Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Monday Night Good For Everyone...For Now

We all knew ESPN would be ratcheting this game up to the point of ridiculousness. The local media folks are getting into it, too. The Fan belittled ESPN for calling this upcoming Vikings game "Favre vs The Packers", then proceeded to call it that themselves for the remaining time in the show.

Everybody has an opinion, and apparently, expert insight into Favre's psyche, analyzing how he felt, how he will feel, why he is here, and how he will do. Oh, and he might get some help from Adrian Peterson, too. But, that is secondary. Right?

Just talking with fellow fans on the Cheesehead Nation Blogcast, it's pretty evident that all of Packer Mundo is seething with vitriol towards the Vikings, their coach, and their quarterback. Displaced fans will no longer have to try and get torrented feeds over the internet on Monday night in order to see their Packers play live. It will be nationally televised, and the world appears ready for it...or at least preparing.

As I walked out of Wal-Mart last night, I saw no less than four people loading a large flat-screen television into their vehicles. Timing is everything, isn't it?

Like it or not, kids...this game, with Brett Favre swirling in the middle of it all, is good for football. It's good for the Vikings. It's good for the media. It's good for ratings and makes a great story for ESPN.

But, it's good for us, too. Fans who normally watch the game in the privacy of their own home are finding fellow Packer fans to invite over, or to head over to someone's party or to a local bar to watch the game. Favre may have been polarizing for the last ten years or so, but no longer, at least for Packer fans. Love him or hate him, we all want to watch. Together.

You think the Packers organization isn't excited about playing in what may very likely be the highest-rated game of the season besides the Super Bowl (and the highest rated NFL game in which 50% of the audience isn't just tuned in to watch the commercials)? The Packers bottom line and national image took a hit last year between the Favre drama, the recession, and a 6-10 record. With a stumble out of the gate in 2009, the Packers could quickly fall out of the national media's radar as just another middling team that might be in the playoff hunt.

Not now. Now, the Packers are going to be the center of the storm. Young players will get national exposure, like Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings. Giving them the chance to garner respect on future Pro Bowl ballots by showing up on the biggest stage thus far in their careers.

You want to hate the Vikings? Great! You will never forget Brent? Super! You want this win more than any win you've wanted in recent history?

Exactly.

But....

Listening to one of the Minnesota beat writers made me realize something. I know he was blowing some homer smoke, but he had a point: if the Vikings lose this game, some pressure will fall on Favre and Childress, but in his opinion, the team is on such a high right now and looking at winning the division and going deep in the playoffs, it won't be that dramatic for the locker room.

On the other hand, a Packers loss might be debilitating for our locker room. The media, naturally, wouldn't let it relent talking about Favre's Revenge. And, like it or not, there's been more than enough criticism of Ted Thompson's roster moves and Mike McCarthy's accountability lately that it might blow that schism wide open over a long bye week.

Oh, sure, Brad Childress would get some backlash, too, but he's used to that. His head's been on the chopping block for a couple seasons now. That isn't true of TT and MM, though, and through the first three games, I've seen more public criticism of the Packer leadership than I've seen since a guy by the name of Sherman.

I may be wrong, but I think the Packers have more to gain by winning this game, and they have more to lose in allowing the Minnesota Favres to take the W. The Vikings aren't just looking at making the playoffs, they are assuming it. The Packers are still struggling to find their identity, fluctuating between the disappointments of 2008 and the zealous optimism we had this preseason.

All the more reason to get behind the Packers this Monday Night and scream your head off. It's not just another game. Not for the Vikings, not for Favre, not for the media, and not for us.

And certainly, no matter what they might say, not for the Green Bay Packers.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rodgers' Interception-less Streak Impressive

Lost in all of the consternation and panic over our offensive line, running game, run defense, and safety positions, Aaron Rodgers has yet to throw a pick.

In fact, Aaron Rodgers has made 90 attempts this season without a pick. Only two other starting quarterbacks in the entire league have made it through three games without a pick (Kyle Orton and Marc Bulger), and one of those guys didn't even finish his last game.

How impressive is this? Well, I'm no stat master, but I can tell you that the NFL record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception is 308 by Bernie Kosar. The Packer record is 294, set by a guy named Bart back in 1964-65.

Note those records were set over the course of a couple of seasons. If that is the case, Aaron Rodgers threw no interceptions last year in the season finale against the Lions (31 pass attempts).

In fact, Rodgers has not been intercepted since the 2:16 mark in the first quarter of Week 16 against the Bears, which by my estimate, would add another 28 pass attempts to his total.

All tallied, since the Bears game, Aaron Rodgers has now attempted 149 consecutive passes without an interceptions, which may mean he has a while before he reaches the rarified air of Starr and Kosar, but given the problems this team has had since the start of the 2008 season, it's pretty impressive.

In this 149-attempt span, the Packers have gone 3-2, with two of the wins coming against perhaps the most inept teams in the league (the Lions and the Rams). In other words, not throwing interceptions is not a guarantee of success. Certainly, there have been concerns with Rodgers and the amount of time he's been hanging on to the ball, as well as not throwing the ball away as well as he used to.

But, if we were looking for the anti-Favre, we may have found it in Rodgers. A few more games taking care of the ball, and we might be looking at a challenger to the record.

CheeseHead Nation Live Blog Tuesday Night: 7:00 PM




Tonight's guest is Phil Hanrahan, author of the book "Life After Favre." This week's guest panelist on the LIVE blog will be Al Davis of Packernet.com.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

CheeseHead Nation Gameday Live Blog

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brandon Chillar....at Safety?? Think About It.

The safety turmoil of the past week has got many Packer fans (and players) a little unsettled, as it appears the Packers weren't particularly ready for injuries to both our starters. Now, the position seems to be resting rather precariously on Nick Collins' ability to play through pain and the promise of two players who weren't in training camp. Oh, and Jarrett Bush.

With all this uncertainty, I offer this little tidbit of creativity: play Brandon Chillar at safety.

It makes a lot of sense, just probably not common sense. But when you are playing without all the bullets in your gun, you need to improvise.

The first volley someone would launch against this idea is the concept that a linebacker can't play safety. Two completely different skill sets needed. Chillar doesn't have the speed that a safety needs.

Totally understandable, and I would not be proposing Chillar in at safety on every play, but as a way to get our best players on the field (a philosophy MM has taken with the OL for years). Placing Chillar in a strong safety role means he will be playing more in run support and closer to the line, something we've seen Dom Capers do a lot of already with Collins and Atari Bigby.

Furthermore, in the Capers scheme, when an outside linebacker moves up to rush the quarterback, it is a safety who compensates by moving up to take that linebacker's place. We've seen many times, especially when the Packers have given up some big plays. Having Chillar take on that role would be second nature for him.

The issue with Chillar's speed is notable, however. At last check, Chillar runs a 40-yard dash in about 4.71 seconds, certainly not blazing speed for a safety. In contrast, Nick Collins runs about a 4.37, Aaron Rouse ran about a 4.59, and Atari Bigby finished in about 4.65. Obviously, Chillar would be at a disadvantage in obvious passing downs, which is why I wouldn't suggest him as a full-time solution.

But, straight line-to-line speed isn't always the biggest need for a safety. Certainly, having that catch-up speed is critical for a corner, who is trying to keep up with speedy wideouts. But, for a safety, a lack of speed can be compensated for by playing smart. With all the action in front of you, you can compensate for a lack of speed by simply taking the better angle to get to your man in over-the-top coverage.

Dick Jauron once spoke about former Packer safety LeRoy Butler, who didn't have a blazing 40-time (and incidentally, played like a linebacker) and the misconceptions of straight-line timed sprints and how you play the game.

'People used to say, 'How fast is LeRoy Butler?' '' Jauron said. ''I'd say, 'As fast as the guy he's covering. If a guy runs a 4.3, he'll run a 4.3 and cover him. If a guy runs a 4.5, he'll run a 4.5 and cover him.'

''He'll run a real good 40, but I never thought it was indicative of what his speed was. He played as fast as he needed to play. Generally, guys' times are pretty indicative of how fast they are, and you've got to have speed to play in the league, but you've got to have speed that works on the field. That's the speed that really counts."

We've seen Chillar often as the first guy to make contact, because he can take what speed he has and use it. Certainly, we've seen other players blessed with greater speed make far more glaring mistakes, simply because they took the wrong angles or simply missed a tackle.

Furthermore, if you were forced to move a linebacker into a safety role, there'd be no better candidate than Chillar, who has been lauded as our best cover linebacker. He's a smart cookie with excellent body control and the ability to go airborne.

The Packers are playing deep at linebacker, and have more than enough bodies to go around to fill those four spots. Chillar, by many accounts, may be one of the top four, but still ends up playing behind other guys with larger salaries and better-selling jerseys in the Pro Shop.

And Mike McCarthy is at his best when he is able to spit-and-wire solutions to problems. I have commended him in the past for the job he did with the offensive line his first few years, compensating for a lack of protection with extra blockers, five-wide sets, and adapting the zone blocking scheme to include running plays that would stretch the defenses outside. He's moved linebackers to fullback and tight end pretty effectively. If he is really looking at the best solution for solving the safety dilemma, moving Chillar back would be an out-of-the-box solution as good as any other.

Playing Chillar at safety wouldn't be the dumbest move ever, especially when you have Jarrett Bush and two guys still in crash-course mode who may be your only options if Collins can't go on Sunday.

No, it isn't perfect solution, but it is an intriguing one. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Packers need to find a way to plug the hole at safety. Taking your best cover linebacker and putting him five yards further back could be a far more genius move than having Spencer Havner play two-way football to free up a roster spot.

The ball has been in McCarthy's court this past week to take accountability for the holes on this team and make it better. Time to take your shot, MM. Here's my idea.

The Annual Season Ticket Waiting List Postcard Arrives

Anyone else get theirs today?

I've been on the season ticket waiting list for about 12 years, and have inched my way down to #33,321.

Only 75 more years to go, and I am in like Flynn (not Matt)!!!

So, hey...all you folks who are auctioning off your tickets to the highest bidder...turn them in and let those of us who actually want to go to games get our hands on them!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nick Barnett and the Samurai: It is what it is...

In what was an incredibly disappointing display by the Packer defense last Sunday, Nick Barnett lit a firestorm after doing his samurai celebration after a tackle, drawing boos from the crowd and ending up what will be heralded as the first instance of an NFL player taking his Twitter and going home.

Yes, Nick brought some criticism, and in his own words, some of it deserved. When you're getting trounced, its not usually looked on with high approval to be doing some me-first celebrations on the field. The crowd let him know, Barnett let them know how he felt, and the sun came up the following morning.

Aaron over at CHTV decided to launch a salvo at Packer fans who have been critical of Barnett's actions, which then turned into one of the biggest Internet slapfights in recent memory.

My take:

I agree with Brian Carriveau on the topic of "acting like you've been there before" when it comes to professional sports. I realize that Chad Johnson gets a lot of our own media guys excited because they have something to write about, but I'm sure glad he's not on my team. The celebrations overshadow the game and simply seem to detract from, if not distract, the team.

I've never been a fan of the Samurai. I think it is a bit juvenile and I wish Barnett could just make a play, celebrate with his teammates, and go back to the huddle and get ready to tee it up again. And, it looks kind of goofy.

But, you have to consider who Nick Barnett is. Nick is a guy who, I believe, has tried a bit too hard to be the emotional leader of the defense. Can't blame him...he and Al Harris are the longest-tenured Packers, both remaining on the team from the Sherman era. Barnett has been far more stable than the position of defensive coordinator over the course of his career.

This is who Barnett is. I like him, I think he's a good linebacker. I don't know if he'll ever make a Pro Bowl, but I think there's been years he's been worthy of consideration. Middle linebacker, however, is a pretty crowded field when it comes to post-season honors. He's not a superstar, but is a solid player who would be even better if surrounded by solid talent.

I'll tell you what I wish Barnett was. I wish he was just like Mike Singletary. I wish he would get into the huddle, call the formation with a cold stone glare that makes every other player in the circle pray to God they aren't the one who messes up and has to face him again. I wish that he would line up across from Carson Palmer and silently intimidate him so much that Palmer wets himself before getting the snap off. And I wish he would spend four seconds transformed into a complete wild animal, wreaking havoc on the blockers before demolishing whomever has the ball. And then, as soon as the whistle blows, slowly saunter back to the huddle and do it all over again.

But Nick Barnett isn't Mike Singletary. He's Nick Barnett. He does what he knows how to do. He is what he is, which is an emotional player who tries to lead with his actions both during the play and between plays.

So, when Barnett pulled the Samurai out, I don't fault him. No, it wasn't great timing and it is just as lame as I've always thought it, but that's not the point.

The point, quite simply, is that the team needed to pull their heads out of their butts, and no one else (save Charles Woodson) was doing a damn thing to make it happen. Cedric Benson and the Bengal offensive line were driving our defense back, over and over again, and you couldn't see a spark of life after Woodson picked his second interception.

Did the Samurai save the team, inspire them to new heights? Nope. But give Barnett credit for at least trying. He can only do what he knows how to do, and he did that by making a play and getting all demonstrative.

Barnett shouldn't be criticized for emotionally trying to get his own head in the game, if not bringing along the heads of his teammates. You can criticize the lameness of the Samurai if you want, but not the action of trying to get the team off its collective posterior.

Hey...if Barnett doesn't do it, who does? Perhaps Dom Capers needs to come out of the booth and do the job himself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hey! Way to figure it all out, Pete Dougherty!!!

Way to go, Pete Dougherty. You cracked the code. You were able to connect those dots and you have finally come to the conclusion that many of us saw a long time ago. Well, I know I did.

The offensive line scheme and talent we've built over the last three years isn't working. Nice bit of deduction there.

You may have figured this out sooner, Pete, but we know the pro-TT stance that the Press-Gazette has taken over the last couple of years. It's not good to dis the program when Mikey V is looking over your shoulder.

Now, this isn't an all-out attack on Ted Thompson. I've gone from Ted Critic back in the days when it wasn't politically correct to be a Ted Critic and have come around to some of his approaches to the game. Heck, I've even praised him, and stand by those accolades.

But not when it comes to the offensive line. I stood up and declared when the Packers announced their switch to the ZBS and went through the 2006 draft picking up tweener players who would all "be a good fit for a zone blocking scheme" that this had failure written all over it.

And it has nothing to do with Mike Wahle or Marco Rivera. While I wasn't happy with their release, we all knew it was a foregone conclusion that they would have been let go regardless of who was the GM. It has everything to do with what happened from that point on.

And what happened? The Packers switched to a gimmicky scheme, a scheme (as Dougherty points out) that has never duplicated the success that Alex Gibbs had with it. I said YEARS ago that the ZBS not only has had little success elsewhere, but I quoted how the Falcons had to completely blow up the talent they had brought in when they gave up on it. You see, like the Packers, they brought in talent tailored to the ZBS, and then when it didn't work, they had to change the talent. Completely.

I think that Ted Thompson liked the idea of the ZBS, because it was a gimmick that he saw could allow for effective pass and run blocking without the high draft picks or free agent moves that most teams have to invest to get it. So, we drafted tweener players that fell in the draft, bragged up how versatile they were, and waited for them to develop.

But, they haven't developed, and versatility isn't all it is cracked up to be. Moving average lineman around the line doesn't make the line any better than average. There's a reason why you never dreamed of Mark Tauscher or Chad Clifton playing any other position than tackle: because they were built for that position. They weren't jacks-of-all-trades. They were masters of their positions, just as Rivera and Wahle had been before them.

But, we kept at it. We invested our high picks and free agents in other areas. We got a premier quarterback, an elite receiving corps, tons of linebackers, some veterans in the secondary, and most recently, a mammoth guy to play along the defensive front.

But after a second-rounder was spent of Daryn Colledge in 2006, the Packers have never spent better than a third round pick along the line, nor have they signed anything more than a street free agent to bolster the ranks.

Dougherty scratches his head and connects, "Hey...I don't think they even run the ZBS all the time anymore" in his article today. Um, yeah, Pete...we all caught that back in 2006, when McCarthy started running some stretch plays at the end of the season when keeping in eight blockers wasn't doing enough.

Simply stated, you don't build your talent around a scheme. You build your scheme around the talent that you have. The reason why the ZBS worked in Denver all those years was because they started with the average talent they had, and they devised the scheme to work around them.

The sad thing is, though, I am considering that MM tried to communicate this to Thompson a couple years ago, but it didn't change the urgency. Instead of drafting the tweeners that were felt could come in and start immediately in the scheme, he began investing in raw talent that dropped in the draft. Such talent may not be as dialed in to the ZBS, but it was still talent that would take time and a roll of the dice to work out. Sitton, Giacomini, Meredith, and Lang may all be big ol' bruisers with a mean streak, but they aren't ready for prime time (and some of them may never be).

The results of all this, though, are exactly what I stated years ago: if you invest in talent to fit a scheme and the scheme doesn't work, you have less-than-desirable talent for a traditional scheme. The "Wait And See" crowd (you remember them) said that we should sit back and allow them to develop, and we can trust Thompson to remedy the situation if they don't.

And yet, here we are. The offensive line is, quite simply, the Achilles Heel of what should be a pretty strong team and a potent offense. We Waited and we Saw, and what we have now is a disappointment....we have all the pieces in place around this offensive line: a young upstart quarterback, a receiving corps that is the envy of nearly every other team, a set of solid tight ends with upside, and a backfield that would be able to consistently contribute with the right guys in front of them.

And, as the line fails, the entire offense has collapsed like a deck of cards.

Well, we Waited. We Saw. Now what? Do we do what Atlanta has done and slowly rebuild our line from scratch? How long before our quarterback gets hit so hard he suffers injury? How many more years will Ryan Grant have hitting the hole and getting smacked back at the line of scrimmage twenty times a game? What a let-down when the rest of the team seemed ready to take that next step, maturing all at about the same time, just as Thompson and McCarthy planned.

And Pete has just figured this out now.

Any GM has to know that any offense starts up front. Thompson chose to ignore this wisdom as he built this offense, and now the offense is suffering for it.

I am totally lost....

The Green Bay Packers released Aaron Rouse today, in order to pick up free agent Matt Giordano.

How much sense does this make to me? Well, the fact that I just had to check the spelling of Giordano's last name three times before I finally got it right should tell you how much I know about this guy.

Now, just three weeks ago, Aaron Rouse was determined to be far more valuable to the Packers while injured than a healthy Anthony Smith, who was quickly snapped up by our opponent this upcoming weekend, the St. Louis Rams.

So, what is the rationale from ol' Mr. McCryptic today? Why is suddenly Rouse and his stinger suddenly less of an asset than a street free agent.

"I just felt that his ability to be consistent and the growth part of it is one of the reasons that we made the change," McCarthy said of Rouse. "But there are other factors involved."

Like, maybe....his lack of ability to stay healthy? Especially when you can't afford to be carrying an injured wing along in the face of injuries to your starters?

So, here we are. The Packers elected to keep five safeties this year, jettisoning a quality backup in Smith for a continuing project player in Rouse, and two special team players that aren't more than serviceable backups in an actual game.

Ted Thompson rolled the dice on this one, and now the Packers are scrambling to cover for it.

Think about it. They are hoping it is Collins and Martin or Collins and Bush starting this weekend. If Collins can't go, it is Martin and Bush starting, kids. And Giordano backing up. Anyone optimistic about this who is NOT drinking kool-aid?

How would you feel about Collins and Anthony Smith? Or Smith and Martin? Or Smith and Bush?

Suddenly, the "not so assignment-sure" Smith isn't looking like a bad play, is it?

Ted Thompson has been loyal to his draft picks to a fault. The painful process of watching Tony Moll work his way to the bottom of the depth chart before finally being traded away made us all realize that Rouse may be the same type of situation. Was Rouse kept over Smith simply because he was drafted by Thompson?

In any case, if Derrick Martin was unable to go into the game, despite being a Packer for two full weeks, can we honestly expect Giordano to be able to go in if needed?

Even Nick Barnett was wondering what the "other factors involved" in this move was.

"It goes to show right now they're not stopping the train for anybody," linebacker Nick Barnett said. "They want to see results and we've got to get results. ... I'm sure that's not a scare tactic, it's just the direction they wanted to go."

So, the Packers are going to see results by signing street free agents? Starting to sound like 2005, if you ask me. There's something I just don't get about this move, and if the players are questioning the motives behind it, well, I'm even more bamboozled.

I've been hemming and hawwing about it since it happened, and I'm done. I'm just going to say it. Ted Thompson erred in releasing Anthony Smith. It is akin to the foolish move in releasing a known quantity in Jon Ryan on the last day of cutdowns for an complete unknown in Derrick Frost. I could care less about his assignments or attitude. He was a solid player with experience in the scheme. We need him now, and the writing was pretty clear before the season even started with Bigby not playing 100% and Rouse still hurt.

And the only worse thing than making such a mistake is compounding it with further mistakes. The leadership of the franchise cannot afford further eroding of the confidence placed in them by the fans and the players.

Monday, September 21, 2009

High Expectaions for Offense Crash To Earth

Like me, I'm sure many of you came into opening weekend of the 2009 season salivating over the potential of our offense. I mean, we had Aaron Rodgers, who was being picked by most as a Pro Bowler, even league MVP by a couple of national pundits. We had the deepest WR corps in the league and a set of tight ends that seemed ready to set the world on fire. Even Ryan Grant was recovered from injury and was set to run behind three fullbacks on the way to another 1,000+ yard season.

What could go wrong?

Five little words should be ringing through your heads right now: "It all starts up front." True then, true now. Especially now.

One of my favorite light-bulb-going-on-moments was when, years ago, some television analysts were making the point that Buccaneer Errict Rhett had all of the skill and talent of then-superstar Emmitt Smith. So, why wasn't Rhett tearing up the league like Smith was? "Rhett isn't running behind the Dallas offensive line."

So, as our offensive line has sputtered, Rodgers has struggled under pressure, Grant has struggled for consistency (and holes), and our receivers have lost their rhythm. The offensive juggernaut we expected to start the season has folded like a house of cards.

Oh, sure, we've played both our games close. In fact, the Packers have scored 21 and 24 points against some respectable defenses.

But, a closer look would suggest that the Packers offense is struggling to establish itself on the field. The thing that kept striking me was that it seemed like many of our points were a result of defensive plays or opportune field position given to the offense. I wondered how accurate that was.

In our first two games, the offense has had 24 offensive possessions of note (I'm not including the kneel-down in the first game), twelve possessions each game. In that time, the Packers offense has scored four touchdowns, or one touchdown in every six possessions.

Of those four touchdown drives, however, only two have originated in Packer territory: the first possession against the Bengals, which was an 11-play, 80-yard drive; and the final drive of the Bears game, which ended in a 50-yard pass play to Greg Jennings to win the game.

The other two touchdown drives were set up by interception returns by the defense, essentially placing them on the doorstep, giftwrapped and ready to go. Against the Bears, an Tramon Williams interception return put the ball on the Bears' one-yard line. And the Packers offense only had to "drive" eleven yards following a Charles Woodson interception in the Bengal game.

All tallied, the average length of the Packers' touchdown drives? 41 yards.

The Packers have also gotten in position to attempt five field goals, making three of them. The starting field positions on those five drives were, in order, their own 49, their own 22, the Bears' 30, their own 24, and their own 21.

All tallied, the average length of the Packers field goal drives? 33 yards.

That leaves fifteen possessions that did not result in a score. Obviously, we have a drive that ended with a fumble, one where time ran out, and one that ended in a safety. The rest were all punts. But this is the most troubling stat of all.

All tallied, the average length of a Packers non-scoring drive? 13 yards.

This means that the average length of any drive by the Packers offense is a mere 17 yards per possession. By comparison, the Packers averaged 34 and a half yards per possession through the first two games of last season (and yes, one was against the Lions, but you do get the idea of what a juggernaut offense should be producing).

Not only are the Packers not able to put themselves in scoring opportunities, but they continue to lose the field position battle, especially when our punt coverage squads continue to struggle. Jeremy Kapinos ranks 19th in the NFL in gross punting average, but drops to 30th in net average with a pathetic 29.8 yards per punt.

[Note: Jon Ryan presently leads the NFL in that category with 44.3 ypp]

The disparity comes in the face of the fact that the Packers have won the turnover battle, rather handily. The Packers have had only one one turnover, a fumble. In comparison, the Packers have piled up six interceptions, tied for the league lead, with an average of 31 yards per return. They have also recovered an onside kick and foiled a fake punt, which are essentially special teams turnovers, too.

But those turnovers aren't always translating into points, at least by the offense. While both interceptions against the Bengals turned into touchdowns, one of them was run in by Charles Woodson himself. The four Bear turnovers (not including the one that ended the game) resulted in a punt, a safety, a touchdown (from the one-yard line), and a field goal, for a net of eight points.

In the Bears game, the defense compensated for the problems the offense had moving the ball, resulting in a win. But against the Bengals, a team far more familiar with the 3-4 and how to attack it, the offensive struggles were far more evident. And glaring.

So much for the second coming of the "score-at-will offense" many of us were expecting.

Simply put, an offense featuring Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley, and Ryan Grant averaging 17 yards a drive is a tremendous waste of talent, as well as field position. The defense may have struggled against the Bengals run game, but they still shouldn't have the entire onus on them. Our offense should have been able to drive down the field far more than they did, putting the Packers in more positions to score and control the field position battle.

St. Louis presently boasts the league's 29th ranked defense, and have allowed an average of 146 rushing yards per game thus far. If there's a game where the offense can find a rhythm, it is this upcoming week.

Because the following week is a Pride Matchup against the Vikings, who rank fifth defensively overall. And then, there will be a very long bye week to think about the results.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Cincinnati Aftermath

"Don't rush me, sonny. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles." - Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

After an exhilarating come-from-behind win against the Bears in Week 1, the Packers continued their struggles on offense and were not able to pull out a last-second victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, losing in the final seconds 31-24.

The game finished on a desperate passing flurry by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who seemed nearly set to repeat last week's miracle ending. This time, however, the clock ran out. Ed Hochuli, whom you can always tell is officiating a game by the number of flags per minute, explained it well enough at the end. They ran out of time, and even if they had gotten the play off, Jermichael Finley didn't have enough time to get set.

And even if he had been set, there was no guarantee that they would have scored. It was too deep of a hole, too late in the game. Sure, it was possible to pull it out, but as I stated last week, the Packers cannot afford to keep placing the game on Aaron Rodgers' shoulders week after week to pull off miracle endings.

And against mediocre competition like the Bears and Bengals, there simply shouldn't be any need to require miracle endings to pull these games out.

All in all, a difficult game to watch, one that brings up more questions than answers after last week's game. With that, here are this week's QuickHits:

* This game, quite simply, was won and lost along the offensive lines. The Packers weren't able to get much penetration, especially as the game went on, and allowed Cedric Benson to run like an All-Pro all game long. The Bengals, on the other hand, provided tons of pressure and sacks of Aaron Rodgers, and stymied the running game, from start to finish.

The pressure allowed on Rodgers is frightening. Yes, Antwan Odom getting five sacks is inexcusable, but the sacks are just a symptom of the overall problem. From the beginning of the game, the Packers were allowing leaky penetration, forcing Rodgers to dip and dart in the pocket, rush outside, and get hurries and hits after throwing. This has a way of not only affecting the quarterback, making him jumpy and rushing his progressions, but also giving more and more confidence to the opposing defensive line.

As the game went on, the Bengals were able to rush four or five more often, rather than big blitz packages, and still manage to get pressure on Rodgers. Against a rather unheralded defensive line (and a defense that managed only 17 sacks in 2008), this is very concerning.

Meanwhile, Ryan Grant rushed for a paltry 46 yards on 14 carries (a 3.3 ypc) that placed the onus on Rodgers' shoulders, and therefore, on the shoulders of the offensive line's pass protection.

* Penalty vs. Lead Rusher totals: Penalty Yardage: 76 Ryan Grant: 46

Now, I will be the first to admit that when Ed Hochuli's crew is officiating a game, you can expect to almost double the number of penalties called. But, regardless, eleven penalties accepted is something the Packers cannot hope to overcome when your offense is struggling.

The larger issue isn't the penalties, but the fact that Ryan Grant is essentially having to earn every yard on his own. The run blocking is as suspect as the pass blocking, and it is turning the run game into the inconsistent factor it has been ever since Ahman Green left the team.

* In late August, I wrote an article citing the five players the Packers could least afford to lose to injury, and one of my top five was tackle Chad Clifton. You might remember I took some criticism for daring to place Clifton on this list, but I think I was right. Unfortunately.

I was as befuddled as anyone when I saw the Packers compensate for Clifton's injury by shuffling the entire line over to bring in Wells at center. The idea works well on paper (you play the best five guys you have), but had disastrous results on the field. Daryn Colledge, who has been serviceable at left guard, was again completely out of his element at the most important position on the line, allowing pressure after pressure, sack after sack of Aaron Rodgers.

Now, Chad Clifton isn't the stalwart he once was, and had his struggles in the early part of the game, too. However, the announcers pinned one of Odom's first sacks on Clifton incorrectly. Odom had come on a stunt around Clifton, and it was actually a missed block by fullback Korey Hall that allowed Rodgers to get hit.

But, without Clifton, the Packers were again in a confounding situation of not having an active tackle to substitute in. Last week, many of us were waiting for someone to come in for a struggling Allen Barbre, but Breno Guacamole was inactive. This week, Clifton was injured and the whole line had to shuffle, instead of keeping your strengths where they should be and maintaining consistency. Again, the Packers had no backup tackles active.

At the moment, the severity of Clifton's ankle injury is unknown, but it will be a very anxious week seeing how McCarthy plans on compensating if he will miss time. Do you bring in a young and raw tackle in Guacamole and bookend your offensive line with two fifth-round kids, or do you continue to put over half your line in square pegs?

* The number of dropped passes by the receivers was completely unacceptable. Completely. That has been the strength of this team for the past several seasons, and Rodgers was let down several times. The drops by Greg Jennings had to be particularly disappointing, as he was shut out for the game. Your primary receiver can't become a non-factor, but today Jennings was as invisible as Ryan Pickett.

* Okay, I'm going to go there.

I am not going to pile on Aaron Rodgers for not being able to pull out a fourth-quarter comeback. There is the temptation, because he had several opportunities to have driven the offense down the field, and failed enough times so that he needed that miracle ending. Let's be honest. He had no running game, terrible pass protection, and his receivers were very unreliable today.

But, those folks who annointed him an elite NFL quarterback last week because he hit one pass in the fourth quarter against the Bears may want to consider retracting that statement. Rodgers had a very mediocre day passing the ball last week, and had another one today. He has continued to protect the ball and hasn't a single interception yet (which keeps his passer rating up), but he looked very out of sync all game. His accuracy has been suspect, with more passes going awry, high, or where guys can't catch it.

Yes, much of that was due to the fact that there were several white jersey in the backfield with him. But, an elite quarterback has to play past that and continue to make the plays he needs to, getting the first downs in crunch time instead of going for home run balls in triple coverage. I must admit, of those interference calls on Chris Crocker, I thought they were both awfully close and were actually decent plays on the ball. We can't hope for interference calls to keep our drives alive. Rodgers is being paid like a top NFL quarterback and he needs to get his most dangerous attribute back: his accuracy.

And the way to get it back is to give him more than a second-and-a-half in the pocket.

* Another player I mentioned in that injury article was how the Packers couldn't afford to lose Nick Collins. Now, I wrote that before the Packers elected to cut Anthony Smith, and before we knew Atari Bigby was going to be out for a month with injury. I think Collins' value would be even higher than it was, then.

Any time you have Jarrett Bush lining up alongside Aaron Rouse as your primary safeties, you are in trouble. I'm not sure where Derrick Martin was, since he was not listed as one of the inactives, but it didn't seem like he was able to play safety yet. That's a risk the Packers took in cutting a guy who knew the defense on the final countdown, and replaced him with a guy who hadn't been in our camp at all. It reminds me a little of the Jon Ryan/Derrick Frost situation last year....giving up a known quantity for something of a grab bag of promise. Question has to be if Martin is going to be any more able to play as a serviceable starter than Bush is. That's what happens when you keep a special team player over a guy who can play down-to-down.

Collins also looks like he has the potential for missed time with a shoulder. This is serious. I don't trust Jarrett Bush as far as I can throw him (his double offsides penalties on special teams got him pulled from the game, at least temporarily), and to go into the Viking game with Bush and Rouse as our starters really makes me nervous.

I've seen a lot of folks rally behind the decision to let Anthony Smith go, saying he was not assignment-sure. I think the jury is still out on that move, and the next few weeks will let us know if the Packers had the quality depth they needed without him.

* Speaking of special teams, the two returns by Quan Cosby were game changers. So were the punting efforts of Kevin Huber. Other than the return by Charles Woodson's interception, the Packers offense was looking at long fields on almost every possession.

Special teams are starting to look not all that special again, and given the final roster decisions to keep special teams players over guys you trust to be able to be servicable in the regular lineup (Swain, Martin, three fullbacks, etc.), we have to play better on special teams. Period.

* I didn't expect Mason Crosby to make a 55-yard field goal. If he had made it, I would have been pleasantly surprised.

However, I also didn't expect him to miss it as badly as he did, pushing it so far off to the left I don't think it even landed past the goal post. Simply put, that's unacceptable. For as much is ballyhooed about Crosby's leg strength, and how he could be making field goals of 60-yards-plus when attempting 45-yarders, he has to give those long kicks a chance to go through the uprights.

Even his shorter field goal in the fourth quarter, a kick the Packers needed and expected to be made in order to have a chance, barely squeaked inside the left goalpost from 45 yards out.

On a positive note, Jeremy Kapinos continues to be invisible, which for a punter is a good thing. His three punts averaged 47 yards. Unfortunately, he needed to be in a position to make a tackle on the return on two of those punts, which brings his net down to a disappointing 35.5 ypp. That's not his fault, though. He's no Craig Hentrich, but he's punting as well as anyone we've had back there since Hentrich left. That's not saying much, though.

* The Packers front three looked invisible all game. Our defensive line combined for only five tackles all game, with one of them being the sack by Cullen Jenkins. If you would like a reason why a Bear castoff running back was able to consistently gash our defense for 141 yards and a 4.9 ypc, you need look no further.

The Packers sent every package they could think of at the Bengals, and while it did tend to confuse them (resulting in some holds and false starts), for the most part the Bengals were able to control the clock with the ground game and some timely passes from Carson Palmer.

Our linebackers, in particular, looked worse as the game went on. Nick Barnett had only three tackles and didn't seem to make much of an impact. AJ Hawk was one of the guys who whiffed a tackle on Benson in the backfield when he turned it outside and made a critical first down. Aaron Kampman made seven tackles, but he continues to struggle with the back coming full speed directly at him and having to make plays in space.

But, if you ever want to look at a stat that will tell you how your defense held up in a particular game, look to see where your players in the secondary rank on the tackle chart. You would hope that your linebackers and perhaps your linemen top the list. However, the top three guys on the list are Charles Woodson, Aaron Rouse, and Nick Collins. This usually means that plays are getting through your first two lines of defense and up the field. Certainly, Benson's 4.9 ypc would reflect that.

Dom Capers has a good thing going, but the Bengals were able to dismantle it today with a solid running game. It's time to tighten up the ship this week and get better against the Rams.

* I thought Chad Johnson (I refuse to honor his name change) was pretty funny going up into the stands and doing a Lambeau Leap. I'm glad someone did it, because if I am correct, none of the Packers did today.

Greg Jennings made a comment this week in which he sounded a little exasperated with the Leap. While I don't have a link to it (not sure where I saw it), he mentioned the amount of time it takes with the Leap lately, that he needs to get back to the sideline after a touchdown, but gets held up in the stands.

Last week, you could clearly see Ryan Grant in the stands after his touchdown, clearly and repeatedly asking the fans to let him go.

You have to wonder if the Lambeau Leap is becoming "your dad's celebration", something started by a team in an era long gone in the minds of today's team. It's becoming somewhat clear that the players aren't as excited as Robert Brooks or LeRoy Butler to jump in the stands and get beer poured on them. You have to wonder if they see it as more of an obligation than a true celebration.

I've often pondered if and when the Leap will phase out. You would think it is bound to happen someday, as many such traditions do. When I saw Charles Woodson give the ball to a boy in the stands, it reminded me of the days when James Lofton would throw the ball into the crowd after every touchdown, garnering himself a fine from the NFL each time (can't remember if it was $150 or $1,500, but either way he could afford it). Perhaps, like most things in football, the Leap will phase out and come back in with another generation.

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All in all, today's game was a disappointment. It was a sloppy game, with both sides of the ball contributing. But, even moreso, it was to a mediocre talent on our home field that should have been an easy win. Now, as the Packers go on the road to St. Louis next week, the dreams of going to Minnesota in Week 4 undefeated are dashed, and you have to wonder if another pathetic 2008 team is going to give the Packers more than they bargained for. The Rams held the Redskins today to three field goals, and Steven Jackson rushed for 104 yards on 17 carries. A running game disoriented our defense, and a good front four stymied our offense.

In some ways, this is sort of a must-win coming up. It's a should-win, but the Packers do not want to go into the Metrodome with two straight losses to two inferior teams.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tonight's CheeseheadTV Blogcast: Jay, Meet Bob



Monday, September 14, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Chicago Aftermath

For the first time in a long time, I stood up in front of my television at the end of a Packer game and yelled loud enough to wake up everyone in the house. Late night heroics by Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Al Harris preserved a 2009 Kickoff game against rival Chicago, 21-15. It was a long, sometimes frustrating game to watch, replete with amazing highs (mostly from the defense) and inexplicable lulls (mostly from the offense). But in the end, the Packers start out 1-0 and get a chance to play two hapless teams before the big Monday Night game in Week 4.

Since they are coming out a little later than usual, here's are my slightly deeper thinking QuickHits:

* We were formally introduced to the Jay Cutler we can plan on seeing from Chicago for the next several years. Yes, I have a strong feeling the Jeckyl/Hyde act is going to be something that will mark his games, particularly against the Packers, sometimes from game to game, sometimes quarter to quarter.

Cutler is a gunslinger, who will take risks and isn't afraid to go downfield to his speedy receivers. In the second half, we saw a glimpse off that quarterback who has the ability to beat the Packers, striking Devin Hester deep and hitting Earl Bennett often as a possession receiver. Once he seemed to get settled down in the locker room and kept himself upright in the pocket, he did much better. You have to think that if the Bears can get Matt Forte some solid blocking in the run game Cutler may pose a significant threat.

But, for as much as Cutler seems to want to play like Favre, he also acts like Ryan Leaf. We saw that several times, as he was openly emotional and pouty. The childish interaction with Clay Matthews (a rookie linebacker) was bush league, and only served to prove that you can rattle him. For all the positives that Cutler can bring to the Bears (and I have no doubt somewhere along the line he's going to play well enough to win a game or two against the Packers), you can still see he's a meltdown waiting to happen, Terrell Owens playing quarterback.

It reminds me of the first time Mike Holmgren returned to Green Bay as coach of the Seahawks, and you saw defensive players smacktalking with Earl Dotson until he inexplicably lost it and had to be ejected from the game (with Holmgren smirking smugly). I can see players taking this route with Cutler, especially when he struggles, mocking him and questioning his manhood until he flips out.

Mark my words. Jay Cutler will be ejected from a game while a Chicago Bear.

* The three quarters of struggles from Aaron Rodgers are mostly forgiven because of a spectacular long game-winning pass to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter. I must admit I was surprised to see the difference between preseason to yesterday's game, but I had a sneaking suspicion this might happen after watching him against the Titans.

What concerned me wasn't the poor passing, the blame of which must be shared with several dropped passes. I am more curious about his lack of escapability of the rush and not getting rid of the ball. Watching Favre earlier in the day, I remember thinking on several occasions as Favre was sacked, "Rodgers would have thrown that ball away or gotten away from that rush". But, unfortunately, he didn't. On the play that resulted in a safety, the announcers astutely noted that Manning was messing with the ball so AR couldn't throw it away, but the point stands that he probably should have tossed it before he got deep in the end zone.

But, as I said, all is forgiven. The toss to Jennings looked exactly like the quarterback we had seen all preseason. I'm wondering if both quarterbacks weren't tremendously nervous and were unprepared for fully unleashed defenses.

* An improved day for penalties, as far as the Packers go. My favorite comparison is our leading running back's yardage versus penalty yardage, and Ryan Grant won today, 61-45. As close as that game was, the Packers' 2008 average of 65 penalty yards could have impacted that final score more than we'd like.

And, mind you, I agree completely that the call on Al Harris was total bull. I'm glad Harris didn't go all "Serena Williams" on the guy that called it.

* Ryan Grant seemed to get it going in the third quarter, but was still bottled up nearly as much as Matt Forte was. Grant has to establish himself more consistently throughout a game, and especially in the first and second quarters, when defenses are adjusting to your game plan. The Bears were able to tee off on Rodgers because Grant had only 11 yards on 6 carries in the first quarter.

Grant did have a spectacular run, a weakside run off of zone blocking that I still caters to his strengths. He often has his best runs out of a ZBS set, and while we'd love to have him explode outside more, he just can't do it consistently.

* DeShawn Wynn did little to convince me why he was kept over Tyrell Sutton or Kregg Lumpkin. He was terrible as a third-down back, dropping a couple of passes, and had only 8 yards on three carries.

* The Packers took some pretty big risks in their 45 man roster, keeping both veteran fullbacks and a fifth wide receiver, but only two running backs. Given Jackson likely wasn't healthy enough to play is one thing, but this whole approach to two running backs and two quarterbacks in order to have three tight ends, five wide receivers, and two fullbacks seems to be taking some chances.

That, and I was shocked that Breno Guacamole wasn't activated to be available to substitute in for Barbre at tackle. As I have mentioned before, I believe special team are important, but not so important that you place your offense or defense at risk.

Speaking of which, did anyone else panic when Atari Bigby went down, and we didn't know Nick Collins was back in the game yet? The idea of having Jarrett Bush as our starting safety is kind of scary.

* I like what the Packers defense did to the Bears offense in the first half. I'm hoping this is a trademark of what the 3-4 can do consistently.

In essence, the Packers shortened the field for the Bears. Two of their three first-half interceptions were snagged at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. As the half went on, and Cutler's confidence was shaken, the passing plays became quicker and more safe...swings, slants, screens. But the defense was able to start charging the line of scrimmage, corners were playing up, linebackers were screaming into plays. In essence, they really shut down the offense because the Bears weren't willing to go more than 5-10 yards up the field. The Packers were able to stack the line and jump all over the passes.

In the second half, it was a pretty clear goal of Lovie Smith to break out of that funk, and they did. But for the first half, the Bears started looking only at first downs, not touchdowns.

* Anyone else find it funny how Packer defensive linemen can play at a servicable level, and then suddenly come alive in their contract year? Gotta love Johnny Jolly, who is playing like a man possessed (or, at least a man who was in danger of being suspended during his contract year). The interception he got likely saved the game for the Packers in the end, and it wasn't even a bad decision by Cutler. A lesser effort on Jolly's part, and that is a touchdown to Forte, or at least, just knocked down and the Bears would have had a chip shot field goal attempt.

* The Packers only had two sacks and three hits on Cutler, but I've often stated that sacks are the most overrated statistic in football. The front three of Jolly, Cullen Jenkins, and Ryan Pickett put pressure on Cutler all night (as well as bottling up Matt Forte). If I had a choice between two sacks versus 15 quarterback pressures and hurries, I'd take the latter. Those sacks only affect two plays in the game, but those pressures affect those plays AND the ones after. Cutler was off-balance, particularly throughout the first quarter.

* Nick Collins good, Nick Collins bad. Great interception, but the way Cutler was throwing that first half, I think I might have had a pick against him. But the touchdown to Devin Hester clearly showed that Collins completely took a bad angle on the ball despite being lined up thirty yards behind the line of scrimmage. Collins is certainly a playmaker, and his ballhawking has improved, but if he is responsible for the double coverage, he has to be in position to at least defend the play.

On the other hand, he did make a great play in the fourth quarter. The announcers mocked Jay Cutler for making a poor decision in trying to force a pass to Bennett with a cloud of four Packers in the way (the play Bigby was injured on). But you look closely, Bennett was behind all four defenders and none of them were able to make a play on the ball or Bennett, except for a Herculean effort on the part of Collins, the only one who actually tipped the ball away. If it wasn't for Collins on that play, they'd be talking about what a great gunslinger Cutler is.

* One of my concerns yet with the way the Packers play the 3-4 is the use of the safeties to substitute in for the linebackers who go in to blitz. It's great when the blitz gets to the quarterback, and it's great when the offense tries to pass short, but it places your corners on an island. Cutler hit a home run pass to Johnny Knox for 68 yards in the second quarter on that exact same play.

AJ Hawk lined up on the left side to rush the quarterback, and Bigby came up to play the linebacker spot in replacement of him. This then forced Collins to play the middle of the field. Hawk tried to bullrush in, but did not get to Cutler before he let it loose. On the play, Collins inexplicably zigged to Harris's side of the field, just as the ball was lauched to Charles Woodson's man, Knox. As Collins zagged back, he slipped and fell, which is why Woodson looked so alone on that play. But, I'm not sure that after Collins' mis-zig if he would have even been able to make it over to help in coverage.

Involving the safeties to cover for the linebacker rush is a good thing, and helps us on 90% of those plays. But the Packers are going to have to make sure that they can account for the single-coverage on the long pass plays, or it is going to be a long season for our corners.

* The Packers won the game, but let's not forget the efforts the Bears went to to lose the game. The Packers needed a game-winning drive with two-and-a-half minutes left, and thanks to some heroics, they got it.

But that six-point victory should have had a wider margin when you consider:
-the Packers forced four turnovers and gave up none
-one interception in the red zone took at least three points off the board, if not seven.
-one interception set the ball up on the Bears one-yard line (touchdown), and another put the ball at midfield
-a foolish fake punt gave the Packers the ball on the 30 yard line, resulting in a field goal
-their star running back was held to a 2.2 ypc average

Let's be serious...this is a dvisional game that was fought down and dirty with defense. But when a team gives you this many opportunities, you have to take them. I am very happy that Aaron Rodgers finally got the game-winning drive under his belt, but it shouldn't have even been that close. Had the Bears not been so happy to give us the ball in great field position, this might have been a blowout the other way.

If we can help it, I don't want to have to put the pressure of winning the game at the end of Rodgers and the offense every week. It's nice to know he can do it, but this shouldn't have been that close, much less with the Bears ahead with 2:35 to go.

* Is it just me, or does Brady Poppinga literally just throw his body around the field? He only finished with one tackle yesterday, but it always seemed like he was careening in after the play was over, sometimes completely off-balance, sideways, or backwards.

*Kapinos quietly had a good game punting. 44.7 average through the air, though in the mid-30's net due to two touchbacks. However, I am content with his performance, and Jarrett Bush earned his paycheck putting one down on the six yard line. He had two other touchbacks.

Now, mind you, I would normally be critical of him not getting those to sit down in the five yard line, but after last year's punting debacle, this is a tremendous improvement.

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All in all, a satisfying day. Like nearly every other team after Week 1, we have plenty of places to look at for improvement as the season goes on, but there was enough encouraging signs to be able to think that this is a team that will be 3-0 when it faces the Vikings in Week 4.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Jordan and Favre: Believing Their Own Hype

I read with disappointment today about the acceptance speech of Michael Jordan at this year's NBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Like nearly everyone else, I would have expected a reverent, appreciative thank-you-fest, but instead the audience members were treated to a bitter, self-engrossed tirade that centered around one person: himself.

No one ever feels sorry for Isiah Thomas, but Jordan tsk-tsked him and George Gervin and Magic Johnson for the 1985 All-Star game “freeze-out.” Jordan was a rookie, and the older stars decided to isolate him. It was a long time ago, and he obliterated them all for six NBA championships and five MVP trophies. Isiah and the Ice Man looked stunned, as intimidated 50 feet from the stage, as they might have been on the basketball court.

The cheering and laughter egged Jordan on, but this was no public service for him. Just because he was smiling didn’t mean this speech hadn’t dissolved into a downright vicious volley.

Worst of all, he flew his old high school teammate, Leroy Smith, to Springfield for the induction. Remember, Smith was the upperclassman his coach, Pop Herring, kept on varsity over him as a high school sophomore. He waggled to the old coach, “I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude.”

This kind of behavior was sadly surprising. Like most people, we grew up with Michael Jordan as the face of the NBA, the undisputed King of the Court, magic personified. We all lined up in front of our televisions to watch him play every Christmas night. We mocked his detractors and those that doubted him. We claimed the NBA would fold without him. He was the guy we all emulated, sticking our tongues out as we tried to dunk on a nine-foot rim. When he left the Bulls, we wailed and gnashed our teeth, and then sat riveted to the television when he announced, "I'm back."

That's the Michael Jordan we built up in our minds, winning games single-handedly one minute, then selling underwear with Bugs Bunny the next. Unfortunately, that's the Michael Jordan we built up in his mind, too. For those of us not dealing with MJ day in and day out, this comes as a shock. But not for those who do.

“M.J. was introduced as the greatest player ever and he’s still standing there trying to settle scores,” one Hall of Famer said privately later.

Jordan didn’t hurt his image with the NBA community, as much as he reminded them of it. “That’s who Michael is,” one high-ranking team executive said. “It wasn’t like he was out of character. There’s no one else who could’ve gotten away with what he did tonight. But it was Michael, and everyone just goes along.”

But such hubris is simply a part of human nature. We do this in our own lives, at least to a degree. It is a part of socialization to find where we fit in the grand scheme of things, particularly in our work, in our social groups, and in our families. We like knowing where we fit in the pecking order. But, what happens when the guy at the top of the totem pole sits there, unchallenged and universally worshipped?

You believe your own hype. Heck, go to your nearest Packer Forum and disagree with a couple people. You'll soon find our who sits at the top of the totem pole there, too, because not only will they be aghast someone disagreed with them, everyone else who is a part of that pole will be aghast, too.

So, we told a man he was truly the greatest player ever, that we would love him forever, no matter what, and that everyone who ever disagreed was wrong. And, in the end, he totally believed us, and is, quite certifiably, a jerk.

Well, I'm sure glad that's never happened to any Green Bay Packers. Wow, that would be a painful process to go through, wouldn't it?

Oh. Right.

The parallels between Jordan and Brett Favre have been made many times before, long before the events of the past year. Both players have earned "the right" to do things that wouldn't be acceptable for other players, like criticizing teammates or disagreeing with roster moves. Both players earned the right to choose to retire or come out of retirement at their leisure, leaving their teams in the lurch. And when they do stumble, there are those there ready to stand to defend them, often calling on past triumphs to overshadow today's black marks.

But, Jordan's behavior is a perfect example of how players on top of the world in their sport end up developing a monstrous ego and even a delusional sense of self-image, and segues perfectly into the Frankenstein's Monster that Brett Favre became for all of us who helped build him up over the years.

Like Jordan, Favre continues to have an over-inflated view of his contributions to the sport at an age where he is unlikely to be able to perform at the levels that got him his past glory. There's that sense of entitlement: I can say what I want about anybody, and everyone else will have to deal with the repercussions. I don't have to be accountable for my own actions.

Certainly, Favre's comments this week regarding how the Jets were apparently aware of his injuries but neglected to include him on their weekly injury reports sent everyone into damage control mode...everyone, that is, except for the man who made the comments.

To be built up as something far beyond what is humanly possible...essentially, to be treated as a god...is bound to have some pretty nasty side effects, especially when the body starts to creak and the cheering stops. As both Favre and Jordan finished their careers, they went to different teams to be treated as the savior for that franchise, based almost completely on the resume' that they had been living off for years before.

But, the stark reality is still there. Even at age 46, Jordan still commands a double standard from his peers and from the media. He continues to sell his underwear with Kevin Bacon, and continues to have his Nike legend live on, a Jumpman logo freezing his image from the 1980's in time. At age 40, Brett Favre continues to hold court with the media, sounding more and more like some old grizzled war veteran telling stories, while the journalists wait for another little gem that they can blow up into another great story.

And of course, there's Brad Childress and Co., tripping over themselves to insure that their savior comes through...on his own timeline, of course.

This is no case to provide a defense for either Jordan or Favre. If they both have grown into self-centered jerks, then they deserve to be judged based on that. However, being a "jerk" doesn't usually dictate whether we are a fan of a certain player or not, judging by the number of Mark Chmura jerseys that sold in the early 1990's.

But it serves to understand why these kind of players get to this sad place they dwell in. To be treated as a god, to be told constantly how the world revolves around you...and then to actually have the media and fandom literally revolve around you and your every move has to have a cumulative effect on you. Heck, we see it all the time in pop culture: we build up a young talent to fiery heights, and then tear them down when they completely buy into it. Britney Spears, anyone?

Reading the article about Jordan, and looking at the drama that has unfolded with Brett Favre, it makes me believe that his un-re-un-retirement isn't about setting a starts record, or getting even with Ted Thompson, or pursuing another championship ring.

It's about fear of becoming irrelevant.

How difficult must it be for any athlete to have the cheering stop? For players like Favre and Jordan, who spent their careers as nothing less than sports royalty, the anxiety of losing that godlike stature has to twentyfold. It makes sense, because Favre doesn't appear to be swayed by negative publicity or backlash.

For the last several years, we've all heard the Favre detractors, who even in his 2007 near-MVP season, still postulated anything negative against him. We all know the types, people who couldn't seem to write or talk about anything else besides finding some new way to derail Favre, even when he was doing well. But, those detractors were still obsessing about him, usually writing about nothing else. They fed into the same fervor that Favre's supporters did.

There's no such thing as negative publicity. Or hype.

The most frightening thing for people like Favre, Jordan, or Spears is to fall out of the public consciousness, to not be treated the way they've been accustomed to. And they will defy anybody and anything (including time) to hang on to it for every second they can.

Being a jerk about it seems to just come with the territory.

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A cautionary tale.

In reading the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Packers Preview section this morning, two things popped out to me about quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

1) He has the highest 2009 salary cap hit on the team at $13,957,420.

2) In a fan Q&A with GBPG Sports Editor Mike Vandermause, I read this exchange:

Q: Is there a rift between McCarthy and Rodgers? I heard on the radio A-Rod was asked about his relationship with McCarthy and all he could say was “It’s getting better.” I also hear he is very upset about them cutting Ruvell Martin. Your thoughts?

Vandermause: McCarthy and Rodgers are fine. Yes, Rodgers was disappointed that Martin was let go. But this isn’t grammar school. This is a business, and Rodgers understands that.

Now, I understand there are contentious relationships between coaches and quarterbacks all the time...certainly Holmgren and Favre were a prime example. But, I've never heard of Rodgers playing anything less than the good guy with the coach that stuck his neck out for him last offseason. "It's getting better"? Because your buddy was cut from the team?

Look, I'm a huge Aaron Rodgers fan, and I'm not stating this to detract from him in the least. I think he's handled fame and adversity as well as anyone in his position could.

But he is now a Packer quarterback getting paid eight figures a year, allegedly expressing dissatisfaction with management and their roster decisions. Sound familiar?

As I said, its just human nature. Let's hope Rodgers learned his most valuable lesson from Favre and chooses to keep his humility instead, no matter how high of a pedestal we place him on.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Penalties Still the Elephant In The Room

There's been a menagerie of problems from last season's disappointing 6-10 season that have been addressed this offseason, so much so that it has given Packer fans some giddy optimism heading into Sunday night's opener against the Bears.

Think about it:

* The defense stunk, so we fired nearly every coach and replaced them with Dom Capers and a motley crew of fiesty assistants.

* The Sanders scheme stunk (generating a pass rush with only four linemen usually is), so we brought in the vaunted 3-4 defense, which has, if nothing else, certainly improved the speed and big-play capability on that side of the ball. The Packers also spent two first-round picks on 3-4 bodies to develop into big-time players.

* The special teams was pitiful last year, so we've compensated by firing that coach, too, and replacing him with a former assistant. In addition, it is clear from the final cuts that special teams is far from an afterthought anymore, with ST abilities dictating many of the final roster spots.

* The nicks and bruises that seemed to weigh down the team last year was also addressed. Dave Redding was brought in as the new strength and conditioning coach, working more toward prevention of injuries rather than dealing with them as they hit the team.

* Finally, the Packers addressed the criticism that they were too soft, practicing indoors and keeping training camp light. This summer, hard hits and exhausting practices were the norm, bringing not only a spirited atmosphere, but a hard-hitting attitude that we saw in many of the preseason games.

So, that covers almost all the problems from last year. Yep, let's see...defense, special teams, injuries...that covers almost everything.

Almost.

The silent elephant still in the room is the fact that the Packers have been one of the most penalized teams in the NFL since coming under the leadership of Mike McCarthy. Last year, they managed to lead the NFL in penalty yardage with 984, after finishing second in 2007 with (gulp) 1,006 yards tacked off.

Last year, I began keeping a mental track of yardage gained by Ryan Grant versus the Packer penalty yards per game. Why Ryan Grant? Well, for one, he just signed a huge contract extension, so I thought it was interesting to see if he could actually keep up with the offensive line's holding penalties. But it is also, to a degree, a measure of the discipline of the coaching staff to remain committed to the run game, even when it doesn't start out well. And slow starts were another ongoing problem with the Packers in 2008.

Last year, Ryan Grant ran for 1,203 yards last season, versus those 984 penalty yards. Somehow, I don't think you want those two totals that close.

While there isn't necessarily a cause-effect you can find between penalty yards and the W/L column, it is clear that, especially in the beginning of the season, the penalty yards racked up.

Minnesota: Penalties 118 W
Detroit: Penalties 62 W
Dallas: Penalties 68 L
Tampa Bay: Penalties 70 L
Atlanta: Penalties 97 L
Seattle: Penalties 45 W
Indianapolis: Penalties 70 W
Tennessee: Penalties 41 L
Minnesota: Penalties 80 L
Bears: Penalties 55 W
New Orleans: Penalties 20 L
Carolina: Penalties 49 L
Houston: Penalties 65 L
Jacksonville: Penalties 30 L
Chicago: Penalties 50 L
Detroit: Penalties 60 W

Simple math tells us that the Packers averaged 61.5 penalty yards per game last season, the worst in the NFL. What the chart doesn't tell you what penalties tend to be an indicator of: a lack of discipline. When you think about the performance of the defense, special teams, and offensive line last year, it is a fair stretch to suggest that this was not the most disciplined team the Packers have ever fielded: even if it didn't show up in the penalty yards, it showed up in blown blocks, tackles, and coverages that led to many of those losses.

But blown blocks, tackles, and coverages don't show up in the box score. Penalties and penalty yards do.

Mike McCarthy was pretty fiesty about those penalties last year, too. When you are on your way to a 6-10 record instead of a 13-3 record, leading the league in penalties isn't nearly as much of a fun conversation topic in the press junkets. We got a lot of lip service about "cleaning up our house", "pad level", "combat penalties", and "keeping on top of the negatives", but the situation only marginally improved as the season went on.

McCarthy solved a lot of problems from last year's team by eliminating those people responsible for the most faulty squads and surrounding himself with better coaches. We should give him kudos for that, even if it does seem a bit like scapegoating. We all remember Mike Sherman's loyalty to his assistants and coordinators (to a fault) and McCarthy has at least taken action, as painful as it may have been for him.

But the discipline of the team is something you can't fire and hire to solve. So much of this game relies of field position and getting those first downs early in drives, and holding penalties on kick returns and false starts make those drives even more uphill.

In their four preseason games, the Packers have had penalties assessed against them to the tune of 52, 74, 60, and 25 yards, an average of about 53 yards a game. This is better than last year's pace, but not by much, Naturally, the preseason can't be counted on much as an indicator of the first team's performance throughout a game. But, it could be noted that the second and third games featured the first teams the longest, and there were the higher penalty totals again.

To me, the "penalty situation" is something that settles directly on the shoulders of the head coach, and it is time to see if McCarthy is going to be more willing to resort to accountability rather than excuses this year. If players are making stupid mistakes that costs the rest of the team field position and momentum, they need to know that the consequence is more than just working on their pad level in practice again this week.

Jarrett Bush should be feeling the heat when the Packers acquired Derrick Martin in trade, as he also fills the role of "gunner" on the coverage units. Yes, Bush is an electric special teams player, but has a knack for making at least one glaring gaffe each game. If you have a choice between an undisciplined gunner or a disciplined gunner, which would you choose? And, will McCarthy send a message resonating through the locker room by making that choice?

Sure, a holding penalty that occurs when a tackle is trying to prevent a blindside jailbreak is one thing. But repeated holding penalties that bring back plays and stall drives have to be looked at as unacceptable, instead of trying to discern which penalties were excusable as "combative" or not. How about approaching the situation with an attitude of "Don't make mistakes. Execute your assignment without drawing a penalty" instead of "If you end up holding after the snap, it's part of the game"?

Penalties are part of the game, and will always be there. And frankly, we all know the officiating squads that are going to throw more yellow flags than others. But the Packers have gone all out this offseason to give this team a makeover in almost every way possible. The last hurdle is going to get this team to play disciplined football.

The onus is on Mike McCarthy to insure that happens. Let's hope that he takes accountability for holding his players accountable this year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Charles Woodson is My Hero

There are a lot of great Packers, both today and in the storied annals of the history books. I have had many "heroes" over the last thirty years, from James Lofton and Johnnie Gray to Chuck Cecil and Sterling Sharpe. From Don Majkowski and Mark Chmura to Brett Favre and LeRoy Butler. From Donald Driver and Ahman Green to AJ Hawk and Greg Jennings.

But today, my hero is Charles Woodson.

Yes, he's a hero for many reasons. He's a shutdown corner and a turnover machine. He's a heavy hitter and a leader in the locker room. He's a high-profile player who came from the limelight of California to the nether regions of the American midwest, and despite his own misgivings, came to love it here.

But today, right now, he's my hero for this reason:

Should something happen to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and backup Matt Flynn, veteran cornerback Charles Woodson says he's willing to play quarterback in a pinch this season.

Woodson insists he can do it, touting his ability to run out of the wildcat formation and throw a few tight -- if short -- spirals to his receivers.

Says Woodson: "I'm in the bullpen. I'm warming up. Absolutely."


Now, do I honestly expect to see number 21 lining up behind Jason Spitz anytime soon? For that matter, do I really want to see it at all, given the circumstances that would have to occur to reach that point? Of course not.

It's not the point. The point is that he is ready and willing to apply his talents wherever they need to be best served. And this isn't the first time he's offered.

Last season, he spent several games lined up at safety, given the emergence of Tramon Williams at cornerback in the stead of injured Al Harris. It wasn't a successful experiment, but it was one that gave us a pretty solid conclusion: Charles Woodson is such a good cornerback, he makes everyone around him better (including the other cornerback). In fact, he probably should stay there.

You see, I've mentioned often over the years my concern over what I've interpreted as the Packers' valuing of versatility over top-notch talent. Along the offensive line, especially, we've often eschewed bringing in solid talent that you could pencil in at one position, instead bringing in guys that can swing back and forth along the line. And swing they did.

Versatility isn't a bad thing. In fact, you love to see it in your backups, who may have to fill in for your starting tackle one week, and perhaps your starting center the next. But you don't necessarily want your starters to all be "jacks-of-all-trades"...you'd like to have them be the solid guy at their position. Like Chad Clifton or Mike Wahle.

Like Charles Woodson.

That philosophy of keeping versatile guys over talent has crept into my fears more this training camp, when versatile Jason Spitz was awarded the starting center job over career center Scott Wells (who had as solid a training camp as anyone). It was no secret that the Packers were shopping Wells around and likely had Spitz penciled in before the season started.

The final cutdown dates also concerned me, as players we would expect to contribute on offense or defense were released in favor of players who had an aptitude for special teams. The release of a player like Anthony Smith in favor of special teams gunner Derrick Martin was one example of preferring a versatile player over a guy who would likely contribute more on defense. While keeping Quinn Johnson as a project player isn't a bad idea, also keeping two special teams ace players like John Kuhn and Korey Hall seemed like a luxury, when you might have been able to keep another running back, or afford to keep a third quarterback.

But the one prime example was keeping Brett Swain over Ruvell Martin. Swain proved his versatility in training camp by playing special teams, and even lining up as a defensive back when injuries mounted. And there's nothing wrong with that...he's the fifth wide receiver and you expect that from a backup. But, Martin was also our emergency quarterback, and in keeping three fullbacks over three quarterbacks, the Packers are placing themselves at risk for having a TJ Rubely situation, without even having a TJ Rubely to go to.

Compounding that problem is that our emergency quarterback was Ruvell Martin. So the Packers went from having three and a half quarterbacks to just two.

So, which "versatile" player will the Packers turn to in that situation? I have no idea, but the fact that Woodson came forward and offered, happily, to take on that role is fantastic. You see, Woodson is the farthest thing from a player who is valued because of his versatility. He doesn't need to be versatile, because he is, simply put, the best at his position. He's a Heisman talent, an All-Pro player who is the definition of "cornerback".

He doesn't need to move. He's the one other players are supposed to move around.

But this All-Pro has offered twice to help out in other positions, last year at safety. The idea that Woodson is taking some time during practice to take snaps and getting his timing down in a "Wildcat" formation is fantastic.

So, the question must be asked....if we occasionally shed talent for versatility, what does it mean when your most talented player shows that he can be the best in the NFL at his position, and still be able (and willing) to be versatile?

Probably a bad example, but the Packers had a shot at Steve Hutchinson back in 2006. Now, as overpriced as he was, the fact is that he would have cemented one guard position...period. The Packers wisely chose not to invest the money, and instead invested in three offensive linemen who had versatility.

The point is, however, that Hutchinson would have held one spot solidly, like Woodson, and the Offensive Line Shuffle that happened for the next three years wouldn't have been such an issue.

It's not my goal to make this into a "free agents are better than draft picks" argument. But, after years of watching established talent pass by in order to keep flexibility, it is great to see one of our most talented players show that the two traits are not mutually exclusive.

Let's hope this is a sign of a two-way street: if our most talented, positionally dug-in player can demonstrate such flexibility, let's hope that our versatile players can find a position, dig in, and dominate at it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Farewell, Tyrell...We Barely Knew Thee...

I am going to join some other fellow bloggers in displaying my regret in the Packers' choice to keep three fullbacks and to allow Tyrell Sutton to depart for more southern pastures yesterday.

Andy at PackerGeeks says:

I’m tired of the Packers being content with bigger body type runners. Sutton was exciting because he could make people miss better than any back we’ve had in a long time (probably back to DeMond Parker days…yes, Steve, DeMond Parker). I’m frustated by this move...If I hear arguments saying that Kuhn is more versatile and can be used as a halfback etc, I’ll be [ticked]. Sutton would be 10x more effective as a half back.


Brian at Railbird Central agrees:

Did you see this guy play football? I cannot believe they cut him. This one may come back to bite the Packers. Sutton can run, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he looked decent on kick returns. Sure, he struggled in pass protection. But guess what? He's a rookie! He'll learn and get better. This frustrates me more than any other cut.
I have to agree that there is such an emphasis on special teams that it was driving some of the final decisions for roster spots: Swain over Ruvell, Kuhn over Sutton, Derrick Martin over Anthony Smith. There is definitely some room for concern here. I am all for improving special teams, but not at the cost of damaging the units that are out there for 100 snaps a game.

As for Sutton, I think the Packers missed the boat on this one. I was excited about this kid from early on, despite the knocks on his height and lack of explosive speed. However, speed is overrated. Face it, how often do you see Ryan Grant exploding into his sprint speed? Hardly ever, because in order to get to that gear, you have to choose your blocks and hit your hole. If you have lightning speed, but can't follow a block or hit a hole, your name is LeShon Johnson.

No, Sutton didn't explode any huge plays the last two weeks. All he did was rack up yards. That's it. If you watch him get the ball, his eyes are upfield and quickly processing the blocking ahead of him. He's not fast, but he is agile and able to move laterally very well. You combine field vision with that agility and you have something that the Packers don't have right now.

Ryan Grant is a good ZBS runner (I don't mean that as an insult). He is at his best when he can get the ball, make one cut, and turn it upfield. Last year, that usually meant a run of between 2-4 yards. If you need three yards, Grant got you three yards. If you need eight yards, Grant got you three yards.

Jackson is the third-down back, the receiver out of the backfield.

DeShawn Wynn and Gregg Lumpkin, for as much as I like them, add nothing more to this mix. They are both big-bodied running backs that will take the ball and run forward through the hole, if they can.

When is Wynn going to get playing time? I'll tell you:

* When Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson is hurt
* When Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson need a breather.
* When Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson are being held out because the game is a blowout and they don't want the starters to get hurt.

In other words, the Packers will treat Wynn like the third quarterback, and that's not what Sutton brought to the table. Sutton would have allowed the Packers to have three different backs in the stable, each with their own gifts to bring to the line of scrimmage. Sutton adds a whole new dimension, able to use his vision to stretch out a sweep or change direction on a run...not trademarks of the zone blocking scheme.

Instead of being stashed on the bench and being an emergency guy like Wynn will be, Sutton could have come in a split backfield with Grant or Jackson, forcing linebackers covering him to account for his agility. And, the fact that he had developed a good rapport with fullback-of-the-future shouldn't be looked past, either.

Maybe the Packers naively thought that Sutton would survive the waiver wire and could be hidden on the practice squad, but they had to know a player who had a bidding war for his services following the draft (and then led the team in rushing in the preseason) would have little to no chance of surviving 31 teams' needs. Now, Sutton is a Carolina Panther.

So, we move on. But as Brian stated earlier, this might be a move that the Packers may end up regretting in the future. Best of luck to Tyrell Sutton, a kid who did everything to earn a spot on the Green Bay Packers roster, but looks like he lost out to special teams.