Looking back, Sept. 30 was the day that signaled the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 season was headed down the tubes.
The Packers had just defeated the Buffalo Bills 22-0 on a cloudy, 49 degree day at Lambeau Field. They were 2-1-1, Aaron Rodgers’ injured knee looked like it was slowly improving and their maligned defense pitched a rare shutout.
Yet, based on Rodgers’ postgame news conference, you’d have thought the Packers lost. His answers were terse, almost surly. He characterized the offense’s performance as “non-playoff team” at one point and “not acceptable” at another.
He was irked they didn’t put up twice as many points as they did and questioned why receiver Davante Adams wasn’t targeted even more than he was (14 times). Then, when asked why Adams didn’t get more throws, he implicitly criticized coach Mike McCarthy.
“It’s by the (game) plan,” Rodgers said. “Find ways to get (Adams) in No. 1 spots.”
The next day, McCarthy tried to put out the fire.
“When I closed my door last night and watched the game (video), I felt like we left a lot out there,” he said.
But as we suspected then and know now, this was more than the heat-of-the-moment sideline spats they’d occasionally had in the past. Looking back, it’s clear McCarthy had lost his quarterback, which in effect meant he’d lost the locker room.
Any of Rodgers’ teammates who were unsure whether McCarthy had Rodgers’ buy-in – most presumably already knew – were unsure no more. The Packers’ season and coach were doomed.
As the Packers’ 2018 schedule mercifully comes to a close Sunday, you might be tempted to look back for the moments when they could have turned things around.
There was Ty Montgomery’s horrendous, perhaps spiteful decision to return a late kickoff at the Los Angeles Coliseum when he was ordered not to bring the ball out of the end zone. His fumble cost Rodgers a shot at beating the undefeated Rams, needing only a field goal to win with just under two minutes to play.
There also were McCarthy’s fourth-down decisions in back-to-back weeks at Seattle and Minnesota. He punted when he should have gone for it on fourth-and-2 in the final five minutes against the Seahawks, and he went for it when he should have punted on fourth-and-1 early in the third quarter against the Vikings.
But really, those and any other what-ifs from any given game at any given time miss the bigger picture that we caught a glimpse of on that late-September day after the Packers beat the Bills.
That is, the chemistry between the coach and quarterback was shot, and that set the course for 2018. Rodgers disdained McCarthy’s scheme and balked at his game planning and play calling. He certainly never took to McCarthy’s retooling of the playbook last offseason.
It often showed in Rodgers’ demeanor and manifested in his play. His rating (97.4) is his lowest since he was a first-year starter, and he has been taking sacks (48, third-most in the league) and throwing the ball away at an alarming rate. Even his NFL record for most consecutive passes without an interception (402) rings hollow because he didn’t make plays and win games like he had in the past.
That’s the story of the Packers’ dismal season in a nutshell. Most everything else is just noise.
Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy was right to fire McCarthy with a month to play despite everything the coach had done in 13 years. There wasn’t good enough reason to delay the inevitable when a toxic environment was doing harm. Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst went all-in with their quarterback when they extended his contract four months ago.
Since McCarthy’s firing, Rodgers has looked like a different guy. His mood in news conferences has been lighter, and on the field there have been times he has looked like he’s actually having fun.
Yes, there are still plays where he has held the ball when he could have gotten it away, and it makes you wonder if he’s paying attention to the rush more than he used to. Either way, the new coach’s No. 1 charge will be partnering up with Rodgers and getting him to play like a star again, anyway and anyhow.
The Packers’ 100th season, now almost in the books, has been a lost year. Signs of trouble were there early on. Now big change is on its way for Season 101.