Monday, December 15, 2008

Packers Less Than The Sum Of Their Parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are less than the sum of their parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you got that wish.

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

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

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

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

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

2 comments:

jacquelyn said...

Where is Ron Wolf? He can fix anything.

Denny said...

Excellent analysis of the Packer team. And although Momentum and Leadership are definitely key issues, your facts confirm we have a defensive problem.

The Packers need to make changes to recapture the "MO" and get back on the winning track and the logical place is on defense. A new coordinator - one with proven NFL experience and some "fire" would create a change. Add in a couple of new defensive players with "Super Bowl" rings and leadership qualities and the PACK can easily be a playoff team next year.

Thats my recommendation for TT and MM this off-season.

Have Merry Christmas and Happy & SUCCESSFUL PACKER NEW YEAR.

Denny
ATL's Packer Season Ticket Holder