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.

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