We can only guess what Mike McCarthy and his crew at 1265 Lombardi Ave. are thinking deep down this week.
If they suspect or know Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone will keep him out the rest of the season, well, that has to leave them queasy. This had the makings of a special season for the Green Bay Packers.
But we also know that life and the NFL go on. How many times over the years did I hear former general manager Ron Wolf say, “cemeteries are full of indispensable people”? Too many to count.
So while the Packers’ reality is about as harsh as it gets in this league, McCarthy is charged with forging on and making the most of things. It’s now on him and his coaching staff to figure out a way to win with Brett Hundley at quarterback.
This week I called an offensive coordinator for an AFC team to ask him what’s likely going through the minds of McCarthy and his assistants as they prepare to possibly finish the season with Hundley instead of Rodgers. He said in the short term, it might be upbeat.
“They’re thinking, we’re going to do it with this guy,” the coordinator said, “and we’re going to look like heroes when we do it with this guy.”
Like heroes, indeed.
For one sign of how the Packers’ prospects changed on one play last Sunday, just look to Las Vegas. Last week at this time, Bovada.lv gave the Packers the second-best odds of winning the Super Bowl (5-to-1), behind only New England (4 1/2 –to-1). Now they’re 16-to-1, and they’re not worse only because Rodgers hasn’t been ruled out for the season.
Then there’s Sunday’s point spread against the New Orleans Saints. Last week the Packers were six-point favorites. This week they’re six-point underdogs.
So there is, in fact, opportunity in Green Bay. For coaches to prove their acumen and players to prove their worth.
There’s also a division title at stake. Would anyone be shocked if 9-7 or even 8-8 won the NFC North this season? The Packers are 4-2, so they’re still in play.
It starts at the top. General manager Ted Thompson hired McCarthy back in 2006 largely because of the coach’s work with quarterbacks. Franchises live or die with the position, and Thompson wanted a quarterback expert running his team. McCarthy is here for precisely these circumstances.
McCarthy is forthright that everything he does on offense is predicated on making the quarterback successful. He takes great pride in developing the position and has been working with Hundley for 2 ½ years. He and Thompson could have looked elsewhere for a backup the last couple seasons but didn’t. Hundley is their guy.
It’s put-up time.
“(Hundley) should get better with time,” the coordinator said. “Mike (McCarthy) is the best. And (quarterbacks coach) Alex Van Pelt. Those guys are fantastic. They’ll find a way to gear it toward him as best they can. It will be tough to win the (NFC North) division, though.”
It will, because the Packers don’t have the Minnesota Vikings’ defense, or an Ezekiel Elliott at running back, to fall back on. McCarthy needs Hundley to play well.
While there’s no avoiding the truth that a season-ending injury to Rodgers will end the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes, recent history also shows that their season still can go different ways. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts mark the spectrum.
When Tom Brady blew out his ACL in the first game of 2008, Matt Cassel became the Patriots’ quarterback. Cassel was in his fourth NFL season, and coach Bill Belichick coaxed an 11-5 record out of him. That wasn’t good enough to get in the playoffs. But it was impressive, especially knowing what we know now about Cassel.
Now, it also bears mentioning that Cassel had Randy Moss and Wes Welker at receiver, and the NFL’s No. 8 scoring defense on his side. So he had help. Those Patriots couldn’t beat good teams without Brady, but they competed and found ways to win. That said plenty about Belichick and his team.
On the other end are the Colts, who cratered when Peyton Manning couldn’t play. In 2010 they’d won the AFC South at 10-6. But at the end of training camp in ’11, Manning had season-ending neck surgery, and the Colts endured a horrible 2-14 with Kerry Collins (three starts), Curtis Painter (eight) and Dan Orlovsky (five) as their quarterbacks.
That’s how bad it can get.
“I don’t know that Green Bay is quite built like (those Colts),” the offensive coordinator said. “They can do better than that. But you lose a guy of that stature, what happens?”
The next couple months will reveal plenty about the Packers’ resourcefulness, resilience and talent. Some might grow into big roles. Other weaknesses that Rodgers covered up figure to magnify.
But more than anything, we’ll learn something about McCarthy and a lot about the quarterback he has been grooming for 2 ½ years.
“It’s just too bad they don’t have a solid running game to rely on and a defense that’s going to give (up only) 17 (point) to where he has a chance,” the coach said. “Maybe (Hundley) gets hot because their skill players are good, their receivers are good. If he can learn how to throw a couple back-shoulder fades they can change field position and maybe he runs around a little as he gets going. He’s just not real accurate.”
Starting this week, we’ll find out just how accurate that is.