When the Los Angeles Rams kicked a field goal to take a 29-27 lead over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon, the Packers had two minutes and five seconds left to mount a comeback. The team also had both a timeout and the two-minute warning, which has been more than enough for Aaron Rodgers to drive down the field in the past. All that combined for the Packers having a 33% chance of winning the game, according to ESPN’s win probability numbers.
Just 13 days earlier, Rodgers drove 81 yards with no timeouts and 1:07 on the clock to set up a game-winning field goal to beat the San Francisco 49ers. But on Sunday, he never got the chance to duplicate that feat.
The reason? Kick returner Ty Montgomery.
Under the situation described above, a touchback on the ensuing kickoff is the best-case scenario. No time comes off the clock, meaning that the offense gets a free timeout after their first play. There’s no chance of a penalty on the return, which could stick the team with poor field position.
Most importantly, there’s no chance of turning the football over.
Whether the ball gets to the end zone wasn’t within Montgomery’s control, but when Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein did boot the football two yards deep, every Packers fan expected Montgomery to catch it and take a knee. More critically for Montgomery, his coaches expected the same thing.
“Well, you look at that last situation, the plan is to stay in the end zone,” head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “I think we all realize with the management of the clock and where we wanted to be there, we wanted to be north of the two minutes with the one timeout.”
Instead, Montgomery took the ball out of the end zone. Going against his coaches’ instructions would have been bad enough on its own; if Montgomery had simply been tackled at the 20-yard line, he would have cost his team five yards of field position and a chance to maintain the two-minute warning as a clock stoppage on offense. But by fumbling the football, Montgomery cost his team much more than just time and yardage. He compounded the mistake by ensuring that Aaron Rodgers would get the ball with no more than about 30 seconds left on the clock.
As it turned out, Todd Gurley picked up a first down and made sure that Rodgers and the Packers’ offense never got the ball back at all.
If the bitter aftertaste of this loss seems familiar to Packers fans, it’s no coincidence. Although the Packers’ collapse in Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game had higher stakes, there is one striking commonality between these two contests: players not following the instructions of their coaches. In that game, it was tight end Brandon Bostick trying to catch an onside kick instead of following his assignment, which was to block for Jordy Nelson. Here it was Montgomery taking the return out of the end zone against his coaches’ direction and making matters far worse by coughing up the football.
As Rodgers would say after the game, losing close to the unbeaten Rams is no moral victory for this Packers team. “There’s no momentum gained from a loss,” he said; “we can play with anybody, but we knew that before this game.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Rodgers would have driven down the field for a score. However, the offense had heated up down the stretch. Rodgers and company scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter to take a brief lead, though they did go three-and-out just before the Rams’ go-ahead field goal and succeeding kickoff.
But in the end, a player deciding to take the game into his own hands instead of following his coaches’ directions cost the Packers a chance at victory. It’s something Packers fans have become all too familiar with.