Players and coaches go through a lot to get to the playoffs, but it's hard to imagine that too many people have ever had to deal with more less than a week before a game than Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who made the decision to coach his unit less than a week after his son, 21-year-old Michael, was found dead in a drowning accident in Wisconsin. The elder Philbin was given as much time as he needed by the team, but it was announced that he would prefer to be doing his job at Lambeau Field when the Packers take on the New York Giants at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon.
"We love Michael so much and will miss him dearly," the Philbins said in a statement earlier in the week. "He loved his family, friends and life. His memory will live on in the hearts and minds of all who knew him."
Philbin's decision to be at the game, and to participate in some capacity, was first reported by CBS Sports, and confirmed Sunday morning by ESPN. "I just spoke with coach Mike McCarthy, and he said Joe Philbin will be here tomorrow, in Mike McCarthy's words, to participate," reporter Lesley Visser said Saturday on CBS' "NFL Today" show.
Asked on his midweek radio show about Philbin's effect on his own game, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was very specific about what the coach had done for him. "Joe's very important to our success," Rodgers said. "The day to day stuff — all the coaching responsibilities he has, installing plays and explaining plays, his role in those meetings, the way that he helps get practice run the right way. He does a ton for us. As players we probably don't even see half the stuff he does to get us ready during the week."
Rodgers said at that point that the Packers would really miss Philbin on the field — that was obviously before the decision was made — but he also understood the need to step away if Philbin chose that route. There are, after all, no manuals for dealing with these kinds of tragedies, and everybody deals with them differently.
"It's been tough. It's like a family, our team, coaching staff, support staff. It's hard to try and describe the feelings," Rodgers said. "We came in here on Monday and found out that things weren't looking good. I think everybody was nervous about it. We heard the news Monday afternoon. We all love Joe, me probably as much or more than anybody in here just because of how much he's meant to me and my development. Just how important it is, the time we get to spend each week, how he gets us prepared and just his presence around here, it's just tough to see him and [wife] Diane and the family dealing with this.
"It gives you perspective on … as much fun as we have playing ball, there are some bigger issues that we deal with each day."
Since he will have his coordinator out there, is there even more of an imperative for Rodgers and the Packers to get this win? The last time the Packers and Giants faced off, it was Week 13, and Green Bay came away with a very narrow 38-35 victory. It was perhaps the first time all season that Rodgers' team looked truly vulnerable on their way to a15-1 regular season record.
"Just conducting ourselves the way we always have," Rodgers said of how things might change under these new circumstances." Joe is a professional in every sense of the word -- as a coach he's a great human being, a man of integrity and high character and high moral standard. Just honoring him and the family by preparing the way we're supposed to prepare, doing the things that he stresses each week when he talks to us on Monday about the previous game, and talks to us on Wednesday about our game objectives. Just doing those things that he's always preaching and talking about is the best way to honor [him]."
Kicker Mason Crosby mentioned that, with the service for Michael Philbin taking place on Friday, the Packers did have occasion to let their coach know how much they care. "I don't know if there's a thought that having the service gives him a chance to come back," Crosby told ESPN Radio in Milwaukee. "I know he wants to be around the players and coaches. He has a lot of close friends here on the team. It'll be interesting. They'll get through [Friday and Saturday], and I'm sure he'll feel that out and make a decision what's best for him and the family."
Rodgers summed it up with the difficulty in balancing professional obligation and personal tragedy. "You have to be able to separate the off the field from the on field stuff and make sure when you're at work it's your main focus, but we're human as well," he said. "The human element in this is that it's on your mind … we want to make sure [he] and his wife and the family can have their time to go through their mourning and dealing with this knowing that we're supporting him, praying for him.
"A lot of people have gone to see him over there. I've talked to him. What do you say to someone that lost their son in a tragic way like this? At 21, there are no words that I can say to comfort him. [I] just wanted him to know how much I care about him and Diane and the family and that I'm praying for him."