Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Packers Need Leadership Drive-r

Of all the disappointing statistics to come out of the Buccaneers game, one that stood out to me was the receiving stats for one Donald Driver. It seems unfathomable, especially considering that Greg Jennings has so solidly established himself as a consistent big-play threat to draw most of the double coverage, that Driver can so easily disappear from the field.

But the concerns I have go deeper than seeing our former #1 receiver limited to just one catch for eight yards. He was more than just unproductive. He was invisible in nearly every way on the field. When the announcers talked about how the Packer receivers were not finishing off their routes, I didn't know whether Driver was in that group or not.

It's not just the catches and the yardage that makes Driver so important, especially with what is now a very young offense with young quarterback. It is the intangibles, the emotional leadership that Driver brings to the team, the inspiration he has been so good at, keeping his teammates and Packer fans believing that the game isn't over until the final whistle.

A belief, however, that has slowly been waning the past two games against decent teams, and not coincidentally, two games that have seen Donald Driver more limited. Oh, certainly, he caught that nice 50-yarder against the Cowboys, but the Packers still seemed listless as they tried to finish off that drive.

One of the things that I always concerned myself with when Favre would eventually leave the Green Bay Packers was not as much about replacing or improving upon his stats, but the intangibles that don't show up in a box score.

While those folks who worship at the Altar of Statistics would gnash their teeth at how much a reduction of five interceptions a season would be a great improvement, or a gain of seven percentage points in completion ratio would make the offense so much more efficient, they often failed to see Favre's contributions on the field that were unmeasurable.

One of the most important attributes he brought to the offense was that he was an emotional leader. When things got tough and the team was on the wrong end of the scoreboard, Favre was the kind of player that other players looked to for direction. And, Favre was the kind of player that could deliver that, whether it be gleefully celebrating a touchdown pass, jawing with a defensive lineman who got him with a slightly late hit, or encouraging/disciplining a teammate with just a look. Like it or not, he was bound, set, and determined to make something happen, and was willing to take the risks when playing it safe just wasn't working.

When you start getting outplayed, you need someone that young players can look to and lead you into battle. Reggie White personified this kind of emotional leadership, a guy who inspired an entire squad to keep working together as one, because the rest of the team (and coaches) believed he could do it.

This is not to say that Aaron Rodgers isn't a good leader, or to suggest that I am petitioning for Favre to come back to the Packers. I like Aaron Rodgers and think he has a lot going for him. I think that he has won the support of his teammates and they believe that he can do the job. And he's the guy that is going to get you those five fewer interceptions and seven completion percentage points.

But there is still a difference between support and having ten guys all look to you for inspiration when you fall behind. First of all, I don't think Rodgers has developed that ability yet (neither had Favre at that age), and more importantly, you earn that respect when you've done it before, repeatedly. I think, if everything plays out right, Rodgers will reach that kind of leadership someday.

But, this is now a very young squad. With Favre's departure, the only "old guys" left on the team are Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, and Donald Driver. Neither Clifton or Tauscher are fiery leaders (and rarely are offensive linemen looked to in that regard). But Driver has long held that role, particularly his synergistic excitement he had with his former quarterback.

How many times have we seen Double D flash that winning smile, jack up a teammate on the sideline, make a great grab and run, and bring the crowd to its feet with a dramatic "first down" signal? How many years did we see him as the reliable receiver, the go-to man when it seemed no one else could make anything work?

When Donald Driver is limited to one catch, you not only lose his production, you lose that opportunity for leadership. In the last two weeks, we've seen an offense that has looked lost and confused. This squad is made up of young players who are experiencing their first season with without their built-in Leader and Hype Machine, the Three Time MVP and Future Hall of Famer.

And they are struggling to find someone else who is going to bring inspiration to them when the going gets tough.

Often, that role falls on a quarterback, but not always. I'm sure the Redskins look more to Clinton Portis than Jason Campbell for inspiration. Who is going to be the guy that is going to pick the team up emotionally when they start feeling defeated?

And, my guess is that it has to be Donald Driver, a veteran who has been there before and has filled that role for years. But that means, like any other wide receiver, you have to get him the ball.

So, why isn't he? Why is Jordy Nelson getting the attention at crunch time instead of Driver? Could it be that Driver has lost a step, and is unable to get open? Could it be that Jennings is given more hot routes and Driver is becoming the John Jefferson to Jennings' James Lofton?

Or, is a more clandestine conspiracy theory at work? Is Driver, like Laverneus Coles, pouting because he is still loyal to the quarterback that was taken from him? Is Aaron Rodgers showing favoritism to receivers whom he likes more, feeling that Driver was "Brett's guy"?

Mike McCarthy addressed the issue on his weekly television show today. When asked about the receivers who were cutting off their routes, McCarthy singled out Driver as the guy who graded out very, very well that game. He also stated that because of some other receivers not running their routes correctly (*cough* Jordy Nelson *cough*), the primary route was cut off on several plays.

McCarthy did mention that getting Driver more involved is a priority for next week. Getting him more involved, though, shouldn't have been an issue to begin with.

Now, please don't interpret this as me saying that all the woes of the Green Bay Packers are solved by just throwing Driver the *%# ball. The team has a lot of issues that go a lot deeper than just who the ball is being passed to.

But, we can stack up and dissect all the statistics we want to, and still come up with the conclusion that we're not running the ball well at all, and we're not pass protecting like we should, and we're not hanging on to the ball.

The real question that the statistics don't answer is "Why?"

Without Favre, this offense needs to find its identity, and has to find the players that lead that offense. Ted Thompson's young players now anchor this squad, and some might suggest that he has built this team in his own image, trying to make up in quiet execution what he lacks in inspriation and charisma.

The young players need to learn how to become leaders themselves, and Driver has but a few years remaining to pass on the lessons he learned from Robert Brooks his own first season.

A team is more than a sum of its parts, and far more than the sum of the statistics they produce individually. Teamwork, leadership, trust, and inspiration....these are the ties that bind that team together. Donald Driver is a guy who needs to step up and make that happen. But it is up to Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers to make sure that he gets that opportunity.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

TundraVision QuickHits: Buccaneers Aftermath

In a down and depressing day, the Packers fell to 2-2 with a disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-21. The pirates stole our booty, injured our players, and clearly outlined the weak spots on our team.

After drowning myself in some beverages and cheering myself up by watching the end of the Brewer game, I'm ready to deliver the down and dirty of this week's QuickHits:

* Of all the numbers you want to dissect this week, look at these first: 15 rushes, 20 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble. These are the numbers of Green Bay starting running back Ryan Grant, after holding out and getting a big payday. The Bucs have a strong defensive line, but come on...this is completely ridiculous.

We can't possibly expect Aaron Rodgers to carry this team by himself. The zone blocking scheme that was implemented several seasons ago has been reschemed, retooled, and rezoned over and over. Not only is the scheme not effective, we don't have the offensive line talent to make it work against a playoff-caliber defense.

Ryan Grant and this offensive line are killing this team. Meanwhile, the Bucs piled up another 178 yards rushing this week against our own defensive line. This kind of disparity is not the sign of a true contender for the playoffs.

* I predicted many, many times that Aaron Rodgers was going to get himself hurt by rushing the ball in a panic and not being aware of the hits coming. This time, it cost him and quite possibly, cost the team in the future. There's no reason we should have to rely on Rodgers to run for our first downs, and the only reason he is rushing for them is because he's the only one who can.

The early fear as of publishing is that it may be a separated shoulder, and this is very, very bad news indeed. Matt Flynn didn't look anything better than the seventh round draft pick out of his league that he is, and if Rodgers is out for any extended period of time, this team is in serious, serious trouble.

* Further digressing on Rodgers and his line, I think Rodgers has something in common with his predecessor, Brett Favre. Rodgers is adept at making his line look a lot better than it is, simply with his ability to move around and make good throws.

That is, when there is anyone open and there isn't rusher in his face, which is what seemed to happen from the second quarter on. Rodgers is very good at taking what the defense gives him, but for the second game in a row, he faced a defense that didn't give him anything.

Favre excelled at sensing pressure, moving the pocket around and leading rushers right into blockers. He also was noted for choosing to force the ball upfield over taking a sack, often to the detriment of his interception statistics (but the the boon of the line's sacks allowed).

Rodgers doesn't sense pressure as well, but is so quick and agile with his feet that he is able to move away from a lot of the rush. But, we're seeing that as defenses are learning how to play Rodgers (including using Derrick Brooks as a quarterback spy), his opportunities to move around was limited, and thus, so was his effectiveness.

* I know the umpire has to be somewhere on the field, but that head-shot was both hilarious.

Of course, I noticed that the Bucs seemed to run a lot of routes around the umpire today, trying to use him somewhat as a pick play. I guess that's a natural consequence of that kind of strategy.

* The pass protection, once again, was porous, no matter how much the FOX commentators tried to make them out as a great line since 2002 that McCarthy trusts in every situation (they sure were singing a different tune by the end of the game, weren't they?)

The Bucs, like the Cowboys last week, were able to create pressure with just a four-man rush, and caused a lot problems with a fifth man on a blitz. This is simply something that a NFL line has to be able to handle. The Bucs are a top-10 defensive line, for sure, but you have to be able to hold a four-man rush and give your quarterback time to throw.

* Nick Collins is starting to make a believer out of me. Almost.

He's making plays, and that's something we've rarely seen from him. He has only faced one truly good quarterback this season (Romo), and it is his coverage skills that has been his glaring weakness in the past. If he shows that he's more than a ball hawk and is securing the last line of defense consistently against top-flight offenses, I will take back all the bad things I've said about him.

* I don't know if Ted Thompson is the kind of guy who admits mistakes. It's kind of hard to get a slam-dunk call against him, because Thompson's defenders always seem to have some sort of rationale for why not signing a certain free agent was wise, or why letting a veteran go was ingenious. We usually have to take a wait-and-see approach to see if those work out or not.

But, I'm failing to see any wisdom in letting your veteran punter go in the final cuts, coming off two very strong preseason games, only to pick up a guy because you think he might be better. You do last-minute pickups like that for a 4th running back or a 6th linebacker, not your only punter.

How Darren Frost could be grading out better than Jon Ryan is beyond me. I'm starting to think that if Thompson isn't wishing he had that one back, Mike McCarthy sure is.

* Speaking of McCarthy, I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon against his playcalling like many others are doing. Any time you lose, you have 20,000 second-guessers who find it obvious what should have been called at a certain time, with 20/20 hindsight.

However, I am going to express my concern that McCarthy still lags terribly at in-game adjustments. I really thought, for once, this team was going to fix things up at halftime. In tough games in the past, the Packers have usually played with a team through the first half, and then the other team made adjustments that McCarthy doesn't keep up with. Today, I thought the Bucs had wrestled control of the game long before halftime, and MM was going to mix it up in the second half.

But the Packers continued to approach the game the same way offensively, with McCarthy simply getting angrier and more frustrated on the sideline. Because, you know, if it doesn't work once, its supposed to work later on, right?

I think McCarthy is excellent at game-to-game adjustments, and has shown that over this career. But he doesn't do it along the way in the big games when the other team has your number. And this wasn't even against a team that we would have thought of as a prime-time playoff contender.

* Favre Acolyte Sidebar: Speaking of McCarthy's frustration on the sideline, doesn't he have the look of a guy who suddenly has the weight of the team on his shoulders, and no longer has a high-profile lightening rod on the field to take the brunt of the finger-pointing?

* Jordy Nelson has more pass receptions than Donald Driver? What's wrong with this picture? Can both Driver and Jennings be double covered all the time? I think the math doesn't work out...if they are rushing five, keeping Brooks as a spy, that's six. That leaves five players to cover three wide recivers, a tight end, and a running back.

Driver has only five pass receptions in the last two games. Not surprisingly, the Packers have lost both those games. Today, he had only one reception for eight yards.

So, what's the deal? Is Driver losing a step? Is Rodgers not looking his way? Is there something with the schemes that is making Driver a too-early or too-late read? Is Rodgers locking in on one reciever?

Whatever it is, Donald Driver is an emotional leader for this offense, which has sorely needed some leadership the last couple weeks. McCarthy has to get Driver involved in the passing game again.

* Dropped balls were an issue in this game. I remember writing extensively about drops during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, usually in defense of Favre's play and interceptions. Yet, today, it was pretty clear that even the three or four drops we saw were critical, including one interception that came off the hands of Brandon Jackson.

I'm really thinking that going back to 2005 bad habits is a really bad idea.

* Speaking of going back to 2005, I don't think there was a season in this millennium that had as many games missed by starters due to injury than that year, as you can tell when you are counting on Taco Wallace as your major receiving threat.

The injuries we are presently facing are concerning indeed. Scott Wells, Atari Bigby, Al Harris, Aaron Rodgers,Josh Sitton, and James Jones are forcing guys into playing that we would much prefer play on special teams. But, they are getting their chance.

The one thing that I saw as a benefit of Thompson's draft-only, trade-down strategy was that he was building a deep team that would eventually find many of its starters through free agency. The FA parts has never happened, but it is clear that, like any time you have injuries, that you lose something with injuries.

I'll give some kudos to Tramon Williams and Wil Blackmon for holding their own for the most part, and even Aaron Rouse showed some improvement over some forgettable performances the past few weeks. But the falloff to Jordy Nelson, Matt Flynn, Daryn Colldge, and Tony Moll are just too far of drops for a team to maintain a playoff drive.

* If I haven't mentioned this, Greg Jennings is going to be a superstar in this league. I don't care if he has Rich Campbell throwing to him.

* Watching Matt Bryant kicking today while dealing with the emotions of the death of his child made me think of Brett Favre's game against the Raiders after his father has died. I thought FOX's presentation was appropriate and tasteful. The MNF game those years ago was over the top (as most coverage of Favre was), but for some reason, we don't have a problem making Favre's grief into a huge soap opera. Fox captured just enough emotion from Bryant to touch your heart, but didn't make it into something so big that it became uncomfortable.

All our prayers go out to Matt and Melissa Bryant. There's no greater pain for a parent.

* The Packers are 2-0 against teams that did not make the playoffs last year. They are 0-2 against teams that did make the playoffs last year. I don't think a lot of prognosticators are going to be keeping the Packers in the Top Ten of their power rankings this week. At this point, the Packers have shown that they can beat poor teams, but can't beat the good teams.

They might make the playoffs, but at this point, it is only because the rest of the division is so poor.

Or are they? Are we forgetting that the Bears are 5-1 against the Thompson-led Packers over the last three years? And, like the Cowboys and the Bucs, they don't exactly have a bad defense, either (Defensive Hog Index over at Cold Hard Football Facts has them 10th in the league)?

We know right now that the Packers are on an 0-2 skid, and might have a "get-better" game at Atlanta...a team that, unfortunately, might be a true reflection of our peer group than Dallas or Tampa Bay.

Think about that: the team that went to the NFC Championship game last year puts the Falcons as a team that will be evenly matched. That's not a good sign for a team that lost only two starters from last year's team, and allowed every other young player to grow and mature another year.

The Falcons didn't make the playoffs last year, so that bodes well for the Packers, who are undefeated against 2007 non-playoff teams. But after that, then next three games are against playoff teams.

Even if Rodgers returns, it is clear that the problems in the running game and the offensive line far overshadow the quick-strike ability of Jennings in the passing game. And, it is clear that despite being able to count on Nick Collins or Charles Woodson for a big turnover every game, the sieve-like quality of our defensive line trumps the big play.

You can't count on a 70-yard touchdown when you are getting sacked another three times and hurried another dozen, and can't count on more than 20 yards from your running backs.

You can't count on an interception that might go for a touchdown when the opposing team can control the game in the second half with their running game.

Atlanta might be a get-better game. But there's a lot of facets of this team that Mike McCarthy is going to have to get a lot better before then.

Monday, September 22, 2008

TundraVision QuickHits: Cowboys Aftermath

The unpleasant feeling of watching the Packers fall to the Cowboys last night assured us two things: the Green Bay Packers might be the class of the NFC North, but outside the division, its pretty clear the 2008 version of the Green and Gold have to prove they truly belong in the NFC elite, much less the NFL elite.

After taking a 27-15 drubbing from the team that, by most accounts, is the team to beat in the conference, the Packers are left to sort out this loss as they prepare for next week's game against the Bucs. Here are just a couple of my QuickHits as we ponder this game:

* I hate to say I told you so, Denny, but I told you so. The Packers' offensive line is serviceable when up against bottom-half pass rushing attacks like Detroit's and Minnesota's, but when up against a playoff-caliber defensive line, it was clear that Tony Moll and Daryn Colledge are still living on borrowed time.

Rodgers had pressure in the backfield with even just a four-man rush, was sacked 5 times, and was forced to move around all night. Of the eight penalites accepted against the Packers, four were again against the offensive line, with one particularly costly, as Colledge was called for holding after Brandon Jackson had gone for a big gainer late in the game.

The Packers' interior offensive line, which has been built completely through Ted Thompson's drafts since the dismissal of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, should be gelling and coming together. Instead, they continue to struggle when faced with a tough line.

The Packers have invested seven picks in the last four drafts to build the interior offensive line, and you would think any of them should have developed enough to supplant a fourth-round rookie, but they didn't.

The Packers are in for another tough pass rush next week against the Bucs (8th in the league last season). Let's hope that Mike McCarthy's spit-and-wire adjustments do more to protect Rodgers next week.

* The prospect of Al Harris missing the rest of the season with a ruptured spleen is cause for great concern. The Packers have already lost Atari Bigby for a couple of games, and it is clear that Aaron Rouse struggles in his coverage responsibilities.

Tramon Williams and Wil Blackmon don't have the ability to press cover as well as Harris and Woodson, and Pat Lee is still a long ways away. If one of those guys can't bump with the big boys, more pressure is going to be added on the safeties to bail them out...and neither Collins or Rouse (or Bigby, for that matter) list their coverage skills nearly as high as their big-hit ability.

Without Harris, the Packers may have to consider adjusting the scheme to fit the talent, and that's not a lot of fun to do mid-season.

* It was nice to see AJ Hawk flying around in the first half. It seems like he's usually off the radar in games, but we have to remember that as a weak side linebacker, he's not always put in position to make plays. I like to say he's been "dotting the i", coming in on the play and making sure it is finished.

Too bad his hit on Al Harris was the most punishing one of the night.

* I'm still scratching my head on the Brandon Chillar/Brady Poppinga thing. Where is this going? We didn't see Chillar at all for the first two games, and suddenly, he was all over the place in the first half. Then, it seemed like he disappeared and Poppinga was back in there.

Chillar seemed like he had it going on. Pop finished with only one tackle, while Chillar ended up with nine. Let's see how this plays out in Tampa.

*Speaking of odd things, anyone else find it amusing that Jordy Nelson was the go-to guy in the hurry-up offense? I understand the Cowboys were playing a prevent dime and had DD and Jennings doubled up, but I'm guessing that James Jones' drops earlier in the game may have had something to do with Nelson's sudden appearance? I didn't see Jones in the game much at all after the first quarter.

* Aaron Rodgers padded his stats in the fourth quarter in the hurry up, taking short pass after short pass. The Cowboys were more than happy to let him have those, as they played in the prevent and just wanted that clock down to nothing as soon as possible.

But the time between when the Cowboys went ahead 10-6, and when they went up 27-9 and went into the prevent, Rodgers was 2/8 passing, scrambled four times, and was sacked three times. Moreover, he started looking jittery and lost, and his passes seemed to lose a lot of their accuracy.

This was a little disconcerting, as we need Aaron Rodgers to be able to lead comebacks. You get the feeling that Rodgers excels at taking what the defense gives him, but when you face a defense that doesn't give anything, what are you supposed to do?

Those are the kind of defenses that we will be facing in the playoffs, and Rodgers has to get over this hurdle on the way to establishing himself as a solid NFL quarterback. As much as the scrambles are exciting, he's going to have to find a way to do it through the air if he wants to win (and stay healthy).

*Terrell Owens had a profound effect on the win, far more than what the stat book said. The Packers preoccupation with Owens opened the door for their fourth WR to exploit our weak secondary, and for Marion Barber to gash our defensive line. The next team may be forced to play more zone on pass plays, and put more guys in the box to stop Barber, leaving Owens more free to do his stuff.

Charles Woodson won the battle, but Terrell Owens won the war.

* I didn't like the Jermichael Finley pick, and his first action in an NFL game didn't do a whole lot to endear me to him. A unnecessary roughness penalty for ripping the helmet off a Cowboy player put the Packers deep in their own territory after a punt return, and made him look foolish. I would make sure the kid stays on the inactive list until he proves he can be a help instead of a hindrance.

The end I was hoping the Packers would have taken, Martellus Bennett, took a pass in the fourth quarter and ran 37 yards with it. The drive ended in a turnover, but that play meant the Packers had to start deep in their own territory again.

Taking Bennett would have meant passing on Brian Brohm. I'm not sure that would have been that bad of a trade-off.

* Tony Romo is going to get himself in trouble with those intentional grounding penalties one of these days. I do see the Favre comparisons with Romo. He's certainly exciting to watch, but he can pull some bonehead plays, too.

* The Donald Driver scramble and forward lateral seemed to be very out of character for DD, who has usually been counted on as a solid veteran leader who kept the ball moving forward. The lack of discipline on the play is, hopefully, an exception to the rule that you keep that ball moving. He wasted not only the down, the yards, but a lot of time off the clock.

* Greg Jennings is going to be a superstar in this league. I don't care if TJ Rubely is throwing the ball to him.

* Is it just me, or do these Packer alumni reunions always seem to be during the Gold Package games? Not that I own season tickets, but the tickets I do get my hands on a couple times a year are all Green Package. I would have loved to have seen those guys up close, interviewed, whatever ceremony happened on the field. There were stars on that sideline that lit up the childhoods of nearly every Packer fan alive today, from Jerry Kramer in the 60's, John Brockington in the 70's, Lynn Dickey in the 80's, LeRoy Butler in the 90's, and Marco Rivera in the 00's.

Just wish I could have seen those faces light up the field once more. It would have been a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy game.

* Our defensive line was gashed again, this time for 217 yards rushing. The Packers rank 26th in the league in rushing yards allowed (453), but rank dead last in rushing yards per attempt (5.7 yards per carry). This is unacceptable for a team that was still being touted as being the third-best team in the NFC by the Vegas bookies.

In yesterday's game, the top five tacklers were safeties and linebackers, before finally getting to Cullen Jenkins' 5 tackles. When the Cowboys attempt 35 rushes and only 31 passes, this is a sign that the line has not been properly shored up. Allowing Corey Willians to leave via trade is looking to be a very poor move in retrospect.

Both lines are big, big question marks right now.

* Finally, I am going to say that for the first two games, this team has lived and died by the Big Play, needing big interceptions or big passes or big runs to get the points on the board. This week, they died by them.

After the interception by Nick Collins in the end zone (and a great play that was), the Packers didn't have a rush of over nine yards, and while they got one big 50 yard pass play to Donald Driver, that drive netted just a field goal, and the rest of the drives were limited.

On the other side, Marion Barber gashed the Packers for big run after big run, Felix Jones added a 60 yard scamper, and Miles Austin burned the secondary not once, but twice for huge gains and one touchdown.

It was predicted than when Aaron Rodgers took over as quarterback, the Packers would become a more ball-control offense, with Rodgers playing it safe instead of sorry. Instead, we've seen this team depend on monster interceptions and big chunks of yardage to get into position to score touchdowns. When we faced a defense that limited those plays, the team seemed to lose its way.

I have always given Mike McCarthy a great amount of credit for his ability to adjust his team and schemes between games. He does a great job of making thing work, even if he doesn't have the talent to get it done. My guess is this is, after two wins, the first chance MM will have to work that adjustment magic he's done so well in the past.

But, let it be said: the teams the Packers have beaten this season are a combined 1-5. It is a good team that beat the opponents they are supposed to. But, to be considered a great team, the Packers have to show up against the teams that are supposed to be their peers.

It's a long season and there's a lot of great football to look forward to, but there are suddenly a lot more concerns after the Cowboys game than there were before.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rodgers vs. Smith: Proof Positive

Sometimes, things happen for a reason.

The recent trip to the IR for San Francisco QB Alex Smith is likely to spell an end to a rather expensive mistake by the 49ers, who drafted him in 2005 with the first overall pick. Smith was unseated this season, his fourth, by a guy who was once dismissed as the Green Packers' emergency quarterback, J.T. O'Sullivan. And when this season is over, Smith will likely be released to avoid another season of millions of dollars for nothin'.

And the 49ers have no one to blame but themselves.

It doesn't seem like very long ago that 49er fans were thumping their chests about their great draft choice and his potential, while the Packers got stuck with the ugly stepsister, Aaron Rodgers, who free-falled in the draft before a perceived "mercy pick" at 24, bringing him to Green Bay. Oh, how that has changed.

The 49ers drafted Smith and, like many football teams in the past, placed him in the starting lineup and proceeded the long and difficult task of building a team around him. Pay no mind to the lessons that should have been learned from Tim Couch, David Carr, or Akili Smith. If a team is drafting that high, they have a terrible team that probably needs upgrades and nearly every position.

And yet, with the incredible amount of money being thrown at a top overall pick, the pressure is there right away to put the guy in, and let him "grow" in the position. Yet, we see quarterback after quarterback fail under these conditions, forced to play without a team around him.

This was the trap the 49ers fell into. Smith and Rodgers were about neck and neck in terms of their ability and potential, Smith probably getting the nod due to his lengthier experience at Utah and is uncanny measured intelligence. Rodgers, who spent only two years at Cal and played some of his years at junior college, was considered more of a raw talent that had the shadow of being a Tedford product, which didn't project well in the pro game.

Fact is, both quarterbacks could have been put into the same situation and probably had the same successes and failures as the other. But, the fact of the matter is, they weren't put into the same situation. And, to some degree, though it isn't the most popular of opinions in Packerland, you have to give a thanks to Brett Favre.

We all know that Ted Thompson is pretty loyal to his draft picks. He tends to find a way to keep nearly every guy he selects on the roster that year, and has often allowed veterans to leave the team to be replaced with a guy he drafted. One would have to think that Thompson has a soft spot for Rodgers, the first player he drafted and a guy who he has seen toil behind the stubborn will of Favre's desire to continue playing into his AARP years.

I remember getting into rather heated battles with other Packer fans who tended have a, well, jaded view of how valuable a player Favre was to the Packers in the Sherman era. Often, in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, there were cries for Favre to sit (or forcibly retire) so that Rodgers could get the starting job. "After all," they said, "we have to know what we have in Rodgers, so we know how to draft the next year!"

Sometimes, I was branded a Rodgers Critic because I, admittedly, was a pretty fierce Favre Fan. But, in retrospect, I think I had the right idea. Favre was the best player for the job in 2005, taking the firestorm of criticism as he threw 29 interceptions. But, he was playing behind guys name Whittaker and Klemm, and throwing to guys named Taco and Chatman, and handing off to a guy named Gado...none of whom were with the team the following year.

By his own admission, Rodgers entered the 2005 season cocky, a chip on his shoulder the size of Grady Jackson, looking to immediately compensate for his draft day plummet. There was no way he would have had any measure of success that season, and likely the following season in 2006. In both seasons, it was clear the game still hadn't slowed down for him, his decision making was forced, and his pressure awareness was dangerously blind.

Sitting on the bench, the whispers started: is this a first round bust? Is this kid never going to be good enough to play? Some began to doubt Rodgers, some because he simply sat on the bench behind Favre, some because they saw habits on the field that he didn't appear to be outgrowing.

In 2007, we began to see the confident Rodgers. We saw him start to go through his progressions. We saw him more poised in the pocket and get rid of the ball when pressure struck. And when he scrambled, we saw a guy play it safe instead of getting blindsided downfield.

And, we saw what we knew he had all along...an accurate and pretty spiral that could be thrown with a little pop. We just didn't see it too often those first few years, because he never had time to throw it.

And now, after a great coming-out party on Monday Night against the Vikings, Rodgers appears to have gotten the dream he has waited so long for. Alex Smith, on the other hand, appears to be spending the rest of the season in street clothes, watching a team from the sideline that he won't be with next year. For one, the future is bright. For the other, the future is uncertain.

Brett Favre had his detractors the past few years while Rodgers rode the pine. There were many who wanted Favre and his gunslinging style out of here, claiming duds anywhere from Craig Nall to Aaron Brooks would be more suitable starting quarterbacks. And Rodgers was a rallying point.

In retrospect, Ted Thompson avoided having another Tim Couch or Alex Smith on his hands because Favre was there. Face it. Had Favre retired before the 2005 or 2006 seasons, can you honestly see Thompson and McCarthy not immediately plugging in Rodgers? Can you imagine the furor if Todd Bouman started the 2006 season instead of the previous year's number one draft choice?

And yet, had Rodgers started in his rookie year or even his sophomore season, I have little doubt we'd be talking about both Smith and Rodgers as the twin QB busts of the 2005 draft.

Not only is Rodgers finally ready for this team, this team is finally ready for Rodgers. A developing offensive line, one year more experienced, lines up in front of him, with two veteran bookends at tackle. Ryan Grant takes his handoffs, instead of Samkon Gado or Tony Fisher. And, he has the receiving corps that Brett Favre never had over the course of his career, save last year.

I predicted years ago that Thompson was happy to have Favre to take the licks as he rebuilt the offense. It kept Rodgers safe on the sideline and allowed Favre to garner some PR as he pursued some records, as well as being the lightning rod for hype and criticism. When the team was ready, it was going to be time for Rodgers.

And, that time has come, never-you-mind a bump or two along the road. The offensive line probably isn't quite where Thompson, McCarthy, or Rodgers would ideally like to see it, but face it: Rodgers is surrounded by ten times the talent he would have had around him in 2005.

And ten times the talent Alex Smith ever had to work with.

Playing just to survive as a young quarterback develops habits that never seem to break, and often result in the premature end of a promising career. You don't need to look farther than Tim Couch, Akili Smith, or David Carr to see that. And now, it looks like we can add Alex Smith to that list.

Thankfully, Aaron Rodgers won't be joining him. And, Favre's longevity has probably given the Packers one final dividend: giving the Packers reason not to rush their investment along, not matter how eager they may have been to do it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood Watch-ing You???

I'm sorry about this, but this bugs me.

I've been listening all summer long about how Aaron Rodgers is a great teammate because he had guys over to his place for cookouts and video games. Those trying to portray Rodgers in the best light possible (a necessity given the events of FavreGate) often cited his parties as some sort of noble act that made him a great teammate.

This always didn't sit well with me, and I wasn't sure why. Primarily, it was because I didn't remember any great quarterbacks like Montana, Marino, or Brady needing to host video-game parties to ingratiate themselves to their teammates. It seemed a bit forced and cheap, but I kept my opinions to myself for the most part.

But when I read these comments in USA Today yesterday, it really made me reframe my feelings on the matter, and not necessarily for the better.

Rodgers' bond with teammates was also strengthened by a series of Wednesday night cookouts he hosted at his house during the offseason. He invited the team for catered meals, with no strings attached. About 50 players showed up one evening, and there were never fewer than 20.

"Jennings and (Donald) Driver never came," Rodgers, with a wry smirk, says of the starting wide receivers. "But Ruvell (Martin, the No. 3 receiver) came. That's why he's my No. 1."

Now, its not my intent to rip on Rodgers, who I am a fan of. But it is comments like these that make you question the whole intent of why he did it. On one hand, the article states that there were "no strings attached" for attending the Rodgers Party. However, there apparently are consequences for not attending.

After watching the game last night, it is pretty clear that there wasn't a lack of production from those top two receivers, but the unique bond between Rodgers and Martin continued, as Rodgers clapped hands with every player coming out of the tunnel, but chose Martin to give a flying hip-bump with.

It also resounds of Rodgers' first significant time back in 2006 when he threw an unexpected pass to Martin. When ripped by coach McCarthy on why he threw the ball to Martin instead of going through his progressions, Rodgers replied, "He's my guy."

It begs the question, then...what was the point of all these cookouts? Were the receivers obligated to come and be a buddy with their quarterback? Rodgers gives a report to the press about who attended and who didn't? Tongue-in-cheek, for sure, but that seems to be a rather foolish thing to bring up.

I do understand some of the rationale that Rodgers may have put into it. In a way, he is establishing himself as the anti-Favre, which is pretty much a good thing to do. The more Rodgers can establish himself as his own person, instead of trying to emulate or copy Favre's style, the less likely he will be compared to him.

And without a doubt, Favre was far from the buddy-buddy, video gaming buddy that Rodgers is trying to be. Favre was far more likely to lock himself up in his house than invite everyone over (in his defense, though, he did have a his wife and kids, as well as a need to avoid alcohol given his past addictions). He was also more likely to open up to the media in a press conference than in the locker room.

I'm sure that Rodgers saw many of these traits and realized that some of them rubbed teammates the wrong way, and wanted to make sure that he didn't follow that standard. Of course, Rodgers is swinging single, shares his house with an Packer staffer, and has some expendable income to invest in building his rep with his teammates.

But, his comments belie that noble intent, and of course, colors him with one of Favre's more famous traits: having a favorite receiver. I think that what Rodgers has done on the field in the preseason, and particularly, on Monday night has gone a far longer way to truly gaining the respect of his teammates than any of these video-game parties. And, that is the way it should be.

I also think that such camaraderie off the field is overrated in today's free-agent NFL. You gain such camaraderie by playing together, going to battle together, and by winning. You don't hear a whole lot of talk from players from the Forrest Gregg era talking about what great chemistry they had and how many lifelong friends they made during that time. We hear a lot more of that from guys like Jerry Kramer than we do from Walter Stanley.

Winning together goes a lot farther than losing together. And since rosters change so much year-to-year nowadays, its hard to develop lifelong friendships when you are willing to sell out to the highest bidder in free agency.

Now, I like Rodgers, and I don't want to get accosted for trying to rain on his parade. This is a good day for Rodgers, coming off a solid performance, and frankly, proving he's farther along than I even though he was (and I have stated that this was his year for a long time).

But, its time to put this "great teammate because he throws parties" offseason hype to bed. Rodgers deserves respect from his teammates because of the man he is on the field and the man he is in the locker room, not because he caters in food and plays Madden with you. That makes him a buddy, not a teammate.

It makes him Anthony Dilweg, not Bart Starr.

Rodgers' own words have sunk that "Super Best Friend To Everyone" image he wanted to create. Let's judge him based on what he does on game day when the scoreboard is lit up, not based on cheap attempts to ensconce himself as "the man".

Monday night was a great start. Let's all start from there from now on.

It looks like Donald Driver and Greg Jennings did. Good thing for Aaron Rodgers.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Big Plays Rule Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood

As I watched the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings game on Monday Night Football, the biggest smile on my face didn't come from a Hail Mary pass to Greg Jennings, a scintilating 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by Wil Blackmon, or a run-to-daylight dagger by Ryan Grant.

The biggest smile came when Aaron Rodgers was asked by Michelle Tafoya if he enjoyed his first Lambeau Leap, and a goofy, exuberant grin took over his face, as if he was unable to contain the joy of christening his first win as the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.

Maybe, like many fans, I held that smile until the final gun sounded, waiting to see if the Green Bay Packers of 2008 were going to be for real. You had the feeling throughout the whole game that if the Vikings got it together, the Packers might succumb to our lowest expectations. And, the Vikings did indeed make a game of it at the end, as just one big play would have given the Vikings the lead with precious little time remaining.

But, it is exactly the Big Play that put the Packers in the lead to begin with. Aaron Rodgers passed with brilliant efficiency, going 18/22 with a touchdown through the air. Those 18 completions, however, only netted 178 yards, and of those, 56 came on one play on a brilliant jump ball thrown to Greg Jennings in the second quarter.

If it were any other receiver, I would have said that pass was a careless risk, but Greg Jennings has shown the ability to go up and take the ball away from defenders since his rookie year. Rodgers' strength as a quarterback is his accuracy, especially when given time in the pocket. When you complete 82% of your passes and don't even throw a pass close to being intercepted, accuracy is one trait you don't dispute.

That Big Play led to another Big Play by Rodgers, who threw a crazy pass on 3rd and 1 to Korey Hall that looked like it should have been intercepted. But, it wasn't, and the Packers took a lead they never relinquished.

Not to say that it wasn't threatened. The Vikings resurged on the last play of the half, blocking a field goal attempt to go in to the locker room trailing by only a touchdown, and then holding the ball for thirteen minutes of the third quarter in a rejuvinated gameplan that looked to wear down the Packer defense, cutting the lead to four and frustrating the Packers on offense.

It was then the next Big Play struck that blew up that methodical approach the Vikings were trying so desperately to use to turn the tide. A Chris Klewe punt flew on a rope to Packer returner Wil Blackmon, who made some great moves to evade the coverage team(including a running-out-of-bounds fakeout that reminded me of James Lofton, for some reason). He then spun it back up across the field, picked up some blocks, and scored a critical touchdown.

A special teams touchdown can never be underrated, and the impact was immense in this game. The Vikings had essentially taken over the game with their ball-control approach, taking huge chunks of time off the clock and keeping Rodgers and Grant off the field. That touchdown made it an 11 point game and forced the Vikings into a failed 2-point conversion attempt that came back to haunt them later.

Had the Vikings and Packers continued as the third quarter had gone, with the Vikings controlling the time of possession and the Packer offense seemingly frustrated, this game would have likely gone the other way. Rodgers may have the glowing stats, but that punt return literally turned the tide of the game.

The Vikings went on methodically, which is pretty much the best strategy you can take with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. I'm really not sure what the commentators were talking about when they said Jackson had a "pretty ball" when given time to throw. To me, he looked like a kid who was still trying to figure out the timing of hitting a guy in motion versus throwing it to a stationary target. While he was playing a key part in the second half comeback attempt, his passes looked like the were thrown gingerly at their targets, like he was thinking way too hard about where to put it.

But, Jackson led his team on a seven-and-a-half minute drive to answer the punt return, traversing 79 yards against a tired defense for a touchdown that cut the lead to 17-12. The Vikings chose to go for a two-point conversion, which was unsuccessful thanks to a poorly thrown ball by Jackson.

The Packers and Vikings exchanged punts, and it looked like this game might come down to another Big Play. The question was, who was going to make it?

The answer came in the form of Ryan Grant, who broke off a 57 yard run that brought the Packers to the 2 yard line. Grant looked like the running back of the latter half of 2007 on that play, showing power and speed, then cutting back and making two Viking defenders look silly as they tripped over each other trying to find their jock straps.

Prior to that play, Ryan Grant had been nearly invisible, rushing for 33 yards on 11 carries, rushing for only one first down and getting the bulk of those yards following penalties that put the Packers in impossible first down conditions. More importantly, prior to that play, the Packers had held onto the ball for only 5:31 of 22 minutes of the second half and produced only 21 yards of offense.

Aaron Rodgers put in the gimme touchdown on a quarterback sneak, aided by a penalty by the Minnesota defense, and the damage was done. That huge play essentially put the game out of reach. Jackson and the Vikings scored one more touchdown to pull to 24-19, but time ran out on Minnesota. Jackson's ragdoll arm finally threw the ball into the wrong hands to end the game, giving Atari Bigby his first pick of 2008. It certainly gives credence to the notion that the Vikings would be a vastly improved team with a solid quarterback, as the Packers made Jackson work for anything he got.

And, just like that, Lambeau Field officially became Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood, as the Packers sent Viking head coach Brad Childress home with his fifth straight loss to his cross-state rival. And, in the infernal, insanity-inducing words of Tony Kornheisser, there was probably only one happier person in the crowd than Aaron Rodgers, and that person would be general manager Ted Thompson, whose questionable decision-making over the summer is, at least for the moment, vinidicated from all that criticism he has taken.

While we bask in the glory of a 1-0 start, especially over a division foe, there were enough dark linings around that silver cloud to keep us concerned:

* An unacceptable 12 penalites for 118 yards kept the Vikings in the game longer than perhaps they should have. A spectacular touchdown pass to Donald Driver was wiped out by a silly mental error by Tony Moll and Jason Spitz, who got upfield too fast on an audible out of a run play. All in all, the offensive line accounted for eight called penalities yesterday.

* A blocked field goal that moved momentum back towards the Vikings to finish the half. The move to switch punter/holders at the end of the preseason was a bit sudden, and it was clear on a couple of kicks that new holder Derrick Frost and kicker Mason Crosby haven't gotten their rhythm down yet.

* Take away Grant's big gainer and Rodger's quarterback scrambles (35 yards, three first downs, and a touchdown) and the rushing game accounted for 45 yards on 18 carries (a 2.5 ypc average). Brandon Jackson, in particular, was regularly blown up in the backfield and gives us cause for concern if Grant aggrivates his hamstring for any length of time.

* The Packers allowed 187 rushing yards against the Vikings, with 103 to Adrian Peterson(mostly in the first half) and 65 to Tarvaris Jackson. Had the Vikings held the lead and stayed committed to a running game instead of playing from behind, those numbers might have been much worse.

* The Packers held the ball for their longest period of time (4:28) on an 11 yard drive that ended in a punt. The Packers can live and die by relying on Big Plays to pull games out for them. While there is always room for a big play, when you are nursing a lead in the third and fourth quarters, you need to have your offense put together a seven- or eight-minute drive that nets a field goal (at least) to put the game away.

But, those are concerns for another day (specifically, September 14th as the Packers play Detroit). The Packers needed to make this a statement game against a tough division opponent, and they did. There are many Aaron Rodgers and Ted Thompson Advocates that are going to feel vindicated after this game, and rightfully, they should. The Pack didn't play their best game, but came out with a victory, thanks to some Big Plays along the way.

And, hopefully, 2008 will be marked with many more goofy, exuberant grins like the one that Aaron Rodgers sported after the game. After this summer, I can't think of a better way for Packer fans to feel about their team.

This Is A Statement Game! Sort of. Maybe.

You are hearing a lot of fanfare and chatter today in the NFL, but most of that is surrounding the knee of Tom Brady, the splash of Matt Ryan, and the shifts in the power bases across the NFL as teams like the Bills and Bears look like world-beaters.

But one place you're mysteriously not hearing a lot of excitement coming from is Green Bay, even though they are coming off a 13-3 record, a field goal away from a Super Bowl appearance, and return nearly every starter from 2007. They are starting this season in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football, at home in hallowed Lambeau Field, against their most bitter rival of the last ten years or so, the Minnesota Vikings.

And the silence is deafening.

Oh, certainly, there are some obligatory potshots from the Viking players, who always have to launch a couple of verbal salvos before each game, a fine tradition started by Chris Hovan and carried on by former Packer Darren Sharper. But even those seem tentative and have a wait-and-see feeling to them.

Ah, yes...."Wait and See". That time has come, hasn't it?

As the Packers head into a season that should be marked by predictions of greatness, assigned to post-season positions of glory next to the Cowboys and Giants; instead there is a collective hedging of bets, to "wait and see" what this season has to offer, with many having difficulty seeing us winning the division, much less the conference crown.

Why is this? Why the uncertainty of a successful season? The Green Bay Press-Gazette writers, led by sports editor Mike "Thompson is my Homeboy" Vandermause, spent the summer writing article after article blasting Brett Favre, exalting the GM of the Year, and making Aaron Rodgers out to be the poor kid doing everything right. Yet, when it came time to make their predictions on the Packers' regular season record, even Vandermause couldn't predict more than a 9-7 record for the Green and Gold, nor could he predict the Packers to win tonight's game.

Shouldn't this be a statement game, like the Giants made last Thursday against division rival Washington, or like the Cowboys made yesterday against the Browns? Yes, these were both teams that an NFC contender would be expected to win, but they both did so, in convincing fashion.

The Packers return every starter from last year, save Corey Williams and Brett Favre. That team, as Charles Woodson noted, is the core group that went 13-3 and should be expected to do just as well this year. The excitement for the game tonight should be through the roof, as this is a chance to show that the Packers belong, with or without Brett Favre.

But, that excitement isn't there. Even coach Mike McCarthy gave some cautionary advice that, perhaps, expectations shouldn't be that high for this year.

Every year, people ask that question, and I'm trying to win them all. I'm trying to win the game against the Vikings. I don't know how people can go out and say, 'Well, we need to win 10 games this year.' I've never looked at it that way. I understand 10 (wins) gets you in the playoffs probably, so I understand the mind-set, but every year is so different. I was on a team in Kansas City that went 13-3, and we said we're going to bring everybody back and do it again. It doesn't work that way.

As a Packer fan who watched the Favre debacle this summer, I find this very disconcerting. The Packers have changed very little since last year. Jon Ryan has been upgraded with veteran Derrick Frost. Brett Favre, for all the drama, must be considered less promising an option at quarterback than Aaron Rodgers. Therefore, Rodgers must be considered an upgrade, at least in Thompson's and McCarthy's eyes. That leaves Corey Williams, who was essentially traded straight up for Brian Brohm, our third-string rookie quarterback.

Is Corey Williams really worth four games himself? Is he the reason we go from 13-3 to, as Vandermause predicts, 9-7? Why are the Vikings, who finished 8-8 last year and are often the target of ridicule of Packer fans, the winner of tonight's game, in Vandermause's eyes?

Let's be honest. We know Williams isn't the reason for the doubt. In the mass media's eyes, the difference comes down to Brett Favre. And, while that does play largely into people's doubts, those of us who follow the Packers almost exclusively know that the issues lie far deeper.

* The offensive line is in major flux. Thompson has decided to rebuild through the draft, and the seven players he has drafted to man the interior line since letting Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go were all beat out this preseason by a fourth round rookie. Then, he got injured, along with starting center Scott Wells.

* The running game is a major dice roll. Ryan Grant is untested this preseason and Brandon Jackson was more and more limited as August rolled on. Not bring able to count on a running game to take pressure off of the passing game, without having a Brett Favre under center, makes for a very difficult situation against an already powerful run/pass defense.

* The defensive line was porous this preseason, with injuries piling up along the line and rushers racking up yards.

All of this adds up to the exact situation we didn't want Aaron Rodgers to be placed in. I understood years ago that Favre was being kept around to take the shots instead of Rodgers as Thompson rebuilt the line and running game. Favre willingly allowed himself to be a part of that, and I predicted that when the pieces were all in place, Rodgers would step into the situation that Favre never had.

But that's not what is happening, and why I think there is reason for hesitancy on the part of fans and media to buy in to the idea that the Packers are, again, contenders for the conference crown. Rodgers is being placed behind a porous interior line and a potentially non-productive running game...exactly what Favre was placed behind in 2005 and 2006.

Thompson takes complete accountability for whatever is on the field tonight. He has had four years to build this team around whomever is under center, and while you can't argue with the receiving corps he has assembled, both this offense and defense need to mature. Now. He wanted to build with young players who would compete and develop over time.

Time's up.

The lack of veteran leadership at running back, quarterback, and along the interior offensive line completely fall on his "draft-only" approach to building a team. Whether or not that becomes a factor this year has yet to be seen, but a 1-3 preseason means the Packers are 6-5 in their last 11 games.

Maybe McCarthy is right. Maybe we shouldn't actually expect any carry-over from last season and that everything changes year to year. Maybe Favre really did have a larger impact than they are willing to admit, and the one interception against the Giants outranks the incredible load he carried throughout the season.

Maybe we need to keep our expectations low, regardless of last year's record or playoff drive.

That, in itself, is a pretty big "statement". Now, it is time for the "game". Hopefully, the statement made during that game is louder than anything else we're hearing now.