GREEN BAY — Nobody in professional football likes getting shut out, not even in an exhibition game.
Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers went through that galling experience last Friday night at Lambeau Field just as Forrest Gregg’s Packers endured it 26 years ago on a Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
The 17-0 shutout against the Arizona Cardinals was the first for the Packers in a 60-minute exhibition game since the 33-0 shutout at the hands of the Washington Redskins in 1987.
How the two coaches dealt with stinging defeat illustrates not only the dramatic differences in them but also where the Packers were then compared to now and how football players in general, not just in the National Football League, were treated a generation ago.
Beginning his fourth season, Gregg was running out of time trying to follow the footsteps of Vince Lombardi. An extraordinarily proud man with five NFL championship rings and his bust in Canton, Gregg ran the Packers with an iron fist.
Against the Redskins, a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl, Green Bay couldn’t have been more pathetic. The warmups were so hideous that Gregg yanked his players off the field for the first time in his 12-year coaching career when the offense wasn’t lining up right and the first few exchanges from center squirted around on the AstroTurf.
Quarterbacks Randy Wright, Chuck Fusina, Don Majkowski and David Woodley combined for nine completions in 32 attempts for 65 yards and five interceptions. That passer rating was calculated at 0.0.
Some Redskins players mocked the Packers afterward. Fans cheered derisively when the Packers finally picked up a first down on their 10th possession. The crowd of 64,768 that paid $15 for a seat was more than half gone midway through the third quarter.
NFL coaches were less guarded in their remarks after games. Still, Gregg’s rant was exceptional.
Referring to the performance as “childish mediocrity,” Gregg apologized to fans that saw “professional football on just one side of the field.”
“We couldn’t throw the ball across the line of scrimmage today,” he continued. “It got to the point where we didn’t know what to call because everything we called failed.
“I’d have to say probably this was the worst offensive performance I’ve ever seen. That was just beautiful — five interceptions, two fumbles and nine penalties.”
Gregg, however, had an ace up his sleeve.
The Packers didn’t bus back to Green Bay. Instead, they went to Olympia Village (now Olympia Resort & Conference Center), where Gregg had prevailed upon management to let the team train for the next two weeks.
Talk about someone in his glory . . . . that was Forrest Gregg in Oconomowoc, Wis.
Gregg never liked what he once described as “the screeching of tires and the sound of horns and trucks passing by” on South Oneida St. just west of the practice field in Green Bay. He tried persuading club leaders Robert Parins and Bob Harlan to move training camp out of town or even state, but when his attempts fell on deaf ears, Olympia became his consolation prize.
At the time, there were expansive polo fields located in the far southern reaches of the property. A blocking sled, hydraulic lift and weight machines were trucked down from Brown County. The resort grounds superintendent constructed one set of goal posts.
Players were housed all on one floor of the main lodge. They changed in a makeshift area above the old golf pro shop (there were no showers or ice tubs) before trudging the half mile to the secluded practice area. That first week, they had no cars and an 11 p.m. curfew.
Maybe a dozen reporters stood around watching on the uneven, yellowish-green grass one player referred to as “pasture.” There were no fans in the restricted area other than a few gawkers from the nearby golf course.
Gregg lit into his players like you wouldn’t believe.
After stretching, he put them through what seemed to be as many as 75 up-downs. Even I winced.
He clambered up on the seven-man blocking sled, exhorting the linemen.
He stood just outside the offensive huddle, hands planted on his hips and barking orders.
“There’s only been two or three people that really intimidated me in my life,” Rich Moran, a starting guard for most of his 1985-’92 career, said Thursday. “Forrest was one of those guys.
“I remember his eyebrows were twitching and he’d look up over his glasses and do the roll call. It was like being in a church with a great priest. He’s talking to everybody, but everybody there thinks he’s talking directly to them.
“You knew that week was going to be extremely difficult. The CBA didn’t prohibit Forrest from backing up his postgame tongue-lashing in the form of double days and running, like it would today. Back then, the coach could take it out on you.
“It started with the up-downs, then it went to the sled, then it went to the practice, then it went to the running afterward. I’m not kidding. It was literally just trying to survive the camp.”
After practice on Monday, Gregg said he “couldn’t remember being this disgusted . . .. I’m not going to be very easy to live with, I can tell you that.
“I was embarrassed that a team I’m supposed to be coaching would show up like that in front of our fans in another part of the state. If you think I’m going to put up with that, you’re out of your mind.”
Gregg then informed us he was done talking about the Washington game.
But each day thereafter, Gregg couldn’t help himself, continuing to heap criticism on his team and vowing a performance that wretched would never happen again during his watch.
“I’m not going to change,” he said. “Like it or lump it.”
On Wednesday, Gregg donned a green all-weather suit and conducted practice in a light-to-medium rain.
By Thursday, Gregg was no longer livid. A week’s work of physical, long, draining practices in virtual isolation had put a certain bounce back in his step.
“You can’t stay angry all the time,” he said. “But they do know one thing: If you perform poorly, you’re going to hear about it.”
For the record, the Packers would polish off a winless exhibition campaign with defeats by 8 and 6 points, finish 5-9-1 in the strike-shortened regular season and look for a new coach after Gregg bailed for Southern Methodist.
When Gregg’s daily diatribes and the scene on the polo fields were related to Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Pickett and T.J. Lang this week, all appeared aghast.
Granted, their showing against Arizona in no way compared to the stench emanating from that long ago afternoon in Madison. Still, it was a shutout for a team regarded as one of the NFL’s finest five years running.
Gregg’s coaching style wasn’t the least bit atypical for the times. Nevertheless, the player of today seems to find little in it of value when applied to 2013.
“They believed the world was flat at one time, too,” Rodgers said with a wide grin.
McCarthy reconvened his players at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“It was tense,” said Rodgers. “There wasn’t a whole lot of minced words. Mike was very direct about the poor performance. We were graded very difficult. I think on offense we had just eight positive performances (out of 34 players).”
According to Lang, “It wasn’t a huge freak-out session or anything like that. But you could tell he was disappointed.
“There wasn’t a lot of really screaming or threats. Nothing like that. We all got the message we need to play better.”
During McCarthy’s tape review, he picked out unacceptable plays and pointed out players who failed to do their jobs.
“But he doesn’t belittle people,” said Pickett. “I remember coaches (at Ohio State) coming up and just calling you names. I came up in that era. I don’t think it’s very effective.”
McCarthy expressed little or no anger immediately after the shutout or in press briefings this week. He seemed more perturbed about the 2-0 turnover differential than anything else.
The coach certainly could have sent the team out in pads Monday. When McCarthy saw Lang dressed and ready to practice, he could have let him go.
Instead, the Packers practiced without pads and without Lang, who had been told by McCarthy to rest his back for another day.
“He don’t use his anger like that,” Pickett said. “He sees the big picture.”
Finally, the temper that used to get McCarthy in trouble earlier in his coaching career bubbled over Tuesday. He unloaded a few choice words at the top of his lungs, bellowed about the need for players to start using their pads and ordered a dozen or so plays to be repeated.
Times change. Customs change. The comportment of NFL coaches changes.
All that remains is the unceasing need to win and the knowledge that there is no best way to do it.