Thursday, December 27, 2007

You Reap What You Sow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much as the Bears did to the Packers last Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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