Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Favre Benefits From Improved Line Play

In the last three games, we've seen some significant and marked improvement on the offensive line.

Our young guys, Mark Spitz, Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll, and Scott Wells have shuffled and adjusted, and quite suddenly, seemed to not only make the zone blocking scheme click on all cylinders, but has drastically improved the pass protection for Brett Favre over last year.

Finding a statistical landmark to judge the effectiveness of an offensive line is, at best, a fleeting thing. Most folks tend to use sacks as some sort of measuring stick, but even DVOA advocates admit that sacks are, at best, limited in scope. It isn’t very often the 'bad offensive line' is as obvious as poor Matt Leinart would have to testify against his own boys this past Sunday. Sacks are simply too rare of an occurrence to measure by, as some of the best 'sackmasters' in the NFL don’t even average one per game…and many don’t even average a half a sack a game. That leaves a lot of other plays that are left without a statistical measuring stick.

A more reliable statistical landmark would be the number of hurries and pressures that a quarterback has to take. However, neither are officially-kept statistics, probably due to its subjective nature: who decides if that was a designed rollout or if the quarterback was forced out of the pocket?

So, we are often forced to use some common sense to evaluate how effective an offensive line is performing. Last year, there was some disagreement over whether or not our offensive line was performing well or not, and the impact that had on our offense, particularly on the quarterback.

In 2005, Brett Favre had one of his most forgettable years, throwing for a career-high 607 pass attempts, throwing 29 interceptions and earning a career-low 70.9 passing efficiency rating.

'He’s done for!' they cried. 'Get rid of the bum!'

Alas, in what has now been revealed as a cap-clearing season that has already claimed several scapegoats, it’s a wonder Brett Favre did survive to quarterback another down for the Green Bay Packers. But, what brought on such poor play?

Oh, there’s a litany of explanations. Injuries, no running game, NFL-E talent in the receiving corps, and of course, the knock that Brett Favre simply was going to do whatever he wanted, regardless of what the coaches wanted.

All may factor in, to some degree. I offer, however, that the crumbling of the offensive line contributed, at least, in part to Favre’s performances. Why else would there be an old saying that reminds us, 'It all starts up front'?

I like to look at two areas that are dramatically impacted by the effectiveness of the line: rushing production and quarterback errors: particularly, the most profane error of all, the interception.

During the 2005 campaign, the Packers employed a mishmash of 'talent' along the interior line to replace departed stud guards Mike Wahle and Chad Clifton. In addition, they played with either an injured Mike Flanagan or neophyte Scott Wells at center. The result in the rushing game?

Put quite simply, the Packers had the worst rushing attack in franchise history. A mere 1352 yards, only 84.5 yards per game. No other team in the history of the Green Bay Packers ever ran for fewer yards per game. Even before his injury, Ahman Green gained only 255 yards in five games. Other backs brought in could barely fare any better. Tony Fisher, Samkon Gado, and Noah Herron all took turns starting, and managed only three 100 yards games the entire season.

The impact on the passing game was evident, as Favre repeatedly took the team on his own arm, attempting to win the game through the air, 607 attempts worth. Whether or not this was Favre’s decision, it must be noted that Mike Sherman didn’t seem to take much effort to rein in his quarterback, going as far as to not even discuss foolish interceptions with him at halftime.

Did last year’s line give up a lot of sacks? No. But it did give up pressures, mainly because defenses knew the rushing attack was invisible. As a result, our pass-first-and-often offense racked up the yards, and racked up the interceptions. it was common to see defenses do nothing but rush and cover, without guarding against the run. Safeties were allowed to hang back, waiting for the picks.

The beginning of 2006, when new coach Mike McCarthy declared a commitment to the run, saw instead a continuation of 2005. The new interior linemen, made up primarily of rookies, came under fire for not being able to execute the zone blocking scheme, and the results were eerily familiar.

Over the first four games of 2006, Favre attempted 164 passes, an average of 41 attempts per game. As the team went 1-3 over this span, including a couple of embarrassing losses, the offense attempted to cover for the deficiencies of the offensive line. After the initial shutout against the Bears, McCarthy placed Favre back in the shotgun 45 times against the Saints, 24 times against the Lions, and 34 times against the Eagles. Even pass-happy Peyton Manning rarely finds himself in shotgun more than 20 times a game by design, and by Favre’s own admission, the shotgun was less for strategy as it was for 'protection purposes'.

At the same time, our running game again seemed to run on empty, averaging only 23 carries a game over the first three games, for a total of 226 yards (3.2 yards per carry). We saw, regardless of who was carrying the ball, holes close up (or not appear at all), as running backs ran into piles of bodies instead of running lanes.

And, after the first four games, Brett Favre had five interceptions, putting him on pace for 20 for the year. And while Favre took the heat, the offensive line deservedly took some heat also.

However, let’s fast-forward to our last three games: three games in which nearly everyone is declaring our line 'drastically improved'. Daryn Colledge has suddenly grown from looking like a possible bust and/or project to a serviceable starter. Jason Spitz handles his own, and Wells looks like James Campen in his prime.

So, the offensive line has improved? I’ll agree. And, I’ll take it one step further.

The impact of a strong offensive line has a major impact on Brett Favre. What’s been the difference?

Well, let’s start with the running game. Since the Eagle game, we’ve had three different starters at running back: Vernon Morency, Noah Herron, and Ahman Green. What have we seen? All have had 100-yard games, including two 100 yard games against the Cardinals.

In the last three games alone, the Packers have rushed the ball for an average of 31 times a game. And, more importantly, they’ve averaged over 5 yards a carry. That’s 159 rushing yards per game.

So, let it be said that the zone blocking scheme is 'coming along'.

But, what of Brett Favre? What of the gunslinger who is old, washed-up, and tries to win everything on his aging, inaccurate arm?

Well, in the last three games, we’ve seen an amazing change from 2005 and the first four games of 2006. You see, with the improved play and protection from the offensive line, and the establishment of an NFL running game, Favre’s pass attempts have gone down. He’s only attempting 33 passes a game, and far less plays are run out of the shotgun formation, as McCarthy gains more confidence in the line’s ability to protect the quarterback.

He’s also only averaging about 202 passing yards per game. But most importantly, Brett Favre, King of Interceptions, hasn’t thrown a pick in three games.

Zero interceptions. Three games. Amusingly, the exact three games in which we’ve seen the solid play from the offensive line and the running game.

Favre looks like he’s having fun out there again. Yes, perhaps the competition isn’t as formidable as we’d like to see, but a win is a win is a win, and the Packers have almost equaled last year’s win total. Ahman Green, after five games played, has almost double his rushing yardage from last year after the same number of games.

Even Mike McCarthy sees the connection between the offensive line/running game and Favre’s play:

'Oh, absolutely. When you're running the football, you're able to keep the defense in a 50-50 mindset. It plays to your advantage. We refer to it all the time as 'playing downhill.' I thought we played downhill all day today against our opponent, and that's the way we want to play. Brett did an excellent job of handling their overload defensive fronts and pressure defense at the line of scrimmage. I don't think we were in a bad play all day. He's doing an outstanding job at the line for us.'

Favre, believe it or not, is developing into exactly the kind of quarterback that many have clamored for: instead of the impulsive gunslinger, he’s becoming the game manager. However, he’s a game manager who will still make you pay when you overload the rush or overplay the run. He’s even learned to not pass the ball after he crosses the line of scrimmage.

Certainly, you can attribute Favre’s improved, smarter play to many factors: a new coach, new accountability, a need to prove himself, pursuit of records, and the very real possibility that, once he falters, Aaron Rodgers will force him to abdicate the throne.

But, it all starts up front, regardless of the running back, regardless of the quarterback. Errict Rhett may have had Emmit Smith’s career had he run behind the Dallas Cowboy offensive line for 10 years, and Trent Dilfer may have had Troy Aikman’s career.

As the offensive line improves, and the running game improves, so will the play of the quarterback, no matter the number he wears.

Let’s give this offensive line some credit for proving the naysayers wrong.

And let’s give last year’s offensive line some credit for 29 interceptions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Does the Green Bay Packers GM Thompson have a right to do what he's doing?

I think it is interesting. Does Thompson have a "right" to do what he's doing? Absolutely. Is it a good idea to "rebuild" in today's NFL? That depends.

Obviously, time will be the ultimate judge of Thompson's methodology.

That 'status' thing you bring up, though...I really wonder how people view Green Bay, and why. At one point in the 90's, nearly anybody wanted to be a part of this team, and old vets like Sean Jones and Keith Jackson, who likely once regarded Green Bay as Siberia, viewed it as their last, best chance to get a ring.

That's lightning in a bottle. I can think of a lot of other places, like Buffalo, Kansas City, and Detroit that have a similar market to Wisconsin, and have struggled for years and years to bring in free agents, and have also have top picks in the draft for a decade.

I don't know if market matters as much as winning. Obviously, I don't' see the Jets or even the Giants as the "Yankees" of the NFL. The Yankees have the market, yes, but they also have the legacy of winning, probably rivaled only by programs such as Notre Dame and the Boston Celtics.

In the NFL, would you rather be a part of a big market, or a winning team? In basketball, Shaq left Orlando so he could be in the glitter of LA. Reggie Jackson and many other baseball players toil in other major league clubs (read: AAAA farm clubs) in hopes they will eventually be traded to the Yankees or Red Sox.

I don't sense that same kind of "market attraction" in the NFL. I'm sure its there to a degree, but I think a winning program attracts players a lot more. The fact that the NFL has revenue sharing and a hard cap means that those big markets don't have significantly more money to spend.

I understand the value of having what is described as "Packer People", but I do think what is going to make this program attractive is wins.

Face it...would you rather be traded to the Cowboys or Jets right now, or to the Patriots?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

When does the future begin in Green Bay?

Ted has been on the job 21 months now, and many of the advocates for his managerial style have justified some of his moves for the eventual reward of "the future".

Now, I'm not one to say that the ride to the top after being low for a while isn't one of the most exhilarating feelings, as the early 90's taught us.But this isn't the early 90's, and this isn't the same NFL or Packers.

Advocates of the "building for the future" methodology have been willing to dismiss many moves (or lack thereof) over Thompson first season as GM, and even throughout this past off season. When Ron Wolf mentions the offense was loaded with "stumble-bums and NFL-E talent", whether you think he's lucid or not, there's a reason for him saying it.

Last season, we saw running back and wide receiver go almost completely unaddressed. The team stumbled to a 4-12 record. However, in retrospect, we are able to see clearly that this was an "ingenious salary cap-clearing year". This allowed us to enter the 2006 off-season with tremendous cap depth and a slough of high picks.

However, the cap has gone unspent, premier free agents were passed up for more middling or risky talents, and slowly, the players of the last regime have been slowly trimmed from the roster.

All in the name of "The Future".

Be patient. Wait and See.

I think I have been patient. I've given credit where it is due, and I have tried to moderate my criticism of Thompson's regime. I've sat back and watched the endless prattle of Sherman vs Thompson debates rage on and on in a never-ending repeat of "Groundhog Day".

But, this is getting to me. Why...WHY...when you have FULL KNOWLEDGE of Ferguson's season-ending injury AND Koren's season-ending suspension within 24 hours of the trade deadline, do you seemingly not even make an effort to bring in anything besides NFL-E level talent and practice squad players to round out your already short-handed squad??? You went in with FOUR WR's at the beginning of the year, something that has already, though experience, taught us that doing so may well bite us in the butt, and now, there appears to be NOTHING on the table to make this squad a deep threat.

The other laudation of Thompson, the bringing in of "quantity of quality", knowing that competition will "bring out the best and find at least one starter" in all of that, has also hurt us. Luckily, we have Jennings from the second round of the draft. All the other "mid-level" talent that was brought in to "compete" managed little more than to find a one-way ticket off the team. Wither thou Gardner, Boerigter, Rodgers, Lucas, and Brewster? We figured we'd find some starters in amongst there, eh? Nope. Oh wait, Brewster's back, isn't he?

If you're NOT going to make a move now, WHEN are you going to make it?

The argument that we're not going to finish .500 this year, or we're not going to make the playoffs this year, so why bother investing money or giving up an expendable draft pick is horrible. Why bother playing then? Why not bench all the starters? Why try to win? We're just going to lose anyway, and we may as well not even try.

I have no problem with a rebuild, though I question how necessary a "rebuild" was. What I do have a problem with is a team not doing what it takes to win, to be competitive, to do the very best they can. We normally place the burden on the players on the field to be giving 110%, but at this point, I have to question the integrity of the man in the front office.

We are one helmet-to-helmet collision from taking away one of our starters, both of which have been inconsistent this year, but good enough to keep defenses honest by not double covering one over the other. Can you imaging going with just Jennings and the guys we've signed off of practice squads as the receiving corps?

I said this many times over the last few years, in that you need to be careful in wishing so hard for the future to come, because you might not like it when you get it.

If the future is going to be season after season of allowing injuries and valuing quantity over quality to wither our team as the season wears on, in the name of preserving draft picks and loads of cap space, then frankly, I'm starting to understand why people used to still live in the 60's when I first fell in love with this team.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

There Are Eleven Guys On a Side

I've really made it a point to give McCarthy a bit of patience this year. Whether or not I agreed with the hire, he is our coach and I want him to be successful. I haven't railed on him much at all this year.

But I am going to put this out there, because it needs to be put out there, and I don't' care WHO the coach is. If you make a mistake with too many guys on the field, or give up big plays with too few players on the field, that is a mental coaching error. It is also fixable.

It is also EXPECTED to be fixed. Immediately.

I'm sorry to say this, but having too few guys or too many guys on the field ranks up there with troubleshooting your computer, and the first thing on the list is "Is your computer plugged in?".

This is basic football 101, and I don't care if this is his first year coaching or not: the rules haven't changed since high school, and he's coached long enough to know the number of players required.

Why am I bringing up McCarthy moreso than Sanders? I'll tell you.

1) Because Sanders hasn't fixed it. This is a recurring problem, and if your coordinator can't fix a basic problem, it is McCarthy's job to do it as head coach.

2) Because I noted something back in training camp, something that lit up a yellow flag for me. I mentioned it, and havent' harped on it since, but I am going to bring it up again.

When the special teams coach was keeping Driver after practice to practice returning punts, McCarthy knew nothing about it. In fact, he told the media that in a press conference, even mentioning that your starting flanker shouldnt' be returning punts.

Why was this not communicated to the special teams coach? Or Driver?

Much was placed on the former head coach for being a bit of a micromanager. This, to me, is a yellow flag for going 180 degrees the other direction.

Again, not a McCarthy bashing session or an agenda...I don't care who the coach is when it comes to not fixing such a basic problem. It needs to be done.

Friday, October 6, 2006

Why I Like Koren Robinson

Okay, before anyone jumps on me, I will say that I can think of 50 reasons why I didn't like his signing.

But I have seen on interesting positive. He's bailed Favre out on more than one occasion.

Favre does have a tendency to put his receivers in situations where they have to make a play on the ball, particularly if he's frustrated. Given our record over the last season and four games, that's more often than not.

After watching Robert Ferguson alligator-arm several interceptions last year, or, my favorite, falling down as the ball settled into the hands of the defender, I invented the following measuring stick.

A quarterback throws the ball into the endzone with decent coverage.

A #4 receiver falls down before the ball gets there.

A #3 receiver tries to make a play on the ball, but is unable to prevent the interception.

A #2 receiver knocks the ball away.

A #1 receiver makes the catch anyway.

In his limited time, I've seen several plays in which Favre threw a relatively poor pass Koren's way, and Koren turned his body around, and made a great play to knock the ball away from a defender. After watching some of the receivers we've had over the past couple of years, this was refreshing.

Koren is an active receiver who doesn't rely on his route and the ball to be delivered perfectly to make the catch. He goes to the ball and uses his physicality to make a play on the ball. I believe Greg Jennings has at least that potential, too.

But those receivers rarely get blamed when a ball bounces off their hands and into the hands of the defender, or when they can't adjust on a route and make a play on a ball that's "a little inaccurate". It seems pretty cheap when that blame falls entirely on the quarterback, because "that's who the interception gets assigned to", and "he's the one who threw it".

I don't care who is back there, Favre, Rodgers, or Quinn...I would much rather have a team of Driver's and Robinson's who go out of their way to make a play on the ball....even the less-than-perfect throws....than the prima donas who sit back and watch it happen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Finding Our Place In The NFL

In education, there is a test out there called MAP. It's a computer program, that a student from elementary school to high school can sit down and take. It's all multiple choice, and once you take the 50+ question test, it spits out a score and tells you where you are with some standardized percentile score.

Most interesting, though, are the first ten questions. It gradually pinpoints your rough levels with a game of "higher" and "lower". It has a repository of tens of thousands of questions, and starts out with a middling ability level. If you get the question right, the next question is harder. If you get it wrong, the next question is easier.

For example, your first question might be a division problem. If you get it right, you might be finding common denominators in mixed numbers. Get that right, you might be doing complex algebra.

Get the first question wrong, and you might drop down to subtraction with borrowing. Get that wrong, and you might be finding the next number in a series. Get that wrong, and you might be doing simple addition facts.

But after ten questions, it claims to have you pegged. The problem is, since it is multiple choice, you have a 25% chance of guessing a problem correct that you have no idea how to do. In that low of a number, a couple of lucky guesses and your levels may be quite skewed.

What does this have to do with the Packers?

Well, in a way, each game has been something like one of these tests. We played a 4-0 team in the first, and got slaughtered.

We played a 3-1 team next, and fell apart after initial success.

We played an 0-4 team next, and won a close game.

We then played a 3-1 team again, and fell apart after initial success.

What does this suggest to me? We're certainly not as good as teams like the Bears, Saints, and Eagles. And we're probably better than the Lions.

That gives us a long range of teams that fall between 1-3. and 3-1. And we can guess that we fall somewhere in that range.

However, and I just throw this out for argument's sake, what if we got lucky versus the Lions? What if McCarthy's smoke and mirrors with the shotgun and extra blockers did just enough against a poor team to eek out a victory, when perhaps that team might have won had it more video to watch?

I'm not trying to say we're worse than our record, but when you look at the teams we play, the only team that appears to have truly been on our talent/coaching level is the Lions, and that game was a critical Bubba Franks tackle from heading into overtime.

We talk about "Wait and See" a lot in our forums. However, I think, just like this test, that after ten games, we'll know exactly what kind of team we're fielding in 2006.

But, we're getting a good idea along the way