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.
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.