Thursday, December 27, 2007

You Reap What You Sow

As we continue to sift through the fallout of the Chicago Bear fiasco, everybody seems to have a theory as to why the Packers laid an egg in front of their biggest division rival, in a game so pivotal that it made games the following week moot because it ended the home field race prematurely.

But, if you step back and look at it, the results could have been quite predictable. This team hasn’t been built for games like this.

“Crikey!” you say, “How can the Green Bay Packers not be prepared for a cold and blustery day in December? How come they were always so strong under the coaching of the other Mikes? Isn’t Favre 149-1 in cold weather games??”

And the response to that has to be: this isn’t the same kind of team. Period. Particularly on offense.

One of my accolades that I have given to second-year coach Mike McCarthy is that he is very talented at what I call “spit-and-wire”. He is willing, over the course of a season, to adapt and duct tape up holes as best he can. We saw it last season and much of the beginning of this season, when the running game was AWOL. The offense was modified to accommodate it. Of course, it usually led to Brett throwing the ball 45+ times per game, but you have to admire a coach who is willing to tinker and find the smoothest path to a victory.

But those modifications have created a team that is very unlike the teams we’ve grown used to over most of Brett Favre’s career, when players like Dorsey Levens and Ahman Green could be counted on to churn out positive yards on blustery winter days. Certainly, we all remember our favorite “mudder”, Edgar Bennett. On those days, Brett might throw 15 passes in all, and the Packers would eventually wear down the opposing defense, making them long for the warm locker room.

Much as the Bears did to the Packers last Sunday.

As much as people praise Ryan Grant for being a Levens-esque back, he certainly hasn’t proven to be the answer to our running game on a consistent basis. While he has rushed for significant yardage and certainly has made a positive impact on the offense, he does need the passing game to compliment him. For the most part, the passing game has done their part this season.

But, on Sunday, despite the glowing statistic of 100 yards on 14 carries, 90 yards were on 2 of those carries. That left 12 carries for 10 yards, and in a bitterly cold game, you can’t sit back and wait for the home run in between many strikeouts.

A quick look at Grant’s carries for the day (in yards) illustrate the problem: 24, 0, 2, 0, 0, 4, 66, 1, 0, 4,-3, 2, -1, 1.

The amusing part of looking at those statistics was remembering how people used to talk about how Barry Sanders, the former running back for the Lions, used to play. “He might get you three plays for negative yardage running around back there, but then he’ll hit a home run that makes it all worth it!”

But, like Sanders, that style of play doesn’t do much for you in the cold, when smash-mouth football rules the lines of scrimmage. Who can forget the cold playoff game at Lambeau Field in 1994, when Barry Sanders was held to -1 yards rushing in the prime of his career?

The Bears were the lesser team, but their team continues to be built to play at home in the cold weather, rushing the ball 45 times for 139 yards. Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe got the ball early and often, and while they averaged only 3 yards per carry, it was good enough to win a game on a short field in conditions like this.

Thinking back to those dome-team Detroit Lions of the 90’s, there’s another structural change that Mike McCarthy has employed that has really changed the makeup of the Packer offense. While we have praised the four and five-receiver sets utilized this season, it looks uncomfortably like the old Run-And-Shoot offenses of the 90s, offenses that often proved unsuccessful when those dome teams played outside in December.

Those teams also utilized the mid- to long-pass plays for the bulk of their yardage, while the Packers of the 90’s utilized an innovative West Coast Offense that emphasized the short passing game, particularly the screen play.

It would be remiss to note that perhaps the biggest execution difference from the 90’s Packers to the 2007 version is the failure to establish the screen pass successfully, and in a game like last Sunday’s, the screen pass was an effective weapon. We saw Kyle Orton execute the play over and over again, while Favre, once thought of as the finest screen passer of all time, had his passes batted down time and time again.

So, as we bemoan the loss of our teams’ cold-weather advantage we once held in the 90’s and early part of this decade, we have to look at the team we’ve built. Instead of a WCO that pounded the ball with hearty gusto in cold weather, keeping defenses honest and on their heels with effective screen passes, we have something that has a bit more in common with the old Run and Shoot…especially when the temperature drops and the wind picks up.

In other words, Mike McCarthy and his coaches have spit-and-wired this team to maximize what talent they have: a sign of a good coach. However, the double-edge of that sword came back to bite them on Sunday, when the spit-and-wire froze up in Chicago.

Perhaps Favre was correct when he felt the road to the Superdome might be easier on the artificial turf of Texas Stadium than at home in January. Only problem is, we have a home playoff game to play first.

I trust that Mike McCarthy is reviewing game film, and will continue to do so during the bye week in order to “spit-and-wire” this offense into a more familiar cold-weather structure. Let’s hope that it is enough.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A Tale of Two Punters

Out of all the darts that critics thrown at the reign of Mike Sherman, it may be his error as a coach that worsened his most decried move as a general manager.

In the forgettable 2004 draft, Mike Sherman likely sealed his fate as a soon-to-be-ex-GM with his first day picks, which included Ahmad Carroll, Joey Thomas, and Donnell Washington. But the pick that drew the most criticism was the third-round pickup of punter BJ Sander.

Picking a kicker on the first day is quite rare, and reserved for only the cream of the crop. In this past 2007 draft, the first kicker wasn’t taken until the fifth round. Punters, of course, are rarer than a blue moon on the first day of the draft. Sherman compounded the mistake by actually trading up to take Sander.

Now, the discussion and debate on the Sander pick has certainly been exhausted, but we’re not going to talk any more about the pick itself, but what happened afterwards. Because, what Sherman the GM did to Sander, putting an enormous amount of pressure to prove himself, was almost as bad as what Sherman the Coach did to him.

Kickers are an odd breed in football. While quarterbacks can throw harder, running backs can run faster, linemen can hit harder, and defenders can punish fiercer, when a kicker hits some frustration, they have only one thing they can do.

They go out and kick exactly the same way. Same motion. Same timing. Same focus. Like a golf swing. For all the differences in physical size a kicker has compared to the rest of his teammates, what sets him most apart is the methodical, repetitive job itself, and the lack of intensity he can bring to it. You can’t push yourself to “kick harder” or “kicker fiercer”.

As BJ Sander took the field that summer, he already had one huge strike against him: the frustration with Mike Sherman was being taken out on him by fans and media alike. That in and of itself has torched the careers of other kickers: Brett Conway is a great example.

But, it was at that point Sherman and his staff made another critical error that sealed Sander’s fate. Sander kicked his entire life as a three-step punter. It was his natural motion, honed for years and years: a style that made him successful in his years at Ohio State.

But, it was decided that that style wouldn’t be good enough in the NFL, and that Sander had to change it to a shorter approach. The reasoning was that, in the NFL, three steps will get your punt blocked.

But the move backfired completely. Taking a pressure-saturated kid, like Sander, already with the weight of his draft position hanging over his head, and forcing him to change how he did his job resulted in some of the ugliest shanks we’ve ever seen from a Packer punter. The control and timing of your punting approach is very much like your golf swing.

Changing your approach in training camp of the NFL, before the kid has had a chance to even adjust to the speed of the next level, is like honing your golf game for years and years. When you finally get your exemption to play in your first major as an amateur, your new coach tells you that you have to hit from the opposite side of the tee. “Take a couple practice shots, and you can master it while you play the tournament!” he says.

And we all know the results with BJ Sander, a kid who didn’t ask for his draft position, didn’t ask to be traded up for, and didn’t ask to have his entire style changed in training camp. He had three strikes against him before he took his first snap.

Now, fast forward to 2007. A new GM, a new coach, and also, a new punter. Jon Ryan earned kudos for a relatively uneventful but respectable rookie year as the punter for new coach Mike McCarthy. But, unnoticed during his 2006 campaign, when he averaged 44.5 yards per punt (good enough for 9th in the NFL), he also still kicked with his college and CFL style: a three-step approach, just like BJ Sander.

But Coach Mike McCarthy and special teams coach Mike Stock, just like Sherman and former special teams coach John Bonamengo, saw the three-step approach as a liability. They also knew that Ryan would be more effective if he could shorten his approach and get the ball off more quickly and consistently.

But, Stock and McCarthy did one thing very different: they discussed the idea with Ryan, but did not ask him to make any adjustments until after his first full season as the punter for the Green Bay Packers. Unlike Sander, who was asked to shorten to only a two-and-a-quarter step approach, Ryan is being asked to shave off a full step. But, he has been given a full offseason to work on it, with the confidence of entering 2007 as a veteran.

The reasons for the change, according to McCarthy, are Ryan’s inconsistent hang-times, which he says affected his 35.7 net yards per punt. Ryan’s net average ranked in the bottom ten of NFL punters.

"We need to be more consistent in the punting," said McCarthy during the last minicamp. "That's something we addressed in our team goals for the upcoming year."

So far, the difference between how Stock and McCarthy have handled the punting situation seems to be paying off.

"It was Coach Stock's idea, but I recognized last year there were times when I could have been more consistent," Ryan said. "If you look at it on film, my steps were getting too long, and I was too out of control. We thought if I could eliminate that first step and just take two steps, everything would be more compact and more consistent.

“I feel more comfortable with this than I did last year at this time with the three steps," Ryan continued. "Hopefully, that's going to show come training camp and during the season that I worked on it and improved a lot."

Indeed, Ryan’s offseason efforts appear to have made a difference in his performance so far at the minicamps. Not only has his power seemed more consistent, he is kicking the directional punts with more command than he had at any time last season.

You can stick a feather in coach Mike McCarthy’s hat. He recognized a need, but had the wisdom to realize that not only would he very possibly mess up a punter’s approach by changing him on the fly as a new punter in the NFL, but, like Sander, possibly mess up his entire career. McCarthy bit the bullet with Ryan last season, allowing him to build up his confidence before proposing a change that would require a lot of time and patience for him to have confidence in himself.

"It's a big change, but I think I put enough hours into it this offseason that the more I reps I got, the more comfortable I got," Ryan said. "I'd say I'm about 90 percent comfortable with it. I think it will increase hang time. I don't think power is my problem. It's just harnessing that power a little bit more and trying to be more consistent."

And so, as BJ Sander sits, unemployed by the NFL, many say he has no one to blame but himself. But many things were way out of his control, and the decision to make changes to his approach as a rookie may have been his ticket out of the NFL before he ever got a chance to make a regular season attempt.

Someday, Sander may be able to look at a young Canadian punter who some will claim has the ability to make adjustments better than BJ did. The comparisons are inevitable, and there are enough people out there who still find the need to keep the crosshairs on Sander in order to justify their dissatisfaction with Sherman.

Or, Jon Ryan can look back upon this offseason, and be thankful that Stock and McCarthy learned from the mistakes of the past. Ryan may indeed become a solid, successful punter in the NFL, and the Packers can proudly state they did not even waste a draft pick on him.

BJ Sander will likely be watching Packer games on television this upcoming season, but his experiences may have paved the way for another man to have the success his draft position suggested he should have had.

"It's more mental than anything, believing that you can still get the same amount of power with shorter strides," Ryan said. "The toughest thing is just getting over that mental hurdle. Once you get over that, you're fine."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bye Week a Fair Time for Progress Report

As I have stated a couple of times, this season is really the "Where's the Beef?" year for Thompson, and unfortunately, Mike McCarthy. After a couple of seasons of cap-clearing and "Wait and See", 2007 is the year I think we can and should give a solid progress assessment to the direction Ted is taking the team.

The reason I include poor Mike in there is that he only signed a three-year contract. This means at the end of 2007, he is a lame-duck coach. It is very rare that a coach makes it to his final year of his contract. If he is worth keeping around, he is extended. If he's not, he is often let go, as the spectre of being a lame-duck coach can hurt free agency and the morale of the team.

So, Mike has a bit of onus on him, too, though I don't know if it deserved. He really has been given a lot of youth to work with instead of a lot of proven veteran talent, so it puts an unfair burden on him to show he's made progress, which can be very subjective.

Anyway, with all the talk about our 4-game winning streak and how even Harlan has stated that he wants to use that as a springboard for this season, I am offering that our first six games are critical in establishing where this team is at. Very few of our rookies are being projected to start this year, so we should have veterans at nearly every position, the only exceptions being possibly Jackson at RB (though he likely will be part of a rotation) and Harrell at DT (though he will likely be a part of a rotation).

We have a bye in Week 7. How fair of a six-game set will that be for us to make some initial progress grades?

Four of the six games are at home. So much has been talked of re-establishing our dominance at home, and this is four chances to establish a winning record to start the season.

Two of the games are against our biggest inter-division rivals, the Bears and the Vikings, with the Bears at home (where they beat us last year) and at the Metrodome (where we got a rare win). Rivalry games are where your true colors come out and the measuring stick gets a lot more exacting.

Last year, we made a point about "quality wins", in which the Packers were not all that good against teams with winning records. As it turns out, the Packers went 7-2 against teams with losing records last year, which means they went 1-6 versus teams with a .500 record or above.

To improve over last season, they need to play competitively against better teams. The first six games offer three teams with winning records from 2006, one with a .500 record, and two with a losing record.

These six games will address those three issues, all of which are indicators of a quality team: winning at home, winning in the division, and beating the teams you should.

This microcosm will be a litmus test for the season, a check to see if the four-game winning streak was the rule or the aberration.

Is there a benchmark we should set for that progress report? I think it is too early to judge without seeing a training camp and a final roster, but I'll tentatively put out that the Packers should be at least 3-3 at the bye week. I, of course, reserve the right to change that prediction based on what I see this summer, but I think if we're going to judge this team, as we should, by wins and losses as the ultimate grading tool, we should see at least .500 ball with four games at home.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Donald Driver is a Future Hall of Famer, But....

Donald Driver is a future Packer Hall of Famer. But he's not what you call a gifted athlete, and certainly far from a freakish talent.

He may not be a great route runner, but he does one thing very well: he is a receiver that a quarterback can rely on. And for that reason, Favre will get him the ball, because he knows Driver can catch it.

Face it: the supporting cast around Driver has been a revolving door of unfulfilled potential and marginal talent since 2004, when it could be stated we had perhaps the most solid top three wide receivers (and at least serviceable tight ends) in the league. Walker/Driver/Ferguson in 2004 was perhaps the best trio we've had in decades.

But since then, we haven't had anyone besides Driver that any quarterback can count on consistently. I could care less about whether or not the term "stumble-bums" can or cannot be used: the Packers had the highest number of drops in the league last year, and almost the highest drop ratio...when you consider that Brett is throwing for record-breaking numbers of attempts, that is inexcusable.

I'm not going to buy that these street free agents and waiver wire guys are suddenly going to play like starters simply because they've developed or are being competitive with the rookies. I hope that these draft picks are an actual influx of talent, but I still only visualize one of the two making the team, and as a third or fourth receiver.

As much as folks tried to make out the gang of Holliday, Brewster, and Martin as "great young talent" last year, I don't think they're going to be the answer...and this receiving corps needs an answer besides Driver.

The answer isn't being a freakish talent, or an egomaniacal punk, or a speed demon. It's a guy who will consistently go get and hang on to the ball.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Other Shoe: Front-Loaded Contracts

I'm as much a fan of front-loaded contracts as anyone. However, about ten years ago, EVERYONE though back-loaded contracts were the best thing since sliced bread. They hadn't yet experienced life when the final years came due and the cap acceleration was crippling.

So, I'm just thinking construcivistly...what's going to be the "other shoe" with front-loaded contracts?

What if a lot of the front-loaded contracted players end up having great seasons, then look at their salary in year 3 out of 5 and pull a Javon/McKenzie/Harris...where the contract was fine a few years ago, but not anymore?

By the way, I'm not intending this as a slight towards Packers GM Ted Thompson. I'm pretty happy with how he's signed those players to such contracts, and the fact that he has not put himself in any cap hell in the future.

I just wonder if there's going to be a dark side we're not seeing yet to going the other direction

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ted Thompson: Draft Lessons Learned?

As the sun sets on the first day of Ted Thompson's first day of the 2007 draft, one can guess that he’s possibly grinding his teeth a little bit as he prepared to catch some shut-eye.

Criticism wasn’t in short supply for Thompson’s first-day picks, and for the first time, Ted even lashed out a bit at the media for questioning those picks, at one point asking them if they’d rather he send down a scout to talk to them, as he wasn’t going to shoot holes in the kids he had selected.

The young players not only are relatively well-regarded, but they addressed some moderate needs the team was facing: a big defensive tackle to anchor the line next to Ryan Pickett; a smallish running back already used to zone blocking and the WCO; an athletic (albeit slow) young wide receiver that can return kicks; and a hard-hitting safety to challenge Marquand Manuel in the backfield.

No one can argue these players are all solid picks. The question comes in whether or not they would have been available ten picks later.

Ted Thompson built a two-year reputation on “backwards-thinking”, of looking at his targeted players and trading back to get them, and more picks to boot! Thompson amassed an amazing 23 draft picks his first two seasons, with many of them taking on starting roles.

But one situation last season may have affected Thompson’s sudden reverse: why not use the trade-down to get the same player plus more talent this year, too?

Last season, Green Bay held the 36th pick in the draft and seemed poised to take Chad Jackson, one of the heralded wide receivers available last year. However, the New England Patriots wanted Jackson and offered the Packers picks #52 and #75. Thompson has been rumored to have had Greg Jennings high on his draft board, but knew he’d be able to pick him up well after pick #36.

Following the trade, he indeed selected Jennings at #52. Another player that insiders have said Thompson had high on his board was Wisconsin running back Brian Calhoun, and nearly every mock draft had him going in the 70’s. It was a calculated risk to get the player he wanted, a player that would have been a great insurance policy for an injured Ahman Green, and a good fit for the new blocking scheme.

However, the Detroit Lions snuck in and grabbed Calhoun with pick #74, likely a disappointment for Thompson, who didn’t select a single running back the rest of that draft. Amusingly enough, out of 23 draft picks in his first two seasons, not one of them was a running back.

Missing out on Calhoun may have stung Thompson more than we thought, because in this year’s draft, we’re seeing a rather radical departure from what has been Thompson’s usual method: if the guy you are targeting is there, and will likely be there later, trade down.

When I heard Justin Harrell’s name, I didn’t blink an eye or scream in pain. His name had been coming up more and more over the past week or so as a distinct possibility, though more often with a trade-down into the 20’s. Most mock drafts had him going around #32 to the Colts.

But it struck me odd that Thompson elected to take the guy right then and there at #16. Almost immediately, he was open to as much criticism as Miami had taken for selecting Ted Ginn, Jr. in the top ten. Was he afraid he might end up missing Harrell if he went down to 30? Or even 25? Or even 20?

Thompson’s resolve was tested again when he traded down with the Jets in the second round. It’s quite possible that he was hoping to get one of the big fullbacks or halfbacks while moving down from #47 to #63. As it turned out, a run on running backs happened almost right after that trade, with Kenny Irons, Chris Henry, and Brian Leonard all disappearing by pick #52.

Could Thompson have traded down from #63 and still managed to get running back Brandon Jackson? Quite possible, but despite seeing Jackson projected as a third or fourth round selection, Thompson made the pick right there in the second.

Similar stories might be told for third-round picks WR James Jones and S Aaron Rouse, both of whom were pegged to go a bit later than where they did.

This is not to say that the players selected were unworthy, or will not become successful players. In each case, the players seem to have talents and skills that not only address needs on the team, but are all stand-up players of good character. Chances are these guys are “Packer People”.

The question is, though, if they could have been acquired later on, why didn’t we maximize the draft as we have in years’ past with Thompson’s patented trade-down? Were there any phone calls or offers on the table, or was Ted focused on not letting his targets get by?

All four of these guys, like all first-day picks, are expected to take on starting roles (Harrell) or strong contributing roles this season. All may do very well, and Thompson would be given strong credit for a strong draft.

But, whether this draft is strong or weak, whether you think it was genius or idiotic, one thing seems to be true: this wasn’t the same Ted Thompson, expertly finagling picks and still getting the guys on his board, bringing in large crops of talent from the draft.

No, this Thompson was true to his board, and when the pick came up, he took the guy who was highest-ranked on his board, and spent less time looking at how the rest of the league might value those guys. As a result, we may end up with much fewer picks this draft, and not necessarily an improvement in the talent level we’d have had we traded down.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Nick Barnett: Three Key Answers

A while back, I authored an article called "Three Key Questions" about Nick Barnett, and questioned whether or not Ted Thompson OR Barnett would be able to come to a deal this off-season. Well, now that the deal has been signed, let's review those questions and provide some conjecture on how they were answered.

Question Number One: How much value do the Green Bay Packers place on Nick Barnett?

In my original article, I questioned whether or not Ted Thompson would see Nick Barnett as a part of this team for the foreseeable future, and if he'd be worth a Adalius Thomas-esque $12 million signing bonus.

Well, he got a $10 million signing bonus, quite a load for a middle linebacker that hasn't seen a Pro Bowl as yet. That isn't anything to say that Barnett isn't worth it, but it is clear in the eyes of Ted Thompson that he is.

More so, it is clear that in the eyes of Ted Thompson, Nick Barnett was worth passing up similar-sized contracts for many of this year's free agents to keep that cap space clear for Barnett. I've been scratching my head for weeks wondering how in the world the Packers were going to spend $22 million in salary cap space, and the only two things that I could conclude was the Packers were going to pay big bucks to Nick Barnett, or pay big bucks for Randy Moss.

Amusingly, as the rumors for Moss have gone from "imminent" to "still on the table" to "still a possibility" to "dead in the water", Barnett got wrapped up with the big deal he'd been wanting. Whether or not the two potential deals were related as an "or" situation, we may never know.

Incidentally, imagining that Barnett will count between $6-10 million against this year's cap, and the draft class will take up another $7 million, it doesn't leave much money left over to bring on a certain malcontent wide receiver, does it?

In one fell swoop, Thompson made one good signing, and one good non-signing with this deal.

It is also clear that Ted Thompson valued Nick Barnett more than the free agents on the market: he essentially gave an Adelius Thomas-sized contract to one of his own instead of an UFA. That speaks volumes about both Thompson's assessment of those free agents versus his assessment of Barnett.

It also makes us wonder, just a little, if signing your own good/not great player to a huge deal is any better or worse than signing the good/not great players in free agency to similar deals.

Question Number Two: What is more important to Nick Barnett, team loyalty or a big payday?

I predicted at the time that a deal for Barnett would likely cost us around $9.4 against this year's cap, assuming that Thompson had few other options to spend money elsewhere, and that, wisely, he would spend all he could today in order to preserve room for tomorrow.

While we don't know for sure yet, that number could indeed be close. And the answer to the question was one I forgot to mention: both A) and B ).

It appears that Barnett may have taken a slight hometown discount to stay in Green Bay, but rumors right now estimate that he has signed a $35 million dollar deal.

That's a pretty good deal, even though, according to Barnett's agent, that is on the "low end" of what he was expecting with a new deal.

Adelius Thomas, this season's line-backing free agent prize, signed a five year deal worth $35 million, though almost $20 million of that was guaranteed.

Now, as happy as a moment as this is for us Packer fans, let's be honest: this was an awfully good deal for a linebacker who hasn't made a Pro Bowl, and whose statistical success is measured by leading the team in tackles, not sacks, interceptions, or tackles for loss.

Barnett didn't have to choose between team loyalty or the big paycheck. He got the best of both worlds today, and Ted had the money to spend it with.

Now, of course, we can make the comparison that Barnett would have made more in free agency. Funny thing is, Adalius Thomas was given the same criticism, that he signed for less money to be in a place he wanted to be.

However, we can say that the deal Thomas got ($7M per year) is pretty even with what we're expecting from Barnett's details ($6 mil per year).

Question Number Three: How much faith do the Packers have in Abdul Hodge?

In all of this hubbub and celebration of (finally) a signing, Abdul Hodge's status is quietly going unnoticed. But don't think it is going unnoticed in 1265.

Certainly, you can never have too many good players, but you would think that if Aaron Rodgers was truly ready, and the coach and GM believed it, why would they continue to pay Brett Favre over $10 million a year?

Probably because he's not ready. And may not even be the answer.

If the Packer brass really though Abdul Hodge was the next big thing, would they have signed Barnett to a $6 mil a year contract?

My guess is, probably not. Thompson has shown incredible faith in his line-backing picks before, essentially giving Brady Poppinga every opportunity to win the strong side job in his second year, despite coming off relatively serious injury.

He apparently doesn't have that same faith in Hodge, and Barnett appears to be in the fold for many, many years as a result.

Three questions.

Three answers.

Number 56 will be patrolling the field, sideline to sideline, for the foreseeable future. Ted Thompson saw him as an important cog in the rebuilding process, and Barnett saw dollar signs being offered to keep him here, where he started and has endured probably as many negatives as positives over the past few years (revolving door of defensive coordinators, the hassles with his nightclub).

Now, the burden of proof will be on both Thompson and Barnett to make this Adalius Thomas-esque contract worth the cap space.

Barnett is being paid like a line-backing elite, and the pressure will be now on him to produce like one.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nick Barnett: Three Key Questions

NBAs the free agent frenzy has died down, the mob that is the fan base of the Green Bay Packers are looking at the $20 million dollars still available in salary cap space, the now-real possibility that Randy Moss's salary will not be taking up half that amount, and wondering: when are we going to get Nick Barnett back in the fold?

Barnett, 25, has manned the middle of the linebacking corps since his rookie season, and is now entering his unrestricted free agent contract year. Now, there are always a slough of criticisms to be brought up at times like this.

For one, people haven’t always been sold on Nick Barnett. He’s undergone criticism for overrunning plays, not being the prototypical MLB, and of course, never making a Pro Bowl.

Ted Thompson can also come under a bit of criticism, as he had some of last year’s cap space available to push through to this year. Instead of choosing to lock up Barnett, who was asking to be locked up, Ted let it roll over into this season, and now may be looking at losing a player or grossly overpaying for him.

Criticism aside, all rumors suggest that the Packers and Barnett’s agent are “talking”, but nothing has suggested a deal is close, much less imminent. As Adalius Thomas, the new New England Patriot linebacker, can attest, free agency is probably going to be a lot more profitable for Nick Barnett, especially if he proves himself to finally be a Pro Bowl talent in 2007.

Thomas signed a five-year deal with a $12 million signing bonus, and will pocket $22 million between now and December 2008. Peter King commented that the Patriots have mortgaged the future to win now with Thomas, who, while only counting $3.4 million against the cap in 2007, will have cap numbers of $5.4 million, $6.4 million, $9.4 million, and $10.4 million over the next four years.

Mortgaging the future doesn’t sound like Ted Thompson’s M.O. But, you can be sure that somewhere in the NFL, there is a team that will be willing to throw that kind of money at Nick Barnett next offseason.

And you can be sure that Barnett and his agent are acutely aware of that, too.

Which bring us back to the potentially polarizing topic of Thompson attemting to extend Barnett’s contract. Other than Randy Moss, there is perhaps no topic right now that people are more diversely opinionated on: the value of Nick Barnett. While I have few answers for you today, I will offer three questions that, when answered, will tell us whether or not #56 will be a staple in the Green and Gold for the foreseeable future.

Question Number One: How much value do the Green Bay Packers place on Nick Barnett?

The Packer linebacker will be making a mere $1.9 million base salary this upcoming year, with a pro-rated bonus push that will set his cap space at $3.6 million, ranking tenth on the present Packer roster.

That’s a good deal for a solid linebacker who’s been on the cusp of a Pro Bowl, and has led the team in tackles multiple times. But if you renegotiate, where is the point that it becomes too much coin for the same player?

Interestingly enough, Barnett’s and Adelius Thomas’s 2007 cap figures are pretty similar, but we know the comparison ends there. Is Barnett worth $5.4 million later? $9.4 million later?

And most of all, is he worth keeping on a back-loaded contract that will cost us a mint to trade or cut later on? The logic with all the present space would be, unlike Thomas’s contract, to put the bulk of his money at the front of the contract, and put that $9.4 figure on for this year.

But is that something that Thompson is willing to do? Does he see Nick Barnett as a premier middle linebacking talent worthy of a $12+ million signing bonus? Combined, Al Harris and Charles Woodson won’t cost us $10 million this upcoming season.

Barnett has been a solid player who has played through injury. I don’t think anyone will doubt that he is a solid Packer player who is good for the team. But critics say that if you place any decent player at the MLB position in the Packer scheme, they will rack up the tackles, too. He’s never had more than 3 sacks or interceptions in a season. Put AJ Hawk at middle linebacker, and he’ll do just as well, if not better, the critics say.

Now, Ted Thompson has a much better idea of what he has in Nick Barnett than any of us do. He knows the kind of locker room presence he has, knows the ability he has, and has a pretty good idea of the ceiling that this 25-year old player has.

How he answers this question will be evident in how much he’s willing to spend, because after not locking him up in 2006, the price tag just became much, much higher.

Question Number Two: What is more important to Nick Barnett, team loyalty or a big payday?

This question just became uncomfortably obvious when Thomas signed his contract with the Patriots. As the premier defensive player, and clearly the premier middle linebacker, in the 2006 version of free agency, he benefitted from the dollars being thrown around by teams for whom the pendalum has swung the other way. Teams that got burned in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s by back-loaded contracts and dead salary cap space learned to conserve, and now more and more teams are sitting with surpluses and looking for players to spend it on.

Nick Barnett would already be a top defensive player in 2008, certainly in the caliber of Nate Clements, who also got an ungodly amount of money in free agency. Now, add a year and more cap space to the 2008 totals, and possibly a Pro Bowl season by Barnett, and the cast is set for him to truly strike pay dirt, with signing bonuses exceeding $15 million.

Or, he can stay with the Packers for less.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Ted Thompson is going to try and sign him for less than what he’s going to get on the open market. The question is, would Barnett be willing to settle for it?

Barnett may indeed be getting tired of Green Bay, too. His nightclub docudrama has gone on now for over a year, and the frustration of a young man feeling like he’s being attacked unfairly by the people of the city he’s playing in may be growing old, real fast.

Ted could also place a franchise tag on Barnett after the season. The 2007 linebacker franchise number is around $6.4 million, so add a bit to that, especially with Adalius Thomas’s contract.

While I don’t have a definitive answer for this question, I think there’s a pretty clear direction that any 25 year-old with a limited career lifespan is going to lean towards: payday. While Barnett may take less money to stay in Green Bay, its not going to be a lot less. And while many of us may spit and decry the obscene amounts of money being thrown at these free agents nowadays, who among us can begrudge the players themselves for signing on the dotted line?

Question Number Three: How much faith do the Packers have in Abdul Hodge?

This may end up being Ted Thompson’s ace in the hole, because right now, his hand isn’t looking all that good as it relates to Nick Barnett. Barring injury, Barnett has every motivation to play out this season at the highest level he’s ever played at, and then move on to the highest bidder.

When Thompson picked up Abdul Hodge in the third round of the draft last year, many Packers fans raised an eyebrow. Why would we be drafting a linebacker, a middle linebacker, when we already have a first rounder playing the position? Why would we draft a MLB whose abilities don’t translate well to the strong-side, where we didn’t have a proven or set starter at the time?

As many of us suspected at the time, Thompson may have been planning ahead for this moment. Maybe, answering question number one, he didn’t believe that Barnett was as valuable as many of us thought. Maybe, answering question number two, he didn’t believe that he would be worth as much money as he would be commanding someday.

And so, enter Abdul Hodge, undersized but played at a high level in college. His 2006 season was more obscure than it was proving himself an heir apparent, starting one game at Seattle and garnering 12 tackles, and snagging a mid-air fumble from Matt Hasselback and returning it for a touchdown.

But things went downhill from there. Barnett returned from injury, and Hodge developed his own, a shoulder problem that kept him on the bench during the four-game winning streak.

How Hodge develops will play a big part in how negotiations continue to progress with Nick Barnett. If he ends up being an injury-prone, undersized linebacker, the Packers may be forced to pony up for Barnett or begin searching for his replacement. If Hodge ends up being the force he was at Iowa, Thompson may just find #55 as able to fill the MIKE spot as #56, and save a little coin in the process.

Three questions.

Over the next few months, these three questions will likely get answers, and we will know if Nick Barnett is destined for the Packer Hall of Fame or on to his big payday.

Both offer a lot of “green” and “gold”, though with different defintions. It will depend which is more important to Barnett, and how important it is to Ted Thompson to keep him here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thompson Smart With First Week of Free Agency

Imagine for a second that you are standing on the edge of a long, narrow gorge that is infinitely deep and roughly around ten feet across. You need to get to the other side.

And it’s a long way down.

Now, imagine standing on the same side of the gorge with you are 31 other folks, each also evaluating how they would like to cross the gorge. Many options are open to you, but one thing is for certain: the goal is to get across, as there is a brass ring hanging from a branch over there.

I see this gorge as the challenges an NFL general manager must face as it tries to get back to his team’s ultimate goal: winning a championship, which waits for those who can make it to the other side.

But as we look at each of these 32 teams standing on the edge, not all of them have the same distance to cross. Some of them, particularly the most talented teams, may have only five feet to clear before they make it to the other side. Because the talent is so “close” being a great team already, their challenges aren’t as great. They don’t have as many holes to fill, and, as we’ve heard many times, the brass ring is within reach.

But, other teams like, say, Oakland or Tampa Bay, have perhaps fifteen or twenty feet to clear before reaching the other side. They have many holes to fill, and it is obvious that the task of reaching the brass ring on the other side is going to take some careful planning and preparation.

My point in this analogy? The first week of free agency has passed, and we’ve seen many teams in the league make some flying leaps at some talented and some not-so-talented free agents, with money coming flying out their pockets to bring them in.

Paying big bucks for a free agent, to me, is like trying to solve the problem of getting across the gorge by taking a running start and trying to jump across that gorge. And, depending on the width you have to clear, it’s apparent you’re taking quite a risk in lieu of some good, proper planning and work.

So, what teams can get away with big splashes in free agency? Well, as previously mentioned, there are some teams with only a few feet to clear, whose talent is high and may only need that one player to come in and make the difference. It’s likely that a team like Seattle in 2005, or even New England perpetually, can make these flying leaps and land on two feet on the other side.

But to take a flying leap from a long distance is suicide, as we’ve seen the Oakland Raider suffer through this season, ending up 2006 with only a handful of players actually under contract and having those players take up a whopping amount of salary cap space.

If you fall down the gorge, the eventual reality is that you have to climb back up and try again.

Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, gave effusive praise to Packers’ and Titan’s GM’s Ted Thompson and Mike Reinfeldt (both protégés of Ron Wolf) for their willingness to stay on the safe side of that gorge, watching other teams take flying leaps with free agents, burning cap space, and taking incredible risks.

Some teams, like New England, a perpetual playoff team, can utilize free agency to fill the holes they have and remain competitive, and for them, it’s an easy jump to the other side.

Other teams, like San Francisco, who took one of the first flying leaps, is still flying through midair, but my guess is once December rolls around, they won’t be standing next to New England. That’s the risk you take when you leap before you look, and why today’s free agency is nothing like it was back in the 1990’s.

Of course, the Packers back then were once looking over perhaps a two-foot gap in that gorge, and invested in players like Don Beebe, Desmond Howard, Sean Jones, and Keith Jackson to give them their running jump in 1996.

But today’s Packers aren’t looking like the 1996 team, and Ted Thompson deserves credit for his restraint in avoiding the desperate player grab that several other teams now find themselves in, floating in mid-air with buyer’s remorse.

With that ten-foot gorge in front of them, it’s going to take some careful planning, clever manipulation of the raw materials, and a commitment to getting the job done. But as Ted and Mike look down the gorge, chances are they are going to see at least half of the other folks didn’t make the big jump, either.

It’s one thing to sit and congratulate yourself on being smart enough to not make the high-risk leap. But, the fact of the matter is, those teams that didn’t make that jump are still sitting on the wrong side of the gorge, and now is the time to start assembling your method of getting across.

You see, just standing still isn’t going to get you the brass ring either. And now, all those general managers are going to begin the process of building their bridge across the gorge. Some will choose to build through the draft, as many of us suspect our own GM is going to approach this season.

That’s a pretty wise idea, if you can pull it off. If you think about it, last year, the Packers could have probably spent that #5 pick on nearly any position on either side of the ball, and had a case for it. This season, spending our first pick on a linebacker, defensive lineman, cornerback, or interior offensive linemen would probably raise an eyebrow. We have more pieces in place, but as many have noticed, we also still have many holes to fill.

That is the challenge that Ted Thompson now has: building that bridge to get to the other side. He has some faith that some of the rails he laid down last year will be sturdy enough to hold some weight this year. He has made statements that he feels comfortable with some of the talent we have at running back, wide receiver, and safety (some of our areas identified as highest in need).

But, don’t doubt if the right “equipment” comes along that Thompson won’t be afraid to pull out some boards and replace them (Marshawn Lynch? LaRon Landry?).

So, while we can rest assured our general manager didn’t do the foolish thing in taking a flying leap of the ledge, the true test is still ahead of him: since he didn’t bite on any expensive free agents, what is he going to do to improve the 2007 product over the 2006 product? Are there any cap casualties from other teams that might make a difference? Did some of the shaky talent we saw last season going to prove to make a solid foundation this season? And will we use that sixteenth pick or trade down for quantity over quality?

There’s no such thing as an off-season Super Bowl, and there are no medals to be pinned ten days into the free agency period. What we will watch for now is what Ted Thompson does to build that bridge to the brass ring.

Hopefully, even if it takes another season or two, we will see that bridge inch a little closer to the other side. And hopefully, the bridge won’t collapse halfway through, making us wish we had just jumped to begin with.

Monday, March 5, 2007

How To Polarize Your Fan Base (Step One: Sign Randy Moss)

Well, the rumor mill is churning out the impending Randy Moss Apocolypse to happen any day now, and the reaction among the Packer faithful is certainly powerful.

Certainly, the size of a thread entitled "Randy Moss" is already a significant sign that, if he does don the Green and the Gold, that his name will probably end up in its own seperate forum.

But, let's get to the aftershock, and more specifically, how it will affect the other Most Talked About Guy At PackerChatters, Ted Thompson. You see, the title of this thread isn't about whether or not bringing in Moss would affect our support for the Packers. If we lived through Charles Martin, we're going to continue being Packers fans, no matter what (there might be a few exceptions, of course, but you get my drift).

No, this is about the support system for Ted Thompson, the general manager, and how the aquisition of Randy Moss is going to affect how people view him. And, it will.

Right now, it is relatively evident that Packer Mundo is becoming more and more polarized on Thompson as it is. His eschewing of free agency, his quiet, passive-appearing approach, and the idea of a slow rebuild while Brett Favre is in potentially his last season has certainly divided the fan base into two sides: those that voraciously attack Thompson, and those that voraciously defend him.

Let's take a closer look, though. Who tends to make up these groups? I will avoid political terms to avoid any intellectual dishonest minimalization of the concept I'm trying to get across.

The Thompson Supporters tend to be what I'll call the "traditionalists". These are the folks who have bought into the idea of a methodical rebuild, who are willing to take the growing pains that come along with it. They don't get too worked up, even if a desired free agent slips by. They celebrate trading down in the draft and pride themselves on being able to say, someday, "see, told you I was right."

But most of all, these "traditionalists" don't want to see us make any stupid, impulsive mistakes that would plunge us back into the 70's and 80's.

The Thompson Critics tend to be what I'll call the "revolutionaries". These are the folks who look at the immediate success of other teams and want to see action made with our team now. They grow frustrated when players they feel could help the team slip by, even though we have room to spend on them. They fear losing now will create a habit of losing in the future, and that being passive is worse than making an aggressive mistake.

But most of all, these "revolutionaries" don't want us want to see us make any stupid, hesitant mistakes that would plunge us back into the 70's and 80's.

Now, of couse, there are the invisible middle-ground people who are objective, balanced, and thoughtful. As a result, they are completely ignored and scorned by both sides of the debate. We will call them "daywalkers".

This ongoing "Less Filling, Tastes Great" free-for-all would probably last all offseason long, until the draft, with both sides digging in and developing their stances. But something is going to come along in the next few days that is going to turn this particular debate on its ear.

And that, of course, is Randy Moss.

How Moss will affect the Packers team, the authority of young coach McCarthy, aging quarterback Brett Favre, young receiver Greg Jennings, and the salary cap are all items that will be up for heavy debate.

But I want to thoughtfully think how this will affect Ted Thompson, and the opinions of those who both support and criticize him.

First of all, whether you agree with the move or not, it is clear and obvious that trading away draft picks for an aging and oft-injured wide receiver that will take up a huge chunk of salary cap space is way out of character for what we have grown to expect from Ted Thompson. Ted has built his reputation, like it or not, on eschewing the risks of free agency, not taking expensive chances on second-tier players, and regarding his draft choices as gold.

You can throw all that out the window when he trades what is rumored to be at least a first-day pick for the honor of taking on both Randy Moss's contract and attitude.

Now, if Randy Moss comes in, has a 90-catch, 1500 yard, 15 TD season, Thompson will be hailed by both sides as a hero and a legend, and that third statue will finally be erected next to Curly and Vince.

However, the risk for Thompson, who is often praised for not doing things just to please fans, may end up being much greater. In the end, we are all Packer fans, and that takes precendence over being a Thompson fan, or a fan of any player or figure in the organization.

At risk of oversimplifying matters, how would it affect our three groups?

My prediction with the "traditionalists" is that many will be uncomfortable with the move. They are probably less likely to forgive and forget Moss's rap sheet, and will be even more uncomfortable with what appears to be a complete break from the strategy they all bought into and have been defending. The "traditionalists" have been waiting for that slow, methodical build, and now not only see the big, risky leap with a potentially locker room-destabilizing player, but a destabilizing of the salary cap structure they've so proudly admired for the last two season.

In other words, Thompson may see a lot of his supporters move from "I'm behind TT all the way" to "I'm cautiously optimistic". Or, in some cases, because of their particular feelings about Moss or their feelings about such a break in strategy, may go even further.

On the other side of the coin, the "revolutionaries" will be more likely to be happy with the move. They've been screaming for Thompson to "do something", and this would certainly qualify as a big splash. Moss is a playmaker, and a star, and a weapon. Even one of our board's biggest "revolutionaries" already admitted he would have to rethink his opinion on Thompson if he acquired Moss.

The problem in the long run? Well, "revolutionaries" are bit more impulsive, and a bit more desiring of immediate gratification. If Moss ends up have a season like he did in Oakland the past two seasons, it would follow that the "revolutionaries" would be more likely to become more critical of the move. This would then have both sides of the coin starting to move to a more critical stance of the guy calling the shots.

And the "daywalkers"? Well, I would definately say that bringing in Moss will get plenty of them off the fence, and we'll probably see less and less people being in the middle on Thompson.

Now, this is all a bit premature, as nothing has been officially announced yet, and there's always the possibility that we may have to wait until summer to find out if Moss is a Packer or not.

But, now, that is even an issue. Thompson may acquire him, and upset the people that have been backing his rebuilding process. Thompson could also end up not acquiring him, and after all the promise and excitement, end up upsetting the people that have been demanding a playmaker...or at least something.

Let it be said, however, that if Thompson does pull the trigger, this will be the most defining move of his career. And, we'll all be here to debate it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Why Brett's Return is Good for the Pack

BFAs we enter what seems to be Episode Six of the media-created furor that is Favre Wars: The Phantom Retirement, most of us have accepted that Favre's decision, for yea or for nay, should be coming within the next week or two.

With that clearly in mind, I would like to state for the record that I believe the Packers are a better team in 2007 with Brett Favre at the helm. Patronize me, and I will explain why.

First of all, I will tell you something you already know, and then something that may suprise you. First of all, Brett Favre is not the quarterback he was in the mid-90's. I'm not sure who would argue with that, except for the critics who declare a 3-time MVP and future HOFer should never make mistakes. That, however, is the part that shouldn't surprising to most of us.

The part that may hit some of us between the eyes is that Brett Favre isn't the quarterback of the first half of the 2000's, either. No, this is not Mike Sherman's Favre, the lightning rod that the entire team would sit back expectantly and wait for to go out and win the game for everyone, or go down trying (it didn't hurt the rest of the team that, as a result, Favre took the lion's share of blame when it didn't pan out, either). No, this Brett Favre has had some physical decline. There's a little less accuracy on his throws. He's admitted himself he doesn't trust his legs anymore. Yes, Virginia, there is a Brett Favre, and he is growing old.

But "old" doesn't necessarily mean "bad". The one thing that is for certain, though, is that this is not a Brett Favre that is going to be able to lift an entire team around him anymore. He used to be able to do that, but only a handful of quarterbacks in NFL history can actually claim ever being able to do that at all. So, he's gone from Superman to Batman.

Unfortunately, a young offensive line and an inconsistent ground game made Mike McCarthy do the unthinkable: despite declaring boldly at the beginning of the season that he was going to commit to the run, he actually had Brett throw even more times than his 2005 NFL and career high in pass attempts. The results, though, weren't as many last second drives and bombs for the win, as it was dropped passes, errant throws, and red zone stalls. The defense, also young and developing, got on the boat as the season went on, and began to do what it could to carry the team. The result was a 4-0 record to finish the season, albeit against perhaps lesser teams.

So, why are the Packers a better team with Brett Favre than without? For that, we need to do a short history lesson.

In 2005, Ted Thompson, the rookie general manager for the Packers, quietly watched his team floundered to a 4-12 record. Mysteriously, despite a bit of wiggle room with the cap, he watched as the offense literally lost important cogs to either free agency or injury, to the point that at the end of the season, only Favre, Tauscher, Clifton, Driver, and Henderson were left standing among the original starters. While stating he was committed to winning, it is evident now that 2005 was a cap-clearing year.

For fans of Favre, this was infuriating. Why not commit to winning today, to make the offense as strong as it could be? Well, injuries have a way of changing a team's fortunes, and many teams found themselves floundering with less injuries than the Packer had that year. Thompson followed the 2005 season by firing the coach, and leaving many guessing that Brett Favre was not a part of the future.

What followed was several months of a blinking contest, in which Favre held on to his retirement decision until the last possible second before deciding to return. As for me, I was hoping for him to retire, or to request a release. I felt that he deserved a better opportunity in his waning years to play with a winner, rather than continue to be a part of some rebuilding project. I wouldn't have begrudged him a bit had he decided to go play with any other team in the NFL. Okay, except the Bears. And Vikings. And Cowboys.

But here's the key: despite knowing he would be playing with a very unstable and inexperienced offensive line, despite knowing his receivers were not much improved over what he finished the season with in 2005, despite knowing that the running back situation was far from a sure thing with Ahman Green trying to return from serious injury, Favre elected to return. He said the right things. He did the right things. He came back for the right reasons, and it made me look at the situation in a different light.

But why would the Packers want him back? Aren't they rebuilding?

My usual disdain for Ted Thompson aside, I have to not-even-begrudgingly acknowledge that, now that it's evident he is doing a all-out rebuild (not a "reload" or a "revamp"), he is doing it the right way. Yes, Ted Thompson is rebuilding this team the right way. You heard me say it.

When you rebuild a team, you do NOT start with the quarterback. Ask Tim Couch, David Carr, Steve Young, and Akili Smith how they felt about being the "first piece of the puzzle", while waiting for the team around them to eventually be put in place. Not a very high success rate. To do it right, you start with the lines, both offensive and defense, and work on the rest of the defense first. Next, as the offensive line gels, you work on the running and receiving game.

When all those pieces are pretty much in place, or at least somewhat solid, you can place your young quarterback in there. Ask Phillip RIvers, Carson Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger how much success they've enjoyed compared to the aforementioned "starter pieces".

It's very possible that Aaron Rodgers is that guy, that young quarterback who will finish this puzzle. The problem is, this puzzle is barely even started, especially on offense. It is very possible that many key starters from 2006 will be gone by 2008 (Green, Clifton, Henderson, Franks, even Driver). The offensive line is still developing, and it is going to be time for Thompson to begin working on finding the next true running back, and the next tight end, and the next WR to play opposite Greg Jennings (he probably had him with Terrance Murphy, unfortunately). The rest of the offense are mostly rookies and former practice squad players.

If I truly believed that Aaron Rodgers was ready, I would be supporting him as a starter. But at this point, I don't think Rodgers has what it takes to be a starter in this environment. Now, don't take that as some Rodgers-Bashing-Hating statement. I do think he can develop and be a solid game manager, but not without a solid running game (ours finished 23rd in the league in ypg and scoring), not without solid reliable receivers (Packer receivers led the league in dropped passes, and had the second-highest drops per attempt in the league), and not without solid red-zone targets (Bubba Franks finished with a career-low receptions (25) and no touchdowns for the first time in his career).

Now, factoring in an offensive line that needed extra blockers in for protection purposes (according to former offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski) and Rodgers' lack of pressure awareness and labored reads would lead me to believe that he would get hurt in his first significant playing time of the season.

Oh, wait. He did.

I don't know what Thompson's plan is for this season, but I am assuming after prettying up contracts for Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett, and Al Harris, he has only one glaring hole to fix on the defense (free safety). This frees up a lot of draft picks and salary cap space to start working on the offense this year. Perhaps Marshawn Lynch or Tony Hunt will be brought in to split time with Ahman as the torch prepares to be passed. Perhaps a wide receiver-rich draft class will produce some true talent in the ranks. Perhaps a solid veteran will be brought in along the offensive line, paving the way for Daryn Colledge to replace Chad Clifton at tackle.

Which brings us back to Brett Favre, the old man of the game, who is showing signs of being "only mortal" behind the line. The Packers will benefit from having his savvy back there. No, they won't be able to do the old "sit back and wait for him to win the game for us" trick that marked much of the early 2000's, and even a bit of 2006. But what Favre brings to the table right now is exactly what this offense needs: a savvy ability to sense pressure and move within the pocket to evade it. This lets the line off the hook often, and gives the receivers more time to gain seperation with their second and third moves, instead of hoping for something on their first.

He still has a rocket arm, but doesn't need it. He cut his interceptions down this season, despite passing more and having more dropped passes than any point in his career. But the biggest question has to be: why would he be coming back?

In his own admission, the only record he cares about, the starting streak, he already owns. He's not likely to play for a team that will go deep into the playoffs this season, as a more difficult schedule awaits a team that has only a #16 pick in the draft, instead of a #5.

Ted Thompson is essentially saying, "Brett, feel free to keep playing, and when we're ready to make the big step forward, we're probably going to bring in someone else to play quarterback."

If Brett Favre is fine with this, and Ted Thompson is fine with this, I'm fine with him being a $10 million dollar segue. For now, it is far better than watching Aaron Rodgers or some other project finding his way to the injured reserve list by the sixth week of the season. He brings stability and experience to an offense that is going to be going through much more flux in the next season or two.

In watching the recent ESPN retrospective of John Elway, you can't help but be moved by the emotion he felt at announcing his retirement after his 38th birthday, fretting about leaving too early rather than too late, wondering if there was anything left in the tank that he could have used to spend playing a game he could never return to. This isn't an easy decision for Favre to make, either four years ago when the media storm started, to today, when the media has finally learned that there are better things to worry about.

Any Packer fan wishes Favre could go out like John Elway, a game manager playing with an innovative defense and perhaps the strongest running game in the league at the time, and getting a ring for both hands. It's not likely that Favre will leave with that glory, getting to go out on top.

If Favre does decide that playing with a young group of kids is worth his time and a little bit of change, then the Packers will be the better off for it in 2007. If he decides against it, the Packers are far from doomed, though you will see Ted Thompson have to go to plan "I have another $10 million to spend and no marquee quarterbacks to spend it on!".

The Packers will survive, and will go on to have great seasons, sooner or later, whether Favre retires now or next year.

But we don't plan for "sooner or later". We plan for today, and right now, Favre still makes this team better with him suited up than sitting on a tractor.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Packer 1-6 in Quality Wins in 2006

Do McCarthy and Thompson actually have the ship turned around yet?

A statistical football fansite,, takes DVOA a step further in trying to show exactly how a team is performing using numbers and statistics.

One statistic that I found interesting was the fact that the Packers finished only 1-6 this past season in what they call "quality wins".

Quality wins are defined as such:

"These are complete NFL standings based solely upon each team's performance against "quality opponents" – that is, against teams with winning records. Strip away the dead-weight detritus of games played against poor and mediocre opponents, and you get a much clearer picture of the true nature of a team. Quality Standings are more important than overall standings because every year there are teams that pad their records by beating up weak opponents. The Quality Wins Quotient tells you which teams have had cakewalk schedules and which teams are truly battle-tested."

In the quality standings, the Packers ended up in last place in the NFC North, and there were only three teams in the NFL with worse quality records than the Packers (Buffalo, Atlanta, and Oakland).

In the "Points For" category, the Packers were actually second-to-last in the NFL, ahead of only Oakland, and in the "Points Against" category, the Packers tied with the Cowboys for third-most, behind just San Francisco and the Giants.

In contrast, the 4-12 2005 squad finished with a quality record of 1-8...fitting, considering how that season panned out, but more interesting is that in 2005, four teams had worse records overall (Houston, Arizona, Tennessee and Detroit), and the Packers actually tied with New Orleans and San Francisco.

In 2005, thirteen teams actually finished with less "Points For" than the Packers, and seventeen had higher "Points Against".

Now, I don't intend to try and make any points one way or another. I'm as much of a statistic skeptic as anyone, and simply found this particular compilation interesting. I may even be using the statistics "wrong", or I may have them out of context, at which point I'd appreciate anyone contributing to clarify or correct their use.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Evaluating Mike McCarthy - Positives and Critiques

Well, the 2006 regular season has come to an end for the Green Bay Packers, and the time hasMM come to start offering our expert assessments of how the players, coaches, and general managers did this past year.

I am going to offer my expert opinion first on Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who completed his first season calling the shots from the sideline, following his unlikely hiring last January.

The offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers elicited a bit of a reaction when he was named head coach, following a rather unimpressive season in his former role. Some were cautiously optimistic. Others, like me, were bordering on furious that one of the winningest coaches in franchise history was replaced with what was speculated upon as being a weak guy that the general manager could “control”.

Now, mind you, I was rather critical of the hiring, and suffered the repeated bleating of the masses telling me to “Wait and See”, “Wait and See”. That expression reverberated through my head like a bell clanging on Sunday. “Wait and See”. I couldn’t wait to be rid of that chant.

Now, while I wasn’t thrilled about the hiring, I did decide that I would withhold passing any judgment on Mike McCarthy until he had one full season under his belt. That, I felt, was fair: I did the same thing for Ted Thompson in his first year, and certainly, McCarthy had a long road to hoe.

I’m certain that, as an offensive coordinator, looking at the talent he was given in preseason to work with along the offensive line made him realize how difficult his job was going to be. You can’t judge his coaching based on the talent he was given in July.

So, I have withheld giving out midseason grades, offering too much criticism (or even too much praise) until he’s had enough time to show what he can do. And, now, finally, I can unload on him with the Official LA Evaluation of Coach Mike McCarthy. Now, I will finally give him my grade for the job he’s doing. Ready?

My Official Grade: “Wait and See”.

Yes, I am going to withhold my grade for Coach, but it’s not a bad thing. Frankly, if I would have given a grade to him a month ago, it would have looked much different and much bleaker. But, that’s the point for the “wait and see”.

The last four games of the season were won by McCarthy’s Packers, a four-game streak that brought a little bravado back to Titletown. Now, the argument could easily be made (and I’ve done it myself) that the opposition wasn’t exactly playing like they wanted to win. San Francisco looked a bit lost, Detroit and Minnesota looked like they wanted to just end the season then, and even Chicago looked like they were just biding their time as they had nothing to play for.

That’s the big positive I am giving Mike McCarthy: even though we were 4-8 and essentially means out of the playoff picture, he was able to bring a team onto the field that still had faith in themselves and their coach. Those other teams didn’t look like that.

Last year, it could easily be stated that an injury-riddled Packer team may have given up on Mike Sherman. Some have even suggested that Mike Sherman gave up a bit on Mike Sherman. We all know the end result: Ted Thompson gave up on Mike Sherman, too. For as much money as these players are getting paid, it seems unfathomable that any of them would just be punching a time card and watching the clock until it was time to punch out, and even more unfathomable that a coach wouldn’t be able to kick some clocks back in gear.

Working in the education field, I am well aware that there are paradigm shifts to move away from the old A-B-C-D-F grading scale, and to move anecdotal assessments that explain exactly how those grades might have been achieved. I don’t think I want to give McCarthy a grade, primarily because I don’t think his job is finished. There’s a finality to a letter grade. He also has too many positives and negatives at this point that we still would like to see shaken out with more exposure (as well as how he handles more talent).

So, my anecdotal assessment (in lieu of a grade) for Mike McCarthy would be “Showing Progress”. I think that’s pretty fair, and I’ll tell you why. As I go through some of my observations, both positive and negative, there’s still a lot of room for conjecture. I don’t think it’s fair to place some final branded mark on him at this point, as it is to say “I think I like the way this is heading. Let’s keep it going and see where we end up.”


I think that McCarthy’s biggest positive has been keeping the ship afloat, despite some really rocky games and some tough growing pains along the way. When we lost those games to the Eagles, Patriots, Seahawks, and Jets, I really thought this team had been taken to the woodshed too many times, and they would just throw in the towel. But this team kept their head afloat. This team is blessed with some veteran leadership (Favre, Driver, Kampman, Woodson, Harris, Green) to give some guidance to the raw talent that’s been brought in this year. But you have to give some kudos to McCarthy for making the ingredients simmer together in the pot just right.

I also like the way McCarthy isn’t afraid to get in and make adjustments, even on the fly. He’s still green and it was obvious at times he was making mistakes, but he seems like the guy who will learn from them. While committing to the zone blocking scheme, he was able to make some adjustments as the year went on, bringing on some more traditional run schemes.

He finally made the move Packer fans have been harping on for years, and moving Gbaja-Biamila to a specialist role, and allowing a young player in Cullen Jenkins to shine. He took risks, leaving Brady Poppinga and Jason Spitz in the mix, when conventional wisdom would have told you to take them out and learn for a while. Eventually, that decision made them look pretty good, and those players made McCarthy look pretty smart.

He got clobbered on the head enough times by our poor secondary coverage that he finally stuck his nose into Bob Sander’s work and we saw the improvement. This was a big step from a guy who announced in the preseason that he was going to be very hands-off with his assistants (to the point where he didn’t even know Driver was returning punts). There’s a point where you try to avoid your predecessor’s faults, but you also have to realize that you have to do some of those things, some of the time.

MMHe maintained a good rapport with Brett Favre, holding him accountable on the sideline when he got reckless. He got him to play with control, cutting his interception ratio nearly in half from last season. At the same time, he was still able to utilize Favre’s veteran leadership and skills, even if he wasn’t throwing three touchdowns a game for 400+ yards.

He cut Ahmad Carroll, cap acceleration be darned.

And he made good use of the spending and drafting spree on defense, turning it by season’s end into one of the stronger defenses in the league. He located some diamonds in the rough, particularly Jenkins, Corey Williams, and Patrick Dendy, who grew into roles as the season went on.

And, finally, he seems to have the ability to “spit and wire” as the game and/or season goes on. When the pass protection was far less than acceptable in the early parts of the season, he utilized the shotgun formation 45 times in the Saints game in order to give the quarterback time to pass. He used max protect schemes and extra blockers to compensate for their weaknesses, and again, worked with Favre to use his incredible evasion skills to create more time for passing.

This final point, however, segues into the criticisms…


Any coach has to work with the talent they are given, and McCarthy was no exception. His ability to “spit and wire” at times got us through games, but his tendency to try the unconventional also cost us at times. The zone blocking scheme worked well at times, but other times, was almost completely negated (and forgotten).

The infamous “passing on the goal line” finally appeared enough on tape that a defense made us pay dearly for it.

Overuse of the shotgun, particularly with an empty backfield, turned our offense into a one-dimensional passing game that defenses were able to attack easily, focusing on only rushing and coverage, not guarding against the run.

There seemed to be a fear, at times, of putting the ball in there and jamming it down the opponent’s throat, especially in the early part of the season. Cute passes and calls that seemed to run away from the defense often ended up in punts. McCarthy seemed to develop a little more confidence in his power game as the season reached December, but to me, I would like to see this improve for 2007.

Obviously, McCarthy came under a bit of fire for some of his coaching hires, not the least of which was a coach whose last name rhymes with “Crappenheimer”. McCarthy came in with precious little street cred compared to some of the coaches that we could have gotten at the time, and I think some of his hires reflected that.

McCarthy has a job to do this offseason, particularly in replacing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who left for a college job. Our offense, in case anyone noticed, wasn’t exactly scaring anyone this season, and it will be important to get in a solid coach who will be able to maximize the talent for whomever the quarterback is next season. He also has to make the big decision on his secondary coaches, who by all rights should be wondering if they will be back next year. How that is handled will reflect highly on McCarthy’s respect with his coaches and players.

The failure of our offense to produce in the red-zone also has to rest, at least in part, on McCarthy, who should be able to “spit and wire” some sort of ability to get the ball across the goal line.

One of the biggest criticisms I had with McCarthy, however, was with his willingness to eschew the run for the pass. At the start of the season, McCarthy stated unequivocally that in order for this team to be successful, they had to commit to the run, and stated they would do as such. Nothing was sweeter to my ears, as the Packers had run for a franchise-worst performance last year, and asked Brett Favre to set a franchise record in pass attempts with 607, leading the league.

What happened? For whatever reason, Favre passed even more this season, breaking his own record with 613 pass attempts, good enough for the eighth most attempts in a season in NFL history.

Why? Why say you’re going to commit to the run, and then only attempt 30 more rushes than the franchise-low last season? Why place so much pressure again on your quarterback?

As I stated, these aren’t absolutes in my criticisms, and neither are my praises. There’s two more years to go on Mike’s contract, and I think we’ll get more of an idea of what kind of coach we really have.

We haven't even seen McCarthy deal with true injury problems. Face it...the 2006 Injured Reserve list doesn't have one starter's name on it. A far cry from 2005, a year in which many felt the team had at least 8-8 talent before having its offense decimated. It's a lot easier to win close games when you have the fully loaded gun.

But, let it be stated: Mike McCarthy is moving this team in the right direction so far. He’s proven himself to be a personable coach who believes in developing a rapport with his players. I predicted this team to be a 6-10 level of talent, that with the weak schedule and staying healthy, that’s where we’d probably finish.

In finishing 8-8, he showed that this team has the capability to be more than the sum of its parts; that passion, attitude, and motivation can compensate, to some degree, over talent and the play on the chalkboard.

How far this team can go under Mike’s leadership, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But from this Packer fan to a guy who had the crosshairs on him before he even accepted the job, I say, you’re “Showing Progress”. Keep up the good work, and we are all looking forward to seeing our 2007 squad and how it shapes up under your influence.