Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vandermause's Excuses For Crosby Not Helping...

Over the years, there are few writers I've enjoyed nitpicking more than the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Mike Vandermause.  Maybe it's because his biases are so evident.  Maybe it's because he doesn't stop at just facts to prove his points.  Maybe it's just because it is so easy.

Today, Vandermause advises Packer Planet to calm down and cut Mason Crosby some slack.  I have no problems with his base message, because he is correct when he states that "It’s not likely that anyone available this late in the season would perform any better than Crosby."

But then, he drifts off into some stretches of reason and statistics that are supposed to lead us to believe that he is on the verge of turning into, well, Ryan Longwell.

Longwell made just 20 of 31 field goals [64%] eight years ago and ranked 33rd among NFL kickers, but bounced back by converting 85.2 percent of his kicks over the next three seasons. His 81.6 percent career mark ranks No. 1 in Packers history.

No one can predict how Crosby will respond to his slump, but history says he deserves every opportunity to break out of it. Ryan Longwell had a bad year in 2001, and then bounced back the next year, so this means that the same will be true of Crosby?   Certainly, Longwell struggled mightily, but he finished that year strong.  People forget, when you just lump the season statistics together as Vandermause did, that he simply was a 65% kicker from start to finish.

But, in actuality, Longwell missed four field goals in a row, ranging from Game 5 to Game 7.  He finished the final five games of the season making 7 out of 9 field goals, including a mammoth 54-yarder in game 13.

And how exactly did this change happen?  Well, not by going out and trying to reassure him by saying his job was 100% secure.  No, they went out and fixed the problem.  Longwell himself was a factor in shaking himself out of his own slump, studying game film and recognizing that part of the problem was in the placement of the ball by a new holder, then working with his coaches to change it.

It also doesn't hurt that the Packers had a heckuva season that year, going 12-4 and making the playoffs.  Winning tends to make us "okay" with struggles, too.

The other critical part of the statistical jigsaw that Vandermause leaves out is that we aren't comparing apples to apples with Longwell and Crosby.  Longwell had demonstrated his ability to kick at a high level ever since he won the job over Brett Conway as a street free agent in 1997.  In his four seasons before his "off year" in 2001, Longwell had FG percentages of 80.0%, 87.9%, 83.3%, and 86.8%.

Crosby was fortunate, like Longwell in 2001, to have come in as a rookie during the Packers' 2007 13-3 resurgence, leading the league in scoring and turning him into a fantasy football darling.  In reality, however, Crosby only made 79.5% of his field goals in that year, and then turned in a near-identical sophomore performance last year.  Now, as his percentage has dropped to 72.7% this year, we have to ask a rather logical question:  is 79% the "norm" we're hoping Mason can snap himself back to?  Longwell demonstrated the ability to be a Pro Bowl caliber kicker before his slump, but Crosby's achievements have been based on quantity, not quality:  more a component of the high-powered offense he benefits from rather than his own accuracy.

So, the Longwell comparison is missing quite a few holes.  But this doesn't stop Vandermause from going to the well again.

Even this season, for all the scrutiny Crosby has received, his accuracy is close to Longwell’s 74.1 percent during his final season with the Packers in 2005. Since leaving Green Bay, Longwell has converted 86.0 percent of his kicks.

For starters, Dave Rayner made 74.3% of his field goals in 2006, and like Longwell, was ousted the following offseason.   Now, in 2005, Longwell had only the second sub-80% FG kicking percentage of his entire nine-year career at that point (and since, for that matter), but there were still a lot of other factors at play besides the basic numbers.

For one, Longwell had rookie bust BJ Sander as his holder that year, and we all know Longwell's oversensitivity to poor holders.  Secondly, 2005 was one of the worst seasons in Packer history, a complete under-performance by every squad on the team, special teams not excluded.  There was no synergy on the team whatsoever, and Longwell's performance was completely in line with what we saw in nearly every other phase of the game.

The question then becomes, what external factors are affecting Crosby?  Is there a team-wide schism, like there was in 2005?  No, and in fact, as the Packers have pulled it all together following the Tampa Bay debacle, Crosby has only declined further.  Is there an issue with the holder?  No, and the foolish effort to swap out Matt Flynn with Jeremy Kapinos last week was evidence of that.

The problem is simple: there's an issue with Crosby, whether it be in his physical mechanics or in his mental approach to the game, or both.  Regardless of what it is, this is the NFL, which in the immortal words of Jerry Glanville means "Not For Long" if he keeps doing what he's doing.  No, the Packers may not find someone any better than Crosby on the free-agent market right now (Kapinos didn't exactly set the world on fire after coming in to replace Derrick Frost, either), but there needs to be some direct problem-solving on the part of special teams coach Shaun Slocum.  Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be on the horizon, either.

The Packers’ coaching staff is taking the proper approach with Crosby by offering public support. In private, they would be wise to tell Crosby that he’s their kicker regardless of what happens the rest of this season or how loud his critics complain.

Crosby shouldn’t have to worry about his job status every time he tries a field goal.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum said: “What you need to do is … have a mindset of ‘Boy, I can’t wait to make this kick’ as opposed to going out there saying, ‘Man, I can’t miss this one.’"

Once again, Vandermause shows his bias by beating the drum of the Packer administration.  He shouldn't have to worry about his job status every time he tries a field goal???  What the hell is he getting paid to do?  He is paid to do essentially one thing, and one thing only:  kick a ball far and straight.  That's it.  If you can't do that one thing, you need to be worried about your job status.

We all know that kickers have fragile egos.  I've made that point many times myself, and Crosby's is clearly shaken.  But what is to be gained by artificially propping him up, both publicly and inside the locker room?  Even Ryan Longwell, who has far better career numbers, was a part of solving his own struggles the few times it has happened.  Instead, Crosby is being told what a good boy he is, while the blame from his coaches seem to land on poor Matt Flynn, who, to my memory, bobbled one snap all season. 

It's pretty basic self-defeatist psychology:  you keep telling an person that their inferior performances are fine, and they don't work to solve the problem.  However, when their performance continues to be inferior, they get more and more frustrated when the external criticism rises, and soon enough, begin to see for themselves that they aren't doing as well as they should be...and the downward cycle continues.

What's most amusing to be is that Vandermause keeps choosing to compare Crosby to Longwell, a guy we essentially rode out of town on a rail, because we saw him as far too expensive to keep around here only kicking as well as he did in 2005.

Look, I am not one of the folks ready to run Mason Crosby out of town on a rail.  I am, however, getting ready to run out Slocum for not working to fix the problems that are going to end the career of a promising young kicker, and Mike McCarthy should be ashamed for going along with it.  Crosby doesn't need excuses and artificial confidence right now from those folks that are accountable for his development and performance.  He needs someone to coach him, to study his mechanics, and to remedy them.

If you want to make a comparison to Longwell's poor 2001 season, how about focusing on how he solved the problem, instead of just declaring he had one.  He didn't break out of it because he had a full self-esteem balloon, and neither will Crosby.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mike Tomlin? Puh-leeeeese...

20/20 hindsight is a great thing for people in a position that puts a microphone in front of your face.  The better you are at spinning a story, the more you can create a genius thought process to cover your arse.

It sure doesn't hurt to win the game, either.

Mike Tomlin was spinning his best lines regarding the late-game onside kick gambit he pulled late in the fourth quarter.  You just went up by two points with under four minutes to go in the game, and you pull a surprise onside kick (that your cover team ineptly messes up anyway).

Let's color this what it is.  It was a huge gamble.  It was a "let's pray we get the ball and can sit on it for a long time, then punt".  If it works out (low percentage), it's genius.  If it doesn't (high percentage), it gives the ball to the Packers on the wrong side of the field and plenty of time to work with it.  The element of surprise is the key thing here, mainly because no sane coach who values his job would attempt such a risk.  And, if that ball had taken even a slightly different trajectory from its bounce, it just might have worked.

Tomlin, however, explained this failure as working completely into the Steelers master plan.  Seriously.  He makes it sound as if he PLANNED on having the Packers score, and scoring so quickly that the Steelers would have more than enough time to then score on them back!!!

"I'll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn't get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score. Plan A didn't work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it.

"We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That's why we took the risk when we did. We were just trying to win the football game. There was time left in that game that had we kicked that ball away and the half had gone the way that it'd gone, they were converting third downs. They would have moved the ball down the field on us, we wouldn't have had necessary time to respond. I'm just being honest, but it starts with feeling pretty good about the element of surprise and having a good chance to get that ball, but that part of it didn't work out."

If we could somehow condense all that down into one sentence, it would look like this: "If it didn't work, we figured they'd score on us, and do it quickly we have a chance at the end to come back."

Now, as Tomlin is basking in the glory of a last-second win that revitalized the players and fan base, and got him of the snide of a five-game losing streak that essentially took them out of the playoffs, it's pretty easy to spin that into a winning strategy move.  But, it makes little sense.

A smart team would drive down the field and take time off the clock.  When you put the ball in the other team's hands, you have given up control of the clock.  Period.  And, indeed, you put yourself in the position to either burn your timeouts and leave yourself at the mercy of chance, or you let them score in order to get the control back.

But the Packers were out of timeouts.  Even with 3:48 still on the clock, it would limit what Rodgers and Co. could do offensively on a long field.    Giving the Packers a 39 yard field to work with, especially given they only needed a field goal to go ahead, was essentially giving them all they needed to have the momentum their way.

Give the Packers a 79 yard field to work with, with the Steelers in a nickel/dime defense, and they would have needed exactly what the Steelers needed on the very next drive...a lot of calls going their way, some no-calls going their way, and some really lucky and timely plays.

According to Tomlin, you would think that he intentionally let the Packers score, just so he would have the ball last in the game.  Didn't he learn anything from watching Super Bowl XXXII, when Mike Holmgren let Terrell Davis score so they would get a chance to have a game-winning drive at the end of the game?  How did that work out for them, when the Broncos went into a stop-the-pass defense and prevented the Packers from scoring through the air?

It's not a safe bet, and face it...had the Steelers not gotten some help from the referees, the game would have been over long before they were in field goal range.  And, have to admit, Ben Rothlisberger made some amazing throws, too, against the "#1 defense in the NFL".

If this is what Tomlin is sellin', I ain't buyin'.  Kind of reminds me of the guys sitting around after deer camp, embellishing the story of how they got their buck.  When you don't get your buck, no one believes your tall tales.  But when you do, you get a little more play with how you can spin the story...after all, the evidence is right there.  Right?

Tomlin owes Big Ben and Mike Wallace (and perhaps the officiating crew) a nice fruit basket this holiday season, because they bailed him out of a pretty high-risk, all-or-nothing gambit that by all rights should have been egg all over his face.   I've been told in the past that we ignorant fans should never question the play-calling by these highly trained NFL head coaches, but that sure would take all the fun out writing about them, wouldn't it?

In one stroke, Tomlin made a risky choice, robbed his defense of an opportunity to make a game-defining stop on a long field, and put all the pressure back on his quarterback with scant time left.  Give Rothlisberger credit for coming through on a fourth quarter comeback.


Speaking of 20/20 hindsight, I'm just as entertained by the number of folks who insist James Jones should have taken a knee at the one-yard line.  Oh, sure, in retrospect, but you gave them two minutes and a long field against the #1 defense in the NFL, playing nothing but pass.  Jones did fine. Put the blame where it belongs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Pittsburgh Aftermath

Oh, the sweet promises we had coming into this game.  The Pack were favored on the road, on a win-streak that matched the Pittsburgh losing streak.  Greg Bedard wrote that, according to the Pittsburgh press, the Steelers "had no fight left in them".  Minus Troy Polamalu, the Steeler defense would allow a running game to gash them (as the Browns did last week), and then the passing game could easily do the rest.

We didn't get that game, but we got a game that had me on the edge of my seat until, quite literally, the final second came off the clock.  It's been a long, long time since the Packers have played in a nailbiter, and even though we came out on the wrong end of the scoreboard, it was a good day to be a Packer fan.  It was a tough, back-and-forth game in chilly conditions against the defending Super Bowl champs, who decided to come to play today (even if their coach out-thunk himself too many times on the way).

With that, let's get to this week's QuickHits:

*  First and foremost, the effects of this loss doesn't hamper the Packers' playoff chances too much.  It would have been nice to have gotten the win, waited for a Giant loss tomorrow night, and celebrated clinching a wild-card.  Now, we have to wait until a home game against the Seahawks next week at home, a team that was manhandled by Tampa Bay today.

The NFC East is still the division to watch, and Dallas beating the Saints may be good in many ways for the NFL, but the Packers would like to see the Cowboys stay amongst the wild cards, and not challenge for the division.  The Cowboys are the team that Packers own the tiebreaker against, and we'd like to keep the East as is:  the Eagles up top and the Giants and Cowboys fighting amongst each other for the last spot.

*  Aaron Nagler got a little fiesty with the number of folks who were calling for a more balanced offensive attack by the Packers, but in the end, Aaron Rodgers attempted 48 passes today, completing only 26 and featured back Ryan Grant only got 8 rushing attempts.  If you take away Grant's 24-yard touchdown run, he was 7/13...less than a 2-yard average.  The Steelers definitely came to play this week with their rushing defense, especially after being embarassed by the Browns last week for 171 yards on the ground.

The lack of consistency of that balance from week-to-week has to be a head-scratcher, though.  Sure, Grant wasn't getting a lot of yards, but his opportunities were few and far apart.  That the Packers ended up with five passing plays for every running play (including Aaron Rodgers' three scrambles) isn't something that is going to hold up in the playoffs.  One week, Grant runs well and he gets 100+.  The next week, he runs well, but the Packers give up on the run anyway.  Then, he doesn't run well and the Packers appeared to have given up on the run after they coin toss.

*  On the flip side, Pittsburgh played it almost identically.  Big Ben attempted 46 passes and the Steelers attempted only 19 rushes in all.  The offensive numbers were almost identical, except that Rothlisburger finished with over 100 more yards than Rodgers.

*  Rodgers and the passing game was somewhat of an enigma today.  Rodgers had another slow start with many of his balls seemingly overthrown, underthrown, or behind his receivers.  Now, an astute observer may suggest that A-Rodge may be simply placing  the ball when it can only be caught by his receivers, and you may not be too far off.  It also shows the contrast in how the two quarterbacks approached their pass-heavy strategies today.

If you watched Rodgers, more times than not the ball was indeed low, high, or behind.  But much of what the Packers like to do is to put the receiver in a position to gain yards after the catch.  In many cases, the receivers caught the balls for shorter gains and then had to make a move to move the ball upfield.  Even the biggest gainers weren't through the air, but were slant or curl patterns that the receiver then tacked on more and more yards on.  Safer, conservative throws that, many times, were caught by a receiver who had his momentum shifted or even stopped, then restarted again.

Rothlisberger, on the other hand, had some pinpoint passes that he put in front of the receiver's routes.  He throw bombs that went over defensive back's heads, or sometimes dangerous passes that the receiver would run into.  Neither threw an interception, but Big Ben had the slightly higher completion ratio, more yards (but less YAC), and a higher average per attempts (10.9 to AR's 8.0).

*  The drops by receivers were disturbing.  While many others will have their scapegoats for the loss today, we can't deny that the first half was marred by several key drops.  What is particularly disturbing is that the drops seem inversely proportional to the temperature...the colder the games, the more unreliable the receivers get.  With a first-round matchup in Philadelphia in January a strong possibility, Mike McCarthy may want to move some of the receiver drills outside over the next week or so.

*  The sack numbers were interesting:  Rothlisberger was sacked 5 times today but had the better passing day than Rodgers, who was sacked only once.  The TV commentators mentioned more than once that Coach Tomlin was not taking steps to make Big Ben get rid of the ball earlier and avoid those sacks, unlike what happened with Rodgers in the early part of this season.  Of course, the Packers made those adjustments and went on a 5-game win streak.  The Steelers just got their first win in well over a month.

In other words, at least today, the Steelers were able to not allow those sacks to consistently end drives.  None of the Steelers' sacks were on the same drive, and two of those drives resulted in touchdowns.

*  Quite simply, this game may have put a big ol' dent in Charles Woodson's chances for Defensive Player of the Year.  Sure, he had nine tackles, but none of the big plays we've become accustomed to.  Add to that a couple of holding penalties and being part of a secondary that gave up 472 yards through the air (though we all know who was defending the most damning plays) doesn't do a lot of convince voters to look past the Jets' Revis or the Saints' Sharper when ballot time comes along.  Woodson will need a big couple of games against the Seahawks and the Cards to get his front-runner status back.

*  The Packers penalty situation may not look that bad compared to other weeks (7 accepted penalties for 56 yards), but they came at the worst possible time:  the game-winning drive by the Steelers in the fourth quarter.  Yes, the refs were being a bit flag-happy with both teams on that drive, and I am the first to say that they need to let the teams play to decide the final outcome, not the penalties deciding it.  Three critical calls against Woodson, Chillar, and Bell all helped decide the outcome of this game on that drive, when it mattered the most.

*  Incidentally, Steeler left tackle Max Starks reminded me of another #78 I've seen recently playing tackle in the NFL.  Starks almost single-handledly imploded the Steelers' final drive with holding penalties and terrible blocking.  The Steelers needed the penalties by the Packers or they never would have gotten down the field.

*  Send him to pasture #1:  Mason Crosby.  I actually feel sorry for this kid.  His 34-yard field goal miss ended up being the mathematical difference in this ball game.  But there's no excuse for missing a 34-yarder anywhere when you are an NFL player, and don't give me the "wind and field conditions" story.   His confidence is shot, and the approach the Packers took last week to defend him to a fault to the media was not only overkill, but invited more criticism.

The even more harrowing decision to suddenly change his holder in the middle of a slump was even more glaring.  The problem, when examined by even novice analysts, hasn't been with the holds, but with Crosby's mechanics and approach.  Instead of changing everything around the problem, you need to solve it.

* Send him to pasture #2:  Jarrett Bush.  PackerRanter declared he was climbing aboard the Jarrett Bush bandwagon before the game today, and I am guessing he is quickly scrambling off.  Just NOT making stupid plays for a couple of weeks isn't reason to get behind someone.  Bush made two HUGE gaffes today in coverage that resulted in long gainers, including the huge 60-yard Mike Wallace touchdown on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage.

Unfortunately, the Packers have only Josh Bell to back him up, and he doesn't appear to necessarily be that much of an upgrade.  Of course, he's been struggling since "Drake and Josh" was canceled on Nickelodeon, anyway. 

*  Keeping Quinn Johnson active is worth it, if only to see him bulldoze into the back of Aaron Rodgers on quarterback sneaks and push him ahead four-five yards farther than he would have gone otherwise.


A lot more to say on the subject, but despite how enjoyable this game was to watch (compared to so many games that seem like they were done after the second quarter lately), you left with a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach.  How does your defense allow a team that you should have completely sucked out  every last shred of fight to go on a 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with only two minutes left on the clock?

Despite today's loss, the Packers are almost certainly in the playoffs.  But they have a ways to go before the are truly considered a Playoff Team.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crosby Needs an Intervention

Oh, if it weren't for that annoying "r" in Mason Crosby's last name.  You see, if it weren't for that "r", his name would be Mason Cosby, and then perhaps Bill Cosby may be willing to adopt Mason, much as he did with Cincinnati Bengal Quan Cosby during the 2009 NFL draft.

Because, right now, Mason Crosby is in need of an intervention.  Bill might be just the guy to have the wherewithall to get it to him.  Or, at least get Mason a good supply of Jello Pudding.

Out of 13 games, Crosby has missed a field goal in seven of them this season.  He ranks 24th overall in field goal percentage (75%), and while none of his misses have been the difference in the ball game (unlike last year's Viking game), he is becoming more and more of a liability as a placekicker.

Today, the Packers faked a field goal on fourth down, resulting in a time out and a conventional conversion attempt from the offense.  However, the line of scrimmage on that play was the Chicago 32, meaning that was merely a 49-yard field goal attempt.  The Packers passed up Crosby's leg on both tries.

Probably a good idea, because later on, Crosby missed from 42 yards.  He made a 26-yarder and a 33-yarder, but going into the playoffs with a kicker you can only rely on to make field goals inside of 40 is a pretty big handicap for any team.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum may come under fire for a lot of things this season, but quietly, one of the worst things he may be doing is slowly allowing Mason Crosby's career to go down the tubes.  Let's be honest.  Mason Crosby is one of the highest-scoring players in the NFL.  Even now, he's gold in fantasy football.  But that is a result of playing with a high scoring offense that gets down the field and sputters in the red zone.

Crosby has yet to break the 80% completion rate in any of his three seasons in the NFL.  He's been given scant opportunities to kick a game-winner in the final seconds, and again, last year's Minnesota game was a black mark against him that he is unable to shake off.

Crosby got a lot of press early on because he started his kicking career in Green Bay during the Midas Year of 2007, racking up 141 points and leading the league in scoring.  We loved everybody on the Packers in 2007, even if they only made 79.5% of their field goals.

But, as this season has progressed, Crosby has only regressed.  More noticeable is that while the rest of the team has seemingly rebounded from hitting rock bottom against Tampa Bay, Crosby is one of the few that isn't following suit.  The running game has improved, the pass protection has improved, the defense has only gotten tighter with young stars starting to shine.  Heck, even Jeremy Kapinos has been invisible lately and Jarrett Bush has been serviceable.

But whatever Slocum is doing with Crosby, it isn't working.  And my guess is that it isn't as much a physical problem as it is mental.  Crosby doesn't need a technician, he needs a therapist.

Kicking isn't like any other job on a football field.  It's a very precise, methodical process, not unlike shooting a free throw or your golf swing.  There aren't a whole lot of variables that you can adjust to make you kick better or straighter.

But we all know someone who tries to do that, especially on the golf course.  Your golf swing is methodical.  It's as much concentration as it is mechanics.  But when you start to struggle with your drives, it tends to start a downward spiral.  You can't just compensate by swinging harder.  You get frustrated.  You start over-thinking and over-adjusting.  And it usually doesn't help until you just get away, clear your head, and re-focus.

That's not the way most positions are in football.  Running backs can run harder.  Wide receivers run faster, jump higher.  Defenders hit harder.  Nearly every position on the gridiron has a way to use emotion and drive to improve your performance and pull you out of a slump.  You can change your mental approach by changing your physical approach.

But not so for a kicker, and as pressure mounts on Crosby, tales from the recent past come to mind.  Brett Conway was a third-round draft pick in 1997, a high pick for a kicker that always comes with the pressure to be "the next big thing" to justify your draft position.  In a preseason game that year, the young kicker had the game from hell:  five missed field goals with no other kickers on the roster.  You could tell from the look on his face he was devastated.  The next day, he went out early to the practice field to "fix" everything he could, and ended up injuring himself in the process.  Conway was let go in favor of some street free agent named Longwell, began a journeyman's career in the NFL, and is now out of the league at an age (34) when many kickers are still well in their prime.

Conway's decline was rapid and intense.  Crosby's decline has been slow and gradual.  You would think there are ample opportunities for a good coach to intervene.  And perhaps Slocum is doing his best and this is just something in Crosby's head that is too hard to reach by simply looking at tape and adjusting your approach.

Said coach Mike McCarthy following the Bears game in his post-game presser, "I had a chance to talk to him after the miss. Just like last week, I'll look at the snap, the hold, the kick but Mason needs to kick the ball through the uprights. And the snapper needs to put it where it needs to be snapped, and the holder needs to put it where it needs to be held....I'm not worried. I have confidence in Mason. I believe in Mason."

That's fine and dandy, but just "not being worried" may not be the best medicine for Mason Crosby.  Someone needs to get inside his head and get him to refocus, both mechanically and mentally.  Passing over longer field goal attempts, as McCarthy has done the past few weeks, may be good enough against middling teams like the Ravens or Bears, but isn't going to be good enough when we are up against the Saints or the Vikings in the playoffs.

I don't say this as a condemnation of Crosby, because if he can be fixed it is in the best interest of the team.  He has a powerful leg and his kickoffs are more than adequate.  There's no doubt he has enough power to get the ball to the goalposts, even from 55 yards or more.  You only need to look around the NFL to know that there is a dearth of top-notch kickers out there.  "Getting rid" of Crosby eliminates one perceived problem, but creates a slough of new ones.

But, as the Packers drive towards the playoffs, and as Crosby enters a contract year next season, the pressure on him is going to mount.  Eventually, he is going to be placed in the position to win a game with a sizable field goal attempt and little time on the clock, perhaps to clinch a wild card spot or win a first-round playoff game.  You only need remember the lessons of Conway, or even BJ Sander, to know what pressure in the face of heightened expectations can do to a struggling kicker.

Deservedly so, Crosby has earned the privilege (if you can call it that) of being "worried about", and it is time that McCarthy and Slocum quit looking for excuses for him or patting him on the shoulder.  Waiting for the problem to solve itself hasn't proven to be successful, so it is time to get inside Mason's head before he loses it. 

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pleasant Developments: Clay Matthews

It's official. I like Clay Matthews III. I really like him.

The kid has lived not only up to his billing, but to the exorbitant price paid for the extra first round pick in the draft. He's been all over the field, making sacks, making critical tackles, stripping the ball, and looking like he's having a blast doing it.

All the reason to like him. But I have one important reason why Matthews has my respect.

He's earned his spot. He's a starter and is playing like one.

This hasn't always been the case in the TT/MM regime. When you choose to build through the draft, eschewing free agency, there are a lot of times that young players are given jobs simply be default, and get that "NFL starter" title without necessarily doing much more than being drafted.

I know this is true for a lot of NFL teams, especially first-round picks. Young players are thrown into the mix to fill spots, even though most of us know that a draft class is supposed to be for the future, not the present.

But the Packers went through several years of throwing even mid-round picks into starting roles with very little competition. In 2006, the Packers drafted three mid-round offensive linemen (Colledge, Spitz, and Moll) and essentially gave them to rookie head coach Mike McCarthy as his starters. There was no one of note behind these guys, and so the guard positions were essentially filled without competition.

Even some of our first- and second- round picks have been given starting spots with no competition: Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Brandon Jackson, and AJ Hawk. And before you play the "Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three years" card, do you honestly think he would have sat the bench had Favre retired (for good), even after the 2004 season? You think Rodgers would have watched while Ingle Martin took snaps under center?

Anyway, my point is not to belittle these guys, but to shower not only praise on Matthews, but in how he earned his way into a starting job instead of having it handed to him.

Early in the offseason, the two players trying to earn a spot opposite Aaron Kampman were Brady Poppinga and surprise upstart Jeremy Thompson. Clay was being touted as a "special teams maven" that would likely be the heir apparent for Kampman. Even so, I still worried that TT might be tempted to toss him in there earlier in order to defend the heavy price paid for him.

As preseason rolled around, Jeremy Thompson faded away and Poppinga appeared to be the man competing with Matthews for that spot. In the end, Poppinga got the start on opening day and began a stretch of mediocre performances.

Slowly, Matthews began to get a little more playing time, essentially blurring the line between who was the starter and who was the rotational player. By the time the Packers met the Lions in Week 6, Matthews was named the starter in the base defense. But he didn't just get the job because Poppinga was struggling.

He had been making plays in the first four games, including a key pressure against Jay Cutler in Week 1 that resulted in an interception, a sack of Carson Palmer in Week 2, and several passes defensed. But the big one was the strip of the ball from the best running back in football in Week 4, resulting in a stunned Adrian Peterson and a touchdown return for Matthews.

And since getting that start, Matthews has done everything except slow down.

He earned the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors in his first start against the Lions, and then again against Dallas in Week 9 when he forced and recovered two fumbles. In only nine starts, he leads the team with seven sacks. The last time a rookie linebacker led the team in sacks was 1986, when Tim Harris finished with eight.

But the best part of it all is that Matthews didn't get his starting spot based on his draft position or on his rather legendary last name. He earned it and continues to earn it each and every week. He is aware that there are veteran linebackers behind him, like Brandon Chillar and Poppinga, ready to take over in the event he falters, and continues to play at a high level.

After this past week's game against Baltimore, Matthews has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and three QB hits. Not the Defensive Rookie of the Week...the NFC PLAYER of the Week. The same award won by Charles Woodson, a veteran Pro Bowler.

Even better, as his play has improved, so has the play of the guys around him. Fellow long-haired first-rounder linebacker AJ Hawk has demonstrated some gains in his playmaking, making an athletic interception against the Ravens and posting 17 tackles over the last two weeks. This from a guy who was essentially off the field for most of the game earlier in the season and heard whispers that he would soon be benched as a draft bust. Nick Barnett has also been better than solid as late, developing into a playmaker in stopping the run game.

That's the definition of a star who makes the players around him better, and Barnett and Hawk have reaped the benefits of playing next to a guy who doesn't need to be compensated for, like Kampman needed before he was hurt. Instead of being a converted defensive end, Matthews has entered the Dom Capers 3-4 scheme on the ground floor, and has immediately put his skills to work within it.

Hawk has long been criticized for having a low ceiling, but Matthews' ceiling hasn't been sighted yet. Is it worth the price paid in the draft to get him? Time will tell, but early results would say that not only was the bevy of picks given up for Matthews worth it, but Ted Thompson may have pulled off the steal of the draft.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Packers Come Full Circle With Five Games To Go

I attended the Packers/Lions game back on October 18 at Lambeau Field, and was treated to a relatively dominating performance by Mike McCarthy's Packers. Oh, no doubt, there were a few concerns in the game, but it is really hard to get upset over a 26-0 win. The win elevated the Packers to 3-2 and snuggled right behind the Vikings in the NFC North.

Now, had you asked me that day what I would have expected from the Thanksgiving Day rematch between the Pack and Lions only six games later, I would have told you the results would have been much the same as a first: a dominating performance.

In the end, my prediction came true, but what a journey the Packers have taken between the two games. If you just watched the two Lions games, you'd be convinced this was a dominant, play making team. And maybe it is. We certainly thought that after the Packer defeated the Lions the first time.

But, in between the two games, the Packers lost, then found themselves.

* Another dominating performance against a dreg of the league (Browns)
* A humbling loss to Brett Favre and the Vikings at home.
* A humiliating loss to one of the worst teams in the league (Bucs)
* A redeeming victory against one of the better teams in the conference (Cowboys).
* An inconsistent but solid victory against a wild-card contender (49ers)

The two Lions games have bookended a strange and wild story this season, as the Packers seemingly had to hit rock bottom before being able to pull themselves out of the funk they found themselves in.

But, Detroit has a way of making you feel better. Forget all you heard about this being a trap game. The Packers went out and, apart from some red-zone offensive struggles, dominated the Lions in nearly every phase of the game, just as they did in October. The Packers climbed to 7-4 and have all but sealed themselves a second-place finish in the division. And, of course, if the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs, a wild-card team travelling to Dallas or Arizona in the first round.

The Packers have done something rather critical in the past week: with two wins, they have separated themselves from the pack of .500 teams wallowing in mediocrity. They have guaranteed themselves a better record than last year's disappointment, and look to have a very solid chance to finish with a winning record and snag that playoff spot.

But the Packers achieved this standing based on two non-quality wins. The 49ers are fading fast, and the Lions are simply another easy win (just don't tell that to Tampa Bay). Yes, each win counts the same, but the Packers followed up two easy wins in October (Detroit, Cleveland) with two miserable performances against beatable teams (Minnesota, Tampa Bay).

The Vikings are beatable? Sure, they are. The Packers stand at 1-3 in quality wins this year, but the Vikings only sit at 2-1. Who are the Vikings' two quality wins against? You guessed

The Vikings will finish with 3 quality games out of five: Arizona, the Giants, and Cincinnati. The Packers face only the Steelers and Cardinals (though the Ravens will become a quality game if the Packers lose and the Ravens climb to 6-5). In other words, the Packers have a decent path to finish strongly. The Vikings have more of a challenge, given that without the Packers victories, they would stand at only 0-1 in quality wins.

This is not to suggest that I think the Packers are going to overtake the Vikings and win the North, though nothing would make me happier. But, I digress...

My point is that the Packers now find themselves in the position of not being mediocre, but not quite a dominant team, either. They are "tweeners", with the rest of the nation looking to see what they are going to do over the next couple of games. To show exactly what they are made of.

I have a lot of faith that the Packers have a very good shot to make the playoffs. What happens from that point on, though, still has yet to be proven. The Packers are 1-3 in quality wins, which means they are 6-1 in non-quality wins. But every playoff game is a quality game. There's not going to be any games you can let up in. The Packers can't play two solid quarters, and then sit on it and hope the lead holds out.

The first, best test of this is going to be a Ravens teams that will be facing its eighth quality matchup of the season against the Packers. The Ravens are only 2-5 in those quality games, but will bring a team that is better statistically than the 49ers, whom the Packers narrowly escaped.

After that, the Packers will play two tough games on the road: the Bears, who have had the Packers' number regardless of their record in recent history, and the Steelers--the Vikings only quality loss.

The Packers have placed themselves in position for postseason opportunities, despite the ups and downs of the season. The next three games will be the test of character they need to find if they will garner the respect that goes along with it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

McCarthy Plays To His Strengths Again...Just In Time

Like many Packer fans, it was only two weeks ago that I felt it was a foregone conclusion that Mike McCarthy was a goner at the end of the season. Two embarrassing losses to Brett Favre and the Vikings, followed up by a cataclysmic collapse against a winless team meant the writing was on the wall and the clock was ticking.

But, hold on now. The Packers have beaten two decent opponents (including their first quality win of the season against the Cowboys), and suddenly the lynch mob has retreated into a holding pattern.

I'll tell you a secret. It's not just because of the wins. It's because McCarthy is finally getting back to what he does best. Hopefully, it's not too little, too late. But there is no one happier than me to see Mr. Gruff and Ornery finally giving us something besides coachspeak and excuses.

When McCarthy was hired, I wasn't happy with it, but pledged to give him my benefit of the doubt until he proved otherwise. And what I noted several times in his first year or two as head coach of the Packers was his ability to tinker with what he had to work with. And trust me, McCarthy has not always been given the mother lode of talent to work with, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

In 2006, his first season, he was given a stable of mid-round draft picks to make up the interior of his offensive line, and it was painfully clear that the line was unable to provide enough protection for the quarterback to throw the ball. But what McCarthy did in those days, instead of blaming gap control or pad level, is to go out and spit-and-wire a solution. No, they weren't ideal solutions, but they worked.

With veteran Brett Favre under center, McCarthy started utilizing max protection sets to give the receivers time to open up their routes. At times, the Packers sent only two receivers out for passes, but Favre was able to do more in the passing game. Bubba Franks became almost a blocking-only tight end, often lining up in the backfield for either pass protection or run blocking.

And, as the season went on and the zone blocking scheme continued to slug along, McCarthy wasn't afraid to tweak it, adding pulling guards and sweeps that allowed old Ahman Green to start being a threat on the ground again.

In 2007, it was clear again that the Packers were dealing with an ineffective ground game and poor blocking. McCarthy again adjusted the offense to play to the strengths that he had to work with. Almost completely abandoning the run game in the first half of the season, he introduced a five-wide set that spread the defense and allowed Favre to have more time and more targets.

As the season went on, defenses were forced to play honest pass D against Favre, and this then opened up the running game for newcomer Ryan Grant. As a result, the Packers went 13-3 that year.

Sure, max protection schemes and the run-and-shoot are far from the textbook answers to problems on offense. But, McCarthy was willing to make it work in those days.

However, McCarthy's problems started last year, following FavreGate and the advent of Aaron Rodgers. As the running game again sputtered and offensive blocking had its difficulties, we also stopped seeing McCarthy make those adjustments he used to make. Instead of obvious changes we could see on the field, the explanations given to us starting becoming vague and subjective. "Gap control" and "Pad level" were cited as reasons why things weren't going well. And each week, he vowed to go into practice to fix those things, and every week, they didn't get fixed.

Why the sudden change? Why did McCarthy suddenly go from being the problem-solver to the excuse maker? Did the 13-3 season and the accolades he earned give him a sense of complacency, that somehow he must had hit the right combination and was loathe to change it? Did he feel an increased sense of urgency to insure that Aaron Rodgers would succeed, either allowing him to carry the team or refusing to change what he thought was the right setup for him? Did he simply develop a huge ego, believing that he no longer had to adjust his setup for anyone else?

Whether it be complacency or ego, it is pretty clear that 2008 and much of the beginning of this season has been the definition of insanity: believing if you keep going back and doing the same thing, that you'll eventually get different results.

But desperate times call for desperate moves, and in the dark despair after the loss to Tampa Bay, it appears that McCarthy has decided to move beyond his pride and began retooling the offense, moves that seemed obvious before and are clearly changing the face of the offense now.

For one, McCarthy has placed Rodgers in more quick-drop situations. It was painfully clear that Rodgers was struggling with his pressure awareness and decision making in eight-step drop situations, so those were eliminated. With quick three-step and five-step drops designed to emulate the original West Coast Offense, Rodgers has been more productive and reduced the number of sacks and pressures.

Secondly, McCarthy has shaken the dust off of the screen play, an old WCO dinosaur if there ever was one. He brought in Brandon Jackson and convinced the linemen to get out there and escort him downfield. You rarely see screens anymore in the NFL, and certainly well-executed ones are even rarer. But on Sunday, the screen thrived against the 49ers, adding another new wrinkle that defensive coordinators have to guard against.

And that's the advantage you get with adding those wrinkles: the more DC's have to gameplan for, the more effective your traditional plays become.

It's too bad that the Mike McCarthy we grew to love in his first couple of years, before the massive success of the 2007 campaign, somehow lost his way. I don't know if he's a "great" NFL coach, but I do know what things he does best.

And what he does best is making adjustments to play to the strengths of the talent he has to work with. What he does worst, of course, is making excuses for not getting them fixed.

It's too bad you have to figuratively get to your last letter of Hangman before you realize that it is time to make those kinds of changes again. For whatever reason, however, it is good to have McCarthy being proactive, creative, and getting awarded game balls by his players for doing his job.

Will we see the five-wide set, or a double tight-end attack with Jermichael Finley back? Will we put Quinn Johnson in the backfield and allow him to smash some holes open for Grant in more of a power run game than the ZBS (that still hasn't quite blossomed)?

True, the number of wins he has between now and the end of the season will ultimately decide whether or not Mike McCarthy keeps his job. But those wins will be predicated on how McCarthy decides to continue to spit-and-wire this team, and particularly the offense, to put it in the position to get those wins.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: San Francisco Aftermath

The Green Bay Packers, for all of the topsy-turvy emotions we've ridden this season, have found themselves at 6-4 and a legitimate contender for the playoffs. What a ride this roller coaster has been this season.

With a 30-24 victory at home over another wild card hopeful, the Packers earned the victory with the effort of two teams: the first-half team, which seemed to hit on all cylinders, discouraging the opponent, and wasn't looking back or letting up; and the second-half team, which played an ultra-conservative gameplan that bent, bent, bent, and very nearly broke, but still preserved the win.

While question marks still abound, there are enough exclamation points to go right along with them. With that, here are this week's QuickHits:

* The standings will come more into focus as the week's games come to a close, but at 6-4, the Packers would be contending with the 5-4 Eagles (who have yet to play as of the writing of this article) and the 6-4 Giants. Eliminating the sub-.500 teams in the NFC for the time being, the Packers are also contending with the Falcons and the Panthers for one of the two wild-card spots.

None of these teams are hitting on all cylinders by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact, one could easily make the case that the Packers have had the best two weeks of any of the bunch.

The biggest challenge is going to come from the NFC East, where the 7-3 Cowboys are starting to wane. They still have games against the Giants and the Eagles, which means there's a chance that all three teams could combine to finish with good records and steal both wild cards.

* For all the positives that the Packers had coming out of this game, there are two incredibly huge negatives: Al Harris has been lost for the season with an ACL injury, and the initial prognosis for Aaron Kampman suggests a similar fate: certainly, he's not going to be back for the Lions game on Thursday.

This is a great example of winning the battle but losing the war. Just like the rest of the game, we saw a reversal in the injuries by half. In the first half, it seemed like a player from the 49ers was being helped to the sideline every couple of plays. But in the second half, with the game seemingly well in hand early on, two of the Packers' most talented and experienced players appear to be lost for the season.

The ramifications are deeper with the loss of Harris: it means we're going to see a lot more of Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood in the nickel and dime package, and of course, it also means the usually-capable Tramon Williams moves to our starting corner. Make no mistake, even Williams is a minus from what Harris offers, and going from Williams to Bush at nickel is an even steeper drop.

Brad Jones continues to do a steady job filling in for Kampman, and the Packers are fortunate to have a good stable of linebackers. But again, make no mistake that even as AK has been miscast as a 3-4 OLB, there is no one on this roster that is going to equal his statistics, much less his emotional leadership role.

I was calling early on to take the starters out and rest them up for the Thanksgiving Day game. Yes, the 49ers came back, but they came back on Brad Jones and Jarrett Bush anyway. It would have been nice to be able to reinsert our veterans back in at the end of the game if we needed them. Now, we have to look forward to seeing #24 on the field on a regular basis for the rest of the season.

* The "Tale of Two Teams" is a pretty stark contrast, and again, a critical eye needs to be placed on coach Mike McCarthy. When you are 5-4 and struggling for a playoff spot (especially after suffering two devastating losses to the Vikings early on) you don't let up on an opponent. The Packers outpaced the 49ers with 362 yards of offense to SF's 57 in the first half, and Alex Smith could barely complete a pass. Effectively, the Packers gained confidence and put the boot to the 49ers throat and kept it there. Until halftime.

But the Packers decided to play back on their heels in the second half, going very conservative, as opposed to the team that called timeouts at the end of the first half to add to a 14 point lead. If you are playing a team like the Lions and are way ahead, that's one thing. But this is a team that is just as hungry as you are to stay in the playoff hunt, and you could palpably see the confidence grow as the second half went on.

It's like a prevent offense. If you play not to lose, there are two very bad things that can happen. 1) You give the other team more chances to drive and place more pressure on your defense; and 2) You transfer your momentum away and often find it hard to get it back when you actually need it.

The Packers were outscored in the second half 21-9, and if a couple of calls had tipped in the 49er's favor, the game might have had a different outcome. McCarthy has to realize that you never let up. If you need to substitute players, great...and you keep them playing 100% with a full playbook.

It's funny how when the Packers were playing lights out in the first half, they had no injuries. But, when they started playing back on their heels, the injuries mounted.

* Aaron Rodgers started looking more and more like the quarterback we've been waiting to show up. The gameplan change for quick drops has really paid off, and the Packers' offense has begun to look like the one we saw in the preseason.

Most importantly, Rodgers has avoided getting sacked, although he did have one very ugly intentional grounding call. His accuracy, particularly in the first half, was back to its usual pinpoint self. This is important, because Rodgers' accuracy is really his most deadly asset. As his pressure awareness has certainly been in question this season, it seemed to coincide with a drop in his accuracy, too.

The less he has to worry about pressure, the more accurate he is. The more accurate he is, the more complete of a game we get from the quarterback position. I don't count his legs as a tremendous asset. While they make for good gains once in a while, playoff time is not good to offenses that gain their yards with a quarterback's legs.

* Speaking of running backs, I had to check the roster to find out if there had been a switch in numbers...maybe Green got his #30 back, Kuhn switched to #34, and newly-signed LaDanlian Tomlinson took #25.

Seriously, Ryan Grant looked pretty awesome today, gaining 129 yards on 21 carries. This was due to two events happening: the offensive lines were able to push around the 49ers defensive line (who were ranked third in the NFL against the run by Football Outsiders. Were.). Secondly, Ryan Grant actually found the holes and ran through them.

At times, the 49ers looked to be playing without any heart at all, just watching Grant go by and hoping someone else would make the play. But, this is what happens when you demoralize a team and keep the boot on their throat.

* Welcome back to Green Bay, Mr. Screen Pass!

I've often hypothesized that the screen pass may have gone the way of the wishbone offense. It seems that any time the Packers really tried to get it going, even back in the Sherman years, it was rather ineffective. My thought is that the smaller, quicker defenses that evolved to counter the WCO in the 90's made it a priority to guard against the misdirection that the screen pass brings to the table.

But there was none of that today against the 49ers. Brandon Jackson, in particular, may have finally found a consistent reason to be on the field, as he hauled in 6 passes for 65 yards, most of them via the screen. Moreover, it seemed that the linemen that were lead blocking for the back were always where they needed to be and did a great job escorting him up the field.

So much of making a screen pass work is the delayed misdirection, and then having the back allow the linemen to set up their blocks. Today, it seemed to work in perfect harmony.

* Welcome Back to Green Bay, Mr Jennings!

Greg Jennings looked like his old self, again particularly in the first half, when he brought in two passes for huge gains. The first was a perfect touch pass from Rodgers down the left sideline that would have been a touchdown if not for a saving tackle by Shawntae Spencer. The other was a bullet pass that Jennings deftly took, juking two 49er defenders into each other and cruising into the end zone.

Jennings has been counted on as the big play receiver, but has been nearly invisible the past several weeks. If the return of Jermichael Finley allows coverages to stop rolling towards Jennings, that might be the best news for fans of #85 we've had all season.

Finley, incidentally, led all Packer receivers with 7 receptions, and while he only racked up 54 yards, his possession receiving forced the 49ers to honor him and opened up the field for the other Packer offensive weapons.

* Frank Gore broke off a 42 yard run to start the game, but afterwards had only 17 yards on 6 carries. Again, the Packers are able to boast one of the best run defenses in the league. By forcing the 49ers to play from behind, Gore was a non-factor for much of the game, despite finishing with 8 yards per carry.

* As I watched both the ESPN and FOX pre-game shows, I noticed there was precious little coverage of the Packers. This was kind of concerning to me, because I don't think you want the Packers to fall out of the public and national radar. Yes, we used to complain incessantly that Brett Favre got all of the media attention in nearly every Packer game, but even that kind of attention kept the Packers in the national spotlight.

Without Favre, the Packers have to establish a new identity without him (and unfortunately, our two biggest televised games this season were mostly because of Favre, too). The Packers have already turned off some fans and observers with the drama of Favregate, but even worse is having people stop caring about the Packers.

The best way to prevent that is to win.

* Mason Crosby is going to end up being a liability in the stretch run. For that matter, so is Kapinos. When the Packers didn't even think about sending Crosby out for a 55-yarder at the beginning of the fourth quarter, it sent a message that they no longer trust him for much outside of 40 yards, especially in crunch time. If Crosby could make that field goal, the 49ers would never have gotten within 9 points of the Packers. Instead, the Packers were playing for their lives at the end of the game.

The Packers were able to eak it out despite their lack of faith in Mason Crosby's lead foot. But you are going to need those long field goals in the playoffs, when you're not playing inconsistent teams like the 49ers.

Kapinos, on the other hand, ranks 31st in the NFL in net yardage per punt, and shanked a 34 yarder in the third quarter that might have really cost the Packers had the returner not muffed the punt.

If the Packers make the playoffs, they cannot afford to lose the field position battle, because their kicker needs to be inside the 30 before we can count on him to make a field goal.

Completely unrelated stat: Jon Ryan averaged almost 50 yards per punt today for the Seahawks. Just sayin'.

* I'm lovin' Clay Matthews. Just all over the field. He's like a kid off his ADHD medication, both on the field and on the sideline. Lori Nickel commented on her Twitter feed that "Clay Matthews does not stand still. Paces/jumps during these boring timeouts." And, he's making plays, with two hits on the quarterback. He's like AJ Hawk, except he has a better motor and makes the plays instead of trailing them.

With Kampy a huge question mark, a lot more is going to fall on him to make plays from the all-important OLB spot. Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga will be manning the other side, and while both can be solid, neither are established playmakers. This means a lot more pressure on the rookie who has already earned a starting spot with his great play.

* The penalty situation wasn't as glaring this week (6 accepted penalties for 64 yards), but they did show up at inopportune times, particularly on special teams. A critical holding call on Derrick Martin pinned the Packers deep in their own side of the field, hanging on to a six-point lead late in the game. A five-yard pass to Finley on a 3rd and 4 was the difference between that holding call being dismissed and it being cataclysmic.

* I think the Packers caught a break at the end of the game, when Mike Singletary decided to use his last challenge to try and see if he could pin the Packers back another yard on a 3rd an inches at midfield. The gambit failed, and Singletary was left with both no more challenges and no more time outs.

On the next play, Rodgers pulled a sneak, and aided by Quinn Johnson, sailed over that yellow line. But, hidden from view of the cameras, the ball came loose and the 49ers claimed that they had it. Without a challenge, and with the time still being just over two minutes, there was no hope for the 49ers to give themselves one last chance.

If you watch the play slowly, you can clearly see that a 49er is already pointing for a first down in the opposite direction before Rodgers' legs slide off the pile and onto the ground. Now, you can't see the ball from either of the angles that were shown by FOX, and therefore, there's a strong chance that it wouldn't have been overturned anyway. The point is, for a silly challenge earlier, the 49ers lost the chance to potentially get the ball and have one more two-minute offensive drive to win the game.

* I have yet to understand why Quinn Johnson isn't getting more play. Seems like every time he is in there, he does something good. I know there are three fullbacks on the roster and they all have to get some playing time (and Kuhn does a great job receiving out of the backfield), but Johnson's lead blocks opened up some of our biggest runs of the day.


In the end, the Packers came out on top. It's amazing how the Packers nearly repeated the debacle at Tampa Bay, but this time, prevailed and stay in the middle of the playoff hunt. The cost for this win, however, may be dear...two of our defensive veteran leaders will likely be out for the rest of the season.

That stated, the Packers have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way, with only Pittsburgh and Arizona sporting winning records. In fact, the Steelers got beat today by the Kansas City Chiefs, so nothing is impossible.

But the Packers have to find a way to put together four quarters of football over these last six weeks. While games against the Lions and Seahawks are probably easy ones, it is the games against the also-inconsistent teams that will be the test for the Packers. 5-5 Baltimore, and 4-5 Chicago have the potential to do what the 49ers did against us today, and the Packers have to stay on top of them.

And put the boot to the throat. If you want to win, you can't let up. If any lesson is to be learned from today, let it be that one.

Monday, November 16, 2009

D Shows Up; Time To (Almost) Believe Again

Well, hello, Dom Capers! Where've you been? I know you have the 3rd-ranked defense in the NFL, as your head coach keeps reminding us at press conferences, but it sure was nice to actually see them up close and peronsal yesterday! Or rather, it was good for Tony Romo to see them up close and personal yesterday!

On a dime (and with plenty of dime defense), the Packer season looks to be almost one-hundred and eighty degrees away from where we thought it was going a week ago at this time, and we owe almost all of it to Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense, who took an explosive offense and rendered it punchless

Now at 5-4 and clearly the only other team in the NFC North race other than the Vikings, the packers appear to be vying for the wild card with seven games to go. The competition isn't that stiff for that wild card, and the Bear and the Lion games have gone from uncertainties to near-guarantees. And if the Packers can beat the Cowboys, why couldn't they beat the Steelers or the Cardinals? And so-so teams like the 49ers, Ravens, and Seahawks are all winnable games, too.

Amazing what one week will do, isn't it? As Packer fans (or passionate fans of any sport), we are just plain manic-depressive sometimes. One bad loss and the world is ending. One big win and everything is great.

But, let's not undervalue this game. The Packers effectively defined the Cowboys game as the "make or break game" of the season, and came through. Hey, this was a 6-2 team that was made to look like the Lions yesterday. That's no small feat. The Packers drew a line in the sand and said, "That's enough."

The only problem comes with what happens next. If this past week was "The Season", what does that leave in the tank for the 49ers? Which is why, like most fans, we're all now cautiously optimistic, leaving a little space for a rebound after a mighty high.

In a way, I felt like I was watching the Super Bowl teams of Baltimore or Tampa overwhelming defense that stifled the other team and controlled the play clock and the field position battle. The offense was simply there to put a score or two on the board, usually set up nicely by a turnover, and just not mess things up.

Rightly so, Aaron Rodgers is getting kudos for his performance yesterday, though I would contend this is exactly what I've been saying he could do and should be doing all along. He's a highly efficient passer who will always get you good stats. But, like any quarterback, he plays a lot better with a lead and a full playbook, than from behind when the defense knows you're going to pass.

*cough* Even if we don't run it anyway. *cough*

I was listening to The Fan last week, and Chris Havel actually made a good point; the vaunted San Francisco defense of the 80's-90's wasn't always loaded with All-Pro players. It was a decent defense that was often placed in the position of playing with a lead because of the superstars on offense. Taking nothing away from that defense, because it was a good one, but when you are working on a 24-3 lead every week at halftime, it sure gives you a comfort zone.

In a way, yesterday was a reversal of that. Taking nothing away from Rodgers, Jennings, or Driver, but they were in a position they aren't used to against good opponents: they were playing with a lead and with the defense keeping the momentum going their way, even if the offense couldn't do anything with it.

In fact, you may want to give a game ball to the O-Line for holding the fort as well as they did, as well as to the receivers for drastically reducing their dropped balls. Those two upgrades in performance helped AR's final line look as good as it did.

There's still a lot to work on, including penalties and keeping the protection up against a 7th-ranked 49er defense. Once again, the Packers had more in penalty yards than Ryan Grant had in rushing yards, and while that doesn't seem to factor in the final score, it is still concerning.

But, for now, it is time to celebrate a quarterback who found his heart, receivers that found their hands, a offensive line that found their footing, a linebacking corps that found the quarterback, a defense that found their emotional leader, and a coach that found his brain.

And a desperate team that found victory when it needed it most.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Too Much Going Against The Pack In This One

Seriously, you look at this team on paper, and you can see why there are so many folks around the Blogosphere calling the lemmings back from the cliff. There are a lot of statistical and subjective positives that the Packers have going for them right now.

Aaron Rodgers has a 100+ efficiency rating and is on pace to throw 32 TDs and only 10 INTs.

Ryan Grant is on pace for another 1,200+ yard season.

The Packers have had some feel-good stories the past few weeks: Donald Driver breaking the team receptions record, while Ahman Green set the team career rushing record.

Charles Woodson has five interceptions, and some veteran players have come out of their shell the past few weeks: Ryan Pickett, Nick Barnett, even AJ Hawk.

The defensive line has been one of the most stout against the run, ranking 8th on the FootballOutsiders rankings. In fact, other than Cedric Benson, no opposing running back has really gashed the Packers, including Adrian Peterson twice.

In fact, if you don't believe me that the Packers have the 8th-ranked offense and the 3rd-ranked defense, just ask Mike McCarthy. He'll be glad to tell you.

But anyone that knows me also knows that the first thing I will tell you is that a bunch of statistics and a dollar will get you pretty much what that guy in the McDonald's commercial got for a dollar, too. You know, the little hula girl, the empty hanger...

The difficult truth in the pace of so many positives about this team is that the negatives are starting to outweigh those positives.

Again, the Packers are leading the league in penalties. Simply no excuse for not cleaning up that house.

For what Rodgers offers the team in protecting the ball, he isn't keeping his body protected. He is now on pace for 74 sacks, just two off the NFL record, and his discipline is beginning to fade.

The offensive line struggles to pass protect, and they usually struggle to open holes for the run. When they do open holes, the Packers stop running the ball anyway. They rank 32nd in pass protection, according to FootballOutsiders.

The Packers' special teams rank 32nd out of 32 teams.

Second-to-most-importantly, the Packers' injuries are starting to pile up, as they always tend to do in a bad season. Those little twinges hurt a lot more when you are getting beatas opposed to when you are winning. Injuries were taking their toll on depth players earlier in the season, but now we are seeing some starters having to battle through injuries, including Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga. Jason Spitz is already on the IR, and Rodgers looks as though he's running on borrowed time right now, as his two sprained feet are bound to endure more punishment this week.

And finally, most importantly, this team is looking like they don't know how to win anymore. With a 3-10 record in quality wins since the start of the 2008 season, the Packers gave the game away to a previously winless team last week. The Packers emotional state appears to be going into survival mode.

The story about a part-time worker at Lambeau Field being fired for allegedly criticizing Mike McCarthy is a cautionary tale on how those at 1265 are starting to circle the wagons. Whether McCarthy is involved or not is irrelevant. McCarthy is being protected right now. I wonder if he is going to have his own private locker room soon, too.

So, what we have is not a terrible team. If you want to see a terrible team, look at the Lions or the Browns, teams that can't seem to function in any aspect of the game. Teams that have no chance as soon as they hit the field. Teams that are mathematically eliminated before their bye week.

No, the Packers are not terrible. They are frustrating. They have every sign of being the team that we saw in the preseason, and every now and then they start hitting all cylinders and actually play like it. But, eventually, someone breaks down. Maybe it's the special teams. Maybe it's the offensive line. Maybe it's the defense giving up a big play.

But, regardless of whoever it is, it drags the rest of the team down with them. Nobody appears ready to step up and put this team on their shoulders and inspire them to all play their best. It's a disjointed concert out there, with players and coaches not appearing to always be on the same page, yet connected to each other at the most critical times. Momentum is suddenly crucial and fleeting...just one penalty or punt return seems to turn the entire tide of a game.

When the Packers take on the Cowboys, I actually give them a chance in the game, if only for one reason: they shouldn't get blown out. They have enough going for them to keep the game close, and when you look at it, their four losses have only been by an average of nine points.

The Packers have a lot of key players at positions to make an impact: Rodgers, Jennings, Driver, Barnett, Harris, Woodson, Pickett...but it just isn't enough when your line can't pass protect, your special teams gaffe at least three times a game, and you can't get off the field on a defensive third down late in a game. Penalties, injuries, sacks, even playcalling...all just seem to be holding this team back.

There's some great undercurrents in this story tomorrow: TJ Lang moving across the OL, Brad Jones at linebacker, Ahman Green getting more established in the offense, the return of Jordy Nelson. Those may have to be enough to entertain us, however, as I don't know if the larger game will.

The Packers will have a tough time in this game. They are too good to get blown out, but not good enough to establish a solid attack against a quality opponent. It may be time to lower our expectations, and consider getting out of this game with Aaron Rodgers in one piece as a moral victory.

Let's stop thinking about this week as the pivotal game of the season, get it over with, and look forward to facing the 4-5 49ers next week, a game that we, unfortunately, have to look at now as being against an opponent on our own level.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Special Teams Roster Gambit Backfires

Someone posed a question on one of the forums this past week in regards to former Packer safety Anthony Smith--"Why did the Packers cut him to begin with?"

A good question, one that deserves a good answer. And, if we're lucky, it's one that might open a whole new can of worms in the process. At the time of final cutdowns, most of us were convinced (whether we agreed with the cut or not) that Smith was let go because of the concerns with his freelancing style in coverage and his potential as a locker room malcontent.

Neither argument held a lot of water, but for the most part, we accepted it. It's not often we cut a backup simply because of locker room often does a backup actually impact the leadership of a team? If he is a good player and actually causes problems down the road, you jettison him. Think Chris Akins. No big salary or cap acceleration. Just send him on his way and be done with it.

But the rationale completely lost its punch when Ted Thompson placed a waiver claim on Smith a couple weeks ago, only to lose out to the Jaguars. Loosely translated, it not only communicates that the Packers want him back (and probably realize the mistake in cutting him to begin with), but that any "locker room cancer" issues were marginal, if not non-existent.

Which brings us to the question: why was Smith cut?

I'll tell you: because he wasn't going to be a strong special teams contributor, and the Packers decided to tip the balance of their roster towards special teams. In the end, it has bitten them in the butt more than once.

Last year, the Packers fielded one of the worst special teams units in team history. Make no mistake, there is a reason why Mike Stock's firing was announced one day before the rest of the coaching massacre. The special teams were miserable last year.

But, how do you change a special teams culture? If you look at the Kitchen Analogy, you have three areas you can try and affect: the coach (the cook), the scheme (the recipe), and the players (the ingredients).

Now, scheme changes will make far more of a difference on the offense or defense. When you think about it, there's really not a lot of schematic changes you can make on special teams. Oh, sure, you can switch up some assignments on the coverage or blocking teams, but it really comes down to the players executing those assignments, regardless of scheme. And how many ways can you line up to punt?

So, we will dismiss schemes. The recipe remains relatively unchanged.

The next decision that was made was eyebrow-raising then, and even more questionable in retrospect. Instead of bringing a coach from outside (like McCarthy bringing in Dom Capers), Shawn Slocum was promoted from assistant special teams coach to head special teams coach. Exactly what changes did we think he was going to bring to the team? Sure, he's younger and brought a lot of good lip service, but in the end, he's a product of the same system that was informally ranked 26th in the league last year.

So, let's assume that the scheme remains the same, and there is little change in the coaching, either. The cook was fired and replaced with the apprentice cook. That leaves one place left to improve from last year: the players.

What we saw on final cutdown day was a concerted effort to stock the roster with special teams players, at the cost of quality players who could line up on the other 80 plays a game on offense or defense. The cutting of Anthony Smith, who played in a 3-4 and brought some needed experience to the regular defense, was made in order to keep both the injured Aaron Rouse (which I tend to believe was a loyalty move over a smart move), Jarrett Bush, and the newly-acquired Derrick Martin. Martin and Bush were kept almost exclusively as special teams players, and thus far, their play on the field with the regular defense has resulted in some disastrous plays.

Martin gave up a huge touchdown in the first game against the Vikings, and Bush gave up a huge TD last week against the Bucs. Both were critical scores in critical games, and the worst part is they looked completely lost on those plays.

Rouse ended up being cut, and in addition to the futile effort to bring back Smith, the Packers signed Matt Giordano, who has struggled to get up to speed and was one of the key goats on Clifton Smith's 83-yard kick return last week...on special teams.

On offense, the Packers went with an jaw-dropping move to keep three fullbacks and only three halfbacks, sending promising project Tyrell Sutton packing for the Panthers. Most of us thought either John Kuhn or Korey Hall would be the ones leaving to make room for both Sutton and Quinn Johnson, but I think the Packers kept all three for one reason: they wanted Kuhn and Hall to play special teams.

Once again, this was at the cost of players who would be able to play down-in and down-out, and the fact that the Packers kept an injured Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn (another loyalty move, if you ask me) led directly to the Packers having to sign Ahman Green off the street this year.

Meanwhile, in case you didn't notice, Tyrell Sutton is not only a backup running back for the Panthers, he actually filled in for them last week at fullback. “He's a guy that works hard and knew what he was doing,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “He looked to be dependable and reliable. I'm not saying he would ideally be our every-down fullback. I'm saying he was adequate [Sunday].”

The Packers decided to take a risk this season by stacking their roster with special teams players, and every one of those ST players who is a liability or a luxury on offense or defense weakened those squads by taking a spot from a player who could be contributing there.

And the worst part of it? The special teams have been worse this season than last year. According to FootballOutsiders, the Packers special teams rank a solid 32nd out of 32 teams so far this year, down from their previous end-of-the-season rank of 20th.

So, what good has it been to stock our team with special teams players? In retrospect, it seems like a gambit gone wrong. However, we have to admit when things are going wrong, we complain that the coaches aren't doing enough to address it. Here, McCarthy and Thompson attempted to remedy the special teams problems by keeping players on the roster specifically for non-starting purposes. In a way, you have to give them some acknowledgment for trying.

But that is where it stops, unfortunately. Not only has the special teams declined, but the regular offense and defense were left without some needed lethal bullets in the gun. Some good project players were left off the roster, and one, Jamon Meredith, was claimed by the Buffalo Bills to be ruined for good.

McCarthy and Thompson have to start believing they are snakebit right seems nearly any roster move they make is blowing up in their face. Certainly, when you look at the injuries on the Packer roster, many of them are special teamers instead of starters.. Wil Blackmon, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Brett Swain, Derrick Martin, Korey Hall, and Brandon Chillar are all guys who play special teams, and that impacts the effectiveness, too.

But, when you value your backups over your potential starters and quality backups, you set yourself up for failure, especially in a season like this. Hard lesson to be learned.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trickle-Up Accountability

When the Packers lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the knee-jerk reaction was swift and loud: fire McCarthy and Thompson. Now.

Give a Packer fan (or writer) time to think about it and calm down, and you sometimes see the vitriol soften. You are now seeing more and more fans predicting that McCarthy will survive the season and get another chance next year.

I'm not so sure.

Mind you, I'm not getting on any high horse and calling for anyone's head. I've been a Thompson Critic since 2005 and not once have I ever called for him to fired, including this year. That's not something I think is worth really calling for right now. It takes a truly terrible and dysfunctional team to make that kind of change mid-season, because who the heck are you going to get to run the team in the interim? It sure isn't going to be Mike Holmgren or Bill Cowher.

I've also tried to give McCarthy every benefit of the doubt since the day after he was hired. I say that, because I was adamantly against him during the interview process. Why would you bring in the guy who was the QB coach when Favre threw the most interceptions of his career? If he can't hold accountable the one guy he's responsible for, what is he going to do with an entire team?

And I have given MM positive props from his first season through 2007. But last year, we saw the beginnings of a more passive, excuse-making McCarthy while our favorite team free-fell from 13-3 to a 10-14 record since.

The point many people make is that Ted Thompson is going to give McCarthy one more chance to show what he can do. Perhaps they think that Ted himself may realize that MM is working with NFL-E talent and stumblebums along the offensive line, and that an upgrade in talent will get the ship back on track.

However, the accountability train is a slippery slope. I'm not petitioning for McCarthy to go. But, I sure understand how it is becoming more and more of a likelihood as each week goes by, and the choice may no longer fall to Thompson.

Accountability, whether it be football, business, or any hierarchical structure, trickles up. The immediate supervisor has the responsibility to hold those under him accountable. If that supervisor fails to do so, you go up another level and the onus falls on the supervisor's supervisor to make everyone under him accountable.

And so it goes with the Packers. The players are held accountable by the coaching staff. The coaching staff is held accountable by the head coach. The head coach is held accountable by the GM. The GM is held accountable by the team president, who is in turn held accountable by the Executive Committee.

In a nutshell, if McCarthy doesn't clean up his house, it's up to Thompson to do it. And Mark Murphy is the one who will be supervising how well Thompson handles it.

Murphy offered some token support for both McCarthy and Thompson earlier this week.

“I still have confidence in Ted. Obviously for me, I work through Ted, and he and I are always in touch with each other, and I have a lot of confidence in Ted.”

“You’ll have to talk to Ted, but my sense is that he does have confidence (in McCarthy) but (is) disappointed in where we are right now. We’re all hoping that we can make the changes that are needed to get us to where we want to be at the end of the season.”

Murphy wisely and correctly dismisses any notion of a mid-season firing, but certainly spells out how the rest of the season is going to dictate how things go for McCarthy. In other words, if this team finishes 6-10 for the second season in a row, you get a strong feeling that McCarthy will not be here.

Note that while Murphy comes out and says that HE has confidence in Thompson, he never speaks towards his own confidence towards McCarthy. Not only does this establish that he is taking a "no comment" when it deals with how he feels about MM, it also shows those levels of supervision. It is Thompson's job to evaluate McCarthy.

However, last year, the Packers fell to 4-4 and proceeded to lose 6 of their last 8 games. When you consider the Offensive Line Shuffle continuing and the injuries beginning to mount, it isn't a far cry after looking at the rest of the schedule to think such a losing record this season is very realistic.

And, in the end, it may be that original reservation I had about McCarthy before he was even fired that will do him in. Despite the glaring problems along the offensive line, McCarthy doesn't hold his assistants accountable for it. “Our problems, to me, aren’t teaching and scheme," said McCarthy, placing the problems again on fundamental errors by the players.

How you cannot hold James Campen at least in part responsible for not developing many of these players to at least a competent level is beyond me. And the problem is that if Campen is maximizing their talent, it sure puts that spotlight back on the guy who is supposed to be putting the talent there to begin with...Ted Thompson.

So, the conundrum begins for Thompson. Perhaps he wants to be attached at the hip with his hand-picked head coach and to give him every opportunity to continue. But, he also has to realize that as McCarthy fails to hold his players and assistants accountable, the onus falls back onto Ted.

Thompson isn't exactly revered for his deft handling of public controversy, and this has all the makings of a major brouhaha. As players continue to not get benched for undisciplined play, and as the assistants continue to get a free pass, McCarthy continues to play the weak card of "pad level, fundamental errors, and gap control"...all subjective, vague problems that are nearly as hard to define as they are to actually fix.

So, it will fall to Thompson to make McCarthy be accountable. According to Greg Bedard over at JSOnline, there is already some cracks in the armor holding those two together. But the critical pressure may come from above.

Mark Murphy, quite honestly, has been pretty quiet as far as Packer Presidents go. His only major public showing was the $20 million contract he offered Brett Favre to remain retired, a move he later mentioned as being "poorly-timed". While I've spoken to Murphy on the phone and he seems like a guy trying hard to following in Bob Harlan's big footsteps, he is not an established entity in the eyes of the fans and those with the power to supplant an ineffective leader.

And, let's face it. This has been an emotional couple of years. We've gone from the emotional high of a 13-3 record and playoff run only two seasons ago, to the tearing apart of Packer fans over the Favre Divorce, to the disappointment of both the 2008 and the 2009 season after having such high expectations to start both years.

If accountability doesn't start with McCarthy, it's going to keep going over his head with every loss the Packers have the rest of the way. Chances are very high that if the Packers miss the playoffs, Ted Thompson is going to be given a choice to either fire McCarthy or join him on the unemployment line.

Furthermore, if Murphy doesn't make such a demad if this season is repeat of the last, such an ultimatum may be placed on him. Either he may be told to fire the Thompson/McCarthy tandem, or he can join them, too.

There are a lot of folks saying the whole season is riding on this next game against the Cowboys. I don't like that thought, if for no other reason, I see little optimism of winning the game, and it seems foolish to make that your do-or-die game. I think you are better off waiting until the 49er game, which would really be one of the few games we've played this season where the opposition is not clearly inferior or superior to the Packers.

My unscientific predictions as to the chances of each of these folks before they get sacked:

10-6: Both Thompson and McCarthy keep their jobs.

9-7: Both Thompson and McCarthy keep their jobs.

8-8: Thompson may consider firing McCarthy, but will not have pressure from above to do it.

7-9: Murphy will pressure Thompson to make a change at HC, and I think Thompson would do it.

6-10: Thompson will have an ultimatum to change or leave with MM.

5-11: Murphy will be strongly pressured to remove both TT and MM.

4-12: Murphy will have an ultimatum to remove both TT and MM or join them on the way out.

My intent isn't to try and show some sort of iron-clad prediction as to how I think things will go down, but to show that as the losses mount, how the accountability rises up the ranks, leaving those near the bottom out of control of the final decision.

So, for those folks saying that barring a complete meltdown that McCarthy's job is safe, I would say we better sit and watch the next couple of games. If the Packers are 4-6 heading into Thanksgiving, McCarthy will need to run the table to assure himself of a job in Green Bay next year. And neither he nor Thompson may have a choice in the matter.