There’s a lot of head-shaking going on this week as the Green Bay Packers prepare for a Thursday night date with the surging Detroit Lions.
Green Bay is 1-3 in its last four games. Detroit is 3-1 and has won three in a row. Two of the Packers' losses have come at Lambeau Field, against Detroit and Chicago.
The question on everybody’s mind: What the heck happened to a team that was a favorite to win the Super Bowl and went unbeaten in its first six games? If you listen to sports talk radio, everybody has an answer. It’s Aaron Rodgers; he must be hurt, and they’re not telling us. It’s Jordy Nelson being gone. It’s Eddie Lacy because he’s either fat or lazy or distracted by something. It’s a boring defensive scheme from Dom Capers. Ted Thompson should not have let Tramon Williams get away. God doesn’t love Green Bay anymore.
Like any complex problem – and a slump is a complex problem – there is no simple, single answer. It’s a combination of things. After the Bears game, coach Mike McCarthy said it was a matter of individual technique. The players just have to play smarter and better.
There is some truth in that, but it doesn’t answer the deeper question of why. Has Rodgers forgotten how to pass? Has Lacy forgotten how to rush? Have receivers forgotten how they are supposed to run routes? Have defensive linemen forgotten their assignments?
The complexities of a team slump in a game that requires a high level of coordinated activity offer at least one explanation for a slump. One hint comes from a man named John Killilea. He was a highly respected basketball coach who spent six years in Milwaukee as the top assistant to Don Nelson. He was an expert in the technical sides of basketball.
One afternoon, I spent time with Killilea. It was in a hotel when the Bucks were the the midst of a slump. The following is not exactly what he said since it was a long time ago, but captures the spirit of and offers some insight into the Packers’ current slump.
There is a special atmosphere in a team sport like basketball, Killilea said. If one or two guys are in a slump, it’s contagious, both in the locker room and on the floor. When a guy is in a slump, the other players come around in the locker room and pat him on the head and tell him it’s okay.
But in their hearts, I think the other players are worried about the slumping guy. And if they’re worried about him, they don’t concentrate on their own games. It’s like a vicious circle, he told me.
Dave Hanner was a former defensive lineman and defensive coordinator for the Packers under Bart Starr. Hanner worked almost continuously on how to structure an effective pass rush while maintaining a stout defense against the run. When he played, it was just one guy on one guy. But times were changing, and he had difficulty adjusting. Again, the thoughts may not be verbatim, but they capture the spirit.
The problem we have is getting everyone in the right place at the right time, he said. If one guy gets confused or isn’t giving it 100 percent, it seems to affect all the other guys.
My brother, Dr. Daniel Begel, is the founder of the sports psychiatry section of the American Medical Association and has worked with world-class athletes.
"Think of the team as a piece of cloth," he said. "If there is a tear in the cloth, the whole cloth is not as strong as it had been. It’s especially true of a leader. Players want approval from a leader, and they want to please him.
"It could be that Aaron Rodgers is uncomfortable with the new play-caller (Tom Clements). But McCarthy giving it up is kind of like a divorce between him and Rodgers. It may not be that Clements is calling the wrong plays. It may be like the residual feelings after any divorce."
It seems obvious that there is more to solving the slump than simply "playing better."
The job of a coach is to figure out the how things happen. But just as important – maybe even more important in a slump – is to figure out the why.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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