When the Green Bay Packers were at their lowest point this season, no one was treated as sacred or deemed above public scrutiny or criticism. Some observers questioned whether the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers was in decline. There was speculation about what a non-playoff season might mean for the job security of Coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy did not hide from how dire the situation was for his team. He said following the Packers’ defeat Nov. 20 at FedEx Field to the Washington Redskins, which increased their losing streak to four games and dropped their record to 4-6, that “six losses puts your ass against the wall and that’s where we are.”
But while the Packers indeed were terrible at that moment and panic seemed to be in order, there also was a stay-the-course element to the team’s sense of urgency. It wasn’t about finding a new way to do things or new people to do them; it was about doing what they do, only better. Rodgers said on the night of the defeat to the Redskins he was confident the Packers could get things fixed before season’s end. He elaborated a few days later by saying the team was capable of running the table and not losing again.
That has proven to be prophetic, of course. The Packers have not lost since that night and will play at Atlanta in Sunday’s NFC title game. They remain a model of stability in a league overrun by the opposite. But they are not alone in that among the teams still playing. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, who square off in the AFC championship game, fit into the same mold.
“You have to have an organization that has that philosophy,” former NFL coach Dan Reeves said this week. “They want stability. When you talk about Pittsburgh, New England and Green Bay, it’s amazing what they’ve done and the stability they’ve had. I mean, [Patriots Coach Bill] Belichick ought to go in the Hall of Fame right now. They shouldn’t wait. But he couldn’t have done it without [quarterback Tom] Brady.”
The Patriots are appearing in their sixth straight AFC title game; it’s their 11th with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback. The tandem seeks its seventh Super Bowl appearance and fifth Super Bowl triumph.
But Belichick was fired from his first NFL head coaching job in Cleveland and went 5-11 in 2000, his first season in New England. That didn’t require too much patience by owner Robert Kraft, you say? Take a look at the San Francisco 49ers. They fired their last two head coaches, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, after one season each.
The Steelers have had three head coaches – Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin – since 1969. That is in a league in which six of the 32 teams will have new head coaches next season, after seven of the 32 had new head coaches this season. Tomlin, derided recently by former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw as being “a great cheerleader guy” more than a great coach, seeks his second Super Bowl victory with the franchise. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is after what would be his third.
“You have to look at the ownership,” Reeves said in a phone interview. “They’ve had the experience of being there. The Rooney family, they’ve been there. They know what it takes. I remember when I got out of coaching and first got into broadcasting, there were people who wanted to get rid of Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. The Rooney family wasn’t going to listen to that. They stuck with him. The thing about Mike Tomlin being a cheerleader – the Rooneys are there every day. They know what they’ve got.”
The Packers are making their eighth straight postseason appearance with McCarthy and Rodgers. The two won a Super Bowl together.
So when things weren’t going well this season, McCarthy could tinker rather than overhaul. He’d reminded everyone publicly in the days before the defeat to the Redskins that he was a successful, Super Bowl-winning coach. Then he went about trying to figure out how to give his team a chance to make it happen again.
No coordinators were fired, as happened in several other NFL cities this season. The Packers actually had started to figure some things out on offense during the Redskins game. Shortly after, veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers got things worked out on his side of the football, at least well enough. The Packers made the gradual transition of Ty Montgomery from wide receiver to tailback official in December and he provided a boost to the running game. The wins began to fall into place.
“Every year is a little different,” Rodgers said after last Sunday’s victory at Dallas in a dramatic NFC semifinal. “It’s a different energy with this team. I think the guys are very hungry, which maybe we didn’t have at times in the past when we tried to make runs. There’s a stronger belief, I think, in the core. Guys are really sticking together more than we have in the past and believing in each other in any situation. That says a lot about the leadership of this football team, I think, in the way that guys have bought in and understanding roles really well.
“Everybody has a role to play and some are bigger than others, but none more important than the others. Everybody has an important role to us winning every week. And guys have stepped up and stuck together through some adverse times this season.”
The Falcons, with a second-year head coach in Dan Quinn, are much more in line with the rest of the league. But they are the outlier this weekend.
“You have it with McCarthy,” said Reeves, who coached the Falcons when they last reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season. “You have it with Tomlin. Of course you have it with Belichick. [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank has been through a number of coaches, myself included. But they’re doing well now. The really successful organizations are going to get a plan and stick to it.”
That doesn’t mean these teams are complacent. Far from it, in fact.
“I think it was that rookie year, my rookie year, that I think Chad Scott got up and spoke to the team and just kind of spoke on, ‘Don’t take this for granted,’ how hard it is to get there and all those kind of things,” Roethlisberger said at a midweek news conference. “And so you listen to him and you hear it. And then the next year, we go and win a Super Bowl and you’re kind of like, ‘Man, maybe it’s not as hard as he talked about.’
“But as you get older and you understand this league and how difficult it is and how good teams are and how bad teams can be good the next year and vice versa, you definitely appreciate the difficulty in playing this game, playing it for a long time and getting the opportunities to make a playoff. I mean, look at teams that haven’t made a playoff in how many years. I’m just so thankful and blessed to be a part of this organization that has been able to make playoffs, win Super Bowls. And I just try and reiterate to the young guys now just how precious this moment is.”
Belichick never has been afraid to make the difficult, unemotional roster decisions necessary to maintain success in the era of free agency and the salary cap. Those moves sometimes come abruptly, as when the Patriots traded linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns this season.
To Belichick and Brady, each season is about starting anew and proving themselves all over again.
“You earn your way to this game,” Belichick said this week. “There’s no other way to get there. You’ve got to earn it and you’ve got to earn it on the field. You’ve got to go out there and beat somebody. You’ve got to beat a lot of people to get to this game. Both teams have done that.”
He was uninterested, not surprisingly, in engaging when asked by reporters about the Patriots’ sixth straight appearance in the AFC championship game.
“All of that’s in the past,” Belichick said. “I don’t really care about that right now. We’ve got a few days left here to get ready for the Steelers . . . That’s really what it’s all about. We can talk about that some other year or some other time.”