It may be too late to turn around a disappointing season, but the Green Bay Packers 34-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons was an emotional one for the players and the coaching staff. For the first time since 2005, the Packers someone other than Mike McCarthy running the show. The team clearly felt loyalty towards interim head coach Joe Philbin and respected what he was able to accomplish this week under difficult circumstances.
“Everybody just bought in. You could feel it around the locker room you could feel it in practice, everybody just bought in to what Joe was giving us,” veteran defensive back Bashaud Breeland said after the game. “He took control the moment that he stepped in. It was a glorious moment for him tonight for him to get this win.”
While the difference was subtle, the team could feel that there were changes and they responded to the challenges of replacing a veteran coach late in the season.
“For Mike to be let go with four games left, that’s a lot of change from an organizational standpoint,” explained linebacker Clay Matthews. “[Joe Philbin] came in here and took control, implementing things his way, told us what he expects. That’s difficult 13, 14 games into the season. What Joe did this past week was really important.”
The result on the field was a shakeup of the status quo and refocusing of energy and commitment by the players. The offense seemed to be more efficient and quicker and the team made more of the small plays that had eluded them too often over the course of this frustrating season.
On third down, for example, the Packers finished 7-of-13, substantially better than the 3-for-14 mark they had a week ago against the Cardinals. The offense also seemed to be in rhythm with each player knowing their responsibilities and their approach.
“It was like we hit the restart button a little bit, said wideout Davante Adams. “Nothing drastic happened but it was just more a mentality and how we had to approach this game. Having a new coach, we wanted to make sure we were buying what he set forth for us as a game plan.”
The way the Falcons played defense helped as well. “There was a decent amount of man coverage, so it allows you to be a little more decisive, you kind of know where you’re going at the snap,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Not a lot of reading defenders, you just pick a matchup you like.”
Rodgers’ longest pass of the day was just 24 yards and he finished with fewer than 200 yards passing for the game, but he was able to establish a rhythm and move the ball consistently whenever the team needed to pick up key yards. The team also seemed to scheme receivers open, using formations that helped get players in the clear just long enough to complete a quick pass.
“We put ourselves in good positions. We didn’t hurt ourselves like we did in the past,” said Randall Cobb. “I felt like the game was kind of in rhythm. That comes from executing plays and keeping ourselves in composition.”
The players also clearly felt a devotion and a loyalty to Philbin and to each other. “Joe’s been a part of a lot of great wins around here and a lot of incredible moments over the years as offensive coordinator,” Rodgers said. “It’s fun to give him his first win as the head coach. He’s a passionate guy he really cares about the guys. He’s in a tough situation this week with change and trying to get the right messages across to get the guys motivated…I think Joe deserves a lot of credit for the vision he set forth this week.”
The players even saw the bright side of Philbin’s decision to use up both of his challenges when the game was just three plays old. Neither play was overturned, and the Packers were without a challenge for the remaining 59 minutes of the contest. “It made a statement that I’ve got my guys’ back,” Tramon Williams told reporters. “Those plays can be game changers. We didn’t get the shake, but I thought they were good challenges.”
For Philbin, this was not an easy situation. He has loyalty to McCarthy, his former boss, and he realizes that being an interim head coach is a difficult task, especially when the organization hasn’t made a coaching change in more than a decade.
He was quick to credit his players. “I don’t know that we did anything magically different than we had before. It’s just when the players make more plays it’s a little bit easier, it looks a little better.”
When Philbin took stock of all that had transpired since last Sunday, he clearly understood that this game was different for both him and his team. “It was an emotional week, we all know that, and I feel very happy for the organization, the players and the staff and everybody that works so hard to make this a unique place,” Philbin said. “There was a lot of emotion. I told the team and meant it that I was very proud to be their head coach today.”
Perhaps running back Aaron Jones summed up the difference this week for the Packers best. “We were just locked in, more focused on third down…We just all wanted to win, we all bought in and we were deterimined to get this ‘W’.”