NASHVILLE -- On a gorgeous autumn afternoon in Music City, Mike McCarthy sat in a small corridor at the Loews Vanderbilt hotel and showed his hand. A day before his struggling team would take on the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium, the Green Bay Packers' 11th-year coach was locked in on Twenty One -- but McCarthy felt pretty far from lucky.
"We have 21 personnel groups in our game plan," McCarthy said, shaking his head for emphasis. "Twenty-one! I've gone into games with a lot of personnel combinations, but I don't ever think I've done that before. But hey, that's where we are right now. It's on all of us to find a way to get it done."
Exactly 24 hours later, McCarthy trudged off the Nissan Stadium field bemoaning a different '21' -- the number of points the Titans scored in the first quarter, to none for his team. Translation for Tennessee: Blackjack. In a game that highlighted the Packers' frustrations in all three phases, the Titans (5-5) rolled to a 47-25 triumph that pushed Green Bay (4-5) below .500 and deeper into a hole that suddenly seems full of quicksand.
"I mean, we are what our record is -- and it's not good," veteran tackle Bryan Bulaga said of Sunday's beatdown in front of 69,116 fans, which left the Pack a game behind the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions in the NFC North. "We're 4-5, and it's unacceptable for us. There's still a lot of football left to be played. It's up to us to find a way to dig ourselves out of this."
Not since a 51-29 shellacking by the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 24, 2008, have the Packers allowed so many points in a regular-season game (they matched that total in the 2009 playoffs, suffering a 51-45 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals), and it continued a recent trend: Sunday's setback was the Pack's fourth in five games, and they have given up at least 30 points in each of those defeats.
After a second consecutive stinker against an AFC South foe, each of which was marred by a slow start, the Packers are feeling the heat in Titletown, where fans have been spoiled by seven consecutive playoff appearances. Suddenly, the widely held perception that the Packers belong in the NFL's upper echelon is as under siege as quarterback Aaron Rodgers was on Sunday, when the Titans sacked him five times and left observers questioning some basic tenets.
Is Green Bay an ultra-talented team that's merely taking a short sabbatical before mounting a late-season charge? Or has the McCarthy/Rodgers era reached a crisis point from which the Super Bowl-winning coach and two-time MVP quarterback might not recover?
Most likely, the answer lies somewhere in between those two extremes. However, that won't stop the skeptics from suggesting that Rodgers has slipped from the ranks of the league's elite quarterbacks (as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn did last month) and that McCarthy could or should be fired if the Pack's downward trajectory continues this season.
"I'm gonna disagree with all of that," Bulaga said. "That's just noise from the outside coming in here. I don't think there's anybody better than Aaron, to be honest with you. And the coaches put us in great position to make plays every single week."
I'm inclined to agree with Bulaga on both counts. On Sunday, Rodgers (31 of 51, 371 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions -- though one deceptively came on a Hail Mary to end the first half) looked as preternaturally accurate and crafty as ever, making pinpoint back-shoulder throws to a newly rejuvenated Jordy Nelson (12 catches, 126 yards, one TD), throwing downfield darts to blessedly blossoming third-year wideout Davante Adams (six catches, 156 yards) and somehow willing the Pack back into a game that had seemed lost before it was an hour old.
McCarthy and his assistants, meanwhile, continue to confront injury-related challenges (two starting offensive linemen went down against the Titans, left tackle David Bakhtiari and right guard T.J. Lang) and other personnel-related shortcomings with relative aplomb -- which brings us back to those 21 personnel groupings, and the reality that general manager Ted Thompson and his fellow personnel executives bear some responsibility for the Pack's predicament, as well.
The reason McCarthy installed so many different lineup combinations for Sunday's game is that three wide receivers (Ty Montgomery, Randall Cobb and Adams) are moonlighting as running backs in an offense devoid of viable ground-game options. With Eddie Lacy on injured reserve with an ankle injury -- though he could technically be activated late in the season, the possibility remains unlikely -- the Packers have lacked a legitimate Plan B. That's on Thompson.
Green Bay got a boost Sunday from veteran James Starks, who returned after missing four games with a sprained knee and had a 13-yard touchdown catch-and-run late in the first half, but balance will be tough to achieve amid the current state of affairs. In mid-October, Thompson, who is normally loath to surrender draft picks, gave up a conditional seventh-rounder for Kansas City Chiefs running back Knile Davis, who carried just five times for 5 yards before being released less than two weeks later. (Davis has since rejoined the Chiefs, and the Packers won't have to part with their pick.)
While Thompson has drafted well during his 12-year run as Green Bay's GM, his lack of aggressiveness has frustrated many Packers coaches. In addition to his reticence toward trades (which includes an aversion to moving up in the draft), Thompson has approached free agency with a miserly mentality, acquiring a few bargains (such as veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers in 2014 and tight end Jared Cook this past spring) but essentially staying away from splashy signings.
For all of the Packers' success during Thompson's tenure, which included the transition from one Hall of Famer (Brett Favre) to another quarterback likely bound for Canton in 2008, it can be argued that, having won only a single Super Bowl during that span, the franchise has underachieved. It's also true that Thompson's preference for building through the draft and thus relying disproportionately on young players has put an added strain on the coaches -- and is a reason that the injury-depleted secondary has struggled in games like Sunday's.
Rather than pin the Pack's current malaise on Rodgers' supposed demise, it's more accurate to say that there have been times when the 12th-year quarterback's play has dropped off slightly -- and that a somewhat-flawed and injury-taxed team has been unable to overcome those stretches. As McCarthy said on Saturday of the notion that the 32-year-old Rodgers has fallen off, "I don't even know how you can make that assessment. He's human. Is he trying to do more in certain spots? Perhaps, but that's natural. But the bottom line is this: There's so many things he does well, he spoils us."
It's also true that the Packers' attack hasn't looked the same since Nelson went down in the 2015 preseason with a torn ACL, shelving him for all of 2015. Without Rodgers' top receiver in the lineup, the passing game lacked explosiveness, as slippery slot threat Cobb struggled to assume the role of true No. 1 receiver and Adams flat-out bombed as the de facto No. 2 following a promising rookie campaign.
The issues continued through the first half of 2016 as Nelson -- like most of the team's receivers -- had problems separating from defenders.
"Classic 'first-year back (syndrome),' " McCarthy said Saturday, referring to the relatively common slow course of full recovery from ACL injuries. "He's fighting through things that he hasn't had to fight through before. Hey, when you have a big joint injury, your body changes. That's just the way it is."
On Sunday, Nelson looked much closer to his old self, giving the Packers a measure of hope heading into a stretch run that begins with two additional road tests (at Washington and Philadelphia) the following two weeks. Yet at least one Packers assistant wasn't buying the idea that Nelson's return to form could be a season-turning difference-maker, saying, "Look, it's true that we're seeing bump-and-run on almost every play, and the only zone we get is when teams drop eight and dare us to find an opening. But I just don't think any one player -- other than Aaron -- should be the 'reason' for us not playing to our potential. In 2010, we lost player after player and still won the Super Bowl. That's the mentality we have to have now."
Instead, on Sunday, the Packers looked stunted from the start. After the Titans gambled by beginning the game with a surprise onside kick that Green Bay's Joe Thomas recovered, the Pack failed to capitalize on a short field, with Cobb unable to hold onto a third-down pass from Rodgers. On the Titans' first play from scrimmage, DeMarco Murray turned a routine handoff into a 75-yard touchdown gallop, and things degenerated from there. With second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota (19 of 26, 295 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions) picking apart the Pack's shaky secondary, and with that unit making tight end Delanie Walker (nine catches, 124 yards, one TD), in the words of one Packers executive, "look like (former San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer) Kellen Winslow," the deficit quickly mushroomed.
Down 28-7 midway through the second quarter, the Packers took steps to get back in the game but kept succumbing to self-inflicted stumbles: rookie Trevor Davis' fumbled punt return, setting up Mariota's touchdown pass to Kendall Wright for a 35-10 lead 1:55 before halftime; a missed extra point by kicker Mason Crosby; a dropped pass on fourth down (past the first-down marker) by tight end Richard Rodgers early in the fourth quarter; and 12 penalties for 107 yards, including four personal fouls.
Afterwards, the frustrated Packers tried to stay positive. "I would say we're a really good team making bad team decisions," safety Micah Hyde said. "It's as simple as that. We're not communicating well on the field. But we have the same guys in the locker room as we had in past years, so I believe we can get it done."
Added defensive tackle Mike Daniels: "I'm always gonna say we're a good team, 'cause I truly believe in the guys in this locker room and the coaching staff. We just need to sharpen our focus."
Rodgers, meanwhile, did what all good leaders do -- put the onus on himself. "I'm going to keep doing what I've done up to this point," he said, "but obviously I've got to play better. We've got to find a way to score points. It starts with me."
On Sunday, Rodgers offered no such reassuring catch phrase, slowly walking toward the team bus while pulling a roller bag and resembling a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It appears that after years of spoiling his coaches and teammates -- and Packers fans -- with otherworldly play, the veteran quarterback is going to need some additional help from all parties concerned.