatening neck injury, but everyone is waiting for the upcoming doctors’ report. “He has a big exam in March, and a lot will be riding on that exam,” McCarthy said. “He’s very optimistic and positive about his future, and so am I, but we’ll see what March brings.”