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.