At this time of year, nothing will set off a mass panic attack in Wisconsin quicker than a poor showing by the Green Bay Packers in an exhibition game.
If the Packers don’t look sharp or, worse, play like they haven’t even been practicing, fans and media across the state commence fuming, fretting and generally overreacting in unison.
Such was the case last week, when the Packers lost to San Diego in their exhibition opener — and looked bad doing it. MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a passer rating of 0.0, the all-important left tackle position looked like a potential sinkhole and the turnover-conscious Packers couldn’t hang onto the football. That across-the-board ineptitude caused the worrywarts to shift into overdrive.
As usual, all that angst was a waste of energy. There are things in sports more meaningless than NFL exhibition games, but it’s not a long list. Indeed, the overpriced tickets for these games should contain a written disclaimer: Other than major injuries, nothing that happens in the game will have any impact on what happens during the regular season.
Still, it’s hard to sit idly by and watch the Packers struggle. That’s especially true when they’re coming off a 15-1 regular season and look like a team capable of redeeming itself for a disappointing one-and-done playoff experience.
But struggle the Packers did — again — in their 35-10 loss to Cleveland on Thursday night at Lambeau Field, no doubt triggering a harsh reaction with a second consecutive sloppy performance. It is probably best to remain calm, though, given that the Packers were without 18 injured players and knowing coach Mike McCarthy’s lack of emphasis on winning exhibition games, which he showed by going for it on fourth-and-2 in his own half of the field in the first quarter.
“I don’t (care if we win),” McCarthy said. “If you’d have asked me that question probably earlier in my career, it probably would have stung me a little more. The preseason, it’s important for the team to grow, and I don’t think your win-loss record always tells you that.”
Other than Rodgers’ throwing, the relief provided by the return of left tackle Marshall Newhouse and a defense that mostly forced the Browns to settle for field goals, there was little to suggest that the Packers are atop most NFL preseason power rankings. Heck, even Rodgers overthrew a wide-open Jordy Nelson in the end zone on his first pass.
Rodgers went right back to Nelson two plays later for the score, but the Packers’ highlight reel ran out after that. Instead, there were some legitimate concerns after another unimpressive showing.
The run of turnovers, so uncharacteristic of the Packers, continued, starting early when wide receiver Randall Cobb had the ball stripped from his hands after a catch. In the second half, the Browns’ David Sims intercepted a pass by Packers backup Graham Harrell and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
With preferred starter James Starks injured and newcomer Cedric Benson being held out, it was Alex Green’s turn to shine at running back. But even though Green showed some burst for the first time, it was the quarterbacks — Rodgers and Harrell — who led the team in rushing.
Harrell, trying to prove he can be a capable replacement for Matt Flynn, followed up a so-so performance in San Diego with an even less-effective showing against the Browns. Harrell threw two interceptions and, worse, couldn’t move the chains until garbage time in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t have a big arm and therefore must be accurate in the short-passing game, but his throws seldom were on target, raising questions as to whether the Packers need to start shopping for a proven backup.
Even McCarthy was caught napping in the first half. He threw his red challenge flag on Cobb’s fumble, which earned him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty because of a new rule where all turnover plays are subject to review. It appeared McCarthy only wanted to challenge the returner stepping out of bounds, but he still got a yellow flag for throwing his red flag.
Despite all that went wrong, there were some positives for the Packers. With Newhouse back, the first-team offensive line was rock solid. Rodgers’ passer rating was back to normal at 100.2 and the no-huddle offense looked promising. The young linebackers were able to put decent pressure on Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
McCarthy maintained again that he uses these games only to evaluate talent. There might be cause for worry if the Packers struggle in all four exhibition games, but they still have two of them to play before anything counts.
So even though Green Bay was far from midseason form Thursday, there is no need to panic. As the Packers found out last season, the time to be in midseason form isn’t in the preseason, it’s in the postseason.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.