Mike McCarthy rarely gives a preview of his start-of-the-week message to his team. As a rule, the Green Bay Packers coach believes his players should hear it before the rest of the world.
But he did just that on Tuesday evening.
With his team mired in a three-game losing streak and desperate to find something to snap his players out of the malaise that has followed two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury, McCarthy challenged everyone — including himself.
“Let’s be frank here,” McCarthy said, less than 24 hours after his team’s 30-17 loss to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field dropped the Packers to 4-4 on the season. “We all need to do better. We had an injury to Aaron Rodgers, and nobody has stepped up.”
Rodgers went down with a broken right collarbone on Oct. 15, when Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr drove him into the U.S. Bank Stadium turf after Rodgers had rolled to his right and thrown a pass. The Packers have not responded to losing their star.
“Very frustrating,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “I don’t think you can walk around this locker room and look in one locker and see a person that’s happy about where we’re at. I think everybody is real competitive in here, everybody wants to win, and we’re not doing that right now. So we’ve got to figure out what it is and rally and start winning games.”
That’s the reality for the Rodgers-less Packers halfway the season, after a 4-1 start during which Rodgers was playing like a candidate for his third MVP award. He underwent surgery on Oct. 19 and was placed on injured reserve four days later, with the hope of the bone healing quickly enough for him to return this season.
Part of the equation that will decide whether Rodgers will play again in 2017, in addition to how quickly the bone heals, is where the Packers are in the playoff picture once Rodgers is eligible to be activated from IR before their Dec. 17 game at Carolina. If the team is a longshot to reach the postseason, Rodgers probably would not come back – even if the bone is healed.
The problem since Rodgers’ broken collarbone is that the offense has been unproductive with Brett Hundley under center, the defense hasn’t been able to get off the field or take the ball away, and the special teams units haven’t made any momentum-shifting plays during the Packers’ losses to the Vikings, New Orleans Saints and the Lions. With eight games left, it’s hard not to wonder whether the team will win enough games without Rodgers to stay in contention.
“No group has stepped up yet,” McCarthy lamented. “We’ve had two games that have been very similar in nature — New Orleans and Detroit. We’ve acknowledged (that). We’ve planned to change our course of how we’re playing as far as tilting the identity in a sense, and we need to get more production out of this new path. And it hasn’t happened yet.”
Although McCarthy insisted after Monday night’s loss that Hundley “is not our issue right now,” the third-year quarterback has not played well. Against the Lions, he went 26 of 38 for 245 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a passer rating of 86.0 but padded his numbers on a late touchdown drive.
McCarthy said he saw improvement from Hundley against the Lions, but the offense managed only 10 points before the final-play touchdown on an untimed down following a Lions pass interference penalty in the end zone. McCarthy said that drive was important — “We needed that drive,” he said — but whether there’s any carryover Sunday at Chicago remains to be seen.
With Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers offense was among the league’s best on third-down conversions and red-zone production. Without him, the Packers have scored just 44 points in the past three games for an average of 14.7 points per game — down from the 27.4 points per game they averaged during their 4-1 start.
“Everybody wants to score five touchdowns and have a perfect quarterback rating and win,” Hundley said after the game. “This game was a step in the right direction. I think I did some good things. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. But the first start (against the Saints) for sure wasn’t.
“(This game) wasn’t the breakout game everybody wants, but in this game you have to understand there’s ups and downs in everything. You can’t be perfect all the time. I felt comfortable (against Detroit). There were some good things done. We’ve just got to make those big plays and keep it going from there.”
That’s true on defense as well, where the group hasn’t put together a strong performance since a 35-14 victory over the Bears on Sept. 28. The Packers enter Sunday’s game ranked 22nd in scoring defense, 25th in yards allowed per game, 20th in pass defense and 23rd in run defense.
Only one NFL team has fewer sacks than the Packers’ 13 through eight games, and defensive leaders Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Clay Matthews and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix haven’t been the difference-makers they are expected to be.
“We’ve got to do a better job of applying the plan, make sure that we’re executing it,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got to play to who we are. We’re halfway through the season. So we’re not going to change our pass-rush techniques and so forth. If anything, less volume, more creativity.”