Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) misses the tackle on Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (25) during Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
Those of you old enough to remember those lean years of the 1970s and ’80s might also remember that the delusional title of the Green Bay Packers’ 1980 highlight film was “Seven Plays Away.”
Following a 5-10-1 season in which the Packers lost five games by three touchdowns or more, they produced a highlight film that suggested if Tom Birney hadn’t missed two chip-shot field goals at Tampa Bay, if long-snapper Buddy Aydelette hadn’t sailed two snaps over the head of punter David Beverly in Pittsburgh, and if Cleveland and Tampa Bay hadn’t connected on three long passes in two other close losses, the Packers would have finished 9-7 and made the playoffs.
“Only if” is the lament of losers, and the Packers leaned on it often during the longest drought in their history: those 24 seasons between Vince Lombardi and Brett Favre.
They could sing the same blues today following their stinging loss against Philadelphia on Sunday. But reality is the Packers just aren’t good enough to win consistently or to go anywhere without Aaron Rodgers — just as they weren’t good enough to win during that bygone run of root-canal football.
The Packers have been blessed with such exceptional quarterback play for the past 21-plus seasons, one forgets how every blown opportunity, every mistake, every injury becomes magnified to the nth degree when you’re playing with mere mortals at that position.
Sure, the Packers might be able to win enough games to stay alive until Rodgers comes back. After all, they’ll face only one team with a winning record in the next month.
But it certainly was another comedown for the Packers to lose to a team that had the league’s worst defense, was playing a backup quarterback that coach Chip Kelly still figures to try to replace after this season, and an opponent that suffered even heavier losses to injury than the Packers over the course of the game. The most notable was five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who was replaced in the first quarter by Packers reject Allen Barbre.
Inside linebacker Brad Jones missed a tackle on a short pass that would have forced a punt, but most of the blame for the Packers’ fourth-quarter collapse falls on the outside linebackers. They couldn’t set the edge and they couldn’t tackle.
Clay Matthews, with his club, couldn’t grab and shred. Mike Neal, with his thick legs and thick ankles, looks the part of a plodding defensive lineman when he gets caught in space. Nick Perry doesn’t play well in space, either. And the more Nate Palmer plays the more he gets exposed.
Let’s look at the last 9 minutes, 32 seconds.
Sixth play of the Eagles’ final series, Neal whiffs going for the tackle and LeSean McCoy runs for 14. Next play, Perry gets manhandled and Bryce Brown runs outside him for 8. Two plays later, with 3:38 to go, Palmer gets dragged by McCoy on a 9-yard run. Next play, McCoy drags Neal for 7 yards. Twelfth play of the drive, Nick Foles runs for 9 when Neal gives up contain.
Go back to the third quarter, second-and-1 at the Philly 25, McCoy ran for 30 yards when Neal didn’t set the edge. The next play was a touchdown. In the second quarter, Foles ran for 9 when Matthews lost contain on his pass rush. First quarter, 4:52 on the clock, Palmer turned his shoulder, didn’t set the edge and McCoy ran for 9.
Foles’ two long touchdown passes for 55 and 45 yards that spelled the difference on the scoreboard were underthrown balls poorly played by the secondary. They were classic examples of an average quarterback making dumb-luck plays.
On the first one, DeSean Jackson smoked Tramon Williams by three steps, but the ball arrived late enough that it should have been intercepted. On the other, safety M.D. Jennings had inside leverage and didn’t get enough depth, and the ball still fell short into the receiver’s hands.
That’s 14 points on those two plays — the difference in the game.
Seneca Wallace’s history-making start — he was the first black quarterback ever to start a game for the Packers — lasted all of 10 plays. That Wallace, at age 33, pulled a muscle on his first awkward movement shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He played only sparingly in the preseason and not at all last season.
Any weekend jock on the wrong side of 30 can tell you what inactivity does to the body.
That said, the Packers were probably better off playing Scott Tolzien. With Wallace, Mike McCarthy had to put in a package built for him. With Tolzien, McCarthy seemed more comfortable calling plays even if his quarterback hadn’t practiced with the first offense.
Tolzien is at least a JV version of Rodgers. And all things considered, he did some good things.
First play of the second quarter, Tolzien was standing on the far hash mark and completed a pass to Jarrett Boykin between the numbers and boundary on the opposite side of the field. That showed some arm strength.
The 22-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Bostick caught the Eagles by surprise — a wheel route that the Packers rarely run — but that, too, was a nice throw. Tolzien also threw some nice short hitches on run-pass options when the Eagles’ cornerbacks were playing off 5-plus yards.
He ran the hurry-up offense well at the end of the half. He stood tough against the rush. He showed some ability to throw on the move.
But what separates a Rodgers and a pedestrian quarterback like Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, for example, is consistency and the ability to make big plays. Tolzien was inconsistent and, more often than not, he failed to capitalize when opportunities were there.
The interception he threw in the end zone should have been a touchdown. Rodgers throws that ball quicker and more to the outside, and Jordy Nelson routinely catches it. If Tolzien had thrown more of a back-shoulder fade to James Jones before Mason Crosby’s final field goal, that could have been another touchdown.
Missing a wide-open Nelson over the middle early in the third quarter cost the Packers an explosive pass play of probably 20 yards or more. Had the pass to Nelson in the end zone in the fourth quarter been just a little lower, it, too, might have resulted in a touchdown.
That’s 21 to 25 points right there.
It would be premature to say the Packers are in good hands with Tolzien. But he’s a better fit than Wallace, and it appeared that he might have a stronger arm than what Matt Flynn displayed in his first stint with the Packers. Keep in mind that Flynn has passed physicals twice and still been dumped twice in the past five weeks by teams badly in need of quarterbacks.