Silverstein: Packers can't ignore warning signs in dreadful season finale

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (7) confers with head coach Mike McCarthy during the game against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 31, 2017 at Ford Field in Detroit.

DETROIT - The Green Bay Packers are not a very good football team without quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

They’ve proved it over and over again.

The Packers finished the 2017 season 3-7 in games in which backup Brett Hundley played and 7-9 overall. This marked only the second losing season in coach Mike McCarthy’s 12 seasons, the other when they went 6-10 year in Rodgers’ first year as a starter.

It’s not a mortal sin to go .300 without your franchise quarterback, but losing the final two games against NFC North opponents by a combined 51-11 should be a fair warning that you’ve got a sagging foundation.

Managing one touchdown in the eighth and ninth starts of Hundley’s career should be a warning to someone they might not have the right guy backing up their starter.

The fact the Packers couldn’t even hold serve during the eight-game span in which Rodgers didn’t play or didn’t finish should set off beacons bright enough to reach general manager Ted Thompson’s office.

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If they had beaten the Detroit Lions or sneaked past the Baltimore Ravens at home, or even pulled off the upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, they might have found a way to sneak into the playoffs.

But during a 35-11 loss to the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field they were a mess of a team, an injury-plagued, veteran-deprived, ragtag collection unable to make an 8-7 team already eliminated from the playoffs break a sweat in a half-empty stadium.

If the Packers had a quarterback who could somehow make them think they had a chance, maybe the score wouldn’t have been so lopsided and they would have left for home with their heads held high.

Instead, what it looked like from the upper deck of Ford Field was a team demoralized about the failures on offense, knowing there was no way they could beat a team whose coach might lose his job for going 9-7.

Asked if he sensed players were demoralized,  McCarthy responded testily.

“I don’t. And it’s not apparent,” he barked. “And if anybody tells you so, he’s full of (expletive). We don’t have that nonsense in our culture. The kid works hard. He’s a fine young man. If you could see us practice, the way we practice, everything, that part of it’s right.

“But they didn’t catch the ball very well for him either. So, I mean, it takes everybody to play football. He made mistakes today, too. I’m not saying Brett Hundley was perfect. But if there’s anything that is 100%, is this team works.”

But it’s also human.

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McCarthy got the players excited with an onside kick to start the game, and safety Jermaine Whitehead made a terrific play to recover the ball and steal a possession for the Packers.

Then, the whole thing burst when Hundley threw slightly behind running back Jamaal Williams, causing the ball to bounce off his pads and into the air, allowing linebacker Jarrad Davis to pick it off. Williams could have made a better effort, but Hundley’s job is to lead him with the throw and he didn’t.

The bubble burst.

Two series later, Hundley marched the team down to the Detroit 20 but fumbled after scrambling for 4 yards and gave the ball back to the Lions.

The bubble burst again.

At that point, even though the game was tied, 3-3, the Lions' defensive front was tearing up the patchwork right side of the Packers offensive line (Lucas Patrick and Justin McCray for Jahri Evans and Jason Spriggs) and only the cheeriest of optimists would have thought the Packers had a chance.

Those two spoiled opportunities left the defense no margin for error on a day it was missing linebacker Nick Perry and cornerback Damarious Randall and would later lose cornerback Davon House. It was a given that Detroit was going to score some points, but a couple of early scores would have at least made the Packers think they could stick around for a while.

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They couldn’t, and McCarthy never recognized that no one was rallying behind Hundley. When you have 13 drops in two games, there’s something going on.

Third-string quarterback Joe Callahan wasn’t going to lead a three-touchdown comeback, but putting him in would have shown accountability, that Hundley can’t be excused for throwing four interceptions in a five-quarter span. There’s a human element to the game and McCarthy saw poor fundamentals instead of demoralization.

In the locker room afterward, no one said anything negative about Hundley or the effort players gave. They just talked about preferring to think they could have changed the course of this season themselves.

“You can think like that, but there’s so much other stuff that we’re not doing, the little things right,” House said. “Now that Aaron’s not there, you have to do the little things right. We just didn’t do it.”

Thompson owes it to the veterans who have slogged through this season to improve the roster and stop counting on draft picks staying healthy during their first season in the NFL. Many don’t.

The best thing McCarthy has going for him is that this game should open eyes everywhere that the Packers need free-agent help and a major change in either off-season training or draft health evaluation. It can’t be a coincidence that they’re one of the most injured teams year after year.

And if it is, then Thompson needs to anticipate it and build a roster that can weather the temporary loss of Rodgers.

BOX SCORE:Lions 35, Packers 11

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“I mean, he’s great,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Obviously, our personnel, we have finances. You pay to have him on the field to do what he can do. Through that there’s other places you’re not going to be able to pay for a certain quality of players.

“At the end of the day, we have a job to do and we have to perform at a high level. I know that I can only control my job and what I can do. I just hope we have a good off-season and everyone comes back and we have a hell of a year.”

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