Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cheesehead Nation Returns Saturday Night!!

Join CheeseheadTV, Railbird Central, and Packers Lounge for the first preseason installment of the Cheesehead Nation Blogcast, at 8:00 PM CST. Access to the blogcast can be accessed either through sportsbubbler.com or at the Cheeseheadtv Live site.

If you've never been a part of the blogcast, it is a great gathering spot for real Packer fans across the globe. Aaron and Corey of CheeseheadTV will provide a live video feed, interactive with a live blog moderated by Brian and Alex from RBC and Packers Lounge, respectively. It's a chance to actually sit and interact live with some of the most knowledgeable and opinionated folks in the Packer Blogosphere.

On Saturday night, the Cheesehead Nation Blogcast will feature two great interviews: Wayne Larrivee, the voice of the Green Bay Packers radio, and Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. Log on and join in the fun!

I will be unable to attend Saturday night's blogcast due to plans with the family, but will return with photos and a report from Family Night at the post-Family Night show on Wednesday, August 12.

The rest of the Cheesehead Nation Blogcast schedule look like this:

Post Preseason game 1 against Cleveland - Wed August 19th

Post Preseason game 3 against Arizona - Tuesday September 1st

Post Preseason game 4 against Tennesee - Tuesday September 8th

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Glass Half-Full/Glass Half-Empty

As we (thankfully) wind down our final week of the offseason, every pundit and their cousin has been offering up some sort of roster breakdown, ranking, or other evaluation of the team for our perusal. And most of those reviews are typically very optimistic. Too right...the last week in July is pretty much the only time Packer fans can be fervently positive about a team that has yet to get a win under its belt.

But, as I take a stroll through the Packer Blogosphere, you see that (rather unfortunately) there is still a schism among the fans. I myself can write a piece critical of Nick Collins, and there is someone there to tell me that Collins shouldn't be criticized, because Ted Thompson is single-handedly destroying this team. On another article, I write something vaguely critical of Thompson's draft, and people come out of the woodwork to voraciously defend him and his genius.

At one time, Mike Sherman was the dividing force among Packer fans. More recently, it was Brett Favre. Now, Thompson appears to be the one that causes the most debate and divisiveness amongst our own.

Mind you, I can't stand infighting among Packer fans. Been there, done that, and really have come to believe that there is something wrong when a group of fans all wearing the same colors and waving the same banner have to tear one another apart. God created Viking fans for this kind of abuse. But, the reality is still there. If you are "on board" with Thompson, you tend to have a highly optimistic view of the team (which isn't a stretch...nearly every fan of every team tends to have visions of 16-0 in July). But those fans who aren't buying what Thompson is selling tend to have a much more dismal view of the roster and the team (and its future).

Who is right? Is the Packer glass completely full? Or, is it completely drained? Naturally, it all depends on your perspective. Here's is a half-full and half-empty evaluation of all the major position groups.

Quarterback

Glass Half-Full:
The fact that the Packers are not wallowing in post-Favre limbo as so many other teams do following the exodus of a HOF signal caller is thanks to the free-fall of Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 draft, and the wise decision to allow him to develop from the sideline and on the practice field for three seasons. Kudos to TT and MM for not turning A-Rodge into another David Carr, like the 49ers did to Alex Smith.

Rodgers is coming off a very solid season, and has proven that he can fill the shoes of Brett Favre, playing through an injured shoulder for much of the 2008 season. He does and says all the right things, and finished with a 93.8 quarterback efficiency rating last season, good enough to rank 6th in the NFL. With Greg Jennings re-signed at WR, things only look up for Aaron Rodgers' progress in his sophomore season as a starter.

Glass Half-Empty: While many have debated whether or not Rodgers is able to pull out a fourth-quarter comeback or not, there's one statistic that looms large for him: he was sacked 34 times last season, the most sacks the Packers have allowed since 1999. Rodgers has to develop the pressure awareness and be able to safely get rid of the ball at critical times, particularly because this offense hinges on his health.

Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn continue to be the only competition allowed for Rodgers, and thankfully, neither had to see the field much last year. As optimistic as we are for their development, most reports have both not at a point to be able to adequately lead the team for any stretch of time. Naturally, we may be surprised by Flynn in the event of a Rodgers injury, but we'd all still hope it doesn't happen.

Running Back

Glass Half-Full:
Ryan Grant reported late last training camp after a contract squabble, and predictably, pulled a hamstring that hampered him all year. Despite missing two games and being hobbled for several more, he still managed to rush for 1,203 yards last year, which when added to the 956 he finished with over the last nine games of 2007 is a pretty respectable total for 23 games.

You would think that Grant, going into his second full season as a starter, should be hitting his prime and will be running again like he was during the playoff run of 2007. Brandon Jackson has proven that, if given the chance, he can make something happen out of the backfield, and DeShawn Wynn has been impressing people with his offseason approach this year.

Glass Half-Empty: It's a lot easier to get 1,200 yards when you are getting the lion's share of carries. Despite missing two games completely, Grant still got 312 carries last season (71.3%), while Aaron Rodgers rushed 56 times (12.8%). That left Brandon Jackson and the rest of the running backs with only 54 touches (total, including those two games where Grant was unavailable), which means that Mike McCarthy was set on feeding the ball to his new millionaire running back.

Grant has been typically good when the team is doing well, but disappears when we need the running game most. A mediocre 3.9 ypc is what we could typically expect from Grant, who rarely broke the big play, and had as many fumbles as touchdowns (4). Grant needs to establish himself as a consistent threat this year, and McCarthy needs to make sure the running game is a threat this year (not just Grant).

Fullback
Glass Half-Full: While plenty of buzz was spent on BJ Raji and Clay Matthews this draft, there was certainly a lot of excitement for fifth-round draft choice Quinn Johnson, the LSU fullback who is readily known as a pure lead blocker and is expected to upgrade the running game. Korey Hall and John Kuhn have done an adequate job in that role over the last two seasons, and one of them will likely stick around to provide a receiving threat on passing downs.

Given that the combination of Kuhn and Hall tallied only ten receptions and eight rushing attempts last year, this could well be the right situation for Johnson, who should be able to help Ryan Grant get back to the form we saw at the end of 2007.

Glass Half-Empty: Quinn Johnson is a rookie, and there's no guarantee he'll be ready to contribute regularly this year, despite being the top-ranked fullback in the draft. Fifth rounders rarely do. The other question has to be if the Packers' West Coast Offense and Zone Blocking Scheme readily compliment such a one-dimensional player, especially given that Hall and Kuhn scored three touchdowns last year on those ten receptions.

Since Johnson has liabilities as a ball-handler, the chances exist for a fullback-by-committee, telegraphing run or pass to the defense depending on who the fullback is.

Wide Receivers

Glass Half-Full:
Greg Jennings was re-signed to a huge contract, and is expected to establish himself full as the Packers' #1 receiver this season. In all actuality, in addition to having a Pro Bowl-caliber WR in Jennings, you would be hard pressed to find a #1 through #4 receiving corps as talented as what the Packers have, anywhere else in the NFL.

While Donald Driver's production fell off slightly in 2008, this can be attributed to the emergence of Jennings, who took in 80 catches to Driver's 76. That stated, 34-year old Driver will likely find himself in the role of possession receiver as Jennings becomes the big-play threat, giving Rodgers plenty of weapons to deal with. James Jones and Jordy Nelson are both big, talented receivers that bring another year of maturity to their game as each vie to be Driver's heir apparent.

Glass Half-Empty: Admittedly, it is hard to find a lot of negatives with this group, but there are always those unexpected developments. Will Jennings continue to play at the level he has been, with the team attitude he's had, now that he's the second-highest paid WR in the league? Will "Forever Young" Driver continue a statistical decline as his body continues to age? Will James Jones bounce back from injury and a sophomore slump to regain the potential we saw his rookie year?

But perhaps the biggest concern for the receivers isn't with the corps themselves, but with the man throwing them the ball. If Rodgers is unable to stay healthy this year, Brohm and Flynn will rely heavily on the receivers to make plays for them, thus the WR's may become less of a factor if McCarthy resorts to a run-first option.

Tight Ends

Glass Half-Full:
Jermichael Finley was drafted in 2008 with the promise of freakish talent that might rival that of Vernon Davis. He's certainly tried to play the part this offseason, and that has a lot of folks excited that he might be able to team up with Donald Lee to create a Mark Chmura/Keith Jackson-esque pairing that will give Aaron Rodgers somebody open at all times in the passing game.

Despite a dip in production last season, Donald Lee managed to score five touchdowns while in the red zone, making him quite productive. If Finley can develop into the physical threat he could be this season, that would be less drives ending with field goal attempts.

Glass Half-Empty: I have never been on board the Jermichael Finley bandwagon, as he is still painfully young and raw. His "calling out" of Aaron Rodgers last season following a terrible route is still in mind. There's a lot of people pinning a lot of hope on Finley to become a freakish receiving threat, but in reality, our WR corps is pretty solid. The TE position has been called on far more often in the last three seasons to help with blocking and pass protecting...not Finley's strong suit.

Lee is a serviceable starter, but he may be the player who had the most difficulty transitioning from Favre to Rodgers as his quarterback last year. He didn't record a reception in the last two games of 2008, and saw a dip in all his receiving categories from a very nice year in 2007.

Offensive Line

Glass Half-Full:
With the departure of stalwart tackle Mark Tauscher, Mike McCarthy has gotten his one-time wish granted with a lot of players competing for positions, pushing each other to get better. Jason Spitz is penciled in at center, crusty veteran Chad Clifton will be around one more year to protect Aaron Rodgers' blind side, and Daryn Colledge appears to have finally settled in at guard...and was praised by many as the Packers' most consistent lineman last season.

Third-year man Allen Barbre will be trying pin down the other tackle spot, trying hold off Breno Giacomini and Tony Moll. Josh Sitton has the inside track on the other guard spot, and there is depth along this line, almost completely built by Ted Thompson in the draft.

Now entering the fourth year of the zone blocking scheme, the departure of the remaining Sherman players should usher in the gelling of the running game. In particular, Thompson has targeted players over his last two drafts with a nasty streak in them: Sitton, Guacomini, Meredith, and Lang. While always a work in progress, this line tied for ninth place in 2008 in CHFF's Offensive Hogs Index, and should only get better.

Glass Half-Empty: Since implementing the zone blocking scheme in his rookie season, Mike McCarthy has struggled to get his offense to establish a consistent threat on the ground (with the exception of the latter of the 2007). Since then, he has not only tinkered with the scheme itself, implementing pulling guards and sweeps (not a part of the ZBS), but has constantly tinkered with the starting five. Occasionally, it was due to injury, but most of the time, it has been trying to find an effective lineup. With stalwart tackle Mark Tauscher out, the offensive line shuffle will now spread to four positions instead of three.

As mentioned earlier, the offensive line more than doubled its sack total from 2007 to 2008 (15 to 34), somewhat of a testament to the ability of Brett Favre's pressure awareness and his penchant for throwing the ball haphazardly to avoid the sack. According to the same CHFF link above, the Packers ranked 24th in the league in negative pass plays (interceptions and sacks).

Simply put, there are still a lot of young, raw players vying to become starters along the offensive line of an NFL team. Some of them, like Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge, still struggle in nearly every game despite being the now-established veteran starters. Without Tauscher bookending one side, any flaws in this line are going to become even more glaring.

Defensive Line

Glass Half-Full: The drafting of B.J. Raji has to be considered a coup for the Packers this year...a big body that is already being flexed out to the DE in the new 3-4 scheme. The Packers were shortest on talent along the D-Line last season, with Pickett struggling, Cullen Jenkins injured, KGB cut, and Justin Harrell continuing to try and find the field. With only three down linemen, the Packers are able to get their best talents on the field with fewer holes: Cullen Jenkins at one end, Ryan Pickett at nose, and Raji on the other end. On paper, this looks great, and with Jolly, Harrell, and Montgomety all able to rotate in, the line looks a lot better than the one that allowed 4.6 yards per carry in 2008.

Raji should be expected to take over eventually for Pickett at nose, and hopefully, one of the other vets will be able to take the DE spot.

Glass Half-Empty: The line is full of question marks, and you are always taking a huge risk if you are depending on a rookie (regardless of how high he was drafted) to seal up a position for you. Jolly is still pending the refiling of drug charges and could potentially miss some games this season. Cullen Jenkins has already missed the entire offseason recovering from a torn pectoral muscle, and there is no guarantee as to what level he will be able to compete at whenever he does return. And Pickett showed signs of wear last year, fighting through injuries...is that decline going to continue?

And of course, our favorite target, Justin Harrell, is on his last chance to prove he wasn't Ted Thompson's first collosal bust in the draft. He projects to DE, but has yet to get through a season without injury (this was actually the first OTA's he's participated in), and to show an ounce of impact when he does see the field.

Of all positions, this one continues to have the greatest range of potential: it could be really good, but it could also be really, really bad.

Linebackers

Glass Half-Full: Many of us felt the change to the 3-4 scheme was precipitated by the fact that the Packers actually had four starting-caliber linebackers on the roster. In the process of switching the scheme, the Packers not only added former DE's Aaron Kampman and Jeremy Thompson to the corps, but also drafted Clay Matthews as a 3-4 OLB to boot.

In other words, there probably isn't a deeper position group on the team than the linebackers. Nick Barnett is expected to return from injury, and there seems to be two-deep battles for starting positions all the way down the line. Kampman is making a transition to OLB, and while he hasn't appeared happy with it, he has the right body type and the coaches have raved about his progress.

Like Harrell, many are looking at AJ Hawk to step forward and make his mark in his fourth season. Many have felt that the roles of the inside backers in the 3-4 will work to his gifts very well.

And perhaps no player has benefitted more from the scheme change than Thompson, who will get a chance to show off his athleticism as he competes with Matthews for the other OLB spot.

Glass Half-Empty: Of all the dysfunctional position groups on a dysfunctional defense last year, the linebackers were perhaps the most glaring in their lack of communication and execution. Barnett, Hawk, and Poppinga have all come under criticism for not being able to take their play to the next level, and there are rumors that all three might be supplanted in the starting lineup.

Kampman is a lynchpin for this defense in a lot of ways. Not only are the Packers expecting him to be able to maintain the level of play he's had in a new position (37 sacks over the last three seasons), but his ability to continue to be a playmaker and team leader on the field is critical. You don't want to see your best front-seven playmaker struggle simply because you've gone to a new scheme, effectively taking him out of his role. There's not been any hard evidence to suggest that Kampman is going to make this transition smoothly yet, and if it doesn't go smoothly, it is going to be a difficult season for McCarthy and Capers.

As much as people love Clay Matthews and fervently defend the price paid to get him, he is also a workout warrior rookie who has a lot to prove in the NFL. Only about 40% of first-round picks live up to their draft status, and Matthews walk-on status at USC and only being a one-year starter doesn't work to his advantage when it comes to projecting how much he will contibute in 2009.

Secondary

Glass Half-Full: The Packers effectively have a Pro Bowl player at three of four positions in the secondary (Woodson, 2008; Harris, 2007, and Collins, 2008). Atari Bigby, who was playing very well before suffering a season-ending injury in the first game last year, is also a lights-out defender that rounds out a very physcial group of defensive backs.

Collins has been embroiled in a contract dispute, skipping most of the OTA's in June, but Dom Capers has assured us that Collins will not have to take on the role of being the play-caller in the backfield this year....the communication responsibilities will be shared among everyone along the defense.

Tramon Williams filled in for an injured Harris last season and played rather well, meaning that he is well-established as the nickel back and heir apparent for either Woodson or Harris. Wil Blackmon and last year's second-rounder Pat Lee are expected to battle for the dime spot, and likewise, the other heir apparent spot. Anthony Smith was brought in via as a free agent as an experienced safety in the 3-4 and should provide depth and tutoring for the young safeties making the transistion.

Glass Half-Empty: The 3-4 scheme is going to have some major impacts on the secondary as well, not just the front seven. Woodson and Harris have made their name by playing tough bump-and-run coverage on receivers, relying on their physicality to pull them through. Now, the 3-4 will force both to play more zone coverage, and the jury is out on how well they will make the adjustment. Both corners are aging, and while neither are showing signs of slowing down much, that loss of a step is critical for cornerbacks.

The offseason antics of Nick Collins also have to be disconcerting. It is one thing to feel you are worthy of a contract increase (despite getting a $2M+ raise this year as it is), but to intentionally withhold your services from OTA's in order to make your point is poor form, even moreso when the OTA's are 3-4 Defense Cram Sessions. Collins isn't that bright, and may return to his pre-2008 form as he struggles to figure out his responsiblities and angles in a new scheme.

And, Jarett Bush was re-signed.

Special Teams

Glass Half-Full: Mason Crosby is on his way to a long, successful career. with 268 points in his first two seasons (an NFL record), and kicked 17 touchbacks last season, the most since Chester Marcol back in 1972. He kicked nearly 80% of his field goals and made all of his extra points.

Last year's punting game was stricken with Frost-bite, with Darren Frost joining the team after pre-season and puting miserably before he was finally cut. Jeremy Kapinos, who was brought in to replace Frost didn't fare too much better in emergency service, but was able to put 41% of his punts inside the 20.

Wil Blackmon will be returning punts again this year, and scored two touchdowns in that role in 2008, ranked 6th in the NFL.

Glass Half-Empty: There's a reason why special teams coach Mike Stock was the first sacrificial lamb in the slaughter of coaches this January. The Packers ranked dead last in the NFL in kickoff returns, 27th in field goal percentage, and 27th in both both gross and net punting yards.

Mason Crosby came up short on a huge, game-winning kick against Minnesota last year. In fact, the Packers lost seven games in 2008 by four points or less. When your special teams are producing at the miserable level they did last year, its not too hard to see why you are losing those close games. Crosby has to get his percentage up into the 90s this year, not slumming down in the 70s. It's easy to score a lot of points when you get a lot of attempts, and the Packers have had very good offenses since Crosby was drafted. But, he needs to make more of them, and particularly, the game winners.

The punting game is still suffering under what I call the "Curse of Hentrich", when Ron Wolf let him go to Tennessee instead of bucking up and paying him the $1M he was asking for . Since that day, the Packers have struggled to find a consistent punter. Kapinos and Durant Brooks will be battling it out, and we will still be wondering why Thompson and McCarthy cut Jon Ryan on the last day of pre-season last year to pick up a guy they hadn't seen kick.

And, again, Jarrett Bush is back.

Overall

In essence, the point of this article isn't to give a Pollyanna look at the Packers, or to try to point out the holes and problems that they have. If anything, it is meant to show one thing: no position group on this team is a completely full or empty glass. They all have the potential to be very good, and they all have they potential to be very bad.

This is why Super Bowls are won on paper in July, and why we play the game. There are a lot of things to be excited for this upcoming season...a lot of potential, a lot of young, exciting talent, and lot of growth expected. There are also concerns and worries and pitfalls. Sure, Aaron Rodgers has established himself as a solid quarterback, but one torn muscle in the wrong spot and the whole quarterback position goes from a potential A to a potential F. That's why we watch every week.

Now that you have both perspectives, let's find a spot for all of our "expert analyses" Friday night (preferably a circular file, if you know what I mean), and enjoy the return of Packer football, where all our questions are answered on the field, not on paper.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Favre's "Anguish" Smacks of Damage Control

You've probably already seen it, but apparently, Brett Favre is in "anguish" over his decision whether or not to return to the NFL.

With Minnesota Vikings players scheduled to report to training camp in less than a week, Brett Favre remains anguished about whether he should come out of retirement and join the team. That decision, according to sources, has become more difficult in recent days because of the efforts of Vikings players including Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and Steve Hutchinson, all of whom have now begun calling and texting Favre in an attempt to convince him to become Minnesota's starting quarterback.

"If it weren't for the involvement of the Vikings players directly telling Brett they want him on their team, I think he might have already decided against playing again,'' a source said.

A source said that Favre is beginning to feel a sense of obligation, not only to Vikings players but to a coaching staff that has been recruiting him since the moment the New York Jets released him in April. According to sources, Favre has been communicating regularly with Vikings head coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was Favre's offensive coordinator in Green Bay for three seasons.


Now, I'm the first to question "unnamed sources" when it comes to Brett Favre, as we've certainly had our share of unsubstantiated breaking news over the past several years. But while some of the folks at ESPN are seeing it as a possible emotional breaking point for Favre (and others (particularly Packer fans) are seeing it as a ray of hope in the ongoing drama), this kind of news release is likely one thing: a PR move to make an upcoming decision seem as if it was actually one he didn't want to make.

The most surprising notion in all of this would be: my God, he's just NOW deciding to listen to a PR guy??? Now, mind you, I'm not on board with the torches and pitchforks as many other Packer fans are: I think last summer was a crucible that was fueled by all parties involved. But I will easily concede this about Favre: the theory that he would take "the high road" following his retirement is pretty much shot to pieces.

Not that he has to, and it sure has made for good headlines for places like ESPN. But, Favre really has thrown a match over his back as he goes over bridges leading out of Green Bay, seemingly unaware of (or uncaring about) the fans he's left behind. He's made comments (reported second-hand from last year) in the Jets locker room that he's out to get Ted Thompson, the GM that let him go.

Many loyal Packer fans have interpreted that as that he is out to get "The Packers", and others have gone as far to believe he is out to personally dis Packer fans. I don't buy into that, but you can sure see how people can come to that conclusion.

But even moreso, you have to shake your head at how Favre has allowed that conclusion to continue to spread like wildfire. I've long believed he's had the wrong people in his ear for quite a while, people that don't understand the delicate politics that come with being prominent in the public eye. That may be Southern Belle Deanna, his buddy Bus, or any other of the folks who like to keep him believing that he's above it all.

But, as that July 30 deadline approaches, there's been a palpable feeling of acceptance of the inevitable, and for many Packer fans, that means essentially "hating" Brett Favre for wearing purple and gold. The negative sentiments have been there since last summer, but ever since he announced he was considering coming out of retirement, it is completely clear that Favre wants to be a Viking, and the vitriol is running a fever pitch.

I don't think this latest rujmor has anything to do with his health, nor do I think it has to do with money. It has to do with damage control, that finally, somebody figured it was time to tell Brett, "Hey, you should probably make it look like you don't really want to play for the Vikings."

Come on. "Anguish"? The only reason he will force himself to play for the Vikings is because Adrien Peterson is begging him and he feels "obligated" to do so after Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell have tripped all over him this offseason? Childress is on his last legs in Minnesota, and Bevell did little more as Favre's quarterback coach in Green Bay than to ask him how he wanted his coffee each morning.

The message the Favre camp is trying to send is that he really doesn't want to play for the Vikings, but he may have to. You know, out of obligation. Loyalty.

I'm not sure exactly what kind of reaction he would expect to be getting from the Packer faithful, but I doubt it is going to swing their opinion too much. Far too little, far too late. And far too insincere.

But maybe it will get more sympathetic play on ESPN and the other national feeds. But, anguish or not, I think this almost insures Favre is going to announce his return with the Vikings next Friday. Anyone have an extra ticket for the Viking game this year?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Will Everette Brown's Career Shadow Matthews'?

Echoing Aaron Nagler's post over at CHTV, I have to admit that I was kind of stunned by the massive trade-up by Ted Thompson to have to rights to pick up Clay Matthews in the first round. Well, maybe not stunned, but surprised.

In all actuality, I had been eying up one of those handy-dandy draft value charts about an hour before the Thompson pulled the trigger, and had actually calculated that our pick #41 (490) and our pick #73 (225) equaled the value of Baltimore/New England's pick #26 (700), and still left us a third round pick on the first day.

And the name that popped out to me was OLB Everette Brown. Now, don't get me wrong. I wasn't pushing for Brown at #9, simply because I felt that there were a lot of hybrid OLB's out there in this draft and didn't think that was as pressing a need as the defensive line. So, I was thrilled when we got B.J. Raji with our first pick.

But I noted that a lot of draft prognosticators had the Packers picking Brown at #9, that he filled a need and would be a good playmaker for the Packers as they transitioned to a 3-4. At that moment, I started thinking: Raji and Brown on the first day? Two guys that were both predicted for the Packers to take with a top ten pick, and to come away with both of them?

Drool.

So, when the trade was announced, I almost did a backflip. Brown was still on the table and I figured it was a slam dunk.

Then, it was announced that Clay Matthews was the pick. My heart stopped a moment.

Now, one thing I've learned over the years is that you never, ever question a pick made by Ted Thompson, because if you do, there will be 10,000 people there to tell you that you aren't being paid to be a GM and Thompson is, so you should shut up. I learned this after Justin Harrell was picked, and of course, we all know that Harrell has vindicated every one of those folks that voraciously defended that pick.

[sarcasm off]

Matthews himself as a pick at #26 didn't bother me that much. After all, Thompson has shown some good scouting acumen in bypassing Chad Jackson for relative unknown Greg Jennings, as well as taking an obscure safety from Bethune-Cookman in the second round. I figured he must have seen something in Matthews that he didn't see in Brown.

And then, I saw the price. Our second-rounder and BOTH third rounders, getting a fifth in exchange. The draft value sheet said this was WAY in the favor of the Pats (Pick #26 and Pick #152 = 726 value points versus picks #41, #73, and #83 = 1,090 value points). And you will be hard pressed to find many folks out there other than the most fervent Thompson and Matthews fans who will admit that they truly believe this trade was a favorable one, or at least, worth the price.

Lost in all of this was Everette Brown, who for some reason or another was passed by the Packers at #9, passed again by the Packers at #26, and in fact, passed 42 times until he was taken at #43 by Carolina. With our 20/20 hindsight goggles firmly in place, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to note the Packers could have actually taken Brown (their oft-predicted selection at #9) with their second round pick.

To me, Everette Brown being able to be taken at #41 (giving nothing up in the process) is "the price" we paid to have Clay Matthews in Green and Gold. In a way, we are going to be watching his career out of the corner of our eyes over the next couple of years.

It reminds me a lot of the 49ers, who paid their price for Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 draft, taking Smith first overall and paying the exorbitant price that a #1 overall demands. Now, I think Smith was the more NFL-ready prospect over Rodgers, who benefited greatly from riding the pine for a couple of seasons. But neither guy was ready for on-the-job training playing with the 49ers offensive line in front of him, and Smith quickly looked like David Carr 2.0.

As time went on, 49er fans started looking at the struggles of Smith and realizing, "You know, we could have had Aaron Rodgers instead..." Rodgers was "the price" paid for Smith, in the minds of the 49ers and their fans. And as Smith began crumbling under the pressure, losing his starting job, and eventually, even some of his cash as he restructured his contract and will compete for his job with Shaun Hill, Rodgers began ascending.

There's no doubt that in 2008, when Rodgers took over the reins of the Packers and had a strong first season as a starter, that the 49ers had to begrudgingly look at Smith, who was benched, and wish they hadn't paid so much for what was really a similar talent level as what the Packers got 23 picks later.

Now, the 49ers also have themselves to blame. They placed Smith in the line of fire right away, a stupid move in the face of so many other #1 overall picks that had no other pieces in place around them (Carr, Akili Smith, Tim Couch). The 49ers should have brought in a veteran to help tutor Smith and ease him into the position (and of course, developed an offensive line and solid running game around him).

Today, the Packers find themselves on the other side of the coin. The Packers essentially went "all in" on Matthews, a former walk-on who didn't blossom and become a starter at USC until 2008, surrounded by tremendous talent. And, this high price means that Everette Brown, who could have been taken for nothing more than the Packers' second-round pick, will be the "Rodgers" to Matthews' "Smith".

Harsh? Maybe. But having first-rounders not reach their potential for a team hurts. They take up salary cap space and often have to be kept around for several seasons in the face of non-production to avoid the signing bonus acceleration (see: Jamal Reynolds, Justin Harrell). And then the team still has to find talent to take their place, whether it be through more draft picks or free agency.

Matthews represents a pretty high price for even a first round pick, given the Packers were unable to make any more picks in the second or third round, historically where Thompson has made some of his shrewdest selections.

You can ask Mike Sherman. When you trade back, the expectations lower. But when you trade up, the expectations raise considerably, and the criticism for failure doubles.

Ted Thompson is already getting heat for taking a workout warrior linebacker in AJ Hawk in the first round, and having him struggle to establish himself as a playmaker. Did Thompson overpay for another Hawk, when a potentially more established OLB in Brown would not only have been available at #26, but at #41?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Capers: No Play-Calling for You, Nick....


Back on July 4th, Lori Nickel over at JSOnline penned a very nice article which featured Dom Capers talking about how encouraged he was with the implementation of the 3-4 defense. Certainly, I am among the many who feel that Capers was our best free agent acquisition of the offseason (and frankly, probably of any offseason since 2006), and that his expert hands on the steering wheel will make a potentially difficult transition smoother.

But, he did make one comment in regards to OTA holdout Nick Collins and the safeties that made me take notice, especially in the face of those of us who are highly concerned that shirking his role as the free safety will impact the communication of this developing defense.

Safety Nick Collins, who skipped most of the organized team activities and most of minicamp, does have time to make up, and Capers said the staff will try to help him do that. But Collins is not the so-called quarterback of the defense anymore, so his absence doesn't hurt the Packers there. That responsibility is shared now.

"We don't put it on one guy. At practice you hear a lot of communication. We do that purposefully to get everybody involved," Capers said. "Everyone has some type of communication responsibility before the snap. We think that mentally keeps them involved as opposed to, just go out there, once the ball is snapped, I have to keep my assignment."

Now, I don't want to come off as a conspiracy theorist, but I'm guessing that if some of the Collins Critics like myself didn't take notice of that quote, Nick Collins sure did.

If you are a student of the game and study the traditional roles of the safety positions, you will note that the strong safety generally plays closer to the line and provides more run support. The free safety plays back, makes most of the adjustment calls, and provides more over-the-top support in pass coverage.

The perfect example of these roles was watching LeRoy Butler play strong safety back in 1996, while Eugene Robinson played free safety. Butler was the hard hitter, the guy who would occasionally rush the quarterback. Butler himself praised Robinson for doing his job so well behind him that LeRoy could disrupt more at the line of scrimmage. Robinson was, quite literally, the safety the freed up Butler.

Robinson didn't have to be the hard hitter. He was the quarterback of the defense, smart, observant, and having the instincts to take the right angles to help in his over-the-top coverage.

Collins doesn't particularly fit that Robinson mold. He's a heavy hitter with some liabilities in his pass coverage, but he can stick a runner and has developed some good ball instincts.

I've long been critical of Ted Thompson's approach to the safeties he brings in, mainly because he tends to bring in the same kind of athletes to play both positions: Nick Collins, Mark Roman, Marquand Manuel, Atari Bigby, and Aaron Rouse all fit that strong safety mold. They were/are all strong run support players and they all struggled in their pass coverage. Some of them, like Roman and Manuel, got run out of town on a rail for their poor play. I think, to a degree, that is unjustified. You're playing one strong safety out of position, and no one is back there to provide that smart leadership for the other.

Kind of like running out of the backfield with two fullbacks. You're limited in what you can do, and you miss the gifts a true halfback brings to the table...and in fact, the complimentary skills of a halfback and fullback and how they make each other better.

What makes Capers' comments above intriguing to me (as a student of the game who believes strongly in such complementary skill sets for the safeties) is that he appears to be going against the traditional grain in the scheme as well. If the ZBS has taught us anything, you have to believe that the scheme in and of itself is not what makes you successful. Most non-traditional schemes require certain skill sets in order to make them work.

Now, as I checked some of the basic writeups that explain the 3-4, none I saw say safeties sharing the responsibilities is a tenet of 3-4 defenses. Of course, that's like saying all 4-3 defenses will try and generate a pass rush with only their front four. Bob Sanders' 4-3 is a lot different than everyone else's 4-3.

But, this kind of "shared responsbility" is apparently somewhat of a trademark of Capers' version of the 3-4.

[Anthony] Smith's main strength from the Packers' perspective is his familiarity with the 3-4 defense. While the switch to the 3-4 is a major change for defensive linemen and linebackers, it also affects the safeties.

In Capers' version of the 3-4, the traditional strong and free safety positions aren't as well-defined as in other defensive schemes, and safeties are required to switch assignments on the fly. link

Now, when did this lack of definition take place? Could have been anytime, but the first time Dom Capers was a defensive coordinator (back in the early 90's in Pittsburgh), the safeties were given the titles of free safety and strong safety. If you check some of the news articles from the Jaguars defense in 1999, when Capers was the DC there, they also refer to the safeties as free or strong. So, this re-defining of the safety positions has taken place sometime between 1999 and this offseason.

The shoe: Now, it seems to be mentioned more and more often that Capers is going to be sharing the communication responsibilities the more Nick Collins wasn't around for OTA's. While it may not be the direct intent of Capers, it may be an indirect way to deflect some of the panic that Collins isn't going to be prepared to take on his role as free safety this year.

And that's not a bad thing. Coaches aren't the ones in the negotiating room, and they don't like to get their hands dirty with holdout drama (which is why the dual position of GM/HC is often ill-fated anyway). Capers knows the pressure is going to be on his Pro Bowl safety and this is a way to diffuse it a bit with the media and bloggers that are griping about Collins' absence.

The other shoe: Conversely, this may also be sending a message to Collins, who has to believe much of his value as he strives for a contract extension is based on his ability as a defensive leader, assuming those communication duties that a free safety traditionally is supposed to do.

Quite a blow for Collins, isn't it? He holds out, holding the team hostage from his role as the defensive play-caller, then Capers announces that it isn't in his job description anymore. Oops.

I will admit to a degree of skepticism when it comes to the roles of communication not in the hands of a free safety. These defenders couldn't communicate very well with each other at all last season in a scheme they were used to. It doesn't bode well for those same players to be responsible for sharing more communication now while playing out of their element. There are days I'm excited about the transition to the 3-4, and days that I feel trepidation; when it comes to assuming the scheme will create better communication, I feel the latter.

This is where Capers' veteran and savvy hand comes into play. And when it comes to Collins, I have a feeling he's going to be mightily well-served to report to training camp on time and with no sign of attitude. After all, if what Capers is saying is true, Collins is going to be the one with something to prove.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vikings Play the Fool with Favre

According to Favre himself, he is planning on telling the Minnesota Vikings whether or not he plans to return to the NFL this season by July 30, the day before training camp.

No surprises, and anyone feigning shock is only trying to fool themselves. This has been part of Favre's modus operandi for several seasons now, trying to prolong his decision-making process for as much of the offseason as possible.

The fools in the case are the Vikings, who needed to set a deadline a long time ago to make this work for all parties involved. While I'm the last person to ever think that the Vikings organization is capable of making smart moves that would actually work to their benefit, I am somewhat surprised that Childress and Co. haven't taken enough clues from past offseasons to put the onus on Favre.

According to Favre:

"There's two weeks left and I'm doing everything I can," Favre said. "I was down here Sunday morning working out. I'm trying to get everything to where I feel 100 percent when I go in. I can't go in any less. When you're 39 years old, it's hard enough. But it's getting there."


Now, let's be serious...there are a lot of factors at work here. First of all, Favre is in this for a lot of reasons. The most ballyhooed reason cited is his desire to "get back" at Ted Thompson, mostly sourced from comments he made during the 2008 season with the Jets. Certainly, there's no doubt that he has a fixation to prove to himself that the Packers would have benefited from having #4 in Green and Gold for one more season. But there is a bit more at work here.

First of all, there is the simple comfort zone, and this is being illustrated right here in this announcement. I think Favre likes being the prima dona in the clubhouse, and likes having familiarity around him. With the Vikings, he not only gets to play on a team he knows, but with a coaching staff he is very familiar with. He didn't agree to accept a trade to the Bucs last season simply because they were a good team, but because there were coaches there (Jon Gruden) that he had worked with before. While the Vikes do offer him that opportunity to face the Packers, they offer him something I think is just as valuable in his eyes: Childress and Bevell, who seem willing to cater to him.

And that segues right into what we're dealing with now: how many coaches out there would deal with an aging quarterback who needs until the end of July to decide whether or not to come in and start learning your system? It is admittedly quite different from the days with the Packers, where he was showing up for training camp with familiar surroundings and schemes. But, even if the Vikings run the exact offense that the Packers did, there's a lot of time and work needed to get in a groove with your teammates, and last year's situation with the Jets exemplified that.

Another issue, as mentioned a while back by Andrew Brandt of the NationalFootballPost, is money. It's not established what kind of contract Favre might be offered by the Vikings. Most of us would guess that it would be a lower salary that would offer incentives: keeping the Vikings free from risk. And of course, we would imagine Favre and agent Bus Cook would like to see a big number guaranteed (preferably with eight digits). The Vikes would be smart to go with the first option, but their lust for #4 already seems to be blinding them from logic.

The final issue, as touched on by Favre, is going to be with his health and ability. As he states, 39-40 years old is a far cry from your prime, and we saw last year that his endurance tapered at the end of the season, and an injury affected his play on the field. And, of course, we can only speculate as to how much the mental and emotional toll takes on him at this age.

A smart organization would have played this far differently. Take this old vet, offer him a a modest contract with crazy incentives and set a deadline in time for the OTAs. This protects the organization in every way, and puts the onus on the quarterback to decide how badly he wants to play.

But the Vikings are idiots. This is now quickly becoming a coach-killing situation (just ask Eric Mangini, who took the brunt of the blame for unmet expectations with Favre at the helm). Brad Childress isn't exactly walking on solid ice right now, and you start to get the feeling that Childress is pulling a "Holmgren" with Favre: "Either we're going to the top of the mountain together, or we're going to wind up in a dumpster together."

Those were inspiring words 15 years ago. But, in those days, that mountain was a journey of several seasons, with a team being built around a young Favre by one of the greatest GMs in team history, Ron Wolf. This is a one-season, one-shot deal, and Childress seems to be going all-in on #4 to lift this team to essentially save his job.

Look, unlike many Packer fans who are gnashing their teeth and rending their clothes over Favre in purple, I think it would be a great situation for both teams. The fan interest for two mediocre teams in a mediocre (and nearly irrelevant) division would generate national attention. The first game is already a Monday nighter. Don't doubt if somehow the second game got moved to a later time from its scheduled 12:00 start.

This is the kind of scenario that makes fans go to the stadium and scream with every shred of passion in their hearts...it's not just a game, and a loss...THIS PARTICULAR LOSS...would be totally unacceptable. Seriously...when was the last time you went to Lambeau Field and felt that kind of complete electricity from kickoff to the final whistle?

But, I just don't see it coming to fruition, and that actually is a bad thing for everyone. I don't think Favre is going to be able to lead the Vikings like they want, or he's going to get hurt or just not recover enough from his injury last season to be effective. The fact that Favre has put this off until July 30th just provides evidence that not only is he going to be struggling to get into a groove with his teammates again, but that the Vikings aren't going to hold him accountable along the way (they just sat and undermined every other quarterback on their roster while waiting for Favre).

A Favre that struggles as a starter (or to stay healthy) is a coach-killing situation...bad for Favre, bad for Childress, bad for the Vikings. But it is also bad for the Packers. The Packers would actually benefit more in this troubled economy from an intense rivalry that spur the fan support back from a disappointing 6-10 record in 2008. Such an "I-told-you-so" with Favre's failure isn't a win, but just a non-loss that, once again, is burning the fanbase out. We're growing weary of the ongoing Favre melodrama coloring everything that the Packers do, and we're tired of arguing amongst ourselves, blaming or exalting Ted Thompson for pulling the plug. It would be great PR and great stirring of the fan base to just get this grudge settled on the field like men once and for all (instead of the ongoing wussy "he said, she said" garbage we've been dealing with for the last 14 months).

Regardless, if Favre does return, it will be daily news for us in Packerland...we'll have his passing stats from every practice reported more often than that of Aaron Rodgers.

My hope: Favre simply decides that this was a "passing fancy", but it is time to retire. Trust me...if Favre had reported back in June and spent time at OTA's, getting that hunger in his belly to compete, I'd give him a shot.

But the Vikings can take gold and turn it to lead. And they are playing the fool with Favre.