Silverstein: McCarthy, Packers prevail by keeping surprises coming

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy calls a play in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 10, 2017 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND – Someone somewhere must have a book on Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s tendencies toward aggressive game management.

But until he or she comes forward, the best you’re going to get are a bunch of graphs with lines that cross in such a way that even the greatest mathematicians would snap their pencils, unable to reach a conclusion.

Social media will say that McCarthy has no plan, makes decisions based on gut feelings and should be stripped of his headset.

Fans think he kicks field goals when he should go for it on fourth down and goes for it on fourth down when he should punt. They think he calls passes when he should run it and runs it when he should pass it.

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They think he is maddeningly conservative except for those times when he’s sickeningly aggressive.

Somehow the Packers have managed to go 7-6 and stay in the playoff hunt with a second straight overtime victory, this one a 27-21 comeback against the winless Cleveland Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

McCarthy was an unpredictable combination of daring and convention against the Browns and somehow it all worked out. He walked out of the stadium, still alive, needing in all likelihood three more victories to have a shot at reaching the playoffs for a ninth straight season.

“There were a lot of good things today,” McCarthy said after the game, trying to make people forget all the bad things that happened. “We’re finding different ways to win and that’s what you have to do.

“That’s what good teams do. We’re excited to get out of here with a win, but more excited to keep playing.”

McCarthy now has a reason to play Aaron Rodgers again this season if the quarterback is medically cleared two months after suffering a broken collarbone. After the game Sunday, McCarthy would not say whether it would be this week, but whatever the case he made Rodgers' return relevant.

“He’s still in the medical situation and as soon as we have the information, we’ll try to get it to you,” McCarthy said.

At his most daring Sunday, McCarthy called his first fake punt of the season on the opening series, a direct snap to safety Jermaine Whitehead, who was lined up at fullback in the Packers’ punt formation. Whitehead made McCarthy’s gamble look good when he broke a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and got the first down.

The Packers drove the remaining 47 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.

BOX SCOREPackers 27, Browns 21 (OT)

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“That was a great call from Ron Zook and Jason Simmons,” safety Morgan Burnett said of the special teams coach and his assistant, who drew up the play but needed the go-ahead from McCarthy to run it.

“Probability, risk assessment,” McCarthy said of the call. “It’s all part of your game plan. (It) has other variables on when you’re going to call it. I didn’t jump up in the team meeting and say we were going to fake the first punt today.

“That was not the plan. Where we were on the field on fourth down, momentum, what he was giving me, it was more of a confidence thing.”

McCarthy stayed aggressive on the drive, dialing up a pass play from quarterback Brett Hundley to receiver Randall Cobb on fourth and 1 at the Cleveland 38.

The most controversial decision came midway through the third quarter with the Browns up, 14-7. Hundley had led the Packers from their own 19 all the way to the Cleveland 10, only to face a fourth and inches.

McCarthy would need two scores to win, so why not take the field goal? Last week against Tampa Bay, on fourth and 1 at the 5-yard line with 2 minutes 34 seconds left, he had Mason Crosby kick a 22-yard field goal to tie the game at 20-20.

This time, McCarthy called a misdirection play that turned into a disaster when Hundley went the wrong way and failed to pitch the ball to running back Aaron Jones.

“There are some plays leading up to that, that set that play up,” McCarthy said. “The execution wasn’t there. That’s football. There was a lot of time left. I was confident in the way we were moving the football.”

But he also had to take into consideration the play of his defense, which had allowed Cleveland to convert 4 of 7 third downs to that point. It was no surprise when the Browns matched 88 yards in nine plays on the ensuing possession to take a 21-7 lead with 2:49 to go in the third quarter.

Still, there was support for McCarthy’s decision.

“I think it’s confidence in each other, us in him and him in us,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “He thinks we could’ve made the fourth-and-1 and then we have a little bit of a miscue. He also knows if we don’t get it, he has faith in us that we can make it back.

“That’s what it comes down to. We like being aggressive. I think it was a great decision to go for it.”

Come late in the fourth quarter, however, McCarthy put his aggressiveness in his pocket.

After the Packers drove from their own 3 to the 45-yard line, they faced a fourth and 2 with 5:28 to go. The defense had held on the previous possession but had lost cornerback Davon House (back) and only escaped because running back Isaiah Crowell had slipped on a run up the middle on third down.

With not a whole lot of reason to trust his defense, McCarthy sent out the punting unit.

Two weeks prior against Pittsburgh, he decided not to punt and sent his kicking unit out against Pittsburgh for what would have been the longest field goal in Heinz Field history (57 yards). With a 21-14 lead. Crosby missed and it turned out to be a critical part of the 31-28 loss.

“We were doing a good job of getting some stops and stuff,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “Coach Mike just trusted us. They run that four-minute offense and we get them off the field and put the ball back in the offense’s hands.”

Many fans were undoubtedly flipping their tops over the decision, especially after the defense allowed two first downs, the second a 7-yard completion on third and 4 from the Cleveland 37. McCarthy, however, saw the ball move a little and decided to throw the challenge flag.

The replay eventually showed that tight end David Njoku lost the ball on the ground and so Cleveland had to punt.

After Trevor Davis set up the Packers at the Cleveland 25 with a 65-yard punt return, McCarthy stayed aggressive, calling passes on five of the seven plays, including first and goal at the 1, when he called a run-pass option that allowed Hundley to throw a back-shoulder pass to Davante Adams for the tying touchdown.

In overtime, McCarthy kept the foot on the pedal and threw on four of six plays, including consecutive downs at the Cleveland 28 and 25. The last one took the game out of Crosby’s hands. Adams turned a short pass into a 25-yard touchdown to finish off the comeback.

“We were just trying to take advantage of the matchups we felt we had in the perimeter,” McCarthy said. “But hell, we’re trying to score.”

Just the way you’d expect it — or not.

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