The play that spoke for Morgan Burnett’s season has been rewound and watched repeatedly back in the third-floor coaches offices inside Lambeau Field.
It came with 10 minutes 31 seconds left in what would turn out to be the Green Bay Packers’ season-ending 23-20 NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, as his team clung to a four-point lead. The 49ers had first-and-10 at the Packers’ 28-yard line, and as quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the snap, Burnett backpedaled between wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was covered by dime back Jarrett Bush, and tight end Vernon Davis, who was covered by inside linebacker A.J. Hawk.
When Kaepernick released the ball for Davis, who was running a seam route, Burnett hesitated slightly before sliding toward Davis. He appeared to arrive in time to make a play, but he looked indecisive and watched Davis haul in the go-ahead touchdown.
“He’s got to make that play,” McCarthy said in an interview at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown during a break in the annual NFL Scouting Combine. “To me, it looked like he didn’t know whether to go hit [Davis] or go for the ball. You start [flailing at the ball], that’s not a confident [action]. I mean, playmaking, you go get the football.”
And that has been Burnett’s problem. Although his tackle statistics were high – 106, by the Packers’ count, in only 13 regular-season games after a September hamstring injury – and he did a solid job of running the defense from the back end, he simply has not made plays.
He has only six career interceptions in 49 regular-season games – after an INT-free 2013, he hasn’t had a pick since registering two against Chicago on Dec. 2, 2012 – and has broken up only 37 career passes.
“You look at Morgan, there’s three components to his play,” McCarthy explained. “Really, the quarterback part of it, the communication, I thought he had a very good year. Productivity and tackling, he had over 100 tackles. So that’s a productive year. It’s the playmaking ability on the ball. Is he a product of what’s been going on back there? Cautious? [Unsure] whether to run through the ballcarrier/receiver, or make a break on the ball?
“I don’t think we’re far. You know, I don’t think it’s, ‘Oh my god, he’s a bust.’ It’s nothing like that.”
Nevertheless, safety remains a significant area of concern as the Packers continue the process of prepping for the May 8-10 draft. Not only has Burnett not played at the level the club had hoped, but he has been paired with inferior talent at the other safety position. Although third-year safety M.D. Jennings started all 17 games including playoffs, the Packers tried four safeties – Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson – at that spot, and no one stood out. McMillian, a 2012 fourth-round pick from Maine, played so poorly that he was released during the season.
“We need more production next to Morgan, which I think would definitely help him,” McCarthy said.
On the day the players cleaned out their lockers following the loss to the 49ers, Burnett entered the locker room as reporters were departing, so he never spoke with the media. Safeties coach Darren Perry, meanwhile, did his best to avoid chastising him too harshly publicly.
“You look back at Morgan’s season, he’s had some splash plays. Probably didn’t have enough of them, per se, and we have some plays that we gave up that shouldn’t happen, with the type of players that we have,” Perry said. “That, again, goes to back to consistency, and doing it play-in and play-out. We did some good, but we just didn’t do enough good.
“[With] Vernon Davis on A.J., [he had] the opportunity to dislodge him from the ball, and we didn’t get it done. So instead of making them kick a field goal, we give up seven. That’s an opportunity. Those are the types of plays we’ve got to make at critical moments, that doesn’t necessarily involve an interception but it least gets us off the field, or makes them kick a field goal as opposed to giving up a touchdown.”
To that end, McCarthy made it sound as if he and Perry spent more time on Burnett than McCarthy did on any other player with position coaches following the players’ exit interviews. Their resolution: Perry’s coaching emphasis with Burnett will be on making him more aware on playmaking opportunities and concentrating on ways to have a greater impact in the passing game. At the same time, they will also try to draw out a more aggressive side of Burnett’s personality that has not been seen since he entered the league as a third-round pick from Georgia Tech in 2010.
“Darren and I talked a long time about him in his evaluation. I think he’s fully capable of doing it,” McCarthy said. “Morgan’s going to do everything he can. He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities. He did not have a good year in that particular area.
“Safeties – what safeties do they talk about? The ones that make the big hit, or the ones that make interceptions. And until he starts doing that, they’re not going to talk about him that way. They don’t talk about 100-tackle safeties anymore.
“I think the guy needs to – and I think he will – he’ll be coached to make more impact plays. That’ll be his emphasis next year and he’s the type of guy that will do it. The guy will go about it. He’s a pro. I wish he’d be more assertive, but that’s not really his personality, either. He’s a soft-spoken young man.”
It’s up to Burnett now to get his play to do the talking for him.
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.