Ten weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers were at the turning point of a trying and educational adventure. This was the creative and, well, kind of unusual way Coach Mike McCarthy saw it, anyway.
The Packers, on the verge of a milestone game, were 6-0. They were universally seen as one of the NFL’s most powerful teams, in firm control of the NFC North — destined, it seemed, for a deep run through the postseason. McCarthy viewed it differently: Those first six victories, as he put it to his team, represented the first of three stages to a “hero’s journey,” and things were about to get much more interesting.
“The first six games, you have to create your identity,” McCarthy told reporters then, a few days before his Packers went to Denver to play the unbeaten Broncos on Nov. 1. “And really in this [upcoming] stage is where you have to galvanize who you are.”
Long before the Packers’ season would lead them to Washington, where on Sunday afternoon they will play the Washington Redskins — whose own strange adventure would have them 2-4 in mid-October before a 7-3 finish won them the NFC East and a first-round playoff game at FedEx Field — McCarthy was preparing Green Bay for a crossroads.
NFL coaches use different methods to keep their teams mentally fresh. A common way to simplify the grueling 16-game schedule is to break each regular season into four “quarters,” allowing players to focus on each four-game segment. But McCarthy, who has shown a preference for experimentation throughout his 10 seasons, has assigned quotes and photographs to be each season’s theme. Five seasons ago, he placed an empty picture frame alongside several championship pictures as a kind of metaphor for the Packers’ yet-unwritten destiny.
This season, though, McCarthy was dabbling in — of all things — literature and the “monomyth,” a three-part storytelling device outlined by the scholar Joseph Campbell. In it, used commonly in classic novels and films, the protagonist first exists in a world of comfort before being called on a challenging quest — the “supreme ordeal,” as it is often called — before returning home as a stronger, more accomplished force.
Odysseus, Ishmael and Luke Skywalker had been called on their journeys, facing mentors, enemies and self-discovery along the way. Now it was time for Aaron Rodgers, Julius Peppers and the Packers to do the same: “cross the threshold,” as McCarthy’s theme called for, and face their challenges. McCarthy saw the season not in four quarters but in the monomyth’s three stages: the first six games (comfort), the next six (challenge) and the last four (redemption).
It was different, especially by NFL standards, but McCarthy likes different.
“I don’t think people are motivated by the same thing every day,” the coach said in October, with games looming against Denver, Carolina and four consecutive division opponents . “Creativity has to be one of the top priorities, and that’s the way we’ve always gone about it. Messaging is important. We spend a lot of time on messaging. . . . This is going to be a very challenging stretch of football.”
Sure enough, the Broncos and Panthers thrashed Green Bay, and the Packers went 2-2 in that stretch of division games. If McCarthy’s team was supposed to be learning about itself during this time, so was the rest of the NFL. Rodgers, talented and adept with improvisation as ever, was throwing to a depleted receiving corps that struggled to get open. Green Bay’s pass protection kept Rodgers continually on the move, and running back Eddie Lacy was benched at one point for James Starks. Rodgers was sacked 18 times in those six games and would finish the season with his worst passer rating since becoming the Packers’ starting quarterback in 2008.
Green Bay wasn’t just losing; it had been overpowered by Detroit and Chicago — the Bears surprised the Packers on Thanksgiving, on an occasion meant to honor longtime quarterback Brett Favre — and revealed the team’s glaring weaknesses on offense.
“We need to get better,” McCarthy said after losing to the 1-7 Lions. “We’re a better football team than we’ve performed.”
McCarthy tried to hurry the process. He took over offensive play-calling. He adjusted the personnel to jump-start the rushing attack. Presumably for a change, he grew a beard. Almost nothing worked.
The time came finally for the journey to turn, for the ordeal to end and the Packers to enter the “reward” portion of their quest. Only by then, the Minnesota Vikings were leading the NFC North and the Packers had been exposed.
Then, finally, it seemed to happen. Green Bay defeated Detroit with a Hail Mary as time expired and walloped the Cowboys and Raiders . The league was settling itself, divisions and identities now becoming clear. Arizona and Carolina cruised to division titles, and Washington locked up the East with a week to play.
The Packers, though, hadn’t emerged from their most challenging stretch as a stronger, more self-aware group. They had been left beaten and scarred, with doubts about whether the team — 6-0 seems like so long ago — was even playoff-worthy.
Green Bay lost Sunday to Minnesota, which won the division and sent the Packers toward Washington. McCarthy realized 10 weeks ago that his team would be tested; he seemed to think then that, following the narrative device, it wouldn’t have been beaten down the way it has been. That’s not what the narrative device calls for, anyway.
“The things that we’ve done wrong,” McCarthy told reporters this week, “are just as important as the things we’ve done right.”
He went on.
“The ability to carry all the lessons from your season into the playoffs,” he said, “is really the goal.”
At least for a few more days, Green Bay’s journey is ongoing, its final stage — and the celebration the coach envisioned so many weeks ago — perhaps still ahead.