On the NFL
10:21 PM CST, January 11, 2012
GREEN BAY — Every player on the Packers 53-man roster participated in practice Wednesday, a rarity at any time of the season, let alone in January.
Yet it was an absence that marked the day.
Joe Philbin was not with the Packers on Wednesday.
He likely will not be with them Thursday, when his 21-year-old son Michael will be waked. Or Friday, when his funeral will be held.
It's possible the team's offensive coordinator won't be back Sunday when the Packers take on the Giants in the divisional playoff round of the NFC playoffs at Lambeau Field.
The question is if the rest of the Packers will show up Sunday. They might be an emotional wreck of a team at the worst possible time. Then again, they might be fired up and drawn together for a cause like never before.
"Everybody's feeling it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on the podium in the Packers media auditorium at Lambeau Field. "There's a question on what level. That's really for the individual to speak on. But professionally, I've been very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish. We had a very productive day Monday with everything going on. And today, just a ton of energy. Clearly from a tempo standpoint, the execution was probably one of our finer Wednesday practices."
Then the coach, who is known for his public stoicism, got a little emotional.
"The reality of this just gave everybody a punch in the heart to let you know the reality. …" he said before pausing for about eight seconds. "… how fortunate to be where we are."
Michael Philbin drowned early Sunday morning after he fell though ice on the Fox River in Oshkosh, Wis.
His father had spent the previous week preparing for the playoffs and interviewing for head coaching opportunities with the Chiefs and Dolphins.
What you should know is Philbin isn't your typical assistant coach. His humility, earnestness, professionalism and work ethic are woven into the fiber of this team. The 50-year-old father of six has been with the Packers since 2003, when Mike Sherman hired him.
Philbin's loss so touched Sherman that the former coach plans on attending the services. It's likely he will be joined by virtually the entire Packers organization. An alteration to the normal practice schedule to make accommodations for the services seems appropriate.
In part because this city provides a unique small town home for its team, the Packers tend to be closer than other teams. Players spoke not only of their concern for Philbin, but for his wife and children.
Many of the players and coaches have visited Philbin at his home or spoken with him on the phone. Among them is quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"Personally being tight with Joe it has been real disappointing," Rodgers said. "I don't know the right words to say to him to try to comfort him. … I've really never dealt with anything like this before. I've never been to a funeral in my life, knock on wood."
McCarthy said he didn't even ask Philbin about when he's coming back to work. He said Philbin will return when he is ready.
In the meantime, McCarthy has divvied up Philbin's responsibilities between other offensive assistants. It helped that the Packers didn't play last Sunday and took the previous week to install a game plan. Most of the work they did was in anticipation the Giants would be their foe.
When McCarthy addressed the media Wednesday, he spoke about the need to separate personal challenges from professional challenges.
"It was definitely tough being the first day back but I think it will get better," said Packers guard T.J. Lang, who lost his father Tom last week. "In times like these when guys are going through some personal struggles, guys really rally up and get behind you. This will make us even tougher as a group and even more family oriented."
If a midweek practice is an indication, the Packers might become stronger through adversity.
"We are very blessed to have this opportunity of playing this playoff game at home and he would want more than anybody for us to pour our hearts into this preparation," McCarthy said. "That is what this football team has done."
There really is no telling how the Packers will respond Sunday to this tangle of emotion — except that it's likely a few tears will be shed.
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