Crucial mistakes could cost Slocum his job

Pete Dougherty
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Seattle Seahawks' Jon Ryan throws a touchdown pass on a fake field goal attempt during the second half of the  NFC championship game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

The Green Bay Packers blew the NFC championship game for the same reason teams usually win or lose big games.

The performance from the top and bottom of their roster.

Of all the things that went wrong in the game's final 5 minutes and overtime, what the Packers couldn't overcome was a so-so day from the NFL's presumptive MVP and several inept mistakes from the lower part of their roster, especially on special teams.

And maybe the question of this week is whether the game will cost anyone on the coaching staff his job. We'll find out soon enough.

Of course there's plenty of other fodder for the Packers and their followers to comb through and debate. Foremost were Morgan Burnett's slide after his interception; coach Mike McCarthy twice kicking field goals in the first quarter rather than going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1; and McCarthy's conservative play-calling when the Packers were trying to run out the clock on two possessions in the final 7 minutes.

Judging from my emails, some fans have extremely strong opinions on Burnett's and McCarthy's decisions. They're legitimate arguments. But the truth is, they also were gray-area calls that, at minimum, are defensible.

The biggest reasons the Packers lost were that Aaron Rodgers, diminished by his calf injury, played only OK at best, and lower-roster players Davon House and Brandon Bostick, and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix made the killer mistakes their peers on Seattle's roster didn't.

To put it succinctly, when the Packers had the chance to win the game in the final 1:19, Rodgers took them to the game-tying field goal but couldn't get them into the end zone. This was when the Packers needed him to win the game, and he didn't. When Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson got the same chance in overtime, he did.

Now, you can't say this without talking about Rodgers' injured calf. The hard view is that this is the NFL, and if he's playing he's got to make the plays. Injured or not, you die trying.

What we can't know is how close his calf was to the breaking point on that last drive. On the third play, he scrambled for 12 yards but pulled up and hopped the final few yards out of bounds. After that we saw his limitations.

On first down and third down from Seattle's 36, Rodgers had huge scrambling lanes to his right, and on either play he would have picked up 10 to 15 yards if he could have run. With all three timeouts, the Packers could have used the whole field to try to get in the end zone in the final 25 to 30 seconds. Instead, Rodgers threw an incompletion on one and a short catch on the other. Series over.

Rodgers is finding out he's in the same position as his predecessor, Brett Favre. When he plays well in the playoffs, the Packers win. When he doesn't, the season ends. That's the beauty and burden of being among the best of the best.

Rodgers dominated the '10 postseason and the Packers won it all. He had a below-average game against the New York Giants in the '11 playoffs, and the Packers lost. In the '12 and '13 seasons, Colin Kaepernick played better in the San Francisco 49ers' two playoff wins.

This year, Rodgers outplayed Tony Romo in the divisional round. It's tough to argue that Wilson outplayed him last week, but Rodgers (55.8 rating) didn't outplay Wilson (44.3 rating), either. There's no disputing Rodgers was disadvantaged by his calf. It clearly limited his mobility and seemed to affect his throwing accuracy. In the end, he didn't, or couldn't, do enough.

Then there's House, Bostick and Clinton-Dix.

House was too casual on Seattle's fake field goal pass for a touchdown. He had outside contain at right end, but he turned the corner and stood. If he'd flared outside after a couple of steps, as Jarrett Bush did on the other side, he would have blown up the fake.

Yes, A.J. Hawk should have stayed deep rather than go after holder Jon Ryan. But House's mistake was first and biggest.

As for Bostick's botched catch on the onside kick, what can you say? Everyone by now knows that on a floating ball like that, he was supposed to block, not catch. It was an inexplicable decision by a player who seemed to always play himself off the field as a tight end. After three years of professional football, he still lacks awareness, and it came to a costly head there.

Finally, there was Clinton-Dix on the two-point conversion that put the Seahawks up three and prevented a field goal from beating them in the final seconds.

From watching the replay, it's impossible to tell what he was doing on Wilson's floating, across-the-field pass. He was right there on tight end Luke Willson and simply didn't react. You can't see his eyes, so there's no knowing what he saw. But how did he get caught that flat-footed?

Green Bay Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum, center, organizes his kick-off team on the sidelines against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink FIeld.

As for the coaching staff, I almost never have an opinion on whether an assistant should be kept or let go. There's so much you can't know if you're not in the building and don't know the parameters the coaches are working with, what happens in meeting rooms, and the like. Outside looking in, it's easy to be in the fire-'em crowd, but it's also usually superficial and lame.

But on this one, I'm inclined to think McCarthy will, and probably should, make the change at special teams, even if Shawn Slocum is a good coach and friend of his. Seasons like this often cost an assistant his job regardless of culpability, because it's the NFL, and most are either on notice or one step away. It keeps everyone else on their toes.

The reason I'm willing to weigh in on this one, is that we know McCarthy has been concerned with something about his special teams. Twice in five years, he's let go of Slocum's assistant. In 2010, the coach demoted Curtis Fuller to an administrative assistant, and last year he fired Chad Morton.

But bringing in the veteran Ron Zook as the assistant this year did nothing to improve the special teams. The Dallas Morning News' composite special teams rankings aren't out yet, but it doesn't take them to see that the Packers had a glaring problem with blocked kicks this season.

They had six (three field goals, an extra point and two punts) plus another extra point lost because of a dropped snap. That's a staggering number.

Then the killers were the two huge special teams gaffes against Seattle. Now, is it Slocum's fault Bostick blew his assignment and then, despite being a tight end who's on the roster because of his ball-catching ability, dropped the pop up? No. Probably the same for House getting lax on the fake field goal.

And does this mean Slocum's a bad coach? No. A lot of good coaches get fired every offseason, and hired by someone else a week or two later. But this is the NFL, and even friends fire friends, as Miami coach Joe Philbin did last year with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the man who brought him into the NFL and one of his best friends in the league.

"Shawn and Mike go back to Pitt way back in (1990 as graduate assistants), so they have an extensive history," said a special teams coach with another team. "But (Joe) Philbin and Mike Sherman did, too.

"If I was Shawn, I'd be on edge right now. You don't wish that on anybody, but we've all been there. It's a performance-based industry, and if performance is bad, that's typically the way it goes."

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