Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vandermause's Excuses For Crosby Not Helping...

Over the years, there are few writers I've enjoyed nitpicking more than the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Mike Vandermause.  Maybe it's because his biases are so evident.  Maybe it's because he doesn't stop at just facts to prove his points.  Maybe it's just because it is so easy.

Today, Vandermause advises Packer Planet to calm down and cut Mason Crosby some slack.  I have no problems with his base message, because he is correct when he states that "It’s not likely that anyone available this late in the season would perform any better than Crosby."

But then, he drifts off into some stretches of reason and statistics that are supposed to lead us to believe that he is on the verge of turning into, well, Ryan Longwell.

Longwell made just 20 of 31 field goals [64%] eight years ago and ranked 33rd among NFL kickers, but bounced back by converting 85.2 percent of his kicks over the next three seasons. His 81.6 percent career mark ranks No. 1 in Packers history.

No one can predict how Crosby will respond to his slump, but history says he deserves every opportunity to break out of it. Ryan Longwell had a bad year in 2001, and then bounced back the next year, so this means that the same will be true of Crosby?   Certainly, Longwell struggled mightily, but he finished that year strong.  People forget, when you just lump the season statistics together as Vandermause did, that he simply was a 65% kicker from start to finish.

But, in actuality, Longwell missed four field goals in a row, ranging from Game 5 to Game 7.  He finished the final five games of the season making 7 out of 9 field goals, including a mammoth 54-yarder in game 13.

And how exactly did this change happen?  Well, not by going out and trying to reassure him by saying his job was 100% secure.  No, they went out and fixed the problem.  Longwell himself was a factor in shaking himself out of his own slump, studying game film and recognizing that part of the problem was in the placement of the ball by a new holder, then working with his coaches to change it.

It also doesn't hurt that the Packers had a heckuva season that year, going 12-4 and making the playoffs.  Winning tends to make us "okay" with struggles, too.

The other critical part of the statistical jigsaw that Vandermause leaves out is that we aren't comparing apples to apples with Longwell and Crosby.  Longwell had demonstrated his ability to kick at a high level ever since he won the job over Brett Conway as a street free agent in 1997.  In his four seasons before his "off year" in 2001, Longwell had FG percentages of 80.0%, 87.9%, 83.3%, and 86.8%.

Crosby was fortunate, like Longwell in 2001, to have come in as a rookie during the Packers' 2007 13-3 resurgence, leading the league in scoring and turning him into a fantasy football darling.  In reality, however, Crosby only made 79.5% of his field goals in that year, and then turned in a near-identical sophomore performance last year.  Now, as his percentage has dropped to 72.7% this year, we have to ask a rather logical question:  is 79% the "norm" we're hoping Mason can snap himself back to?  Longwell demonstrated the ability to be a Pro Bowl caliber kicker before his slump, but Crosby's achievements have been based on quantity, not quality:  more a component of the high-powered offense he benefits from rather than his own accuracy.

So, the Longwell comparison is missing quite a few holes.  But this doesn't stop Vandermause from going to the well again.

Even this season, for all the scrutiny Crosby has received, his accuracy is close to Longwell’s 74.1 percent during his final season with the Packers in 2005. Since leaving Green Bay, Longwell has converted 86.0 percent of his kicks.

For starters, Dave Rayner made 74.3% of his field goals in 2006, and like Longwell, was ousted the following offseason.   Now, in 2005, Longwell had only the second sub-80% FG kicking percentage of his entire nine-year career at that point (and since, for that matter), but there were still a lot of other factors at play besides the basic numbers.

For one, Longwell had rookie bust BJ Sander as his holder that year, and we all know Longwell's oversensitivity to poor holders.  Secondly, 2005 was one of the worst seasons in Packer history, a complete under-performance by every squad on the team, special teams not excluded.  There was no synergy on the team whatsoever, and Longwell's performance was completely in line with what we saw in nearly every other phase of the game.

The question then becomes, what external factors are affecting Crosby?  Is there a team-wide schism, like there was in 2005?  No, and in fact, as the Packers have pulled it all together following the Tampa Bay debacle, Crosby has only declined further.  Is there an issue with the holder?  No, and the foolish effort to swap out Matt Flynn with Jeremy Kapinos last week was evidence of that.

The problem is simple: there's an issue with Crosby, whether it be in his physical mechanics or in his mental approach to the game, or both.  Regardless of what it is, this is the NFL, which in the immortal words of Jerry Glanville means "Not For Long" if he keeps doing what he's doing.  No, the Packers may not find someone any better than Crosby on the free-agent market right now (Kapinos didn't exactly set the world on fire after coming in to replace Derrick Frost, either), but there needs to be some direct problem-solving on the part of special teams coach Shaun Slocum.  Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be on the horizon, either.

The Packers’ coaching staff is taking the proper approach with Crosby by offering public support. In private, they would be wise to tell Crosby that he’s their kicker regardless of what happens the rest of this season or how loud his critics complain.

Crosby shouldn’t have to worry about his job status every time he tries a field goal.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum said: “What you need to do is … have a mindset of ‘Boy, I can’t wait to make this kick’ as opposed to going out there saying, ‘Man, I can’t miss this one.’"

Once again, Vandermause shows his bias by beating the drum of the Packer administration.  He shouldn't have to worry about his job status every time he tries a field goal???  What the hell is he getting paid to do?  He is paid to do essentially one thing, and one thing only:  kick a ball far and straight.  That's it.  If you can't do that one thing, you need to be worried about your job status.

We all know that kickers have fragile egos.  I've made that point many times myself, and Crosby's is clearly shaken.  But what is to be gained by artificially propping him up, both publicly and inside the locker room?  Even Ryan Longwell, who has far better career numbers, was a part of solving his own struggles the few times it has happened.  Instead, Crosby is being told what a good boy he is, while the blame from his coaches seem to land on poor Matt Flynn, who, to my memory, bobbled one snap all season. 

It's pretty basic self-defeatist psychology:  you keep telling an person that their inferior performances are fine, and they don't work to solve the problem.  However, when their performance continues to be inferior, they get more and more frustrated when the external criticism rises, and soon enough, begin to see for themselves that they aren't doing as well as they should be...and the downward cycle continues.

What's most amusing to be is that Vandermause keeps choosing to compare Crosby to Longwell, a guy we essentially rode out of town on a rail, because we saw him as far too expensive to keep around here only kicking as well as he did in 2005.

Look, I am not one of the folks ready to run Mason Crosby out of town on a rail.  I am, however, getting ready to run out Slocum for not working to fix the problems that are going to end the career of a promising young kicker, and Mike McCarthy should be ashamed for going along with it.  Crosby doesn't need excuses and artificial confidence right now from those folks that are accountable for his development and performance.  He needs someone to coach him, to study his mechanics, and to remedy them.

If you want to make a comparison to Longwell's poor 2001 season, how about focusing on how he solved the problem, instead of just declaring he had one.  He didn't break out of it because he had a full self-esteem balloon, and neither will Crosby.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mike Tomlin? Puh-leeeeese...

20/20 hindsight is a great thing for people in a position that puts a microphone in front of your face.  The better you are at spinning a story, the more you can create a genius thought process to cover your arse.

It sure doesn't hurt to win the game, either.

Mike Tomlin was spinning his best lines regarding the late-game onside kick gambit he pulled late in the fourth quarter.  You just went up by two points with under four minutes to go in the game, and you pull a surprise onside kick (that your cover team ineptly messes up anyway).

Let's color this what it is.  It was a huge gamble.  It was a "let's pray we get the ball and can sit on it for a long time, then punt".  If it works out (low percentage), it's genius.  If it doesn't (high percentage), it gives the ball to the Packers on the wrong side of the field and plenty of time to work with it.  The element of surprise is the key thing here, mainly because no sane coach who values his job would attempt such a risk.  And, if that ball had taken even a slightly different trajectory from its bounce, it just might have worked.

Tomlin, however, explained this failure as working completely into the Steelers master plan.  Seriously.  He makes it sound as if he PLANNED on having the Packers score, and scoring so quickly that the Steelers would have more than enough time to then score on them back!!!

"I'll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn't get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score. Plan A didn't work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it.

"We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That's why we took the risk when we did. We were just trying to win the football game. There was time left in that game that had we kicked that ball away and the half had gone the way that it'd gone, they were converting third downs. They would have moved the ball down the field on us, we wouldn't have had necessary time to respond. I'm just being honest, but it starts with feeling pretty good about the element of surprise and having a good chance to get that ball, but that part of it didn't work out."

If we could somehow condense all that down into one sentence, it would look like this: "If it didn't work, we figured they'd score on us, and do it quickly we have a chance at the end to come back."

Now, as Tomlin is basking in the glory of a last-second win that revitalized the players and fan base, and got him of the snide of a five-game losing streak that essentially took them out of the playoffs, it's pretty easy to spin that into a winning strategy move.  But, it makes little sense.

A smart team would drive down the field and take time off the clock.  When you put the ball in the other team's hands, you have given up control of the clock.  Period.  And, indeed, you put yourself in the position to either burn your timeouts and leave yourself at the mercy of chance, or you let them score in order to get the control back.

But the Packers were out of timeouts.  Even with 3:48 still on the clock, it would limit what Rodgers and Co. could do offensively on a long field.    Giving the Packers a 39 yard field to work with, especially given they only needed a field goal to go ahead, was essentially giving them all they needed to have the momentum their way.

Give the Packers a 79 yard field to work with, with the Steelers in a nickel/dime defense, and they would have needed exactly what the Steelers needed on the very next drive...a lot of calls going their way, some no-calls going their way, and some really lucky and timely plays.

According to Tomlin, you would think that he intentionally let the Packers score, just so he would have the ball last in the game.  Didn't he learn anything from watching Super Bowl XXXII, when Mike Holmgren let Terrell Davis score so they would get a chance to have a game-winning drive at the end of the game?  How did that work out for them, when the Broncos went into a stop-the-pass defense and prevented the Packers from scoring through the air?

It's not a safe bet, and face it...had the Steelers not gotten some help from the referees, the game would have been over long before they were in field goal range.  And, have to admit, Ben Rothlisberger made some amazing throws, too, against the "#1 defense in the NFL".

If this is what Tomlin is sellin', I ain't buyin'.  Kind of reminds me of the guys sitting around after deer camp, embellishing the story of how they got their buck.  When you don't get your buck, no one believes your tall tales.  But when you do, you get a little more play with how you can spin the story...after all, the evidence is right there.  Right?

Tomlin owes Big Ben and Mike Wallace (and perhaps the officiating crew) a nice fruit basket this holiday season, because they bailed him out of a pretty high-risk, all-or-nothing gambit that by all rights should have been egg all over his face.   I've been told in the past that we ignorant fans should never question the play-calling by these highly trained NFL head coaches, but that sure would take all the fun out writing about them, wouldn't it?

In one stroke, Tomlin made a risky choice, robbed his defense of an opportunity to make a game-defining stop on a long field, and put all the pressure back on his quarterback with scant time left.  Give Rothlisberger credit for coming through on a fourth quarter comeback.


Speaking of 20/20 hindsight, I'm just as entertained by the number of folks who insist James Jones should have taken a knee at the one-yard line.  Oh, sure, in retrospect, but you gave them two minutes and a long field against the #1 defense in the NFL, playing nothing but pass.  Jones did fine. Put the blame where it belongs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Pittsburgh Aftermath

Oh, the sweet promises we had coming into this game.  The Pack were favored on the road, on a win-streak that matched the Pittsburgh losing streak.  Greg Bedard wrote that, according to the Pittsburgh press, the Steelers "had no fight left in them".  Minus Troy Polamalu, the Steeler defense would allow a running game to gash them (as the Browns did last week), and then the passing game could easily do the rest.

We didn't get that game, but we got a game that had me on the edge of my seat until, quite literally, the final second came off the clock.  It's been a long, long time since the Packers have played in a nailbiter, and even though we came out on the wrong end of the scoreboard, it was a good day to be a Packer fan.  It was a tough, back-and-forth game in chilly conditions against the defending Super Bowl champs, who decided to come to play today (even if their coach out-thunk himself too many times on the way).

With that, let's get to this week's QuickHits:

*  First and foremost, the effects of this loss doesn't hamper the Packers' playoff chances too much.  It would have been nice to have gotten the win, waited for a Giant loss tomorrow night, and celebrated clinching a wild-card.  Now, we have to wait until a home game against the Seahawks next week at home, a team that was manhandled by Tampa Bay today.

The NFC East is still the division to watch, and Dallas beating the Saints may be good in many ways for the NFL, but the Packers would like to see the Cowboys stay amongst the wild cards, and not challenge for the division.  The Cowboys are the team that Packers own the tiebreaker against, and we'd like to keep the East as is:  the Eagles up top and the Giants and Cowboys fighting amongst each other for the last spot.

*  Aaron Nagler got a little fiesty with the number of folks who were calling for a more balanced offensive attack by the Packers, but in the end, Aaron Rodgers attempted 48 passes today, completing only 26 and featured back Ryan Grant only got 8 rushing attempts.  If you take away Grant's 24-yard touchdown run, he was 7/13...less than a 2-yard average.  The Steelers definitely came to play this week with their rushing defense, especially after being embarassed by the Browns last week for 171 yards on the ground.

The lack of consistency of that balance from week-to-week has to be a head-scratcher, though.  Sure, Grant wasn't getting a lot of yards, but his opportunities were few and far apart.  That the Packers ended up with five passing plays for every running play (including Aaron Rodgers' three scrambles) isn't something that is going to hold up in the playoffs.  One week, Grant runs well and he gets 100+.  The next week, he runs well, but the Packers give up on the run anyway.  Then, he doesn't run well and the Packers appeared to have given up on the run after they coin toss.

*  On the flip side, Pittsburgh played it almost identically.  Big Ben attempted 46 passes and the Steelers attempted only 19 rushes in all.  The offensive numbers were almost identical, except that Rothlisburger finished with over 100 more yards than Rodgers.

*  Rodgers and the passing game was somewhat of an enigma today.  Rodgers had another slow start with many of his balls seemingly overthrown, underthrown, or behind his receivers.  Now, an astute observer may suggest that A-Rodge may be simply placing  the ball when it can only be caught by his receivers, and you may not be too far off.  It also shows the contrast in how the two quarterbacks approached their pass-heavy strategies today.

If you watched Rodgers, more times than not the ball was indeed low, high, or behind.  But much of what the Packers like to do is to put the receiver in a position to gain yards after the catch.  In many cases, the receivers caught the balls for shorter gains and then had to make a move to move the ball upfield.  Even the biggest gainers weren't through the air, but were slant or curl patterns that the receiver then tacked on more and more yards on.  Safer, conservative throws that, many times, were caught by a receiver who had his momentum shifted or even stopped, then restarted again.

Rothlisberger, on the other hand, had some pinpoint passes that he put in front of the receiver's routes.  He throw bombs that went over defensive back's heads, or sometimes dangerous passes that the receiver would run into.  Neither threw an interception, but Big Ben had the slightly higher completion ratio, more yards (but less YAC), and a higher average per attempts (10.9 to AR's 8.0).

*  The drops by receivers were disturbing.  While many others will have their scapegoats for the loss today, we can't deny that the first half was marred by several key drops.  What is particularly disturbing is that the drops seem inversely proportional to the temperature...the colder the games, the more unreliable the receivers get.  With a first-round matchup in Philadelphia in January a strong possibility, Mike McCarthy may want to move some of the receiver drills outside over the next week or so.

*  The sack numbers were interesting:  Rothlisberger was sacked 5 times today but had the better passing day than Rodgers, who was sacked only once.  The TV commentators mentioned more than once that Coach Tomlin was not taking steps to make Big Ben get rid of the ball earlier and avoid those sacks, unlike what happened with Rodgers in the early part of this season.  Of course, the Packers made those adjustments and went on a 5-game win streak.  The Steelers just got their first win in well over a month.

In other words, at least today, the Steelers were able to not allow those sacks to consistently end drives.  None of the Steelers' sacks were on the same drive, and two of those drives resulted in touchdowns.

*  Quite simply, this game may have put a big ol' dent in Charles Woodson's chances for Defensive Player of the Year.  Sure, he had nine tackles, but none of the big plays we've become accustomed to.  Add to that a couple of holding penalties and being part of a secondary that gave up 472 yards through the air (though we all know who was defending the most damning plays) doesn't do a lot of convince voters to look past the Jets' Revis or the Saints' Sharper when ballot time comes along.  Woodson will need a big couple of games against the Seahawks and the Cards to get his front-runner status back.

*  The Packers penalty situation may not look that bad compared to other weeks (7 accepted penalties for 56 yards), but they came at the worst possible time:  the game-winning drive by the Steelers in the fourth quarter.  Yes, the refs were being a bit flag-happy with both teams on that drive, and I am the first to say that they need to let the teams play to decide the final outcome, not the penalties deciding it.  Three critical calls against Woodson, Chillar, and Bell all helped decide the outcome of this game on that drive, when it mattered the most.

*  Incidentally, Steeler left tackle Max Starks reminded me of another #78 I've seen recently playing tackle in the NFL.  Starks almost single-handledly imploded the Steelers' final drive with holding penalties and terrible blocking.  The Steelers needed the penalties by the Packers or they never would have gotten down the field.

*  Send him to pasture #1:  Mason Crosby.  I actually feel sorry for this kid.  His 34-yard field goal miss ended up being the mathematical difference in this ball game.  But there's no excuse for missing a 34-yarder anywhere when you are an NFL player, and don't give me the "wind and field conditions" story.   His confidence is shot, and the approach the Packers took last week to defend him to a fault to the media was not only overkill, but invited more criticism.

The even more harrowing decision to suddenly change his holder in the middle of a slump was even more glaring.  The problem, when examined by even novice analysts, hasn't been with the holds, but with Crosby's mechanics and approach.  Instead of changing everything around the problem, you need to solve it.

* Send him to pasture #2:  Jarrett Bush.  PackerRanter declared he was climbing aboard the Jarrett Bush bandwagon before the game today, and I am guessing he is quickly scrambling off.  Just NOT making stupid plays for a couple of weeks isn't reason to get behind someone.  Bush made two HUGE gaffes today in coverage that resulted in long gainers, including the huge 60-yard Mike Wallace touchdown on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage.

Unfortunately, the Packers have only Josh Bell to back him up, and he doesn't appear to necessarily be that much of an upgrade.  Of course, he's been struggling since "Drake and Josh" was canceled on Nickelodeon, anyway. 

*  Keeping Quinn Johnson active is worth it, if only to see him bulldoze into the back of Aaron Rodgers on quarterback sneaks and push him ahead four-five yards farther than he would have gone otherwise.


A lot more to say on the subject, but despite how enjoyable this game was to watch (compared to so many games that seem like they were done after the second quarter lately), you left with a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach.  How does your defense allow a team that you should have completely sucked out  every last shred of fight to go on a 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with only two minutes left on the clock?

Despite today's loss, the Packers are almost certainly in the playoffs.  But they have a ways to go before the are truly considered a Playoff Team.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crosby Needs an Intervention

Oh, if it weren't for that annoying "r" in Mason Crosby's last name.  You see, if it weren't for that "r", his name would be Mason Cosby, and then perhaps Bill Cosby may be willing to adopt Mason, much as he did with Cincinnati Bengal Quan Cosby during the 2009 NFL draft.

Because, right now, Mason Crosby is in need of an intervention.  Bill might be just the guy to have the wherewithall to get it to him.  Or, at least get Mason a good supply of Jello Pudding.

Out of 13 games, Crosby has missed a field goal in seven of them this season.  He ranks 24th overall in field goal percentage (75%), and while none of his misses have been the difference in the ball game (unlike last year's Viking game), he is becoming more and more of a liability as a placekicker.

Today, the Packers faked a field goal on fourth down, resulting in a time out and a conventional conversion attempt from the offense.  However, the line of scrimmage on that play was the Chicago 32, meaning that was merely a 49-yard field goal attempt.  The Packers passed up Crosby's leg on both tries.

Probably a good idea, because later on, Crosby missed from 42 yards.  He made a 26-yarder and a 33-yarder, but going into the playoffs with a kicker you can only rely on to make field goals inside of 40 is a pretty big handicap for any team.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum may come under fire for a lot of things this season, but quietly, one of the worst things he may be doing is slowly allowing Mason Crosby's career to go down the tubes.  Let's be honest.  Mason Crosby is one of the highest-scoring players in the NFL.  Even now, he's gold in fantasy football.  But that is a result of playing with a high scoring offense that gets down the field and sputters in the red zone.

Crosby has yet to break the 80% completion rate in any of his three seasons in the NFL.  He's been given scant opportunities to kick a game-winner in the final seconds, and again, last year's Minnesota game was a black mark against him that he is unable to shake off.

Crosby got a lot of press early on because he started his kicking career in Green Bay during the Midas Year of 2007, racking up 141 points and leading the league in scoring.  We loved everybody on the Packers in 2007, even if they only made 79.5% of their field goals.

But, as this season has progressed, Crosby has only regressed.  More noticeable is that while the rest of the team has seemingly rebounded from hitting rock bottom against Tampa Bay, Crosby is one of the few that isn't following suit.  The running game has improved, the pass protection has improved, the defense has only gotten tighter with young stars starting to shine.  Heck, even Jeremy Kapinos has been invisible lately and Jarrett Bush has been serviceable.

But whatever Slocum is doing with Crosby, it isn't working.  And my guess is that it isn't as much a physical problem as it is mental.  Crosby doesn't need a technician, he needs a therapist.

Kicking isn't like any other job on a football field.  It's a very precise, methodical process, not unlike shooting a free throw or your golf swing.  There aren't a whole lot of variables that you can adjust to make you kick better or straighter.

But we all know someone who tries to do that, especially on the golf course.  Your golf swing is methodical.  It's as much concentration as it is mechanics.  But when you start to struggle with your drives, it tends to start a downward spiral.  You can't just compensate by swinging harder.  You get frustrated.  You start over-thinking and over-adjusting.  And it usually doesn't help until you just get away, clear your head, and re-focus.

That's not the way most positions are in football.  Running backs can run harder.  Wide receivers run faster, jump higher.  Defenders hit harder.  Nearly every position on the gridiron has a way to use emotion and drive to improve your performance and pull you out of a slump.  You can change your mental approach by changing your physical approach.

But not so for a kicker, and as pressure mounts on Crosby, tales from the recent past come to mind.  Brett Conway was a third-round draft pick in 1997, a high pick for a kicker that always comes with the pressure to be "the next big thing" to justify your draft position.  In a preseason game that year, the young kicker had the game from hell:  five missed field goals with no other kickers on the roster.  You could tell from the look on his face he was devastated.  The next day, he went out early to the practice field to "fix" everything he could, and ended up injuring himself in the process.  Conway was let go in favor of some street free agent named Longwell, began a journeyman's career in the NFL, and is now out of the league at an age (34) when many kickers are still well in their prime.

Conway's decline was rapid and intense.  Crosby's decline has been slow and gradual.  You would think there are ample opportunities for a good coach to intervene.  And perhaps Slocum is doing his best and this is just something in Crosby's head that is too hard to reach by simply looking at tape and adjusting your approach.

Said coach Mike McCarthy following the Bears game in his post-game presser, "I had a chance to talk to him after the miss. Just like last week, I'll look at the snap, the hold, the kick but Mason needs to kick the ball through the uprights. And the snapper needs to put it where it needs to be snapped, and the holder needs to put it where it needs to be held....I'm not worried. I have confidence in Mason. I believe in Mason."

That's fine and dandy, but just "not being worried" may not be the best medicine for Mason Crosby.  Someone needs to get inside his head and get him to refocus, both mechanically and mentally.  Passing over longer field goal attempts, as McCarthy has done the past few weeks, may be good enough against middling teams like the Ravens or Bears, but isn't going to be good enough when we are up against the Saints or the Vikings in the playoffs.

I don't say this as a condemnation of Crosby, because if he can be fixed it is in the best interest of the team.  He has a powerful leg and his kickoffs are more than adequate.  There's no doubt he has enough power to get the ball to the goalposts, even from 55 yards or more.  You only need to look around the NFL to know that there is a dearth of top-notch kickers out there.  "Getting rid" of Crosby eliminates one perceived problem, but creates a slough of new ones.

But, as the Packers drive towards the playoffs, and as Crosby enters a contract year next season, the pressure on him is going to mount.  Eventually, he is going to be placed in the position to win a game with a sizable field goal attempt and little time on the clock, perhaps to clinch a wild card spot or win a first-round playoff game.  You only need remember the lessons of Conway, or even BJ Sander, to know what pressure in the face of heightened expectations can do to a struggling kicker.

Deservedly so, Crosby has earned the privilege (if you can call it that) of being "worried about", and it is time that McCarthy and Slocum quit looking for excuses for him or patting him on the shoulder.  Waiting for the problem to solve itself hasn't proven to be successful, so it is time to get inside Mason's head before he loses it. 

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pleasant Developments: Clay Matthews

It's official. I like Clay Matthews III. I really like him.

The kid has lived not only up to his billing, but to the exorbitant price paid for the extra first round pick in the draft. He's been all over the field, making sacks, making critical tackles, stripping the ball, and looking like he's having a blast doing it.

All the reason to like him. But I have one important reason why Matthews has my respect.

He's earned his spot. He's a starter and is playing like one.

This hasn't always been the case in the TT/MM regime. When you choose to build through the draft, eschewing free agency, there are a lot of times that young players are given jobs simply be default, and get that "NFL starter" title without necessarily doing much more than being drafted.

I know this is true for a lot of NFL teams, especially first-round picks. Young players are thrown into the mix to fill spots, even though most of us know that a draft class is supposed to be for the future, not the present.

But the Packers went through several years of throwing even mid-round picks into starting roles with very little competition. In 2006, the Packers drafted three mid-round offensive linemen (Colledge, Spitz, and Moll) and essentially gave them to rookie head coach Mike McCarthy as his starters. There was no one of note behind these guys, and so the guard positions were essentially filled without competition.

Even some of our first- and second- round picks have been given starting spots with no competition: Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Brandon Jackson, and AJ Hawk. And before you play the "Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three years" card, do you honestly think he would have sat the bench had Favre retired (for good), even after the 2004 season? You think Rodgers would have watched while Ingle Martin took snaps under center?

Anyway, my point is not to belittle these guys, but to shower not only praise on Matthews, but in how he earned his way into a starting job instead of having it handed to him.

Early in the offseason, the two players trying to earn a spot opposite Aaron Kampman were Brady Poppinga and surprise upstart Jeremy Thompson. Clay was being touted as a "special teams maven" that would likely be the heir apparent for Kampman. Even so, I still worried that TT might be tempted to toss him in there earlier in order to defend the heavy price paid for him.

As preseason rolled around, Jeremy Thompson faded away and Poppinga appeared to be the man competing with Matthews for that spot. In the end, Poppinga got the start on opening day and began a stretch of mediocre performances.

Slowly, Matthews began to get a little more playing time, essentially blurring the line between who was the starter and who was the rotational player. By the time the Packers met the Lions in Week 6, Matthews was named the starter in the base defense. But he didn't just get the job because Poppinga was struggling.

He had been making plays in the first four games, including a key pressure against Jay Cutler in Week 1 that resulted in an interception, a sack of Carson Palmer in Week 2, and several passes defensed. But the big one was the strip of the ball from the best running back in football in Week 4, resulting in a stunned Adrian Peterson and a touchdown return for Matthews.

And since getting that start, Matthews has done everything except slow down.

He earned the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors in his first start against the Lions, and then again against Dallas in Week 9 when he forced and recovered two fumbles. In only nine starts, he leads the team with seven sacks. The last time a rookie linebacker led the team in sacks was 1986, when Tim Harris finished with eight.

But the best part of it all is that Matthews didn't get his starting spot based on his draft position or on his rather legendary last name. He earned it and continues to earn it each and every week. He is aware that there are veteran linebackers behind him, like Brandon Chillar and Poppinga, ready to take over in the event he falters, and continues to play at a high level.

After this past week's game against Baltimore, Matthews has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and three QB hits. Not the Defensive Rookie of the Week...the NFC PLAYER of the Week. The same award won by Charles Woodson, a veteran Pro Bowler.

Even better, as his play has improved, so has the play of the guys around him. Fellow long-haired first-rounder linebacker AJ Hawk has demonstrated some gains in his playmaking, making an athletic interception against the Ravens and posting 17 tackles over the last two weeks. This from a guy who was essentially off the field for most of the game earlier in the season and heard whispers that he would soon be benched as a draft bust. Nick Barnett has also been better than solid as late, developing into a playmaker in stopping the run game.

That's the definition of a star who makes the players around him better, and Barnett and Hawk have reaped the benefits of playing next to a guy who doesn't need to be compensated for, like Kampman needed before he was hurt. Instead of being a converted defensive end, Matthews has entered the Dom Capers 3-4 scheme on the ground floor, and has immediately put his skills to work within it.

Hawk has long been criticized for having a low ceiling, but Matthews' ceiling hasn't been sighted yet. Is it worth the price paid in the draft to get him? Time will tell, but early results would say that not only was the bevy of picks given up for Matthews worth it, but Ted Thompson may have pulled off the steal of the draft.