After the Monday night Hail Mary debacle in Seattle, the 1-2 Packers stood in the company of five other 2011 playoff teams who have losing records through Week 3. The unlikely list includes defending AFC champion New England, Pittsburgh, Denver, Detroit and the lone winless team of the group, who also happens to be the Packers' opponent on Sunday in Lambeau -- the New Orleans Saints.
The Packers and Saints are strange bedfellows. One team's hearts ripped out by the replacement refs. The other team in a post-bounty funk.
Both teams entered this season with high expectations, putting more emphasis on the poor starts. Both were expected to get off to good starts, with two of their first three games at home. That didn't happen, and now both need to get a win and, then get on a roll.
It's no fun for players and coaches in Green Bay and New Orleans this week, as well as the other 2011 playoff teams turned sub-.500. The pressure is on from ownership, management, fans and media. The atmosphere is tense in the team facility. Coaches are pouring over video and meeting late into the night, searching for answers. GMs are scanning the waiver wire, studying practice squads and checking the street free agent list to see if there are any reinforcements that can be brought in.
In seeking to recover from a slow start, strong leadership from the head coach makes a difference. Teams that rebound from early season struggles are usually led by an experienced, successful head coach who searches for ways to improve and sets the tone to get the team back on track. Of this year's slow starters, that includes Mike McCarthy, as well as Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. John Fox coached Carolina to a Super Bowl.
As for the Saints, we all know the head coaching story there -- Aaron Kromer is the second interim head coach with Sean Payton suspended for the year and interim No. 1 Joe Vitt gone until Week 7. It's tough to exhibit leadership as a head coach when you carry the interim title, and even tougher when you're a temporary interim. Adding to the team's difficulty is the fact that the Saints are missing their GM Mickey Loomis, a former NFL Exec of the Year, who is suspended for the first half of the season.
After the Packers' devastating defeat in Seattle, McCarthy faces a big challenge in getting his angry and emotional Packers refocused on the next game. NFL people talk about the 24 hour rule; after 24 hours, you move on to the next game. That's extra difficult after a loss like the Packers just experienced. But McCarthy immediately embraced the challenge of moving on, as great head coaches do.
His post-game and day-after press conferences set the tone for his players and coaches to follow. "I've never seen anything like that in all my years in football," McCarthy said in reference to the end of the Seahawk game. "Now it's important for us to move on and get ready for the Saints. It's a very good New Orleans team coming in with a dynamic quarterback and a number of good players. We're staying focused on New Orleans.
"One-and-2 is not where we want to be. But it's a great opportunity to show our character and show our mettle and start channeling our energy toward New Orleans."
McCarthy also made it clear that he expects the Packers to make improvements, particularly with their unexpected slow start offensively (only four offensive touchdowns in three games). "We need to stay focused on ourselves and the things we can do better," he said.
No panic, but a clear message of urgency. McCarthy's comments and reaction to his early season mini-crisis remind me of how another Super Bowl coach, Jeff Fisher, did a great job in rallying our Titans team in 2002. We were off to a 1-4 start and had just been beaten soundly at home by a mediocre Redskins team. Owner Bud Adams publicly said we were being outcoached. The media was questioning Fisher's future in Tennessee and the fans were distressed about the state of the team.
Fisher preached staying positive to the team, told them to dig deep and not listen to the naysayers. He told them they were basically the same team that had played in the Super Bowl three seasons earlier and had been the AFC's top seed in 2000. He emphasized to the players that they just had to study, practice and play harder and play better in all phases. And his assistant coaches were reminded that they had to do a better job coaching.
Fisher's message was to focus on taking one step at a time, win the next game and build more wins from there. That Titans team won 10 of the next 11 games, won the AFC South, beat the Steelers in the divisional playoff and lost to the Raiders in the AFC title game.
In discussing Mike McCarthy's approach post-Seattle, Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant said, "Other than telling his DBs to jump higher on Hail Marys, he'll tell the team
McCarthy also may be telling his team that the 2007 Giants started 0-2 and then won seven straight on their way to a 10-6 season and a hot run to a Super Bowl championship. He's probably emphasizing that fast starts are nice, but a slow start doesn't necessarily doom a team. It just makes it a tougher task.
You can hear that motivation in this McCarthy quote this week. "We're in tune with being true to the integrity of the Green Bay Packers, being professional during a tough time, during a challenge. A different challenge, but one I'm excited about overcoming. I look at this as an opportunity for us to put another feather in our cap."
As he searches for ways to improve the team's performance, McCarthy is surely looking to crank up an offense that ranked third in the NFL last year but is ranked 25th this year. Meanwhile, the Green Bay defense is playing much better than last season, ranked third after a dead-last finish in 2011, which is good news if the offense can get back on their usual fast track.
New Orleans' league-worst defense could be just what Dr. McCarthy ordered for his offense, which has faced three of the NFL's best defenses in the 49ers, Bears and Seahawks. Under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints have allowed 34 points and 477 yards per game. A less-efficient-than-usual Drew Brees hasn't helped the Saints' cause, with five interceptions and one lost fumble.
The good news for the Packers and Saints -- along with the other 2011 playoff teams off to poor starts -- is that there are 13 games remaining, plenty of time to turn things around. After all, Green Bay is just one game behind Chicago and Minnesota in the NFC North and already have a Week 2 win over the Bears. The Saints have a tougher divisional task in trying to catch undefeated Atlanta and may be hunting a wild card if they can turn things around. They also are aware that since 1990, only three NFL teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs.
It all adds up to a big game for two teams in recovery mode, and the team with its Super Bowl coach on the sideline -- and not under suspension -- has the edge.