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Butler: Packers Missed Chances In Playoffs


In my life, I have only cried over a sporting event three times.

The first was in little league when my team lost the championship game because of a bad call by the umpire. The second was when I was a player and the Green Bay Packers lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII.

The third was Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

There's just no way around it. Sunday's NFC divisional playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was devastating, not just because it knocked the Packers out of the playoffs, but because they had so many chances to win it and let the game slip through their fingers.

Standing on the sideline watching David Akers put in the game-winning field goal, I got tears in my eyes.

A shoulder injury forced me to retire two years ago, but I still care very much about the game of football and the Packers. And so before I start analyzing what happened in Sunday's loss, I want to thank the many Packers fans from around the world who have come to this season to read my columns.

If not for the great spirit of Packers fans, it wouldn't have been nearly as fun. And I can honestly say that communicating with you each week -- writing these columns, reading your emails and even meeting some of you -- has been the highlight of my retirement thus far.

I also want to thank the Packers organization for this opportunity, specifically GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman for allowing me to be on the sideline at so many games this season and stay involved with the team.

I hope that I have helped some of you understand the game of football a little better by offering my views as a former player.

One of the things we talked about this season is how much it hurts to lose. And so even though you might have a heavy heart after the loss to the Eagles, remember that the players and coaches that worked all offseason and all during the season for a chance to play in the Super Bowl are far more devastated than you and I are.

And with that, let's get to the game.

Based on your emails, there are only about four plays from the entire game that Packers fans want to talk about. Three of them are fourth down plays and one of them is an interception.

The first play of interest happened coming out of the 2-minute warning in the first half.

Facing fourth-and-goal inside 1-yard line, Sherman made the call to go for a touchdown rather than settle for a field goal. The Packers were up 14-7 at the time and the feeling all along the sideline was that a touchdown would probably put the Packers up for good, while a field goal might make the game a shootout at the end.

It was only the first half, but it was a crucial play. The Packers saw a chance to make what was probably the winning touchdown and they went for it. Unfortunately, Ahman Green tripped over the leg of Mike Wahle, who was farther back than he was supposed to be because the Eagles got good penetration at the start of the play.

Instead of punching it into the end zone, Green came up short.

In hindsight we can look back and see that by the end of the game, the Packers would have loved to have just 3 points in that situation, but there's no guarantee that the Packers would have won by kicking the field goal.

The Packers had made it to the playoffs by converting on some fourth-and-1 situations, and in my mind they made the right move by going for it.

If you want to fault anyone on that play, fault the players for not getting it done. But some credit really has to go to the Eagles for penetrating the line and keeping the Packers out of the end zone.

The next play of interest happened with 2:30 left in the game, with the Packers facing fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 41-yard line.

This time, Sherman elected to punt the ball rather than go for the first down.

This has frustrated many Packers fans who think it was the easy way out. But really, it was a smart decision.

First of all, the timeout by the Eagles allowed them to put in the same goal-line personnel that stopped the Packers on fourth-and-goal in the first half. Second, if the Packers didn't make it, they were giving the Eagles solid field position near midfield.

By punting the ball, the Packers hoped they could pin the Eagles back around the 10-yard line or even closer to the end zone. The Eagles would then have only two timeouts and just over 2-minutes to work with to drive the field and set up for the game-tying field goal.

But Josh Bidwell's punt went into the end zone, so the Packers pushed the Eagles back only 21 yards instead of 30 or more.

In hindsight, you can look at the fact that the Eagles tied the game on a last-second field goal by Akers and say that the Packers shouldn't have punted. But remember this: if the Packers had failed to gain the first down, they were not only in danger of going to overtime -- as they did -- they were in danger of losing the game in regulation.

As it was, Philly's game-tying drive for the field goal was 61 yards. If the Packers had gone for it on fourth-down and missed, Philly would have only been 59 yards away from the end zone.

Now, you can argue that since the Packers played aggressive in the past they should continue to be aggressive down to the bitter end. If that's the way you would call a game, I can't disagree with you.

But Sherman did make the smart call. And after the Packers punted it away, they still had a 3-point lead.

This brings us to the third play of interest.

After some poor tackling by the Packers defense brought the Eagles from the 20-yard line to the 42-yard line in one play, the Packers pushed the Eagles back. Donovan McNabb threw two incomplete passes and was sacked for a 16-yard loss by Bhawoh Jue.

This brought up a fourth-and-26 play with 1:12 remaining, and if the Packers win the down, they win the game.

There are a few ways the Packers could have handled the play defensively. One of them would have been to blitz McNabb and hope the pressure got there before a receiver got open downfield. Another was to sit back in a quarters defense -- or Cover 4 -- and make sure the play stays in front of the first down marker.

The Packers attempted to do the latter, but Freddie Mitchell slipped by Michael Hawthorne and Nick Barnett wasn't deep enough on his underneath coverage, and McNabb laced in a perfect 28-yard pass before Jue, Marques Anderson and Darren Sharper could converge to break up the play.

Just like the Terrell Owens catch in the playoffs to end the 1998 season in San Francisco, it was a perfectly thrown pass in a situation with no room for error and it was a dagger in the Packers' hearts.

Now, a lot of fans feel that things would have turned out differently if Ed Donatell would have come with a heavy blitz. But I'm not so sure about that.

The Eagles would have expected the blitz, would have gone into a max-protect mode and would have been able to throw to a receiver in one-on-one coverage. Maybe it works to the Packers' advantage, but maybe it gives up a big play.

The bottom line is that no team should be able to complete a pass on fourth-and-26 no matter what. You can waste all your energy worrying about what formation 'should' have been called, but that quarters defense is supposed to be enough to stop the opposition on fourth-and-26 every single time.

The Eagles executed. The Packers didn't. And the game went on.

The fourth and final play of interest was Brett Favre's interception in overtime.

The defense had just made a big three-and-out stop, and on first down the Packers offense looked to go with a play-action pass to Javon Walker.

Play-action had worked before on Walker's big 44-yard reception, but this time the Eagles brought the house and had two guys coming free right at Favre.

Certainly the safe thing to do would have been to eat the sack and take the loss. But Favre believed he had 1-on-1 coverage on Walker and threw the ball in the air. In his mind I think he thought the worst thing that could happen was an incomplete pass, but he didn't know Brian Dawkins was hanging around to get an interception.

Considering all his experience, that's a mistake Favre shouldn't make. But it didn't lose the game for the Packers.

The reality is that it shouldn't have gone into overtime in the first place.

The shame of Favre's interception is that he'd played such a great game before that. Similarly, it's a shame the defense gave up that fourth-and-26, because it takes away from all those great pass breakups Mike McKenzie made in what was an outstanding performance.

And it's just unfortunate the Packers had to finish the season on such a down note.

I don't think there's a player in the Packers locker room who didn't believe going into the game that they were the better team that night, if not the best team in the NFL.

But as I've said all season, we have to look at the big picture here.

The Packers aren't the only team in football to make costly mistakes this year. The good news is that they did more things right than they did wrong. That's how they got to the NFC divisional championship game.

And even though Packers fans forget sometimes, only two teams a year have their Super Bowl dreams answered, and only one team wins it.

We've all been spoiled by the success of the mid-90s. And I'm not sure that in today's NFL any team can be that successful year after year. I also don't think we should lose sight of how impressive it is that the Packers have been in the playoffs for three straight seasons.

Many of you probably think, 'So what? What's it gotten us?'

Well, even if it hasn't gotten the Packers a title, it has given them a chance. And that's more than most teams get.

And the good news is that this Packers team is still on the way up.

There's no reason to think they couldn't have won it all this year. There's no reason to think that they won't next year.

Think of all the talent that's coming back.

Favre will return with a healthy thumb. He'll throw to Donald Driver and a pair of receivers who came into their own this season, Robert Ferguson and Walker. Early on this year, fans were complaining that there wasn't a go-to receiver. Now you can look at the Packers roster and know they have three of them.

Ahman Green will be back to lead a talented backfield. The offensive line that was the MVP of this season should stay mostly intact.

The defensive line will be led by Grady Jackson, who was an outstanding midseason pickup by the Packers and who plays like a man among boys.

At linebacker the Packers won't have all the juggling they had going into this season with new faces and new positions. Barnett may have been out of position on that fourth-and-26 play, but he was making plays all over the field as a rookie and will only get better from here.

In the secondary, the Packers have Darren Sharper as their leader, along with guys like McKenzie and Al Harris.

In the offseason, the Packers will look to address weak spots through free agency and the draft, but the core of the team is in place, right down to Mr. Automatic, Ryan Longwell.

The Packers will learn from the lessons of this season and carry that knowledge into next year. And next time they have a great chance like the one they had in Philadelphia over the weekend, they won't let it get away.

As fans, that's something you should look forward to. I know I do.

I also hope to be back next season, and I'll provide some additional articles and Q&As from time to time throughout the offseason, so keep coming back to

The finish to the Packers' 2003 season was disappointing, but I hope we all enjoyed the ride!

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002. This season Butler is providing exclusive analysis to with a breakdown of the upcoming game on Saturdays and a column and Q&A session on Tuesdays.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website,*

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