Looking For Blame? This One Falls On Players

Packers coach Mike McCarthy is sifting through the wreckage this week of the Packers' sudden exit from the playoffs after a 15-1 regular season. Part of that examination is self-evaluation to which our Matt Tevsh says McCarthy is not to blame.

Like he did on Sunday night, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy stood at the podium in the Lambeau Field media auditorium on Wednesday and took his fair share of the blame.

"You get what you emphasize in the game of football," said McCarthy during a more philosophical portion of a half-hour session with reporters. "Anytime something doesn't go right, just like Sunday's game, the first thing I look at is myself. Why did we not handle the football properly in that game?"

Three days after a 37-20 NFC divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants, McCarthy was beginning to sort through the reasons, and his role, in one of the most unexpected exits in Packers postseason history.

After a franchise-best 15-1 regular season that clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs, the defending Super Bowl champions were done after their first playoff game. Just like that.

The message from McCarthy was one of a lack of fundamentals — tackling and securing the football — as the main culprits. He referred to fundamentals as a season-long flaw with the team, but it never quite manifested itself like it did against the Giants.

The Packers had eight dropped passes (most of them uncontested), three lost fumbles (after losing just six all season), and eight missed tackles (according to statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus) in the game.

The most damaging of those miscues to the flow of the game was safety Charlie Peprah's missed tackle on Hakeem Nicks' 66-yard touchdown and the Packers' failure to tackle Ahmad Bradshaw in bounds on a 23-yard run just before halftime that set up a Hail Mary pass to Nicks for a touchdown.

Those plays were the most inexcusable. Something like a high school team might allow. But to have them from the best team in professional football? All in one afternoon? In the game of the season?

Those faults lie directly on the shoulders of the players. Go ahead and question whether McCarthy should have gone for a surprise onside kick or attempted a fourth-down conversion late in the game, but to blame him for the mistakes that led to the Packers' ultimate demise would be to undermine everything he has preached on the way to the top.

From quarterbacks school, to offseason camps, to training camp, and through the season, McCarthy and his staff make fundamentals a major part of the practice routine. For the most part, it has worked. On Sunday, it made no difference.

"I thought we emphasized it, particularly more than we ever did the last month, the ability to get outside and prepare for that game," said McCarthy. "But there's a reason why that ball was on the ground four or five times, we had four turnovers. So, those are the type things we'll continue to look at. It's uncharacteristic of our football team."

What more can McCarthy do? The answer is not much. Outside of making the tackles or catching the passes himself, or changing the personnel on the field, he is helpless when it comes to the execution of simple football skills on game day.

This is a perfect case where the players have to take accountability, and for the most part, this Packers team did. The Giants hit harder, played with more confidence, and set the tone for the result. Even the non-trained eye could see that.

Some might question rust as a factor since the Packers had a playoff bye week coupled with McCarthy sitting some of his key players in the regular-season finale. But this is more of a veteran team that has handled just about every type of adversity over the past couple seasons. And the players who sat against the Lions on Jan. 1 had ample practice time and are at the top of their profession in how they play and prepare — under all circumstances.

Perhaps the new Collective Bargaining Agreement rules play a role, too. Yes, everyone has to deal with them, but maybe the Packers were more affected by the limited contact and padded practices than others. McCarthy, for one, tried to make sure he kept his team's edge by spacing out padded practices to keep his team's mentality right.

From there, dealing with skills like tackling, the rest is up to the player.

"The effort and the attitude is something that has to be there every single time," said McCarthy in his response to what goes into making a good tackle.

Inasmuch as McCarthy knows how to get through to his players when there are problems, he was not about to throw anyone under the bus on Wednesday. Instead, he took blame for his part in the loss — even if there was nothing else he could do.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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