What a long, strange, unpleasant trip it was, this 2017 Green Bay Packers season, and it ended that way in the Week 17 finale, with an ugly and injury-filled loss to the Lions, 35-11, in Detroit on New Year’s Eve.
The Packers closed out the regular season – their first without a trip to the playoffs since 2008 – in a fashion that’s become familiar to grimacing Green Bay fans over the last couple of months. Quarterback Brett Hundley was ineffectual, the defense disintegrated and there were damaging injuries. This week, though, there were also special teams mistakes and a weird, unusual ambivalence hanging over the team – thanks to its postseason elimination and the fact that, reportedly, defensive coordinator Dom Capers soon will be let go. It all combined for a game that, after the first play – a fun, unexpected onside kickoff Green Bay recovered – was boring, predictable and hard to watch.
"Very disappointing loss," McCarthy said afterward. "Every team has play styles that are supposed to reflect where you spend your time. The way we took care of the football today was unacceptable, and it obviously had a big impact on the game."
Turnover-prone and depleted by injuries, Sunday’s defeat was a microcosm of much of this Packers season, as 7-9 Green Bay finished with a losing record for the first time in nine years. Hundley threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, while Donatello Brown caused a muffed punt that Detroit recovered, and the Packers – already without the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Jahri Evans and Damarious Randall – lost Jamaal Williams, Geronimo Allison, Davon House and others.
By the end of the game, the haggard, hobbled Packers offense was left with no healthy running backs, recently promoted practice-squad receivers and third-string quarterback Joe Callahan taking snaps. And, at least where I was watching the sad contest, people genuinely cheered Callahan’s surprise insertion.
"We just didn’t take advantage of our opportunities today," said Hundley, who finished 14-of-24 for 172 yards and a 59.7 passer rating. "We didn’t make the plays that needed to be made. We just stopped ourselves."
After the game, preemptively thwarting questions about an ESPN report that the Packers had decided to part ways with Capers, head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear he would only talk about the game in Detroit – a topic that, surely, anyone who’d watched the affair would want to avoid.
"Let me say this: I'll answer questions about Packers versus the Lions today, OK," McCarthy said. "I get where we're at this point of the season. I haven't been in this position for a number of years but I'm here to answer questions about the game, so let's not waste each other's time."
Indeed. Let’s talk about the game instead.
Green Bay surprised Detroit by opening with an onside kick it recovered, but didn't take advantage because Williams bobbled a pass that was picked off by Jarrad Davis. The Packers did take a 3-0 lead on Mason Crosby's 41-yard field goal late in the first quarter, but the Lions tied it on the ensuing possession and took control in the second quarter.
"I thought our energy was really good to start," McCarthy said. "It wasn’t quite what it needed to be in the second half."
Matthew Stafford threw a go-ahead, 54-yard pass to Kenny Golladay. After Green Bay's Donatello Brown allowed a punt to hit him, the Lions recovered to set up Stafford's 3-yard pass to Marvin Jones to put Detroit up 17-3. Stafford tossed a 71-yard score to Golden Tate late in the third quarter, giving the Lions a 27-3 lead.
Brett Hundley threw a 17-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion to Randall Cobb to pull the Packers within 16 early in the fourth. Hundley was 14 of 24 for 172 yards with two interceptions and a fumble and was replaced by Callahan late in the game. On the other side, Stafford was 20 of 29 for 323 yards without a turnover, as Green Bay allowed 356 total yards.
The Packers’ 2017 campaign-turned-catastrophe is now over, and the offseason will come quick. Before then, let’s look back at the Week 17 loss to the Lions.
Randall Cobb was the only Packers starting skill-position player from the beginning of the season who was on the field Sunday, with Rodgers, Nelson, Adams, running back Ty Montgomery and tight end Martellus Bennett all having gone down. The veteran receiver played hard and made positive contributions, catching four passes for 45 yards, including the touchdown and two-point conversion. Cobb also completed one pass for 10 yards and carried once for four yards.
Davon House did not have a good day. The veteran cornerback once again battled through a back/shoulder injury to play, but he was no match for the Lions’ passing offense. He gave up a 56-yard completion to Marvin Jones Jr., a touchdown to Golden Tate and basically gave up on tackling in the second half. It would be a surprise to see him back in Green Bay next season.
McCarthy spent two months expressing confidence in Hundley and sticking by him, no matter how poor the results or what the other options were. Then, with a minute left in a meaningless regular-season finale, he put Callahan in for Hundley. Why? What does that move accomplish for anyone? There were plenty of problems this season – mistakes McCarthy made, and issues he had no control over – but that decision amounted to the head coach ultimately throwing up his hands and saying, "F*ck it." Combined with another head-shaking defensive performance, Sunday’s game gets one head.
"We had some bad football plays, some bad mental mistakes, particularly by young guys," McCarthy said. "The guys that made mistakes, this is an experience they can learn from. We’ll use the offseason to grow from that and build off it."
"It wasn’t our best football. History will tell you when you go through as many negatives as we did, we’ll be better for it." – Mike McCarthy
Aaron Rodgers didn’t get more hurt and this season is now mercifully over.
The Packers have major issues to address and decisions to make. Firing Capers is only one of them. Rodgers’ talent has papered over glaring holes and uncreative management for years, but this season showed just how bad Green Bay is without its All-Pro quarterback. This is the offseason to do something different and think outside the box; will the Packers do it? What’s alarming is that it feels like they won’t.
Not since Rodgers’ first year as a starter have the playoffs been Packers-less. The Super Bowl is Feb. 4, 2018. But Green Bay’s offseason starts now.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.