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.

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