GREEN BAY – There are times in the preseason when, despite the level of talent, the latter portions of the game are entertaining. Unknowns make names for themselves, backups summon moments of brilliance, teams pull off fantastic finishes worthy of Alcoa posterity in the waning seconds.
The Green Bay Packers’ 35-10 preseason loss to the Cleveland Browns Thursday night at Lambeau Field was not one of those times.
The night was not devoid of good news. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked more like himself – particularly on a terrific 20-yard touchdown grab by remarkably still-improving Jordy Nelson – and didn’t get whacked the way he did last week in San Diego. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse returned to action and the starting five on the offensive line looked pretty good. Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews did what they do – in relatively brief appearances – with Woodson forcing a fumble on the first play from scrimmage. And best of all for a team with 18 inactive players, there wasn’t a single injury to report after the game.
But the fact remained that in the end, the Packers fell to 0-2 in preseason play – for only the second time in coach Mike McCarthy’s seven seasons as head coach – and lost in a blowout to a Browns (2-0) team that went 4-12 last year, started a rookie quarterback and has been wandering in the wilderness for the better part of a decade.
Afterward, opinions were mixed.
“If you’d have asked me that question probably earlier in my career, it probably would have stung me a little more. The preseason, it’s important for the team to grow, and I don’t think your win-loss record always tells you that,” McCarthy replied when asked about being winless so far in exhibition play. McCarthy then cited his decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 on the starting offense’s second drive, a decision he never would have made in a “real” game.
“I’m trying to get as much information for (general manager) Ted Thompson and I and this staff to sit down to make sure we’re making the right decisions. I don’t like 0-2, but the reality is we need to be 1-0 when our regular season starts.
"We don't brush everything off. I thought what was concerning was the final score and that's about as far as it goes. Because the reality of it is it's a preseason game. You play to win, but you have other objectives. You have other goals."
That said, McCarthy didn't hide his feelings about the team's three turnovers, which ran the Packers' two-game total to seven. Last year, the Packers committed a franchise-record low 14 turnovers in 16 regular-season games.
"We turned the damn ball over too much. I don't care if it's preseason, scrimmage, practice, it's something that needs to stop," McCarthy said. "There's no excuse for that. As much as we train taking care of the football and emphasize it, it's important that the things you do every single day in your practice structure show up on game days."
Rodgers, who completed 6 of 11 passes for 59 yards and the touchdown to Nelson (100.2 rating), bounced back nicely from last week, when he was 2 for 8 for 16 yards with an interception – the result of getting drilled when replacement left tackle Herb Taylor whiffed on onrushing Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram – for a 0.0 passer rating.
But much like he felt after the Chargers loss, Rodgers wasn’t putting much stock in the final outcome.
“The feeling I think is the most important thing. How I’m feeling in the pocket, how we’re feeling (as an offense),” Rodgers said. “Obviously we want to score every time we get the ball and don’t want to lose by 22 at home but you have to remember that our starters didn’t play more than a quarter.”
Defensively, Woodson’s strip of running back Montario Hardesty got things off on the right foot, but the No. 1 defense was a mixed bag after that. First, while allowing the Browns to embark on a 10-play, 36-yard field-goal drive, they stiffened at the end and did force Phil Dawson’s 53-yard field goal. When wide receiver Randall Cobb coughed up the ball and the Browns took over at the Green Bay 32, the defense forced a three-and-out and another field goal.
But on their final drive as a unit, they let rookie first-round pick Brandon Weeden direct a six-play, 45-yard drive and failed to get a stop at the goal line, allowing Hardesty a 1-yard touchdown that gave Cleveland a lead it would never relinquish.
“This is going on my seventh year – which is crazy, that it’s gone that fast – so I’ve been a part of a decent amount of preseason games. But I feel like they’re all important,” veteran inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “It’s important to come out and show well and get a win. And we haven’t done that yet. I definitely don’t think you can overlook that.
“People will talk about it, ‘Oh, it’s preseason. It doesn’t mean anything.’ Well, it does. We’re on the field, we’re playing football. It’s live, we’re playing against someone else, not ourselves. So it’s definitely important for us to come out and make plays. I think it’s good to get in different situations – we’ve been on the goal line, we’ve been backed up, we’ve been in adversity situations, so we need to get some of those under our belt. It doesn’t feel like when you’re out there, it’s not like it feels like a preseason game. Everyone’s still hitting the same. It feels real.”
It also felt long (3 hours, 15 minutes) and at times looked ugly. Backup quarterback Graham Harrell had a rough night, managing only five first downs and three points in nine series, some against the Browns’ first-string defense. He finished 12 for 24 for 100 yards with no touchdowns and two “hard luck” (Rodgers’ words) interceptions – on a Hail Mary at the end of the half and on what would have been a sure completion to tight end Ryan Taylor, who tripped and fell while the ball was airborne.
“For one reason or another, just couldn’t finish drives. It’s unfortunate,” Harrell said. “We’ve got to be more consistent and finish drives when we have the opportunities to. I think that’s kind of how it went.
“We did some good things in that second half. We moved the ball well and didn’t finish drives. First half, they just outplayed us, I think. They left their starters in most of the time, played man press and did a really good job of it, I thought, and made it tough on us.”
The preseason so far has been tough on the Packers as a whole, especially considering that they won Super Bowl XLV in 2010 and went a franchise-best 15-1 last season. Nevertheless, it certainly didn’t sound like any of the principals involved were ready to worry, even with seven turnovers in two games.
“It’s preseason. You want to do well, but it’s more about kind of your feel,” Rodgers insisted. “We don’t want the turnovers obviously, but I think we’re happy where we’re at. It’s preseason.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.