As preseason openers go, this wasn’t as bad as Mike McCarthy’s very first one. But it wasn’t much better.
From starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop leaving Qualcomm Stadium on a cart with a right knee injury, to quarterback Aaron Rodgers taking a heavy hit and throwing an interception thanks to poor blindside protection from fill-in left tackle Herb Taylor, to turnovers and poor tackling from every roster level, the Packers’ 21-13 preseason-opening loss to the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium was not the team’s finest hour.
Earlier in the week, the Packers head coach was recalling his debut, a 2006 preseason-opening loss to the Chargers. “Not positive,” McCarthy remembered. “I remember Marty Schottenheimer smacking me on the back and saying, ‘Don’t worry kid, it gets better.’ And I said, ‘Hell, I sure hope so.’”
The Packers (0-1) expect things to get better in 2012, too. And while their performance Thursday night did nothing to change their position as a Super Bowl contender, there were some downright ugly moments.
“We have a lot of work to do. That’s evident,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday night. “I feel like you normally do after your first preseason game – there’s some things you were happy to see, and there’s definitely some things you’re not very happy with. I think it’s an excellent illustration of the progression you make from the practice field to a scrimmage and then to a real game.”
Even the negative things that happened Thursday night seemed to be coupled with negatives.
Rookie first-round pick Nick Perry announced his presence with a sack on the second play of the game, throwing Philip Rivers for a 6-yard loss. But Perry was then victimized by a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct/celebration penalty by the replacement officials.
Cornerback Davon House, competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Tramon Williams, broke up a pass, made a terrific behind-the-line-of-scrimmage tackle on a running play and looked comfortable in special teams coverage. But House later suffered a shoulder injury – he told WBAY-TV after the game that the shoulder “popped out” and will likely be sidelined after x-rays are taken Friday.
Undrafted rookie free agent running back Marc Tyler, getting extensive playing time with Brandon Saine (hamstring) sidelined and Alex Green (knee) getting limited action, had some high-effort, hard runs (13 carries, 32 yards, one touchdown). But he ultimately coughed up a fumble that eliminated any chance the Packers had at a comeback with 19 seconds left at the Chargers’ 33-yard line.
Tyler’s fumble was the Packers’ fourth turnover of the game, combined with fumbles by starting running back James Starks and kickoff returner Diondre Borel and Rodgers’ interception.
“Obviously the way we handled the football, the ball was on the ground way too much,” said McCarthy, whose team committed four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception) in its most recent game, a Jan. 15 playoff loss to the New York Giants. “We spend extra time on handling the football, and I think when you do emphasize particular fundamentals in practice, it needs to show up in games, and that was not the case. So we have work to do there.”
Of course, the brightest spot – beyond backup quarterback Graham Harrell, who overcame a slow start to lead a pair of touchdown drives – was that Rodgers made it out of the game without him getting hurt. With starting left tackle Marshall Newhouse sidelined by a concussion suffered in the Family Night Scrimmage and would-be backup Derek Sherrod yet to be cleared for practice, the Packers trotted out Taylor. Taylor promptly was whipped by Chargers rookie outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who hit Rodgers as he tried to throw, with Antoine Cason picking it off.
“Stuff happens,” the reigning NFL MVP said after completing just 2 of 8 passes for 16 yards for a 0.0 passer rating. “You don’t play as well as you want to, but it’s preseason. We’re missing some guys, screwed some plays up, turned the ball over. It happens. We’ll watch the film, review and get better.
“Whether you play real well or you struggle, it’s preseason. You’ve got to be working on things. We’ll be fine. We’ll just watch the film, get a nice tongue lashing, come back on Saturday and get ready for next week.”
Rodgers didn’t play another down after that hit – “I feel fine,” he said afterward -- giving way to Harrell after taking 14 snaps. Harrell started slowly, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 4 yards, but in the 2-minute drill, he directed an eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, completing 5 of 6 passes for 68 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Randall Cobb.
After another offensive lull with the backups, Harrell engineered another touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter, overcoming a second-and-17 situation during a 14-play, 68-yard drive that ended in Tyler’s 1-yard touchdown, although the go-ahead 2-point conversion failed.
“We did some good things at times, and then we went through some rough patches,” said Harrell, who finished the night 15 of 27 for 135 with two sacks, one touchdown and no interceptions (81.6 rating). “Getting a chance to get that many reps and (play) drive after drive is definitely good for me. I’ll only get better from it, and as the preseason goes along, hopefully we continue to improve and get more consistent.
“At times, we did some really good things, like that drive right before half and that other touchdown drive. We showed things like that, and that’s very encouraging. But you have to do it more often.”