Many moons will pass before the players and fans of the Green Bay Packers move past Sunday's shocking defeat in Seattle. Though the final result was largely expected, the manner in which the Seahawks stamped their ticket to the Super Bowl was so unexpected, so unlikely, that the game immediately surpasses 4th and 26, "The Catch" by Terrell Owens, and Super Bowl XXXII as the biggest postseason disappointment in Packers history.
But it didn't have to be this way. Had a normally smart coach made smart decisions, the Packers would most likely be spending early February in Arizona.
Mike McCarthy hurt his team by settling for field goals
Mike McCarthy is one of the best head coaches in the NFL.
On this there is no debate. In his nine seasons as the Packers' head coach, only the Patriots have extended more seasons into January. Moreover, Ted Thompson's draft-and-develop team building philosophy only works if the coach can turn those draft picks into quality players. Nearly every significant player on offense began their career with the Packers and only a select few defenders came from other organizations. In the era of free agency and player movement, McCarthy is a valuable asset that has allowed Green Bay to become a perennial title contender.
And yet, McCarthy is the primary reason the Packers lost on Sunday.
On this too there can be no debate. During the first quarter, the offense twice drove down to the goal line and twice faced a 4th-and-1 decision. In both cases, McCarthy elected to "take the points" by kicking the field goal instead of going for the throat. It was these decisions that ultimately did in the Packers.
And this is no mere hindsight analysis. Faced with a 4th-and-1, teams should always go for it while the outcome is still in doubt. NFL offenses -- even the bad ones -- are pretty good at picking up a yard. The league average in those situations is 55 percent, and it goes up even higher for teams with strong running games like the Packers. At the time of their first 4th-and-1 situation, Eddie Lacy was averaging 4.6 yards a carry. By their second, that clip had risen to 5.3. The Green Bay offensive line stonewalled the Seahawks in pass protection and mauled them in the run. There was no excuse settling for the field goal either time.
It's a puzzling development for the Packers' head coach. It was only four weeks ago that McCarthy, faced with an identical situation, chose to go for it against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though it failed, he said at the time, "Those are the kind of things that you think about and I thought it was the right call. I'd do it again in that situation." Apparently not, and it put his team behind the 8 ball.
McCarthy is a smart coach. Though it's of little comfort to fans right now, he'll learn from this experience and make better decisions in the future. Still, for a coach whose motto is "we don't play scared," it was disappointing to see him do exactly that on Sunday.
Sunday's game could be last time we see this version of the offensive line
It may go largely forgotten because of the final result, but the Packers' offensive line delivered one of its best performances against one of the league's elite defenses. With Aaron Rodgers still hobbled with a calf injury, the unit provided him clean pockets and plenty of time. Though nearly all offensive lines improve over the course of the season, perhaps no group took a bigger leap from Week 1 to their final game than the Packers'.
And the potential for this line is as high as any group in the league. David Bakhtiari has solidified the left side of the line for the foreseeable future and can still grow as a run blocker. Corey Linsley can iron out some flaws in his pass blocking, but he has already earned All-Pro votes as a rookie and has a solid rapport with his line mates and his quarterback. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are perhaps already the best tandem in the league. The only question mark for the group is right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
After missing most of 2012 and 2013 to injury, Bulaga bounced back with a strong season. He remains a tough S.O.B. in the ground game and has the lateral quickness and anchor needed in pass protection. Even if the Packers are still worried about his injury past, they probably saw enough out of Bulaga to assuage their concerns.
The problem then isn't the team's willingness to commit long-term to him, it's the market in which he is about to enter. By a wide margin, Bulaga will be the top offensive tackle in free agency. Top free agents generate megadeals regardless, but the lack of alternatives could push some team to throw their checkbook at Bulaga and make the Packers consider letting him walk.
Green Bay's cap situation looks pretty comfortable in 2015, but GM Ted Thompson never pays more than he thinks a player is worth. If he thinks Bulaga is worth $6 million per season and another team wants to pay him $8 million, Green Bay will probably end up looking for a new right tackle. Though it wouldn't undo all the progress the offensive line made in 2014, it would be a tough break for a unit on the verge of greatness.