Sunday, February 26, 2006

Jagodzinski: Knows his Chicken???

It has long been my credo to advise people to take anything said by sports columnists with a grain of salt. You can’t always trust their “sources”, as they have a column to write, and advertisers to impress. Sometimes, what they are offering is controversy for controversy’s sake, or stating an opinion or rumor as “near fact” in order to be the first to be the newsbreaker.

But, I must admit, I am going to apply my usual credo to Packer offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinki. If you’re buying what he’s selling as it pertains to the offensive line…well, buyer beware.

Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette published a story on Sunday quoting Jagodzinki as saying that he sees the Packer line as having more talent than his former offensive line in Atlanta, and that the zone-blocking scheme he is going to bring to Green Bay may be the key to getting this unit over the top.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If the Packer offensive line returns to 2002-2003 form next season, I will be the happiest man alive, extolling the beauties of the zone-blocking system. Because, given the inadequacies of the line last season, such a turnaround would indeed be just short of miraculous.

Just check some facts. Not too long ago, the Packers owned one of the most dominating offensive lines in the NFL. In 2003, an offensive line of Chad Clifton, Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan, Mike Wahle, and Mark Tauscher allowed not only Ahman Green to rush for 1883 yards, but a near-NFL low of 19 sacks over a 16 game season.

However, in 2005, that line was coached by the same guy (Larry Beightol) using the same scheme that brought such success two years prior. The line allowed running backs to only accumulate 1352 yards over the entire season, ranking 30th in the NFL. The same line, according to statistical website, also ranked 30th in the NFL overall, using many more rushing stats.

Furthermore, this line allowed 27 sacks in 2005. While this isn’t a huge number, looking more closely at the stats shows that there was a tremendous dropoff from 2004. According to some unofficial tallies for quarterback pressures provided by JSOnline, look at the following increases in breakdowns in pass protection.

2004 sacks: 14 2005 sacks: 27 Increase: 93%

2004 knockdowns/hurries: 40 2005 knockdowns/hurries: 79 Increase: 98%

In both cases, the pressure on the quarterback nearly doubled. Now, let’s think about the facts from 2003-2005:

Coach: remained the same
Blocking scheme: remained the same

What was different from 2003/2004 and 2005?

Personnel. In 2005, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were allowed to leave via free agency, and Mike Flanagan played much of the season injured and often replaced with a backup such as Scott Wells or Grey Ruegemer.

My point? Bringing in a new scheme may or may not be helpful, but to be touting this offensive line as already much improved without having made any additions or upgrades in talent is a bit premature. Coaching and schemes are important, but you have to have the talent to bring this line back to the level it was at only two or three seasons ago.

How much of an impact was the loss of Wahle and Rivera (and the hobbling of Flanagan)? The statistics speak for themselves, and using our own eyeballs, we know that Brett Favre led the league in interceptions, often running out of the pocket (something he didn’t get forced to do as often the past several years). Is Jagodzinki truly believing that Whittaker, Wells, and Klemm are the answers, and by implementing a news scheme, that they will become as strong of a line as we had not too long ago?

Yes, we have to look at Wells as our starter right now, as Flanagan is a free agent, and like Wahle and Rivera, may indeed head off to greener (but not golder) pastures.

In 1991, the Green Bay Packers offense was averaging a pathetic 279 yards per game, and head coach Lindy Infante was fired at year’s end. New coach Mike Holmgren brought in his new scheme, knows then as the San Francisco Offense, later renamed the West Coast Offense. In that same amount of time, the average yards per game from 1992-1995 rose dramatically, from 299 ypg to 360 ypg.

Was the scheme responsible for a rise of 81 more yards per game? How about the rise from 17 points per game in 1991 (22nd in the NFL) to 25 ppg in 1995 (6th in the NFL)?

Certainly, coaching had something to do with it, as did the scheme.

But perhaps more importantly, the personnel in 1995 was much different than the personnel in 1991. Remember these names? Mandarich, Campen, Workman? Most of these guys were not only gone by 1995, but were systematically replaced.

Would you like to guess how many players remained on the offensive side of the ball, much less the starting lineup, over four seasons (1991-1995)?

One. Ken Ruettgers.

It makes it hard to tell what really caused the dramatic improvement over those years. Did the West Coast Offense transform a squad, or did the transformation of the squad make the West Coast Offense work?

Getting back to 2006, Jeff Jagodzinski would like us to believe that the zone-blocking scheme, dependent on quick-moving temporary drives instead of pure drive-blocking power, cut blocking, and synchronized movement combined with reading the play on the go and knowing where to “check down” your blocks has already improved this squad over last season, without a single personnel improvement, and in fact, the starting center still unsigned.

As Larry Beightol once said, “you can’t make chicken salad of our chicken gunk”. And he himself was indeed proof that the same coach using the same scheme doesn’t mean much over the course of a couple of seasons, at least not as much as the talent and experience of the players you have playing that scheme.

I hold out much hope that Ed Philbin, the 2006 Packer offensive line coach, is going to take Whittaker, Klemm, and Wells and make solid starters out of all of them. Any improvement from ranking 30th in the NFL is pretty much

But before telling me how improved the line is, call me when you sign or draft some players, Jeff. I have a strong suspicion the quickest way to show real improvement along the line is to improve the players, not the scheme. Ask Tony Mandarich, our starting tackle in 1991, about that.

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