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Dougherty: Packers can put embarrassing loss in rear-view mirror and still achieve great things

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The NFL season is long, and weird things happen early.

But can the Green Bay Packers really just file away their stunning, embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Saints in their season opener Sunday, move on to next week, and not have it affect their view of what they’d assumed is an especially promising season?

The short answer, if you can use only one word, is yes. As many probably have already read or heard, these same Saints blew out Tampa Bay by the same 38-3 score in Week 9 last year, and those Bucs went on to win the Super Bowl. Burned more into my memory from early in my career covering the NFL, in 1994, the San Francisco 49ers were blown out at Philadelphia 40-8 in Week 5 and likewise ended that season hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

But the longer answer has plenty of caveats, and coach Matt LaFleur's team should heed his warning after he'd described his feelings in his postgame press conference – “embarrassed” and “humbling” were among his descriptors – about the Packers' horrendous performance.

“This isn't gonna magically repair itself,” he said.

BOX SCORE: Saints 38, Packers 3

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The one thing it’s hard not to conclude about the Packers on Sunday was that they came into the 2021 season full of themselves. After back-to-back trips to the NFC championship game and a mortgaging of the salary cap to keep the main characters together for at least one year, this team has the highest of expectations. The Packers clearly had bought into their greatness before doing anything to prove it.

How else do you explain their abysmal performance, in a season opener of all things? On top of that it came against a Saints team that had so much going against it coming into Sunday: Dislodged from their home because of Hurricane Ida, playing a home game in essentially a road setting with probably 70 percent of the 35,000 crowd in Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field supporting the Packers, and with a new and previously erratic quarterback (Jameis Winston) at the helm.

The Packers played as though they needed only to show up and the Saints would capitulate.

“Yeah, I think so, there’s probably some of that,” Rodgers said. “We probably felt like we were going to go up and down the field against whoever they had out there. That obviously wasn’t the case.”

There’s no escaping a few points about the Packers’ opener, starting with Rodgers’ poor performance. The NFL’s reigning MVP put up a 36.8 passer rating, the fourth-lowest in his 191 NFL starts.

The guy who often goes several games without coming close to throwing an interception threw two terrible ones against the Saints: The first a back-breaker in the red zone when he forced a ball to Davante Adams while under duress when the game was still a game early in the third quarter, the other on a deep shot to Marquez Valdes-Scantling where Rodgers failed to see he hadn’t fooled safety Marcus Williams’ coverage over the top.

“First one was obviously the play of the game that kind of swung things,” Rodgers said.

LaFleur chided himself for not running the ball enough, also, and he’s probably right to do so. But one thing that stood was how little the Packers ran the jet-sweep motion and flanker bubble screens that were such a big part of their offense last season, when they led the NFL in scoring. Maybe twice they ran someone from the slot on the jet sweep to keep the back side of the Saints’ defensive line home – Allen Lazard once, and Kylin Hill on another when LaFleur had Hill and Aaron Jones in the game together.

Where was Amari Rodgers, the third-round pick drafted precisely for that jet-sweep, bubble-screen role? He didn’t play a snap on offense until LaFleur brought in Jordan Love in the fourth quarter with the score well out of hand.

Then there was Joe Barry’s disastrous debut as defensive coordinator. There can be a lot of bumps in the road in the first half of a season when you’re putting in a new system and learning your players’ strengths and weaknesses. But c’mon. It was hard not to watch this debacle unfold and not think, meet the new boss, same as the old bosses.

Barry threw almost all the defensive combinations he’d shown in camp – base, nickel, base front and nickel backs, multiple iterations of dime – and nothing worked. The Saints had 38 offensive plays to the Packers’ 16 in the first half and punted only twice all game. The Packers failed to force even one turnover from Winston, an interception machine his entire career.

Barry has to figure out his players, and figure them out fast. One place to start might be replacing Chandon Sullivan with first-round pick Eric Stokes in the nickel. Stokes as the third corner in the nickel is the one defensive grouping Barry didn’t try, though the coordinator did use Stokes in the dime a few times. Playing Stokes in the nickel probably means moving Jaire Alexander to the slot, but considering what happened Sunday, it’s got to be something Barry at least experiments with over the next few weeks. Anything to get your most talented players on the field.

One of the hardest things to do when following the NFL is not becoming a prisoner of what happened most recently. So with that in mind, yeah, this was one loss, horrendous though it was, and counts for only one mark in the “L” column. There’s nearly a full season ahead, and history says good teams still can reach their highest goals despite this kind of alarming performance. Come December, this game will be a distant memory.

But LaFleur is right that this won’t happen by itself, as if it’s the natural order of things. Promising seasons also can fall apart, too.

The 2021 Packers are facing a big test a lot earlier than they ever would have guessed.

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