GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy isn’t overreacting. While the Green Bay Packers coach knows full well that his offense was among the NFL’s best at protecting the football, he also can’t simply ignore the ignominious ending to the 2011 season, when his offense turned it over four times in an NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
Thus, ball security – something McCarthy has emphasized from the first day he arrived in Green Bay in 2006 – has been even more of a priority during the team’s first few organized team activity practices this offseason.
“When you view the way we played the last three years, it definitely is categorized as an anomaly,” said McCarthy, whose teams have committed just 52 turnovers over the past three seasons, second-fewest in the NFL (to New England’s 49) over that span. “But I don’t have the benefit of throwing the ‘anomaly’ word around. That’s a very important game and you want to play your best in the most important games, and we did not accomplish that.”
In 16 regular-season games last year, the Packers had just 14 giveaways – eight interceptions and six fumbles – to rank second in the NFL (behind San Francisco, which committed just 10 turnovers). Three of the Packers’ six fumbles were committed on returns by rookie Randall Cobb.
But when the Giants arrived at Lambeau Field on Jan. 15, the same offense that had lost three fumbles all season lost three in one game, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fullback John Kuhn and running back Ryan Grant all coughed the ball up in the team’s 37-20 season-ending loss. Rodgers later threw an interception as wel.
Suddenly, the same team that won a franchise-record 15 games and scored the second-most points in NFL history had morphed into an unrecognizable outfit.
“Handling the ball consistently well (is important) — we had a small number of turnovers last year but we had a lot at the wrong time at the end of the year, so we have to consistently do that,” said new offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who listed running the ball better and avoiding unnecessary sacks as two higher priorities on his to-do list. “Not turn the ball over, catch the ball consistently and just try to do everything a little bit better.”
To that end, McCarthy has instituted several new drills in practice to promote ball skills, and they don’t always involve a football, either. From having offensive linemen essentially fielding ground balls, to using a volleyball for other fumble-recovery drills to having all skill position players do the quarterbacks’ through-the-legs figure-8 drill – where players loop the ball between their legs as quickly as they can without dropping it – the goal has been to get every offensive player to, according to McCarthy, improve his “fine-motor skills” to be better at holding onto or recovering the ball.
“The emphasis with the football is the No. 1 priority in the game of football. That’s just stating the obvious,” McCarthy said. “Everybody on our football team will enhance their training on handling the football. We’ve upgraded our drill work on ball security, the ball drills, the YAC-and-tack drills, pursuit drills, and everything that they’re tied into the fundamentals of putting you in better positions and working on your fine-motor skills of handling the football.”
According to players, the emphasis is noticeable.
“We’ve thrown in a couple extra ball security drills we didn’t all participate in last year or we didn’t do all together,” tight end Tom Crabtree said. “We did quite a bit (of drills) and it was all together, and everybody was doing it. One way or another, somebody, everybody was doing ball-handling drills. Yeah, even the O-line, fielding ground balls. As a tight end group, we did a quick hitch-and-turn-around (drill), (where you) come back to the ball. There’s definitely a difference. Doing that every day, the more you can do, the better.”
Still, it’s important to remember that the Packers have been good in this department for a long time – their plus-24 turnover differential was second-best in the NFL last year, their defensive tied for the league lead in takeaways (38) and since 2006 McCarthy’s teams are 43-12 when committing one or zero turnovers in a game – so it’s not as though there’s a turnover epidemic that McCarthy is trying to stem.
“Hopefully, I will not overreact to it. It’s a key fundamental in the game of football so we’re spending more time handling the ball,” McCarthy said. “One performance, I don’t think it will change your core beliefs as far as how you teach fundamentals. (But) I think it’s like anything in the game of football: Fundamentals have to be constant within your training. They have to carry over to Sundays. When you’re not getting it done in one particular area, the only thing that I know to do is to emphasize it more, and that’s what we’re doing.”
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