The Packers/Seahawks Postmortem: Who's to blame and where do the Packers go from here?
It’s been roughly 48 hours since the Packers completed one of the biggest collapses in postseason history. As a form of therapy, Packer diehards John Paulsen and Pat Fitzmaurice decided to sort through the rubble, assign blame and offer a few suggestions for possible offseason changes in Green Bay.
John: Well, that was brutal. There’s a lot to talk about, but I’d like to start with the end -- the final five minutes and overtime. Let me set the stage: It’s late in the 4th quarter, Green Bay is up 19-7 and Morgan Burnett is running free through the middle of the field after Russell Wilson’s fourth interception. Instead of running to daylight, he takes a knee to avoid turning the ball back over to the Seahawks. Considering he made the pick, I don’t want to fault him too much for playing it safe. He thought his team had it locked up. I thought they had it locked up. J.J. Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) told me yesterday the Packers had a 98.6% chance to win the game after that pick. Yikes.
Here’s the thing: Other than Green Bay’s game-tying drive at the end of regulation, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Packers.
Green Bay’s possession with 5:04 to play: Mike McCarthy goes (his usual) uber-conservative even though the Seahawks still have three timeouts and he has (arguably) the best quarterback in the league. He runs Eddie Lacy for -4, -2 and 2 yards. The Seahawks get the ball at their own 31 yard line and, out of desperation, a slumbering offense suddenly wakes up. Marshawn Lynch gains 14 yards on first down. Then Doug Baldwin makes a 20-yard catch. Russell Wilson throws what appears to be a 35-yard touchdown to Lynch, but he’s called out at the 9 yard line. The Seahawks eventually score on a 1-yard Wilson run with 2:09 to play. It’s 19-14 and an onside kick is coming.
Backup TE Brandon Bostick was apparently supposed to block but he attempts to go up and make a play on the ball. Photos and video show Jordy Nelson behind him in position to catch it. Bostick has taken a ton of heat since Sunday, but his mistake was just a single domino in a long line of dominoes that allowed Seattle’s comeback to happen.
Seattle scores again on a great 24-yard run by Marshawn Lynch with 1:25 to play. They now hold a 20-19 lead, so they go for two. The Packer defense applies pressure, but Wilson’s pass -- which seems to hang in the air forever -- somehow finds its way into Luke Willson’s waiting arms. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who already had two picks (and nearly a third) on the day showed poor awareness and was unable to knock the pass down...now the Seahawks have a three-point lead. (This play garnered my loudest scream of the day.)
My six year-old son Max, who owns a share of Packers stock (to ensure his lifelong loyalty to the team), is now in tears as he watches the game in the other room. I tell him they still have a chance to tie or win the game. Gotta fight until the end, never give up, all that. The Packers have 85 seconds and all three timeouts. A game-tying field goal attempt seems inevitable, and Aaron Rodgers does a nice job of getting his team in position. This is the only good stretch for Green Bay in the final minutes of the game.
My game MVP, Mason Crosby, boots his second 48-yard field goal of the day (5th field goal overall) and the game goes to overtime. As I’m explaining the extra period rules to Max, Rodgers picks “tails.” Of course it comes up “heads.” Of course it does.
3rd-and-7 at the Seattle 30 and it looks like the Packers are about to get a stop. Nope. Wilson finds Baldwin for a 35-yard catch. Now we just have to hold them to a field goal attempt. Nope. Wilson sees the Packers stack the box to stop Lynch and audibles on the next play, hitting Jermaine Kearse (who was the target on all four of Wilson’s interceptions) for the game-winning 35-yard touchdown.
The interception kneel-down.
The onside kick.
The two-point conversion.
The coin flip.
If the Packers do better at any one of these points in the game, they (in all likelihood) win the game.
What happened, Pat? And who’s to blame?
Pat: Before we get too deep into this, John, can I begin with a brief preface to all subsequent remarks?
Packer fans are spoiled. Especially Packer fans born later than the mid-’70s, who didn’t have to endure any of the 20-plus years of post-Lombardi incompetence. After that lengthy drought, the arrival of splendidly mulleted QB Don Majkowski in the late ‘80s heralded better things to come, and the “Majik Man” eventually gave way to Brett Favre, who quarterbacked Green Bay for 16 mostly excellent seasons before giving way to Aaron Rodgers, who might be even better than the Hall of Fame-bound Favre. Over the last 23 years, the Packers have had two losing seasons. They won a Super Bowl five seasons ago and have won two within the last 20 years. The Packers have pretty much owned their division for two decades. Packer fans have been treated to nearly a quarter-century of greatness at the QB position. Fans of some other teams would kill to get even a few years of adequate quarterbacking. Aside from the supporters of other NFC North teams, NFL fans tend to like the Packers because Green Bay is such a small town, because the team has such a rich history and because it’s publicly owned.
In short, we Packer fans have been lucky as hell, and most of us recognize that. I doubt we’ll find much sympathy from fans of most other teams, who have their own ghosts to deal with. But I do appreciate the opportunity for catharsis.
So, where to cast the blame? Well, if we’re limiting this part of the discussion to everything from the Burnett interception on, the most obvious scapegoat is Bostick. Failing to catch the ball is forgivable -- players fumble and drop passes all the time -- but disregarding an assignment is not. Bostick abandoned his assignment and then failed when attempting to execute Jordy Nelson’s assignment. I feel sorry for Bostick, who faced the media like a man afterward and seems like a stand-up guy, but the Packers probably recover that kick and probably win the game if not for Bostick’s terrible decision and his pathetic attempt at making that catch.
A less obvious scapegoat? Julius Peppers. It was Peppers who threw up the stop sign after Burnett intercepted that pass. I’ve watched the replay of that interception from a couple different angles, and I’m convinced that if Burnett was intent on returning that INT from the start, he would have made it into sure FG range, if not all the way for the game-clinching touchdown. If Peppers had made a “follow me” gesture and taken it upon himself to act as Burnett’s lead blocker rather than motioning for Burnett to give himself up, I think the Packers would have won the game.
But, really, the Packers blew so many chances to clinch that game that it’s hard to narrow it down. They could have done so much more damage in the first half. I think Seahawks fans are great -- it’s arguably the best fan base in the league -- but I don’t think they accept the reality that the Packers lost that game, as opposed to the Seahawks winning it, or that their team got its ass handed to it for 90 percent of that game. Sorry … I had to get that out.
John: Great point about how spoiled Green Bay fans are in general. It’s truly amazing how much great quarterbacking we’ve enjoyed since the early 90s, though that had a lot to do with having capable people in charge. Ron Wolf traded for Brett Favre while Ted Thompson defied logic by drafting Aaron Rodgers while Favre still had a good 3-5 seasons left to play. 4for4’s owner, Josh Moore, was trying to console me after the game by describing how terrible it is to be a Lions fan. (He’s a Lions fan.) I get it, but it really doesn’t make Sunday’s game any easier to swallow.
Leaving the final five minutes (and overtime) for a moment. How did you think the rest of the game went? I thought Mike McCarthy’s decision to kick the field goal on 4th and inches was gutless. I understand kicking it with a long yard to go (the second field goal), but the first one was pretty ridiculous. So what if you don’t score there? Seattle gets the ball at its own one-inch line and there’s a good chance that you’ll get the three points anyway by way of favorable field position.
I thought the defense played great, generally speaking. Sure, they couldn’t get a stop in the final five minutes or in overtime, but Dom Capers’ unit was my biggest concern heading into the game, and they picked off Wilson four times, pressured him throughout the game and consistently put the offense in great field position. Capers’ biggest bugaboo has been Colin Kaepernick and the read option, yet Wilson only managed 25 yards rushing after averaging 53.1 rushing yards per game during the regular season. In fact, he didn’t have a significant gain until the 15-yarder with 2:07 to play in regulation. The first touchdown came on a fake field goal, so Capers’ defense shut out the normally efficient Seattle offense for nearly 58 minutes.
Side note: McCarthy’s turtle shell act notwithstanding, his loyalty to Capers and Crosby in recent years paid off on Sunday. It just wasn’t enough to overcome an overall lack of production from the offense or the multitude of late-game missteps I outlined earlier.
I’ve seen some Packer fans calling for McCarthy’s firing, but I don’t see it happening. The guy has already won a Super Bowl and for 55 minutes on Sunday, he had this team in position for another trip to the big game. He has pulled this turtle shell act before, but it hasn’t cost him a win in a game of this magnitude. Do you think he learns from his mistakes? Are there any other changes this offseason that you’d like to see?
Pat: Mike McCarthy might be the only football coach in America, at any level, who’d call for the field goal unit on 4th-and-goal from a foot. The lack of reasoning there is mind-boggling. Even if you get stuffed, you pin down Seattle at its own goal line -- which is worth at least a portion of what those three points are worth to you. It’s even hard to justify taking the FG on 4th-and-goal with a long yard to go, but needing to gain a few extra feet against the best defense in football, Mac’s decision there is slightly more understandable. Also, I didn’t like the three straight handoffs to Lacy against a loaded box to try to milk the clock late after the Burnett INT. How about play-action on first down, with the best QB in the league operating a defense that's thinking run all the way? It would have been a bold stroke, but, well … McCarthy.
As for Capers, you’re aware that I’m not a big fan, but I thought he came in with a terrific plan of attack and called a terrific game. The Green Bay defense was able to hem Wilson into the pocket and then collapse the pocket on him. And really, Lynch did little significant damage in the first 55 minutes. My only beef was Capers was with the three-man rush (which was more like a two-man rush, since it looked like Datone Jones was spying on Wilson and unconcerned with getting to him) on third-and-long during the series that eventually ended with the fake-FG touchdown. The rush had been so effective in getting to Wilson at that point, so why ease of the gas and rush with anything fewer than four men?
Two other quick things before looking ahead, John:
The TD on the fake field goal was absolutely ridiculous. I'm angry that Pete Carroll and his special teams coach were unjustly rewarded for trying it in such a blatantly obvious fake situation, and yet somehow the Packers were totally unprepared. Why even attempt to play the kick there? Let them have the chip shot if they want it. Unbelievable stupidity by Davon House and Brad Jones, who both went for the kick block, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of a fake, and by A.J. Hawk, who let Garry Gilliam get behind him.
And let’s face it: Aaron Rodgers played a subpar game. Had the Seattle pass rush been all over him, his performance might have been considered decent or even good. And yeah, he gets some slack because of the injury. But Rodgers missed some opportunities, and he didn't do nearly enough damage considering the absolutely AMAZING job the Packers’ O-line did in pass protection. The INT on the first drive was terrible. A lot of people on Twitter gave Sherman credit for undercutting Adams' route and making a great INT, but to me it didn’t look like he undercut the route -- I thought he had inside position when the ball was released. Really dumb play in that situation. You're already well within FG range on your first drive of the game, and that's where you're going to test Sherman? The other miss that really sticks out in my mind was on that great play call near the goal line where Nelson sprang free in the left corner of the end zone and Rodgers' timing and accuracy were off on the throw. That's a TD pass for Rodgers 19 out of 20 times.
Obviously, McCarthy isn’t going to be fired, nor would I want him to be. He’s too good an offensive architect, and he has good relationships with his players. Does he learn from his mistakes? I doubt it. I think that’s his nature. He’ll continue to be too conservative in big spots, and he’ll continue to throw some of the dumbest challenge flags you’ll ever see. (Though props to him for throwing it on the Dez Bryant play a week earlier.)
The Packers need to re-sign Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. Can’t let either of those guys get away. I think they can afford to let Tramon Williams walk. He’ll get a huge offer from someone, and as well as Ted Thompson has continually seeded the secondary with young talent, they have the depth to let him go. We know Thompson won’t make a big splash in free agency. I think he’ll continue to focus on the defensive front seven in the draft, as he should. The Packers have a screaming need at inside linebacker, and some new blood there might finally bring about the end of A.J. Hawk’s tenure in Green Bay.
John: Thank you for bringing up the offensive line. The unit has played great down the stretch and the only time the Seahawks truly stuffed the run was when they correctly predicted that McCarthy was going to run-run-run after Wilson’s fourth pick. (He was averaging 4.27 YPC prior to that series.) Other than Crosby, the O-line was the other part of the team that really stood out.
As a result, Rodgers had plenty of time to throw. I give him more of a pass for his non-stellar play than you probably do, since it was obvious that the calf was a major problem mobility-wise and he was facing a red-hot defense that had been stifling passing games in recent weeks. Rodgers was also handcuffed by conservative play-calling, thanks to McCarthy’s turtle shell act. When the Packers needed him to move the ball -- like on the team’s final drive, down by three -- he did.
As far as offseason changes, I think the special teams units need to be addressed, so Shawn Slocum probably needs to go. Between the fake field goal and Bostick’s onside kick decision, those units clearly weren’t prepared for the big moments on Sunday.
Cobb had his best season in his contract year, so I hope we continue to get the injury-free version if Thompson locks him up long term. He made some huge catches this season and always seems to be on the same page as his quarterback. Bulaga also had a pretty great year, especially in pass protection.
My wife asked me if I’d rather the Packers lose the game this way or get blown out like the Colts were in the AFC Championship Game. After the immediate sting of this giveaway loss has subsided, I think I’d prefer the former, knowing that the Packers were this close to beating the (increasingly arrogant, other than Russell Wilson) defending champs on their home field. That said, other than Rodgers’ calf, this was a pretty light injury year, and those don’t come along too often.
Any final thoughts, Patrick?
Pat: I thought about that, too -- whether Colts fans actually had it better on Sunday. I think most Colts fans slept better on Sunday night. There were no what-ifs, no individual plays that left Colts fans tossing and turning in between staccato bits of sleep. On the one hand, Packer fans can at least take solace in knowing that their team is damn good, that it severely outplayed the defending champions for 55-plus minutes of the NFC Championship game. On the other hand …
I had an end zone seat for Super Bowl XXXII -- Packers-Broncos. That one hurt. But the Broncos threw their best punch, and it was a well-played game throughout, and I could live with the result. The infamous 4th-and-26 playoff loss to the Eagles cut to the bone. A miracle Donovan McNabb completion to Freddie Mitchell to pick up a late 4th-and-26 led to a Green Bay loss, and there was no doubt in my mind that had the Packers won (on a day when they outplayed the Eagles), they would have defeated the Panthers the following week and faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The last-second Terrell Owens catch that helped the 49ers knock the Packers out of the playoffs in the late ‘90s was excruciating. But this one … it’s the worst of all the heartbreaking Green Bay playoff losses by far. Sometime in early March, with the NCAA Basketball Tournament and a new baseball season looming, I’ll finally have days when I don’t think about this game at all. But as a devoted lifelong Packer fan, I don’t think I’ll ever completely get over this one. I think Sunday’s loss in Seattle will haunt me to the grave.