Monday, November 3, 2008

Mediocrity Never Felt So...Mediocre

Following yesterday's overtime loss to the unbeaten Tennessee Titans, the Green Bay Packers find themselves looking in the mirror and facing the reflection of a 4-4 record at the midpoint of the season.

Oh, certainly, there's bright spots along the way...Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, and Tramon Williams have all been great stories this year. And the Thompson rah-rah's are out there painting a smile on every angle they can. I certainly have no problem with that. Being a .500 team means that you have as many positives as you do negatives.

But looking at yesterday's loss and trying to believe there is a moral victory to be found is grasping at straws. A loss is a loss, especially when the win was easily within reach. The Packers had opportunity after opportunity to take that game over, but a dropped pass here, a foolish penalty there, and turnover here, a dropped interception, and a sack there all led to one thing: the Titans did nothing to take the game away from us, but we didn't take it when it was there for the offing.

The fact that this is a team coming off a 13-3 record last season, returning nearly every starter this year is cause for concern, beyond just the let-down of expectations. While we're seeing some young players step up, we're also seeing other players take concerning steps back.

At risk of simplifying it, the team is 4-4. Our four losses have been against teams with worse or equal records to the Packers:

Minnesota: 4-4
Detroit: 0-8
Seattle: 2-6
Indianapolis: 4-4

And, every team we've lost to has a winning record:

Dallas: 5-4
Tampa Bay: 6-3
Atlanta: 5-3
Tennessee: 8-0

The Packers have fallen behind the Bears in the NFC North standings, a division so weak that it was presumed we had it wrapped up before the season even began. Given the strength of the NFC East and Atlanta, unless something turns upside-down there will not be a wild-card team from our division.

So, the Packers have gone from "favorites" to "contenders", and are in serious danger of becoming "also-rans". All this from a promising season in 2007 and reassurances over the summer that this team was built on its defense and would be a winner.

Hard to be a winner if you can't beat a winner.

The most difficult question is where is help going to come from? We've returned nearly all our injured players and have a starting lineup of veterans hand-picked by GM Ted Thompson that this team would be built around. Unfortunately, many of these players aren't playing up to the level they were last year...Many are, in fact, going backwards.

The problem then becomes, how does this team improve?

Quarterback: As many folks have pointed out, Aaron Rodgers is keeping pace with much of Brett Favre's overall stats last year, and will point out several statistics in isolation (such as third-down percentage) to assert he's a vast improvement.

I will stand at the front of the line and declare that Aaron Rodgers is not the one losing these games for us. He's been consistent and efficient. However, he also hasn't been the reason we've been able to come back and win close games, either. Only in the Detroit game has Rodgers led a semblence of a fourth-quarter comeback, and in the fourth quarter of all four losses he's been at best servicable, and at worst, ineffective.

With two rookies behind Rodgers, the only improvement we'll get at this position is from Rodgers himself. Even with 2007, but only just.

Running back: Ryan Grant has still been far from the back who averaged 5.1 yards per carry the latter half of the season. Even his recent surge the past two weeks has produced a per-carry average still under four yards. While his hamstring injury takes some of the blame, an ill-advised holdout from training camp almost assured such an injury would occur.

With only Brandon Jackson behind Grant, who is more of a third-down receiving back, it is unlikely that we're going to upgrade our present starter at this point in time. Step back from 2007

Offensive line: The Packers continue to shuffle this line around and around, trying to find a combination that will work. Daryn Colledge's move to replace an injured Chad Clifton proved to be a far better use for him, but the struggles of the interior line are still glaring, as they have been for years.

Josh Sitton is, for all practical purposes, the best hope we have for upgrading the performance of the line. But after sitting out much of the first half of the season with injury, it is unlikely we'll see an impact from a rookie this season. Slight step back from 2007.

Receivers: The high point of this team, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are as good as any starting tandem in the league, and the backups make this perhaps the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. If DD does end up retiring soon, there's no doubt there will be someone to step in. Step forward from 2007.

Tight ends: Donald Lee was a favorite of Brett Favre last season, but his production in 2008 appears to be halved in nearly every category. His yards per catch has fallen from 12 to 7.4, and is on pace for only 320 yards this season after nearly 600 in 2007. The departure of reliable vet Bubba Franks left a void behind Lee that is being filled by Tory Humphrey and rookie Jermichael Finley, with neither equalling Franks' prodcution.

Finley, in particular, appears to be very raw and, given his comments yesterday, quite immature. The tight end position has been perhaps the biggest disappointment this season. Big step back from 2007.

Defensive Line: After getting 36 sacks last year, the Packers have only 14 so far this year. More importantly, though, the Packers are allowing 146 yards rushing per game (only allowed 99 per game last year), and even worse, are allowing nearly five yards per rush.

Aaron Kampman, though still playing relatively well, is nowhere near the animal he was last year. Ryan Pickett has been inconsistent, and the loss of Cullen Jenkins has placed the line further behind the eight ball than they were before.

The Packers have turned to two young unproven players, Justin Harrell and Jeremy Thompson, to try and turn the tide, but alas, the Titans rushed for 178 yards and took control of the game on the ground in overtime. Step back from 2007

Perhaps our most suprising unit on the field, we've seen what we once thought was the heart and strength of our defense come apart. Nick Barnett, who did have a solid season last year, has been out of position and less effective every week this year. AJ Hawk, who we hoped was going to blossom from a solid starter to a star this year, has seen himself become a role player at best, losing downs to third-tier free agent Brandon Chillar. Brady Poppinga, once thought to be the one supplanted by Chillar, is continuing to play his brand of linebacker, a solid run stopper but a liability in coverage.

After these four players, the Packers literally have no one on the shelf to make this unit better, having dismissed Abdul Hodge. Big step back from 2007.

Secondary: Like the recievers on offense, our secondary actually hasn't played that badly. It is rare that we get beat by the long ball, and they have returned five interceptions for touchdowns this year. Charles Woodson is playing like a man possessed, and Nick Collins has drastically shown improvement. When injuries struck Atari Bigby and Al Harris, the shelf wasn't bare. Tramon Williams, Aaron Rouse, and Charlie Peprah all performed well under duress. Step forward from 2007.

This many steps back has to be a concern for a team that was a field goal away from the Super Bowl last season. The next place that has to be looked at is coaching, and HC Mike McCarthy is certainly learning that with higher expectations comes a much larger microscope on him.

McCarthy has to take accountability for this team's struggles, especially with so many players and units seemingly regressing from last year. Has he focused so hard on trying to make Rodgers' successful that he's allowed other parts of the team to slide? Has his playcalling become predictable and sometimes questionable? Has he lost that edge he had when he still had that chip on his shoulder, trying to prove himself?

The talent of this team is nearly the same as what is was in 2007, but it isn't succeeding the way that team did. Next week, we visit a Viking team in Minnesota that is going to be keyed up to put the Packers down to third in the division, an all-important game when it comes to divisonal and conference tie-breakers. The next week, we host the division-leading Bears.

The next two weeks will make or break this Packer season. The Packers need to at least split those games.

Which of course, will put them at 5-5...still mediocre.

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