When the Green Bay Packers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 33-7 last Sunday, most spectators knew the score was more indicative of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy having a different philosophy than Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.
By kickoff, both teams had wrapped up their spots in the playoffs and, regardless of the Eagles/Cowboys game, were on a crash course to meet again in the first round of the playoffs.
McCarthy chose to play the game as usual and kept his team in rhythm by playing his starters the majority of the game, while Whisenhunt chose to rest his starters and keep them fresh for the upcoming playoff match up.
First, let’s break down both philosophies to try and understand why both coaches decided to do:
For Whisenhunt, pitting a 38-year-old quarterback against one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFC from the blind side in rookie Clay Matthews, did not seem like the best fit. Thus, Kurt Warner ended up playing just two series. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals used backups for the majority of the game.
With such a veteran team, there was little to gain by playing their starters at home against a team they were going to see again next week. They had won three of their last five games, with the last two coming against the worst teams in the league in the Lions and Rams, so it’s not as if another week of rest was going to kill them.
Coming into the playoffs healthy is important after all, and Whisenhunt seemed to think resting his players was the right thing to do.
In McCarthy’s case, he was dealing with one of the hottest win streaks in the NFL, not to mention one of the youngest teams in the league. Winners of six of seven heading into the game, McCarthy thought it wise to keep the Pack rolling by playing them the majority of the game to get them ready for the playoffs.
“We wanted to come out here to win the game, keep our razor sharp and gain some momentum going into the playoffs,” McCarthy said. “It didn’t matter who we were playing. I understand Arizona had a different agenda...we like the way we played the last eight weeks and it was very important for us to maximize this opportunity.”
Both strategies have their pros and cons, but there is no clear-cut way to deal with Week 17 when your team has clinched a playoff spot and can not move up or down.
Apparently everyone understands this except Whisenhunt, who chastised McCarthy and the Packers for running up the score and focusing on stats instead of preparing the team for the playoff game.
“They had their plan,” Whisenhunt said. “I guess they felt good about what they were doing.”
Yes, coach Whisenhunt. The Packers sure did feel good about what they were doing by keeping the offense clicking, the defense fresh, and giving the special teams unit repetitions that they have needed the whole year.
In the NFL, there are two reasons for teams to play for victories:
1) To move up in the standings and better their chances of making the postseason.
2) To gain momentum and have a better overall feeling of where your team stands.
For 16 weeks, the Packers and Cardinals used both as reasons they played to win. The first is obvious, as every team’s goal is to make the playoffs by season’s end. The second is not so clear cut because teams usually don't think about the momentum they have as the season goes along.
Whisenhunt also called out McCarthy for keeping his franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in the game too long, in what he called “a meaningless game.”
“It’s something you would feel sick about had (Fitzgerald) gotten injured at the end, but I have no doubt in my mind that’s what Green Bay was trying to do with Aaron Rodgers (on Sunday) as far as the passing statistics, trying to get those things,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s part of it.”
So let me get this straight, coach. Aaron Rodgers playing three quarters in a game in which the Packers needed to claim the No. 5 seed was all about stats, but your All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald catching a touchdown with just under three minutes left in a 33-point rout was something else?
In fact, your other Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin seemed to be playing just about every snap into the third quarter before he left with an ankle injury. With a knee injury to accompany the ankle, Boldin’s status is now in doubt for the Wild Card. Same for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who injured his left knee tackling Jermichael Finley.
Ryan Pickett, Brandon Chillar, and special teams ace Derrick Martin were all inactive for the game Sunday, despite probably being able to play had it been a playoff game. If McCarthy was looking to run up the score, wouldn’t he have played his best run-stopper, his “X-factor” on defense, and best special teamer?
Anyone who believes the Packers were trying to run up the score against the Cardinals is just foolish. Whisenhunt also complained about McCarthy game planning for the teams’ match-up in Week 3 of the Preseason.
The Packers led that game 38-10 at the half, in what is known around the league as the most important exhibition game for starters. Don’t forget about the youth of the Packers and McCarthy trying to get his young (and talented) players more reps before the actual season began.
A win is a win and McCarthy understands that. Instead of rolling into the playoffs having not played a game in two weeks, he kept his team focused and on the same schedule that won them seven of the last eight games.
Forget about McCarthy showing his hand and tendencies by playing his starters. If Whisenhunt and the Cardinals don’t have enough film on the Packers already, they certainly don't stand a chance when they clash this Saturday.
If the Cardinals plan to use McCarthy's alleged unsportsmanlike game calling last week as fuel for their first round matchup, so be it.
After Whisenhunt’s comments, the Packers just got theirs.