GREEN BAY – Standing behind the podium, looking out at the throng of reporters and television cameras, Mike McCarthy must’ve felt like it took him forever to compose himself. That’s what happens when you’re the Green Bay Packers head coach, who prides himself on his even-keeled interactions with the media, avoiding “drama” storylines and focusing on football instead of feelings in the public eye.
In reality, the pause lasted eight seconds, and it said everything about how McCarthy and his team are handling the death of 21-year-old Michael Philbin, the son of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin who drowned early Sunday morning near the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. Because for the normally unflappable McCarthy to break down like he did Wednesday afternoon, as the Packers returned to practice for the first time since Michael Philbin’s body was pulled from the Fox River Monday afternoon, it showed just how emotional the past few days have been.
McCarthy had almost reached the end to his answer to Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates’ question – Do you have an idea of how this has affected the team emotionally? – about three minutes into the 10-minute press conference when his emotions got the best of him. (You can watch the press conference in its entirety on Packers.com.)
“We talked about that as a football team today and frankly the topic was the ability to separate. It’s part of our program. It’s nothing we haven’t spoken on before,” McCarthy replied. “We talked about the importance of having the ability to separate personal challenges and your professional challenges. And it really goes in line with the family-first philosophy. Everybody’s feeling it. There’s no question on what level. That’s really for the individual to speak on. But professionally, I’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We had a very productive day Monday with everything going on on Monday. And today just a ton of energy (at practice). Clearly from a tempo standpoint, the execution was probably one of our finer Wednesday practices.
“And I think the reality of this just gave everybody a punch in the heart to let you know the reality …” That’s when McCarthy stopped, took a deep breath, bowed his head and then continued, his lip quavering. “… how fortunate to be where we are.”
Wednesday wasn’t only about emotion; the logistics of the workday were also different. Philbin normally runs the offensive meeting, beginning it with a Power Point presentation and installing the game plan for the week. McCarthy took on that role at the front of the room Wednesday, although he said the other offensive assistants insisted that they divvy up Philbin’s responsibilities rather than having McCarthy serve as head coach/offensive coordinator.
“Joe Philbin is a big part of our staff … But as a staff, we’ve been together six years. Everybody’s picked up some responsibility,” McCarthy said. “At first, I was just going to assume Joe’s responsibilities, and frankly it was really the idea of the other offensive assistants that they need me to be in the same routine that I’m in too, so we basically just broke it up amongst ourselves. Everybody has taken on more than their normal responsibility.”
Asked what he plans to do on Sunday for the teams NFC Divisional Playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field, McCarthy said he’s still mulling his options. Philbin works from the coaches booth upstairs next to the press box; quarterbacks coach Tom Clements works on the sideline.
“We’re working through that. We’ve got two scenarios and we’ll take the week (to decide),” McCarthy said. “I haven’t made a decision on that. We’ll be ready to go.”
Without Philbin, the players did their best to go about their work the way the cerebral, constantly prepared Philbin would have wanted them to.
“It’s one of those things where we always feel like we over prepare, go over looks so many times. As you can see, I think it works,” right guard Josh Sitton said. “With him gone, we just need to keep doing that like he’s right around the corner watching. So we just want to keep that up and prepare like he’s here.”
Still, as much as they tried to make the day about normalcy and football, it was difficult, said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who spoke at length on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison about how much Philbin means to him. Not only was Philbin absent, but left guard T.J. Lang had returned to the practice field for the first time since his father Tom’s passing last Thursday.
“I have zero experience and have never really dealt with anything like this before,” Rodgers said. “I have never been to a funeral in my life, knock on wood. So this is a tough time. T.J. (Lang) lost his father (last week). (Rookie guard) Ray (Dominguez) lost his father (earlier in the year). We’ve lost some members of our family. There’s immediate family, and then there’s your football family, and we’re all affected when your football family deals with tragedy.”
Visitation for Michael Philbin is set for Thursday evening and Friday morning, followed by his funeral Friday.
“Joe Philbin is where he’s supposed to be,” McCarthy said. “Frankly, Joe and I haven’t even talked about his responsibility and will not. He’s with his family and he’ll return when he feels he’s ready to return.”
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