GREEN BAY — Five days after a miserable debut as the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, the first question Joe Barry fielded Friday was regarding his well-being.
“You never have to worry about me,” Barry said. “Promise. OK? I’m great. It’s a long season.”
That last part was a phrase heard over and over this week, starting in the moments immediately after the Packers began the season with a 38-3 loss to the New Orleans a week ago in Jacksonville, Florida.
It’s true: One no-show performance, while alarming, shouldn’t lead to widespread panic. There are 16 games remaining, starting Monday night when the Packers (0-1) host the Detroit Lions (0-1) at Lambeau Field.
But it’s one thing if Packers coach Matt LaFleur is the one trying to serve as the voice of reason. LaFleur has answered each of his previous six regular-season defeats with wins — by an average of two touchdowns, no less.
Or if the words are coming out of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ mouth. Rodgers has a track record of following rare clunkers — his woeful performance in the opener vs. the Saints certainly qualifies — with masterpieces the following game.
It wasn’t nearly as reassuring coming from Barry, who had a chance to make a great first impression and quiet skeptics in the opener. He did neither.
“It’s obviously, of course, not the way that you ever want to start things,” Barry said. “But I love this group of guys, I love the way that they’ve bounced back this week.”
Barry was the surprising choice to run the defense last winter after Mike Pettine’s contract expired and LaFleur decided a new leader was needed on that side of the ball. After being turned down by Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, LaFleur turned to his former colleague with the Los Angeles Rams.
That Barry failed in his two previous stints as a defensive coordinator — two seasons each in Detroit and Washington — was a hot topic when he took the job and that noise only will get louder if he can’t get the job done in what could be the Packers’ last chance at a Super Bowl for a few years.
The decibel level is already high after an opener that couldn’t have gone much worse for Barry, whose unit looked disorganized and sluggish.
There were multiple plays in which members of the Packers’ secondary appeared to be unsure of assignments. It’s never a good sign when the ball is about to be snapped and defensive players are looking around at each other to make sure they’re on the same page.
Barry pushed back on a question this week about miscommunication, saying he didn’t “necessarily think there was large communication breakdowns.” But there was just enough confusion to cause issues, a major problem when the man calling plays on the other side of the field is Sean Payton.
“That’s an everyday thing,” Packers safety Adrian Amos said of improving communication. “It’s never always going to be 100% but we’re striving for that. You’re striving for that and making sure everybody is on their assignment, everybody’s on the same page and over-communicating sometimes.”
More troubling than the communication snafus was the Packers’ lethargic play. One by one, defensive players had raved about Barry’s energy during camp and this was their first chance to show if there’d be a carryover effect from his words and actions to their play on the field.
Instead, it was an uninspired effort from the start. The Packers got pushed around in the trenches and were a step slow in the back end. They couldn’t get off the field on money downs and the result was Rodgers and the offense watching from the sidelines for long stretches.
The tone was set on the opening possession of the game, when the Saints moved 49 yards in nine plays and took a 3-0 lead. It only got worse from there, with New Orleans’ next two drives each lasting 15 plays and ending in touchdowns.
New Orleans had run 39 plays for over 200 yards by halftime — including 140 on the ground — and built a two-touchdown lead.
It can’t hurt that the Packers had an extra day this week to digest and dissect that poor performance. It’s onto the Lions, as Barry said, and that game will be played without two key pieces on defense.
Veteran outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, whose snaps were limited in the opener due to a back injury, was placed on injured reserve. It’ll be up to Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and others to pick up the slack.
Green Bay also will be without defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who is in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol after testing positive.
Barry, meanwhile, is pressing forward, positive as ever despite what happened in Jacksonville.
“It’s a marathon,” he said, “not a sprint.”
He’s right, but those words would be a lot more comforting if Barry’s defense hadn’t failed to even get out of the starting block in Week 1.