Packers taking inventory of how they reached 'really tough spot' in seemingly lost season

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – Two months ago, the Green Bay Packers entered this season convinced they could make a Super Bowl run.

Facing a crossroads, they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table this spring. General manager Brian Gutekunst extended quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the richest contract in NFL history. He used his remaining salary cap to build what was supposed to be a dominant defense.

These were ingredients the Packers expected to preserve their place atop the NFC, even after trading receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders.

“Every team has the same goal coming into the season,” coach Matt LaFleur said Friday. “I think, for some, it’s more realistic than others. I think we were one of those teams that definitely believed.”

That belief is on life support – at best – following Thursday night’s 27-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The math simply doesn’t add up. At 4-7, losers in six of their past seven games, there are only six games left in the Packers season to mount any sort of postseason run.

LaFleur said he doesn’t ignore his team’s record, nor the bottom of the standings it places his team. Late Thursday night, he delivered a simple message to his players.

“It’s win or go home,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. “We’ve got to just keep fighting.”

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Even running the table might not be enough to save this season. They can finish no better than 10-7, a steep drop after three straight 13-win seasons.

If they finish 5-1, that could perch the Packers on the playoff bubble, but it would be a coin flip at best to determine whether they landed in the bracket.

A year ago, six teams finished with nine wins. Only two received postseason berths: the Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1). The New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers all finished 9-8 and were left out of the playoffs.

The Packers’ chances are higher of missing a playoff berth at 9-8 because of which teams have already beaten them. They would lose head-to-head tiebreakers against the 5-5 Washington Commanders and, though they are likely to finish with more than nine wins, the 7-2 New York Giants.

“I think you’ve always got to be honest,” LaFleur said, “about where you’re at, just to help guide you. But certainly, yeah, I think we are in a really tough spot. The message that I articulated to our team is, every game, it’s a one-game season from here on out. Every game is absolutely critical, and they all are, but just in particular where we are today. There’s no margin for error.”

In hindsight, delaying the bye week might have been a mistake

In his reflection, LaFleur has considered how his team went from Super Bowl favorites to this tough spot. He mentioned unprompted Friday how the Packers’ swoon began with their trip to London. The team entered its first game ever outside North America with a 3-1 record. There were visible cracks in their foundation, but the Packers were winning.

LaFleur had an option this offseason to accept his team’s bye week following its overseas trip or trudge along with the season. He chose the latter, pushing the Packers’ bye to Week 14. That meant eight straight games after returning home from Europe.

The Packers have so far won only one of those, with two to go before reaching their week off.

“I think anytime things don’t go to the level you want them to,” LaFleur said, “you’ve got to look at everything critically. Yeah, absolutely, I’ve wrestled with that. All you can do is move forward and learn from every experience, both good and bad. It’s a tough lesson, I would say, considering where we’re at, but it was the decision that I made at the time in what I thought was best for our team. It’s hard to say if that was the right decision.”

Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur encourages the crowd to make noise during the second quarter of their loss to the Tennessee Titans.

The decision was undoubtedly based on LaFleur’s belief this would be a championship-contending season. A Week 6 bye would have created a death march in the season’s second half, when he expected the Packers to be making their stretch run to the playoffs. He opted to give his team rest before the postseason. Now, it appears the Packers will have all offseason to rest.

It didn’t help that Rodgers injured his throwing thumb against the Giants. The Packers tried to create rest during the week while Rodgers missed practices, typically on Wednesdays. In reality, the constant grind of a season did not allow ample recovery time. LaFleur said his quarterback is healthy enough to play, noting Rodgers had perhaps his best game of the season last Sunday in a win against the Dallas Cowboys.

“I know he’s battling through it,” LaFleur said. “He’s made some really great throws, and then he’s missed some throws. I think that’s life of a quarterback in this league. You’re never going to be perfect.”

If losses keep coming, focus on developing young players might be next

The Packers might be reaching the point in their season when they flip a page. Once they are officially eliminated, a moment that might come prematurely given the hole they're in, attention will likely turn to next season. The Packers are like most NFL teams, a collection of proven veterans and developing youngsters.

Building for the future often means yielding to youth.

The Packers might not be playing for the same goals they entered this season with, at least much longer. LaFleur made clear there will be something for his team to earn each week no matter their record.

“I’m not saying that it can’t happen,” LaFleur said, “but we’re going to have to play a hell of a lot better, and we’re going to have to coach a hell of a lot better, and just truly take it that one game at a time. But I think you’re always fighting for something. Every one of these guys, myself, all the coaches, you’re always fighting for your job. Always. Every time you go out there. That’s just the reality of the league we live in and work in.

“So that’s always going to be the mindset, whether you’re in the race or not, you’re always fighting for your job.”

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