GREEN BAY — Tim Boyle was sure.
“There’s no way,” Boyle insisted with a smile Monday afternoon, “he did that on purpose.”
First, some history: For virtually his entire career, Aaron Rodgers has been famously sneaking into the background of the Green Bay Packers’ weekly pregame captain photos, turning the Where’s Waldo-esque gag into a tradition.
But before Sunday’s 34-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field, the quarterback was one of the three team captains, leaving the photobombing responsibilities to his backups, DeShone Kizer and Boyle.
Kizer and Boyle dutifully filled in, but when team photographer Evan Siegle’s snapshot appeared on the team’s website after the game, another, inadvertent photobomber was revealed: interim coach Joe Philbin, who’d wandered into the background moments before kickoff of his first game in charge. Rodgers agreed with Boyle that the unassuming Philbin had no idea the picture was being taken at that moment.
“So Joe,” Rodgers said. “Perfect.”
While calling Philbin’s debut perfect would be a stretch — the self-effacing Philbin would argue the opposite, especially given his replay challenge adventure less than 2 minutes into the game — it was definitely a success.
With Philbin calling offensive plays in a meaningful game for the first time since he was the offensive coordinator at Northeastern two decades ago, a previously herky-jerky Packers offense found some semblance of rhythm; converted almost as many third-down situations (seven) as it had in the previous three weeks (eight) combined; was well-balanced between the run (Aaron Jones had 106 total yards on 20 touches, including a 29-yard touchdown run) and pass (Rodgers averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt but was efficient); and got Rodgers to look more like himself than he has for much of the season, as he got the ball out of his hand quickly and picked his spots to extend plays behind an offensive line that was missing three starters.
“I think Joe did a great job on the calls and the flow and the timing,” Rodgers said. “We ran some first-down plays — the touchdown to Jones was a first-down play — and mixed up the cadences nicely. I thought the flow was good, and the calls were getting in quick.”
Rodgers said the offense’s rhythm was, in part, because Philbin gave players “really clear roles” and because of what he felt was “a really good week of practice. Now, that’s sometimes that gets thrown around in situations like this, where it’s trying to galvanize some sort of false confidence. But in actuality, it was probably our cleanest, fastest, most efficient week of practice that we’ve had this season, and thankfully — it doesn’t always do this — but thankfully it showed up in our execution.”
Philbin said Monday he “felt good that I got the play in there quickly” and said he went into the game with “two separate game plans — the one we ‘can’ run, and the one we’re ‘gonna’ run. I wish I had a few (back). There was a couple plays on the ‘can’ run that probably needed to be on the ‘gonna’ run. And so hopefully we’ll do a little bit better job of that this week.”
But the communication with Rodgers was smooth — with one notable exception.
“Maybe I hit the wrong button — I felt like I got the play in quickly — but the next thing I knew I was on the special-teams line. So that’s not where we needed to be,” Philbin said as the Packers (5-7-1) turned their attention to Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears (9-4). “Overall, I think it went OK.
“Again, we’ve got an experienced quarterback, a quarterback who understands numbers in terms of the running game, leverage and angles and blockers and those kind of things, so he can kind of bail you out at times. But (Atlanta) did some different things even personnel-wise that we probably didn’t expect and probably from my standpoint I could have done a better job preparing for.”
Philbin, who had been upstairs in the coaches box for games before becoming interim coach, said he leaned heavily on pass-game coordinator Jim Hostler and run-game coordinator James Campen on the sideline and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, football technology analyst Connor Lewis and coaching administrator Omar Young upstairs as he considered various calls.
In fact, the only questionable thing Philbin did — other than tossing two red flags 19 seconds apart, leaving him out of challenges with less than 2 minutes of the game elapsed — was not cover his mouth with his laminated play sheet as he radioed his calls into Rodgers.
Philbin joked he was showing off the new pair of reading glasses he was wearing before admitting he was simply wanting to get the call in as quickly as possible ( “I doubt you’ll see me doing the secretive move,” he added). But replicating his play-calling effectiveness against the Bears’ third-ranked defense will be a challenge.
“Look, we’re going on the road, we need to make some big plays to win the game. It’s not going to be easy to get 30 first downs against the Chicago Bears and score 30 points,” Philbin said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy.”