Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson (21), left, and linebacker Nick Barnett (56) walk off the field dejected after their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. The Buccaneers went on to win the game 38-28. / File/Press-Gazette
One of the lowest points of the Mike McCarthy coaching era was in early November of 2009, when his Green Bay Packers traveled to play the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers were 0-7 and desperately starting rookie quarterback Josh Freeman for the first time. The Packers were a year and a half into the transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and still searching for their identity.
The result was a humiliating 38-28 Packers loss to a team that would win only three games.
But it might not be all coincidence that in the two years since then the Packers have been maybe the best team in the NFL. They finished the ’09 regular season with a 7-1 run and shootout loss in the playoffs at Arizona; went on a storied Super Bowl run last year; and in 2011 are the league’s lone unbeaten, at 9-0. That’s a 30-8 record, playoffs included, going into this weekend’s rematch with the Bucs.
“We’ve grown a lot, this is a whole different team,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said Wednesday. “We’re used to winning. The attitude, we’ve come a long way since then. I think (that loss) had a lot to do with it. I think it jump started us, got us going. After that game we were a different team. A cold slap in the face. Reality was like, this is where we are, we had to start building. It was sad. It was bad. A sad day of Packer football.”
The Packers had several issues that led to defeat that day against a Bucs team wearing its throwback "Creamsicle" uniforms.
First, they couldn’t corral the talented rookie Freeman, who at 6-feet-6 and 248 pounds shrugged off and eluded pass rushers all day on his way to throwing for 205 yards, three touchdowns, and a good-enough 86.1 passer rating.
Second, their special teams gave up two huge plays, a blocked Jeremy Kapinos punt that Ronde Barber returned 31 yards for a touchdown, and an 83-yard kickoff return by Clifton Smith that set up a critical fourth-quarter touchdown.
And third, Rodgers threw three interceptions, including one that safety Tanard Jackson returned 35 yards for a touchdown that clinched the game with 35 seconds left. That was the third and to this point last time Rodgers has thrown three interceptions in a game. In fact, he’s thrown only 19 interceptions in 38 games since then, playoffs included.
“That’s one of my worst games,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “We've played there twice and I played poorly twice. I’ve got to play better and we need to take care of the football.”
Several players remembered that after the game, McCarthy was unusually angry, and his curt post-game talk basically was, ‘Let’s pack up and go home.’”
“That spoke volumes more than him giving a speech,” Pickett said. “Just how sick he felt, he just said, ‘Hey, let’s get out of here.’”
Receiver Greg Jennings said the only time he’s seen McCarthy more upset was after the Packers’ loss at Detroit last year.
“Since then the expectation is to not have letdowns in games like this, guys aren’t going to take it for granted,” Jennings said. “The expectation now is try to bury your opponent when you know you should. That’s our mindset going into this game and any game. We feel like we’re a better team. It’s not about what’s on paper, it’s about what you’re going to put on the field come game day.”
The Packers were the youngest team in the NFL at the time, and that humbling loss might have driven home a message about commitment and expectations. The Packers had advanced to the NFC championship game in 2007 but were 6-10 in Rodgers’ first year as a starter in ’08 and then 4-4 after the loss to the Bucs. At that point, their playoffs hopes were in serious jeopardy.
“I don’t want to speak for everybody,” said defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who was a rookie at the time, “but me just coming into the league, we’re playing a team that’s 0-for-7, nice sunny Tampa — who’s to say everyone was as focused as we could have been?”
Said Pickett: “I don’t remember the game, I just remember the feeling after, I was sick. I went home — that’s where I’m from (i.e., the Tampa area) — I didn’t even want to speak to my family after that. I wanted to get on the plane and go back to Green Bay. “
Since then, Rodgers’ rise has coincided with the team’s. In the 7-1 run the second half of ’09, Rodgers threw only two interceptions and 14 touchdown passes, and since that defeat his totals are 97 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, playoffs included, which is an astounding 5-to-1 ratio.
To credit the Packers’ reaction to that loss with all that’s happened since would be a major overstatement, because the most important factor has been the high level of play from a core of upper-echelon players. But it did seem to shock a talented but young team into growing up and finding an identity.
“We look at that game often and say that was a point where we can’t let those kind of things happen again,” kicker Mason Crosby said. “Since coach has been here there’s a few games like that that define — let’s look at that game, learn from it and move on, and not let those situations happen again.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.