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Three early-season losses showed the Packers their holes

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — If you had to name three things that helped the Green Bay Packers redirect their course after meandering through the first five weeks of the season, the list might go something like this:

Aaron Rodgers finding his groove.

Mike McCarthy running the ball more.

A.J. Hawk playing the best ball of his career.

Those are pretty reasonable answers for why the Packers, after sleepwalking through portions of the early-season schedule, marched into Houston last Sunday night and dominated the 5-0 Texans, 42-24.

But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe those are just easy outs to a question far more complex than anything anyone wants to admit. Maybe the list should go something like this:

San Francisco



Heading into Week 7 last year, the Packers were the only undefeated team in the NFL at 6-0 and one of only three teams to have started out 3-0 on the road. They had scored more points than any other team and were eighth in points allowed.

But they also were coming off a 24-3 victory in which they had allowed the winless St. Louis Rams to roll up 424 yards and shut out the Packers in the second half at Lambeau Field. It was the first of a three-game stretch in which the Packers allowed a whopping 1,319 yards to their opponents and twice narrowly escaped with their record intact.

“Last year, the offense covered a lot of the defense’s flaws,” end Ryan Pickett said. “This year, I see us growing as an offense, defense and special teams. A lot of times last year, we were winning but the defense would come over here and we’d be sick.

“We’d be, ‘OK, we’re going to get it together, we’re going to get it together.’ And we never did. This year, it’s different. We just feel different.”

Looking back at it now, the victories were masking deep-seated problems that ultimately would rise to the surface together in a divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants that made a 15-1 season just a footnote in Packers history. McCarthy saw it all happening, but not until a loss to Kansas City in Week 15 did he have a negative result to show his players what those weaknesses could lead to.

“There’s a couple times, you’d have thought we lost,” McCarthy said of his post-victory responses last year. “I’m ripping them after the game and we’re 12-0. It’s a hard lesson, hard to swallow.

“Those are the kind of years where you have to finish it. Now, you look at it as a lesson. It’s nothing more than that. If you try to make it more than that, I don’t think you’re being realistic. A hard lesson.”

Even harder is figuring out what to do about it.

It’s become apparent that teams who get hot at the end of the year have a good chance to win it all even if they started out poorly. Three of the last four Super Bowl winners caught fire after midseason and rolled over their opposition.

The Giants were 6-6 at one point last year; the 2010 Packers were 3-3 and later 8-6 before winning the rest of their games; and the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers had three losses before winning six of their last seven.

So if you’re McCarthy, what do you do? Hold onto some of your best plays for later in the year? Take it easy on your players in training camp, in effect conceding you won’t be as ready for the first month of the season as you will the final four?

There isn’t a coach alive who would admit to planning a slow start in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle later in the year. Anyone who did admit to such a thing would be fired before the words were out of his mouth.

But still there are things that are done as a concession to late-season success.

In analyzing the Packers’ slow start last week, McCarthy pointed to organic causes, not ones that he purposely injected into preparation for the season. One, more than any other, caused issues during the planning stages of the season: the reduction in the number of days teams can practice during the off-season.

The new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players union reduced those numbers significantly to address union concerns about player safety.

McCarthy said that heading into training camp he was deeply concerned that not enough had been accomplished in the off-season and that the team was behind. So, he crammed far more snaps into practices than before in order to catch up, but then ran into an epidemic of injuries that scuttled some of his plans.

“I didn’t feel we were where we were in prior years,” McCarthy said.

But it would be hard to ignore some subtler differences in his approach that McCarthy controlled.

For instance, he had the option of preparing his team more for the punch-in-the-face style that the 49ers were to bring into Lambeau Field for the season opener. To an outside observer, it appeared San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh had prepared extensively for the Packers and had his team in late-season form in an attempt to steal an NFC victory on the road.

McCarthy, on the other hand, had an NFC North game against Chicago staring him in the face four days after the 49ers game. If forced to pick which one of those he’d prefer to win, he’d choose the Bears 100 out of 100 times.

McCarthy admitted he reduced some of the time the Packers would spend in training camp preparing for the opening-day opponent in exchange for more time on the Bears. The 49ers thoroughly whipped the Packers and the Packers thoroughly whipped the Bears.

“I don’t think you win Super Bowls in September, but you definitely start there,” McCarthy said, defending his approach. “That’s where the starting line is. I can’t tell you what they (the 49ers) did. Half the question I can’t comment on. But we worked on them in the off-season.”

Another thing McCarthy did was delay decisions on a couple of key positions until the end of camp or the week before the 49ers game in an attempt to get them right. He took the competition between cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields to 24 hours before the opener and let safeties Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings fight it out for the nickel safety job right to the wire.

In both cases, the guy who won the job got benched.

McCarthy also committed to running back Cedric Benson as his solo option in the run game despite the fact Benson had joined the team in mid-camp and was not in tune with the offense yet. He didn’t even consider having Benson share the role with Alex Green, who is now the starter.

“I felt we were going to have to grow, there was going to be some growth,” McCarthy said. “But you have to find ways to win games. We’ve lost the close games.

“I think people outside the building would be talking a lot differently about us if we hadn’t lost those games then the way they talk about us now.”

And that might not be such a bad thing.

Whatever you want to say about the officiating in the Seahawks loss, the Packers still played poorly. They were two field goal misses away from beating the Colts, but they didn’t deserve to win.

“We’ve had to overcome a little more adversity than we did last year being 6-0,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “It’s not good to lose, but it’s good to see those kind of situations where you need to respond where things aren’t going well all the time where they were for 15, 16 weeks last year.

“There are definitely lessons we can take away. But 15-1 is still much nicer than 3-3.”

McCarthy said that in exit interviews last year players said they heard him harp on the dropped balls, missed tackles and mental errors all season, but it wasn’t until the Giants game they felt the consequence. They thought they were getting better but they really weren’t — they just weren’t losing.

This year, McCarthy has added more drills to emphasize tackling and ball skills, but he has the element of desperation to nail home its importance. They needed to beat the Texans to avoid being left completely behind in the NFC playoff race.

They’ve seen what the alternative to 15-1 is. They’ve learned from three losses. Now it’s time to see where they go from here.

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