GREEN BAY – Joe Philbin spent the first seven days of his tenure as the Packers’ interim head coach selling the locker room on a message of belief, unity, accountability and respect.
While those words carried added significance in the aftermath of the organization’s decision to part ways with former head coach Mike McCarthy last Sunday, true leadership often comes more in the heat of battle than a meeting room.
If you ask the players, Philbin passed that test in the first 83 seconds of Sunday’s eventual 34-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
History will show Philbin became the fastest coach to burn both of his challenges since the NFL expanded instant replay’s accessibility in 1999, unsuccessfully contesting a pair of controversial catches by Julio Jones that combined for 47 yards in the first one minute, 23 seconds.
When officials ruled against Philbin both times, it left the Packers without any challenges for the remainder of the game. On the surface, it might have appeared to be a setback, but Philbin’s faith spoke volumes to a defense that’s still getting acquainted with its new head coach.
“It was the right thing to do,” defensive back Tramon Williams said. “I think it made a statement that, ‘Look here, I’ve got my guys’ back. I agree. I see what you see.’ It is what it is. Those plays can be game-changers. We didn’t get the shake these first two but I thought they were good challenges.”
The Falcons marched down the field after the two upheld catches and scored on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jones to seize an early 7-0 lead, but Philbin’s tough call to trust his players early helped spur the Packers into seizing control of the game on both sides of the ball.
Green Bay held Matt Ryan and the Falcons scoreless on their next six possessions after the opening drive. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland, making his return after missing two games with a groin injury, added fuel to the Packers’ momentum with a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown with 6:01 left in the first half.
The fast start was exactly what the Packers needed after losing five of their last six games going into Sunday, including the 20-17 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals that resulted in McCarthy’s departure.
“Everybody just bought in,” Breeland said. “You could feel it around the locker room, you can feel it in plays. Everybody bought in to what Joe has given us. He took control the first day he stepped in. It was a glorious moment for him to step in and get this win.”
With Philbin calling plays for the first time this season, Green Bay’s offense came to life behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers scored points on five of their first six possessions, beginning with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams that answered Jones’ score.
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 14 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 9, 2018.
Utilizing a quick passing game, Rodgers got into an early rhythm despite missing three starters on the offensive line. With Adams catching seven passes for 81 yards and a touchdown, running back Aaron Jones finished strong in notching 55 of his 106 total yards on a third-quarter series that put Green Bay ahead 34-7 after Jones’ 29-yard touchdown run.
The Packers’ 34 points marked their highest total of the season, while converting on 7-of-13 third downs. A quick survey of the locker room suggested Philbin hit all the right notes this week from how he kept the team on a relatively similar preparation schedule to his decision to allow McCarthy one final opportunity to speak to the team Wednesday.
“It was eventful,” said Adams of the week. “It was a lot going on, obviously, with the coaching change and having to kind of get used to a new – similar schedule – but a little bit new with Joe. We kind of just rallied behind him and prepared the same way as we did in the past, and just came out firing. We did it the right way.”
The locker room came out energized on both sides of the ball. When Rodgers took a big hit from Brian Poole while attempting to slide with two minutes left in the second quarter, offensive linemen Lucas Patrick and Corey Linsley were right there to step up for their quarterback.
Afterward, receiver Randall Cobb said the Packers awarded Philbin a game ball for his first win as head coach. While players understand the challenge still in front of them these next three weeks, seeing Philbin lead with both his words and actions meant a great deal to the locker room.
“I think just him coming in here and taking control and implementing his way and letting us know what he expects at Week 13, 14 in the season is difficult,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But to still have that effort and energy that we showed today, I think it’s real important for a head coach, and obviously with what Joe did this past week.”