McCarthy makes the right call

Game plan to rest key players proves to be a great move as reserves come through, says PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh

It was a perfect Sunday for head coach Mike McCarthy and the Packers in a tough situation.

After their worst game of the year together last week, but having already wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, all that was left on Sunday was to figure out a way to keep key players injury-free while gaining some momentum heading into the playoffs.

Chalk one up for a mission accomplished on both ends.

The Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead and never really looked back on their way to a 34-13 victory over the Lions at Lambeau Field in what essentially felt like a preseason game. In actuality, it closed one of the best regular seasons in franchise history as the Packers finish with a 13-3 record. The Lions finished the season 7-9.

Seven Packers' starters – Donald Driver, Korey Hall, Greg Jennings, Aaron Kampman, Donald Lee, Ryan Pickett, and Charles Woodson – were inactive for the game, yet the Packers did not really miss a beat. Every player listed above, except Hall, could have played had the Packers needed them.

History would suggest that making a call on resting starters vs. playing them in an effectively meaningless game can be a difficult decision. Rest them and risk losing momentum and sharpness heading into the playoffs. Play them and risk an injury to a particularly important player.

While McCarthy could have played coy with his approach all week, he was decisive, saying he would be careful with the health of his team. He is to be credited with sticking to his plan and for the time being, it looks genius. The Packers won decisively and got some much-needed rest for their veterans.

McCarthy insists his preparation this week will produce positive long-term results. The Packers host a divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 12 (3:30 p.m., CT).

"We're playoff ready," he said, "and we'll be playoff ready in two weeks."

On Saturday night, the Giants, with their playoff positioning already in hand, chose to play their starters for the entire game in what was a competitive contest with the 15-0 Patriots. That might not have been their intent had the game unfolded differently. At least two Giants starters suffered injuries, and one, to center Shaun O'Hara, looked like it could be serious.

"You just have to trust that you can control only the things you can control," said McCarthy. "I'll be honest with you, I think watching last night's game, watching the Patriots and Giants play, really helped me because this was my plan all along, to play the starters a few series and then take out some selected players. We knew what our inactive list was going to be all week, so sitting there watching the game last night, you've just got to trust your plan. Unfortunately, injuries are a part of the game. You can only lessen the risk and that's what we did."

Even while pulling the majority of his starters for much of the second half, including quarterback Brett Favre, who played just over a quarter, McCarthy did not get by completely unscathed with his team. Starting running back Ryan Grant suffered a stinger in the first quarter and did not return, and guards Jason Spitz (quadriceps) and Junius Coston (calf) also left the game.

Of a potentially more serious nature, cornerback Will Blackmon, who could well play the nickel back spot for the Packers in the playoffs, suffered a foot injury to the same foot that has sidelined him in the past. Like Spitz and Coston, more will be known about his injury on Monday. Grant is expected to be OK.

An explosive start by the Packers' offense, totaling 195 total yards and 21 points in the first 15:48 of the game, definitely made McCarthy's decision easier to rest starters if he even had one thought of playing them into the second half. Even with many of those starters on the bench, the Packers found an offensive rhythm that was all but blown away with the 40 mph wind gusts last week in Chicago.

"It punched us right in the mouth and it was a good wake-up call," said McCarthy of his team's 35-7 loss to the Bears. "The most important thing about wake-up calls in my opinion is how you respond to them, and I really like they way our football team responded today."

The pitiful performance against the Bears certainly called into question the toughness of the Packers and whether they could win a bad-weather game. With such negative perceptions in his immediate memory, McCarthy could have implemented some knee-jerk changes, but instead he never flinched.

Like all season, he stayed true to his plan and it worked. That is a big reason McCarthy is being mentioned as one of the top coaches in the NFL. Packers' fans are now hoping he can continue to make the right calls all the way to the Super Bowl.

Matt Tevsh is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.


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