Sunday, January 18, 2009

Call Me a Panicked Chicken Little: Sign Capers. Now.

Add me to the list of folks who are calling for a quick signing of Dom Capers as Packers' defensive coordinator.
The New York Giants are targeting Dom Capers as their next defensive coordinator, replacing Steve Spagnuolo, who was hired as Rams coach on Saturday, sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen Saturday.

Capers was New England's special assistant/secondary coach this season. Capers was given permission and has interviewed for the Packers' defensive coordinator job but is more likely to go with Coughlin. Capers worked with Coughlin in Jacksonville in 1999 and 2000. Link
I hate to be a Chicken Little, but the Packers have had two solid guys already slip through their fingers. I understand the process of interviewing many candidates and given deliberate, thoughtful deliberation to determine the best choice for the job.

But, at this point, the Packers need a solid guy in a DC, and with every interview-and-miss we undertake, the impression is that the Packers are not only a place where good coaches may want to avoid, but that we are working our way further and further down the list of quality candidates.

It may be too late. Maybe Capers now has working with Coughlin in mind, and there's nothing that can be done to change it. But the Packers could have put an offer on the table before Spagnuolo's hiring created the very opening that Capers wants.

The defense received the lion's share of blame for a 6-10 record this past season, and therefore deserves a lion's share of quality upgrades, both among the coaches and talent. I'm getting the feeling that the offers coming from the Packers are pithy and the coaches are using the Packers as negotiating tools, not for a job they really want once they leave the interview.

He who hesitates is lost. We keep talking about creating an aggressive defense in 2009. We could start by aggressively trying to get a quality coordinator.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tim Lewis vs. Chuck Cecil

As the Packers continue to whittle away the list of veteran defensive coordinator candidates, it is looking more and more like our new DC may end up being someone who may be less and less experienced.

Nothing against Jim Haslett, but I just am not sure he has the fire that McCarthy needs right now. And, face it....he's been "available" for a couple days now, and there's been no offer. I have a feeling that he may not be the guy.

The next name on the list is Sean McDermott, the Philly secondary coach that one may guess McCarthy is waiting for. I have a feeling he may be the odds-on favorite, especially if Haslett takes a pass.

But, there are two other guys out there, both former Packer defensive backs, that are also being mentioned: Titan secondary coach Chuck Cecil and Carolina secondary coach Tim Lewis. Both played for the Packers back in the 80's (not exactly a time in Packer history that bodes well for veteran fans) and both attained a bit of acclaim in their own way.

But, if I had to choose one or the other, I'd take Tim Lewis.

As a fan, I loved Chuck Cecil. He was a guy who invented the term "ESPN Highlight Hit", rearing back from his safety spot to deliver a punishing hit that sent shivers down a running back's spine. Somehow, the same cut would reopen on the bridge of his nose at some point during every game and blood would flow down his face.

He was the embodiment of the Forrest Gregg era, the old school hit man that was out to punish the opponent, and I cheered as loudly as anyone else for him. He came from a time period that included other hit men (and thugs), like Kenny Stills and Charles Martin.

But there was another name from those teams that many of us forget, and one that in retrospect, I feel badly that I directed a ton of derision his way.

Jerry Holmes was a cornerback in the early 90's. And every game, you could count on him getting burned for a long pass or a touchdown. If you can remember back that far, you probably remember getting your first foam brick for Christmas and throwing it at the television when he allowed another big pass.

Eventually, Holmes was let go in 1991, released after the Packers took a certain cornerback in the draft named Terrell Buckley. And Chuck Cecil saw his production take a turn soon thereafter, also. A new coach named Mike Holmgren came in changed things up, and Cecil was gone after the 1993 season.

What happened?

Playing under Gregg and Infante, Cecil was given a wide berth to get his big hits. And many times, Cecil would get a running start to get those hits. The problem came in that on passing plays, particularly following a good play-action, Cecil was out of position to help out on the over-the-top coverage. Since he played on the same side of the field as Jerry Holmes, it was Holmes who often got the finger pointed at him after giving up a big play.

Makes sense. He's the cornerback. He's supposed to cover the WR. I blamed it on him. He left with Infante.

But when Holmgren came in, he brought a new level of accountability to the team that wasn't present in the bounty-hunting days of Gregg and the country club atmosphere of Infante. When Cecil was out of position, he got called out on it.

Eventually, injuries and a lack of production ended his tenure with the Packers. Soon afterwards, the Packers brought along a new strong safety named LeRoy Butler, who also was able to hit hard. However, he took responsibility for his coverages, and ended up playing alongside two solid free safeties, George Teague and then Eugene Robinson.

It was during that time that the Packer defense became among the league's best. There's no doubt that is due in large part to the caliber of players in the front seven, but it also due in part to the smarter play in the secondary.

Tim Lewis, on the other hand, played only four seasons before having his career cut short by injury. Lewis was a highly skilled player, solid in coverage and excellent in playing the ball. He finished with 16 interceptions in those three and a half years playing right cornerback, and at the time, was probably one of the only true playmakers on that defensive squad.

No, Lewis didn't make any big hits or have blood on his nose. He just went out and did his job as a shutdown corner. He still holds the Packer record for longest interception return, a beautiful 99 yard return for a touchdown against the Rams in 1984.

My point? I've made a point for several years now about how much I would like to see the Packers utilize their safeties in a more conventional approach. Right now, since the Bates scheme was implemented, we have safeties that are supposed to be interchangeable, instead of the traditional run-stuffing strong safety and the coverage-minded free safety.

Furthermore, the Packers have had Ted Thompson drafting for the Bates scheme, and we keep getting coverage-impaired players like Nick Collins, Atari Bigby, Mark Roman, and Aaron Rouse who are all solid run stoppers but have consistently cost the team in coverage, and left the cornerbacks out to dry.

If I had to choose between Lewis and Cecil as to who will finally address this issue, I don't think Cecil is going to be the guy who is going to push it, especially as a player who often left Jerry Holmes out to dry to take on the big hit himself.

Now, there's a lot more to a defense than the secondary, and our team needs a lot of help on the other two squads: defensive line and linebackers. However, I've said for years that by bringing in a good "quarterback of the defense" like Eugene Robinson to play free safety, allowing a budding Nick Collins to move to strong safety, you would solve a ton of problems in the passing game and improve the defense right away.

I think Lewis would be far more likely to make that change in the backfield. Furthermore, his tendency towards a softer zone defense might be the proper approach for a roster that is presently lacking in playmakers. While many Packer fans would be excited to see an aggressive 3-4 defense with a lot of blitzing, we only have to look back to Bob Slowik to see the effects of aggressive blitzing when you don't have guys who can blitz, and even worse, you don't have safeties who can cover.

Cecil has those kinds of player in Tennessee. We do not.

Chuck Cecil will always be a great memory in Packers history, a guy we got excited about when watching poor teams. He was our moral victory each week...we may not be able to beat the other team, but we can beat on them, at least.

But to bring that kind of approach to the 2009 Packer defense may be a death knell for McCarthy and Thompson. You can't take any old player off the street, throw them into an aggressive blitzing scheme and make it work. You have to design your schemes around what you have to work with and try and maximize what talents they have.

Tim Lewis certainly has been criticized for being soft, but that was because he began dropping strong blitzing players like LaVar Arrington and Sam Madison back into zone coverage. The Packers don't have any players like that on the roster today, and in fact, need to compensate for the weaknesses we have along the defensive line and linebacking corps.

But we also need to get a true free safety in the secondary, playing alongside hard-hitters like Bigby or Collins. And we need a defensive coordinator who is going to make it happen. A talent overhaul is going to take more than one season, even if we had an aggressive GM.

I would take Lewis over Cecil. In reality, with Haslett, Dom Capers, and Sean McDermott seemingly first on the radar, I doubt it will come to that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Could Defense Take a Step Back in 2009?

Mike Vandermause is seeing it, too. The Packers' first two choices for defensive coordinator have decided to take different offers, and coach Mike McCarthy is moving on to Plan C - Jim Haslett. If this keeps up, we may soon run out of letters in the alphabet.

Gregg Williams was a guy that intrigued me, maybe in the scuttlebutt that he was a bit of an arrogant arse. That would fly 180 degrees in the face of Bob Sanders, who was as much a gentleman and good guy as can be. Williams may have come in to Green Bay and turned a stagnate, ineffective defense on its ear, not giving a rip who has been signed to what extensions or how much money they're making, and get a squad to give it all up on the field or ride the pine.

Hurt some feelings along the way? Possible. Use Green Bay as a stepping stone to another head coaching job? Sure.

But when Williams went to the Saints today, Mike McCarthy is finding himself in one of two positions, neither of which bodes well for him.

1) McCarthy is finding that qualified, experienced coaches don't want to come to Green Bay, or at least, can find reasons to go elsewhere.

2) McCarthy is putting all his marbles in a very unproven Sean McDermott, who hasn't even interviewed and shown what he might do in a DC position. As we keep waiting for him to become available, the number of other quallified candidates dwindle.

Sean Payton described his intentions towards Williams, which seems a mile away from the hiring approaches we've seen Ted Thompson and McCarthy take:
“A lot has gone into this decision, and we targeted Gregg as the coach we’d like to hire after our first interview because he was so impressive and prepared. As an offensive coach, I have game-planned against his defenses in the past, and I know the problems they create. He’s an aggressive coach, but his units are always sound fundamentally. We have some pieces in place for him to work with, and I know he’s excited to get started.”
Maybe Payton will end up regretting his targeting and aggressive approach for Williams, but we can't deny that the Saints got their first choice, and the Packers are continuing to interview and wait. And wait.

McCarthy has to realize that the bullseye is clearly on his back, and this decision is critical to his coaching career in Green Bay. He has already essentially admitted he screwed up eight hires in 2006, and is now looking to rectify those mistakes less than three years later.

There are two ways to look at it: the Packers are being deliberate, and maybe they decided that Nolan and Williams weren't going to work out. They believe that they will find the right guy eventually, and that time will eventually push the cream to the top for them.

Or, Green Bay isn't the plum position it once was not too long ago, and the best candidates can find reasons to choose another team for the same money, same authority, or even the same talent level to work with.

In the latter is true, the Thompson/McCarthy regime is a sinking ship that needs to make some big decisions quickly if they are going to save themselves.

And, even if the former is true, the thought that the boat is taking on water isn't too hard to fathom.

And, in either case, a defense that regressed drastically in 2008 may end up in even less capable hands than that of Bob Sanders in 2009.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Protracted DC Search Raises Eyebrows

Well, so long, Mike Nolan. We actually never wanted you and your silly 3-4 defense anyway. Have fun in Denver.

And, happy trails, Gregg Williams. We all knew you'd just be using us for a stepping stone anyway, and we are actually happy you're probably headed down to New Orleans.

Well, with that all out of the way, its time to get down to the real DC interviews.

Wait, Winston Moss? Jim Haslett? When do we hit Bob Slowik territory?

I'm no proponent for rushing into anything blindly, but I also balance it by identifying what you want and making sure you go out and give it your best shot. I'm growing more and more concerned that our DC search may be as much a sign of methodical interviewing as it could be that Green Bay may not be the ideal landing spot for some of the prime time DC candidates.

Bruce Smith over at PackerChatters touches on the idea that Green Bay may no longer be the NFL Mecca it became in the 90's following the signing of Reggie White and the trade for Brett Favre. Incidentally, I watched the "NFL's Greatest Games" last night of the 1994 Detroit/Green Bay playoff game on ESPN2, and the players and coaches mentioned repeatedly that Green Bay was (quite recently) once the place you ended up at when no one else would take you.

Certainly, there is some credence to what Bruce is saying. With the departure of Favre, any connection to the mystique of the 90's is gone, and this team is now built on the work of Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and 90-odd years of memories and tradition.

I don't know if just Green Bay being an unattractive place to come as a player or coach is the answer though, which Bruce also touches on. There are other factors that can impact a decision to come here, including Thompson's reluctance to bring in top-flight free agents, his shying away from the defensive side of the ball in the draft the past few years, and the somewhat tight-fisted reputation he has earned over time, including what he pays his coaches.

However, I still don't know if that is the whole ball of wax. There's just a few little scraps of information that keep popping out to me.

* The JSOnline opined that Ted Thompson may well be sticking his nose into the hiring process. This set up speculation that McCarthy, who was believed to want to hire his former head coach in Nolan, might be at odds with Thompson, who did not want a coach who would require an overhaul of the present talent.

* Gregg Williams, according to JSOnline again, is likely leaning toward the Titans in his dreams, and the Saints as a fall-back. It appears that the Packers are a distant third in his eyes. Likely, Thompson would prefer to avoid a bidding war for a coordinator.

* Winston Moss, the defacto fallback if the big names failed to sign on the dotted line, said on AOL Fanhouse that he would be willing to work for the Oakland Raiders "in any capacity". His words implied gushing praise for Al Davis, which might also imply a desire to leave the Packers "in any capacity", too.

The speculation that Moss may want out of Green Bay, and that the two big names interviewed by McCarthy thus far have apparently decided to go to greener pastures, brings concern that the Packers may have muddied the waters too much. Firing a bevy of coaches one season removed from a 13-3 record may have satisfied the rabid fan base calling for it, but has to certainly give pause to anyone potentially coming in to replace them.

And, reflecting back further, since the Glory Days of the 1990's, quick firings for mediocrity haven't been uncommon. Ray Rhodes was fired after one 8-8 season in 1999. After posting a 53-27 record over his first six seasons, Mike Sherman was ousted after his first losing season.

Now, I'm certain any of us can post a litany of reasons why Rhodes had to go, and we've seen ad nauseum the reasons that Sherman should have gone (most related to his GM duties).

But now, as you are trying to attract legitimate candidates to come in and be given the keys to the defense, having a reputation as a franchise with a hair-trigger pink slip machine may not be the way to build your credibility.

The comments by Moss, while subject to guesses as to its significance, have to also present the possibility that McCarthy isn't interested in him as DC, and he would just as soon go elsewhere, too.

So, is there a poisonous atmosphere at 1265? Is there a impression of dysfunction and desperation between the coach and front office? Are both Thompson and McCarthy suddenly feeling like they have to prove themselves to the new team president, who may be inclined to replace people he did not hire with men he may be more comfortable with?

Or, are prospective coaches seeing a pattern of irrational expectations, with a recent past of firing any coach who can't post better than a .500 record? This is a business, after all. We were reminded of that repeatedly last summer during FavreGate, and now it looks like perhaps the way the Packers have approached their business dealings may be coming back to haunt them.

I may be completely wrong, of course. Maybe all of this furtiveness is just part of a waiting game for Sean McDermott to end his season and start interviewing. Maybe the Packers are taking their usual deliberate approach to hiring and are making sure they have the best man for the job: maybe it was the Packers who told Nolan to take a hike.

It could be. But the longer it takes the Packers to make their move, the more they interview coaches who end up taking jobs elsewhere, it increases the spotlight on a coach and GM already weary of it after the past season.


By the way, you heard it here (sort of) first. The guys over at have offered Tim Lewis as a dark horse candidate for defensive coordinator. Yes, I said it half in jest over at CheeseheadTV, but I did say it:
Just so you know, Aaron, I’m “hearing” Tim Lewis is going to be our DC next year. I know there’s as much chance as that happening as Jarrett Bush returning to the team next year…but, WOW…if I’m right, I’m a freakin’ genius, and you HEARD IT HERE FIRST. (1-7-09)
Now, I actually like Tim Lewis...remember him fondly as a player for the Pack back in the 80's (and really thought his injury set the Packers back for years..he should have manned the safety position for a decade). I also stumped for him as Packers' head coach after the Packers fired Mike Sherman. I don't know how solid of a HC candidate he was then, or even is now, but I think he might have what it takes to work with the talent we have and try and make it work.

TundraVision's choice: Tim Lewis. Can't be any worse than Jim Haslett. Can it?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reservations With the 3-4: Did We Learn Anything From the ZBS?

You need only check the Packer blogosphere to find that all the intrigue in Packer Nation is who will be our next defensive coordinator. Right now, the frontrunner (if you subscribe to the credibility of Unnamed Sources) is former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan.

Mike Nolan, I have little problem with. While there are some out there who will see him as a McCarthy crony, most people don’t go from a head coaching position to a coordinator position without getting some respect. Even Mike Sherman went from Packers’ HC to the Texans’ O-Line coach, but was also given the tag of Assistant Head Coach. If Nolan is the man, I don’t see him as a “yes man”.

McCarthy is also an offensive guy. The tinkering that he was regarded for his first couple years all came on the offensive side of the ball: working with protection schemes (extra TE in the backfield), adding wrinkles to the ZBS (pulling the guards), implementing a five-WR set. He seems to be comfortable giving the defensive coordinator a wide berth to implement his scheme, and isn’t nearly as hands-on with that side of the ball.

You certainly didn’t see him calling the defensive plays from the sideline, did you?

So, if Nolan is the guy, so be it. He certainly brings credibility from his days as the Ravens’ DC, and most of us would see him as an immediate upgrade from Bob Sanders and his tired Bates scheme.

However, I am officially stating that if McCarthy allows the implementation the 3-4 scheme in sudden and dramatic fashion, he will sign his walking papers. He will not have learned from his mistakes.

And that mistake was implementing the Zone Blocking Scheme in 2006 along the offensive line. History could repeat itself this offseason.

Why was the change to the ZBS a mistake, at least the way it was implemented?

Schemes and trends in the NFL are cyclical.

What comes around, goes away, and comes back years later in a repackaged form. We all remember the Packers trying to run the 3-4 in the grand old days of Ezra Johnson. There were a lot of teams that were still running it then, but by 1990, the 3-4 had almost completely disappeared from the NFL.

So, when a couple of teams re-introduced it in the late 90s, adding the wrinkle of the zone blitz, it was something new and unconventional. It caught offensive lines and offensive coordinators by surprise. And, those offenses had to face it several times in order to even really begin scheming to counter it.

Remember when you heard about the Steeler zone blitz as the end-all be-all? You don’t hear that anymore, because now, while many teams utilize the zone blitz, offenses have learned to scheme and deal with it as well as they can.

The ZBS is exactly the same story: Denver pioneered the scheme back in the 90s, and caught defenses by surprise. However, since then, coordinators have learned to counter it. They must have, since the Packers would have completely duplicated what Terrell Davis used to do, right?

In fact, several teams (like the Falcons) have adopted and dropped the ZBS as a scheme since the start of the new millennium. It’s not fresh, new, or catching-everyone-by-surprise anymore. Like any other scheme, it comes down to mano-y-mano, me vs. you, and executing the play effectively…but as a scheme, its not necessarily any more effective than a power run scheme.

I said then and say now: why jump on the bandwagon long after everyone else is doing it? That’s what McCarthy did with the ZBS, and by the time we got it going, defenses knew how to counter it. Sure, the 3-4 seems to be working well for many teams in the NFL in 2008, but the more teams use the 3-4, the more offenses are going to get experience in countering it.

By the time the Packers fully implement a 3-4, chances are it will be no more effective than a 4-3. You don’t want to be the last one following the trend, you want to be the first one to pioneer it.

If the Packers switch to the 3-4, they will be just another team trying to run a scheme, and like it or not, schemes don’t win championships…especially if you are running a scheme that the other team is prepared for.

Personnel Skill Sets

A quick look around the Packer discussion boards will give you the bad news about switching to a traditional 3-4. As a scheme, it requires three big ol’ hogs up front, and two outside linebackers that can rush the edge and fall back in coverage.

The Packers have been built on the idea of a 4-3, and several key players would have difficulty making a transition to a 3-4. None of our defensive linemen are prototypical 3-4 guys. Pickett isn’t a true nose tackle (a la Gilbert Brown), and Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins don’t have the bulk they need to play the ends. Yes, Jenkins is a superb athlete, and Kampman’s never-quit-attitude will serve him the rest of his career.

But the point is, the Packers will likely be drafting and looking for players who have a certain skill set, leaving some of our present-day best players open for trade or in diminished roles. Not smart.

In our linebacking corps, we would expect that Nick Barnett might be able to take one of the inside positions, and Brandon Chillar may be able to take either an inside or out position, but both Brady Poppinga and AJ Hawk are miserable in pass coverage, and neither made much of an impact rushing the quarterback this past season, either.

Because we have four well-paid linebackers on the roster, it is assumed that makes for an ideal switch to the 3-4, but because of the skill set involved in a traditional 3-4, our backers may also find themselves open for trade or in diminished roles, while we look for the "right talent" to fit the scheme.

And it is exactly that attitude that frustrated me from the start of the ZBS experiment. The ZBS tends to move away from the big “hogs” that are commonplace in a traditional blocking scheme, and finds a place for the tweeners that are more quick and technical. Many of the players drafted by Thompson along the line have fallen into that description: “would be a good fit for the zone blocking scheme”.

Why? Because they weren’t solid players in a traditional scheme. And as we have continued to struggle to find a fit along our offensive line, shuffling players back and forth as we tinker with the ZBS, the Packers may well find themselves in a serious situation next year with the departure of Mark Tauscher and the possible departure of Chad Clifton.

The Packers have a corral full of linemen, but precious few of them have established themselves as solid starters, much less stars. And when Thompson got rid of Mark Wahle and Marco Rivera (understandable), he didn’t have much of a plan in place to replace them (not understandable). He began a slow, methodical process of drafting guys with tweener talent to fit the scheme. And when a rookie fifth round pick in 2008 (Josh Sitton) was on his way to playing in front of nearly every other draft pick Thompson had picked over the previous three years, we realized that slow methodical process had no guarantees.

Why did Mike Shanahan develop the ZBS? Because it worked with the talent that he had at the time…he developed the scheme to fit the talent that was on the roster, not the other way around. When McCarthy adopted the ZBS, some of our most solid veteran talent (Chad Clifton comes to mind) didn’t fit the “mold”.

Look, our defense was poor last year. But does it really make sense to get rid of or minimalize the talent of players like Kampman, Jenkins, Hawk, and Poppinga simply because we want to move to a scheme we hope will work? Or does it make more sense to change the scheme to place the talents in the best position they can to use them effectively?

We’ve already been down this path with the offensive line. We jumped in with both feet and decided we’d find the talent for it later. Without our veteran tackles in 2009, the OL appears to be on very shaky ground.

Time, time, time.

Any transition takes time. After Wahle and Rivera were let go, the Packers seemed stagnate for a season, waiting for talent to replace them. Anyone remember Adrien Klemm and Wil Whittaker manning the interior for the Packers in 2005? And after that miserable season, Thompson’s next response was to start drafting rookies, knowing full well that they would take several seasons to grow into the type of players that could solidly play the position.

Thompson isn’t the kind of guy who is going to go out and throw money at free agents to fill holes. As much as we wish it might happen, do we really think Julius Peppers or Albert Haynesworth are coming to Green Bay, after signing monstrous contract that eat up cap space?

Even if Thompson takes off his gloves and dips into the free agent market, the Packers are limited with how much they can do. There will be draft picks to sign, including a top 10 pick and two third rounders. Greg Jennings is going to earn a top-5 receiver contract. And Rodgers is going to be costing us about the same as what Favre used to. Trading players like Al Harris or Aaron Kampman will bring cap accelerations to boot. The Packers don’t have unlimited cap room to burn.

And even if they did, it is doubtful that Thompson would break from his credo and burn it all to bring in a ton of players this year…and that is what you would need to make the 3-4 work right away, because we don’t have the right talent to make it work.

Do you honestly think that Thompson will break the bank to bring in the talent needed to win this year?

The point? Mike McCarthy doesn’t have that kind of time. He was able to get away with the lack of talent and production in 2006 because of the comparisons to Sherman and that the talent was better than in 2005.

McCarthy has just fired almost his complete defensive staff, his special teams coach (“retirement”), and his strength and conditioning coach. Yes, he has an immunity idol from the 13-3 season that lets him survive this year, but that isn’t going to last long. Many of us would assume that if McCarthy fails to hit at least .500 next year, his job is in serious jeopardy.

So why would he commit to such a serious overhaul of the defensive scheme, one that will likely take a long time to come to fruition? Despite his “Fireside Chat” last week that he believed in this team, the players, and his approach, firing that many coaches makes us believe that the pressure is on.

Are we going to be listening next season, bobbing our heads up and down, if he tells us we have to be patient with the transition to the new scheme if it is performing no better (or worse) than the 2008 variety? Nope. He had a cushion in 2006 to transition the entire team over. In 2007, he eliminated his own cushion, a victim of his own success.

McCarthy doesn’t have the time. Period. He is going to be expected to improve this team and this defense drastically in 2009. He has essentially admitted he screwed up at least six hires back in 2006, and those guys all took the fall for the 2008 season.


If we hire Nolan, and he is dead-set on transitioning to a 3-4, my passionate plea would be to do it slowly, over time. In other words, we shouldn’t be using the 3-4 next season except in situational plays, like you use the nickel or the 3-3-5. McCarthy needs to recognize that you have to work with the talent and mold the scheme around them, not the other way around.

Hopefully, Nolan (or whomever) is open to that, and he is able to work with guys like Kampman and Hawk and get them wherever they need to be in a scheme that makes them and the entire defense successful. As Thompson works over the following years to bring in talent that fits a 3-4, the process is more an evolution than a transformation.

As Packer fans, we’ve learned our lessons with jumping on a bandwagon with a scheme, and thinking it will magically change us overnight, regardless of the talent. For the Packers’ sake, I hope McCarthy has learned his lesson, too.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mass Coaching Exodus Creates More Questions

If I were a super-analytical expert at determining the meaning behind personnel moves, I would deduct the following from today's mass firing at 1265:

Mike McCarthy does not believe that the offense was a problem last year.

After Mike Stock's "retirement" last week, McCarthy painted the house clean with a wide brush today, firing not only Bob Sanders from his DC post, but also defensive ends coach Carl Hairston, defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn, secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer and nickel package/cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington.

In addition, strength and conditioning coordinator Rock Gullickson was also shown the door today.

I found this collective dismissal to be rather surprising. I just wrote two days ago that it was looking like Stock might be the only casualty, but instead, nearly the entire defensive coaching staff was shown the door.

How do we interpret this? Well, there's a couple of ways to do it. First of all, the general discussion in the Packer blogosphere is that this may be a harbinger of a massive shift in the defensive scheme, most notably to a 3-4 formation. However, this seems somewhat unlikely, if you think about it. Why would McCarthy, who is under fire for a visible collapse, shift his defensive scheme when we know it will likely have a long transition time?

It may be a possibility. Several of the names proposed for the new defensive coordinator, primarily Mike Nolan, would likely want to bring the 3-4 if hired. And clearing out many of the other coaches opens the door for such a change.

I think its a bad idea, if that is the case. I've never...ever...been a fan of bringing in a scheme and trying to find players to fit into it. I've made this case repeatedly with the ZBS, with many of the linemen drafted by Thompson as good "fits" for the scheme. As we've found, when the ZBS didn't go as expected, many of our linemen struggled in more traditional run plays.

The lack of a true quality nose tackle and our best DL's lack of "fit" in a 3-4 (Aaron Kampman) means massive changes on the roster, and that isn't going to happen in one offseason.

What makes me nervous is that McCarthy may have just been looking to get a clean slate, and lowering the boom on the most disappointing squad on the team. But many of the problems that plagued the defense also plagued special teams, as well as the offense. Most of all, we saw overall problems with execution and discipline, with the most basic of skills (pad level, gap control) repeatedly cited as issues.

This wasn't just limited to the defense. Our run offense was inconsistent all season. Our offensive line was the most penalized in the league. Our offense was unable to pull out close wins at the end of the game, even when given opportunities by the defense and good field position by the special teams.

This was a team-wide problem.

It's that imbalance that concerns me. Schottenheimer and Washington coached two Pro Bowl players (out of four) this season. Did our pass defense give up some big plays at critical times this year? Sure, but no more than game-ending interceptions by our quarterback or an ability to pick up a first down and short on three straight running plays.

It strikes me of scapegoating the defense and special teams. Did they deserve blame? Absolutely they did. They dropped off greatly from last season. But, our running game did, too.

The axing of Gullickson also baffles me. In 2007, he won the Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year award, likely due to the charmed season we had with injuries. This year, because we had a "normal year" of injuries, he gets axed?

Much ado has been made about McCarthy's soft approach to practices and scheduling. Was Gullickson the problem here?

It seems easy to "fire". In all the time I've been a Packer fan, I've heard people call for coaches' heads repeatedly. Firing someone for the sake of firing them is unwise, simply because you don't like the job someone is doing. You have to have the better option ready to go.

Analogy: When Ted Thompson let Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go, most of us didn't bat an eye, because we know they were on their way out. It wasn't the release of the two guards that was the problem, it was the failure of Thompson to have any reasonable plan of replacement for the two (remember Wil Whittaker and Adrien Klemm, the 7th round pick and street free agent brought in to replace them in 2005?).

I've met Bob Sanders when I brought my kids to the All Pro Dad conference at the Hutson Center last year. He's a stand-up guy and a man of faith. He's a good guy. Being a good guy isn't enough to keep a job in the NFL, as we all know, though. Bart Starr would still be coach today if that were the case.

But when you see a stand-up guy fired amidst a season of team-wide injuries and underperforming all season, you sure hope there was a better option in place before they sent him his pink slip.

Finally, the fact that Winston Moss is still a member of the Packers coaching staff also is concerning. If you are going to fire the secondary coaches, which was probably our strongest unit on defense, and our defensive line coaches, which was our second strongest unit on defense, why do you keep the coach of our weakest and most disappointing unit on defense?

I know Moss is applying for a HC job, has the title of Assistant Head Coach, and it is likely that MM wants to give him the opportunity to have his best showing at interviews. But, my guess is that McCarthy is hoping Moss gets that job. If he doesn't and continues on the Packers' staff, the pressure will not only be on MM to give him the DC job, but it will be in the face of the firings of everyone else around him. Not all that comforting when the linebacking corps was perhaps the weakest link on a disappointing squad.

Worse than the defensive line, you say? The line lost many players this season, including the guy McCarthy called the team's best athlete, Cullen Jenkins. Add to that the subtraction of a solid Corey Williams and the cut of the underperforming KGB, and you can easily say that Hairston and Nunn had a lot less to work with than Moss, who had four players with cap figues all around $4M, ranking in the top 12 salaries on the team, in fact adding a solid player to the corps.

I'm sure all eyes will be on McCarthy's moves over the next week to replace these coaches. I hope there's a plan in place, and this wasn't just a grand show to prove he's serious about fixing those pad levels and gap controls.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bob, The Tribe Has Spoken

With Ted and Mike holding immunity necklaces, they first managed to get Mike Stock to "voluntarily" quit the game, and in a not-so-surprising turn of events, voted off Bob Sanders.

So it goes in the latest game of Packer Survivor.

While the lack of discipline along the defensive front was disturbing enough, with the run defense seemingly gashed week after week, the collapse of the linebacker corps was inexplicable. Each of the four linebackers were either recently signed or extended to new contracts, and all had cap hits in the range of $4M this year. Both the defensive line and linebackers severely underperformed this year.

Injuries did Sanders no favors, with Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, and Nick Barnett all finishing the season on IR, but none of them were doing that well when they were playing. And the drop off in play of nearly every other player besides Charles Woodson and Nick Collins generally signifies (to me, at least) those players wouldn't have done that much better.

Sanders lost the defense somewhere as time went on this season. So, as we snuff his torch and send him off the island, we bring to close the Sanders era in Green Bay.

Is Stock The Only Fall Guy??

Mike Stock retired this past week, the first fall guy for a disappointing 2008 season. Stock, the Packers' special teams coach since 2006, saw his squad deteriorate from an okay 2007 to a concerning 2008. Missed field goals, punting nightmares, and poor coverage and return teams led to the call for Stock's "retirement".

Now, the rumor has it that Stock was given the "you can retire, or we will fire you" choice, and he took the former. At 69 years of age, he probably figured he has better things to do with his life besides ride the tide of the Packers' ups-and-downs.

That stated, so far Stock is the only casualty of a coaching staff that saw an 13-3 team one field goal short of a Super Bowl fall to a stunning 6-10 in one of the NFL's weakest divisions. The longer defensive coordinator Bob Sanders goes with a nameplate on his door at 1265 gives rise to the thought that Stock may be the only major move that coach Mike McCarthy makes this offseason.

The question is: was Stock deserving of being the only firing, if that's how it turns out?

In my opinion, special teams comes down to three things: fire, discipline, and team depth.

Fire: When I look back at some of the best special teams coaches on winning teams, they almost are invariably these crazy-haired wacky guys who infuse their young players with the fire they need to do the full-tilt assignments that they need to do. Joe Avezzano is a guy who comes to mind, he the special teams coach of the Cowboy teams of the early 1990's.

You often saw him screaming, running up and down the sideline, celebrating every good play and going on a rampage after every bad play. He set the tone for the role special teams have to play.

I don't know if Stock has that kind of fire, at least this year. But then, I don't know if the entire team had that kind of fire all season, either. Yes, Jason Hunter and some other no-names did some pretty interesting sack celebrations late in the year, but the 2007 Packers had a "going through the motions" feel all season, and that wasn't limited to just our special teams.

However, special teams is where that fire is most needed, as you are often dealing with the bottom of your depth charts and with young players who need to show such fire to eventually advance. Stock needed to get those coverage and blocking teams playing with the desire they needed.

Discipline: Hand-in-hand with fire has to be discipline. Blocking teams need to form their wedges and hit their blocks. Coverage teams have to guard their lanes and contain the cutback lanes. Punters and kickers have to block out pressure and make the kicks that they are expected to make.

Stock struggled with discipline this season, also. Perhaps the worst drop was in kickoff return coverage. The Packers ranked ninth last year in the opponent's average drive start (26.6-yard line), but this year they dropped to 21st with a drive start average of 27.8. At the heart of that increase were seven returns of 40 or more yards, several that occurred late in the game and set up the opponent for a game-winning score.

But discipline, like fire, was a teamwide problem for the Packers this season, and this is much more indicative of larger issues. Special teams should be expected to play with fire, even if the starters aren't. But discipline isn't something that you pin first and foremost on the special teams.

Our offensive line was the most penalized in the NFL this year. McCarthy had to repeatedly discuss simplistic execution errors like "pad level" and "gap control". Missed tackles along our defensive front (and particularly our linebackers) were glaring. And our secondary seemed to allow a huge (and critical) pass play each week when they needed a stop most.

This teamwide lack of discipline is obviously going to spill down to the special teams. If your starters can't play with discipline, why would you expect your special teams to play with discipline? If the special teams was the only squad on the team to play undisciplined ball, there'd be a problem. But, if you are going to fire Stock, shouldn't James Campen be let go for the repeated holding penalties along the offensive line? Shouldn't Winston Moss be let go for the substandard play of his linebackers in gap control?

If no other coaches get canned this year, this a glaring double standard set for the rest of the coaches on the team. Discipline is very much a part of the climate and environment of the team. If there is any lesson to be learned from Brett Favre, it's that if you play undisciplined ball, you should be held accountable for it. McCarthy did very good job of that with Favre, while Eric Mangini did not.

But in the wake of Favre, the lack of team discipline was glaring. There was do doubting the talent or the effort in place, but the execution often came up lacking this year. And the question you have to ask is "why"?

To fire Stock for the lack of disciplined execution may be deserved. But then, the same standard should apply to a lot of other coaches, including the head coach.

Team depth: The Packers had their most heralded special teams in the mid-1990's, a gilded age after free agency allowed veterans to move freely to other teams and before the salary cap limited the ability of teams to retain them. Solid veterans manned the special teams for the Packers, such as Don Beebe, Bernardo Harris, Desmond Howard, Mark Chmura, and Chris Jacke, who brought veteran leadership and consistency with spectacular results.

Nowadays, it is very difficult to have anything resembling that kind of veteran special teams squads. Most starters take up such a large chunk of the cap that you can't afford higher-priced veterans to fill out the rest of your squad.

That stated, Stock was given an even more difficult hand to play with this season.

* The depth of the team was sorely overestimated in 2008. I opined several years ago that we would first see the impact of Ted Thompson's trade-down philosophy in the special teams, as it was the depth that would be built up by the now-43 draft picks in four drafts. The idea was to spur competition among players, let that competition dictate the starters, and then you'd have some good players to back them up and play special teams.

However, I think it is difficult to look at the 2008 season and suggest that drafting quantity over quality has delivered quality starters on both sides of the ball, nor was solid depth evident, either. This is a disappointment for those who have praised Thompson's strategies in the draft and free agency over the past few years.

* The return to a more "normal" year of injuries also impacted Stock's effectiveness.

The bottom of the roster were filled with names like Breno Guacamole, Danny Lansanah, and Desmond Bishop. Not dealing with strong players for special teams to begin with, the charmed 2007 season seemingly free of injuries ended, and 2008 saw a constant shuffling of mediocre players for Stock, also.

We've seen how successful shuffling mediocre players around is on the offensive line, so we can guess how difficult that was for younger, less talented players on special teams. It is true that a special teams coach should expect to have some revolving doors on his squad, but Stock admitted having a lack of consistency on the squad this year made it difficult to execute consistently....which brings us back to discipline.

* The punting situation has to factor in somewhat with Stock's dismissal. Neither Thompson, McCarthy, nor Stock have publicly admitted who exactly made the boneheaded decision to cut your veteran punter on the final cutdown day to pick up a guy sitting on the street because you "think" he might do better. But, since McCarthy has little problem casting blame on those under him this season, you would imagine (as Stock implied) that it came from the front office.

Now, Jon Ryan was no world-beater, and he had a rough end of 2007. But he had been solid enough over his previous two seasons, and had a very solid preseason. To cut him and entrust your punting game to a guy that was effectively a street free agent was a stupid move. You pick up your fifth linebacker or your fourth running back on final cutdown days, not your starters.

The guys over at ACME Packing Company have subscribed to the idea that this became Mike Stock's problem because he was insisting that he could train Derrick Frost to become the next Ray Guy (even though week after week he looked a lot more like Ray Stachowicz). It was Stock who was pleading with MM and TT not to cut him, according to ACME.

Maybe that is the case, but I still subscribe to Larry Beightol's theory that "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken [poo]". The talent he was given to work with, again, was street free agent quality. I would postulate that, following FavreGate, McCarthy and Thompson didn't want to have to admit they made a mistake, and that they placed the pressure on Stock to make something out of Frost before they would have to concede.

Mason Crosby is a young kid with a lot of leg and potential, but has struggled in game-winning situations this year, with two missed field goals that would have tied or won the game in the final minutes. The Packers only put Crosby in this situation once in his rookie season, his first game against the Eagles, when he kicked a 42 yarder to pull out a 16-13 win with two seconds remaining.

Other than that, the 2007 Packers never put Crosby in a game-winning or game-tying situation again for the rest of the year. This year, it was clear that Crosby may suffer from the shakes at crunch time. This is not all that dissimilar from another young player on the roster, who comes all the potential in the world but has struggled to finish strong when it counts, Aaron Rodgers.

Is that on Stock? Should Tom Clements be fired for Rodgers' failure to generate a game-winning or trying score in the fourth quarter?

In short, Stock hasn't been given the best of talent to work with. If he is fired for being unable to get street free-agent talent to play at a high level, Winston Moss should be fired for being unable to get a linebacking corps made up of two first-rounders and two fourth-rounders (all signed to lucrative contracts and extensions) to play at even an acceptable level.

The verdict? Well, the story is the Stock retired, and maybe he did without any duress. I'm not sure that is the case, but if no other departures come this season, I am going to be curious as to the reasoning behind it.

The three criteria for a good special teams ?

Fire - this falls on the shoulders of Stock
Discipline - since this was a teamwide issue, this falls on more than just Stock, and likely on the shoulders of Mike McCarthy
Roster depth - the talent on the roster was underestimated by everyone this year, and the lack of depth after drafting 43 players in four years falls on the shoulders of the front office.

Stock is gone, and it will be up to McCarthy to find someone that can replace him effectively. But, unless the discipline and roster depth improves, it isn't likely that Stock's successor will find any more success next year.

And if Stock is the only casualty of the 2008 season, all eyes will be on McCarthy and Thompson for how they plan to improve this team with the same coaches that created the climate that led to the disappointment of 6-10.