Mike McCarthy was on his way into the office bright and early Friday morning when his iPhone rang. At the other end was one of the Green Bay Packers coach’s friends, who just like the rest of the team’s fan base, is hoping that the latest outbreak of significant injuries is a sign of a Super Bowl XLV redux.
“(He said), ‘Hey, man, your team looks a lot like that 2010 team,’” McCarthy recounted Monday afternoon, one day after his team’s hard-earned, adversity-laden 19-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. “And I said, ‘This team is nothing like the 2010 team.’
“Then when I got to work and saw the injury report, I wanted to call him back.”
Yes, it’s déjà vu all over again for McCarthy and the Packers, who for the third time in four years are facing a health-care crisis. Unlike the U.S. government, however, they’re not about to be shut down.
On Monday, McCarthy met with the team’s medical staff and learned that wide receiver Randall Cobb will miss “multiple weeks” with what is reportedly a fractured fibula from a hit to his right knee by Ravens safety Matt Elam Sunday; that wide receiver James Jones escaped with what is reportedly just a posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his left knee; and that outside linebacker Nick Perry, the team’s 2012 first-round pick who was just starting to round into form at the position, suffered what is reportedly a broken foot that McCarthy confirmed will keep him out of this Sunday’s game against Cleveland, at minimum.
The news on Perry was the unexpected blow, as the team is already without four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) for at least another two to three weeks; could be without starting inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring) for another week; hasn’t had second-year cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring) all season after he finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting last year; played the first three games without safety Morgan Burnett, the team’s defensive quarterback; and lost starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga and incumbent starting running back DuJuan Harris to season-ending knee injuries in training camp.
Just as the 2010 team never threw a pity party after losing starting running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley – the focal point of the offensive scheme to start that season – or veteran inside linebacker Nick Barnett to season-ending injuries early in the year, McCarthy insists that this year’s group remains resolute, too.
In 2010, the Packers lost a league-high 91 games from their preferred starters due to injuries – and still won Super Bowl XLV. Last year, they again led the league with 83 games lost by starters to injuries, and reached the NFC Divisional Playoff round, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers – the team which, coincidentally, lost the fewest games to injury.
Among the injuries suffered to key players last season were Matthews (hamstring, four games); wide receiver Greg Jennings (torn abdominal muscle, eight games), wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring, four games), Bulaga (hip, seven games), running back Cedric Benson (Lisfranc foot sprain, 11 games), safety Charles Woodson (broken collarbone, nine games), cornerback Sam Shields (ankle, six games), Perry (knee/wrist, 10 games), inside linebackers D.J. Smith (knee, 10 games) and Desmond Bishop (hamstring, 16 games) and fullback John Kuhn (hamstring, two games).
But while McCarthy’s oft-cited next-man-up mantra got a lot of pub since the team’s six-game winning streak in 2010 to turn an 8-6 regular-season record into the franchise’s 13th world championship, McCarthy said Monday that it’s not really his credo when it comes to injuries.
“When injuries happen, I look at it as you have to flip the page. It’s like anything in life, are you going to cry about it? Or are you going to look at it as an opportunity to improve?” McCarthy said. “Really, these injury situations are opportunities for our younger players, or any player on our roster, to jump up and take the rope. We don’t really look at it as, ‘The guy in front of you goes down, now it’s next man up.’ That next man needs to be ready just as much as the guy in front of him.
“That’s where the competition comes from. That’s where the growth comes. That’s why you draft and develop. The development of these players to get ready to play in these games doesn’t start this week because the guy in front of him went down. That started the day they walked in here April 15 (for the offseason program). That’s always been our plan. That’s our program. It’s worked and it will continue to work. This week we have to go out and do that against the Cleveland Browns. That’s just who we are.”
Just who they will have in the lineup is another matter. While neither Brad nor James Jones has been ruled out for Sunday, the Packers know they’ll be without Matthews, Perry and Cobb.
That means at outside linebacker, converted defensive end Mike Neal will make his third straight start; undrafted rookie free agent Andy Mulumba, who played 39 of the team’s 66 defensive snaps against the Ravens, will start on the other side; and rookie sixth-round pick Nate Palmer, who had been inactive for three of the team’s first four games before playing seven defensive snaps Sunday, will be the top backup.
The loss of Perry is doubly painful because, after playing in only six games as a rookie because of a wrist injury that wound up requiring season-ending surgery, he was starting to look the part at the position the last two games, recording three sacks – including one Sunday on which forced a fumble but was injured when Ravens lineman Marshal Yanda fell on him.
“I thought Nick has stepped up and had two of his better games. That play at the end of the half there was big because we got three points out of it,” defensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “It’s just like with Clay. Mike Neal and Nick had to step up. Andy Mulumba played 30-some plays (against Baltimore). So now Andy will get his shot to go out there. And we’ve got to continue to develop Nate Palmer.”
Inside, if Brad Jones can’t play, Jamari Lattimore will make his second straight start next to A.J. Hawk, with rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington as the lone backup with No. 3 inside linebacker Robert Francois on season-ending injured reserve after rupturing the Achilles’ tendon in his right leg against Detroit eight days ago.
“I’ll tell you one thing it does do, is you find out a lot about your young players, and I think in the long haul, it can help you a little later on because of the experience these guys are gaining now,” Capers said. “We’re just going to prepare for Cleveland with that in mind. We’ve got to elevate some of those younger guys and get them more reps because they’re going to be playing a lot of football for us.”
On offense, the Packers didn’t announce any additions to the roster at wide receiver, but they have Myles White on their practice squad and could elevate him as late as Saturday if James Jones is a no-go. With Cobb ruled out – the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday afternoon that Cobb will miss six to eight weeks, while ESPN reported that he could be back in four weeks but could be out as long as eight – second-year man Jarrett Boykin will see more snaps. Boykin, who played 58 snaps on offense Sunday after playing only 10 in the first four games combined, dropped two of the six passes thrown his way against the Ravens and appeared to be on a different page than quarterback Aaron Rodgers on two others. But he also had a 43-yard catch-and-run on a wide receiver screen that set up a field goal.
“Jarrett did some good things. He had a rough start but I thought the big play that he had was one of the spark plays in game,” McCarthy said. “A lot like Andy and Palmer, he will have a lot more responsibility and probably more opportunities this week.”
That will be the case for others as well, which McCarthy believes his team can handle.
“I think everything in the game of football is about managing the components in the game that you can control, and injury is probably at the forefront of that list,” McCarthy said. “Your attitude, your outlook, your approach, your training – everything goes into that. Injuries are clearly the toughest part, I know particularly in my job.
“It is a component of our game that you can’t control. I’ve never let it bog me down. But when sit there and you’re trying to get from a 53 to a 46, which you do every Monday and Tuesday as you go into your game plan meetings, there’s some guesswork to this and this is definitely one of those weeks.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.