Most of the time, coaches take more blame than is appropriate.
After all, coaches don’t block, tackle, fumble or grab facemasks. The players do that, so they’re ultimately more responsible than guys with headsets, bad comb-overs and beer guts.
Most of the time.
Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia was not one of those times.
Atrociously bad coaching in all three phases was the key factor in the Green Bay Packers’ 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers now sit at 7-4, a full game (plus the tiebreaker) behind the Chicago Bears in the NFC North. Green Bay is also currently out of the playoffs with five games to go.
The man in charge of it all is, of course, most to blame for the defeat. Two critical Mike McCarthy errors in a span of 10 plays led to a 14-point swing, ultimately the difference in the game. They also carry on the nearly five-year long “two steps forward, two steps back” dance that is becoming McCarthy’s signature move.
On second-and-goal from the Atlanta two-yard line midway through the second quarter, Aaron Rodgers appeared to audible out of the original play call, instead going to a quarterback sneak. The play gained a yard, but no score. There is no harm in what Rodgers did, as he clearly saw something he felt he could take advantage of. But, once that play did not work, McCarthy had zero – repeat: zero – business calling it again on third down.
Yet there he was, calling for a sneak. Rodgers did not protect the ball as well as he should have and it was punched out. That’s on him, but again, it should never have gotten to that point.
McCarthy was given a chance to redeem himself on the ensuing Falcons (9-2) drive. On a fourth-and-three from the Green Bay 36, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez was given credit for a six-yard catch that he clearly did not make. While it’s unknown exactly what camera angles are available to teams’ replay officials in the Georgia Dome, the fact remains that, even live, the play looked close. Several Packers’ defenders seemed upset with the call also. That should have been enough for McCarthy – on a recent challenge hot streak – to throw the red flag.
He didn’t. Five plays later: 10-3, Falcons. In games like these, that’s usually enough.
But, as the old saying goes, wait – there’s more!
McCarthy’s failures trickled down to the men in charge of the remaining two units. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers did not have his men ready to play in any sense Sunday. You can’t blame him for the Lingerie Football League-style tackling shown throughout, true, but you can blame him for consistently poor scheming.
Early in the game, outside of a few instances, Capers went soft far too often. Against a solid, if unspectacular Atlanta line, his approach was to drop a lot of players in coverage and, hopefully, trick Matt Ryan into a mistake or two. Only problem with that is, Ryan doesn’t make mistakes. Heck, he doesn’t even miss that many passes, going 24-for-28 on the day.
That soft approach also allowed bruising Falcons running back Michael Turner more than enough opportunities to smash and bash his way through the defense, which he did to the tune of 110 yards and a score on 23 carries.
Then, late in the game with Atlanta driving, Capers went 180 degrees the other way, throwing blitz after blitz at Ryan, all coming from seemingly the same place (up the middle). The blitzes failed as Ryan, probably giggling on the inside, calmly sat back and hit a series of short throws – mostly out routes – that set Atlanta up for the game-winning field goal. Capers has been unquestionably brilliant this season. Sunday, he was unquestionably anything but.
Of course, the man who heads up the “unquestionably anything but” department – special teams coach Shawn Slocum – also had a hand in things. Doesn’t he always?
Chalk up another loss in which a crucial special teams error doomed the Packers. This time, it was poor coverage and a foolish, foolish facemasking penalty on Matt Wilhelm on Atlanta’s final return. There were other returns allowed, of course, the Falcons racking up a 31 yard average on the day. And, outside of one nice Sam Shields kick return, there were none to be found for the Packers.
There were also numerous returns Shields had no business making, as he instead should have opted to take the touchback. Rookie mistake? Maybe. But who tells the rookie what to do in such spots?
None of this is a surprise, really, as special teams blunders have cost Green Bay dearly in each of its four losses. Don’t bother banging the “Fire Slocum” drum too much, though, fans; he isn’t going anywhere. McCarthy seems deadset on keeping him around, only furthering the notion that the Packers care exactly zero percent about special teams. And don’t bother blaming the absence of players like Donald Lee, Atari Bigby and Anthony Smith on Sunday, either – even with them present, this group stinks.
If you’re trying to find reasons why the Bears sit as the team to beat in the North, look no further than special teams. Chicago puts an emphasis on it. The Packers do not.
In the big games – which this most certainly was – coaching makes the final difference. In this big game, the Packers coaches failed in every crucial area.
More than anything else, that will be what keeps the 2010 Packers from getting out of their own way.