Dougherty: Listless Packers seeking spark
GREEN BAY - It’s not just that the Green Bay Packers are only 4-4 halfway through a 2016 season that they entered as a Super Bowl hopeful. It’s how they got here that has to have them worried.
By the time they took the field for their 3:25 p.m. start Sunday, they knew the Detroit Lions had beaten the Minnesota Vikings. So a win over the underwhelming Indianapolis Colts would have put the Packers in a tie for first place in the NFC North Division with half the season ahead of them.
Instead, as a seven-point favorite at home, they played maybe their worst game of the season.
Most troubling of all was that for the first three quarters, the biggest excitement for the crowd at Lambeau Field was a squirrel that scurried around the field a few times in the second half. With so much to play for, the Packers gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game, then simply showed little of the toughness, resilience and fight you look for from a team trying to build toward a title through the ups and downs of a long NFL season.
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How blah were the Packers on Sunday? After the game, reporters could hear defensive lineman Mike Daniels’ rant in the shower, where he threw F-bombs and wondered how the Packers could have played like they did. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga said he didn’t feel the usual “juice” on the sideline, and Aaron Rodgers didn’t blanch when asked if he felt the same way.
“I don’t understand it,” Rodgers said. “I mean, this is what we get paid to do, is to bring it every week, and I hope the guys would say I bring it every week, I mean, I love this game and I bring energy. I’m not a rah-rah guy, but I’m a focused, enthusiastic player, and I don’t know what the lack of juice was.
“You kind of felt it over the entire sideline. We didn’t have the same kind of enthusiasm and encouragement that we had the previous two weeks. So we’ve got to look deep in the mirror there, because that’s just not acceptable.”
That should worry coach Mike McCarthy, because his team has no business overlooking anyone. So now, instead of being tied for first place in the division, the Packers are looking up at the Vikings (5-3) and Lions (5-4).
BOX SCORE: Colts 31, Packers 26
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Mathematically, the Packers still are well in the thick of things, and it’s not uncommon in this league for teams to be .500 or even under at this point, still make the playoffs and occasionally even go on deep postseason runs. But the Packers haven’t done anything so far to suggest that’s in their future.
For what it’s worth, in McCarthy’s tenure as coach, the Packers have been 4-4 three times, and in only one of those seasons did they make the playoffs. That was 2009, Rodgers’ second season as starter, when as 9½-point favorites they lost at previously winless Tampa Bay to drop to 4-4. The Packers finished that season 11-5 and then lost at Arizona in the wild card round of the playoffs.
The other two times were in 2006, McCarthy’s first season as coach, and ’08, Rodgers’ first season as starter. They missed the playoffs both times, at 8-8 in ’06 and 6-10 in ’08.
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The problem this year is they’re still in search of an identity, and it’s getting a little deep into the season to be looking for that. They don’t have a true starting-caliber running back and might not all year. Eddie Lacy, their No. 1 back, had ankle surgery and doesn’t appear likely to return until January, if at all. James Starks is due back in the next few weeks from knee surgery performed last month, but at age 30 it’s not a given he’ll be the same guy he was before getting hurt.
Even without a traditional running game, the Packers seemed to have found something the last two weeks going mainly with four- and five-receiver sets. But against a Colts defense that came into the game ranked No. 29 in yards allowed and No. 28 in points, the Packers showed little playmaking ability. McCarthy mixed and matched personnel, and his offense did little of consequence until the Packers were desperately behind at 31-13 in the fourth quarter. Their late run to make it a game in the final minutes rang hollow.
Maybe the most important stretch of the game came on back-to-back plays in the second quarter, when Rodgers over-led an open Jordy Nelson on a deep ball, then came back and put a bomb right on Jeff Janis, who dropped it. Making those kinds of plays wins games.
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Rodgers also seemed miffed that receiver Randall Cobb, who unexpectedly was active after missing last week because of a hamstring injury, didn’t play until the second half. McCarthy’s plan seemingly was to play Cobb only if he needed to.
“We’re waiting on some guys to get back, and like I said last week (finding an identity) is going to be a work in progress,” Rodgers said. “There were some things that happened out there tonight that were obviously very frustrating. Didn’t quite understand what Cobb’s status was, so we got him in there the last couple drives, but yeah, it was frustrating.”
The 4-5 Colts, on the other hand, made plays, and while quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t have great numbers (74.0 rating, 281 yards passing), he was the difference. He made the play of the game on the final possession when he shrugged off safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s sack attempt and hit tight end Jack Doyle for a 20-yard gain to convert a third-and-10.
With a stop, the Packers would have gotten back the ball with a chance to win in the final two minutes despite having played an abysmal first three quarters. Instead, Luck delivered the Colts the upset win, and sent the reeling Packers into the second half of the season without much to build on other than hope for hope.
“We’ve got to bring more energy and more juice and just find a way at this point,” Rodgers said. “If we keep finding a way, hopefully something will happen at some point.”