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What We Learned: Week 9, vs Colts

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Last week in this feature I encouraged you all to remain optimistic following a close Packers loss at Atlanta. After another loss, this one close in the final scoreline but not if you watched the full game, I have little optimism left. Beyond that, the deficiencies of this team are so frustrating that I find no reason to go searching for bright spots. Only a wide-open NFC North gives me a glimmer of hope for this team, but now is not the time to be looking at playoff possibilities….now is the time for pitchforks!

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What We Learned: The defense is the same as it has been for years: not good enough.

A few games into the year, the Packers defense looked like it had turned the corner. Although beaten up, there was promising talent at cornerback. Nick Perry emerged as the complimentary pass rusher Clay Matthews has always needed. Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan looked to have answered some of the questions at ILB. The defensive front was stuffing the run at an historic rate. Dom Capers finally seemed to have the horses he needed to establish a powerful defense.

Fast forward a few weeks, and that has all come crashing down. The secondary is as banged-up as ever, and the replacements have shown less potential than their coaches hoped for. Matthews has once again injured his hamstring, and his absence has made clear that Nick Perry is still a complimentary player. The Packers are getting consistently torched on intermediate throws over the middle. While the run defense has remained stout, the pass defense has been so bad that opponents are barely hindered by their inability to run. And Dom Capers has been badly out-schemed in late-game scenarios two weeks in a row.

Since 2010, the Packers have invested pick after pick and most of their paltry unrestricted free agent budget towards building a 3-4 defense that could win games on its own. Six years later, and the Packers are only marginally closer, if closer at all, to building the type of defense they envisioned. Dom Capers’ schemes have consistently failed to elevate the defense beyond its talent level. While many have long decried injuries and an overall lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball as reasons for Capers’ mixed (at best) results, those are excuses. He is paid handsomely to do better than “good enough considering the players,” and it is time this organization stops accepting that Capers is the best we can do.

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What We Think We Learned: Aaron Rodgers doesn’t know how to lead when the going gets rough.

One of the national talking points Monday morning was Aaron Rodgers’ post-game press conference, wherein he called out his teammates’ alleged lack of energy throughout the game, seemingly passing the blame onto players lower down the food chain. Based on the game I watched, it would be tough to disagree that the energy level for the team was abysmal, however I saw Rodgers as just as big of a part of the problem as anyone else.

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Rodgers walked around all game with a look on his face that was some combination of annoyed/pissed/I-don’t-want-to-be-here. He is always so quick to through his hands up in consternation or mumble under his breath, which makes him come off like he is not fully invested in the team. While Rodgers’ teammates had far from their best game, its not as if Rodgers was flawless. If he would just make a point about saying ‘My bad’ once in a while, I think it would go a long way in terms of winning his teammates’ devotion and re-gaining some good will with frustrated Packers fans. While Brett Favre, dressing in his own locker room, might have been disconnected from his teammates towards the end of his career, I never once questioned whether his teammates wanted to give everything they had for him. With Rodgers, you question that.

Two plays in the first half illustrate the problem I see with Rodgers. On the first, he escaped pressure and saw Jordy Nelson open deep streaking from right-to-left with no Safety help and a ton of field to work with. Rodgers’ pass lead Nelson too far, and he was unable to even attempt a play on the ball. It was a terrible miss by Rodgers, as he had a huge area of field he could have lead Jordy into, which would have made the completion much simpler, instead of trying to hit him perfectly in stride on a 55-yard laser. After the play, Rodgers was a stone, not making any visible sign of accepting responsibility for a huge missed play. In the post-game press conference, he made a point of saying Nelson lost sight on the ball, not acknowledging that his pass was poor.

On the very next play, Rodgers again escaped pressure and threw an incredible deep ball down the left sideline to Jeff Janis. The pass was perfect, and should have set the Packers up inside the 10. Alas, Janis dropped the ball. Rodgers, of course, threw up his hands in frustration and mumbled under his breath, then made point of mentioning that drop in the post-game. If Rodgers is ever going to become a leader befitting his on-field talents, he needs to understand that you just can’t act this way. It might be unfair, but you simply have to take the path  of welcoming blame and deflecting praise. Seemingly every other great QB does this. Why not Rodgers?

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What We Hope Isn’t True: The best possible result for this team long-term might be a bad enough year that it leads to cleaning the house.

With a promising off-season and solid 3-1 start squarely in the rear-view mirror, the Packers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. With a disgruntled MVP at QB, a roster whose deficiencies have been laid bare by injuries and slumping play, and a reversion to poor form on Special Teams, there is plenty of blame to spread around. But for my money, the problems all lead back to the man in charge: Mike McCarthy. At the midpoint of the season, a terrifying question has popped into my mind: would it be better for the Packers’ long-term aims if this season were to finish badly enough to clean house on the coaching staff?

For my money, McCarthy should be gone at season’s end unless he turns things around in a major way, meaning a trip to the NFC Championship Game at minimum. While that may seem a million miles away at the moment, I think the chance that McCarthy turns things around is worth allowing him the chance to finish out the season. He has earned that much, and a weak NFC gives him a decent chance of doing so.

However, we all know the Packers’ brass is notoriously averse to change, and a 9-7 record might be enough to win a weak NFC North, which would give the Packers a home playoff game against an average team like Washington or New York. A win there followed by an inevitably heartbreaking loss on the road would probably be enough to buy McCarthy another year in charge. This would once again leave the organization stuck in neutral, while Aaron Rodgers would be another year older and grumpier.

Playing out these scenarios in my mind leaves me to ponder a question that the Green Bay Packers should never have to face: would it be worth it to endure a 6-10 year in order to make sure McCarthy gets the axe? I am not quite there yet, again mostly due to a wide open playoff picture and the fact that this team still has Aaron Rodgers. But check back with me after this 3-game road trip.

Its gut-check time for the entire Packers organization, and no one has more at stake than Mike McCarthy.

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By Mark Darnieder

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