Friday, October 31, 2008

Rodgers Signs Extension: Trick or Treat?

It's been rumored for weeks, but today, on Halloween, the Packers announced a six-year contract extension with Aaron Rodgers, a rumored $65 million dollar deal with $20 million up front.

Trick or Treat?

Treat: This is completely in line with Ted Thompson's philosophy. He has changed the culture of this entire team by changing the paradigm we had under former GM Mike Sherman. Sherman, usually against the cap, waited until the last minute to extend players and had a culture of players wanting to get paid (Walker, McKenzie). Thompson has created an environment where players know if they are a valued member of the team, they will get paid ahead of their contract expiring.

Bypassing a free agent veteran quarterback this offseason (or any free agent, for that matter) allows for the $20 million in cap space remaining this year to be used to reward a player we would like to keep.

Trick: Thompson has given us reason to question some early extensions: Bubba Franks certainly comes to mind, and the big contract given to Brady Poppinga after signing Brandon Chillar made us wonder if he had run out of people to sign and was looking to burn some cap space.

The timing of Rodgers' extension wasn't unexpected, or perhaps even undeserved, but there is room to question the timing, and whether paying a guy $65 million based on seven starts is a bit of a risk. We all know that Thompson will spend his entire cap by the end of the season, but this does make us question whether it is the best use of it.

Treat: Rodgers is nothing like Ryan Grant, who held out while still under contract after struggling for the first part of the year, then trying to capitalize on nine solid games to finish the season. We could have rewarded Samkon Gado much the same way. Rodgers has been in the system for three years on the bench, losing his cockiness and gaining a lot of experience in how to run an NFL team.

Certainly, his play so far this season has given the team faith that their investment is worth an even bigger investment. Certainly, if allowed to test the free agent market, he'd command some big money if he continued to play as he has.

Trick: While his play has been solid and efficient, there are still those who have some doubts in him. He is merely 4-3 as a starter, though the case is easily made it is the team around him that is far more accountable for the struggles. He has fought valiently to shake the "injury-prone" label, playing through a painful shoulder injury, yet we have still to see him make it through one full season without injury.

I've classified his style as being one that takes what the defense gives him, but when the defenses have disrupted and not given him much, his performance has been stymied. Even the last game against the Colts saw an Aaron Rodgers that made few plays on his own, not needing to force anything.

While the terms are yet to be released, is Rodgers truly deserving of one of the highest quarterback salaries in the league at this point?

Treat: The signing sends a signal to much of the rest of the league. It communicates that Ted Thompson made a wise decision to go with Rodgers this summer. It communicates that Mike McCarthy's reputation as a quarterback guru is indeed intact. It communicates that Aaron Rodgers, after learning on the sideline for three years, is indeed coming of age.

It also communicates to other coaches and young quarterbacks that good things come to those who wait. Alex Smith, the #1 pick in the 2005 draft, now sits on a bench in San Francisco and will likely be released after the season, looking to become the next journeyman Tim Couch or David Carr. How much do you think Smith wishes he had been drafted by a team with a strong veteran ahead of him that would have forced him to ride the pine instead of being thrown into the fray right away?

Trick: The signing has the potential to create some issues in the locker room. In the past, a struggling Packer team saw the early reward system offered by Thompson as a building process, something to look forward to if you did good. Indeed, the paradigm shift from the Sherman ways to the Thompson ways is, in my opinion, the biggest positive change Thompson has brought to this team.

But, coming off a 13-3 record and the expectations that have been on this team this year, this may soon change. I always sympathize with the team that loses the Super Bowl, because it always seems like the trade-off for not getting a ring is a lot of players choosing to cash in their payday.

Paying Rodgers top-flight money for seven games has to have Greg Jennings licking his chops, since he's now put in a season and a half of Pro Bowl-level production. Nick Collins has to love how he's gone from potentially benched this pre-season to his recent success as a playmaker, and what he can get as a result.

Will this cause the payday line that many of us feared early extensions might bring about? Is rewarding a player for seven solid games going to have other players wondering what several seasons of solid play should bring them?

For now, congratulations to Aaron Rodgers, who waited patiently and is being rewarded for his solid play. For the Packers, we'll see if the extension is a trick or treat in the long run.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

FavreGate: Cutting Through The Crap

I've refrained from commenting on the who recent Favre-Lions brouhaha for one simple reason: if I'm not happy with people making snap judgments based on vague information, I wouldn't be any better by jumping into the fray. It's been best for me to sit back and let the "trickle truth" eventually come out.

What I see right now is this: the "crime" that has been alleged is probably a lot less sinister than initially suggested, and probably more shady than what Favre allowed in his press conference.

But of higher interest to me was the reaction from all across Packer folks were so quick to jump on Favre, on Glazer, on ESPN, and worst of all, each other. Incredibly disappointing, I must say: when Packer fans have to turn on themselves (with Vikings fans so ready and available for abuse), it is an embarrassment for us all.

The following are observations by me, trying to take as objective as possible for me. I know that in our politically polarized environment we are presently living in, that's not very exciting. It would be more interesting if I just acted as judge, jury, and executioner, but that's a job that's already been done by many.

Timing is everything: Don't think for a moment that this hasn't been carefully timed out by Jay Glazer. While trying to defend himself from rushing to be the first with a scoop, he inadvertently admitted he's been sitting on this story for three weeks, and decided now that it was an opportune time to release it.

Why? Well, for one, three weeks ago, the Packers were mired in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and Brett Favre was leading the NFL in passing efficiency rating. Not the best time for Glazer to release a story designed to tarnish Favre's name.

But, Glazer even admitted that when the "calling Romo" story came out last week, he felt it was time to move forward with his story. I translate that as "piling on". Face it: the Packers are now on a two-game win streak and Rodgers is garnering accolades for playing through pain. Favre has looked quite mortal the past few weeks.

Timing is everything. Releasing the story on the day of the Packers' last game before the bye, so there would be a week of nothing but this story? Anyone who has read my work knows my disdain for members of the "entertainment sports media". Why sit on it for three weeks?

Because Glazer was looking for the best window of opportunity to make the biggest waves, and that means he's not reporting with integrity.

Favre has always been a class individual?: I've heard this one from several Favre Defenders lately, and it one that I have to smile at. Bart Starr was a class individual. I define "class" as a person who takes the high road so often that the people making the evaluation of "class" have to admit he does it more than they would.

No, Favre hasn't always been a class individual. This summer certainly proved that, but at the same stroke, the Packer administration didn't show that much class either.

John Elway, still worshiped in Colorado, once pulled an Eli Manning and threatened to refused to play for the team that drafted him, forcing a one-sided trade with the Broncos.

Class is a great thing to have, but it doesn't make you a great quarterback. It does make you a hero, and certainly, while Favre still deserves respect for his play on the field, he has deservedly lost some of that luster in the eyes of many with the unceremonious demands for a trade from the team.

But, don't confuse class with humanity. As I said, class is something that puts someone on a higher pedestal than "us", like a Bart Starr. Favre was always human, and his life was always out there on his sleeve for us to accept or reject.

I really believe that this is what has made Favre so polarizing over his career. He is human, and has let us into his life, moreso than any other Packer in recent memory.

Why is ESPN a part of this?: The biggest stupidity that this story has devolved into is some sort of chest thumping between Jay Glazer and ESPN, which is like watching two Science Club nerds battling it out after school on the playground.

Please. The "integrity" of entertainment sports media types? There is no such thing. Listening to Glazer talk about his "track record" and getting indignant when people challenge it is ridiculous. The media has one job, and that is to present the world of sports to those of us who can't see it in any way but through the media. It is their job to present it to us, not color the world for us.

But, it is exactly stations like ESPN that strive to be as much a part of the news as the news itself that has created this monster. Jay Glazer camped out in the Orlando airport for two days this summer, just so he could be the first to break the news of a Tampa Bay/Favre deal. Why???

This isn't what the media's job is. Their job is to allow us to see the sports world from our living room, and allow us to make our own judgments. The entertainment sports media, including ESPN and Glazer, have to place a spitting match over who has more integrity.

The answer is neither. And the sissy slap-fight that is ensuing is sadly humorous, at best.

Sources?: As I farcically alluded to in my last article, I can't for the life of me understand how such entertainment sports media types can get away with attributing things to "sources", who never have to come forward and take any accountability for what they say.

Yet we, in our PFT Rumor Mill passion, are ready to believe whatever we see or hear in print. Doesn't matter if it is an unnamed insider source or whether it is completely conjecture...if it is what we want to hear, we take it.

Brett Favre, whether you believe him or not, took the stand today and told his side of the story. Jay Glazer responded by saying that "Brett and I will have to disagree on some of the details".

Jay and Brett disagree? How about the source and Brett? It's the details of the source that are in question...and it makes a huge difference if Millen initiated the phone call and conversation versus what Glazer intoned, which was Brett initiating the call and offering 90 minutes of detailed game planning.

Yet this "source" (multiple "sources" even) doesn't have to call a press conference and answer questions drilled at him from reporters. In fact, Glazer just gets to keep saying the "source" is reliable, whether we hear from the "source" or not.

This isn't right. Even I, as a hack blogger, need to cite my sources. I'm never going to say that "someone told me this" and pass it off as truth. And if I, as a hack blogger, have that much integrity, why can't a nationally prominent entertainment sports media professional have the same?

Is it a business or not? One of the grenades being lobbed at Favre is that he is being incredibly disloyal to his former teammates and fans in committing such a grave and lowly act.

Come on. We are going to bring loyalty into this?

I will grant you that Favre was incredibly presumptuous with his retiring Houdini trick this summer. But, regardless, whenever loyalty was brought up by those wanting Favre back in green and gold, they were trumped by "the NFL is a business".

When folks questioned why Favre couldn't get the release he requested, they were told "this is a business".

When folks anguished over why Favre was traded to the team furthest away from a chance to win, they were told "this is a business".

But, when the dismissed employee talks about his past experiences with that employer, suddenly it is no longer a business, but a matter of loyalty?

Is this a business or is this a an environment of passionate loyalty? I don't care which you decide, but don't apply some sort of double standard to how the Packers handled the situation this summer with what we should expect from the guy who saw loyalty take a back seat to the cold, hard world of business.

If Favre is guilty of depraved disloyalty for talking about his former employer that essentially turned down his services, refused to release him, accused him of participating in tampering, offered him a $20 million to stay retired, then traded him to NFL Siberia, then what is Ted Thompson and Co. guilty of this past summer?

Can't have it both ways. Sorry. It's a business for both, or a matter of loyalty for both.

What if?: There were so many if-then statements these past few weeks.

Brett called Romo because of his injury, but not Rodgers, then he was a classless cad for treating his former teammate like that.

If Favre initiated the call with Matt Millen and gave him information, then he was a complete loser and the Packers should hold a "#4 jersey burning night" at Lambeau Field.

(Trouble is, a lot of media types, bloggers, and forum posters skipped right by the if parts.)

But now, after Favre's presser, there are some new if-then statements to deal with.

Such as, if Favre is truthful when saying it was Romo who had initiated the call to him to ask about injury issues, then is Favre owed an apology by those who denigrated him?

Or, if Favre was called by Millen, who initiated questions about the Packers in a desperate attempt to keep his job, then does Jay Glazer owe a retraction for misrepresenting the situation in an intentionally unflattering light?

It's ironic listening to folks, who have spent so many days chastising Favre, now stating that you can't believe Favre at his word, even though he said unequivocally that he absolutely didn't initiate a call.

Weren't there folks trying to say that you shouldn't believe everything you hear from a person who can't even make their name public?

The Packers made the right decision in the absolute worst way: I had no problem with Favre riding off into the sunset this year. In fact even I, as a Favre fan, was uncomfortable when he announced he wanted to return.

This was Ted Thompson's year to prove his strategies were right or wrong, without his lightning rod and whipping boy distracting everyone. And Aaron Rodgers was as ready as he's ever going to be.

I like Rodgers and think as long as he gets the team to play around him like it did last Sunday on a consistent basis, he's going to be a solid quarterback in the NFL.

But, there was a lot of crap that went on behind closed doors. Favre says he felt pressured to retire. Apparently, there was some leftover unsettledness from the last interception he threw as a Packer, as McCarthy wanted a run play. Thompson decided to rip out Favre's locker and send it to him. By the time Favre finally spoke out, it was clear that this had been bubbling for some time and surprised no one in the Packers office.

I had no problem with the Packers granting Favre his release. None. I didn't care if he went to the Vikings. At least, that way, the Packers could wash their hands of it and say it was his request. And if Favre did help the Vikings, it would be for one year. We would have Aaron Rodgers, hopefully, for the next decade.

But that's not how it went, and the soap opera dragged on and on, putting Aaron Rodgers under the microscope and the team under unnecessary pressure. Headlines every day. An endless ESPN litany of discussions, reports, opinions, and debates, like watching CNN coverage of Hurrican Katrina. The accusations of tampering on the part of the Vikings, including allowing a rumor of a team-issued cell-phone used by Favre to contact other teams. An ill-advised attempt to offer Favre a ton of money to stay retired was interpreted by many (especially Favre) as a bribe. Finally, the Packers traded their hero to a place where he had little to no chance to succeed.

You can be right, and still be wrong. And when you choose to make these decisions with a guy like Favre, you really can't expect that just because the team has moved on, that he is going to be happy with how he was treated and move on, too.

Favre's decision to unretire, then request his freedom when it was clear his services were no longer desired, was a part of what an administration has to deal with. Yes, it was less than classy, presumptuous, and maybe even selfish on Favre's part, but that is still something that an administration is paid to do, frankly stated. This situation became drawn out, messy, angry, polarizing, and bitter, and it didn't have to be that way.

This situation needs a resolution: You probably guess from the tenor of my writing that I believe Favre is a complete victim in all this. You're wrong.

I liken this to being friends with a couple that you really like. The guy is your best bud, and he and his wife join you and yours for great times. Your kids play with their kids, etc.

Then, comes the split. Maybe it was your bud who decided to be disloyal. Maybe it was his wife that just got bored and wanted to see what else was out there. No matter who was at fault, what unfolds is an ugly, angry breakup with both saying and doing vindictive, hurtful things to the other.

Your bud calls you up after its all over, says angry and crude things about his ex. You know that he's hurt, and some of what she has done to him has crossed a line in your book. But, you also know what he's done has been the same thing. While you hope that they both can get through it, you really just wish it could all go back to the way it was, when everyone was happy together. It hurts to hear him talk that way about someone you know he was once incredibly loyal to, and you really liked both of them.

You then realize, you really liked both of them together more than you like either of them apart.

This is the situation with Thompson and Favre, and I specifically don't say "the Packers" for Thompson, because Ted is just as temporary as Favre was, able to shine in a moment of glory and able to be dismissed when services are no longer desired.

Favre feels he's been hurt, wronged, treated like a tool...and in many ways, there's some truth to it. He's certainly done his fair share in return. That's the way things like this go. Do I believe that he's actively looking to undermine his former team, searching out opportunities? No. But I don't it past him that he turns down an opportunity to bad-mouth those who scorned him, either. Human nature.

As for this situation with the Lions, I'm sure hoping it gets a resolution. I'd love it if Millen and Romo would both hold a press conference and just lay it all out for everyone, letting us know exactly how things went down. Then, at least we'd know all the fact before jumping to conviction.

But, with elections just days away, you only need to turn on your television to see accusations and defamation on a daily basis. Perhaps this is sports imitating life.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Several Sources Revealed!!!

In an amazing revelation in the sports world today, the identity of one of the greatest insiders was finally revealed to the world, vindicating rumor-mongering journalists trying to defend their integrity while trying to protect their info.

Yes, today, Mr. Several Sources, a retired tool and die maker from Yazoo City, Missouri, stepped forward and introduced himself to an eager sports world.

"I'm really not sure how to take all this," said Mr. Sources, who was surrounded by dozens of microphones for his coming-out party. "But I'm glad you can all finally put a face to all the rumors that you hear."

For many years, members of the mainstream "entertainment sports media" have often broken controversial, unbelievable, or simply polarizing stories to the masses, often causing overreactions, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and holes in the ozone layer.

"Lemmings, they all are," said Sources with a chuckle. "They believe anything you tell 'em, especially if it's what they want to hear."

But after years of watching former high-school nerds making names for themselves based on his story tips, Sources felt it was time for him to cash in on a piece of the pie.

"Just a couple weeks ago, I told Chris Mortenson over at ESPN that Manning was out..out for like a month," said Sources, "And he didn't believe me.

"He says, 'How do I tell everyone that I'm right? What if they don't believe me?', and I tells him, 'Okay, Chris, if they ask where you got it from, just use my name. Tell them you got it from Several Sources. Straight from the horse's mouth."

Sources is an expert on most things in the sports world, but apparently, there isn't anything he is more knowledgeable about than all things Brett Favre. For years, he has fed the entertainment sports media with fantastic tidbits about every bit of minutia that Favre has ever done or said. And, he's always received credit, because anytime there is a retirement announcement, a cell phone issue, or a reported insider trading with other teams, the report is always attributed to Several Sources.

But that is all about to end, and the sports entertainment media members are in anguish over it. Sources is about to send up his own website,, which is going to run all of his own rumors direct from the, pardon the pun, source.

"I don't know much about the Internet, " says Sources, "so luckily, I gots some other members of my family to help me out with the writing. My brother, Multiple, is going to be doing some of the writing, while both my kids, Insider and Unnamed will be keeping up the RSS feed. That will keep me freed up to focus all my attention on what Favre is doing next."

Many national media members have decried this move, as they now realize that all of their Sources for the best rumors will now be directly available to the public.

"We have worked so hard to keep our Sources protected," say Jay Glazer, FOX columnist, "And now since all of our Sources have been revealed, people no longer need us! What can we do now, if we can't report rumors to the public??? We might have to just resort to report the news, like we did back when sports media was credible!"

Despite the angst, Several Sources reports that this is going to a lot of fun for his whole family.

In fact, Multiple Sources insists that Peyton Manning has hired a shaman to exorcise all of the bad karma in his right arm. Insider Sources has stated that Pac Man Jones has legally changed his name to "Centipede". And Unnamed Sources has reported that AJ Hawk is actually Tony Mandarich's love child with Courtney Love.

And the latest report from the website, that Tony Romo has dumped Jessica Simpson for Margo Dydek, on a suggestion from a phone call from Brett Favre?

"That was written by my cousin, Anonymous," says Several Sources.

My Colts' Game MVP: Mike McCarthy

It was a matchup of two struggling teams that seemed to get a little momentum going the previous week against middling competition. In this game, one team would establish the run game, avoid penalties, and rattle a struggling quarterback. The other team would come apart at the seams, rack up crippling penalty yards, and make big mistake after big mistake.

If I read this before the Packers/Colts game, I can bet most of you would have thought the latter team would have been Green Bay. Contrary to what many of us thought might happen, it was the Packers that dominated this game, start to finish.

And, I was among the throng who predicted the Packers to lose this game. My concern wasn't whether not not they might win, but rather, whether or not they would let the game spiral out of control. In the end, it was a frustrated Peyton Manning crying on the sideline, trying desperately to draw penalties, and quite simply, getting beat.

So, who gets the game ball? Ryan Grant for finally running like he did last year. Aaron Rodgers for again playing mistake-free ball through pain? Nick Collins or Aaron Rouse for their defensive picks and scores (that ended potential scoring drives for the Colts)?

Nope...I give it to Mike McCarthy, and I will tell you why.

* I have long been of the theory that when a team comes out and fails in every phase of the game, there is one person who bears the burden, and that is the head coach. I have, in the past, defended those that blamed Brett Favre for playoff losses by proving that every phase of the game...defense, running game....all failed in most of those games, and the blame for that poor overall performance goes directly on the coach.

So, when I think of a Packer team that showed up in every phase of the game this past Sunday, a invigorated running game finding holes created by a suddenly competent offensive line, a swarming defensive line and linebackers, and shutdown corners backed up by playmaking safeties, Aaron Rodgers hardly had to pass at all. And yet, he did, very efficiently and mistake-free.

The credit has to go to Mike McCarthy for, perhaps finally, getting this team on the right page. I don't know if had to do with "pad level" as much as motivating a team to rise to its competition, defend its home field, and execute on every play.

* After decrying the move to hire Mike McCarthy as it happened, I have resolved to give MM a fair shake in evaluating him, and what I have usually found in his coaching style is this: he does struggles in game-day adjustments. As we've seen against Dallas and Atlanta, a team can get the upper hand and keep going. We saw this last year against Dallas and Chicago, also.

But where he excels is in game-to-game adjustments. McCarthy has been a master of going back to the drawing board, viewing game film, and implementing his spit-and-wire solutions to stop the leaks that he finds. Sunday's game was, in my humble opinion, the beginning of the end-of-the-season run that he often makes, building off of past failures to solidify the team.

We've seen this before. In his first season, the Packers finished 4-0. Last year, while they finished 7-2, the Packers established a running game that was inexplicably invisible the entire first half of the season.

With a week off for the bye, the Packers are riding a two-game win streak and have an extra week of rest before facing the undefeated Titans. You couldn't imagined this going much better than this two weeks ago.

* One thing that had me worried these past few months is that some of the 2007 success may have gone to McCarthy's head a bit. I don't have anything substantial to base that on. There just seemed to be a certain air about him this offseason, a different kind of candor in how he spoke. He didn't seem to be that grunting workaholic that we'd grown used to the past few years.

As the team started out 2-3. I saw a coach that was far more frustrated on the sideline than at any other time I'd seen him. He seemed angry, almost indignant. Press conferences were punctuated with catchphrases like "pad level" and "our house is messy" instead of identifying the problems head-on. I have been waiting for some of that patented McCarthy adjustments to show up, but even against the Seahawks, we didn't see much of it.

But this week, I think we've seen the old McCarthy, the real McCarthy, the one that isn't afraid to get his hands dirty with his team. The McCarthy that isn't afraid to get in there and tell Ryan Grant how to run the ball, or figure out how our offensive lineman can take advantage of a smaller defensive line. We saw him sit down AJ Hawk and play Brandon Chillar, adding a new dimension to a struggling defense. We saw him whip his team into a mental and emotional state worthy of a Super Bowl contending team.

If this is truly a sign of McCarthy's abilities to take a team and make whatever adjustments that need to be made from week to week, the outlook for the 2008 Packers just got a lot better. Surely, it is only one game, and it was against a team that has mirrored our own: a playoff team that had been slowed by injuries and lackluster performances. The Titans will bring a far stronger defensive challenge and one of the most powerful running games in the league this season.

But, for now, the Packers appear to have their own swagger back, with some new faces (like Chillar) adding wrinkles while some old faces (like Nick Collins) appear to be finding their own place on this team.

Struggling young vets like Ryan Grant and the O-Line appear to be finding their groove, and Aaron Rodgers seems to be a steadying force, consistent and accurate.

But, as I have always asserted, the coach is the cook that puts those ingredients together, and it looks as if we have our chef back in the kitchen again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Not Holding My Breath For Harrell

With all the talk the past few days about Justin Harrell potentially returning this week to help out with a critically depleted defensive line, I remembered an old Joe Heller editorial cartoon from several years back.

In it, Jamal Reynolds is sitting on a locker room bench, counting piles of money. A coach comes in the door and, because of the injuries mounting on the defensive line, asks,"Are you ready to come in and play? We really, really need you!"

In the next frame, before Jamal has a chance to respond, the elderly janitor who was sweeping up behind him enthusiastically announces he's ready to go and play.

And now, here we are a few years later, and another first round defensive lineman who has rarely seen the field is now getting our hopes up that he might come in and help out.

I'm not holding my breath.

Yes, we could use just about anybody right now. Injuries to Cullen Jenkins, Michael Montgomery, and now Ryan Pickett have made the Corey Williams trade seem somewhat regrettable. I wonder if that janitor is still employed by the Packers had has kept up with his core training.

Justin Harrell was drafted 16th overall by Ted Thompson in the 2007 draft from Tennessee. However, a torn bicep kept him out of his final ten games his final year. Since then, he's been a never-ending tale of injuries and excuses.

Many excuses were made by those that defended the pick. Harrell "would have been a top five pick" had he not been injured. It was important to have taken him at #16 (instead of trading down), because Denver might have taken him a few picks later.

But, no matter how we justify it, the pick is now reeking of "bust". Thompson's first two picks that year, in fact, came off injuries in their last year of college (Brandon Jackson was the other).

Harrell had a very nondescript season last year, missing five games due to an ankle injury. This year, he has spent the first six weeks on the PUP list with a back injury that was supposed to have been healed up by training camp. He didn't pass his physical at any time this preseason, which is what landed him on the PUP. Robert Nunn, the Packers defensive line coach, indicated that even when Harrell is finally fully healthy, he's still going to need time to get into playing shape.

I'm not going to count on it. The Packers have a three week window to activate him, and from all reports, its pretty doubtful it will be in time for the Colts game, which is unfortunately when they need him most.

The one thing that has stood out to me has been the undertones from some of the local beat guys on The Fan. When talking about Harrell, they've noted that he has done most of his rehab away from the rest of the team, in private. In fact, Chris Havel mentioned last week that he was mildly shocked that they might have access to actually talk to him, apparently a rarity.

Now, this is just some local beat guys perhaps venting a bit, but it does raise my eyebrow. The Packers appear to be kind of secluding Harrell for whatever reason. I don't know how involved he is during team meetings and such, but my guess is he's not out on the practice field much, even as an observer.

The only other time I've heard of secluding a player and rehabbing him privately was when that was the plan this past summer when Favre rejoined the Packers.

When you combine Harrell's slow recovery, his slow skill development, his lack of conditioning, and the way the Packers are quietly rehabbing him, it doesn't bode well for him playing much this year, at least effectively.

Is Harrell just another Jamal Reynolds? Is this going to be the black mark against Ted Thompson's drafts as Reynolds was for Mike Sherman? It's far too soon to tell, but the early polls aren't too optimistic.

Despite a strained shoulder, Aaron Rodgers has played through pain the past few weeks and done well. Ryan Pickett, the defensive tackle that Harrell would hope to replace due to injury, has already come out and said he plans to play next Sunday, despite a strained tricep and still awaiting clearance from the medical staff.

Harrell needs to take a good, hard look at these pros, and realize it is that kind of toughness that it going to make it or break it in the NFL. I know his injuries were more severe than a strain, but it is confusing why this particular back injury is taking such a long time to heal and rehab.

I hope he does come back (eventually), and plays his heart out and proves me wrong. Nothing would make me happier than to see him live up to his potential as a strong run stopper with a knack for collasping the pocket on passing plays.

But, I'm not going to hold my breath. Lessons learned from Jamal Reynolds, I guess. I have a strong feeling we'll be seeing Alfred Malone activated from the practice squad soon. I have a feeling he would give 110% towards this opportunity.

What a welcome sight that would be.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

TundraVision QuickHits: Seahawks Aftermath

Two collective sighs of relief were heard throughout Packerland this Sunday. The first was the get-better win over the Seattle Seahawks, a 27-17 victory that saw some improvements in almost every phase of the game that had been concerning us. Secondly, we saw Aaron Rodgers come out healthy after literally willing the team to that victory, despite playing with a painful shoulder that got far more hits than it should have.

Seattle's sixth-ranked rushing attack was held to only 116 yards by a Packer run defense that has been embarrassing of late. The Packers forced two interceptions late in the game and didn't give up any huge passes all day. Even the special teams seemed to have a slightly better day. And, the offensive line only had only two penalties called on it all day.

The Packers have pulled to 3-3 and tied for "first place" in the NFC North, if you can call it that. The Seahawks are a pretty bad team, and having Charlie Frye as your quarterback doesn't exactly make it any better. Next week's game against an Indianapolis team will give us a pretty firm idea where the Packers stand going into the bye.

Until then, here are this week's QuickHits:

* You have to start with Aaron Rodgers. Literally. I called for him to take a seat earlier today, but as usual, no one ever listens to me. The kid played his heart out despite the pain. There were a couple of passes that looked like they sailed or fell short on him...particularly at the beginning of the second half when it looks like it might have still been a bit tight from halftime.

But, there is no denying what we have in Rodgers: a guy who takes what the defense gives him, has nice zip and has perhaps the best accuracy of any Packers quarterback I've ever had the pleasure of watching in my lifetime.

There's also no denying what Rodgers has in the offense around him, and that is some great receivers and no running game. The Packers were able to give him some moderate protection against one of the poorest pass defenses in the league (ranked 30th in the league according to Cold Hard Football Facts Defensive Passer Ratings), getting sacked twice and losing a fumble. But he was able to move around and put a lot of his passes on the money, the biggest being the 45-yard strike to Greg Jennings in the third quarter that essentially put the game away.

That was 44 yards through the air, and one yard after the catch. It's amazing what Rodgers can do with a bum shoulder.

He had a hand in all three touchdowns today, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown that was a pretty amazing sneak that saw him keep his knees off the ground and extend the ball past the goal line. Any thought of the whistle stopping the play early was off: checked the DVR myself and he had it.

That play, along with other plays (including another quarterback sneak for a touchdown and several tough hits after the throw) were deemed necessary by head coach Mike McCarthy, but like every other Packer fan, I stopped breathing every time he took a beating and exhaled when he got up.

As much as I hate the risk, the sad truth is this. I don't think the Packers would have won today without Rodgers in there. The running game was again ineffective, and the Packers can't seem to get a first down (much less a touchdown) unless Rodgers appears to do it himself.

That's good news for the Packers, I guess. I just hope that shoulder holds out and he doesn't end up not only putting himself out extended time, but degenerates the ability he has shown.

A win against a terrible team to pull us to 3-3 with ten games to go seems like a high price to pay if this ends up turning Rodgers into the next Chad Pennington.

But, one thing for sure, there's nothing going wrong with this team that you can pin on the arm (or the shoulder) of Aaron Rodgers.

* Mike McCarthy announced to the world today, "You may be able to stop our running game, but we are committed to continue running it against you, no matter how ineffective it is!"

Yes, Ryan Grant finished with 90 yards rushing today, but 20 of those came on the final, time killing drive against a demoralized and exhausted Seahawks defense. That left the bulk of the game giving Grant 70 yards on 29 carries, a 2.4 yard per carry average.

For a guy who ran for over 200 yards against the Seahawks in the playoffs last year, this is a continuation of the problems of the rushing game. Give McCarthy credit, playing with a lead he committed to giving Grant the ball, no matter how well it went. Luckily, Rodgers was there to bail the running game out, but this may be a first step towards getting our running game going...actually committing to it, something the Packers have been inconsistent with for years.

Until then, however, the running game continues to be something we can't count on, and that's not a hallmark of a playoff team.

* Grant was the only running back to get a carry today. Apparently, DeShawn Wynn, just promoted from the practice squad to replace an ill Brandon Jackson didn't get enough reps to be trusted much with the ball, despite playing quite a bit on third-down passing plays.

* For years, I have loved watching Donald Driver go over the middle and take a huge hit that would have knocked Don Beebe cold. Driver comes from the school of Brett Favre and Michael Jordan, knowing you take the hardest hit your opponent can give and always get up...never let them see you hurt.

But, as Driver advances in years, I hope that these hits come a lot less often than they did today. While the hit he took over the middle bounces his head like a basketball resulted him popping up immediately and doing his patented "shimmy" to show the world he can take a lickin' and keep on tickin', the hit he took on the sideline had his eyes looking a lot more glazed over.

I always thought that one of Favre's weaknesses was his penchant for leading his receivers into big hits, and that was something I was hoping Rodgers would do less of. He has shown, with his accuracy, the ability to actually throw behind a receiver, stopping his momentum and taking him away from a hit the Favre might have led him right into.

Today, however, Driver took hits that I really hope he doesn't have to keep having to get up from to prove how tough he is.

* In the event I haven't said it before, Greg Jennings is going to be a superstar in this league. I don't care if he has John Hadl throwing it to him.

After a quiet first half, Jennings finished with 5 receptions for 84 yards and a TD, and continues to lead the NFL in receiving yards.

* As James Jones continues to lose opportunities due to injuries (inactive today), Jordy Nelson continues to take advantage of them. I have been a little critical of Nelson because he seems to be often used as a safety valve receiver, out in the flat for little yardage...not a lot of help when you are trying to come from behind.

Today, however, he seemed to be fitting right in with the other receivers, and is looking more and more comfortable and fluid with the ball. On a day when you want your quarterback to make the safer throws, its nice to have a guy like Nelson to take those plays.

* The offensive line looked a little better today, despite the aforementioned two penalties. Given the Almighty Mike Wahle also had a critical holding call today, we'll let those go. While the line still couldn't get the running game going, they did tend to keep the pass rush limited. By my unofficial count, Rodgers looked like he was hurried around 5-6 times, and did take several hits at the end of plays.

But, until this line can establish itself up front and block effectively for a running back, the microscope can't come off it. I will admit, though, the blocking on Rodgers' sneaks both looked like the line can develop a pretty strong forward push if they want. It appears to be whenever the line requires any lateral movement that they tend to suffer.

* Donald Lee caught two passes today for nine yards. Tony Humphrey was virtually invisible, and Jermichael Finley was, thankfully, not called for any penalties today.

The Chiefs announced that tight end Tony Gonzalez can be had for the right price. I wonder if Ted Thompson would even consider it. Might be worth a thought, though, because I don't see Finley ready for at least another couple of seasons, and for some reason, our tight ends have been kind of quiet this year.

Remember Keith Jackson in 1996?

* Jarrett Bush drives me nuts. He always seems to be on the verge of a stupid penalty every time he is on the field.

I understand he has the "ability" to play both corner and safety, but he doesn't seem disciplined at all. Today's 15 yard face mask penalty put the Packers inside their own 20 yard line after a punt.

I just find it hard to believe that there isn't someone out there who isn't an upgrade over Bush.

* Boy, was it nice to see Aaron Kampman showing some of that giddyup today. Two sacks put a smile back on his face, and it was great to see.

You think about a Seattle offensive line that has Walter Jones and Mike Wahle on it, and you wouldn't think it would be a bad squad. However, it has had its struggles this year, intensified when Charlie Frye and Seneca Wallace are the men under center. Colin Cole got a sack on a four man rush, if you can believe it, and at times, the Packer pass rush looked impressive.

We'll get a very different line to rush next week, and a very different quarterback when we play the Colts. But, the line definately had a get-better game this week. Let's hope they can take that momentum and keep it going.

* Bobby Engram has two large cinder blocks for hands. Inexcusable.

Then, after essentially whipping Charles Woodson down on a block and getting into a fight with him, I'm convinced he also has a cinder block for a head.

* The Packers finished with only five penalties for 45 yards, season lows on both counts.

The Seahawks finished with 6 penalties for 50 yards. Is this a sign of improvement for that "messy house" we heard so much about, or did we have a refereeing crew that is more prone to letting them play?

* Having Aaron Rouse take a seat isn't a good sign. No offense to Charlie Peprah, but Peyton Manning is going to have a field day with him next week. Not that Rouse is that much of an improvment, but he does have more big play potential.

Never thought I would say this, but I hope Bigby comes back soon. But, that's the trouble with hamstring injuries....this will likely bug him the rest of the season, off and on.

* I am very encouraged by Tramon Williams. Both starting corners got an interception today against Frye, and it seems like Williams is able to handle the bump and run well in Al Harris's absence.

I also loved the handshake deal that the secondary used to celebrate their interceptions. Good to see the esprit de corps isn't dead.

* When Charles Woodson arrived in Green Bay, I had the feeling that he was only here for a year or two, that his heart wasn't in this town or with this team, and that he was looking for a revival and to move on to a different team as soon as he could. I think he's admitted as much.

What I am seeing now is a very committed Packer who is making plays and enjoying it. Most of all, I think he is taking on a much needed leadership role for that defense. Nick Barnett has tried to fill that role for years and I think he somehow lacked in it. Woodson is leading by example and with enthusiasm.

It's good to see, and a good role model for young guys like Williams and Blackmon to see, especially if they are they guys who will be lining up when Woodson and Harris are gone.

* Frost continued to kick short, though you can give field position some blame for that. Of his four punts, he put two inside the 20 yard line, as the Packers had reached midfield and had that room for him to do so. He only averaged a net of 35 yards per punt, though.

On the other side of the ball, Jon Ryan kicked 5 times for a 48.8 net, and had none inside the 20. He had one 62 yarder and one clunker...just like the Ryan we remember. However, the Seahawks were kicking from inside their own 20 much more often than the Packers today.

* Anyone else slink to the floor when they brought out Mason Crosby to kick a 60 yard field goal? I wonder how that radio conversation went on the sideline...

MM: Wait...send out Crosby...we'll try and kick this one.
Mike Stock: Yay!
Bob Sanders: Um, you do realize if he misses this, Seattle gets the ball from the point of the kick.
MM: Really?
MS: Really???
MM: time out....

It was tempting, but obviously, not wise that early in the game and on the road. The fact they were out there, and then the Packers called their own time out to change their mind was kind of funny, kind of sad, both at the same time.

Maybe it was see what kind of defense they would show in a 60 yard field goal formation....

* Seattle has a cool stadium. Love Lambeau, it is still the best in the league, but the Hawks have a nice home, too. Fans seem cool, too. Hopefully, they don't lose the Seahawks to Oklahoma, too. What a bummer that would be.


In conclusion, the Packers got a needed win against a subpar team. This was, in many ways, a must-win...not just for the standings and playoff hopes, but just for the fact that a good football teams has to win the games it should. After last week's loss to the then-2-2 Falcons, the Packers had to prove they are still a worthy team.

I am still uncomfortable with Rodgers continuing to play in pain, and having Packer Nation hold its breath every time he takes a hit. But, that is the cost of having Rodgers be the centerpiece of an offense that needs him to operate, and the failure of having any viable options behind him.

The running offense and running defense continues to look vulnerable, and will be tested by a Colts team that seemed to find its offensive identity today against Baltimore, while holding the Ravens to just 51 rushing yards.

The Packers will either go into their bye with a winning record and a lot of momentum to build on, or with a losing record, having gone 1-4 in their last five games.

But for today, we're going to savor the feeling of victory. We haven't felt it for a while, and it feels good. And, with this team, you can't be sure when you'll feel it again.

Rodgers Should Be Sitting

Put me among the few who believe that Aaron Rodgers should not be starting today's game against the Seahawks. I know that will draw some derisive calls of "Rodgers Hater" from some corners of the blogosphere, but I'm the furthest thing from.

Rodgers is nursing a sore shoulder...might be slightly seperated, might not. But, like any other quarterback following in the shadow of the greatest ironman at the position, he's not going to voluntarily sit out unless his arm is hanging from the socket by a couple of ligaments...and even then, he'd probably still volunteer to hand the ball off.

There are those that are claiming Rodgers must play, because this game is a "must win". I disagree. It is a "should win".

While the Packers are a team spiraling, the Seakhawks are in complete free fall. Their defense ranks 27th in the league. Their receiving corps have literally been decimated. And, it looks like Matt Hasselback isn't even going to play today.

The Packers are a team that played in the NFC Championship game last year, facing a team that is now 1-3 and a shell of the team we faced in the playoffs last year (oh, and crushed, by the way).

And you are honestly telling me that we need Aaron Rodgers to win this game?

The sad part is that many of you are telling me exactly that. And that is a sad reflection on what the rest of this team has shown itself to be: an MIA running game, a offensive line in flux, a sieve of a rushing defense, and subpar special team play.

Injuries, you claim? The Packers are right around the league average for starters either on IR or out with injury, and they are far superior to the Seahawks in that regard. Injuries are a part of the game.

And for a team that has drafted 42 players in the last four drafts, you would think that Ted Thompson would have developed some depth in that time to handle these injuries. And yet, there is no competent veteran backup at quarterback, which is what leads us to believe we need Aaron Rodgers to defeat a team on par with the Detroit Lions.

Rodgers' arm is critical, not just for this game, not just for this season, but for all time. Chad Pennington, the one-time Savior of the Jets once went through this same process, playing with a hurt arm because it was believed he was the Only One Who Could Play for the Jets. The wear and tear took off a good chunk of that power he had in his arm, some of his accuracy. Is that what we want for overdo his first season as a starter to salvage what appears to be a bad team instead of be smart for the future?

Rodgers has the potential to be a very solid game-managing quarterback for the Packers for many years. Ted Thompson has completely messed this up by having no viable options to play behind him, forcing Mike McCarthy to play him as long as he is upright and taking nourishment.

The price to pay may not just be for this season, but for a career. Is that worth one win in a spiraling season? Will it even be enough? Rodgers played last week against a mediocre Falcon team and still lost. He wasn't enough to make up the difference between our bad defense and special teams.

And we think we need him now to beat one of the worst teams in football?

Sit him down. Let Flynn play and let the rest of the team have to compensate for what we're missing with Rodgers. Make the running game have to work. Make the defense have to hold the points down. Make the punter kick for his job.

Let Rodgers rehab and get healthy, and come back in Week 9 to face the Titans with a strong arm, and perhaps a team around him that doesn't need him to win games for them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Zone Blocking Schemes Revisited

It was sitting and watching the formerly 4-12 Atlanta Falcons clobber our Green Bay Packers with the rushing game that got me thinking about some old discussions about the Zone Blocking Scheme that I used to have, and how that applies to us today.

The reason that the Falcons, in particular, made me think of the ZBS (because I had a ton of teams that have gashed us this year in the run game) was the fact that I did a bit of research on other teams that had implemented the scheme (other than the Broncos, of course). As it turns out, the Falcons HAD once decided to copy Denver and use the scheme, only to find that it wasn't working for them. So they scrapped it.

But the scrappage wasn't just calling a meeting and changing the scheme. They had drafted players that were "cut out for the ZBS". While the source link is outdated and dead, this is a blurb I copied a couple years ago, when the Falcons had decided to scrap the ZBS:
It looks like new Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino wants to get away from the zone-blocking scheme and is interested in populating the offensive line with maulers. Because of personnel and current contracts, nothing will change in 2007, but going forward, Petrino expects to transition to a line full of fat bodies:

"We want to change the body type of our linemen but we have to do that over time," Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay said. "You can't do that overnight unless you are willing to invest, truly, an inordinate amount of money in free agency and that, as a lot of teams have learned, comes with great risk."

As McKay points out, a big factor in making such a change is money. With salary-cap restrictions, this isn't a one-year process, and the recent long-term deals for center Todd McClure and right tackle Todd Weiner complicate things. The club will make changes at guard -- Matt Lehr was already released -- and there was interest in Floyd Womack and Edwin Mulitalo, both weighing in at 330-plus.

With running back Warrick Dunn entering the twilight of his career, there may not be a need for a zone-blocking scheme. Instead, expect a more smash-mouth approach. Interestingly, I'd guess a player like T.J. Duckett would excel in such an offense, but he's now a Detroit Lion. Of course, Duckett had such a chance last season in Washington and couldn't get off the bench. So who knows. Link

So, what is the Zone Blocking Scheme, and is it a part of our present problem?

The answer is yes, not because of just the scheme, but the talent we have to run it.

Pete Doughterty addressed this issue in a recent GBPG Chat, which rang true with words I've stated many times, from the first day the Packers announced they were going to implement the ZBS.
They've drafted guys to fit this system, so if those guys aren't performing well, then they just made mistakes evaluating talent. Clifton isn't a good run blocker, I don' t know if it matters what system they're playing, though maybe the cut blocks are especially tough for him because of his knees, I don't know.

There are people in the league who think you need more of a power run game to be a champion, and they'll argue that Denver won the SB with this scheme because it had a Hall of Fame-caliber halfback in Terrell Davis who would have been dominant in any scheme (not to say Davis will be in the HOF, his career was too short, but he was that good in '97 and '98) Others, like McCarthy, will argue that there's a lot of ways to run the ball, and the zone scheme will work. They'll point to ... the Broncos. I'm beginning to think you're right, that something about that scheme isn't working here. The problem is, overhauling the run game would be a major project, and doing it right - this is, not setting the team back -would be difficult. They couldn't do it during the season, it would have to start in the offseason, but even then it would be disruptive, and MM's first three seasons would go down the drain in that regard. Don't know if it's something MM would consider. He says no way, but if he were thinking about it he'd never say. Link
I didn't like the ZBS because, for one, it isn't wise in any business to copy what a competitor made successful and expect the same success. You are better off innovating and being the first on the block with the new product, as the Denver Broncos did twice in the 90s, not only innovating the small, quick defensive line that combatted the West Coast Offenses, but implementing a zone blocking scheme that was remarkably effective.

In a zone blocking scheme, fleet-footedness and athletic ability trump size as desirable qualities in offensive linemen. Coordination and technique matter more than muscle in implementing a successful scheme because defensive linemen are often double-teamed at the point of attack. Creating movement on the defensive line is more important that opening a specific hole in the defense.

But what the Packers did, as the Falcons did years ago, is they started drafting players who "fit the scheme", instead of the best athletes available. And today, this is coming back to haunt us.

The following are some comments I made back in 2007 on the topic of zone blocking:
Drafting players to fit a scheme is a very slippery slope to be treading on.

At this point, the only team that has shown any sustained success with the ZBS is Denver. Atlanta is trying to get rid of the scheme, and has now found themselves saddled with one-dimensional personnel that is going to take time to rebuild.

The more we keep drafting players based on how they fit a certain scheme, which so far has proven zilch, the bigger a hole we dig for ourselves if it ends up not working (as the Falcons have found out).

In essence, Ted Thompson is living and dying by the ZBS.
In regards to the idea that all teams use the ZBS to some degree:
But the ZBS, when run as Denver and the Packers do, is a very specific approach in which there are four running plays: left outside, left inside, right outside, and right inside.

I think that just because you happen to run a play in which the running back chooses one of those patterns, behind that style of blocking, doesn't make you a ZBS team. It's like saying that just because you run four WR's a couple times a game makes you a "Run and Shoot", or because you run a zone nickel on some passing downs that you are now a "Cover 2" defense.

The ZBS is designed to do that type of play all the time, not just a bullet in the arsenal.
In regards to the idea, then, that the ZBS is easy to defend because there are only four basic plays:
Recall in 2003 that Mike Flanagan used to walk up to the line of scrimmage, tell the defense what play they were running, and then smile and get ready to hike the ball.

THen, they would run the play and gain 6 yards on an Ahman run.

That's not only execution, that's having great athletes and talent working together and executing.

But, the Packers did decide to get away from it. Sweeps are NOT a part of a strict ZBS scheme....the idea of the scheme is for all the linemen to make one quick block in the same direction and the running back to make one quick decision, one quick cut, and make the play.

That is the inherent danger of drafting for a scheme, especially when it calls for measurables that are inconsistent with what is the norm. Like bringing in 5'9" receivers with 4.2 speed to play the run and shoot. Like bringing in a mobile quarterback with better legs than an arm for an option offense. Like bringing in light offensive linemen for a scheme.

If you abandon the scheme, those players better be able to play a more traditional offense, or they are useless, and in today's salary cap era, you can't afford to be saddled with players that are useless.
What kind of players are brought in, then? Colledge seems like a sizable specimen, perhaps comprable in his measurements to, say, Mike Wahle? Shouldn't equally sized guards be able to play at the same level?
There are many wide receivers who have graced the Packers roster with similar heights and weights to Sterling Sharpe, but none of them have made an impact. Like him or hate him, Sharpe was a football player, not a scheme player.

My biggest concern is that if we are targeting players to fit the scheme, every time we take one, we likely leave a more complete player out there for another team.

When teams like Houston and Detroit tried the Run and Shoot in the 80's and 90's, they drafted tiny guys who were fast. Remember Drew Hill and Ernest Givens? Both 5'9". And in the 1986 draft, the Oilers took Ernest Givens to fit their scheme. Not too long after in that draft, the 49ers took a more conventional receiver named John Taylor.

The Falcons, who were another ZBS copycat team, has now decided that they've had enough of it after 2-3 years of trying to implement it. link
Patty, a former NFL scout with the Houston Texans and fellow contributor to PackerChatters, chimed in on the topic:
It is not so much as size as it is skill sets. Look I can show you 2 players. They both stand 6-4 and weigh 310 but when you look at them you see a difference. One might be much wider and the other more stocky up high. They do not carry their weight the same and they do not play the same style of play.One player will have much better foot speed and the other more power.

When you look at OL you look at their skill sets. Whether they block straight on or they have lateral slide and shuffle blocking skills. Just because they are the same size does not mean they play the same. The Packers are locking themselves into certain skill sets of players that will make it difficult to do much more than what they were brought in for. I think this is what has LA concerned. I tend to agree. I look for an OL that has that slide potential and can shuffle down and out but also has enough power to handle the brunt bull blast of DL.

Mike Wahle is a great example used. He was so multi-layered in his skill sets that he could operate well in a zone blocking scheme but he also had great athleticism to play other schemes. As the Falcons discovered drafting players to fit a specific scheme can lead to some horrible situations.

As the person who used the Bear Bryant statement I say this: I want a team that builds their schemes around the talent on the team. I do not want to see waste created because a coach has a scheme in mind and refuses to acknowledge he has a different skill set players.

I also do not want to build a team with 1 dimensional type of players.
I added:
When I look at a lot of these scouting reports, I see more and more qualifiers being given to players who don't fit the prototype: for linebackers, you get this "would be good in a 3-4 scheme", because they don't have the skill set to play in a 4-3. This is for those tweeners who often couldn't make it as a DE or linebacker in a traditional defense.

I saw this in a lot of Barbre's write-ups, too, that he is limited and would be best suited for a ZBS. I have nothing against the kid and hope he does well, but if he's limited outside of the ZBS, well, then he's probably going to hope we stick with it. And if we're acquring linemen AND a backfield designed for the ZBS, well, hopefully, we're choosing the right corner to paint ourselves into.

I think there are cases where the WCO has made players successful, players who may not have been as successful in more traditional offenses. Certainly, there are quarterbacks that have benefitted greatly from being reined in by the quick timing and short passes that the WCO discipline demands.

But there are also many of those players that would be successful in ANY offense, and while I'm not about to knight Javon Walker, I would say that the kid came in with a heck of a skill set and was slowed more by his struggles to learn the offense early on.

Who knows?

My prediction, however, is that if the ZBS is successful, it will not be in the pure and exclusive incarnation run by Denver for so many years.

And that's a good thing: because we wouldn't be expecting the scheme to make us successful. We'd be taking the skills and talents that we have and maximizing them however we can, tweaking the scheme to fit our needs.

Which is why I'm for bringing in the best talents and skills, not the talent and skills that best suit a scheme.
So, now let's catch up to the present. The interior line that we've drafted (Colledge, Spitz, Moll, and Barbre) all had "a good fit for the zone blocking scheme" somewhere in their scouting reports or writeups.

Allen Barbre: "he fits into the athletic mold in which the Packers like their linemen in order to play in their zone-blocking scheme."

Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge: "It's no surprise that lightweight rookie second-rounder Daryn Colledge and third-rounder Jason Spitz are what the new coaching staff is looking for as they implement a zone blocking scheme"

Tony Moll: "The easy part for me was we ran the same kind of run scheme at Nevada," he said. "I came into minicamps already knowing all the rules and how to run-block."

But, the run game since 2006 has been AWOL, with the exception of the final seven games of the 2007 season. McCarthy has tinkered repeatedly with the scheme, trying to open up more sweeps and screens, but as we've seen, these plays don't execute well when your guards don't pull well.

With Favre gone, some of the weaknesses are more glaring. Pass protection has been an issue, somewhat hidden when you have an overhyped quarterback adept at avoiding pressure and making the line look good. And when you have a quarterback who commanded the respect of the defense, as Favre did through the entire first half of 2007 without a running game, it eventually opens up a running game for a good runner like Ryan Grant.

But, Aaron Rodgers has put up almost identical numbers to Favre in his first five games, and yet, a line and backfield that is almost completely unchanged from the end of last season has struggled. Linemen in the third and fourth years, expected to come into their own by this time, are regressing instead of maturing.

And, the cost to move this line to a more conventional blocking system may require a complete overhaul of the talent presently on the team. Interior linemen without the lateral movement skills required in a full rushing game plan (sweeps, screens, particularly in a WCO) and who struggle in pass protection means we may be starting over not only with the interior lines, but with the tackles, who both look like their best days may well be behind them.

So, is it the fault of the scheme? In some ways, yes...because it seems like we drafted players to fit the scheme, instead of designing our scheme around the assets of the best players available.

What happens if the scheme fails?

Even more daunting...what do you do with all the one-dimensional talent you drafted to fit that scheme.

Easy. Ask the Atlanta Falcons.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tundra Vision QuickHits: Falcons Aftermath

As they say, close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and slow dancing.

The Packers lost to the Atlanta Falcons on their home turf today, and while there are a couple of silver linings to be found in the aftermath, there were far too many messes "in our house" to make us feel good about only losing by three points.

The Packers fall to 2-3, fall out of the division lead, and have two more games against playoff teams from 2007 before finally getting a week off. The boos you heard from the stands weren't imaginary, nor were they undeserved.

That stated, let's get to this week's QuickHits:

* First and foremost, Aaron Rodgers fought through pain to have a very gutty and efficient game (posting a 109.4 efficiency rating). As Packer fans, we have to give a shout-out to #12 for manning up and trying to set a tone for the rest of the team. As usual, when he was on, he was remarkably efficient, and put a couple of passes in nearly impossible holes. The touchdown to Donald Driver seeming passed through the defender's hand, and the touchdown to Greg Jennings had a window smaller than the football itself. You can't deny that this kid can put the ball almost exactly where he wants it, given time.

But, the shoulder injury seemed to wear on him as the game went on, and while he played through it, you could tell that the soreness was intensifying. The interception at the end of the game transferred every bit of momentum back to the Falcons that the Packers had gained from the Tramon Williams interception.

And, as has been the case the past few weeks, we are seeing Rodgers lock in more and more on a receiver, not going through all of his progressions, likely because he knows he doesn't have that much time. The thought did go through my head that he might have been forcing his interception to his buddy, Ruvell Martin, who appeared to be in double coverage.

This brings me to my downside for Rodgers, and I guess, the difference between how I feel about him and Favre. I would have been very comfortable with Rodgers sitting out this game and giving his shoulder another week. Not that I think we would have had much of a chance with Flynn playing, but you have to wonder if this particular game was that important for Rodgers to risk prolonging the injury. I know it is 20/20 hindsight, but he played and we still didn't win the game. Now, we have to go face Holmgren and the Seahawks at home next week, then host the Colts the week after.

Somehow, I would rather have had a healthy and rehabbed Rodgers for those two games, than risking his shoulder against the Falcons.

I know that differs from how I and many others felt about Favre, admiring his grit and playing through pain. But, we also realize that Rodgers is not Favre, and right now, #12 is the only reliable quarterback we have on this roster. I predicted that he would play 14 games this season, max. It's time to be smart with this kid, and while we admire his commitment to playing, we also have to keep him on the field, not risk losing him for the rest of the season.

* Speaking of Favre, try and find one of those folks from last summer who preached up and down that it didn't matter how the quarterback played the rest of the game, or how the rest of the team played...if you throw an interception at the end of the game, the loss is all on the quarterback. Remember those folks who made the case against Favre and last year's playoff loss? I wonder if they will apply the same rationale to Aaron Rodgers today.

My guess is that they are pretty quiet on the topic right now. And well they should be. Rodgers played a heckuva game and had one costly play at the end, as did Favre last year. And the major reasons we lost had little to do with the quarterback.

* Kudos on getting the heart of this team involved in the offense again. Donald Driver showed why he is still a #1 receiver, making big plays and taking hard hits...and then letting everyone in that stadium know that he's the man and he just made a first down.

You can tell that his leadership is rubbing off on Greg Jennings. It was great to see Jennings always in there at the end of a play or after a score, encouraging and celebrating with his teammates. Our receiving corps is in good hands, even if they do drop more passes than I would like to see.

* Wil Blackmon absolutely has to get a chip in on Roddy White off the line. The timing pattern in which White scored an easy touchdown started with the ole' that Blackmon gave him at the beginning.

If you don't chip that receiver on a timing route, and the quarterback is even moderately accurate, White will catch that ball ten out of ten times. Blackmon is growing and doing a yeoman's job in the nickel in the absence of jam-specialist Al Harris, but that was one play that might not have gone for six with #31 in the game.

* Anyone noticing Mike McCarthy looking angrier and more frustrated on the sideline? This is a man who is starting to feel like the boat is taking on water faster than he can bail it out. I've said it before: Brett Favre took a lot of hype and heat off of everyone else in the past. McCarthy is now front and center when it comes to fixing whatever is ailing this team.

Week after week, McCarthy continues to decry the sloppiness and lack of discipline and execution, stating that needs to be addressed. But, every week, the same issues happen. This week, nine penalties were accepted against the Packers for 97 yards. The penalties are just as devastating to this team as an ill-timed interception or muffed punt.

This is essentially the same team that cruised to a 13-3 record last season, minus a quarterback and a defensive lineman. This type of execution is unacceptable, and McCarthy better start doing more than just cursing on the sideline pretty quick.

* Incidentally, whining about penalities is a loser mentality. Good teams overcome bad calls. A team that was a field goal from the Super Bowl last season should never be in the situation for the refs to decide a game when playing a team that went 4-12 last year.

Alert: the Packers lead the league in penalties. This isn't something new this week. They have 419 penalty yards in five games, an average of almost 84 yards a game. When you consider our starting running back is nowhere near that total in rushing yards, the problem isn't with the refs being mean to you.

* I will say it again: I didn't like the Jermichael Finley pick when it was made, and I certainly don't like it now. This kid has done nothing productive on the field at all this season, besides get penalized for fighting and now, taking three points off the board with a holding penalty on a field goal.

When expectations are high, and you just jettisoned your veteran backup tight end over the offseason, you don't draft some project and sabatoge your team just to get him time on the field (or because you don't have any other guys to play at the position). This kid needs to be on the inactive list. For cripes sakes, activate Breno Guacomole, or whatever his name is, and let him block.

Idiotic penalty once, shame on you. Idiotic penalty twice, shame on me.

* Ryan Grant finally got his feet under him in the second half, and as the announcers noticed, it helped open up the passing game a bit more. He finished with 83 yards on 18 carries, and started to show some of the explosiveness that got him that big fat contract this offseason.

I'm still of the opinion, though, that Grant may not be what the Packers need right now. Grant is an explosive back, able to break a big play maybe once or twice a game. But he simply isn't consistent, and disappears in big games against a solid defensive line. I know much of that blame has to go to the offensive line, too, but Aaron Rodgers is going to need a guy who can consistently threaten to gain five yards on you, in any quarter, on any carry.

Brandon Jackson continues to be little more than a safety valve on third down plays. I don't know why we haven't seen more of Kregg Lumpkin, a guy who seems to make yards on every play.

This wasn't a particularly difficult run defense to go against. The Falcons ranked 23rd in rushing yards per game, and Cold Hard Football Facts had their Defensive Hog ranking at 20th overall (tied with the Packers). Seattle is in the Top Ten on both lists, and that is who is up for the Packers next week.

* Time for Ted Thompson to man up and admit his mistake with Derrick Frost. Yes, he put one inside the 20 today, but his early shank led directly to a touchdown.

Oh, by the way, those for you clamouring for the return of Jon Ryan will get your wish, sort of. Guess who is the Seahawks' punter? The Hawks currently rank 32nd in net punt yardage, so there's a chance that Ryan may soon be available.

However, I would be willing to venture a bet that, given Grady Jackson's vendetta and sack on the Packer's first play, Jon Ryan may be out to prove something to the Packers next week.

* I was going to be fatalistic and predict that the Falcons would have nearly 300 yards rushing, given the prowess of Turner and Norwood and the sieve-like quality of our defensive front. However, while the Falcons did have 194 rushing yards (and Turner did have a 100-yard game), the rush defense did better than I thought they would. Of course, that's not saying much.

Turner had 26 carries and a 4.7 yard average. The absence of Cullen Jenkins was noticeable, Aaron Kampman continues to be nearly invisible, and unless the safeties are tackling, the wrapping up continues to be weak.

* Anyone else notice Falcons coach Mike Smith out of the field arguing a call while apparently holding his latte' cup? Funny.

However, a couple plays later, he screamed for a time-out, and prevented a 12-men-on-the-field penalty. Gotta give him credit that he's the only one able to count, including the safety who is responsible for that assignment.

* Predicton: the injuries are going to continue piling up, and its not just physical. This is starting to be a mental thing. In 2005, when the Packers were on their way to a miserable 4-12 season and the atmosphere was funeral-like, you saw player after player have injuries that took them off the field. Remember that?

I do believe there is a synergy between on the field success and injuries. The less injuries you have, the better your team does on the field. But, the better your team does on the field, it seems you have players willing to gut out pain, running on adrenaline. Adding Chad Clifton to a list of walking (and not walking) wounded takes our injury list to length we sure don't like to see.

* I have long been a critic of Thompson's lack of developing a true free safety in the secondary, and in some ways, I'm beginning to see some improvment. When I think of Atari Bigby, Nick Collins, and Aaron Rouse, I think of prototypical strong safeties...hard hitters able to come up in run support and help out on short routes.

But we've been missing that free-wheeling free safety..the Eugene Robinson who was the quarterback of the defense, able to get guys in position and took fantastic angles to help out in coverage and make plays.

Collins has definately shown improvement in that area, but will always be a strong safety type. Perhaps Peprah, who was also a strong safety in college, will take that heralded smooth athleticism and take on those free safety roles I've been hoping for.

Certainly, allowing Roddy White to have 132 receiving yards from a rookie quarterback doesn't look good for the secondary, but they did shut him down in the second half.

* In the first two games, the Packers lived on the big play. The last three games, they have died by the big play.

Certainly, they had some big touchdown passes to Driver and Jennings, but they have to be able to sustain a drive and control the ball consistently.

In the third quarter, the Packers had two six-minute drives, one that ended in a punt, and another that ended in a Mason Crosby field goal. Playing from behind, that is unacceptable, three point in twelve minutes.

Other than that, the Packers averaged only five plays and barely three minutes on their remaining drives. Against a bottom-half defense like the Falcons, that is unacceptable.

This team can't rely on the big play to win game, especially when the defense has become so adept at giving up big plays.

* Finally, the pass pressure again was again tilted in the favor of the other team. The Falcons entered the game ranked only 15th according to CHFF's Defensive Passer Ratings, and yet managed to place 2 sacks and consistent pressure (at least ten hits and hurries, according to a FOX graphic) on Rodgers.

The Packers pass rush didn't gain a single sack against Ryan and was rarely in trouble. The graphic from FOX at one point had only 1 hit on Ryan and five pressures.

Scott Wells, Mark Tauscher, Daryn Colledge, and Allen Barbre were all victimized by the Falcon pass rush, not one that is particularly regarded as a top-notch line. Clifton's injury makes the line play all that more dangerous for whomever is lining up behind center.

Without Jenkins, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia looked like his old, one-move self again, out of the plays and handled by one blocker. Whether you like Corey Williams or not, his absence right now is glaring.

Even more glaring is Jamal Reynolds...oops, I mean Justin Harrell, who according to reports, rehabs in private away from the rest of the team, and will likely not see the field this year, if ever. Fourth round pick Jeremy Thompson saw time for the first time in an NFL game today, though you'd never know it from watching.


*In conclusion, the Packers lost a game that they never should have lost. While Rodgers' gutty performance was inspriring, Grant's resurgance is encouraging, and big plays by Driver, Jennings, and Williams were exciting, it just isn't enough.

This team has now lost to a Super Bowl contender, a wild card contender, and a rebuilding team. The two wins over the Vikes and Lions seems like a long time ago, and with two playoff teams ahead, the Packers could easily find themselves 2-5 at the bye week.

It is bad enough that we had to look at the stats and begrudingly admit that the Falcons might be a team on our own level this year. It is worse yet to lose to that team.

A good team has to beat the teams that they are even with or better than. The Packers managed to let a 4-12 team with a rookie quarterback come on their own field and beat them.

As that quack from "The Natural" kept saying, "Losing is a disease". I hope Doctor McCarthy finds the cure, quick, because the cancer is spreading.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thompson's Shadow Longer Than Favre's

During the telecast of the Packer/Buccaneer game last Sunday, FOX put up a graphic “4” over a live shot of Aaron Rodgers and the offense approaching the line of scrimmage. The graphic cast a long shadow over the Packers, and on Rodgers in particular.

Favre’s six-TD game for the Jets aside, I’m growing weary of the media trying to make this out that all the pressure that might be on Aaron Rodgers comes completely from Brett Favre. Sure, there is a part of the fan base that is trying to constantly compare Rodgers to Favre, but those folks would have done that with anyone, even if Favre had retired and wasn’t available to play. It’s the way it goes, and we’ve seen that play out with Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Bart Starr, and any other legendary quarterback. Memories are hard to shake.

But, the pressure of Aaron Rodgers isn’t coming from Brett Favre, as much as FOX and Tony Kornheiser would like us to believe. And, if FOX had wanted to be accurate, they would have placed a large graphic of Ted Thompson casting a shadow over #12 last weekend, for it is his actions that have placed Rodgers in the position he is now. In fact, credit should be given to Favre for sticking around as long as he did, because at least now Rodgers’ career has a chance to get going instead of getting knocked around and having his growth stunted like Alex Smith did.

Don’t get me wrong…I like Aaron Rodgers. I think he certainly has proven that he can handle any pressure that would have come from Brett Favre, and has shown more patience and maturity than most first-round quarterbacks we could have taken.

But, when Mike McCarthy announced in April that they weren’t going to do much to change the offense to adjust to Rodgers, he wasn’t kidding. Rodgers is continuing to play in an offense that alternates between spread and max-protect formations, just like Favre had to since 2005.

Why? Because, as many are suddenly noticing, our offensive line is porous and our running game isn’t a consistent threat. It’s really no different than it has been since the advent of the Thompson era, but in past seasons, it was easier to overlook.

When the Packers had a terrible 2005, many people pointed the finger at Mike Sherman (who was subsequently fired) and Brett Favre’s 29 interceptions, and called for the team to move on to a new quarterback. There were others (me included) who pointed out that Favre was playing behind guys named Whittaker and Klemm, throwing to guys named Chatman and Taco, and handing off to guys named Gado and Fisher. These folks (like me) were accused of making excuses for Favre’s problems.

Yet, none of those players returned for the 2006 season. And, thus began the efforts of Ted Thompson to essentially rebuild that entire offense from scratch, minus Favre, Donald Driver and two offensive tackles.

“Scratch”, of course, means building purely through the draft, and on offense, Ted Thompson has not added one major (or minor) free agent since then. This has placed a lot of pressure on the quarterback position in that time as we have waited for young guys to eventually develop.

Last season, Brett Favre was again asked to pass, pass, pass, on pace after the first eight games to break his own career mark for pass attempts he set in 2006, which broke the personal mark he set in 2005. He played behind a young interior line and had a stable of unproven running backs behind him.

Ryan Grant did establish himself over the last half of the season, but in retrospect, he was more explosive than consistent, a trait aided when you have a risk-taking gunslinger not afraid to push the envelope.

Other than Favre, there isn’t a single difference from the 2nd ranked offense of 2007. The entire offensive line unit returned, a year more experienced. The backfield returned, a year more experienced (and Grant signed long-term). The receivers have returned in full force, bolstered by a top draft pick in Jordy Nelson.

Except, of course, that the offense has free-fallen to 15th overall, and Aaron Rodgers appears to be in serious trouble when it comes to starting the next game, injured after having to run for a first down when it was clear our running backs were incapable of doing so.

You might think I’m setting this up to make out Rodgers to be the bad guy, and nothing could be further from the truth. Rodgers is a good quarterback, strong arm, tight spiral, good legs. He’s improved in his decision-making and has developed into a good check-down quarterback, taking what the defense offers him.

No, the problem is with the team that Ted Thompson has around him, and if McCarthy has decided not to change much with Rodgers behind center, he’s discovering quickly that he has a completely different quarterback than what he had.

Favre was a gunslinger, a confident guy who easily took the burden of the offense when the line broke down and the running game disappeared. He wasn’t a check-down quarterback like Rodgers. Yes, he would gun it into coverage, trying to make something happen. Sometimes he was intercepted. Sometimes, he made a breathtaking play. Always, he got the blame or the credit.

If I have said it once, I’ll say it again….Aaron Rodgers is ready to play. But the Packers are not ready for Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers’ style means you need a running threat to consistently challenge the defense, and he doesn’t have that. In all actuality, the Packers haven’t had that at all since Ahman Green was still healthy. The Packers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher this season, and frankly, they haven’t had a 70-yard rusher since the first week.

In front of him, the tackles are showing sign of age, and the interior linemen drafted by Thompson have continued to be a liability. When Favre was playing, it was excused, with claims that a Future Hall of Famer should be able to overcome such line play. And most of the time, Favre did. He had excellent evasion skills and moved the pocket easily to create that extra second.

But guys like Jason Spitz, Tony Moll, Daryn Colledge, and Allen Barbre have all had more than enough time to develop into athletes befitting their draft position, and only Spitz has shown any level of fulfilling of that promise. A fourth round rookie was able to beat all of them out this preseason, until an injury took him out.

As a result, not only are we still drafting guards to improve on what we have, we are losing the ability to properly shore up our tackle spots in the event Chad Clifton or Mark Tauscher suddenly drop off.

When I talk about the Shadow of Thompson hovering over Aaron Rodgers, it is exactly that.
He has had three full seasons to prepare this team for Rodgers’ coming out party, and had Brett Favre as the tackling dummy to take the heat (and the hits) until the team around him was ready.

Thompson was the NFL GM of the Year last year. Yet, the offense is looking more and more lost as defenses have more film on Rodgers and the 2008 Packers, and it is clear that Thompson’s penny-pinching ways are putting Rodgers at risk.

When the Packers go into max protect schemes, as they have since the Larry Beightol era, Rodgers has only two or three receivers to throw to. Since defenses have been able to create pressure with only a four-man rush or with only one blitzer, Rodgers has had problems. He’s good at taking what the defense gives you, but lately, the defense isn’t giving him anything.

This is where a game-managing quarterback needs a running game to take that pressure off of him, but in the last two games the Packers have managed only 112 rushing yards, and 18 of those belong to Aaron Rodgers. Conversely, the opposing teams have had 395 rushing yards in those games.

When the Packers shift to a spread offense, the defenses have, again, been able to create pressure with only a four man rush, leaving Rodgers to continually go to a safety valve route like Jordy Nelson or Brandon Jackson instead of having time in the pocket to allow the real threats like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, or Donald Lee to do their thing.

When Thompson essentially dismissed the return of a quarterback that had proven himself able to work under these conditions, he gave the job to Rodgers. I’m guessing he truly must have believed that he had built an offense that was going to be able to continue to rack up yards without Favre. Perhaps winning awards and accolades will do that to you.

The fact that Thompson went so far as to eschew any and all veteran quarterbacks to back up Rodgers was a sign that he wanted Rodgers, and only Rodgers, to play behind center this year. I don’t think he wanted any competition for #12, and in retrospect, that was another rather inexplicable move, now that Rodgers is fighting off an injury.

Wait a minute…”in retrospect”? I thought that move was foolish at the time, not just with 20/20 hindsight. And this places yet another huge amount of pressure on Rodgers that, given the lack of talent or execution in front and behind him, he shouldn't have to have. Thompson has had three long seasons to have his draft picks and other moves pan out.

With the New York Jets (a team mocked as having less offensive talent than the Packers not too long ago), Brett Favre presently leads the NFL with a 110.8 passing efficiency rating. And yet, Thomas Jones hasn’t exactly dominated the running game for the Jets. In fact, he has only 83 yards in his last two games.

Perhaps Favre had many years of good training learning to bear the mantle of leadership when he was playing on a young team marked by inconsistency and mistakes. But, this is not the kind of team that Aaron Rodgers is going to have a lot of success with, not with the specific gifts he brings to the table.

And, for now, the critics point to decry Ryan Grant and the offensive line as the major culprits in the Packers’ sluggish slowdown. But, it probably won’t be long before Rodgers starts taking the heat, as Favre did.

And that would be tremendously unfair to Rodgers. The person who is responsible for creating the team around him is the one who should be getting pointed at (but, I suppose, having that GM of the Year trophy sitting on the mantle deflects criticism). His avoidance of expensive free agents may have won praise in a rebuilding cycle, but now that expectations are high and Aaron Rodgers is being asked to lead in his own way, the over-investing in traded-down-for draft picks should be under the microscope.

No matter how many first-day receivers Thompson drafts, it isn’t going to matter if he can’t get rid of the ball or have a running game to open it up.

I am going to continue to root for Aaron Rodgers to overcome, and/or the talent around him to provide the kind of offense that he needs to be successful. There’s no reason that a mobile, game-managing quarterback can’t be successful in the NFL.

But all of those successful game-managers in NFL history had one thing in common: a strong offensive line and a running game. Talk about a long shadow to live under.