Packers test-run new play calling operation

Packers 22, Patriots 11: ‘Good start'

At halftime, Mike McCarthy joked that he was “bored stiff.” At times, it appeared the Green Bay Packers coach didn’t know what he should do with his hands, without that giant posterboard-esque offensive call sheet he’s always carried.

“It looked like I didn’t know what to do with my hands?” McCarthy said following Thursday night’s 22-11 preseason-opening victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. “That’s funny. I’ll work on it. I’ll go look at the tape.”

Although the tape will have provide considerably more valuable information about his team – of his No. 1 offense’s productivity but red-zone failings; of his young cornerbacks and inside linebackers making plays on defense, of how the revamped special-teams units are coming together – that’s part-and-parcel with every preseason.

But McCarthy not calling the plays is without question the biggest change on a team that returned just about everyone from a group that was moments away from a Super Bowl XLIX berth – against these same Patriots – last January. And for a staff working together for the first time in his configuration, McCarthy felt it was a success – his thumb-twiddling notwithstanding.

True, he has historically turned the play-calling job over to his offensive coordinator in the preseason finale each summer, but that was merely one game. His decision over the winter to relinquish the job entirely, that qualifies as a paradigm shift. The last time McCarthy wasn’t his team’s play-caller, it was 1999 and a mustachioed McCarthy was serving as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes.

Since then, McCarthy called the plays as an offensive coordinator in New Orleans (2000-2004) and San Francisco (2005) before getting the Packers head-coaching job in 2006.

“It’s totally different,” admitted McCarthy, who matched wits with – and thoroughly impressed – legendary Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the Packers’ Nov. 30 victory at Lambeau Field. “I’m not competing against their defense calling plays. But, it’s a different role.

“You do enjoy the game more. That’s what a number of people were telling me beforehand. You do enjoy the game more. But it’s preseason. There’s a lot of things that are going on that you don’t think about in a normal game. Substitutions, trying to get certain guys opportunities. We played no-huddle the whole first half. I wanted to make sure we got our fullbacks some work. Those kinds of things. Those are conversations that you don’t have in the regular season.”

Perhaps by midseason, there’ll be no more conversations about McCarthy’s role on the sideline, either. For instance, when McCarthy nailed a second-half replay challenge of what was initially called a Patriots first down on a fourth-down scramble by No. 2 quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the natural assumption was that giving the play-calling to associate head coach/offense Tom Clements might’ve been a factor, because in the past McCarthy may have been discussing something about the next offensive series and not seen the play clearly.

In reality, it probably didn’t matter on Thursday night, because the stadium replay board showed that Tom Brady’s stand-in was short of the first-down marker. But as the preseason – and the season – go on, the wisdom of McCarthy’s selfless decision will become clearer.

“It was a good start for us,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who must adjust to hearing Clements’ voice in his earhole instead of McCarthy’s after seven years of it as the starter. “Tom was very calm on the headset and he enunciated well. We had a headset issue at one point, but that’s kind of preseason.

“But that’s preseason football, and Tom did a really good job.”

As for what actually transpired on the field, there were guys who also did a good job, from Rodgers’ backup, Scott Tolzien (10 for 16, 107 yards, one TD, 102.9 rating); to rookie cornerback Quinten Rollins (two pass breakups/near interceptions, physical tackling); a host of young pass-rushers (seven sacks); young running backs Rajion Neal, Alonzo Harris and John Crockett (a combined 104 yards and two TDs on 25 touches); and rookie wide receiver Ty Montgomery (14-yard punt return, two receptions for 28 yards).

“I think it was a good outing for us tonight,” said Rodgers, who played the entire first quarter after not even suiting up for last year’s preseason opener at Tennessee. “We moved the ball pretty well, had a lot of reps, got our conditioning in. Stuff to work on, of course, but it was a good start for us.”

Some of that stuff to work on: The No. 1 offense’s red-zone production, as Rodgers got his guys into scoring position twice but came away without touchdowns. His final pass on the first trip near the goal line caromed off running back Eddie Lacy’s hands; his last try the next time around was dropped by Davante Adams in the corner of the end zone – not that either missed opportunity troubled Rodgers all that much.

“We had a chance to Davante on the goal line for a touchdown, [but] I think he kind of lost the ball in the lights, he said. And then the fourth-down scramble didn’t really have a chance, that ball was coming too hot for Eddie to handle,” Rodgers said. “And then the last drive [with the starters], we had a couple of chances probably to score a touchdown [and didn’t]. But that’s what preseason’s for.

“I think we accomplished some of our goals, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

After Rodgers and the starters retired for the evening, Tolzien hit Janis for a 26-yard fourth-down touchdown to give the Packers a 9-8 lead, and although Stephen Gostkowski’s 56-yard field goal sent the defending Super Bowl champs into halftime with the lead, a LaDarius Gunter interception followed by Harris’ 25-yard touchdown run put the Packers up, 15-11, less than three minutes into the second half. Rookie quarterback Brett Hundley and Crockett then connected on a 10-yard touchdown.

“I just thought overall as an offense the depth showed at all positions. It was fun to watch,” Tolzien said. “These are the guys you see making plays in practice and it was cool to see those guys make plays under the lights tonight. I thought Brett did a really nice job.”

Still, it was only the beginning, both for McCarthy and his life after play-calling, and for a team with designs on a berth in Super Bowl 50.

“We made some plays, we missed some plays. We had some chances on some throws and catches and didn’t put it together,” Rodgers said. “But that’s what the preseason’s for, and I’m happy with the first game.”