SEATTLE - The last time they were here, Mike McCarthy tried the conservative approach. You remember the 2014 NFC Championship game. The pair of first-quarter field goals from the 1-yard line. The not having enough points for a trip to the Super Bowl at the end.
Thursday night was nowhere near as significant. This is the middle of November, not January. Yet McCarthy once again had a chance to make the bold decision.
He once again tried the conservative approach.
With 4:20 left and the Packers facing fourth-and-2 from their 33-yard line, McCarthy faced the choice coaches are paid to make. The Packers trailed by a field goal. They had one timeout, plus the two-minute warning, to stop the clock.
McCarthy could go for it.
“It was definitely a consideration there,” he said.
But quarterback Aaron Rodgers had just made his best Chris Paul-style bounce pass to a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who would have converted third down with a good throw. It probably wasn’t the most confidence-inducing last impression of the Packers' offense before McCarthy decided what to do next.
That was to punt, of course. Rookie JK Scott boomed a 67 yarder, effective had the football not dribbled into the end zone.
The Packers never got the football again.
Instead, they watched the Seattle Seahawks drain the last 4 minutes, 11 seconds off a 27-24 loss. The Packers dropped to 4-5-1 this season. They’ve lost three of their past four games and haven’t won back-to-back all fall.
Their season is on the brink before Thanksgiving. For a second straight year, they’re staring directly at the possibility of missing the playoffs. This time, they have their two-time MVP quarterback behind center.
“Of course there’s hope,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Of course we believe in each other. It’s going to take one galvanizing moment.”
Tramon Williams, the veteran corner who’s usually sanguine even in loss, was in a different kind of mood Thursday night.
Arms folded, eyebrows furrowed, Williams stood at his locker and admitted he’s “concerned” with where this 2018 season is headed. When asked what it felt like to lose a close game on the road, a game that could have been a springboard in their season, Williams pointed directly to a lack of urgency.
“When we’re in games like this,” the veteran said, “we gotta go for it, man. We play to win, you know? We play to win. We’ve got the best quarterback behind center. We played well throughout the game on the defensive side of the field. We’ve gotta play to win.
“We’ve been in too many close games and not come out on that side. That’s not a good feeling right now.”
It’s uncertain whether Williams’ “we gotta go for it” was a direct reference to the Packers punting on fourth down. When a reporter asked Williams whether punting on fourth down was playing to win, he declined to answer.
“You tell me,” he said, arms still folded. “You’re asking the question. You tell me.”
When pressed, Williams only said: “I’m cool, man. Next question.”
There are reasons for every decision any coach makes. Not all reasons are good, but they’re a lot deeper than often realized.
Go back to the pair of field goals in that ill-fated NFC title game. On multiple occasions, McCarthy has referenced former Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett bursting through the Packers' offensive line on earlier downs. Given Bennett’s penetration, the Packers coach felt it was best not to forego points for a low-percentage, short-yardage situation.
Go back and watch the film. Know what you see? Bennett in the Packers backfield on earlier downs.
McCarthy did not say why he chose to punt Thursday night. Maybe Rodgers’ poor throw spooked him. Maybe it was something else. But the context surrounding McCarthy’s decision makes it more puzzling.
Already having used two timeouts, McCarthy was asking his defense to make a stop without allowing two first downs. He was asking that despite the Packers' defense having already played 128 snaps in the past five days in two games separated by 2,000 miles. As good as the defense was early Thursday, it appeared out of gas late in the fourth quarter. The Packers had just allowed a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Even more, consider Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s reaction to his counterpart’s decision to punt.
“I was a little relieved,” Carroll said. “I really did like that they punted the ball to us right there, because we knew we had a shot to kill the game if we could, and kill the clock. And we did it. the thing about that, that’s here we go, this is our time. it’s four-minute time. Thrilled to see that happen.”
Generally, it’s less than ideal to make decisions that leave the opposing coach a mixture of relieved and thrilled.
This is all second guessing. If Scott’s punt is downed inside the 10-yard line instead of a touchback, if the Packers defense forces a three-and-out, if the Packers offense gets the ball back with a short field and scores a game-winning touchdown — if McCarthy’s decision to punt works — then this isn’t an issue.
But that didn’t happen. The Packers had their shot at a galvanizing moment. They punted instead. And at 4-5-1, their season on the brink, their coach staying conservative, time is running out to change.