Saturday, November 28, 2009

Packers Come Full Circle With Five Games To Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: San Francisco Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Welcome Back to Green Bay, Mr Jennings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best way to prevent that is to win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

D Shows Up; Time To (Almost) Believe Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Too Much Going Against The Pack In This One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Special Teams Roster Gambit Backfires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trickle-Up Accountability

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

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

I'm not so sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Should Have Seen This Coming...We Just Chose Not To

I'm in shock after yesterday's loss to the Buccaneers. The previously winless Buccaneers, who couldn't score more than 21 points in a game prior to facing the Packers. The Bucs who turned to a rookie quarterback to make his first start. I'm shocked.

But not surprised.

I'm disappointed. I saw the Packers squander opportunity after opportunity. I saw our best players look like they didn't know how to counter the efforts of a desperate team making desperate plays. I saw an offensive line that played servicably through most of the game collapse like a house of cards when it mattered most. I was devastated.

But not surprised.

I'm angry. How could the Packers have sunk to this low point, after teasing us with a 13-3 season two years ago? And, other than changing the quarterback, adding to the cast since then, rather than having any other major subtractions? How can our line be so bad, our pass rush so inept, our playcalling so uneven, our special teams so awful? I'm ticked.

But not surprised.

No, I was surprised in 2007, when the Packers had a dream season, nearly making the Super Bowl. For a team that was building through the draft, it seemed unlikely to have it all come together so quickly. In retrospect, it sure seems like that one winning season out of Ted Thompson's four-and-a-half was the aberration to what appears to be the rule in Packertown today.

For all the potshots that have been volleyed over the last couple of seasons, I am here to define to you today what a REAL PACKER FAN is. It is NOT being a fan of certain players. It is also NOT defining the team as the head coach or the general manager, either.

Being a REAL PACKER FAN is about caring for your team above all, above any player, any coach, any GM. If that player/coach/GM is helping your team, he's great. If he isn't, he's a toxin that needs to be removed, like an ugly wart or mole from your skin.

Because, in the end, every piece of this team is transitory, sooner or later. Every person who celebrated the departures of Mike Sherman and Brett Favre is now seeing the men they glorified right on the same path out of town. Funny how what comes around, goes around, isn't it? But, there's always enough pitchforks and torches for everyone.

I was actually reviewing some of my posts from 2006 over in the archives at PackerChatters, and was amused at some of my musings all those years ago. So many of my words that I published back then are being recited today, I'm considering filing a plagiarism complaint.

* I expressed discontent at how, despite his claims that the Packers were "trying to win now" in 2005, Mike Sherman became an expensive scapegoat for what was clearly a cap-clearing year. A few years later, Mike McCarthy pulled a mass execution of his defensive and special teams coaches following a late-season collapse.

* I expressed concern that we kept so much cap money unspent in the offseason and early parts of the season that might have been used for free agents or trades options.

* I expressed how just because Mike Sherman traded up unsuccessfully in the draft did not automatically mean trading back was a guaranteed success. In fact, I often cited "quantity over quality" would leave the Packers with a mediocre talent base in the future.

* I expressed little vitriol in the release of established Sherman veterans, but ruminated many times over the lack of an apparent plan to replace them. Trust me, Klemm and Whittaker were not upgrades over Wahle and Rivera. I certainly understood the way the business works, and that losses in free agency are expected, but there was seemingly no plan in place to at least compensate, other than street free agents and late-round draft picks.

But the whole Thompson/McCarthy regime had a certain glimmer to it with many fans who celebrated the ouster of Sherman. I joked at the time that by simply firing Sherman, there were fans ready to bronze another statue outside the Atrium of ol' White Top. Took some flack for that too, but most of those folks have now gone pretty quiet or changed their tune.

There was a point of realization I had before the game, that despite drafting ten offensive linemen in five drafts, the Packers were starting three holdovers from the Sherman regime this Sunday (Wells, Tauscher, and Clifton).

Mike "McPadLevel" McCarthy is getting the most heat following this loss, and much of it deservedly so. But equal criticism should be leveled at the man who hired him and bought into his scheme changes as he pursued personnel, Ted Thompson. Certainly, McCarthy's press conference excuses and explanations have eroded from coachspeak to repeating vague errors to some borderline self-deception (my favorite from the PC today: "I'm very confident in the issues that we've had in pass protection, that they are correctable." You're confident that the issues exist?).

And, as I've mentioned several times in the past few weeks, the Packers are suffering from "antergy", the opposite of synergy. As the good players get weighted down by the ineffectiveness of the team, the end result is a team that is worse than it looks on paper. Right now, the Packers are not even equal to the sum of its parts. And that falls squarely on the head of the head coach, who axed a lot of assistants at the end of last season in what is looking more and more as a scapegoating move.

But like any leadership, it starts at the top, and Ted Thompson has the responsibility of giving the chef (McCarthy) the quality ingredients he needs to turn this team into a decent meal. And, as McCarthy has devolved from being so gruff and ornery his first couple of years to the more passive sidestepper of the issues, you have to believe he is taking on Thompson's leadership style.

And face it: Thompson has invested only one draft pick in the first two rounds on an offensive lineman, and that was for a guard. The majority of "competition" along the line has been with mid-level draft choices, which explains why we just can't seem to shake the aging players left over from the last regime.

The Vikings have done more than defeat us twice this season. They have stuck a silencer on all the people who claimed that free agency won't buy you success. I have no idea if the Vikings will go far in the playoffs, but I can guarantee you one thing: they will go a lot farther than the Packers will. Just like trading up or trading down in the draft, the success of free agency is picking the right guy at the right time (for the right price). Avoiding any of them at all costs simply costs your team opportunities to improve itself.

When the Packers bid farewell to Brett Favre two summers ago, the team was squarely placed on the shoulders of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson. This was no longer Brett Favre's team, and the successes or failures of the team had nowhere else to fall. Perhaps they had an inflated self-image given the success of the 2007 season, but since the train left the station, the Packers have gone 10-14, and according the, are 3-10 against quality opponents (0-3 this year).

I'm not naive enough to suggest that this implosion is all because Favre is no longer here, or that the Packers should have caved in and brought him back. But, I do believe that Ted Thompson far overestimated what he had to work with when he placed the Packers under the microscope by sending Favre on his way, and the results have not been pretty.

As a TRUE PACKER FAN, I questioned Thompson's methods three years ago not because I was a fan of a quarterback or a head coach, but because I had some serious reservations about where those methods would lead us. In the end, I am a Packer fan until the end, born and bred in the 70's and 80's, when diehard fans were the only fans there were.

I am not calling for anyone's head. But, I will say that the climate that is currently being developed is quickly working its way to DEFCON 1. I'm not in any mood for another complete overhaul and rebuilding effort. There are a lot of players I've grown to like on this roster and would like to see them have success and develop into the players that they have the potential to be: Greg Jennings, Aaron Rodgers, Tramon Williams, Clay Matthews. These guys are going to be the leaders on this team once Donald Driver, Charles Woodson, and Al Harris have moved on.

As a TRUE PACKER FAN, I want what is best for this team, a team that I want to win and be competitive, not just piling up cheap wins against terrible teams. But this last game may have sealed not only the virtual end of this season, but have been the clock tolling on the master plan of Ted Thompson. In the end, perhaps it is the fans who booed Brett Favre at Lambeau Field who may come to realize that Favre didn't do what he did to hurt Packer fans, but to call out the man he felt had taken away the competitiveness of the team.

Could he have been right? Certainly, there's little evidence that the Packers are being competitive, at least against quality opponents. Is that the fault of the cook, or the man supplying the ingredients?

All I know is that yesterday's game left an awful sour taste in my mouth. I'm not going to any other restaurant, but the management better figure out the problems real soon or they will be looking for new jobs.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Train Has Left The Station...And Now It's Back.

You know how trends come and go. If you just leave your old clothes in the closet long enough, eventually they'll come back in style. You know, like your Ahman Green jersey.

As we turn on the game this Sunday, we may have to check the channel and make sure we're not watching Retro TV, because it may suddenly seem like the Mike Sherman era all over again.

Oh, sure, the number is different on Ahman Green's jersey, but it is still the same guy. Not quite running like he did in in 2003, like we all were hoping. More likely, he's running like he did in 2006, a season in which we begrudgingly admitted he was no longer the same back and didn't bat an eye when he left for Houston.

And, who is that possibly starting at the tackle spots this week? Why, if the injury fairy works in our favor, it'll be old stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, the bookends from those great running teams of the Sherman years. Unfortunately, it's not the Tausch and Clifton from 2003, either, but the older versions we've been murmuring about upgrading for the last several seasons.

Over much of GM Ted Thompson's tenure, much has been made of bringing in young players, putting the future in motion, and only select holdovers from the Sherman regime were kept on the roster. It was time for "Packer People".

But at last check, Green and Tauscher were presumed to be little more than additions to the Packer Hall of Fame, and this offseason, many fans were pushing for Clifton to join them. "We have our young talent, and we're just letting them sit on the bench while the old veterans are just declining. Time to move forward. The train has left the station. We're crossing the Rubicon."

But, after seven games, "moving forward" is looking a whole lot like going back in time. I keep checking around for a souped up DeLorean in the hopes that Doc Brown might be able to explain to me why the Packers can't just get the train moving. And, as long as he's around, I have a couple questions about pad level to shoot at him, too. The way its been going, it sounds like a problem only a quantum physicist could fix, anyway.

In some ways, the sign-backs of two beloved players who had their heyday during the Sherman era is appeasing some of the masses. Veteran leadership, they cried. This team doesn't have the team leaders in the locker room. We need to sign some free agents!

And, the best that Ted Thompson can manage are two street free agents who were willing to come back to the team that had discarded them, for little more than a veteran's minimum salary? Puts a whole different light on the concept of "loyalty", doesn't it?

A skeptic might characterize the signings of Tauscher and Green as little more than a PR move. However, the fact that both Clifton and Tauscher are penciled in to start on Sunday (if healthy), as well as Green already supplanting DeShawn Wynn and Brandon Jackson as the #2 running back behind Ryan Grant should make many of Thompson's supporters take pause.

Why in God's name are these guys getting significant playing time at all? Ted Thompson has had five seasons to prepare for each of these declines and departures. Five years is the "old plan", the universally accepted time period that a good GM could turn things around and get a team to a Super Bowl. In reality, that time period is actually much shorter nowadays, thanks to free agency and salary caps.

But, regardless, there is little excuse for there not being talent on the roster acquired by Thompson over the last five years that would supplant two injured, aging, and declining offensive tackles, and a running back that was discarded after the 2006 season. And yet, here we are, watching TJ Lang and Allen Barbre each take a seat for the old veterans to come back in and try keep defenders out of reach of their quarterback.

Further compounding the intrigue is that fact that the Packers put a waiver claim today on another player from their discard pile, Anthony Smith, who was waived by the Rams. Few final cutdown moves were more surprising and questioned (and defended by some) as much as Smith, a veteran who had made some plays in the preseason and seemed a lock for the third safety spot.

Oh, certainly, there were questions about his locker room presence and his knack for playing outside the scheme at times. But since that time, the Packers have cut their third safety (Aaron Rouse, who is now starting for the Giants next week), acquired a safety from the Ravens via trade (who is apparently nothing better than a special teams player), and ended up having to play...Jarrett Bush.

The very fact that the Packers put in a bid to get this player back seems to suggest that they have come to grips with the belief that he wasn't all that bad of a player after all. Suddenly, that terrible team attitude and freelancing on the field didn't seem like such a big deal anymore, did it? However, the Packers weren't awarded Smith anyway, just adding to the egg on the face in placing the claim to begin with.

This is a sign to me that the cracks in the armor are starting to grow. While we never get to see all the reasons and rationale for personnel moves transparently, one can easily surmise that the Packer brass is starting to backtrack and cover for their errors.

Like, drafting one second-round running back covered with injury red-flags, and populating the rest of the backfield with undrafted rookies and an overpaid guy that cost us a 6th round pick.

Like, building your offensive line with mid-round draft picks hoping that competition would somehow make their fifth-round talent play like top-tier talent.

Like, cutting conceivably the second-best safety in your training camp in order to keep project guys and special teams players.

Now, I predicted this years ago: the Thompson approach of eschewing free agency and trading back in drafts was going to produce a mediocre team. But the call was always for "moving forward". When we let a veteran player go, like Green, we were content to believe that Brandon Jackson would someday be a far better player. Just like Barbre and Rouse.

In many ways, Thompson has been guilty of some of the same over-loyalty to his draft picks that Sherman was accused of. It is no small irony that, as Thompson kept under-producing players like Jackson, Aaron Rouse, and Tony Moll on the roster for far too long, that in response to that failure we actually end up turning back to the players we left behind.

In reality, we all know it is too late for Green, Clifton, and Tauscher to save us. The good players who could actually make a difference aren't going to be sitting on the street waiting for us to give them a vet's minimum salary for the honor to play for the Packers again. Anthony Smith, a guy in his prime that actually may have made a difference, is still too much in demand to come back to Green Bay. Perhaps in 2014 or so, Smith will be sitting at home waiting for a phone call to play for as little as possible, with no other suitors for his services.

The question is, will Thompson be working for the Packers when he makes that call?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Did Rodgers Outplay Favre?

Interesting conversation I observed today. Two buddies were going back and forth regarding yesterday's game, and naturally, one was very Pro-Favre and the other was very Not-Pro-Favre. One of the guys was trying to make the point that Rodgers actually outplayed Favre yesterday.

The reason? "If you put Favre behind our offensive line, and Rodgers behind Minnesota's line, Rodgers would have had a better game than Favre did. Look at it: he was getting hit and chased left and right, and still had over a 100 efficiency rating. Favre would have thrown 5 interceptions if he'd been playing behind our line."

Interesting. And to be sure, there is some merit. Nearly any quarterback in history who had a great season was playing behind at least an adequate offensive line, if not a great one. Look at the differences in Troy Aikman's and Steve Young's careers once they had some powerful lines in front of them.

But to extrapolate to say that Rodgers "woulda" had a better game if he had Minnesota's offensive line is like saying Errict Rhett was a better running back than Emmitt Smith because of the lines they ran behind.

Aaron Rodgers is, in many ways, the Anti-Favre, particularly in how they handle themselves with pressure. They are very different from each other.

Favre is still better at managing the rush simply by maneuvering the pocket around and putting his linemen in the position to keep that block held for another half-second. Rodgers tends to either push up or back with his speed, and while sometimes it works, it doesn't give the linemen a chance to reset their blocks.

Rodgers is better at using his feet to generate positive yardage. Once again, he outstripped all of the Packer running backs yesterday...our only true rushing threat. For as much as Favre was once hyped as a mobile quarterback, he really never was...he was just good at moving around and buying time.

Rodgers is also better at not forcing the ball. Favre would avoid the sack by getting the ball off, even if it was early or forced into coverage. Rodgers was once pretty good at throwing it away, but is now content apparently to eat the ball as so not to turn the ball over.

And therein lies the real interesting comparison: where Favre would throw into coverage, Rodgers preserves the possession at the cost of a sack. Two very different approaches as to how you deal with pressure. And that has a stark impact on Rodgers' passing efficiency rating.

By not throwing an interception yesterday, Rodgers had a rating of 108.5, incredibly high for any quarterback, especially one in a loss. The avoidance of throwing those interceptions keeps that number quite high, though. If he had thrown one interception instead of an incompletion (or a sack), his rating drops to 98.3. Two interceptions brings it down to an 88.1, and three would be a 78.0.

Instead, he took six more sacks for a loss of 29 yards...almost as many yards as Ryan Grant had rushing. He also took ten more hits besides that, which explains why he's still limping today.

So sure, Rodgers might look even better behind a solid offensive line like Minnesota's, and would be greatly helped by having a home-run threat in the backfield like Adrian Peterson. I'm sure his stats would have been just as good as Favre's if he would have time in the backfield to pass and had a running back to take some pressure off of him.

However, if you put Favre behind our offensive line, and gave him a running back that only rushed ten times for thirty yards, what would you have?

Right...the same situation he was in his last three years as a Packer. Is what the Packers are doing on offense any more effective than our line with Wil Whittaker and Adrian Klemm? Is Grant doing any better than Samkon Gado did at the end of 2005?

Favre's already been in this scenario...we don't have to try and extrapolate it at all. And Favre dealt with playing behind a terrible offensive line and having no running game by throwing 29 interceptions. This may come as a surprise, but this was not anywhere near the NFL record of 42 in a single season.

Rodgers is dealing with the same scenario in his own way...piling on sacks instead of turnovers. And he is back on track for 74 sacks this season, just two short of the NFL record set by David Carr.

And it makes you understand, to a degree, why Favre had pressed Thompson so hard for some veteran leadership and talent to surround him on offense. No, I'm not condoning his actions, thinking he could dictate a direction to Ted Thompson, but the fact is that Rodgers is now the one dealing with not having an adequate offensive line in front of him, or a true rushing threat behind him.

In the end, Favre got where he wanted to go, and is reaping the benefits of a team built in an Anti-Ted fashion. But, for no good reason, Aaron Rodgers is still working behind a line that features only one second round draft pick and the rest second-day picks. He's handing off to an overpaid average running back that has no vision or burst unless the holes are ten feet wide.

And there is no excuse for this. Thompson has had five years to build the team to surround Aaron Rodgers. There is not one offensive lineman who you can look at that is even remotely worth of Pro Bowl status. The plan to develop flexible, interchangeable linemen has backfired: it is clear that the Packers have a bunch of interchangeable linemen who are simply ineffective wherever you put them.

And, in the backfield, the Packers invested one second-round pick on an injury red-flag running back that hasn't done much since. The rest of the candidates have been late-round picks, street free agents, and other preseason darlings-turned-disappointments.

Rodgers is a bona fide franchise quarterback, but the Packers are going to do to him what Houston did to Carr and the 49ers did to Alex Smith, but it will be far worse. Those teams drafted a young kid and started him as a rookie with the horrible team around him. But, the Packers wisely were able to groom Rodgers on the bench for three years before thrusting him into the spotlight, with a 13-3 team surrounding him. But that level of execution quickly vanished, and Rodgers has been asked to win games purely on his arm.

Just like someone else we remember. But, this isn't how it was supposed to be with Rodgers.

So, don't think too hard about imagining Rodgers playing with Minnesota's offensive line and running game. I'm sure Favre imagined that for quite some time, too, and it ended up coming true.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: Favreageddon Aftermath

Having just returned from the game, I probably should sit down with the DVR and review this game on television before writing a game review. However, I can tell you now that I don't plan on watching this game again until my body has rid itself of the toxins left behind from watching it the first time, so I will simply comment based on what I saw live.

I went into this game believing there would be no moral victories...this was a must-win, no excuse or rationalization. However, in retrospect, I think I was wrong. When the Packers roared back in the second half, there was a part of me that was so excited that I felt even if they lost in the last seconds in a close game, I was much happier than the way the game had started. However, when the Packers returned to their first-half uninspired and disjointed play, I think it left me even more disappointed.

This game was about a lot more than the quarterback for the other team, no matter how much we hyped it and overblew it. It looks like the Packers also forgot to focus on what was important, too. With that, the QuickHits for this week:

* This game turned on one decision: the choice to go for a 50-yard field goal. Yes, 4th and 8, down by five points in the fourth quarter on the Viking 33 is probably a no-brainer...normally.

But this is Mason Crosby, who melts in the face of pressure and kicks over 35 yards long. If you were listening, there was a voice resonating from Section 130, Row 35, screaming "No! Don't do it!", bringing back memories of Frankie Winters yelling at T.J. Rubely. But, no, that was me screaming to Mike McCarthy, pleading with him not to give the Vikings the ball at midfield and the momentum back. But, he did.

Simply put, Mason Crosby is an excellent kickoff guy. But this is the second big kick in two seasons of Vikings games he's blown. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. As soon as that eeked outside the uprights, you could tell the whole team lost every bit of steam they had in their stride.

* I've already noticed Aaron at Cheesehead TV starting to take heat for reacting emotionally to this game. Please. And if the Packers had won, we would be censoring our own emotionalism? No way. We CHOSE to make this game the biggest game on the home schedule this year. And no matter how much we deny it, how much we say we're "sick of Favre", we made it all about him today, made beating "him" the only goal. And we lost...badly.

The Packers have been a part of what will be two of the highest rated NFL games this season outside of the Super Bowl, and it isn't because of who is playing on their team, who is coaching them, or who is leading them. It was because of who they were playing. Now, all that attention is going to go away for the rest of the season, and it is up to us to figure out the mess left behind.

There's going to be LOTS of emotional statements. "It's a business" has been a common phrase uttered since Ted Thompson took over the Packers, justifying his approach to building a team. Look for that to change soon. Yes, the Packers are a business, but it ain't all about dollars and cents. It's about wins.

* Clay Matthews rocks. I have been trying to decide what jersey I want, and I may have decided on this kid. I still can't justify the amount we paid to get him, but it sure is nice to have a first rounder pan out and contribute right away.

* The lack of pressure on Favre compared to the pressure on Rodgers was laughable. Some of it was due to the differences in the offensive lines, and Lang/Barbre did nothing to alleviate the concerns that Thompson did not have a very good plan in place to replace Clifton/Tauscher. But the harshest lesson has to be watching Favre's most underrated skill set: his ability to sense pressure in the pocket and move it around with slight adjustments, helping his linemen keep in front of the rushers. Rodgers seems to be regressing, holding onto the ball so bloody long, when last year we regularly applauded him throwing it out of bounds.

Six sacks on Rodgers, and ten hits on him. That's simply unacceptable. Favre again went without a sack, and while he did have five hits on him that, at times, upset his passes, you sure didn't see him limping around after each play.

I love Aaron Rodgers. I think he has the potential to be a great quarterback in this league. But he's going to get hurt soon, and worse, he's going to keep developing bad habits that quarterbacks get when they never have time to throw.

* Nothing against Jermichael Finley, but Spencer Havner is doing what we've been waiting for Jermichael Finley to do. Maybe it is simply a component of the offense, and as long as you have a nice athletic body in there, these red-zone TDs are what we should expect. I'm sure Havner is feeling really good about his job security after the last few weeks.

* Oftentimes, stats tell you a pretty clear story, but not today. The Packers owned time of possession, edged the Vikings in first downs, turnovers, passing yardage. But they lost out on the most important stat: the final score.

My favorite stat? Ryan Grant, our leading halfback, had 30 yards on 10 carries. The Packers had 6 penalties for 45 yards. Once again, our halfback couldn't outstrip our penalties.

* Maybe someone has a good explanation for me, but was anyone else confused when Ahman Green was returning kicks? I mean, wasn't he just activated for the game, and has he ever had experience returning kicks? Just didn't make a lot of sense. Maybe the radio or TV broadcast explained it. Just struck me kind of odd.

* Again, stats belie what happened on the field. Sure, Rodgers again has a glowing passing rating of 108.5, but since he never turns the ball over, that will always keep that number respectable. Rodgers looked as flustered as I've ever seen him, even back to his rookie year. He looked out of sync with his receivers, throwing the ball into wide-open spaces. He took unnecessary sacks and used his legs to outrush every other back on our team combined.

If you just look at his stats, you'd say he had a good game. But this was far from his best.

* Yes, Adrian Peterson finished with almost a hundred yards, but the defense did a very good job keeping him under control. A third of his yards came on one carry, and without it, he averaged just over 2 yards a carry. Seems like every time we face him, everyone assumes he's going to "get his yards". But the Packers have stymied him each time, a feather in the cap for a run defense that was maligned at the beginning of the season.

* Scary moment when Donald Driver went down. Seemed like a lot of knicks and cuts this week, which usually seem to happen more when you are losing. Glad to see he was alright.

* Viking fans in the crowd made me a bit nervous. How exactly do this many Viking fans get tickets for a sold-out game with nothing but season ticket holders? I saw at least two Viking fans led out of the stadium by police, so here's hoping some of those season ticket holders who can't seem to keep their tickets away from people with purple jerseys lose their tickets. The Vikings fans nearest me were very polite and gave (and took) some good-natured ribbing, but I didn't have to look too far to see some very antagonistic behavior.

* Listening to Mike McCarthy talk after the game did not sound much different from what he's said for the last year and a half. "I felt the game had really flipped and you need to ride those waves. Especially at home. That's the benefit of playing home football. That's the benefit of playing here at Lambeau Field. We didn't take advantage of that. That's a lesson that needs to be learned. We made too many mistakes to win the game and that's a fact. I didn't do a very good job of getting the offense in rhythm in the first half."

I know, what is he supposed to say? The point is, though, he's been saying the same thing for over a year now and we are still waiting for this team to show up consistently for four quarters against quality opponents. I think MM is playing for his job the rest of this season.

* This game sure showed a huge difference from the last two games, where I think the Packers could have sat their starters and still beat the level of competition they were up against. There was no rhythm, no motivation, no discipline...until what seemed to be a "sugar rush" in the third quarter that dissipated short of the goal. The same old problems resurfaced; sacks, lack of pressure on the quarterback, non-combat penalties, missed tackles, lack of discipline.

This is a team that is simply playing with "antergy", which is the opposite of synergy. They aren't playing up to their ability, much less exceeding the sum of their parts. This game exposed the holes on the roster and the square pegs in round holes of the 3-4 defense.

Brett Favre didn't beat Aaron Rodgers today. Favre and the Vikings beat the team Ted Thompson was supposed to have built around Rodgers.