GREEN BAY — It didn’t take long — like, say, two offensive possessions — for the Green Bay Packers to turn unbridled optimism into utter frustration Sunday.
Buoyed all week by the strong fourth-quarter performance of backup quarterback Brett Hundley in a victory over Chicago and a return to the practice field — albeit extremely limited — by injured starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers were practically whistling while they worked all week.
But optimism has a short shelf-life in Green Bay these days and there was precious little of it to be found after the Packers’ 23-0 loss to the eminently beatable Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Making his fourth start in place of Rodgers, Hundley sapped any momentum the Packers had by throwing interceptions on their first two drives. In was all downhill from there for the offense, which was shut out for the first time in 11 years.
Now Hundley is back to square one and the Packers are 5-5 and chasing two teams in the NFC North Division. Worse, their next game is at Pittsburgh, which is tied for the best record in the AFC. Even if Rodgers can return in mid-December, it might be too little, too late for the Packers to earn a ninth consecutive playoff berth.
Despite wasting a fine defensive performance and losing a game that was there for the taking, the Packers put up a brave front, professing their confidence in Hundley, who committed four of Green Bay’s five turnovers, and expressing a belief they’re not out of the playoff hunt.
“I think you remember seven days ago we were in Chicago and everybody was feeling great,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I mean, you have to take care of the football. There’s no ifs and buts and whats. Any time anything happens with the quarterback position, I take that extremely personal and I have to do a better job.”
After appearing to make a breakthrough against Chicago, Hundley regressed against Baltimore, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. The aggressive Ravens defense sacked Hundley six times, though the quarterback’s lack of pocket awareness and penchant for holding the ball too long contributed to some of those sacks.
Hundley didn’t get much help from his play-caller, either. The Packers ran more often than they threw against Chicago and most people expected McCarthy to stick with that plan since it deflected the pressure from Hundley.
Instead, he made the curious decision to put the ball in Hundley’s inexperienced hands early in the game. The Packers ran on just two of their first 11 plays, which included two Hundley interceptions. McCarthy said they had only 22 running plays because he was concerned about Jamaal Williams’ workload and had lost confidence in Devante Mays when he fumbled on his first NFL carry.
However you look at the performance, it added up to zero points.
“I don’t think it’s a setback,” guard Lane Taylor said. “It’s just a tough day. It’s not like we’re not capable of moving the ball or getting first downs, it was just a tough day for the offense. We’ve just got to learn.”
The time for learning has passed. The Packers are three games behind Minnesota (8-2) and one behind Detroit (6-4) in the division with six games to go and both currently hold the tiebreaker edge over them. As for their ever-dimming wild card chances, the Packers are one of 10 NFC teams at 5-5 or better.
“We’re not in panic mode,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “Everything is still in front of us. We’ve got to get a grip on it real quick here, otherwise we will be in panic mode. But I don’t see time to panic. Panicking just leads to everybody just going all over the place and the structure of your team and your offense kind of falls apart. So you never want to panic.”
As he has done since Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, McCarthy stood behind Hundley as his starter, saying, “I believe in Brett Hundley.” McCarthy also said he didn’t think about switching to third-stringer Joe Callahan.
And if you’re dreaming about controversial free agent Colin Kaepernick, don’t hold your breath because that ship has sailed. The Packers have three games until Rodgers could potentially return and they have to win at least two of them to make it worth the trouble. There is simply no way they could get a quarterback from the outside up to speed in that time. Remember, when Rodgers broke his other collarbone in 2013, they brought back Matt Flynn, who had played four seasons for them, and he saved the day with a 2-2-1 record.
Hundley is 1-4 in games he has played in since taking over for Rodgers, which didn’t stop the Packers from talking positively. Adams praised the Ravens defense but said the offense simply needs to execute better.
“We’ve got too much talent on offense to go out there and put on a display like that,” he said. “I mean, zero points. There’s no reason we should have zero points whoever we’re playing. I don’t care if it’s the (1985) Bears. I don’t even know who played on the (’85) Bears, but we should score on them. We’ve got playmakers in here, we’ve got the smarts, we’ve got the years, we’ve got wisdom, we’ve got everything in here. We’ve got to do better than that.”
You have to admire Adams’ optimism. Sharing it is another matter.