Green Bay Packers grew from infamous 'Fail Mary' loss in Seattle


SEATTLE -- Even before the fiasco of a finish that made replacement refs an everlasting symbol of ineptitude -- and which afforded me a few seconds of unintended screen time that would inspire a meme, T-shirt and legions of flippant lip-readers -- Aaron Rodgers was in the midst of an ire-provoking nightmare.

Sacked eight times in the first half by a Seattle Seahawks defense that was announcing its collective might on a "Monday Night Football" stage in September of 2012, Rodgers' rage preceded the infamous "Fail Mary" that would doom his Green Bay Packers to a stunning, 14-12 defeat.

Losing a game under those shady circumstances would make any competitor mad, but the bitterness emanating from Rodgers' eyes during our shared WTF? moment (turns out you can drop an F-bomb on national television and get away with it -- provided that you speak for the rest of America ...) could be traced back to an incomprehensibly comprehensive breakdown in pass protection.

Smacked around like a skinny Starbucks barista in the middle of a Crocodile Café mosh pit at any early '90s Soundgarden show, Rodgers had endured an onslaught most franchise quarterbacks never come close to experiencing. Eight sacks in a single half? That was the real WTF?

Nearly two years after the fact, as Rodgers prepares to lead the Pack back to cacophonous CenturyLink Field to open the 2014 season against the defending Super Bowl champs Thursday night, he's as annoyed by the memory of that futile first half as by the inevitable dredging up of the term simultaneous possession.

"It was not fun," Rodgers recalled last month after a training camp practice. "The noise is such a factor, and the more they sack you, the louder they get -- and the cycle continues. It was a mess, and we didn't fix it the whole first half. And no, I wasn't (happy)."

Neither was Rodgers' coach, Mike McCarthy, who predictably bristled at the sight of the NFL's reigning MVP getting repeatedly pummeled by Pete Carroll's emerging defense.

"I've never been part of something like that," McCarthy reluctantly remembered in August. "We were unsettled, and we had no answers. We came in at halftime and said, 'Hey, we need to reboot this thing and start over.' "

The coach's recollection might have glossed over a few expletives -- "Words were said in the locker room," cornerback Tramon Williams conceded -- but he wasn't merely ranting and raving, nor was his equally peeved quarterback. To their credit, McCarthy and Rodgers calmed down and conducted one of the most productive halftime-adjustment sessions in recent memory, joining with the Packers' other offensive assistants in radically reshaping the team's approach.

The numbers tell part of the story: In the first half, after which they trailed 7-0, the Packers ran 27 offensive plays and gained 87 yards. Included were four rushes for 40 yards, yet only four of those were gained by a running back (Cedric Benson). They converted two of their seven third downs and had only seven first downs total.

After halftime, the Packers ran 41 plays and gained 181 yards, including 41 (on 15 carries) by Benson. They were 5-for-8 on third-down conversions, had 15 first downs and possessed the ball for 18:31. Green Bay put together three extended scoring drives and took a 12-7 lead on Benson's 1-yard plunge with 8:44 remaining. Most importantly, Rodgers threw 24 passes and wasn't sacked.

The most obvious shift was formational: "We went to two-back, two-tight-end sets and tried to run the ball to slow (the pass rush) down," Rodgers said. "We got in a rhythm and put some scoring drives together."

McCarthy also managed to settle down an offensive line that, in the coach's estimation, hadn't been adequately prepared for the Seattle Sound that awaited them.

"In hindsight, maybe I didn't have us ready for the noise," McCarthy said. "It was at a different level that night."

The Packers' line, of course, was also at a different level -- in rough statistical terms, about 20,000 leagues under the Puget Sound.

"It was one of the most stressful games I've ever been a part of," recalled Packers guard Josh Sitton. "It's so loud, it gets to the point where you can't even think. You definitely can't talk to the guy next to you. It usually takes a quarter to get over that. It took us longer."

Said Rodgers of the eight sacks: "Nothing went well. One time I held the ball, a few times it was probably some schematic things, and other ones I just chalk up to (the Seahawks') talent and the noise."

Added McCarthy: "The (linemen) kind of took turns getting beat. There was plenty of blame to go around."

By the time the second quarter ended, and the Packers retreated to the locker room to regroup, Sitton and his fellow linemen had heard plenty from coach and quarterback alike.

"They both got pretty angry," Sitton remembered. "You can feel the tension in the locker room. That was a big-time growth experience for us. We were able to settle down and execute in the second half. It was pretty impressive."

And it would have been more glaringly impressive had the Packers held on for a 12-7 victory -- rather than taking one on the chin for America. The ensuing controversy, after all, helped bring a swift end to the NFL's lockout of its officials, who had never been as widely appreciated as they were in the immediate aftermath of that surreal Monday night.

"If that doesn't happen, we don't get the real refs back," Williams said. "Looking back, I guess it was meant to be. Unfortunately, it was us who had to pay."

Nearly two years later, the Packers are able to look back at that Monday Night Mistake and find value in the way they confronted a crisis -- and reacted to a massive disappointment.

"It was a great lesson for us," McCarthy said. "It was an opportunity for us to learn what integrity really is, an opportunity for us to learn and grow and represent the organization the way it needs to be represented."

Having fallen to 1-2 in the wake of the Fail Mary, the Packers rallied to finish 11-5, win the NFC North and defeat the divisional-rival Vikings in a wild-card game before getting bounced from the playoffs by the 49ers. Last year, they fought through even more adversity, surviving Rodgers' extended absence (due to a broken collarbone) and injuries to other key players (like receiver Randall Cobb) to finish 8-7-1 and capture an unlikely NFC North title in dramatic fashion.

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"For us to still find a way to get into the playoffs said a lot about us," Cobb said. "We keep fighting."

Coming off yet another frustrating playoff defeat to the Niners, the 2014 Packers believe they're armed with everything they need to challenge for a second championship in five seasons -- and that even though the memory of the Fail Mary still stings, they're better for the experience.

"Aaron showed his courage that night," Williams said. "Our coaches had to make adjustments, and we showed we can do what we have to do in that situation. And we had to be poised after that game; we didn't let it make or break our season."

For his part, McCarthy vowed never to let his players be caught off guard by stadium noise.

"We practice it a lot more today than we did back then," he said. "We're (pumping in simulated crowd noise) every day. We know when we go out there this time, it's gonna be at a different level -- maybe the all-time highest level. The 'Kickoff Classic' game is special; it has an intensity for the home team that I don't think can be matched all year. We know we have to be ready."

Most of all, that 2012 experience in Seattle graphically underscored the need for balance. Enter halfback Eddie Lacy, a second-round draft pick in 2013 who was a revelation as a rookie, powering his way to 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns and keeping the Pack's offense relevant in Rodgers' absence.

"Trust me," Williams said, laughing. "We're a little more balanced these days."

The thought of Rodgers and Lacy playing a full season together in the backfield has McCarthy feeling pretty, pretty good about his offense heading into 2014.

"This running back group has a chance to be the best we've ever had," McCarthy said. "And when you look at the greatness of our quarterback and the experience we have around him, (this offense) could be pretty special."

If all goes according to plan, plenty of Packers opponents this season might walk off the field saying WTF? -- and, come February, Rodgers will be the last quarterback standing.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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