Tom Oates: Packers’ ugly season-ending loss to Lions sheds light on type of coach Green Bay needs

December 31, 2018
Detroit running back Zach Zenner runs during the third quarter of the Lions' 31-0 win over the Green Bay Packers in their season finale on Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

GREEN BAY — If nothing else, Joe Philbin is realistic about his chances of remaining in charge of the Green Bay Packers.

“I’m not sure losing 31-0 helps,” the Packers interim coach said Sunday. “But that’s football.”

Yeah, bad football.

If the Packers needed still another a signal that a thorough housecleaning is in order during an offseason that arrived far sooner than expected, they got it with a 31-0 loss to a bad Detroit Lions team Sunday at joyless, lifeless Lambeau Field. It was the first time since 2008 the Packers missed the playoffs with quarterback Aaron Rodgers available to start all season.

Green Bay had won two of its three games since coach Mike McCarthy was fired and replaced by Philbin, the offensive coordinator. But while Philbin’s candidacy for the permanent job gained momentum with the Packers’ thrilling road victory over the New York Jets a week earlier, he seemingly flubbed his job interview Sunday when the Packers looked unprepared and flat against the Lions, who, like the Packers, had nothing to play for.

The Packers players profess to love Philbin — heck, everybody at 1265 Lombardi Ave. does — but they didn’t play like it Sunday and finished with a 6-9-1 record. It was hard to tell which was worse against the Lions, the Packers’ effort or their execution as they dropped passes, whiffed on blocks and missed tackles.

“It sucked,” center Corey Linsley said. “Joe’s the kind of guy that you want to win for him and you want to play for him, honestly. He’s a hell of a guy, a man of integrity, character, everything. You don’t have a bad thing to say about Joe. So that’s extremely disappointing.”

Retaining Philbin would have made for a tidy transition. The Packers could have kept some of the current coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and concentrated on rebuilding a roster so depleted that Sunday’s contest had the look of a preseason game, especially in the second half.

But the Packers promised a wide-ranging search for a new coach and after Sunday they have every reason to conduct one. With the season mercifully over, the search can begin in earnest.

Team president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst have already interviewed two candidates — former NFL head coaches Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis and Detroit) and Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis). It was widely reported Sunday that they will talk to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was hired for that position by Murphy in 2006 when the latter was athletic director at the Big Ten Conference school.

But the field will expand now that the college and NFL seasons have ended and coaches become available for interviews. Reports say the Packers want to talk to a dozen or so candidates and pare that to a workable number for additional interviews.

If the Packers needed something to point them in the right direction, Sunday’s game showed exactly what they need in a coach. Their utter futility on offense, even before Rodgers left with a concussion, pointed to a crying need for a new approach on offense.

What does that mean? It means that if the next head coach comes from the offensive side, he had better bring along a great scheme that can get the 35-year-old Rodgers out of the rut he fell into this season. And if the new coach comes from the defensive side or is a CEO-type, he had better have a great offensive coordinator in his back pocket. Anything less would be unacceptable for a team trying to capitalize on the final five years of Rodgers’ contract (and maybe career).

The offense was off kilter all season and Philbin, a Packers assistant coach for nine years before leaving to become Miami’s head coach, was part of the problem after returning to the fold this season. But this was McCarthy’s offense, not Philbin’s, and in his short stint as interim coach Philbin changed some things, got Rodgers re-engaged and achieved positive results. Until Sunday, that is.

“They know who I am, they know what I believe in, they know where I stand,” Philbin said of Murphy and Gutekunst. “I want what’s best for the Green Bay Packers anyway. And whatever that may be, I’m good with. I have faith they’ll make a great decision as they should. This is an incredible place to work every day. Again, (Sunday’s game) is disappointing, no question, I didn’t see it coming. The most important thing is to get the right man to lead the Green Bay Packers into the future. And I’m sure that’s the charge for Mark and I’m sure he’ll do that. Whoever that may be, we’ll all go from there.”

Until then, speculation will run wild. It’s hard to see the Packers recycling an older coach who has been fired, a category Caldwell and Pagano fall into. And unless Murphy has fixated on Fitzgerald, who has no NFL experience as a player or coach, it’s hard to see him taking a career college coach since so many have failed in the NFL. Fitzgerald, in particular, would have a hard time assembling an NFL-caliber staff because he lacks connections in the league and would need to find an elite offensive coordinator since he’s a defensive coach by trade.

The Packers will have plenty of new faces on the roster next season, but the most important decision is at hand. Sunday’s shutout should have pointed them in the right direction.

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