GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Joe Philbin for coach.
As long as someone helps him keep the red challenge flag in his pocket, that is.
Or maybe it was as one longtime NFL agent predicted this week: that after Mike McCarthy was fired, the Green Bay Packers players will "play their ass off (because) they want to show everyone, ‘Hey, we weren’t the problem.’"
Either way, there weren’t many problems in Game 1 of the Philbin interim head-coaching era after Philbin’s almost unheard-of decision to unsuccessfully challenge two plays -- both catches by Julio Jones that were upheld by replay -- on the Falcons’ opening series. With merely 1:27 of elapsed game time, Philbin was out of challenges for the day.
Luckily for him, the Packers didn’t need another one and cruised to a convincing 34-20 victory to improve to 5-7-1, keeping alive their chances at a avoiding a second straight losing season. As of the game’s end, they still weren’t eliminated from playoff contention, although ESPN’s Football Power Index had their chances at just 6 percent.
All they needed was Aaron Rodgers to play like, well, Aaron Rodgers again. And it didn’t hurt that Davante Adams made his usual impact (seven catches for 81 yards and a touchdown), Randall Cobb caught his first touchdown pass since Week 1 and Aaron Jones (with a 29-yard third-quarter touchdown run) got the ball in the second half for a change.
And then there was the defensive touchdown that came courtesy of cornerback Bashaud Breeland’s pick-6 -- a 22-yarder of Matt Ryan in the second quarter.
"Like I said to them, this is a players game and they really stepped up," Philbin said.
Not enough of those things happened during the first 12 games of the season, leading to McCarthy’s dismissal a week after an embarrassing home loss to the hapless Arizona Cardinals, a team that came into Lambeau Field with just two wins. To be sure, the Falcons aren’t exactly the Rams, Saints or even the NFC North-leading Bears -- where Philbin will take his team next Sunday. Atlanta, like Green Bay, had won only four of its first 12 games and barely resembled the team that less than two years ago won the NFC Championship over the Packers.
Of course, the Packers weren’t the same team that made it to that NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. That Packers team ran the table from 4-6 to the conference title game without a loss in 2016. This team, which was 4-7-1 when the coaching change was made, can only hope to win its final four games under Philbin.
"I don’t know if anything felt way different," Rodgers said. "I just was trying to have fun out there and lead and inspire. Had a little maybe extra message this week for the guys on game day and just a couple more reminders on just how special the opportunities are and let’s not let this one slip away regardless of what our record is. I’m not saying -- it probably has nothing to do with the way we played, but the guys knew basically by the way I was playing I was going to put my body on the line, took a couple shots, I’m dealing with a little bit of a sore back."
Packers president Mark Murphy identified Philbin as a "legitimate candidate" to replace McCarthy, who said goodbye to his team with an emotional address on Wednesday and goodbye to Packers fans with a full-page ad in newspapers across the state.
"I’ve been around here before," said Philbin, who is in his second stint with the Packers and in between went 24-28 as the Dolphins head coach for three-plus seasons (2012-15). "I’m a football coach. I love coaching the game. I love being in the team meeting, whether I’m the head coach, the offensive coordinator, the tight end coach. I love walking on the field, the practice field. I still do. This is smart leadership here and they should do whatever is the best thing for the Green Bay Packer organization, and I’m fine with that. I’m going to do the best job I possibly can and help our team win this game against Atlanta. Period. I’ve got enough to think about right now."
It was Philbin’s first game as an offensive playcaller in the NFL. He said he last called plays in 1996, when he was Northeastern University’s offensive coordinator.
Players presented Philbin with the game ball in the locker room.
"It feels good," Rodgers said. "Like I said in the locker room (to the team), Joe’s been a part of a lot of great wins around here. A lot of incredible moments over the years as an important part of what we’ve done, as the offensive coordinator. But it’s fun to give him his first win as the head coach. He’s a passionate guy, he really cares about the guys and I thought, he was in a tough situation as well this week with the change and trying to get the right messages across to get guys motivated at a time where we’re 4-7(-1) and most people expect us to maybe throw in the towel, even though we’re playing at home -- and guys didn’t. Guys responded, I’m proud of them, I’m proud of Mike Pettine, I thought he did a great job on defense with our scheme, I thought special teams was good enough as well today, but Joe deserves a lot of credit for the vision he set forth this week."
Philbin, a former offensive line coach, went surprisingly pass-heavy early on. The Packers dropped back to pass on 81 percent of their first-half plays. They entered the week dropping back 69.9 percent of the time, second-highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Rodgers broke Tom Brady’s record for most pass attempts (358) without an interception. Even in Rodgers’ worst season as a starter, when he’s missed throws he almost always made, he still avoided the big mistake. His record-breaking 359th throw was a 24-yard touchdown to Cobb in the third quarter. In the first half, he and Adams connected on a touchdown pass for the 11th time this season.
The Packers won even on a day when three-fifths of the starting offensive line -- guards Byron Bell and Lane Taylor plus right tackle Bryan Bulaga -- were inactive. Instead of it crippling them on offense, they managed just fine. And so did Philbin, other than the challenges.
"I had enough big decisions to make during the course of the day, that I didn't want to have to make anymore," Philbin said of the challenges. "So I kind of got that out of the way. Plus the flag didn’t fit very good in my pocket. I didn’t know if it was going to fall out. No, you know, the first one certainly looked like, I was surprised we didn’t win it, but again I’ve been surprised before.
"Probably looking back at it, we’ll evaluate it, but might have been wise to hold onto that other one. But we were right there. I kind of had a look at it. The other guys, even on the field, had a look at it. They’re right on our sideline. But we’ll do some challenge education during the course of the week. Certainly looks like I need it."