Thursday, December 28, 2006

Statistical Look at Dropped Passes

I had touched on this in a post about a week ago, and thought it was worth expanding on a little bit before the Bear game.

I had been in a discussion with another poster about how many dropped passes the Packers have had this year, and whether or not it was any better or worse than other teams. I decided to take the top 10 passers in attempts and compare them to the number of dropped passes.

I used pass attempts, because I think it is a fair comparison for Favre to be compared with other quarterbacks who are asked to put it into the air as much as he has been expected to. I think when you get to a quarterback that is only attempting 20 passes a game, there's more skewing as those passes are offset by a stronger running game.

The following, then, are the top ten passers in attempts, followed by the number of dropped passes this season.

1. Favre 571 /39
2. Bulger 558 /17
3. Kitna 554 /21
4. Brees 549 /38
5. P. Manning 520 /26
6. E. Manning 496 /27
7. Brady 492 /27
8. Palmer 482 /16
9. Grossman 468 /12
10. Pennington 455 /16

One of the points I tried to make is that not only is Favre leading the league in attempts, but also in dropped passes. It was argued that more attempts would mean more drops, and that Favre would be right around middle of the pack per attempt. However, the percentages didn't bear that out.

Of those ten, here are the ranked percentages of dropped passes per attempt:

1. Favre 6.8%
2. Brees 6.4%
3. Brady 5.5%
4. E. Manning 5.4%
5. P. Manning 5.0%
6. Kitna 3.7%
7. Pennington 3.5%
8. Palmer 3.3%
9. Bulger 3.0%
10. Grossman 2.5%

As of right now, Favre leads the league in dropped passes per attempt, just ahead of Brees and significantly ahead of everyone else.

So, why aren't the Saints struggling as much as the Packers? Easy..they have a running game, particularly one led by a Thunder-And-Lighting duo like Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush.

But how much do those other teams utilize the running game versus the passing game. Using the same teams as the quarterbacks represented above, I thought I'd see what the percentage of run-to-pass ratios would be for each team.

Total passing played determined by total offensive plays minus rushing plays = total passing plays (including sacks and attempted pass plays resulting in fumbles, etc.)

1. Packers 397 rushes - 610 passing
2. New Orleans 455 - 569
3. New England 468 - 526
4. New York Giants 421 - 521
5. Indianapolis Colts 408 - 535
6. Detroit Lions 279 - 612
7. New York Jets 454 - 491
8. Cincinnati Bengals 419 - 521
9. St. Louis Rams 388 - 610
10 Chicago Bears 479 - 509

So, how many times, among these quarterbacks passing so often, are they getting runs called in comparison? As would be expected from the coaches who ask their quarterbacks to throw so often, none have a perfectly even run/pass ratio, but some get more run support than others.

Of, then, the top 10 passers by attempts, here are the percentages of runs-to-pass plays of those teams.

1. Bears 48.5%
2. Jets 48.0%
3. Patriots 47.1%
4. Giants 44.7%
5. Bengals 44.6%
6. Saints 44.4%
7. Colts 43.3%
8. Packers 39.4%
9. Rams 38.5 %
10 Lions 31.3%

Now, interesting stat. Of all these prolific passing teams, the ones that utilize the run at least 40% of the time have winning records. The ones that utilize it less than 40% of the time have losing records.

So, Favre leads the league in attempts, the Packers lead the league in dropped passes AND dropped passes per attempt. They also ranked third to last among prolific passing teams in run/pass ratio.

Incidentally, among those ten teams, the Packers rank next-to-last in yardage per rush (3.9 ypc), and in total rushing yardage (1566).

My point? None to make. I'm a strong believer that statistics are easily cited and can prove nearly any point, depending on how they are presented. I offer them for your consideration and allow you to draw your own conclusions, or to offer your own statistics to support or counter them.

Forget the Playoffs; There's More At Stake

On Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers take on their most storied rival, the Chicago Bears, in a season finale that has suddenly become important to Packer fans.

It has also, apparently, become important to the NFL, who moved the game to the evening as a part of their 'flex' scheduling, interrupting the New Year's Eve celebration plans of nearly every football fan in the Midwest.

Why so important? Well, many will point to the long-standing rivalry between the Bears and Packers. Why have a Thursday night game between the Packers and Vikings? Others will point to Brett Favre and the potential of his last game played. Probably some interest in that, but that’s not what has Packer Mundo all a-buzz.

Yes, after a stretch of three wins, the Green Bay Packers are standing on the verge of making the playoffs. You heard it right, there is a mathematical possibility that the Pack could get the bottom seed in the NFC if things work out right. Folks with unused statistics degrees across the nation are plotting every possible permutation of results to see which ways the Packers can sneak in.

But, pretty much all of them would depend on one thing: the Green Bay Packers (7-8) must beat the 13-2 Chicago Bears.

I say, forget about it. The playoffs aren’t important. Seriously.

If the Packers make it, great. We have another week to watch them. Perhaps some of us will make a pilgrimage to New Orleans or Seattle or wherever the Packers would end up playing.

But it’s not the point of the game this Sunday night. Heavens knows, the Packers will know whether or not the win will get them in or out of the playoffs before the game even starts. There’s a strong likelihood that the Packers will suit up for the game, and have the knowledge that Carolina is already the sixth seed, win or lose.

The dependence on other factors besides controlling your own destiny is a bit distracting. Some 'what has to happen' lists look like a parlay card for the entire week’s schedule. Some permutations depend on Pluto being readmitted as a planet before the end of the game in order for the Packers to make it.

Don’t buy into it. If the Packers make it, they make it. There are more important issues at stake in this game.

The Packers are 7-3 this season against teams with losing records. However, they are 0-5 against teams with winning records, and have been outscored 160-60 in those games, an average score of 32-12.

Giving the Packers their due, they have shown themselves worthy of being considered 'mediocre' this season: they’ve beaten many of the teams that they should have beaten. When you consider that they’ve only played five teams with winning records, they SHOULD have seven wins out of ten against losing teams..

The Packers are running on a sugar high, too. The last three games have produced victories, despite not playing at their top level across the board. The teams, San Francisco, Detroit, and Minnesota, are all dealing with their own problems, and many of them are internal. The Lions and Vikings, in particular, looked as though they just want the season to end.

A win is a win, but the Packers haven’t looked good doing it. A critic might suggest the Packers haven’t won those games, but instead 'lost the least'.

Which is why this game is so critical. Momentum for next season is actually on the upswing, that despite all the problems and growing pains with a new coaching staff and offensive schemes, many Packer fans are starting to believe in the direction provided by Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy.

In the first meeting between the Packers and the Bears this season, in Week 1, the Bears simply manhandled them, crushing them 26-0 in Brett Favre’s first career shutout. It wouldn’t be his last, as the Packers went on to go scoreless against Patriots in Week 11, too.

The Packers have two teams they need to worry about. And no, it’s not the Redskins, or the Giants, or the Vikings, or the Rams. Or Pluto.

They need to worry about the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. Whether or not they have a fighting chance for a playoff spot at kickoff, the Packers have to prove themselves capable of standing toe-to-toe with a formidable opponent.

Don’t count on the Bears to roll over and play dead for the Packers, either. Last season, Bears coach Lovie Smith rested many of his starters in the final game against the Vikings, as they had clinched the second seed and a first round bye. The result was a season finale loss and a divisional playoff loss to Carolina on their home field. Mike Holmgren might be willing to make that mistake again, but I don’t think Smith will.

There’s a whole week in between for little injuries to be rehabbed. Lovie Smith knows how important momentum is, and we all know how continued early exits from the playoffs can affect the job security of even the most accomplished coaches.

This is the challenge for the young Green Bay Packers, a team that needs to worry about working as a team and executing in all facets of the game. The Bears are another benchmark for the mediocre Packers to test themselves against: a playoff team, like the Saints, Patriots, and Seahawks, all of whom dismantled the Packers in earlier games.

The Packers may need a win to make the playoffs, but they don’t need a win to establish momentum for next season. This team has to show heart in front of a national television audience. They need to execute on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. Playcalling must improve from the sidelines, and the players have to eliminate the foolish mental mistakes that have plagued them this season.

If the Packers can put up a good fight and make the Bears truly have to beat them in order to win the game, it may go into the record book as an L, but the Packers will have shown they are ready to make a step forward next season. Obviously, to actually win the game would be even better, with the given that the Bears are playing to win, not to not get hurt.

The Packers have something much more important riding on this game other than a playoff spot. They have pride, heart, and a need to prove they are more than just the better basement team in the NFC North.

The Bears are a perfect measuring stick to give that final grade to the Packers. After this game they could be a 'team on the rise', or they could be 'the team that can only beat bad teams'.

Let’s hope this team is focused and knows who the opponent really is on Sunday night. And in order to beat the Bears, they have to first make sure not to beat themselves.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Fun Christmas Trip

Green Bay - Well, like every other normal, red-blooded testosterone-filled male in America, I waited until today to begin my Christmas shopping. So, a quick trip to Bay Park Square in Ashwaubenon was on the schedule. Not many people, good deals, in and out in about two hours. Just how I like it.

So, as I'm walking along, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker that Chris Havel is in he Centre Court to meet people. So, I meander back to see if he's really there. Behold, there he is, arm still in a sling, wearing a "The Fan" Sweatshirt. Being I've cited him so many times over the years, he should be thrilled to meet me, eh?

Chris: Hi! Would you like to buy my book?

LosAngelis: Um, no. Just wanted to say hey.

Chris: (looks disinterested)

LosAngelis: Keep up the good work, and Merry Christmas.

Chris: Thanks.

So, I guess the fraternity of Favre Acolytes isn't quite as tight as I thought, unless we buy each other's books.

So, later on, I'm standing in line at a store and waiting in one of the lines for the checkouts. I move lines, and see two gentlemen in very dapper black pinstripe suits, and another shorter guy in a tie.

Being this is a store that men usually don't appear in regularly (and I was itchy to get out myself), one of the men excused himself and said he was "getting out of here".

The other was getting a bunch of gift cards. As I looked carefully, at his bald head and resplendent and dapper outfit, it only took one turn of his head for me to figure out who was two spots ahead of me in line.

Yep. Double- D. Donald Driver. Milk Dud himself.

I listened to him for a while, very polite, though he was complaining a bit about the prices in the store (a sentiment that I wholly wanted to shout out in agreement with). He then took his gifts and walked right past me, noticed my white Packer hat, smiled and said "Hey, how you doin'?"

I responded, "Great, Merry Christmas to ya."

That was it. I'm a huge advocate for not bothering celebrities or athletes, especially for autographs, so that wasn't an option.

I'm not sure who the other guy was. He was of similar build and African-American, however, I didn't recognize his face. I think I would have recognized Ferguson, so I'm at a loss for identifying him, or if he was even a Packer.

The snippy little wench behind the counter, looked up with a rather snooty look on her face and said, "What, was that a Packer or something?"

I responded, "Yep."

She said, "Oh well. I am so like, not affected by that."

A minute or two later, she must have looked at the receipt of what he had all bought, and her eyes popped out a bit.

"Affected now, are we?" I asked.

Fun day. I thought that was just going to be some boring shopping, and end up meeting two guys on the "in's" with the Pack. Nice Christmas present.

And no, my cell phone doesn't have a camera on it, sorry.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lions: The Trap Game?

As the Packers continue their roller coaster season (that's probably had a few more drops than hills), they seem to be on the cusp of what appears to be a two-game winning streak as the Lions come to town on Sunday.

There is nary an aspect of the on-paper match ups that would put the Packers at any disadvantage whatsoever. The Packers are favored to win, they’re at home, and hold statistical advantages almost across the board.

Furthermore, the Lions are a miserable 2-11, haven’t won since the beginning of November, and have the look in their eye that seems to be begging, "Can we just concede and go home now?" Poor Lions, it’s a bit reminiscent of the 2005 Packers season. The injury bug has even starting striking, removing Kevin Jones, their starting running back, not only for this season but likely a good chunk of 2007.

The fans are so drained that can’t even muster up the energy to boo or chant "Fire Millen!" anymore. The Lions are like Akili Smith on the sidelines of his last preseason performance with the Packers: a pariah within their own family, a car wreck waiting to be cleaned up.

The Packers, coming off an impressive win in which they truly controlled every quarter, return home to rematch the team they've already beaten once this year in Detroit. They’ve made some adjustments and have seemed to have gotten the ship seaworthy again. Favre is closing in on the touchdown record and will break the all-time completions record this weekend.

So, this game is as sure of a thing as we’ve had all season, right? Right?

You don’t hear any bravado, though, from the Packer faithful. Optimism is a far cry from confidence. Hope isn’t the same thing as a guarantee.

And there’s nothing worse than looking past an opponent.

jkThe Green Bay Packers, however, do have their Achilles’ heels. As the Lions adjust to the loss of Jones, they will likely rely on quarterback Jon Kitna to lead the charge. Kitna has attempted one less pass than Favre this season, good enough for third in the NFL. He’s fourth in yardage and is second in interceptions. If there’s any part of the Packer defense that can be picked apart, it’s the secondary.

San Francisco played a pretty vanilla offense against the Packers last week, but you can bet that the Lions, with nothing to lose, will do what they can to beat our safeties to the punch, and WR Roy Williams would love nothing more than to tie up Al Harris all day and allow Mike Furrey and the other receivers to gash the Packers for big plays on their home turf.

And of course, that brings up the other issue: the Packers have done more than lose the home-field advantage; they now officially have a home field DISadvantage. Perhaps it’s mental, kind of like feeling snake bit, that playing in front of a home crowd with high expectations psyches the players out. Who knows? But the point stands that the Packers have only beaten one team on their home field this year, a game in which rookie Matt Lienart was clearly baffled by the pro game (not unlike Alex Smith last week).

Jon Kitna isn’t Matt Hasselback or Tom Brady, but he’s a veteran who isn’t going to be shaken as easily as a kid.

All in all, this is a game that the Packers should win. And that is the inherent danger: it almost makes it a “must win” situation, but not in a good way. This is a game that you have to guard against all those internal demons that cause you to beat yourself. You can’t play not to lose. You can’t over think your executions and try too hard to not make a mistake. You don’t want to rub their face in a lead, but you don’t want to play a prevent and allow them back in the game, either. Don’t forget our own fans booed us last time, too.

And, you can't think to much about all these things, or you'll lose your focus.

This is the definition of a “trap game”, a game where the only person who should be able to beat you is yourself. This is also a critical game for the McCarthy era. The Packers have done a fairly good job this year beating the teams that they “should” beat: pathetic teams like the Lions, the Dolphins, the 49ers, and the Cardinals. However, they’ve also lost some winnable games to non-playoff teams, like the Bills, the Jets, and the Rams.

This game is a reflection on “Packer People”, how this team is prepared to show up and play. Too often this year we’ve seen our team come out and be embarrassed on our home field by superior teams. The Packers need this game. It pushes them to at least 6-10 (with a weak schedule) and sends a message that we are getting to the point where we not only beat the teams we should, we do it on our home field.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Three Little Words: Shanahan Figures It Out

A couple of weeks ago, a firestorm started in the Colorado sports arena.

The 7-4 Denver Broncos, in the middle of a playoff chase, made a controversial decision: veteran Jake Plummer, the leader of a 26th-ranked passing attack, was benched for an unproven rookie named Jay Cutler.

Shanahan praised Cutler, saying he had shown poise and handled himself with maturity from training camp on, declaring he was ready. However, Shanahan acknowledged that the decision was “very difficult”, and that the always-inconsistent Plummer handled the decision “like a pro”.

Naturally, this story has been heated conversation in Denver, and the fact that the Broncos have gone 0-2 since that time hasn’t made the decision any easier. The Broncos, at the time of the switch, held a wild card spot. Now, they are on the outside looking in with three games to play at 7-6.

Cutler, however, hasn’t been a complete failure. Only throwing 25 times a game, he’s begun to show some life. He has an 83.0 passing rating, though he’s been a fumbler. While you can’t say the two game skid has been his fault, it does increase the rabble complaining about the timing of the switch.

So, you might be waiting for my punchline: how does this apply to the Green Bay Packers. Some might be expecting me to say that this is a modern-day allegory on why you should never, ever switch from a veteran quarterback to a rookie, or else you’ll knock yourself out of the playoffs.

No, not my point at all. In fact, I am giving kudos and credit to Mike Shanahan for pulling the plug on a vested veteran quarterback who was having some struggles. But, you see, the secret was three little words that we’ve never really heard with Aaron Rodgers, Craig Nall, or any one else who has been petitioned to start ahead of Brett Favre.

We’ve all heard, ad nauseum, the battle cry that Rodgers should be starting or getting extended time because “he’s the future.” As doubts have come creeping in about his talent and development, the battle cry was slightly altered to “we need to see if he is our future or not, so we know how to draft for next year.” Not exactly what I’d consider a vote of confidence.

No, what Mike Shanahan said was “He’s our future, he’s our present.” Our present. Our “now”. This is your time to seize the day, and win or lose, we’re going with you as our starter. That’s a pretty bold/gutsy/idiotic move to make (depending on your point of view), especially when your team is in the middle of a playoff race. But the point of the matter was that Shanahan felt that Cutler gave them the best chance to win now. And while I’m sure Colorado is polarly divided on whether or not it was the right decision, the decision was made for the right reason.

That’s hard for some folks to comprehend, but every football season has its own carpe diem quality to it. Yes, you build towards the future, and hope that someday your ship will come in. But every coach knows he’s one better guy away from being let go. Every player knows there’s a ton of guys behind him itching to play, and even if they hold them off, they’re one spinal cord injury from never playing again. If you want to be a part of the future, you need to produce today, or you’ll be on the waiver wire.

In the NFL, you don’t experiment just for fun. You experiment to win the games that you’re playing at that time. The Packers, who were at 4-8, an out of the playoff hunt, saw an opportunity to switch some players up, particularly on defense. But they didn’t give more time to Colin Cole, Tyrone Culver, or Patrick Dendy because they wanted to see “what they had in order to determine what their draft strategy should be this offseason”, McCarthy came right out said that these guys had been impressing him in practice. These guys weren’t played to help us win next year. They were played to help us win a game against the 49ers. Period.

Now, let's also be honest. How many Pro Bowl players have ever risen to prominence by being experimented with at the end of a losing season? My guess is that you’ll find very few that meet that criteria, and compared to the list of washouts, would be completely inconsequential. No one is expecting to find our next Reggie White by playing Cullen Jenkins at the end spot.

But three little words by Mike Shanahan gave Jay Cutler all he needed to have the confidence to go out and play his heart out, because he knew that his day wasn’t coming next year. It was right now. It wasn’t being handed to him without merit; it was because Mike Shanahan believed that he was the best chance to win today. And, given Jake Plummer’s performances lately, it’s probably a pretty good assessment.

Mike Shanahan may look back on this decision three years from now and pat himself on the back. He may also have to own up and admit a mistake like he had to recently about Brian Griese. This was a pretty controversial decision to make when you’re in the thick of the playoff hunt, which now look out of reach.

But, right decision or not, it was made for the right reasons. To throw Jay Cutler in now because simply, “He’s the future,” isn’t good enough. Three little words: “He’s the present.”

If there is a lesson to be learned and to apply to the Packers’ situation, let it be that decisions are not and should not be made simply for tomorrow. You have to play for today, and put yourself in the best position to win each and every game.

When the Packers truly have their Jay Cutler, the player they have faith in to win today (not maybe win tomorrow), that's the time to make the move.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Game Review: Packers 30, San Francisco 19

And, for at least a week, all is again right with the world.

The Packers' roller-coaster season took another upturn on Sunday with an impressive 30-19 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park. The 49ers had the road map to beat the Packers, if they only followed what the Jets had done the previous week. But San Fran either had not the talent or the coaching to do it. As a result, the Pack climbs to 5-8 and 1-1 over this four-game stretch of “winnable games” for Mike McCarthy’s young players.

It started out shaky, though. Poor footwork by wide receiver Greg Jennings and some shoddy tackling by Marquand Manuel and the defense allowed Frank Gore to gash the Packers for 72 yards. Many a Packer fan who witnessed the past three games sighed and thought, “Here we go again.”

But the Packers held the 49ers to a field goal, and then Brett Favre went to work, completing several passes for a score to Ruvell Martin, the young player’s first NFL touchdown.

The score established a lead for the Packers that they would never relinquish, although the 49ers certainly put up a good fight at times. They did have several explosive plays against our defense, including a 52 yard touchdown to rookie tight end Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter and a couple of deep passes to their wide receivers.

But in the end, the 49ers made the critical mistakes, and the Packers did not. Frank Gore took a lot of wind out of the 49ers’ sails with a critical fumble on their second possession, deep in their own territory. While the Packers only managed a field goal, they did make the 49ers pay for that mistake on the scoreboard.

Alex Smith, the second-year quarterback often compared to the Packers’ injured Aaron Rodgers, didn’t show much of a spark today, throwing two interceptions to usually quiet (and stone-handed) Nick Collins and to surging rookie AJ Hawk. Favre again made the 49ers pay almost immediately for the Collins turnover, tossing a beautiful strike to Donald Driver, who dipped and juked his way past five defenders for a classic 68-yard touchdown.

The Hawk interception, snagged in the Packers’ end zone in the fourth quarter, sealed the victory for the team.

What made the difference today?

The early establishment of the run game, including Ahman Green’s 23 yards on four carries on the first drive. While the Packers didn’t score on that drive, it sent a message to the 49er defense that they had to hold the run game accountable today. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the defense able to contain the run with minimal players in the box, and get away with rushing only four players on the pass.

Because Green and Morency were able to create positive yardage (and a nifty 1 yard plunge for a touchdown by Green, to boot), the 49ers were not able to overplay the downfield coverage as other teams have done recently. Given the 49ers were playing with a battered secondary, it made them even more vulnerable to Favre’s mixture of safe passes, then making them pay with longer passes to wide-open receivers.

Give the offensive line some credit (or the 49ers defensive front seven some raspberries)…they allowed Green and Morency to combine for 146 yards on only 28 carries: nearly five yards a shot. After being much-maligned the past few weeks, including the revelation by Scott Wells that they weren’t even using half the playbook because of the greenness of the young players, they gave us a little hope that this line could develop into a solid one.

Brett Favre had one of his best games of the season, complete with some fun plays to watch (and of course, the heart-skip-a-beat close calls). He went 22 for 34 for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw a single interception, his seventh game this season without a pick. A fumble at the end of the second quarter, under heavy pressure, ended what appeared to be a lackluster drive, and was inconsequential: so inconsequential that the timer didn’t bother to stop the clock and allow the 49ers to have one final play before the half.

The defense, despite their recent sieve-like performances, did one thing very well today: After allowing Frank Gore that first big play, he gained only 58 yards on 18 carries the rest of the game. It was refreshing to see the run defense return to the form we felt they were achieving earlier this season, after a couple of alarming rushing performances during the three-game losing streak. And, as Frank Gore is the heart of that offense, the Packers did to the 49ers what other defenses had done to the Packers the past few weeks: made them one-dimensional.

Aaron Kampman, who was also invisible over that three-game skid, came back with a vengeance, scoring five sacks against Alex Smith, who seemed to be skittish most of the day. Mike McCarthy kept his word and did what many fans have been screaming about for years: he took KGB out on several rushing downs and kept him rested for his pass rush. While Gbaja-Biamila finished with only one tackle and no sacks today, his presence was felt more consistently in the backfield that we’ve seen in a couple of years.

Finally, the special teams had a solid game. Dave Rayner was 3/3 on his field goal tries, and Charles Woodson broke a 40 yard punt return, his longest of the season. While the kick return coverage was still a little sketchy, Rayner didn’t have to add to his five special team tackles this year, and Patrick Dendy made a “dandy” punt coverage to down the ball on the one yard line at one point.

All in all, it can safely be said that Mike McCarthy knew a lot more about his former team that his former head coach knew about the Packers. McCarthy stated in the pre-game, perhaps tipping his hand more than he wanted, that “these are the games you want to win”. This was a meaningful game for McCarthy and for the Packers, who won a game they “should have” won today.

The Packers played with passion, but also played with discipline today, and allowed the 49ers to make the mistakes and suffer when Green Bay capitalized on them. This is a young team that has had little to celebrate recently, but today, we witnessed a team that saw its fragile ego keep up its confidence and momentum over four quarters, and put the game away with moxie.

As the Packers finish off this four-game stretch of matchups against teams with losing records, let’s hope that McCarthy also views next week’s games against division rivals Detroit and Minnesota as “games you want to win”, too. It would be a very encouraging sign for the McCarthy regime to finish with a couple of wins at home against their arch-rivals.

Hopefully, the Packers will be up to the task, and the roller coaster can finish at the top of the ramp before facing off against the Bears in the season finale.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Oh, The Difference Three Weeks Make...

It really doesn't seem that long ago, does it? The Packers had just walked off the Metrodome turf after beating the Vikings 23-17. Optimism was running high, as fans spoke confidently of playoff hopes, and the Negative Nellie's were being asked if they took their crow boiled or fried.

But, after losing to the New York Jets today, 38-10, the Green Bay Packers have now lost three in a row in rather convincing fashion, ranging from being completely dominated (against the Patriots at home) to completely imploding (against the Seahawks on MNF).

Like the last two games, it is much easier to make a list of “Who To Exonerate” than “Who To Blame”. The second list is much, much longer, as it was clear the Packers were outplayed and outclassed on both sides of the ball, as well as the sideline.

Brett Favre passed 47 times today, leading the NFL in the most games with 40+ attempts (5). Again, he looked imprecise on his passes, bringing the criticism of whether or not his injury (or his lack of discipline) is bothering him again. As control of the game unwound around him, Favre again regressed into some of his 2005 habits of forcing the ball into coverage and throwing the long ball, finishing with two interceptions against one touchdown.

Ahman Green ran for a deceiving 102 yards on 14 carries, with almost half of those yards coming on two consecutive carries in the second quarter. The Packers again attempted only 23 rushing plays over the entire game, and three of them came from a scrambling Brett Favre.

The wide receivers looked frustrated, combining for only seven receptions over the course of a game that saw over 50 passing plays. While several passes were off-kilter, there were again inexcusable dropped passes, and a withering approach to defending a potential interception that reminded us uncomfortably of Robert Ferguson.

The much-ballyhooed offensive line, starting three draft picks along its borders, kept Favre scrambling about even with extra blockers in the backfield. When Favre did have time to pass from the pocket, he had no one open. It’s hard to get someone open when you are keeping seven players back to pass block. The line showed it can pop open a couple of short-yardage plays, but when it comes to making the rushing game a true threat, the last three weeks have been horrid, today being only a marginal and inconsequential improvement.

The run defense, which has also received its share of kudos, again allowed a 100 yard rusher as nearly anyone who took a handoff gashed the defense for positive yards. At one point this season, the secondary were the ones allowed the frustrating big plays, but today, Cedric Houston and Leon Washington each broke off 20+ yard runs, and WR Brad Smith added 32 yards on a reverse.

And, alas, our pass defense was again a sieve. Give Al Harris and Charles Woodson credit for their usual aggressive defense, and give the Jets even more credit for battling that aggressiveness with misdirection plays, taking them effectively out of the game. The Jets pinpointed the weak parts of the pass defense, particularly Brady Poppinga and the safeties and made the Packers pay again and again. Chad Pennington, his two interceptions notwithstanding, looked like a surgeon out there in the first half, and what’s worse, he looked like he was enjoying it way too much. While KGB forced a bad pass, the Packers didn’t have a single sack today.

Out special teams again looked far from special, and our only punt return of the entire day was an eye-rolling stutter-step job by Greg Jennings that made us throw our foam brick at the television screen. Dave Rayner again pushed a field goal to the right that might have put a little fear in the Jets’ hearts early, and when Vernon Morency started getting some yardage on kick returns, the Jets simply kicked short, and put a lid on that.

The past two weeks, two embarrassing losses might have been rationalized that they were losses to playoff-destined teams, led by experienced Super Bowl-winning coaches. This week, however, we played a game against a team that could be our mirror image: a young team that went 4-12 last season (playing a last-place schedule), with a very young first-year head coach.

A 19th-ranked run game and a 22nd-ranked pass game, combined with a 20th-ranked pass defense and a 26th-ranked run defense came into Green Bay and beat the Packers, convincingly, on their home field. How did they do it?

As Chad Pennington alluded to in the game commentary, they did their homework, studied the matchups, and attacked the weaknesses of the Packers. They attacked the poor coverage players in the secondary through the pass, then opened up the running game for 178 yards to boot. On defense, they covered everyone like glue, rushing only four, maybe five against our young line, knowing Favre would eventually start trying to fit the ball into way-too-tight spaces.

This is a sharp contrast from what seems to have been Mike McCarthy’s approach to the game the past few weeks, which has been to often abandon the run because they knew the opposing defense was too good to run against. He lost the running game before the game began.

There were some positives, to be sure. Charles Woodson had another interception, and should have had a couple more, to boot. Patrick Dendy played an onside kick to perfection, avoiding the penalty that would have given the ball back to the Jets. KGB put pressure on the quarterback that resulted in a Dendy interception. And the offense came out at halftime appearing bound, set, and determined to make up the score differential, with a couple of nice drives that eventually became moot when the Jets reasserted themselves on both sides of the ball by the end of the third quarter.

But, this is not the team Mike McCarthy wanted to see with four games left to play. Certainly, we expected to see a team that was going to have growing pains with all the youth and change, but we would have expected to see an upturn as the Packers finished off the season. The first game of December, however, was a dejecting, demoralizing loss that felt just like the last two losses.

Winning is a habit, said Vince Lombardi. And, it seems, so is losing.

While many have chosen to give Mike McCarthy as much of the benefit of the doubt as possible in his first year, it is painfully clear that when not a single squad shows up to play ball against a pretty equally-matched team on your home field, the problem isn’t just with one player. This is either a coaching issue, or a talent issue.

Ted Thompson would take the fall if it is a lack of talent, and it wouldn’t be from a lack of trying. The inept defense has been largely shaped by Thompson, bringing in free agents Woodson, Ryan Pickett, Marquand Manuel, drafting Nick Collins, Brady Poppinga, and AJ Hawk, and re-signing Aaron Kampman. This is clearly a defense built by Ted Thompson.

However, it is a defense that now ranks 29th against the pass, after allegedly ranking #1 last season. It is offering up an 87.0 passing efficiency rating for opposing quarterbacks.

Our offense is losing its focus. Favre, who was flourishing under what appeared to be accountability and coaching under McCarthy and Jagodzinski, is now regressing back into his undisciplined ways. Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t appear to be meeting with Favre on the sidelines or holding him accountable following a bad pass. He probably has way too many other players to be meeting with lately.

If McCarthy is losing his grip with Favre, it’s a good bet that’s not the only place he’s losing it. The comparisons, however unfair, are beginning to be murmured throughout the Packer fathful.

Ray Rhodes was fired for an 8-8 season. Mike Sherman was fired for one losing season out of six. Is McCarthy going to get the same treatment?

Suffice it to say, that McCarthy is in no danger at this point. However, he does only have a three-year contract and Thompson will be watching the next three games closely. All of them are against teams that we, once again, would see being in the same (rather low) echelon as the Packers.

The 49ers, one of the most pathetic teams in the league in 2005, now have one more win than the Packers. At times, they’ve looked quite competitive. They got clobbered by the Saints today, and will be looking to end a two-game slide. The Lions are one of the few teams remaining that have a worse record than the Packers, and have already lost to the Packers once this season. The Vikings round out this hat trick of winnable games, having lost to the Packers only three short weeks ago.

There’s nothing this team needs right now more than a couple of wins, just to give them some momentum and positive karma going into the offseason. Free agents look for two things when considering possible suitors: money and a chance to win. We know Ted Thompson doesn’t part with money easily, and two bad seasons in a row will make it a trend, not a fluke.

But, nearly any team has only to follow the road map provided by the Patriots, Seahawks, and Jets to see how to beat the Packers. It is now up to McCarthy, his coaching staff, and the players to match the chess moves and put themselves in the position to dictate the game, not merely react to it.

We’ve seen the distinct and negative difference from Minnesota to the Jets in the last three weeks. Let’s hope over the next three weeks, when we play Minnesota again, we see another turnaround for the better.