GREEN BAY – The demise of the 2011 Green Bay Packers wasn’t caused by a lack of talent, nor was it the result of flawed schemes or poor preparation.
No, the Packers won’t be defending their Super Bowl XLV title because their fundamentals deserted them.
That was the overarching theme during coach Mike McCarthy’s season-ending press conference late Wednesday afternoon, which McCarthy held after spending the day with defensive coordinator Dom Capers reviewing the events of the season and the team’s 37-20 season-ending loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
“Like anything in the game of football, when you get too far away from the fundamentals and the emphasis of fundamentals, you’re losing focus on primarily what’s most important,” McCarthy said on a day most expected him to be spending in preparation for the NFC Championship Game. “I know there’s going to be a lot of conversation, no different than there was throughout the years, (about) pass rush versus pass coverage.
“But my biggest disappointment with our defense, being fresh and going through the evaluation today with Dom Capers, is our (lack of) productivity in tackling, which also falls over to the coverage units on special teams … and really the big-play opportunities (allowed). We came out on the short side of the big play opportunities defensively. I thought those were probably the two factors in our performance this year.
“You guys are probably getting tired of hearing about it, you want to play Madden-scheme football, but it's not about pressure calls or coverage calls, it's about fundamentals. We weren't good enough in the areas of fundamentals to win Sunday."
Certainly, an intermittent pass rush (29 sacks, with a league-worst sack percentage) and poor pass coverage (the 32nd-ranked defense against the pass in the NFL) were glaring issues, too. But as safety Charlie Peprah’s missed tackle on what would turn into a 66-yard touchdown by Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks – on a play that should have been a 16-yard gain – illustrated to McCarthy what he felt had been a season-long problem.
While McCarthy said the new training-camp rules about padded practice and the in-season limits on padded practices set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement certainly could be factors in poor tackling, he correctly pointed out that “everybody went through it. ... I don’t see that as an excuse.”
But McCarthy does see it as a problem, as he did the drops the Packers pass-catchers had against the Giants. The unofficial total was six against the Giants, and according to STATS, the Packers were charged with 32 drops during the regular season, the sixth-most in the NFL.
In addition, after fumbling just three times on offense during 16 regular-season games, the Packers lost three fumbles – by three usually sure-handed players, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fullback John Kuhn and running back Ryan Grant – on Sunday.
“At the end of the day, you can talk about talent, you can talk about technique, body position, weather … We live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. We practice outside; we practice inside when it's 25 to 30 degrees inside,” McCarthy said of the drops. “I see a group of men that (usually) handle the football very well. … What's disappointing to me is we're dropping and fumbling (in) uncontested situations. So that leads me to believe it's more (an issue of) mental focus, and we're looking on to the next element too fast.
“It's a hard lesson to learn. We take a lot of pride in the emphasis, how we practice ball security and the ability to take it away and protect it. Statistically, the last two years supports that. And we did not play to our identity in Sunday's game, and that's hard to swallow."
McCarthy used that phrase – we did not play to our identity – several times during the 28-minure press conference.
“Why did we not handle the football properly in that game? I thought we emphasized it more than we ever did the last month,” McCarthy said. “But there’s a reason why that ball was on the ground four to five times and we had four turnovers. Those are the types of things we’ll continue to look at. It’s uncharacteristic of our football team. It’s been uncharacteristic of our football team in the past.”
As for other topics McCarthy covered Wednesday:
> For all his talk about fundamentals, McCarthy’s greater concern was the limited opportunities the coaches will have to improve upon them during the offseason because of the new rules in the latest CBA. The offseason program won’t start until April 16, about a month later than in past years, and while there’ll be more work than there was during the lockout, McCarthy’s annual quarterback school will be shortened and there’ll be fewer organized team activity practices.
Asked what the rules are for the offseason, McCarthy replied, “I don’t have it memorized. I know I don’t like it, I can tell you that.”
> McCarthy said fullback John Kuhn suffered a “knee sprain” against the Giants and will not play in the Pro Bowl, although the injury is “better than we thought initially after the game.” Wide receiver Greg Jennings suffered bruised ribs but is expected to play in the Pro Bowl. The Packers coaching staff will coach the NFC team.
> Asked what the team’s 15-1 regular-season record means to him, McCarthy replied: “It means we took care of Step 1, but unfortunately Step 2 is the most important. That's what it means to me. I'm proud of the performance and the production of our football team through the regular season. It's something that I'll probably appreciate more once I step away from this evaluation process I'm in the middle of. But the reality is, you put yourself in position to make a run in the playoffs, and we did that very well. But once the second season started, we did not play to the identity that we were able to formulate all season, and that's my frustration."
> McCarthy was very complimentary of unrestricted free agent tight end Jermichael Finley and also spoke highly of center Scott Wells, who also is scheduled to hit the free-agent market in March.
“He’s a heck of a football player,” McCarthy said. “I make no bones about it, I told Scott I hope we’re working together again next year. He’s going into free agency, and we’ll see what happens. But Scott Wells has been a very valuable member of our football team, I think he’s done an excellent job the last couple years. I would say he’s clearly the best lineman we’ve had this year, as far as performance. It’s nice to see him being recognized as a Pro Bowl center. I hope we can get it worked out.”
> McCarthy did not want to address the futures of veteran wide receiver Donald Driver, who turns 37 on Feb. 2, or veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who is 35. Both have significant salary-cap numbers for 2012 and large roster bonuses due in March from a team that trends young.
“I think veteran players are very important. Leadership is very important to your locker room. But for me to sit and start crossing over with issues as far as (salary) cap, roster, performance, this is really premature for me to even really talk about,” McCarthy said.
“(General manager) Ted Thompson and I probably won’t sit down until after the Super Bowl and go through the roster. But I have to get all the information to make sure that I’m ready. … You have to go through the process. It’s important to be detailed in your evaluation process, because when you get to big decisions, I mean, those would be HUGE decisions, and you have to make sure you have all the information.”
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.