In scanning a great many of Packer fans’ disparaging comments following the Saturday night giveaway, the one that hits home with me is that by the middle of the third quarter you knew what the outcome of the Packers-Niners game was going to be. That’s exactly how I felt, simply because we’ve been down this road before.
We’ve seen repeated failures to win the NFCCG, we’ve seen the pattern of San Francisco out-playing and out-coaching the Pack, and we’ve seen the tendency to string a bunch of three-and-out offensive drives just when the Pack was in a position to put a game out of reach.
In non-psychological lingo, after a while these memories and patterns tend to get into your head, whether it be in the heads of the fans, the players, or the coaches. Once it happens, it causes the brain to believe that what has happened before is about to happen again. These worries become self-fulfilling prophecies.
This appears to have happened to Green Bay on Saturday. What makes it especially frustrating is that the team came out extremely ready to play this game, and the intensity of the defense in the first half was spectacular. It was only as the half was about to end that things started to unravel, and the thoughts of past losses started to set in.
After that fine first 11-play drive, the Packers went fumble, punt, punt, punt, and blocked field goal. The first confidence-shaker was the fumble by veteran Marcedes Lewis. This was a pass that shouldn’t have been thrown, as the Big Dog had his back to the defender, and was going to take a blind-side hit as he turned to head upfield. It was the same type of blindside tackle that caused Aaron Jones to fumble in last year’s conference championship. It was an ideal opportunity for a punch-out, and the Niners defenders are well versed at such skills – plus it wasn’t going to result in any meaningful yardage anyway.
The defense, however, prevented this turnover from lighting up the Niners. Better yet, with 1:05 remaining in the half, and San Francisco at the Green Bay 9-yard line, Garoppolo, was intercepted by Amos Otis. Next, with forty seconds left, a Niners’ defensive miscommunication allowed Aaron Jones to get ten yards behind the secondary, resulting in a 75 yard completion.
The Packers then squandered this gift by Rodgers getting sacked (and fumbling), then getting the ensuing field goal kick blocked. In so doing, as the teams left the field the momentum had swung back to the Niners.
But… none of this would have happened had Rodgers, who had broken from the pocket and was under no defensive pressure, thrown a half-decent pass to the wide, wide open Jones. Jones had to leap and pirouette to catch the ball, thus losing his forward velocity. It was a fine catch, but it would have resulted in a touchdown had the throw been better.
Despite the Pack’s sloppy play, the defense kept getting the ball back for the Packers offense to put the game away. Instead, here’s what the Packers did offensively in the second half: punt, field goal, blocked punt/touchdown, and punt. It was midway through this slump that I suspect most fans, like me, saw the writing on the wall. Psychological forces come into play, and especially so in win-or-go-home games, as much as does physical play.
You can try to credit San Francisco with better defense, point to the loss of A.J. Dillon due to a fractured rib, or blame the weather, but what I saw is Matt LaFleur becoming utterly predictable with his play calls, and Rodgers having a complete loss of trust in all his receivers other than Adams – and sub-consciously in himself. As the second half proceeded, we saw those all-too-familiar facial gestures by Rodgers, indicating the fates were against him – by then his head was consumed with the inevitability of losing, not the pursuit of winning.
Time and again Rodgers tried to spot Adams in the open despite the Niners by now assigning two defenders to him. Finally, with 3:40 to go and on a third and 11, Rodgers threw a desperation deep pass toward Adams, who was covered, front and back, by defenders. Adams has never possessed the speed to make this a smart play, and the game situation didn’t necessitate a home run ball. Making things worse, Allen Lazard was open for a big gain at the time. This play epitomized the direction the game had taken.
By the way, how can you tell, besides the facial and body language, when negative thoughts are spinning around in Rodgers skull? I’ve noted that Aaron has a tendency to start throwing low and short to his receivers. His throwing motion reflects his uncertainty, hesitation, and lack of confidence. On Saturday Rodgers threw three or four balls almost into the ground. Fortunately, his receivers made some nice finger-tip catches. When your head isn’t right, the tendency is to tighten up physically and to aim your passes instead of releasing the ball smoothly and with purpose.
This same uncertainty and hesitancy also causes Rodgers to get sacked more than usual. On the season, Aaron never took more than three sacks in a game. Of the five sacks he suffered on Saturday, I’d say that three of them were due to a lack of confidence in his throws, not due to the San Francisco pass rush.
I think this is another example of the head of Aaron Rodgers, and presumably of play caller La Fleur too, getting all crowded with memories of past failures – especially in the playoffs and especially against this team. They panicked, choked, lost their confidence – call it what you will. Trying not to lose is a poor substitute for trying to win.
Aaron is not up there with the Bills’ Jim Kelly, who lost in four straight Super Bowls from 1991 through 1994, but he lost his big chance to expel the demons from his head on Saturday night. It’s a chance that he might never get again.