Well-placed words turn fortunes for Packers, Patriots
Panic gripped his franchise from the outside. All around, doubters questioned the MVP quarterback, the talent on defense, whether the season could be salvaged. The calendar hadn't even flipped to October, and his team was counted out.
He knew there was a potential crisis at hand. A fork in the road. Left with no other choice, the team leader offered just four words.
"We're on to Cincinnati."
That's what New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters two days after his team's shocking, 27-point loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. These sort of things — blowout losses on Monday Night Football — did not happen in New England. Ever.
With tension high, Belichick kept repeating the company line.
"We're on to Cincinnati."
Fifteen times, Belichick mentioned his team's next opponent. His message was clear. His words became one of the defining statements of the NFL season, perhaps second only to what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said a week earlier.
If the Patriots' early-season slump sounds familiar, there's good reason. Like New England, the Packers were prematurely left to rot through the season's first few weeks. Doubters questioned the MVP quarterback, the talent on defense, whether the season could be salvaged.
There was panic when Rodgers soothed fans back in September.
"Five letters here, just for everybody out there in Packerland: R-E-L-A-X. Relax," he said calmly on his radio show. "We're going to be fine."
He was right. Just like Belichick.
Their seasons have been salvaged. Doubters have been proven wrong. The Packers and Patriots — 17 wins between them — will put two of the NFL's best records on the line when they meet 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Lambeau Field. The matchup is being billed as a potential Super Bowl preview, which only shows how far Green Bay and New England have come.
How did they get here? At his locker, Rodgers was asked this week. He didn't hesitate.
"I think we've been pretty relaxed," he smiled.
Yes, he emphasized the R-word.
Words aren't supposed to have this kind of lasting impact. Not in the modern, guarded NFL. Players are intentionally reserved, careful not to verbally rock the boat. Coaches — Belichick, in particular — are stuffed with canned answers.
Want proof? Here's Belichick this week, explaining how the Patriots have gone from road kill to atop the AFC standings.
"We pretty much take the same approach every week," Belichick said. "We're not really concerned about our record, or the other team's record, or anything else. We just try to go out there and prepare for the game."
Clichés and programmed thoughts are the reality of doing business in the 24-hour news cycle. Any juicy statement can and will be used as bulletin-board fodder on Twitter.
So maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone that the candidness of Rodgers' "relax" and the repetitiveness of Belichick's "we're on to Cincinnati" became classics. While Rodgers' word was printed on T-shirts, Belichick's line turned into parody videos.
The statements mattered because you can't argue with results. The Patriots have won seven straight games — the NFL's longest, active streak — since Belichick demanded his players focus on the week ahead. Since Rodgers told everyone to relax, the Packers have won seven of their past eight games.
"When A-Rod came out and said relax, we kind of just went with the flow," Packers safety Micah Hyde said. "We all knew it inside the locker room, but it kind of — no offense to you guys (the media) — but it kind of settled you guys down a little bit. It got you guys off our backs a little bit, and just relax."
Packers players swear they were already relaxed, even before Rodgers demanded it. His words weren't directed at teammates or coaches, but everyone outside the locker room. This week, Rodgers said it was an "authentic" statement, made out of annoyance with the early skeptics.
Yet, those few seconds left an impact that lingered over the past couple of months. Even if teammates didn't need a confidence boost — remember, Green Bay won the NFC North after starting 1-2 the past two seasons — receiver Jordy Nelson said seeing the team leader stand up publicly was reassuring.
"You don't ever want to see your leaders get flustered or panic or go crazy," Nelson said. "I think we didn't expect anything different from him. I don't know how much it affected the guys in the locker room, because I don't think anyone in here panics ever. I think we always have a belief in what we can do, that we can go out and execute each and every week no matter who the team is.
"We've just got to go out and do it. I think it just goes to show the leadership he has, that he can take control of things and guys are willing to follow."
There's a reason no one panicked within the locker room. Green Bay saw what needed to be fixed. So did New England, even if Belichick wouldn't share the corrections publicly.
The Patriots traded six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins just 13 days before the regular season began. He was the anchor of their offensive line, a leader in the locker room. In return for the nine-year veteran who played in two Super Bowls, New England received second-year tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round draft pick in 2015.
It took awhile, but the move is starting to pay off. Wright has six touchdown catches this season, three in the past two weeks. Maybe it's no coincidence Wright's first touchdown came against Cincinnati.
For the Packers, a few contributing factors combined for the slow start.
They drew a couple of tough road games early, traveling to Seattle and Detroit in the first three weeks. They implemented a practice schedule never used before. Execution was sloppy. The defense struggled to tackle. The offense lacked direction.
"The preparation and the urgency and the focus picked up after a 1-2 start for us," Rodgers said.
It started in Chicago on the final Sunday of September. The Packers came out throwing, marching downfield against the Bears with Rodgers tossing darts. An identity was formed. They haven't looked back since.
Rookie center Corey Linsley called this turnaround "amazing." A hot streak doesn't happen every season. The Packers haven't merely won games. They've set records in the process.
Though impressive, Linsley stops short of admitting he's surprised.
"Everybody's attitude was, we were relaxed," he said, using that word again. "We knew there were holes. It wasn't like we played our best game."
There's more connecting the Packers and Patriots than rebounding from 2-2 starts.
Look at the roster. Both locker rooms have familiar faces, a veteran core of players who have experienced the highs and lows of a season, including Super Bowl appearances. It takes leadership to make an emphatic, in-season turnaround.
In Green Bay and New England, leaders stepped up. Their words eased the panic. They haven't stopped winning since.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood