It was just 24 days ago when the Green Bay Packers lined up with Aaron Rodgers against the Chicago Bears. They had won four in a row to surge into first place in the NFC North. With a remarkable ability to overcome injuries and with a dominant running game and run defense, the Packers looked like prime Super Bowl contenders – especially with Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb returning from injury for the stretch run.
Rodgers went down that night and the Packers' season has gone down faster than a piece of pumpkin pie topped with fresh whipped cream.
Coach Mike McCarthy has been forced to play dial-a-quarterback. It's been like Russian roulette, with every chamber holding a bullet. Now you know what it's like to be a fan of most teams in the league, just wishing and hoping the quarterback can make enough plays to keep the game close. With Rodgers, the Packers were championship contenders. With Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn, could the Packers beat any team in the league?
Heck, we might find out that answer next week, if Rodgers can't play (or isn't allowed to play) against equally down-and-out Atlanta.
"Frankly you got to run the football, you got to pass protect, you have to get off blocks, you have to tackle better," McCarthy said. "We've had two months of that here in the last 3 or 4 weeks. Our team is a little different right now. That's obvious to everybody but it's no excuse, I'm not particularly happy, and it starts obviously with my performance. That's not the type of football we ever want to go out and play. We got drilled today."
The Packers don't return to practice until Wednesday, giving McCarthy several days to do some soul-searching.
What has gone wrong?
There's no sugarcoating the importance of the quarterback, of course. There is no "next man up" to replace Rodgers. He's got more experience than Wallace. He's got a better arm than Tolzien. He plays faster than Flynn. Combine the best of those quarterbacks' traits, and you'd get half-a-Rodgers.
So, in that context, what happened to Green Bay's offense on Thursday wasn't a total surprise, other than the degree of the ineptitude. The Lions are playing run defense at a level that hasn't been seen since 1933. Without a playmaking quarterback, the Lions were free to tee off on Eddie Lacy on first down and harass Flynn on third down.
What is surprising is watching the Packers' defense melt faster than an ice cream sundae on the Fourth of July.
During a five-game stretch starting with the loss at Cincinnati and continuing through the four-game winning streak, Green Bay held four of five opponents to less than 297 yards. Then Rodgers broke his collarbone and the defense broke like the wishbone on that Thanksgiving turkey. They allowed more than 415 yards in four of those games, with a five-game average of 439.8. The 2011 team, which allowed a franchise-record 6,585 yards, allowed 411.6 per game, if you're looking for nausea-inducing context.
For the third time in four games, the Packers were gutted for more than 200 rushing yards. The Lions ran for 241 yards and almost had a pair of 100-yard rushers. Jeremy Ross, who played himself right out of Green Bay during a horrendous preseason, rushed for as many yards (24) on an end-around as the Packers produced as a team, if that last bit of context didn't make you feel ill enough.
"Scheme is not a crutch," McCarthy said. "When you're in run defense, you play with leverage. You've got to get off the damn block and tackle the ball-carrier. So, you can cut it any way you want and we're not doing that right now. We haven't done that in a month."
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this season has been a matter of plugging one hole, only to find another. At this point, even his 10 fingers aren't enough. They can't stop the run. They can't tackle. They can't communicate. They couldn't pressure the quarterback. They couldn't get off the field on third down.
At one point or another this season, the Packers did all of those things well. On Thursday, they didn't do any of those things at anywhere close to a winning level.
So, the search for answers begins. Can answers be found these next four weeks to serve as a springboard for 2014? Are the problems overwhelming, meaning desperate times will call for drastic measures in terms of coaching changes? Or are the problems manageable with the return of players like Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Bryan Bulaga and Casey Hayward?
In other words, which is real and which is reality: The inspiring 5-2 record or the 0-4-1 debacle?
"I think it's obviously how important Aaron Rodgers is to any football team," McCarthy said. "The fact of the matter is we have 61 players in our building, we have a coaching staff and when your rallying cry is ‘next man up' and everything is going well and you're able to overcome injuries throughout the early part of the year, everybody's high-fiving. Then when you don't, now you're going to sit here and cry a different tune? That's not the way it works. We're in this to win games and we haven't won a game in five weeks."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.