SEATTLE — It would have been bold — one of the most daring decisions of his 13-year coaching tenure — but Mike McCarthy stared the moment in the face, pondered it and then punted.
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The Green Bay Packers coach decided to give the ball back to the Seattle Seahawks with four minutes and 20 seconds left on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field. In his mind, one timeout plus the two-minute warning with a depleted defense gave his team a better chance to win than going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 33-yard line.
His reasoning: “We played the numbers.”
Those numbers came up: Seattle 27, Green Bay 24.
The scoreboard read the same when McCarthy’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, inexplicably threw the ball into the turf, well short of receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third-and-2. It was one of the worst throws Rodgers has ever made and he was under pressure often (he was sacked five times), but he did throw for 332 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-30 passing and had a hot receiver in Davante Adams (10 catches for 166 yards).
By now, everyone knows that the Packers’ defense — already without two starters in the secondary, Kevin King and Kentrell Brice, plus starting outside linebacker Nick Perry and ravaged by in-game injuries to Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Bashaud Breeland and Raven Greene — allowed the Seahawks to run out those last 260 seconds to keep the Packers winless in five road games and 4-5-1 overall.
Afterward, Rodgers obligatorily said there’s still hope for this season but in the next breath said “it’s going to take one galvanizing moment” to turn it around.
A game-winning drive sparked by a bold fourth-down call could have been that moment.
“If we had gotten the first down,” Rodgers said. “If not, then it’s a short field, and we’ve got to hold them to three and we’re kind of in the same situation.”
Even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he was “a little relieved” when McCarthy sent his punt team on the field at that moment.
“I really did like that they punted the ball back to us right there,” Carroll said.
Not long after Rodgers and McCarthy completed their post-game podium interviews, veteran defensive back Tramon Williams — the last player in the locker room — spoke of ways to save a sinking season.
Though the question to Williams made no mention of the fourth-down decision, it’s worth wondering if his answer spoke to the feeling in the locker room about McCarthy’s call.
“When we’re in games like this, we gotta go for it, man,” Williams said. “We play to win, you know? We play to win. We’ve got the best quarterback behind center. We played well throughout the game on the defensive side of the field. We’ve gotta play to win. We’ve been in too many close games and not come out on that side. That’s not a good feeling right now.”
When asked if punting with 4:20 left in a three-point game is playing to win, Williams said: “You tell me.”
To Williams, there’s only one way out of this, only one way to save their season.
“We’ve got to win; that’s the only thing,” he said.
Mike McCarthy says Green Bay fought hard but it still has to figure out how to win on the road.
The question, however, is how?
“You’ve got to ask the people calling the shots,” Williams said. “We’re going out there, we’re playing hard, we’re just coming up short. Whatever that takes, we’ve got to get it done. We felt like we should’ve gotten it done tonight. Felt like we should’ve got it done in those other games. We just haven’t. So if we had that answer we would’ve won already.”
There’s time, of course. A win next Sunday night at Minnesota would be a solid start leading into five winnable games to close the season.
But even McCarthy stopped himself when he started to say there’s a lot of football left.
“There’s enough football,” he said.
This season, however, might not provide many moments that could have been more galvanizing than a game-winning drive fueled by a bold fourth-down call from an aggressive head coach.
“I think there’s been opportunities,” Rodgers said. “There can be galvanizing moments when you capitalize on them. We had some today. Jimmy [Graham] talked to us before the game and other guys were speaking up and talking. The first play of the game, we make a fumble and we go down there and [take an early lead]. We had many moments that could have been used as moments to gravitate toward, ‘This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. This is what we should be doing. This is how we should be playing.’
“But when you lose, all of that gets wiped away because you’ve got to move on to the next situation and hope that something sticks with somebody that can bring us together moving in the right direction.”