Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hochuli's crew got it right, like it or not....

For all that NFL referee Ed Hochuli and his crew have screwed up on the field this year, I really didn't think that this play was one of them.

In the third quarter of the Lions-Packers game, Ryan Grant ran for what appeared to be a 80-yard touchdown, but it was called back as replays showed that Grant's posterior touched the ground.

In yesterday's Press-Gazette, Mike Vandermause claims this was another example of the horribleness of Hochuli and his crew.

Rant: It was a terrible season for Ed Hochuli and his officiating crew, and the men in stripes did nothing to redeem themselves in the regular-season finale. There were a number of questionable calls, and the crew’s cluelessness reached its peak on Ryan Grant’s alleged 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. There was doubt and confusion among the officials on whether Grant hit the ground on safety Leigh Bodden’s tackle. The play was reviewed and Grant’s run was reduced to 21 yards.

Grant himself chimed in on the play, sounding a bit tweaked that the play was called back when he was told that he wasn't down by an official.

He lost out on some yardage when his apparent 80-yard touchdown run was reduced to a 21-yard gain after the Lions challenged and referee Ed Hochuli ruled that Grant was down. Grant gained 14 more yards on that series but had the touchdown been allowed, he would have needed only 2 more yards to reach 1,250. He also played only one snap on the Packers’ final possession.

Grant said he thought his 80-yard touchdown run would stand because one of the officials told him during the play to keep running because he wasn’t down.

“I thought I rolled off the guy and as I’m rolling I’m saying I’m not on the ground,” Grant said. “I didn’t hear the whistle. I kept running. I run to the whistle. When I got to the end zone, (one of the officials) said, ‘Good job, you weren’t down.’”

Now, I don't know much more than what we've all seen on television, but not only do I think the criticism of Hochuli's crew is unwarranted, they actually demonstrated a high level of self-discipline on the play.

Having spent a few seasons as a high school football official, I can tell you one of the hardest things to do, even at that level, is laying off the whistle in the middle of a fast-moving play. Refs are taught to get the whistle blown as soon as they know the play is done, as it reduces the possibility of injury when the tackling has to stop.

There's a pretty good reason why my nickname in my few years as a football official was "Inadvertent Whistle". You blow that whistle, and the play is done. Finished. You can't go back and give a runner their yards back that they should have had if the whistle hadn't been blown.

Vandermause's criticism is more bitter than informed. He states that Hochuli, already under criticism this season for a blown call a couple months ago, is at fault for not making the right call immediately on the play (which would mean, of course, that a whistle should have been blown when Grant's bum touched the ground).

In super-slow-motion, it was (sort of) easy to see Grant's body touch the ground, but in normal speed, it is almost impossible.

The officials made the right call, especially given that they know they have instant replay to get the play right after the fact. Grant mentions that one official told him in the end zone that he wasn't down and that he had a touchdown. However, if you watch the replay shot from the end zone, you can clearly see another official pointing to the ground, signaling that the play was dead.

But, he didn't blow his whistle. He signaled that the play was down, but seeing other officials were still following the play, he allowed the play to continue in the event he would be overruled, or if the replay would show otherwise.

That shows a high degree of self-discipline, and a team that can look around and see what the others are doing. And it is exactly these kinds of plays where the refs make the best use of instant replay...the ones where it is nearly impossible to make the call on the field. Let the play go, discuss it, and if one of the coaches disagree you go to the booth and get it right.

Yes, as Packer fans, we wailed and gnashed our teeth when we saw a touchdown taken off the board, and threw our foam bricks at our plasma screens when Hochuli came up to explain it. Of course, we want the points.

Grant thought that replay cost him his million-dollar bonus.

Yeah, that’s the way the ball bounces,” Grant said. “I told [running backs coach Edgar Bennett], ‘If we were playing in your day, that’s a touchdown. No replay.’”

Actually, no, Ryan. In Edgar's day, that official pointing at the ground would have blown the whistle and brought the play back right away.

The reffing crew may have had a skittish day the rest of the day, but it certainly wasn't the worst crew the Packers have had all season. And on this one particular play, the crew actually handled it perfectly, whether we fans liked the end result or not.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Silverstein: Losing Driver Would Leave a Void

Tom Silverstein writes in today's JSOnline, opining about the growing impact of Greg Jennings and, perhaps, the eventual fade of Donald Driver.
"When you lose games, everything happens," Driver said. "Players lose their jobs, coaches lose their jobs. Some people stay, some people go. It's part of life. It's always business in the National Football League.

"Everybody talks about me getting ready to be 34. I don't see my career winding down. Things will happen. Maybe it comes to that, that point where I'm getting old, maybe they want to keep their young receiver group. I love this organization, I love this team. I would never want to play somewhere else. But you never know what will happen."

Given general manager Ted Thompson's emphasis on youth, Jennings has reason to be concerned that his receiving partner might not be here next year.

This is the first time I've heard about Donald Driver being the fall guy for the season, but when you read Silverstein (and reflect on Thompson's approach to building the team by shedding veterans), it shapes into an uncomfortable reality.

Unlike most of the other positional groups on the team, Thompson appears to have prepared for the departure of Driver. While there didn't appear to be any plan in place to deal with the loss of such veterans as Ryan Longwell, Darren Sharper, Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, or Ahman Green, Thompson has shored up the receiving ranks with sharp young talent. In fact, he has invested a first-day draft choice on a wide receiver in each of his four drafts.

It is exactly that kind of thinking, with a squad of Jennings, Nelson, Jones, and Martin potentially established as a solid 1-4 on the depth chart, that makes Driver expendable. In other words, this may be one of the times in which Thompson could shed a veteran and actually have the guys to replace him.

In many ways except one.

It was interesting that in all of the hubbub and sniping at Packer fans did with each other over the departure of Brett Favre, and that despite Rodgers' clear statistical superiority over Favre this season, the team was still missing something. It was the thought of many, including myself, that the Packers were missing that leadership and heart the Favre had brought to the team.

In some ways, that can be good or bad. For example, when Sterling Sharpe and his enormous ego left the team after the 1994 season, the rest of the team found its leadership elsewhere. Guys like Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett, Mark Chmura, and Reggie White stood up and not only provided leadership, but better team-based leadership than we had previously with Sharpe.

When Favre left, the team struggled to find its identity much of the year, particularly at the end of close games when the entire responsibility of winning or losing had traditionally been placed on the shoulders of #4. Not surprisingly, it was at the end of those close games this year when the Packers seemed to be searching for someone to come through.

This is not to place blame on Aaron Rodgers. I've said it before, and I will say it again: Aaron Rodgers was ready for the Packers; the Packers were not ready for Aaron Rodgers. That leadership could come from anywhere. It didn't.

The loss of Donald Driver frightens me for much the same reason. It is more than simply having groomed players behind him, ready to move up the depth chart. It is more than simply producing the same statistics (or even better statistics) than what Driver was providing or could provide at his advanced age.

The idea of veteran leadership is something that this team is still searching for, and is something you have to expect when you are fielding the youngest team in the NFL for the third year in a row. The Packers look to Al Harris, Charles Woodson, and Donald Driver for that experience and leadership, something that you can't simply teach a young player on the practice field ("Okay, Jermichael, here's how you become a leader.")

I have no doubt that Jordy Nelson could move up and play the #2 receving position solidly. I have no doubt that Jones and Martin will still be among the best #3 and #4 receivers on an NFL roster.

But leadership goes deeper than that. For years, I have seen Donald Driver as the emotional leader of the team, the vocal player that makes the biggest plays, takes the biggest hits, and brings a rise to his teammates and the home fans in the stands with how he carries himself.

You can't put a price tag on that.

Don't get me wrong...Donald Driver will be 34 years old and isn't going to play forever. I know that he is going to have the microscope on him, with people looking for the first sign of age to slow him speed or abilities. Eventually, Donald Driver will no longer be a Green Bay Packer.

But this guy is the heart of the team. For as much as Thompson has done to insure we can replace his statistics once he is gone, it is going to be up to Thompson and McCarthy to insure we have someone who can replace his leadership when he is gone.

******

Sidenote: I found this blurb from Silverstein's article interesting:
Whether Jennings senses a change coming or just wants to make sure people know where he stands on the makeup of the receiving corps, he said when the season is over he intends to approach the front office and tell them Driver needs to stay. He said, if he could, he would include a clause in his next contract requiring that Driver stick around at least another year or two.
Umm. Didn't Brett Favre come under a ton of criticism for thinking he could offer advice to the front office? Got to love those double standards...

Mr. Martin, You May Begin Your Yardwork...

As we settle back from the 6-10 debacle that was the 2008 season, many Packer fans (myself included) have demonstrated some pretty impressive wailing and gnashing of teeth this season. Some might describe them as "Chicken Littles", although that is a term that I find to be a bit derogatory. Let's just say, perhaps more gently, that there are a lot of fans (myself included) who have made this season into a crisis. The calls for blindly cutting players, firing coaches and general managers, and spending wildly in free agency are commonplace conversation, both in the blogosphere and at the local diner or tavern.

And, there's no doubt....this season was a major disappointment and casts a lot of doubt on the leadership of the team. But, even I have to remind myself, this is just one season out of many for Packer fans, and the world hasn't ended yet.

I am reminded of a "Letter to the Editor" written to the Green Bay Press-Gazette back in the early 90's. I'm guessing it must have been during the 1993 season, because that was the year the Packers seemed to be struggling most with growing pains under new coach Mike Holmgren and a young Brett Favre. Perhaps it was after a 30-27 loss to the Denver Broncos and a 3 interception game by Favre that dropped the Packers to 2-3.

It was signed by a guy with the last name of Martin, and he was from Seymour, WI. And he declared his official resignation as a Packer fan for all to see.

To paraphrase:
I am letting it be known that after being a fan for 20 years, I have had it with wasting my Sunday afternoons on the Green Bay Packers. No longer will you find me taking away time from other things to watch a game on television. I am done. From now on, when the Packer game is on, I will be outside doing my yardwork.

This letter stuck in my craw for years. Being this was long before the advent of the internet, I can't locate a copy of this letter word-for-word, but I remember, on many occasions wanting to reply to it and call Mr. Martin out.

It was shortly thereafter that the Packers began compiling impressive regular seasons and deep playoff runs. All of us who lived through the early 1990's remember the excitement and anticipation for the next game, or the next season. Although it culminated in only one Super Bowl win, it was a great time to be a Packer fan.

"Dear Mr. Martin,

I am sure you missed the game last weekend, but the Packers beat the Detroit Lions 16-12. This, by the way, was a playoff game, and we held Barry Sanders to -1 rushing yards. I wanted to let you know, since I know you didn't watch it. By the way, how are your hedges looking this week?"

"Dear Mr. Martin,

Just keeping you updated, as I am certain the time you have invested in keeping your landscaping up is considerable, but the Packers defeated the 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs this past weekend, and what a game it was! Craig Newsome returned a fumble for a touchdown and the Packers never looked back! Incidentally, I was going to ask if I could borrow your edge trimmer this week, but that will have to wait because the Packers are playing in the NFC Championship then. Will grab it later."

"Dear Mr. Martin,

Drove by your house yesterday and have to compliment you on your rose bushes. They really bring out the color of the trim. By the way, the Packers won the Super Bowl today against the New England Patriots. Since you don't bother watching the Packers anymore, I just wanted to keep you posted."

Now, seriously, I have a strong feeling Mr. Martin never followed through on his threat, and likely watched each of these games himself. Fanaticism is a great thing, but is often ruled by emotion and irrationality, both in victory and in defeat. For example, paying $400 a ticket to go see the Packers/49ers playoff game in 1996 while sitting in freezing rain would count for the positive end of that fanaticism, while swearing off your team after a bad game or a bad season would be the negative end.

It is that emotionalism, though, that makes us fans. I have pity on people who boil the game of football down to execution and statistics, and take that emotion out of the game. It's that emotion that makes us the best fans in the NFL, and makes the actual game of football something more than fantasy football.

Cold, hard football facts are just that. No one pays $70 a seat to go watch statistics.

Over the next several months, I will write articles, many of them critical of the GM, the coaching staff, and the players. So it goes after a disappointing season, as many of us armchair GM's look to diagnose the problems and try to fix them from our home office chair. In the end, we accomplish very little, but we still maintain that emotional connection to our team, even if the emotions aren't all warm and fuzzy ones.

But it is people like Mr. Martin who remind me that times like these arent' the end of the world, and that (unless you are a fan of the Detroit Lions) there is the strong liklihood that there will be a reason to get excited about your team again soon enough.

So, the next time you are at the tavern or in your favorite forum, let loose your emotions. That's what makes us fans. Rant, rave, point fingers, and wail and gnash your teeth. Boisterously defend your heroes. Paint the black moustache on whomever you think deserves it.

Just keep it in the back of your head that "this too shall pass". And in the end, we are all Packer fans, first and foremost, and always shall be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Oh, the Irony...

Do you remember last season, when folks were touting Ryan Grant as one of the greatest running backs in the league? As long as you only counted statistics from Week Eight on, Grant was second only to the great LaDanlian Tomlinson in terms of rushing production. We heard that a lot as we entered the playoffs last year, about how strong Grant was the second half of the season.

Now we had to do that, because Grant only had 27 total yard in his first six games combined. But, when you looked at the shorter timeframe, it made him seem comparable,e with LT.

So, here we are in 2008, and as long as you only count the statistics from Week Twelve on, the Packers have the exact same record as the Detroit Lions....0-5. So, for the last month-plus, the Packers are just as bad as potentially the worst team in the history of the NFL.

Now, reality: the Packers aren't as bad as the Lions. The Packers have been in every single game they've played in this season (except the Saints game), while the Lions have been repeatedly on the wrong end of double-digit losses.

This is the problem when you manipulate statistics, though, and only look at small snapshots or time frames. Is Ryan Grant really a peer of LaDanlian Tomlinson because he had similar stats for half a season? Of course not, and it is pretty clear that Grant isn't the best back in the league this year (of course, neither is Tomlinson, but he's had eight years of wear and tear on his body, not one).

Similarly, as the Packers go in to face the decrepit Lions next week, neither are the Packers as bad as they are, despite that they are both 0-5 in their last five games.

But, let's not lose the impact of reality: the Packers should not lose this game. The Lions are the far inferior team. And trust me, there will be plenty of people noting that the Packers finished the season 0-6 and the Lions 1-0 if the Packers lose.

Funny how stats work, isn't it?

On the topic of Favre....

I've been seeing all over the forums and blogosphere lately a lot of folks mentioning that, given Favre's current struggles, that the Packers would have been no better off with him at quarterback, and in fact, would be lucky to have the five wins we do.

I totally understand where these folks are coming from, and don't fault them for it. It is was happens when you do have a frustrated fan base that is still stinging over the loss of Brett Favre, and it is interpreted as a cut on Aaron Rodgers (and in some cases, it actually is a cut on Aaron Rodgers). The "other side" then moves to counter those arguments by showing that Favre is actually playing significantly worse than Rodgers, therefore, we are far better off without him.

In a lot of ways, I don't argue that point. There's few bigger Favre fans than myself, admittedly, and I am still irritated with how the situation was handled this summer. However, I did not want Favre to return this year, nor do I want him to "come back". I don't disagree with the decision made by Thompson and McCarthy, but still am very critical of them in how it was handled.

The point I wish to make, somewhat in defense of Favre, is that you need to take into consideration that Favre requested a return to the Packers several weeks before the start of training camp (July 8), and requested a release or a trade well before most camps started.

After a soap opera of protecting legacies, $20 million offers, and media tit-for-tats, Favre was not traded until August 7th, and could not begin even trying to run a preseason game until the third week.

Given the Favre privately requested a return as early as March, he missed out on five months of training, learning an offense, and practicing with teammates. I'm not going to defend his decision to retire, then unretire...he takes full accountability for waffling.

My point is that a Brett Favre that would have continued to play with the team and in a system he was familiar with would likely have had a far different year than he had. Even if Favre had been allowed to join a different team prior to the start of training camps, it is likely he would have had to spend less time acclimating himself to his situation...an exhausting experience, I would imagine.

My point isn't to say that Favre would have the better option over Rodgers. I think Rodgers has had a fine season and, if anything, Thompson should be berated for not having a better team established around Rodgers after four full offseasons of rebuilding.

However, Thompson also chose to drag his feet and not give Favre an opportunity to play for the Packers or for any other team until halfway through training camp. To judge his struggles this season as an old dog trying to learn new tricks on the fly with a formerly 4-12 team isn't the same as judging a young dog who has spent three full seasons becoming very familiar with his teammates and system on a team that went 13-3 last year.

Take that for what it is worth. This isn't a pro-Favre or anti-Rodgers statement. However, for those who want to compare Favre to Rodgers, just realize that there is more to the picture than just the stats. For all the hullabaloo that Rodgers has handled a difficult situation this year, it seems pretty tame compared to what Favre has done.

Better Team Trumps Better Players

I never thought I would have to admit this, but the Chicago Bears were the better team on the field Monday night.

Read that carefully...the better "team". Because if you take a quick look at the box score, the Bears were "outstatisticated" in nearly every phase of the game by the Green Bay Packers. In fact, the Green Bay Packers essentially dominated the game, almost from start to finish.

But they lost. Again.

This was to be the moral victory to end all moral victories. The silver lining on a grey cloud of a season. The "Well, at least we swept the Bears" during an upcoming offseason of self-doubt.

The Green Bay Packers blew it. They didn't get outperformed. They just got beat by a team that wanted it more, at the end of the game when it mattered most.

Aaron Rodgers outperformed Kyle Orton far more than the statistics show. He stood in the pocket, threw darts, and was rarely bothered by the rush. Orton looked like a typical Bear quarterback, unable to avoid the rush, overshooting and overmuscling his throws, and imploding along the way with interceptions.

The defense even held rookie sensation Matt Forte to 75 yards on what should have been a night ideal for smashmouth football. Ryan Grant didn't fare much better, but hey...our passing offense was better, our passing defense was better, our run defense was dominant for three quarters. This shouldn't have even been close.

DeShawn Wynn came out of nowhere to fill in nicely for Grant and made some key plays. Aaron Kampman, Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson, and Nick Collins all came out of their respective funks and had games that reminded us how good this defense used to be. Michael Montgomery and Donald Driver had great games.

Did I forget to mention special teams? Apparently, so did Mike McCarthy in the weekly planning sessions.

A week ago, I opined that the Packers were less than the sum of their parts, that despite great individual performances, the product on the field and on the scoreboard didn't reflect it. Monday night, we got proof positive that this team is severely lacking in leadership and direction, and the blame, unfortunately, is going to come to rest on the shoulders of coach Mike McCarthy and his staff.

You could boil this loss down to just a few plays. Just a few, but all important ones:

1) Jarrett Bush's inexplicable need to grab Dan Manning on a punt return and spend 25 yards trying to pull him backwards. The field position gained on this 70 yard return led directly to 3 points for the Bears.

2) Jarret Bush's unawareness of the ball on a short punt return struck his leg and gave the Bears their best offensive play of the day. I have long questions Bush's necessity for holding a valuable roster spot, but today he was simply a liability. This mental error led to seven point for the Bears.

3) The failure of the line to effectively block the Bears on the final field goal attempt. Yes, perhaps Crosby's kick was low, but that was as close to a jailbreak on a field goal as you are going to see. That took the game-winning three points off the board for the Packers.

4) After seeing the Bears get called for a horsecollar tackle and get severely penalized, Aaron Rouse had no excuse for returning the favor on the first play of overtime, putting the Bears in field goal range within seconds. This led to the final three points of the game, and gave the Bears the win.

Anything else was just football. Each of these were a complete failure to execute physcially and mentally at critical moments, that now overshadow the great performances put on by the rest of the team.

But you can't really just boil it down to just those four plays. Matt Forte took the team on his shoulders in the fourth quarter, when it was clear Orton couldn't be trusted to do it. Ryan Grant couldn't do the same for the Packers, unfortunately. Crosby missed two field goals in this game, a sure sign he will now be cut on the final cutdown day next August in favor of Brett Conway.

And the playcalling and "playing not to lose", both very intangible concepts, seemed glaring in the final quarter of the game, placing more question marks on a head coach that seems to have lost the ability to keep this team focused down the stretch.

Despite rolling up passing yards, owning time of possession, and forcing two critical interceptions deep in their own territory, the Packers should have blown the Bears out. And somehow, this game was close throughout.

In a nutshell: there is the stat-based, execution-based view of football, in which everything boils down to nothing more than the play on the field. But there is also the intangible, synergistic power of teamwork, leadership, and motivation. Some people like to minimalize that, saying that it all comes down to the players on the field and whether or not they execute their assignment on each individual play, and it has nothing to do with leadership, coaching, or playcalling.

After watching the debacle on Monday night, this is a team that doesn't know how to win, and it has as much to do with the the execution as it does the leadership.

The Bears got lit up at halftime by their coach, and came out for the second half with that intensity. They still were often outperformed by the Packers, but they managed to put the most important stat on the board: the W.

The Packers had the better players on the field Monday night. The Bears had the better team. And the team trumps individuals any day...just ask any member of Lombardi's Packers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why The Woodson Experiment Failed

Tomorrow night, the Packers will return to their normal secondary personnel: Charles Woodson and Al Harris at cornerback; and Nick Collins and [fill in the blank] at safety. According to Mike McCarthy, the Charles-Woodson-at-safety experiment is done, for now.

Most of us raised an eyebrow at the move, which surprised me when I was in attendance at the Carolina Panther game and saw #28 lining up deep instead of on the line. As time went on, we saw the experiment did little to help a secondary that has offered up 100+ passing efficiency ratings to each quarterback it has faced the past three games, and repeatedly given up late plays in the fourth quarter that have put the Packers in a bad spot.

Sometimes, Woodson has been the guilty party on those plays. So, it has been decided to start Rouse at safety and put Woodson back at the position he earned a Pro Bowl berth for.

For one, I will give McCarthy some credit for making the move. He recognized that the trio of Atari Bigby, Aaron Rouse, and Charlie Peprah simply weren't able to compliment Nick Collins at safety and tinkered with the scheme to see if it would make a difference. This is closer to the problem-solving Mike McCarthy I remember from the past two seasons, but as it turns out, it didn't make the team better. In fact, the secondary may have been more of a liability than it was before the switch.

There are several reasons why I think the experiment failed, and I will list my favorites:

1) The move was made mid-season. I don't know if there's a problem with the idea of moving one of our corners to safety, but doing it in the middle of the season with a player who has played his long career at cornerback didn't have a high percentage of success.

I proposed last April
that moving Al Harris to safery would be a good idea, especially given that we had doubts about his ability to play corner following his embarrassment in the NFC Championship game. However, both Harris has continued to play at a high level this season, and I certainly wouldn't have proposed doing it on the fly.

Woodson and the rest of the defense might be able to make this switch work, but they would need more than a week of practice to figure it out. This is the kind of move you make and implement in training camp, not in Week 12.

2) The gain at safety is negligible compared to the drop-off at corner. I think that Woodson may do a decent job at safety, and might even be a better option than the injured Bigby and the struggling Rouse. And, Tramon Williams certainly impressed us filling in for Harris earlier in the year.

But the small improvement we have with Woodson playing in place of true safeties doesn't make up for not having his services at cornerback. It's a small gain balanced with a big drop, and makes the entire squad less effective. Not a cut on Williams, who I think will grow into a decent corner, but he's not anything equal to Charles Woodson right now.

And, Woodson might be a decent safety, but needs more time to work at the position and within the scheme in order to maximize his play at the position.

3) The "getting our four best guys on the field" theory doesn't work. This is my opinion, but just getting the best athletes on the field doesn't really work in a specialized sport like football. This all depends if you buy into the concept that different positions invite a different prototypical player with a skill set that compliments it.

In basketball, you can try and get your best five athletes on the court, but if they all happen to be point guards, you better dramatically redesign your scheme from a traditional approach to something that allows short, fast passers to succeed against tall, powerful shooters. And, um, it usually doesn't work.

The same argument can be applied to the Packers' offensive line. There's always been discussion of trying to find the five best athletes to play along the line, but each position along the line invites different skill sets. One could argue that the zone blocking scheme, when run exclusively, might diminish the specialization of skills: all five need to block one direction, with the extra guy laying down a cut block.

But the Packers don't run the ZBS exclusively, and that opens up the need for specialization. The center not only has to have skills to deliver a clean snap to the quarterback, but be able to block stoutly against the defense's biggest players. In pass defense, centers have to be stout and maintain the base of the pocket. Guards have to also be stout, as inside runs will depend on them, but guards also have to have the athleticism to pull on sweeps and hit blocks on the open field. Tackles perhaps need the most flexibility, able to push their blocks to the inside or outside on run plays, and be able to move into the backfield and protect the pocket against the best pass rushers.

All these are different skills sets in a traditional scheme. I don't know if Scott Wells and Chad Clifton can switch spots without a bit of a drop-off at both positions.

The same can be said for the secondary. While the Packers run both corner positions with a tough man approach, the safeties have a different view of the game, different responsibilities, and a different skill set that is needed. It's not to say that Woodson isn't a consummate athlete and can't do it, but going from cornerback to strong safety is about the same as going from center to tackle.

4) More specifically, the strong safety skill set is typically different from the free safety skill set. A strong safety in a traditional defensive approach is the closer-to-the-line, hard-hitting safety who is often visible in run support as well as the pass defense. Think LeRoy Butler.

The free safety is the over-the-top coverage guy, the man who calls out coverage changes from the backfield, and the one who has to make the proper angles on the passing plays happening in front of him. Think Eugene Robinson.

The Packers, since Ted Thompson has begun assembling personnel and Bob Sanders has taken over as defensive coordinator, have approached the safety positions as interchangeable positions, with both safeties taking on those responsiblities. I have always stated this is a mistake, especially since most of the players brought in since 2005 fit the "strong safety" skill set. Mark Roman, Nick Collins, Atari Bigby, and Aaron Rouse are all players who are strong in run support, hard hitters, but have all struggled in coverage and made glaring mistakes.

Moving Woodson back into the strong safety position asks him to be the run support (and many of his great plays over the last few weeks have been in stuffing the run or the short pass), when his strengths might be better served in the passing game and allowing him to be in a position to make big plays. What makes it a little more head-scratching is why, when you have so many strong safeties on the roster, you would move Woodson to that position?

How might have worked better?

Well, number one, if you're going to make a move like this, make the move in training camp.

Number two, moving Collins, a strong safety who is finally developing some decent coverage skills, to his natural position (an instant upgrade over Bigby and Rouse) and Woodson to the ball-hawking, quarterback of the defense free safety spot, would conceivably improve the play at that position, too.

Now, the two gains made at the safety position might actually outweigh (and compensate for) the drop at corner with Tramon Williams. In fact, if Woodson were to actually be able to play a Eugene Robinson-esque FS, it would actually make Williams' job easier because of the support he could offer. His experience in recognizing formations and tendancies combined with his ability in coverage would make it easier on both corners, and also allow Collins to accentuate his strengths in run support.

The continued discussion might be if it still wiser to keep Woodson at corner and instead move Al Harris to FS instead, since Woodson might be able to continue to play at a high level despite the passage of time.

Of course, the best option would be to get a solid and prototypical free safety this offseason in the draft or through free agency, and keep our two starting corners where they should be, and keeping Tramon Williams at nickel back, preparing for his future as an eventual starter.

Results of "How to Fix The Packers" Poll

What's the Best Way to Fix The Packers

A strong splash in free agency 5 (20%)
Revamping the offseason schedule 0 (0%)
Coaching changes (Sanders) 9 (37%)
Revamping schemes and playcalling 4 (16%)
Fire McCarthy/Thompson 5 (20%)
Nothing - stay the course 1 (4%)

The "Fire Sanders" movement continues, with many believing that the decline of the defense needs to bring change.

What I think, though, is that we are going to have to really diagnose what the problem of the team is. It's easy to offer up lots of solutions, but face it...its kind of like prescribing a patient different prescriptions without giving him a proper checkup.

I'm nervous to start coming up with solutions, even firing Sanders, until we know where the problem really lies. Is this a talent issue? An injury issue? A coaching issue? Not practicing enough or practicing outside?

Like anything else, don't fix what isn't broken. In a season like this, though, its hard to tell what's broken from what isn't.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Believe McCarthy: The Bears Game is Big

When the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention last weekend, a collective "Pfffftttt" erupted from the multitude of Packer fans who heard coach Mike McCarthy announce he was turning his attention to winning the game next Monday night against the Bears. "Why bother?" some of us thought.

In McCarthy's own words, “It's important for us to go down and win this game. We talk about the importance of division games, and this is a big one. That part has not changed. We know they are fired up to play us and trust me, it will be a physical game, and we'll be ready to go when we step out there Monday night.”

When you have nothing else to play for, what's left? Pride? Draft position? Incentives based on your individual stats? It's easy to take this as lip service, and look forward to another late-game collapse against our historic rival.

But wait a minute. This game is big, at least for McCarthy.

Let's be honest. There are a number of fans out there who have taken sides on Thompson and McCarthy, Rodgers and Favre, or are at least acutely aware of the debates and friction surrounding them. The resounding "Less Filling, Tastes Great" back-and-forth among fans is a direct result of the disappointment the 2008 season has been.

But, there are still a strong contingent of Packer fans out there for whom a win against the Bears puts all right with the world. True, many of them are probably older, who can remember a time long before names like Holmgren and Reggie dominated the Packer headlines. These folks not only remember the painful 1980's watching George Cumby getting demolished by William "The Refrigerator" Perry, but also the infamous Chester Marcol game in which a blocked field goal is picked up and ran in for a winning touchdown (incidentally, my first Packer game).

But even moreso, there are fans who remember Dick Butkus spitting on Ray Nitschke, and Geroge Halas glaring across the sideline at Packer coaches like Lombardi and Lambeau. A long, storied, and hated rivalry that transcends the coach, GM, or quarterback of the day.

I still smile remembering the yarns told by Mike Holmgren when he took his position as Packer head coach, and how the little old ladies would stop him in the supermarket, give him a discerning evaluation of how bad the Packers had been lately, and tell him, if he couldn't manage to do anything else, "you better beat those Bears."

I am still blessed to have a 90+ year old grandmother who is one of those little old ladies, who would distribute her Packer season tickets to her children and grandchildren every year...all except the Bear game. She never missed it.

With a 1-6 record in their last seven games, the Packers are on a slide we haven't seen in a long time (okay, 2005). As frustration increases, so does the pressure on McCarthy and, in particular, several of his coordinators and assistant coaches.

Bob Sanders is pretty much officially being thrown in front of the train McCarthy announced was leaving the station this summer.

Let's not misunderstand the importance of this game, then, to McCarthy and this team. In 2006, we saw a 4-8 team go on a four-game win streak at the end of the season that silenced the rabble and gave a lot of hope for 2007. Obviously, this is a much different team in a much different situation, as the expectations from a 13-3 season are much higher than coming off a 4-12 season. But McCarthy would love nothing more than to complete this season with a couple of wins, go 7-9 and at least finish on a strong enough note that restores some of the collective confidence of Packer Nation.

And, there is no greater moral victory than a sweep of the Bears in a season, especially when moral victories are all you can scrape up. At one point, a rookie coach named Lovie Smith made it the top priority of the Bears to beat the division rival Packers. Now, the tables are turned.

The consequences of losing this game are monumental. A six-game losing streak, heading into the final game against the likely winless Lions? Even if the Packers win that game, it will still be empty, given the competition.

And what if the Packers go 0-2 to finish, with two final losses to two division rivals, including an humiliating loss to a team that no one should ever lose to, perhaps one of the worst teams in NFL history? This would finish off an 0-7 finish to the 2008 season, and the ferocity of the critics of McCarthy, Ted Thompson, and the other Packer coaches will be insatiable.

McCarthy has (finally) taken ownership of the direction this team has taken, stating, "I’m always trying to push the right buttons, and we’re 5-9 and my name is at the top of that. I take full responsibility for that. That’s the challenge… But I believe in our structure. I believe in the environment that has been created here."

This is a good step, in my opinion. McCarthy has seemed far more hands-off this season than in years past, and for this team to get back on track, he's going to have to get dirty with the men in the trenches again. That means getting dirt on himself, too.

But, it starts on Monday night...a "second season" of sorts. With the official season lost, the playoffs an impossiblity, this is a game that is more than just pride or playing spoiler. It is about rectifying the confidence of a team and their fans. And, for McCarthy and his staff, saving some face (if not some jobs).

McCarthy isn't kidding when he says that he's gearing up for this game against the Bears. As of right now, its probably the most important game of the offseason.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thompson, McCarthy Have Immunity Idol; Safe At Tribal Council

There’s no doubt that Tribal Council is soon approaching for the Green Bay Packers. The disappointment of the 2008 season is historically one of the biggest collapses in franchise history, and the fan base seems ready to put someone’s head on a post.

Take a wander around the Internet forums and blogosphere, and you will see people mounting their case to have any number of Packer brass removed from office, or even Packer players that need to move on. Some have already done extensive research and posted detailed rationale for why the GM, coach, or assistants need to be canned.

Of course, there are the many others that bypass logic or rationale altogether, and are calling for everyone’s head with a war cry that doesn’t discriminate between the targets and that fans that still support them. “Erin Rodgers” has to be one of the most saddening catcalls to see from Packer fans, directed at a quarterback who, really, has done everything in his own power to do his part.

(That stated, after watching Brett Favre take the lion’s share of blame for any playoff loss over the last eight years, perhaps this is just the circle coming around.)

But, I am here to let you know, that no matter how hard we wail and gnash our teeth, Packer GM Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy are safe at Tribal Council. They both have immunity idol that will keep them safe this offseason. Even if we were to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the complete reason for the debacle that has become the 2008 Packer season, they are safe.

For now.

Ted Thompson: There are few who have been more consistently critical of Ted Thompson and his approach than me. I’ve even gotten emails from a couple of fellow Packer fans who have essentially told me that I “was right all along”, and he should be sent packing.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that when I saw Thompson letting veterans go and replacing them with draft picks and young free agents, I gave concern at the time that losing the veteran leadership was a bad idea. When I saw Thompson consistently trading down in the draft, I commented that getting quantity over quality wasn’t the way to infuse talent into your team. When I saw no-names brought in en masse to “compete” for jobs, hoping that competition would eventually produce a quality starter, I suggested that just you can’t always make chicken salad from chicken [gunk].

In the 2009 season, some of these concerns seem to be coming to fruition. But, Ted Thompson, to his credit, has stuck by his guns for the last four years. He has a plan in place and has stuck to it, no matter how much rabble like myself didn’t particularly like it. What he has done with the salary cap situation is admirable, and has done a lot to remove the animosity between the players and management that was present under Mike Sherman in an ill-devised dual role as HC/GM.

After taking a 4-12 team to 13-3 in two seasons, Ted Thompson earned the NFL’s Executive of the Year award last year, a great honor that seemed to finally shut up his critics (like me) and made believers out of many.

That award is going to earn Thompson more time to continue his plan. There are many other factors that come into play to explain off this season: coaching, injuries, offseason distractions. Ted Thompson isn’t going anywhere, probably for a while. It's kind of unrealistic to expect that he would be let go at this point.

Mike McCarthy: I have like Mike McCarthy since the day after he was hired in 2006. I didn’t like him much the day he was hired, because I thought he was perhaps the least desirable of all the candidates out there, and that part of the reason he was brought in was because he wouldn’t stand up to Thompson if there was a disagreement.

Since then, I think McCarthy has done well. I have written story after story praising his ability the past two seasons to take whatever talent he has been given to work with and somehow make it as successful as he can. He’s hasn’t been afraid to modify schemes, formations, or assignments to maximize the performance of the unit.

Most of all, I admired his ability to take mistakes from one game and adjust, literally by the next game. It seemed that the team was always in flux, moving and improving each week.

But this season, I think even the most green-and-gold bespectacled fans would have to admit that McCarthy hasn’t been the same coach. It’s easy to see the amount of frustration he had, even early on, with the mental errors and communication issues. Instead of seeing these problems fixed game-to-game, they only marginally improved, if at all. We were getting what seemed to be clichés instead of solutions, with McCarthy pointing out where the problems were, but rarely pointing that finger at himself.

But, like Thompson, McCarthy has earned his Immunity Necklace also. Starting in Week 13 of the 2006 season, the Green Bay Packers went on a 27-7 run, including playoffs. That’s an awfully good record for any coach, and sort of makes the last seven games (1-6) pale in comparison. It’s hard to look at this and fire a guy for seven games, when Marinelli is still in Detroit (for now).

Who gets the vote? Chances are, the Packers will have to make some changes this year, and as Thompson and McCarthy will get more time, the most likely person to take the fall is defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. Now, I have met Bob Sanders and think he’s a good guy, but if being a “good guy” guaranteed you a job, Bart Starr would still be coaching today.

Just like on “Survivor”, you can already feel the sharks starting to whip the water around Sanders in a frenzy. Packer pundits all over have already made Sanders the sacrificial lamb. Certainly, most of us can see it is the defense that has taken the largest drop from last year, and one has to think that if this year's D was the 2007 variety, this team would likely be contending for the division title, instead of watching the mediocre Vikings and Bears battling to lose the least.

So, yes, I do think that Bob Sanders will be voted off the island at the end of the season, along with some other assistants. McCarthy and Thompson will play their idols and be immune from the vote.

Do I believe Sanders deserves to be fired? That is a much more gray area than just pointing out that the defense has underachieved. All of the areas that have plagued the defense have also reared their ugly head elsewhere on the team.

* The lack of depth along the defensive line and at safety is just as evident at running back and along the offensive line. The Packers are continuing to play with over-his-head Tony Moll, as the rest of the supposed depth (Barbre, Sitton, Guacamole) simply aren’t ready to play in the NFL. Both Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson haven’t played particularly well, and the only other option, Kregg Lumpkin, was lost to injury.

* The underachieving linebacking corps is a sore spot on the defense (especially when all of the top four guys have recently been signed or extended by Thompson to some good money), but so is the tight end position. Lee has been inconsistent and no one playing behind him has risen to the occasion.

* While our secondary has had some big playmakers back there, and for the most part, has done well overall, they are consistently giving up huge plays when it matters most. Similarly, Aaron Rodgers has been a solid player and has done very well; perhaps even at a Pro Bowl level, but when the pressure is highest at the end of the game, he has made more than his share of errors.

* The lack of mental awareness and discipline is evident in poor tackling, poor angles, and miscommunication. However, miscommunication has been just as much of an issue on offense, and our offensive line leads the league in holding penalties.

* Our rush defense has been miserable. Conversely, so has our rushing offense.

So, while I believe that Sanders will get the axe at the end of the season, it is only a part of a larger problem that is pervasive on this team. As it turns out, Sanders’ squad is merely the biggest offender. Is the defense merely a symptom of a much larger problem? That is what 2009 will answer, but likely, it will be with a new defensive coordinator.

The Tribe Has Spoken

In the game of Survivor, if a player is forced to use an immunity idol, it is because they are at risk of being voted out. For whatever reason, they are a target from the rest of the tribe, and the idol is used to save themselves.

But after that, they are vulnerable, and often have to scramble to change their game, make reparations, and revise their strategies in order to stay alive.

Likewise, if Thompson and McCarthy are immune this offseason, they too will be vulnerable in the future. Face it; the “wait and see” period is over. If Thompson has a five-year plan, next year is his fifth year and we should be seeing the culmination of his plan, not a return to the complete rebuilding we saw in his first season.

This is where Thompson’s adherence to his plan will be carefully observed. He has often defied criticism of his draft style and his eschewing of free agency, sticking with what he believes is going to bring long-term success to the team. But, after a season of achievement and accolades, followed by an offseason of risky personnel decisions and heightened expectations, it might be expected that Thompson may want to give a show of good faith that he is committed to winning today, not just planning for the future.

The Packers will look to pick in the top 12 picks or so, and will likely have a solid second rounder from the Jets. Is this another year for the Packers to come away with 12 draft picks, or the year for them to make a statement in adding some quality talent to the roster, whether by standing pat, trading up, or trading picks for established veterans?

Is this another season that Thompson will eschew free agency, using his ample cap space to extend players from within, or will he try to infuse some talent with a big name that might be able to be an instant upgrade at a struggling position?

If Thompson continues to follow the plan as he has so consistently done the past three seasons, and the glaring lack of talent and depth continues to be a problem in 2009, it is pretty clear to see that “the plan” is in serious decline and Thompson will find that he has made his own bed.

Many fans have proposed many quick solutions, including signing every major free agent defensive lineman available (Haynesworth, Peppers). The likelihood of Thompson doing this is pretty slim, but you would think he might be investing in at least a couple of second-tier guys to make a statement that he is truly committed to winning now.

Like Ron Wolf, Thompson may have had something like this in mind all along…building a strong nucleus through the draft and investing in free agency at the end of his fourth year to push the team over the hump and into championship status. Perhaps the collapse this season will be the impetus for the next-gen Eugene Robinson, Keith Jackson, and Sean Jones to join the club.

Mike McCarthy, on the other hand, has an equally difficult task in front of him: first and foremost making the right dismissals and hires among his staff. Then, he must begin to reshape the climate of this team, one that appears to be lacking in communication, discipline, and fire. And, the best place to start is with the head coach.

Both McCarthy and Thompson made statements to the media following the Jaguar loss taking accountability for the 5-9 record. This was pretty significant because, as I had noted a couple weeks ago, McCarthy spent more time spinning clichés and identifying problem areas rather than admitted he himself may have been lacking.

Thompson, on the other hand, may as well have been in Africa filming an episode of Survivor since August, given as much as we’ve seen him. After a rough offseason filled with criticism, it seemed like he had gone into hiding for a while.

As they say, the first step is to admit you have a problem, and better yet, to admit you are a part of it.

But McCarthy’s role in all of this is going to be sensitive. There’s been much made of the recent “blowups” between players. As losing continues and the failure of goals is realized, the precious positive environment becomes tainted and polluted.

McCarthy is going to have to choose how to approach next season, how to reach his players, how to work with his assistants, and try and find a balance that gets everyone reaching their potential again.

It’s possible to swing that pendulum too far, and begin micromanaging the players and coaches, as Mike Sherman was often accused of doing. With the discouragement already on the team, who and how far to press is a tricky game to play.

Hopefully, McCarthy will return to his roots as a coach and work on finding a way to make the talent he has maximize its potential, and perhaps changing the practice schedule to be less relaxed and more like boot camp.

Accountability.

But, regardless, both Thompson and McCarthy will likely make some change in their respective approaches to their duties this offseason. As I’ve said many times, their job became a far more taxing affair when they were faced with the high expectations of last season instead of the eternally short measuring stick of Mike Sherman. The loss of perpetual lightning rod (and occasional scapegoat) Brett Favre placed the onus directly on managment.

And so, when Bob Sanders is officially voted off the island this offseason, both McCarthy and Thompson will use their immunity idols and live to fight another day. But, once that happens, both need to be aware, because the crosshairs will fall on them if the slide continues another season, and impatient Packer fans will be watching to see what changes are made, if any.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Packers Less Than The Sum Of Their Parts

Let’s use the Wayback Machine to send a message back to August, perhaps shortly after Brett Favre was shipped to the East Coast. Amidst all the emotions and consternation among the Packer fan base, we are able to send them the following information from week 14.:

* Aaron Rodgers has a 91.8 efficiency rating, once of the best third-down conversion rates among all NFL quarterbacks, and 23 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He has also started every game this season.

* Ryan Grant is a 1,000 yard rusher after 14 games, our first thousand-yarder since Ahman Green in 2006.

* Greg Jennings is among the league leaders in pass receiving and has had many explosive plays. He ranks 6th in receiving yards (1,153) and receiving touchdowns (6). Donald Driver and Donald Lee have added another 100 receptions and 1,000 yards, making our receiving corps one of the most productive in the league.

* Our offensive line has allowed only a little over two sacks per game, ranking 14th of ColdHardFootballFacts Offensive Hogs Index.

* Aaron Kampman has 9.5 sacks, good for a tie with Dwight Freeney at 11th in the league.

* The Packers hold a +7 turnover ratio, with 18 interceptions, and lead the league in points scored from turnovers and return yardage. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams each have five picks on the year, both matching Atari Bigby’s team-high last year. Al Harris has rebounded from last year into a near shutdown corner.

* Wil Blackmon ranks 4th in the league in punt returns, with two returned for touchdowns.

* Mason Crosby continues to kick well, with an 86.2% completion record, and is on pace to come close to his league leading points scored last year, presently with 115.

* The team ranks 10th overall in overall offense, and 8th overall in passing offense. Green Bay is 5th overall in points scored.

Given this kind of information, wouldn’t you think that this would bring a collective sigh to the worried fans of Green Bay, that life after a tumultuous offseason would be okay after all?

That’s exactly the point. There’s been a lot of great individual performances this season, starting first and foremost with the man picked to succeed Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers. Other players on this team have had Pro Bowl-worthy seasons, including Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Aaron Kampman, Al Harris, Nick Collins, and Wil Blackmon.

But no matter how you slice up those positive numbers, the end result is still the same: the Packers have dropped six of their last seven games and are out of the playoff picture in the weakest division in the NFL.

5-9.

If you would have sent me that limited information in August, I would have felt supremely confident that the Packers would have another division title and trip to the playoffs. And, quite honestly, they should.

Go back and think about it. How many great individual performances have we had this season? Al Harris, Nick Collins, Brandon Jackson, Jordy Nelson, Tramon Williams, Desmond Bishop, Brandon Chillar…tons of great individual performances this year, at one time or another.

But only five wins to show for it. No matter the individual stats, wins and losses is the only stat that really counts.

We all know where the biggest problem lies, and that is with the defense. It’s sad, because at one point this summer, Mike McCarthy told us that we shouldn’t worry too much about the quarterback position, because this team was built on the defense.

The running game has been far from consistent, and the offensive line has led the league in holding penalties.

How did this team come apart at the seams like this, despite having such a wealth of perceived talent coming off a trip to the NFC championship game last year? How do you go 1-6 after going 21-6 in your previous 27 regular season games?

I’ve always been a strong believer in teamwork and its effects on a team. Momentum, positive thinking, accomplishing goals together…this is the groundwork for any team. And the biggest precursor of such teamwork is leadership.

Last year, such synergy was evident to see over the course of the season. The team started out slow, and rode the back of a veteran quarterback while the running game was nonexistent. The defense rose to the occasion several times to help seal up wins.

As the season wore on, you could see the confidence build. Soon, the momentum became infectious, with perhaps average players riding the wave. Ryan Grant broke out in the running game. Atari Bigby because a devastating force on defense. Both of these players were liabilities earlier in the season, but with everyone around them playing to their potential, these guys were able to play maybe just a little better, maybe even beyond expectations.

The teamwork allowed everyone to maximize their own individual potential, and become a team that was more than the sum of those individuals. It was magical.

This season, however, is the complete opposite. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for as much as the 2007 Packers exceeded the sum of their parts, the 2008 can’t even reach what would be expected if you add together all the individual efforts.

They are less than the sum of their parts.

It’s too bad, because a great season by first year quarterback Aaron Rodgers is being wasted. Woodson was a shoo-in for a Pro Bowl, but having to move to safety and a losing record may likely make him an alternate, at best.

The Packers seem to have talent, and frankly, should have talent with the much ballyhooed 42 draft picks acquired by Ted Thompson in his four drafts. But the Packers seem to be able to find a way to lose each game with inconsistency and lack of execution, and the holes on this team are becoming more and more glaring.

Rodgers is taking far more criticism than he should for not being able to pull out a game in the final minutes. The point is, if you had listened to McCarthy last August, he shouldn’t even have to be placed in that position as often as he has. The defense that was supposed to carry this team can't carry Rodgers’ jock strap at this point. And as the defense fails and the running game can’t pick up a critical second-and-1, the game keeps falling into Rodgers’ hands to win or lose at the end.

The Packers relied on big plays in the first half of the season to limp to a 4-3 start, with huge interceptions and big pass plays making up the difference. As those plays have slowed to a halt in this half of the season, it is pretty clear that the offense can’t churn out critical drives, the defense can’t make a critical stop, and our special teams are, at best, pedestrian.

Where to point the finger? As I said, teamwork tends to start with the leadership, and the coaching staff is getting their fair share of blame. McCarthy finally stated today that he is at the top of the list when it comes to explaining away a 5-9 record, which is a step forward for a guy who has been far better at clichés and wordplay than accountability this season.

But leadership is also found in and amongst the players, and in many cases, that kind of leadership may be far more important than what the coach can do. Think of the impact of Tom Brady on his team last season, and the absence of it this season. It's not just talent...it's the confidence that he instill in those around him.

To some degree, this team may still be wallowing in the wake of the absence of Favre. I don’t mention this because I think he should be back with the team: at some point, the Green Bay Packers would have to move on without him. But the larger-than-life personality that was #4 for so many seasons under center was a pillar of leadership for the team.

He was also the lightning rod, the subject of every ESPN expose’, the guy for John Madden and Tony Kornheiser to gush over during telecasts. Many wished for him to move on, so that other players would get their fair share of attention and opportunities for leadership.

Well, you got that wish.

In that wake, the Packers seem to be struggling to find their identity. Some leaders have tried to come forward, particularly Woodson and Harris, but this is a young team with a lot of unproven players that are underachieving. We shouldn’t have to expect Rodgers to take on that burden any more than the position requires, but who else is helping to set that tone? Even the normally extroverted Donald Driver seems understated this season.

Don’t take this article as any sort of Favre Worshipping drivel. He’s gone and that’s that. But Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy elected to move on without him, feeling that this team was ready to cross the Rubicon without #4. I don’t think this team was ready, or at least, not nearly as ready as they thought it must have been.

The debate will now start, and likely last all the way until next September: is the problem with the talent level? Is the problem with the coaching or the playcalling? Is there enough discipline, or is the team soft because they practice indoors and have such little contact, even in preseason?

I say that this team is missing leadership, something we can often expect from a team that was built through the draft and is the youngest team in the league. I believe Mike McCarthy has a much more difficult job instilling this leadership now that Favre isn’t around anymore to take on that role, and McCarthy is going to have to find a way to solve it.

Until then, this team is going to continue to underachieve, even in the face of great individual performances, until it can find a collective identity and establish the kind of synergy that great leadership brings to a team.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Vandermause: "Tell Your Sister..You Were Right..."

After writing several pieces on what appears to be pretty blatant bias on the part of Mike Vandermause toward Ted Thompson, he suddenly comes out with this:

Mike Vandermause: "Blame Bad Defense on the GM"

Gasp.

Perhaps the book deal fell through?

Time will tell if Vandermause has actually returned from the Dark Side.

Packer Leaders Struggle To Deal With Success

We've seen it a million times in the public eye over the years. Perhaps an actor or rock star, once used to living out of a van and working round the clock to prove himself, suddenly hits it big and is now surrounded by fawning, adoring fans. Instead of trying to impress others, the tables suddenly turn and everyone is trying to impress him. And, in that one instant, many of those people are put in a position of excess, not knowing how to handle it, and perhaps most importantly, losing that edge that got them to where they were in the first place.

And that's the worst part, because with sudden success comes sudden expectations to prove it wasn't a fluke, and why we get to see so many specials on E! covering all the train wrecks that came from such scenarios...young folks ill-equipped for having the world on a platter so soon.

It's this innate element of human nature that made me reflect on how successful the 2007 season was, and the impact it may have had on the leadership of this team. Sometimes, you believe your own hype, and hanging on to what got you there becomes difficult.

Ted Thompson: The Packer GM came into this job with a dark cloud surrounding the former GM, Mike Sherman, who stayed on as head coach in 2005. Thompson began his process of quietly rebuilding the team through the draft, spending cap money from within, and avoiding free agency.

I have always believed that Thompson was given more of a carte blanche than maybe he should have, as the anti-Sherman sentiments lingered among the media and fan base. When Thompson fired Sherman following a 4-12 season in 2005, many fans cheered Thompson as a hero. When Thompson approached his job (and his drafts) in a polar opposite manner as Sherman the GM did, he was praised. Any deficiencies seemed to always come back to a comparison with Mike Sherman, who could always be counted on as a short measuring stick for Thompson.

But, Thompson has been enigmatic over his career as Packer GM, quietly sticking to his plan that the Packers would be reborn through the draft, almost exclusively. His penchant for trading down in the draft to produce record numbers of picks have widely been praised by media and fans (despite not having any more evidence that quantity over quality would be any more successful than Sherman's penchant to trade up).

In four years, Thompson has drafted almost an entire game-day active roster of players, 42 to be exact in a seven round draft.

But last year, a 13-3 record and deep playoff drive had every corner celebrating what appeared to be a complete turnaround for a club that had gone 12-20 the past two seasons. Apparently, Thompson's plan was the perfect one (as the record could attest), and Thompson was awarded the coveted GM of the Year award by the NFL.

Mind you, the Patriots front office might have been more deserving with their 16-0 season, but it is doubtful the NFL wanted to reward a team they just punished by taking away a draft pick for the whole Spygate scandal. Thompson and the Packers were far more the feel-good pick.

But when you get praise mounted on you, as Thompson did last season, it can give you a false sense of security, or a sense that everything that you have done is perfect. I have long stated that Thompson would keep Brett Favre around just long enough to have built up a strong team around Aaron Rodgers, and following last season, Thompson believed that such a team must be in place.

Corey Williams would have cost the Packers a lot of money, and many note that he hasn't exactly been a barn burner in Cleveland. But, he was a starter on the team last year, a team that was far more stout against the run and generated a far better pass rush than the 2008 version. When Thompson traded away Corey Williams for a draft pick, he revealed what is becoming one of his notable faults: he places a lot of faith in his draft picks. Justin Harrell, the 2007 #1 overall pick, was expected to come off an injury-plagued rookie season and take his place in the rotation for Williams.

Would Williams have been the difference this year? That is a question that will go answered, and certainly, the impact of losing Cullen Jenkins to the IR can't be lost, either. But this line was having problems long before Jenkins was hurt, and I can't help but think that Thompson believed that he could trade away a starter and that his draft picks would be able to pick up the slack.

As of right now, the only player along the line making a semi-consistent impact is Aaron Kampman, who was a Sherman pick, not a Thompson pick.

Later in the summer, the Packers spurned a request from retired quarterback Brett Favre to return to the team. What followed was a two-month long debacle that centered on one thing: the Packers did not want him to return to the team.

Yes, you can make all the usual points: Favre had retired, it was his own fault; Favre was old and having problems in cold weather, Favre was acting like a diva and deserved to be punished. But, Thompson also made a clear statement: this team is ready to move on with a young quarterback. Thompson believed, especially following the successes of 2007, that the running game would be able to establish itself with Ryan Grant, that he had built a stable of receivers that would be the envy of the NFL, and that his young interior offensive line now had enough competition to produce a solid front five.

And, as Mike McCarthy stated, this team was built upon its defense. The pressure won't be on Rodgers anyway.

Now, I'm not saying Thompson should have kept Favre, or that I even wish he'd be back in Green and Gold right now. But, I do believe that Thompson severely whiffed on two major assumptions:

* Thompson underestimated the intangible impact Favre had on this team. The running game that finally emerged last season was as much a product of a highly successful passing attack that forced defenses to play back. He had a leadership quality that was special, one that allowed him to take a game on his back, as he had hundreds of times, and take the glory or the blame at the end. Favre made the team around him better, as we've seen him do with the Jets this season. he was and is a presence.

* Thompson overestimated the completeness of the team he would be placing around Rodgers. The offensive line continued to be shuffled around all preseason and the first part of the season, trying to find a competent starting five. The running game was all but absent the first part of the season, and continues to be an inconsistent part of the offense.

But most of all, the team that was "built on the defense" was built on awfully shaky ground.

Thompson felt confident that this team would continue the success it had in 2007, with little to no improvements made upon it, and subtracting two key veteran starters. But a charmed year of health in 2007 saw a return to a typical year of injuries, and now, the Packers are looking at a team that seems to need upgrades at multiple positions for 2009...which is ironic as Thompson has drafted 42 players over the last four years.

Mike McCarthy: The Packers head coach was hired in 2006 to replace the recently deposed Mike Sherman, who limped his way through a 4-12 season. It was pretty clear that Sherman was done, frustrated. He had spent a season trying to win games with a record number of injuries and starting street free agents on both sides of the ball. When McCarthy came in, it was clear this was a starting point near rock bottom, and the only way to go was up.

McCarthy was well-regarded by fans his first two seasons. Even in his first season, when he put up a mere 4-8 record through 12 games, we liked his hard-nosed approach, a gruff exterior that seemed to be infectious on his players. He had a knack for working with young players, and had a no-nonsense, straight-forward approach in his press conferences that gave you confidence even when the team was losing.

He possessed a knack for making between-games adjustments that I then called "spit-and-wire" and now call "McCarthyism". Admittedly, when you are rebuilding, you aren't going to have all-pros at every position, and McCarthy did his part to finagle the players, formations, assignment, and schemes to fit the personnel and make them as successful as they could be.

When it was clear that the Zone Blocking Scheme wasn't effective on its own, he began introducing sweeps and pulling guards into the running game, piecemealing together his own scheme. When the pass protection continued to fail, he put tight ends in the backfield, ran Favre out of the shotgun 30+ times a game, and introduced a five WR set.

They weren't fixes for the long haul, but fixes that I respected instead of relying on the plan or scheme, waiting for the players to fit it. He was willing to adjust the scheme to fit what talent he had (which at times, wasn't much).

Following the 2007 season, McCarthy was given a lot of praise. His gruff and ornery persona became somewhat "lovable", and his short leash of an initial three-year contract was given a hefty extension over this past offseason. McCarthy won the fan vote for Coach of the Year, and finished in second place behind Bill Bellichek in nearly every other such award. McCarthy was regarded as an up-and-comer.

But, perhaps even starting with the Favre debacle this offseason, we started seeing a different Mike McCarthy, one that bordered on a level of arrogance at times. He heaped praise upon his general manager, Ted Thompson, took a major role in anointing Aaron Rodgers and, apparently, letting Brett Favre know exactly where he stood.

Like Thompson, McCarthy also seemed to believe that this team was solid and set on both sides of the ball, and no longer needed Favre's humongous ego and leader to take the reins.

As the season has gone on, repeated mistakes have plagued the team: penalties have crippled the team at times, and has only shown marginal improvement from the beginning of the year. A lack of commitment to the ground game. A lack of consistency on the part of both lines. Giving up huge plays, both through the air and on the ground.

The difference this year is that these problems aren't getting fixed. In the past, McCarthy would figure out some way to solve the problems in between games. This year, McCarthy is sounding more and more like Ray Rhodes, telling reporters that he'll have to "go look at the tape" and giving us cliches like "pad level" and "cleaning up our house".

When asked if he sensed the team had a lack of consistency, he responded, "I think our team has been very consistent when we win."

Being the Packers have fallen to a 5-8 record, it is pretty clear such consistency is rather inconsistent.

McCarthy is coming off more and more frustrated at press conferences (kind of reminds me of the 1998 Mike Holmgren), and such is the cost of high expectations. Sometimes, once you've finally created something successful, you are afraid to mess or tinker with it anymore. It's possible that McCarthy had such success last season that he's been hesitant to get in and get his hands dirty with the team in trying to fix the problems. Is he more hands-off this season than he's been in the past? Are we seeing that infectiousness can-do attitude rubbing off on his players like it used to?

If McCarthy is going to be successful in 2009, he needs to find what made him successful before 2008.

Aaron Rodgers: I hate to bring up Rodgers in an article like this, but I think it also fits into the theme of how early success can rob you have some of the hunger you have to prove yourself when you are struggling.

Rodgers was anointed the starter in a chaotic offseason that essentially saw Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy commit to him over Brett Favre. Rodgers handled that situation as well as anyone, with humility and the attitude that he was going to win over his teammates and fans with his play.

He had a chip on his shoulder. He was going to prove himself to everyone, even the GM and coach that selected him over a Lambeau Legend.

And, Rodgers did. He led the Packers into the bye week with a 4-3 record, himself playing with a scintillating 98.7 passing efficiency rating, and only having thrown 4 interceptions. He threw for twelve touchdowns and ran for another four.

At that point, with seven starts under his belt, Ted Thompson rewarded Rodgers with a surprising $65 million contract extension, with $20 million guaranteed.

No one appeared more surprised than Aaron Rodgers, who apparently thanked Ted Thompson profusely for the extension.

“Just to be able to play the way I did starting the season definitely helped,” Rodgers said. “But this was still a little unexpected, so I appreciate the commitment they’ve made to me. I still had a year and a half on my deal left, but this definitely means a lot to me that they’re saying I’m going to be the guy, and not just for the next two years, I’m going to be the guy for the future.”

Since that signing, however, Rodgers has struggled more. The team has gone 1-5, and while many will tell you that Rodgers isn't the reason they are losing, he's not the reason they are winning, either.

The early reward for a short sample of play may have had an impact on Rodgers. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who had a chip on his shoulder, who felt he had to prove himself to the world. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who wasn't afraid to sneak for a first down or a touchdown. I liked the Aaron Rodgers who had to fight and struggle and claw to get out of Brett Favre's shadow.

Does that make me sadistic? To a degree, I suppose, but I think that such pressure was making him a better quarterback. There's no better way to quiet your critics than to prove them wrong, and that is what Rodgers was doing.

Even in this 1-5 slide, Rodgers continues to put up good statistics. He's still throwing at an 85.1 efficiency rating over that time. However, as I said many times when people were clamoring for a more efficient quarterback that threw less interceptions, efficiency and not throwing interceptions doesn't always equate to winning games.

One thing that Favre did when the running game or the defense faltered is he often took the game on his shoulders to win or lose. And, in essence, that is what he did...he won the game or he lost the game, at least in the eyes of many. But he did it because he didn't play it safe...he took chances that were often risky, but plays he knew he could make. Because of that, he often shouldered the blame in a loss.

That's the difference now...people are going out of their way to say that Rodgers isn't the reason the Packers are losing, because he has a mere 11 interceptions and a 92.1 efficiency rating. But, he also isn't the reason they are winning.

In the last game against the Texans, the Packers had ten third down conversions. For the game, Rodgers had a typically efficient game, with a 104.2 rating. But on those third downs, Rodgers went 2/7 for 13 yards, no first downs, one interceptions, and one sack. For those of you calculating at home, that is a 0.0 efficiency rating.

Other than a late drive against the hapless Lions in Week 2, Rodgers has been unable to generate a fourth quarter comeback, either.

This isn't a cut on Rodgers, just a simple statement of fact: Rodgers is not a quarterback who can take a game on his shoulders and win it for you. He is a human quarterback who needs the pieces in place around him for him to excel.

The fact that Ted Thompson, again, was overly loyal to one of his first-round picks and rewarded him after only seven games with the biggest contract on the team was a surprising call, and one that seems to have taken some of the edge off of Rodgers' game.

After all, if you've been given $65 million and the keys to the offense, what more do you have to prove?

Rodgers can be and should be a good quarterback in the NFL. He has the accuracy, but he doesn't have the moxie to be a Tom Brady, a Joe Montana, or a Brett Favre. He's a good quarterback who, right now, doesn't have the players around him to translate his efficiency into wins.

And that is why success is often more difficult to deal with than adversity. Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure. Let's hope that this season's adversity brings about a renaissance of success in 2009, and that our leadership regains the hunger that made them successful to begin with.

Monday, December 8, 2008

No Time For Whining About Officiating

Not too long ago, I used to mock the Vikings and Viking fans who would wail and gnash their teeth over some call that was made during their game against the Packers that "caused them to lose". Oh, certainly, there always seemed to be some questionable calls in some of those games, both ways, but listening to those cries from across the river always bugged me. It didn't come down to one call or one play...you had an entire game to assert yourself and make the big plays that would assure a win, and you didn't. Quit acting like you needed one call from the officials in order to win.

After yesterday's game, I am irritated that there are many media types and fans (and possibly some Packers) pointing a finger at the phantom holding penalty called on Tony Moll late in the game that, in their minds, put us in a position to lose the game.

News flash: the Packers are the defending division champs, and just a play away from the Super Bowl last season. The Houston Texans are, well, the Houston Texans. Eternal expansion ne'er-do-wells who can just never seem to get out of the bottom half of their own division. They came to our own field with a 5-7 record and a quarterback who was on a month's hiatus.

The Packers lost that game. I'm glad to see that most of the coaches and players are seeing it as such, and not getting worked up about one call, no matter how critical it was at the time. Both coach Mike McCarthy and OL coach James Campen have come out and stated it was a bad call, though.

“He did exactly what he was taught to do,” McCarthy said.

Added Campen: “I think he blocked it well, yes.”

But, that call didn't lose the game for the Packers. We needed to do better than one-out-of-ten in third down conversions. We needed to not allow Steve Slaton 160 all-purpose yards. We need to make a fourth quarter stop.

If you watched that game closely, the refs were making some pretty ticky tack calls all game, with commentator Steve Tasker insisting they will "call that every time". Truth is, another set of refs may not have called that hold on Moll or the other calls, both ways. However, they were pretty consistent the entire game.

At home, in the cold, in front of a very supportive crowd, and against a team that by every measure the Green Bay Packers should consider a team they should beat, they played well enough to simply not win.

It was far deeper than one holding call, no matter the timing or the situation. This team has relied on big plays all season to pull them out of holes. You can't keep waiting until the fourth quarter for a big play to put the other team away, especially when your defense appears willing to allow them the big play first.