To succeed through trying times, Mike McCarthy as a head coach has always emphasized the need to separate personal challenges from professional ones.
That task is as difficult as it gets for the Packers this week in the immediate aftermath of the death of Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin's son, but McCarthy believes his team got off to a strong start on Wednesday in their first of three practices in preparation for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff against the Giants.
While acknowledging that "everybody's feeling it" emotionally, McCarthy praised his team for its energy and execution levels at practice. Then the head coach briefly displayed just how tough that personal/professional separation can be, choking up during an emotional moment in front of a packed Lambeau Field media auditorium.
"I think the reality of this gives everybody a punch in the heart, that you know …," McCarthy said, pausing to gather his thoughts a couple of times, "the reality … how fortunate we are to be where we are."
By fortunate, McCarthy was referring to his team's current run of success, which has landed it a home game in the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time in four years. Seizing that opportunity is paramount, and it won't be easy against a New York team seemingly peaking at the right time, just as the Packers did a year ago.
Philbin's absence presents another challenge in getting ready, so McCarthy divided up Philbin's responsibilities amongst the rest of the offensive staff. Initially, McCarthy said he was simply going to take over Philbin's mid-week role, but the other staff members insisted no one person should shoulder that load. Everyone's comfort level with the plan appeared to rub off on the players.
"We miss Joe, obviously," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We miss his presence around here, miss his friendship, miss his coaching. But other guys will have to step in and pick up the slack in his absence, and it will be as close to a normal week of preparation as possible."
With Philbin a taskmaster of sorts when it comes to conducting practice and making sure things are run the right way, he'd be in the back of the players' minds at practice regardless.
As for Sunday, McCarthy said he hasn't spoken to Philbin about whether or not to work the game – the funeral services for Michael Philbin are scheduled for Friday afternoon – but linebacker Clay Matthews said on a radio show earlier this week the team would dedicate Sunday's contest to Philbin, and he reiterated that on Wednesday.
"We hope the way we play this week is indicative of what he would want," said Matthews, who labeled practice "upbeat."
"It goes without saying this game will definitely be played in his honor."
The players are rallying around one of their teammates, too, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang's father died last week following a short battle with a serious illness. Lang was informed of his father's diagnosis just prior to the team's Week-10 home game against Minnesota, and he has played with a somewhat heavy heart since, though he did get to spend valuable time over the holidays with his dad and family.
"I think times like these, with guys going through some personal troubles, that guys really rally up and get behind you," Lang said. "I've had a lot of support, and everybody is showing a lot of support for Coach Philbin as well. I think this will only make us tougher as a group and even more family-oriented.
"We've always had a great family feel to this team, and I think when people go through some things like this, I think it will only strengthen that."
Along those lines, as McCarthy concluded his press conference he suggested the Philbin tragedy could improve his team's focus more so than distract from it, but in the same breath he acknowledged that time will tell.
The rest of a difficult week, personally and professionally, awaits.
"I think it can," McCarthy said. "It would be premature for me to comment on it, but the energy was outstanding today. The focus was outstanding.
"It hits you hard how fortunate and blessed we are to have this opportunity professionally, and we need to take full advantage of it. That's our mindset." Additional coverage - Jan. 11