In the NFL, teams do not have an obligation to ease off the gas when a competitive game turns into a beatdown. Everyone on the field is a professional football player, who is paid at least six figures to play the game. All of them are among the most physically talented people on the planet. All of them know what they signed up for. They're professionals.
There's a difference between the Seattle Seahawks laying a 58-0 beating on the Arizona Cardinals and the likes of Alabama or Ohio State doing the same to an FCS school at the college level. If, in a hypothetical situation where he did this, Urban Meyer got criticized for keeping his starters in and throwing the ball downfield against a mediocre FCS opponent, he might deserve that criticism. Many of the kids on the other side of the field are on partial scholarships or paying their own way through school, do not have access to the same coaching and training facilities as Ohio State's players do, and certainly did not sign up to get embarrassed by a superior opponent. Also, they're kids, not professionals.
If Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers decided to throw confusing blitzes at Joe Webb well into the fourth quarter, while simultaneously running their normal offense en route to something like a 41-3 beating of the Minnesota Vikings, you could hardly have blamed them. The Vikings are a division rival, the fans would have loved it, and there's not even an implied mercy rule in the pros. Everyone's a professional, and everyone should expect the other team's best until the very end of the game.
But the Packers took their foot off the gas, and they did it early. With their first drive of the third quarter, Green Bay marched down the field and capped a 72-yard drive with a touchdown, going ahead 24-3. On the ensuing Vikings drive, Webb was sacked by Clay Matthews and fumbled. The game was probably over when the Packers went ahead by two scores, but this truly sealed the deal. With well over a quarter remaining in a playoff game, it was well and truly over, and the Packers did almost nothing on either side of the ball until the game concluded. They allowed Webb to throw for a garbage touchdown, and refused to run their normal offense.
Some fans were okay with the team going conservative with the game in hand. It was obvious that the Vikings didn't have a comeback in them, and there was no reason to show the San Francisco 49ers more than the Packers had to. Winning the game by 40 points instead of 14 wasn't going to instill added confidence in anyone.
The game wasn't put completely to rest until the Vikings' first drive of the third quarter, but it was apparent that the game wouldn't be competitive on third down of the Vikings' second drive of the game, when Webb "threw" this "incomplete pass" that led to a Vikings punt.
As funny as the caption by @SBNationGIF on that image is, Aaron Brooks was actually sort of respectable sometimes and he's never done anything that horrible in the first quarter, or outside of truly desperate situations.
Before going forward, I think it is important to note that Joe Webb is not only an exceptionally talented athlete, but also one who is exceptionally talented at ball-throwing. I am not just talking about executing football throws at the NFL level, or throwing footballs in general, but simply at throwing any kind of ball. On planet earth, there are probably no more than 1000 people who are able to throw some sort of ball -- whether that be baseball pitchers, cricket bowlers, what have you -- better than Webb does. This means that he is better than 99.999985 percent of the earth's population at throwing balls. It is outrageous how exceptional that is.
However, being able to play quarterback at the NFL level is an even more exceptional skill-set. There are probably only a few hundred people on earth that possess it at the moment. There are about 20-25 who currently perform that skill very well, depending on your opinion. There are no more than 50 people who currently have the requisite level of skill, fitness and training to perform that job adequately.
Webb is not one of those people. His performance as the Vikings' quarterback on Saturday was at a level much lower than some of the NFL's worst quarterbacks. His throws did not match up to the level of Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Matt Cassel or John Skelton. Based on the way he played last season, it is apparent that the much maligned Tim Tebow -- who is absolutely not qualified to start at quarterback for an NFL team -- throws the ball better than Webb. Some pure wildcat quarterbacks, like Brad Smith and Pat White, have displayed skills similar or superior to Webb as passers.
There's no reason anyone is obligated to take sympathy on an NFL player who has access to top coaches and facilities, and who makes hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, but Webb was obviously out of his depth on Saturday night. He is not an NFL-level passer at the moment, and there is an excellent chance that he will not reach that level, even though he is one of earth's best athletes and ball-throwers, and infinitely more talented at anything athletic than anyone who writes for or reads this website. He is a professional athlete, which almost certainly means that he is hyper-competitive and that he would not want pity taken on him, but he does not possess the requisite skills to play quarterback in the NFL and probably never thought he was going to be put into the situation he faced on Saturday.
The Packers decided not to pile on a guy who was more obviously not good enough than any quarterback who has made an appearance in the playoffs in recent memory. They didn't keep the pedal to the metal to record a more convincing victory because there was no one to convince, and even if there was, there was nothing more to convince them of. What do the Packers have to prove, that they can embarrass Joe Webb? He's Joe Webb.
For all the jokes that have been made around these parts about Christian Ponder, he's an adequate NFL quarterback at worse. Do the Vikings have a solid chance to beat the Packers with him under center on Saturday? Maybe not, but the Packers would have at least been forced to continue playing past the first two possessions of the third quarter, and there might have been something to gain from beating the living snot out of Ponder. There's literally nothing to be gained from beating up a guy who throws bounce passes in a football game.
In a sense -- though Jerel Worthy was lost for the season on a freak play and Jermichael Finley picked up a hamstring injury -- both the Packers and 49ers got a bye. We don't know any more about the Packers now than we did a week ago, and neither do the 49ers. Everyone learned nothing and gained or lost no momentum, because the Packers' Wild Card game ceased being a competitive NFL game that can be compared against other NFL games before the second quarter began.
Sometimes, shutting things down for the night in the middle of a game is okay. On Saturday, McCarthy made a good call. There was nothing for him to gain by piling on.