Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chery Sums Up Crux of Special Teams' Issues

Ah, out of the mouth of babes.

Jason Chery did more than give the Packers beleaguered special teams units a glimmer of hope last Thursday, he sent a clear message as to what special teams are all about.  Chery, a mid-training camp afterthought signing that had about as much chance to make the final 53 as a fourth-string quarterback, scintillated the crowd with a late 75-yard punt return for a touchdown...an opportunity he had to plead with the coaches to get.

Pete Dougherty gives a nice writeup on Chery and his sudden thrust to prominence: now apparently after having to beg for a chance to return one punt, he will now be fielding every punt and kick in the last preseason game against the Chiefs.

But one thing really stood out to me in Dougherty's piece:  an exuberant Chery described at length the process of petitioning the coaching staff, then getting out on the field.  With little time to properly go through the intricate coaching needed to properly field a punt and run it back, Chery got the Cliff's Notes version:

“By the time I finally went out there,” Chery said, “everybody was on me, the whole team was rooting for me, ‘Catch the ball, make sure you catch the ball,’ ‘Be calm,’ this and that. I was like, this is like college all over. The more they were telling me, the more a regular kid, he’ll get nervous.
“So I’m back there, I’m already nervous, my adrenaline is pumping, my eyes are red because I’m emotional — ‘Finally, my time.’ Then I said, ‘OK, catch the ball.’ So I caught the ball, and then I was, ‘OK, what am I going to do? So I caught the ball and made one move, because coach said, ‘Make one move and hit it.’ I did exactly what they told me to do, and I hit it.”
So, there you go:  just catch the ball, make one move, and score.  Sure, it doesn't hurt that Chery has 4.3 speed, but then, so does Sam Shields.  In a nutshell, Chery may have revealed one of the issues plaguing the special teams:  is it possible Slocum is trying to do too much?
Last week, I talked with Wally Pingel over at PocketDoppler, and hearing Chery seemed to echo my concerns I mentioned about special teams and Shawn Slocum.
More than anywhere else on a football team, special teams are all about fundamentals and execution. It’s always the same: snap, hold, kick; or field the kickoff, set up the wedge, and make your blocks. There’s no formation changes, no play-action, no disguising coverages. You don’t have the chess match like the offense and defense do. The breakdown on special teams is a breakdown of the most basic skills football players need to have, and that puts the bullseye squarely on the coach.
It's like a free throw in basketball.  There's no strategy, no plays called, no zone defense or man-to-man...you line up at the exact same point, with no defense, and try to hit the front of the rim exactly ten feet high and thirteen feet away.  It's about discipline, fundamentals, and doing the same motions naturally and consistently.
Special teams in football are similar...oh, don't get me wrong, I know there's a world of difference between the opposing players parting like the Red Sea and letting you shoot a free throw and all them coming straight at you with blood-curdling kamikaze screams.  But returning a punt shouldn't be that hard.   I took a little ribbing during the game last week when I asked how hard it had to be to catch a punt.  Yet, Chery did it, only thinking about the essentials:  catch it, one move, run.
When you think about the difficulties the Packers have had with special teams, several names come to mind:  Mason Crosby and his blind spot on the right hashmark, Jarrett Bush and Derrick Martin with their dumb penalties.  Slocum himself claimed last season he had to essentially bring Crosby back to ground zero in terms of his technique and start him over from scratch.  Why?
Derrick Martin, who added some unnecessary contact a couple of weeks ago against Seattle, compounds the problem with his swaggering attitude.  Despite his own head coach angrily denouncing his actions, Martin defied the admonishment, claiming McCarthy only has to do that for show.
Asked if the coaches were mad at him, Martin said yes.

“That’s what they’re supposed to do. You get ejected from the game, they’re supposed to yell at you,” Martin said. “So they yelled at me and we’re moving on.”

Nevertheless, Martin maintained his innocence and vowed not to change the way he plays.
“You can expect high intensity every play. I’ll be like that the whole time,” Martin said. “From what I’ve seen on film, I feel like I’ve played inside the rules of the game. If I get fined we will appeal it just to see. I feel like I did nothing wrong. I play like that every week – high intensity, high power, high aggression. And I will continue to play that way.”

Quite a difference in attitude between Chery and Martin, isn't there?  Now, I'm not saying this is the entire crux of the problems with special teams...I have a feeling it goes far deeper than that.  But, the idea that Martin is worrying more about his intensity, power, and aggression instead of worrying about what his coverage duties are tends to be a warning flag to me.  If he were truly concerned about his coverage duties, he wouldn't have been fisticuffing with an opponent while the ball was still in play. 
Focus on your role and assignments on special teams is paramount, and executing them is the key to success.  It's not rocket science...it's fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental (and the most methodical) you will find in football.  The holder snaps the ball to a predetermined spot each and every time.  The holder must field the ball and place it in the correct predetermined spot each and every time.  The kicker must execute his kick at the right power and angle each and every time. 
There's always room for physical error, but on special teams, there's no room for mental error, or a lack of discipline.  Give Chery, who earned several conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors while at Louisiana-Lafayette, a chance to show he's coachable.
And then, K.I.S.S--Keep It Simple, Slocum.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Interchangeability and the Case for Quinn Johnson

I'm a Quinn Johnson fan.  Loved the pick, love watching him play.  Honestly, if he makes the team this year, I'm considering getting a Quinn Johnson jersey.  Only trouble is, Johnson is as much on the bubble as anyone...and could even be a potential cut on August 31 if the coaching staff has already decided that the tandem of Kuhn and Hall, along with the potential of some of the tight ends can do the job.

You know what I mean...that trait the Mike McCarthy loves so much:  interchangeability.  McCarthy may just love having a guy like Tom Crabtree who can go out and play the tight end spot, but with his good blocking skills, be able to line up in the backfield, too.  And of course, we already know about John Kuhn's newfound talent at halfback.  Heck, you might be able to take all the backs and tight ends and choose their spots in each formation with a bingo-ball machine.

Except for ol' Quinn, he the one-trick pony laying crushing blocks, but inconsistent in the passing game and on special teams.  Compared to wily, versatile do-it-all fullbacks like Kuhn and Hall, Johnson appears to be the odd man out in McCarthy's Interchangeable Circus.

And, like Sam Shields, my hopes for him making the 53-man roster ebbs and flows through each practice and game.  One second, he's struggling to catch a low pass, and just when I start losing faith, he crunches a block that the television commentators crow about while replaying it in slow motion.  And then, just when I get my hopes up again, he looks lost on kickoff coverage.  And so it goes for a young player trying to crack the roster in the NFL.

Now, don't get me wrong:  I'm not bashing interchangeability.  But, I will be honest, I am old school and a bit X's and O's when it comes to the schematics of a football team.  When I think of versatility being a valuable asset, it's something I usually would think of in a top backup (a "sixth man", so to speak).  Good examples would be Brandon Chillar or Daryn Colledge, each valuable backup-caliber players who can play almost any of the positions left-to-right along the linebacking corps or offensive line.  And yet, these players don't quite have what it takes to crack the starting lineup and command their spot. 

No one talks of moving Chad Clifton inside or Nick Barnett outside (well, besides me), because they are the masters of their position...again, old-school thinking that starters command their role, while versatile players back up them and other positions nearby.

But the advantages of having players who are versatile are also considerable.  Kuhn may not get a ton of snaps as a fullback, especially with the number of double-tight end sets the Packers have been running, so having him able to line up in the backfield not only helps his playing time, but could potentially allow the Packers to keep only two pure running backs on the roster.  Spencer Havner's two-way ability is more than just a novelty, especially when he keeps finding the ball in the end zone.  Yes, interchangeability makes it a heck of a lot easier to plug holes in your lineup when injury hits.

Of course, in practice, that isn't always the case.  When Chad Clifton got hurt early in the season last year, McCarthy put in motion a game of musical chairs, moving players up and down the line to compensate.  Suffice it to say, the results were less than stellar, and many of us wondered if we just would have been better off plugging in just one player at tackle and offering him schematic help, instead of moving Colledge from his guard position over to tackle, putting two guys out of position.

However, whatever your opinion is on interchangeability, this is a mantra of Camp McCarthy.  When final cutdown days arrive, a player like Anthony Smith, who strictly played safety and was not much of a special teams contributor, will find himself on the waiver wire while Jarrett Bush continues to have a job.

So, will Johnson's bone-jarring rush blocks be enough to keep him on the roster another year?  Odds would say not, but I am going to say it should be yes. 

Quiz Question:   Against the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs last year, the Packers had six touchdown-scoring drives.  Guess the average time of possession on each TD-drive?

Well, the longest drive was 4:14, if that gives you any indication.  It took the prolific Aaron Rodgers-led passing attack only an average of 3:03 to make their way down the field and score (an average of 68 yards, by the way).  Many pointed fingers at the defense for their inability to keep the Cards out of the end zone, and rightfully so, but few pointed at the faults of the offense...and here is the fault that stands out.

The offense scored too quickly.  In a game like this, the Packers would likely have benefited from hanging onto the ball for a long, nine-minute drive, instead of scoring and handing the ball back to Kurt Warner in what became a game of Madden on the easy setting.    In the second half, Rodgers started out with 13 straight plays from the shotgun, and in all, attempted 33 passing plays to 10 rushing plays.

Now, I'm not so obtuse to realize that a lot of that is playing from behind, as well as taking what the defense offers you.  But, the Packers got into a shooting match that they lost control of.  They would score in three minutes, and the Cards came back and scored almost as quickly.

Ryan Grant finished with 64 yards on 11 carries, but had only 18 yards in the second half of the game when the offense compiled 322 total yards of offense.  I take nothing away from Rodgers, Jennings, and Co., who were prolific then and should be even moreso this upcoming season.  But at some point, the Packers needed to control the ball, keep it away from the Cardinals, take away their momentum.  And they couldn't.

At some point in the season, and most likely in the post-season, you're going to come up against a team that has your number.  They've studied your tape, they know your strength, weaknesses, and tendencies, and will simply match up well with you.  This is where interchangeability loses its luster.  Who could the Packers have put into the game on either side of the ball to stem the tide?  The Packer defense couldn't stop the Cardinal offense, while the Packer offense couldn't pace themselves and establish the running game.

And, guess who was inactive that game?  Quinn Johnson.

In a game like this, it doesn't matter if you are handing the ball to Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson, or if you have John Kuhn or Korey Hall blocking.  Interchangeability usually also means similar skill sets, so you weren't getting anything "new" or different out of the substitutions.  In fact, the Packers had used the shotgun/empty backfield so much over the course of the second half it wasn't any wonder the Cards got away with sending more rushers than we had blockers on the game's final play.

Quinn Johnson has the potential to be that kind of game-changer.  Not "game-changer" in the sense that we normally think of it, like "Greg Jennings is a game-changer", but the kind of player who can force the opponents to change how they play us.

The dominant Packer offenses of the 90's had a definite modus opporandi with their running game.  While the first half was often all passing game, with usually 2-3 touchdowns scored, the second half featured the running game, with Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett draining the life out of the defense with an eight- to ten-minute drive or two.  This was even evident in the Super Bowl, though admittedly, the Packers were playing with a lead.

I'm a strong believer in keeping players with better-than-just-average abilities, and I think Johnson has the ability to force defenses to respect the run, to put an extra man in the box, to make the linebackers watch for #45 just as much as they are watching for #25.  While a shootout is fun to watch, it's no fun at the end if you've lost.

As for the argument that Johnson isn't an asset on special teams, I say hogwash.  We kept players on this roster because of their interchangeability and their ability to be contributors on special teams, and what did we get for that?  A special teams unit ranked #31 in the NFL by Rock Gosselin's respected ST rankings.  Loading our roster with Jarrett Bushes and Derrick Martins not only diluted positional talent, but didn't reap any benefits at all in special team play.

Johnson offers something against the grain of what Mike McCarthy has traditionally valued....and perhaps he is a one-trick pony, a crushing blocker that would signal whenever he's in the game that a rush is coming.

Perfect.  Can you imagine the audibles Aaron Rodgers would have available to him when opposing defenses bring eight or nine in the box to guard against the run?

It's not often that you look at an offense and find a need to slow it down, but last January, we might have seen it.  Quinn Johnson offers the Packers the ability to apply the brakes when you need, as take the wind out of the sails of the opposing defense...just like the championship teams of the 1990's used to do.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Donald Driver's Odds for Post-Career Honors

After wrapping last night's episode of Cheesehead Radio, Jersey Al and Holly were doing a post-show chat with me.  And, Holly went on a rant about one of the few topics that can get Packer fans feeling like they are getting the short end of the stick:  the importance of Donald Driver and the respect he receives from the rest of the NFL.

Now mind you, as the Packers prepare the play the Colts tonight, we are talking about one of the few quarterbacks and receiving corps that can have a legitimate challenge to the Packers' supremacy this upcoming year.  Dallas Clark, when asked about the receivers as a group earlier this month, "They're the best in the NFL."

Naturally, I would take umbridge to any such claim, but Payton Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers is still far from a clear-cut victory at this point in A-Rodge's career.  However, the explosive potential of Jennings, Driver, Jones, and Finley would match up very closely to the Colts' package of Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, and Clark.

Let's put it this way:  the passing game is not a critical concern for either team.

But what got Holly's goat was the attention paid to Reggie Wayne, the Colts' venerable receiver. Now, I don't know about you, but being an avid fantasy football player for some time now, it was somewhat surprising to learn that Wayne is 32 years old.... I still tend to remember him as the young wide receiver playing next to Marvin Harrison.   But at his age and production, he's reached the point of some gaudy statistics that people are beginning to fawn over.

For example, Wayne is on the verge of compiling his seventh straight 1,000 yard season, which is a record among active players...and people are talking about it.   But, can you guess what NFL player he shares this honor with?  None other than our own Donald Driver.  But often, Driver gets lost in the shuffle when discussions revolve around the better receivers in the NFL, and his prominence is certainly hampered by the presence of Greg Jennings.  

But Driver's leadership and team-record breaking performances should garner him as many post-season honors as Wayne or any other of his contemporary peers, like Torry Holt, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Chad Johnson...players who've had perennial strong seasons since the early 1990's and are now reaching the twilight of their careers.

A question I posed a few weeks ago was whether or not Donald Driver's career had earned him the post-career honors that might be awaiting other prominent Packers, and whether the national oversights that have been a trademark of his career will continue after his playing days are over.

In order, I will address if Donald Driver's career earned him 1) The Packer Hall of Fame  2) The NFL Hall of Fame 3) His name on the Lambeau Field Ring of Honor, and 4) #80 to be retired.

1)  The Packer Hall of Fame (chances: 100%):  When you go back in time and think of the Packers' greatest wide receivers over the course of their long and storied history, three names come to mind:  Don Hutson, James Lofton, and Sterling Sharpe.  Hutson and Lofton are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Sharpe remains eligible. But 34-year old Donald Driver has surpassed these true legends in many statistical categories, and the fact that it doesn't appear his career is over for at least another two years means he's just going to be even more superlative.

Driver now ranks #1 in Packer history in total receptions (647), #2 in total yards (9,050, just 606 behind Sharpe), and #5 in receiving touchdowns (49, tied with Lofton, needs 1 TD to tie Max McGee, 8 to tie Antonio Freeman, and 16 to tie Sterling Sharpe for 2nd overall).  It's nice to know that Hutson's 99 TD receptions is likely safe for a long time.

Regardless, Donald Driver has not only statistical significance, but he's been arguably the most popular, charity-minded, and charismatic Packer player of the post-Holmgren era.  When popular players like Don Majkowski and Mark Chmura make the Packer Hall of Fame, there's no way Donald Driver misses out.

2)  Pro Football Hall of Fame (20%)  Making the Pro Hall is a much harder task, not only because of wider competition, but because name recognition and national attention pays off...and that is something, as Holly begrudged, that Driver hasn't always had.

Looking at Driver's base career numbers  (647 rec., 9050 yards, 49 touchdowns), we can pretty safely say that if he plays another healthy two seasons, he will be in the 10,000 yard club.  That is a mark only achieved 32 times in the history of the NFL, although it is likely that Chad Johnson (9,952) and Reggie Wayne (9,393) will get there before Driver.

But getting 10,000 yard receiving is far from a ticket into the Hall of Fame.  Of the 32 players in the 10,000 Yard Club, 15 are still playing or are not HOF-eligible yet.  Another two (Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez) are tight ends.  That leaves 15 players who have 10,000 yards receiving and are eligible for the Hall, and of those, only eight are in....guys like Rice, Irvin, Lofton, Monk, Largent, and Joiner.  Guys who you can picture in their uniform, and even still remember their number.  The question is whether or not Driver fits that mold.

Or, does he fit the mold of the guys who have 10,000 and haven't made it?  Guys like Jimmy Smith, Andre Reed, Cris Carter, and Irving Fryar...guys who quietly put up yards for teams, yet didn't come away with Super Bowl rings.  And that may be a big mark against Driver if the Packers don't end up winning one in the next couple of years.

The other thing working against Driver is, quite simply, the number of wide receivers that he will be competing against in his years of eligibility.  Issac Bruce, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Randy Moss, Tory Holt, Mushin Muhammad...all will be on the ballot with Driver, and many have that name recognition that Driver sometimes does not get on the national stage.

And since Driver is buried on the receiving touchdown lists (at #104, he presently trails Larry Fitzgerald), the chances that Driver will be looked at as a prolific WR becomes even smaller.  

Again, the chances of Driver getting national attention and respect will go up wildly if the Packers secure a Super Bowl in his career, and then the talk of being a consistent go-to guy for two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks can get some play.

3)  The Lambeau Field Ring of Honor (40%)  At present, twenty Packers have their names circling the facade at Lambeau Field, a way to give a slightly higher honor than the Packer Hall of Fame.  The names include more than just players, as Lombardi and Ron Wolf find their names emblazoned for all time for anyone attending a game at Lambeau Field.

The question is, does Donald Driver have the "honor" to join this illustrious group?  Most of the names on the wall are still reach back to the historical days, names that when being considered were already etched in the minds of many Packer fans as legends.

Unfortunately, the biggest criteria for being on the Wall of Honor is being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  When Ron Wolf was placed on the Lambeau walls in 2006, he had the "honor" of being the first and only Packer there who was not in the Hall of Fame (and still holds as the HOF has not come calling for him yet).

That may be one of the keys to Driver making this honor, as Wolf's "induction" onto the wall almost seemed in response to the failure of Wolf to make the cut in the Hall of Fame voting.  Driver, who may also suffer from this fate, may get a reprieve from the Packers, who wish to place an honor on a long-serving and civic-minded team leader.

One of the other concerns brought up when I posed this question was Driver's childhood, when he was homeless and selling drugs out of the back of the van he lived in.  One commenter said, "No drug dealer is going to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame."  And he may well be right.

But, Driver's childhood wasn't anything he had control over.  He was raised by a single mother, and all the children in Donald's family resorted to selling drugs and stealing cars in order to support the family.  "Quickie" wasn't just a nickname he earned for his running speed, but his driving-away speed. One day, a U-Haul pulled up to the house, with Driver believing that his family was finally out of trouble and were moving to a better place, only to find out the U-Haul was their new home.  He slept on the streets, in hotels, and in cars, and worried day-to-day on how he was going to make it to the next.

His mother made the ultimate sacrifice, splitting up her children and sending them to live with relatives far and wide.  Donald vowed to his brothers and family he would pull them out of poverty, and set his mind to achieving those goals with the best gifts God gave him.  He was a track and field star at Alcorn State, but chose to go with the Packers when selected as only a sixth-round draft pick in 1999, passing up a chance to qualify for the Sydney Olympics the next year.

He lived up to his word, being a model player, a model teammate, a model husband and father, and a model community member.  He supported his brothers and mother, and crated the Donald Driver Foundation, dedicated to helping homeless families.  Most of all, he never takes a day of his life or his career for granted, and that is evident in his approach to the game and in how he takes care of his body as he thrives past the warranty for NFL players.

When I used to argue with Viking fans about Randy Moss, they often used the argument that Moss's criminal behavior and negative impacts on and off the field were all due to the difficult childhood he had, that he was a man to be pitied, not held accountable for his behavior.  In response, I first used the example of LeRoy Butler, a Packer who conquered not only a tough upbringing but physical limitations to become a team leader, and then the example of Donald Driver, a man whose bleak upbringing dwarfed the excuses Viking fans made for Moss.  Moss acted like a self-absorbed, me-first player who "played when Randy wanted to play", while Driver took every opportunity he could get and fought his way into the starting lineup and became Brett Favre's favorite target.

To use someone's childhood as an excuse for adult transgressions has some merit, but it still comes down to the choices the adult makes...not the choices that were made for him as a child.  Likewise, you shouldn't hold Driver's childhood and the decisions that were made for him against him when it comes to considering the body of work he's accomplished as an adult.  He could easily have made destructive choices that could have been explained as "nurtured" from his role models as a child.  The point is, he did not.

Donald Driver may not make the Hall of Fame, but if there is a man who has defined "Packer People" over the course of his career, it's Driver.  And perhaps that is what will define the new Ring of Honor at Lambeau Field.

4)  #80 Retired (10%)   Can you see it up by the scoreboard?  #14, #3, #15, #66, #92...#80?  We all know there's probably another single-digit number that will eventually find its way up there, too, but that is a long ways away.   If they chose to consider Driver's #80, though, it would be an uphill battle.

However, look at the numbers that are up there.  Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Bart Starr, and Ray Nitschke were all lifetime Packers, as it is highly likely Driver will be.  In the grand scheme of things, I think playing most of your career with the Packers (if not all of it) should be a primary consideration for having your number retired.  I was actually quite critical of the decision to add #92 to the list, a decision made on emotion following Reggie White's tragic death, without taking into account that White had actually spent more years with the Eagles than with the Packers.  Arguably, his more statistically impressive years were with Philadephia.

Taking nothing away from White, who I think played a critical role in the resurgence of the Packers, but it did "lower the bar" in some ways for consideration of having your number retired.  With perhaps the exception of Canadeo, the other players with numbers retired dominated the NFL at their position during their playing days, if not revolutionizing the position itself....and all as Green Bay Packers.  Adding White to the list, who played less than half his career in Green Bay, closes the door on many of the arguments that can be made to exclude Brett Favre from a similar honor.  

Which, in a way, also opens the door for Favre's favorite receiver in Green Bay, Donald Driver.   He will finish as a lifelong Packer and has been a great receiver and team leader.  However, it would be more difficult to prove the case that Driver dominated his position over the course of his career, much less revolutionized it. 

He does perhaps fit the mold of Tony Canadeo, a popular and productive player in a time span where success was sparce, in the twilight of Lambeau's divorce from the team.  He was the first Packer to ever run for 1,000 yards, just as Driver can make the case he may be the first Packer player to have 1,000 yard receiving for seven (or eight) seasons in a row.

Again, not having a ring on his finger may hinder his slim chances for seeing #80 up on the scoreboard, but it's perhaps all the more reason to root for the Packers' success this year.  

If anyone deserves to be cheered for, it is indeed Donald Driver.

TundraVision's PocketDoppler Interview!

Huge props to the Dopps!

Wally Pingel was kind enough to offer me a stab at his weekly Thursday Q&A feature, and you haven't checked it out yet, please do.  It's a great way to get to know some of your fellow fans and writers in the Packer Blogosphere.  Personally, I love it, and it's something we also try to do on Cheesehead Radio:  no matter what we agree or disagree on, we're all Packer fans united in the end, and the online community is something that is growing and bringing so many of the fans that are trapped out of state together.

Check out my Q&A with PocketDoppler

Check out PocketDoppler's Wally Pingel as guest blogger on Cheesehead Radio on August 12

Sunday, August 22, 2010

TundraVision QuickHits: The Seattle Aftermath

The Packers come back and defeat the Seattle Seahawks by the same score that they lost by last week, 27-24.  It was an interesting game, mainly because so many veteran players were given the night off, including the entire starting linebacking corps and nearly the entire secondary.  It makes evaluating the unit a bit difficult, but this game wasn't as much about evaluating team units as it was about individual players trying to vie for roster spot consideration.  So, without further ado, here are this week's QuickHits.

Players who helped their cause:

Mason Crosby:  The much maligned placekicker for the Packers has struggled early in training camp and continued to be a question mark coming into the game.  Crosby made both of his field goal attempts today, and continued to boom his kickoffs into the endzone.  Yes, he missed a tackle early on, but come on...we shouldn't have to be counting on our kicker to be covering for the coverage team's deficiencies all the time.  The 51 yarder he kicked in the fourth quarter was the difference in the game, and you could tell by his body language there was a bit of confidence and relief when it went through.

John Kuhn:  There's nothing McCarthy loves more than versitility, and Kuhn took over rushing duties in the fourth quarter when Quinn Porter left the game.  He had 5 rushes for 30 yards, and added his usual receiving touchdown in the first quarter.  Porter may be the odd man out if the Packers end up being able to keep just two running backs and trust Kuhn as an emergency halfback.  There's little doubt right now that Kuhn is the #1 fullback.

Brandon Jackson:  Jackson exploded nearly every time he touched the ball, rushing for 80 yards on 11 carries.  Despite the serviceable production from Kuhn, you could see the difference when Jackson was rushing the ball tonight:  he seemed to be in fast-forward motion, making sly moves and turning on the burners when needed.  There was talk last week that Porter may have moved ahead of Jackson on the depth chart.  After tonight, you can definitely say it is Grant/Jackson at #1 and #2.

Matt Flynn:  Last week's anguish over Flynn appears to be a bit better after watching his performance against the Seahawks.  He seemed sharper (at least with the second-team offense), finishing 10/20 for 130 yards and an interception.  His 50.0 passing rating won't make some folks feel at ease, but he had trouble in the third quarter when the cast around him started shuffling more and more.  Most improved was his mid-field passes:  when he could look at his target in front of him, whether it be on a crossing pattern, a slant, or a curl in the middle of the field, his passes were like darts.  However, his weaknesses still come on the sides of the field (and the corners of the endzones), where his timing patterns look like they are stabs in the dark.  He needs to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks, too.

Quinn Johnson:  No, it wasn't perfect, but he caught one of two passes directed at him, and continued to lay solid blocks when given the opportunity, leading the way for Jackson's rushing touchdown by simply stiffarming two guys and bowling into a third at the goal line.  I would love to see Johnson get an opportunity to lay some wood with the first team offense, because he does add a dimension that Kuhn and Hall can't quite do as well.

Frank Zombo:  Seems to be Zombo only plays the latter half of preseason games, but he is such an active player when he is in there.  He got a sack and a quarterback hit, and just seemed to be all around the ball.  With all the starters out, he certainly has to given the coaches reason to consider keeping him around for a while.

Players who hurt their cause:

Quinn Porter: From the moment he got on the field, he seemed to have something bothering him after every single play.  First, it was his helmet, causing him to miss plays to have it fixed.  Then, on a couple of occasions, he popped up limping.  Finally, he left the game with a sprained ankle.  When you are competing against the defacto third-down back (Jackson) and a fullback who can fill in at halfback, you need to start having some good games.  Whether his own fault or not, Porter didn't distinguish himself at all.

Sam Shields:  I think we all declared the Sam Shields as returner experiment over last week, but there's something about 4.2 speed that makes you want to keep going back to the well.  His first return was fielded well, but was a rather nondescript return that didn't showcase any speed, and his second (and hopefully, last) return was a debacle.  The ball bounced in front of him, and Shields appeared to freeze as he watched it bounce, before touching it and watching it get claimed by the Seahawks.  Shields is still in the running for a regular secondary spot, and maybe even a gunner spot on special teams after making a nice punt coverage tackle.  But, his value as a returner is officially nil.

Breno Giacomini:  There's something about a 6'8" guy trying to play a position in which you are expected to get low to win leverage battles that makes me uncertain.  There's something else about making mistake after mistake that gets your quarterback killed that makes me afraid.  The Giacomini experiment may also be over, with so many swings and misses on blocks that you'd think he's Rob Deer back in the day.  With Allen Barbre also looking miserable at tackle, it is pretty clear why Thompson paid a lot of money to aging vets Tauscher and Clifton to return, and why the picture after they retire is still murky.

Brandon Underwood:  The Packers are pinning a lot of hopes on this guy, but if things go as it did today, many opposing quarterbacks will be pinning hopes on Underwood, too.  Underwood was clearly targeted by Seattle QB Matt Hasselback early on, and his struggles in underneath coverage were clearly exposed.  With Al Harris hurt, Underwood may be called on soon to be a nickel or dime back.  Today did very little to make you believe he's ready to start a game in the regular season.

Jarrett Bush:  I don't know why I even bother.  Why he is still on the team is beyond me.  Back to back penalties in the fourth quarter are just inexcusible.

Derrick Martin:  I haven't seen the replay, but Martin was ejected from a preseason game for apparently pulling a Seattle players' dreadlocks, then punching him at least once on a punt return.  This is simply inexcusable and deplorable.  The Packers' short-handedness in the secondary is a pretty good example of what it is like in the regular season with a 45-man roster:  we have no time for a key special teams player to be getting himself ejected.  That's bush league and McCarthy, I'm sure, will be having a long talk with Mr. Martin.

Shawn Slocum:  If there were final cutdowns for coaches, Slocum would already be on the bubble.  Other than Crosby's kicking, every aspect of special teams was terrible tonight.  Penalties, players not coming off the team in time (resulting in a time out), mediocre punting, terrible returns, and two opposing punts down inside the 5 yard line.  The Packers worked at a tremendous disadvantage all night in terms of field position, and that's a battle often won or lost with special teams.  This is looking more and more to be a mess this season.

Starting defensive line: The only position group that started intact tonight was the defensive line, with Raji, Jenkins, and Pickett all trying to put pressure on the quarterback.  However, Hassleback had a pretty good night with little pressure at all, including a touchdown pass in which he had time to go through all of his reads at least twice, as well as order out Chinese delivery,.  While I haven't examined the tape closely yet, Pickett seemed to be the only lineman who could get any push, while Poppinga was kept easily outside the pocket.  Raji and Jenkins seemed to get swallowed up on every play.  It's the job of the the nose tackle, in particular, to occupy two blockers and allow the rest of the group to make plays, but either he wasn't doing a good enough job, or the guys around him weren't doing any better. 


All in all, a satisfying win, with a lot of individual performances standing out, both good and bad.  The good news is that our starting offense appears to be still on pace for a fantastic season, while our "first defense" played a bit better than how we started last week. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rodgers To Start Taking Risks? Booyah!

In yesterday's Journal-Sentinal, Greg Bedard tells us that our favorite ultra-efficient quarterback may be going rouge on us.  Yes, Aaron Rodgers, he of the infinite patience (both on and off the field) and uber-precise passing ability, is starting to practice with aggressive, high-risk/high-reward plays that may have some Packer fans a bit nervous when remembering another former QB's late-game attempts at heroics.

Think John Elway, Dan Marino and, yes, Favre. You know the throw. They often come when the team needs a play to be made. But they can also go bust. High risk, high reward.
"A-Rod is starting to be a risk taker," Finley said, "I'll put it like that."
These are the kinds of throws that coach Mike McCarthy likes to call "winning throws."
"Your prime-time players win big games because they make those one or two plays," McCarthy said last season.
Rodgers started to make them in the crucial win over the Dallas Cowboys last season, and he continued to make them down the stretch. Now he's training himself to do it for an entire season.

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with my history, I spent a good number of years on the forums at PackerChatters, and during that time I spent a good portion of it debating Brett Favre's play on the field with some Packer fans who were obsessed with the idea that Favre was a terrible quarterback.  I, naturally, took the other side, often penning fantastic, epic-length posts (yes, hard to believe) citing statistics and opinions and rationales why the risks didn't outweigh his rewards.  To their credit, those I debated with probably went further than me in terms of pulling out every stop to prove that Favre's play was far more debilitating than helpful.

The one argument that stood out to me most prominently from those folks who criticized Favre and touted Rodgers as the solution was "efficiency"....Favre took too many risks and his interceptions didn't outweigh the touchdowns.   Tom Brady was the model, the ultra-efficient who took what he was given and made smart, safe decisions instead of foolish risks.

Obviously, despite how the ugly divorce went down a several offseasons ago, Rodgers has established himself as that model of efficiency.  In his 32 starts, he has compiled a 100.09 passing efficiency rating, and thrown 58 touchdowns against only 20 interceptions.  While he certainly demonstrated some flaws in the early going (getting rid of the ball, maintaining poise in the pocket), there was little reason to place many of the losses on his shoulders.  He's made smart throws, efficient throws, and for the most part, avoided the big mistakes that often haunted the Packers with #4 at the helm.

So, my first reaction when reading this is, "No!  Don't turn into Favre!  Keep doing what you are doing, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it!".  Certainly, I would imagine many of those fans who posted pages of statistics decrying the risk-taking of quarterbacks as being a harbinger of doom should be having some deep concerns with QB1 right now.

But then, I have to go back and remember my own counter-arguments (even if they were for Favre), and realize that I believed in those arguments.  Taking risks is a part of the job as an NFL quarterback.  Oh, sure, every now and then you can put a Trent Dilfer under center and ask him to not make any mistakes and still win a Super Bowl on the back of a historically-great defense, but that's a pretty rare occurrence, especially nowadays as parity makes it hard to create such a monster defense.

Bedard hits it on the head.  In the first part of 2009, Rodgers was trying to be the anti-Favre that so many have hoped he would be.  You know what those hopes are:  we do it all the time as fans when we are disgruntled with someone who hasn't done the job the way we like.

When Mike Sherman was demoted as General Manager, many people publicly petitioned for candidates as polarly-opposite of Sherman as possible (and in many ways, they got it in Ted Thompson).   When he was fired as head coach, many people would have screamed if we hired someone in any way, shape, or form resembled Sherman (and not just his pear-shape).  And when Bob Slowik and Bob Sanders were fired as defensive coordinators, we looked for people who would be the anti-Bobs, not necessarily the person best for the job.

Don't believe me?  Go check a Packers forum and find anyone who criticizes Ted Thompson or Mike McCarthy.  To this day, people still play the Sherman card:  "At least he isn't signing stupid free agents like Sherman;  At least he isn't falling asleep at combines like Sherman!"  We have a natural desire to measure a successor's progress by comparing it to the low benchmarks of his predecessor.   And, the less he looks/coaches/plays like "that other guy", the better.

And so we come to Rodgers, the "anti-Favre": the guy who will do everything that Favre didn't do right.  He's going to handle himself well with fans and the media, he's going to show up for offseason workouts, he's going to be an equal with everyone else in the locker room, and most of all, he's never going to take an unnecessary risk and lose the game on his arm....because that's what Favre did.

But, taking risks is inherent to the job, and as Rodgers seemed intent on "not making mistakes" in the first half of the season last year, we saw the repercussions of that:  not getting rid of the ball soon enough, taking safeties and sacks that stymied the offense. Sure, he had a sparkling 103.7 passing rating, even after the Tampa Bay Debacle, but it wasn't translating into wins, and his 37 sacks in those first eight games were on pace to break David Carr's NFL record.

As Bedard notes, the Dallas game turned things around for everyone, including Rodgers.  The infamous "Come To Jesus" meeting meant that everyone had to focus purely on winning football games, and doing whatever it took for the team.  For Rodgers, it meant avoiding sacks was just as important as avoiding interceptions, and came through:  he was sacked only 13 times over the last eight games.

But it also meant throwing the ball downfield, stretching coverage and allowing receivers to break defenses, not just bend them.  And from the Cowboy game on, we saw Rodgers starting to do something familiar to Packer fans:  threading needles in tight coverage.

The difference, however, may be explained by quarterback coach Tom Clements:

"What I told him is you want to be disciplined in what you're doing, but you want to be opportunistic.  So if there's a chance for a big play, be aggressive, be opportunistic but make sure the odds are in our favor. Otherwise, just go through your progression, take what's open and wait until you have the chance to make a play."

Rodgers appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.  But the quarterback we saw in the last eight games of 2009 was pointedly different from the one from the first half.  Sure, the efficiency ratings were almost identical, but the sacks went down and the big plays went up.  There's a not-so-fine line between being assertive and being reckless, and Rodgers is starting to ride it perfectly.

No passer becomes one of the NFL's elite by taking an extraordinary number of sacks and always playing it safe.  It might win you a Super Bowl if you are Trent Dilfer and surrounded by an extraordinary defense, but it goes without saying that despite the statistical rankings last year, the Packer defense is not in that caliber.

And, we want both:  we want Rodgers to be an elite quarterback, and we want the Packers to win a Super Bowl.   And it is pretty clear that our offensive passing game is the strength of this team.

The risk-taking was probably imperceptible last year, as every positional group seemed to rise to the occasion after the Tampa Bay game, but it is clear now this is a concerted effort by both Rodgers and the Packers to turn our passing game into one that isn't afraid to put a defense back on their heels.

In the end, Rodgers doesn't have to be the anti-Favre:  he never has.  He just has to be the best quarterback he has the potential to be, and that includes all facets of his game, from taking the game-changing risks as well as making smart decisions.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Barnett/Poppinga Switch Could Be Key to Pass Rush Woes

Certainly, one of the biggest concerns we had with the Packers' defense this offseason (and after last Saturday's preseason game against the Browns) was generating a pass rush capable of putting a decent quarterback off kilter. Against the Cardinals in the playoffs last year, only Clay Matthews seemed capable of getting into the backfield. Last week, with Matthews out, no one on the first-string defense seemed able to put any pressure at all on the quarterback. The results in both games were chillingly clear: the quarterback had ample time to stand steady in the pocket and go through his reads. I don't care if you have Al Harris/Charles Woodson or Deion Sanders/Rod Woodson back there...if you give any quarterback that kind of time, he's eventually going to find somewhere to pass to.

Now, while I've been critical of the 3-4 schematic switch, I do have faith in Dom Capers because he does something near and dear to my heart: he is willing to adjust the scheme to fit the players. He's willing to experiment, putting Chillar in as an extra safety in the Big Okie package, or getting the deeper set of linebackers on the field while going with Ryan Pickett as the sole down lineman in the Psycho package.

Now, the success of these packages are up for debate, but you can't fault the man for not taking his scheme so seriously he's afraid to mess with it, a la Bob Slowik.

However, the scheme and how Capers coaches it are only two parts of the puzzle: we still have to look purely at the talent on the field. Aaron Kampman became a casualty of the switch to the 3-4 as he simply didn't have a natural fit in the new scheme. As a pass rush still seems to be something we're missing, I am going to propose a switch to help make it work: Brady Poppinga at ILB, and Nick Barnett at OLB.

This is nothing new, of course, as putting Barnett outside or Poppinga inside has been brought up before, though not necessarily in the same fell swoop. Jersey Al Bracco brought up the idea of moving Poppinga inside last year, but the motion failed among Packer fans because we knew that McCarthy (and Thompson) are not going to sit down AJ Hawk. And many have propositioned before that Barnett might be a more natural fit outside, but fretted about who could replace him.

What is changing the paradigm is Poppinga's solid training camp. No, he hasn't been a monster out there, but for the number of times that Brady has been written off, he keeps his roster spot. He's a hard worker, a big body that was the "tweener" DE/LB. In his own words when he was drafted, he a "malleable piece of clay"...wherever the Packers wanted to put him, he would happily do it. Aaron Nagler over at CHTV notes his attention to detail in camp and how he outshone Brandon Chillar in the Browns game.

Now, the basic premise of the 3-4 changes things considerably for the linebackers used to a 4-3. In a 4-3, the two outside linebackers have some rushing responsibilities, but more often than not, they are often covering tight ends and backs out of the backfield. It's the MLB in the 4-3 that is the "glory position", the playmaker in the middle of the field, and often, the extra rusher on a blitz. Barnett has served that role well when the Packers were in the 4-3.

But the 3-4 is different...it places some of the responsibilities of the missing lineman on the linebacking crew. The outside backers go from coverage guys guarding a side of the field to the extra pass rusher(s). But, most importantly, the inside backers end up with a large responsibility for absorbing linemen on running plays and helping opening things up for the designated rushers--ideally the defensive ends and the outside linebackers.

This doesn't mean that the ILB's are completely taken out of the picture, but simply by the nature of where they line up on the field, their responsibilities are going to be focused in controlling their gaps and shedding blockers. Ray Lewis bemoaned the Ravens' choice to switch to the 3-4. When the returned to the 4-3, he remarked on how excited he was to play football again. He was a playmaker, used to being a playmaker, who had to adjust to being the guy who set the plate for others.

Now, there are folks who point out that the traditional roles of the 3-4 are no longer set in stone, and certainly, Dom Capers has proven that there doesn't have to be anything traditional about the 3-4 or anything on our defense. But, when it comes to maximizing the talent we have, I think that we might be able to fix our pass rush with a simply change of position.

* The odd man out (whether you agree or not) wouldn't be AJ Hawk, but Brad Jones. Yes, I know we like him, and he may indeed be our OLB of the future, but it is a good idea to not completely rely on him (especially with the quiet training camp he has had). There's certainly time to groom him into a role, and he has a lot of potential. But if the goal is to put your best four guys out there (the same rationale as playing Bryan Bulaga at LG along the offensive line), both Chillar and Poppinga have outplayed Jones this preseason.

* While Poppinga's drive has never been questioned, his pass-rushing skills have. McCarthy seemed insistent that Poppinga might be the missing link with the pass rush (hattip: Total Packers) , and while he's been serviceable this preseason, we should know better than to believe he's suddenly going to become a monster pass rusher.

The traditional role of inside linebackers has been to be flexible, speedy guys that eat up blocks, and better yet, shed them to make plays. As we know, that doesn't always happen, as pass defense is indeed the weakness of the 3-4. Poppinga, the malleable piece of clay, may thrive on the inside doing some of the things he does best (well, better than pass rushing): engaging blockers and holding his ground, opening the door for playmakers to get in there.

No, it's not a glorious position, but as any nose tackle in the 3-4 can tell you, there is no glory for a defense if those point men don't do their job well enough. Poppinga may have size, speed, and strength to take on that role.

* Most importantly, Nick Barnett is a vocal leader of this defense. He also had a career-high four sacks last year from the inside linebacker position, a testament to both his pass-rushing ability and Capers willingness to change up the scheme to allow Barnett to make plays like a 4-3 middle backer. However, his tackles went down to 82, the second-lowest of his career (discounting 2008, when he only played 9 games).

The man who declares "Super Bowl or Die" and has some of the best pass-rushing ability on the team should be put into a position to make those plays. Instead of trying to find someone to do the job adequately, why not find someone who can excel at it? Other than Matthews, Barnett is the best-equipped pass-rushing linebacker on the team. Could you imagine having those two up near the line every single down?

Face it: the rush isn't getting there, no matter who we've put at the other OLB position. About the only guy we haven't tried there is Barnett.

* Finally, depth almost dictates this move. There are two OLB positions, and we have one proven player there. Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar, and Brady Poppinga are not consistent pass rushers, and the lack of depth at OLB has been bemoaned all offseason.

But the depth at ILB is relatively solid. AJ Hawk may not be a superstar, but he holds his own in at a spot that is not a glory position in the 3-4. Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop have both been called upon as replacements for Hawk, giving us three relatively stable players at the position.

So, if you went with: Poppinga/Hawk at ILB with Bishop/Chillar backing up, you'd have to think that was a pretty deep field.

At OLB, if you start Barnett/Matthews and back them up with Jones/Chillar, you have a much more solid starting two and some decent depth.

Now, if Poppinga ends up struggling or unable to do the job, you at least have some solid guys like Chillar and Bishop to plug in behind him. But the payoff is having your two best pass-rushers in the positions where they need to be to make plays.

And if the pass-rush is consistently disruptive, the "Super Bowl or Die" talk can find its footing again. If it continues to be invisible, so will the Packers chances of going deep into the playoffs.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Packers 2010 Season Predictions Offers Wide Deviation

Often, at this time of year, Packer fans are asked their prediction as to the Packers record this season.  On average, the predictions have seemed to end up right around 12-4 (or higher) from most of the "Super Bowl or Die" bunch, riding a wave of optimism that stemmed from a dramatic turnaround last season.

I don't usually like to share my prediction, mostly because I'm not right very often, and secondly, because I'm always confronted by someone who has obviously and passionately analyzed the entire schedule and says, "What?  Where do you see five losses?  Who are they going to lose to?"  So, I tend to keep my predictions to myself.

But, when I do make those predictions, I tend to make them with a range, or deviation, from where I think they will land.  That's not to give myself leeway and to widen my chances of winning some pool or bet, but to show the differences between "everything going right" and "everything not going right", the prediction actually being the midpoint twixt the two.

But, Mike McCarthy's Packers have always busted my deviation.  Every single time, which doesn't do a whole lot for my psychic self-esteem.  And, looking back, the McCarthy Packers are a team of violent swings of momentum, not only from season to season, but within seasons themselves.

In 2006, the Packers came off of a terrible 4-12 record.  I predicted a 6-10 season, but with only a one game deviation, meaning I figured they'd have between 5 and 7 wins.  Naturally, the Packers finished just outside that range at 8-8.

The next year, I widened by deviation, having been fooled by McCarthy once.  I predicted a 7-9 record, but offered up a 2-game deviation (figured between 5 and 9 wins).  And, once again, I couldn't even pick it within a five-game deviation, as the Packers finished 13-3.

In 2008, despite the whole Favregate issue, I predicted an 11-5 season for the Packers, once again with a two-game deviation (between 9 and 13 wins).  The Packers finished 6-10, disappointing both for fans and my ability to pick the Packers' record.

Last season, I went right to 8-8, with a two-game deviation again.  The Packers would finish between 6-10 and 10-6, and for much of the season, I looked to be right on.  But, give them credit...they steamrolled much of the last half of the schedule and finished 11-5.  Missed again.

So this season, for a myriad of reasons, I am opening up the deviation for a full three games either way, and while many of you will suspect it is simply because I want to guess right, for once, I believe this season really has the potential to be very special or very average.

I am predicting an 11-5 record this year, but like many of the green-and-gold glasses types out there, I do think this team has the potential to have a 14-2 year.  I also think this team has the potential to be a .500 team, which given the hype of the offseason would be nothing less than a major disappointment.

A lot of it has to do with the streakiness of the McCarthy teams.  Obviously, going from 8 wins to 13 wins to 6 wins to 11 wins is a sign of some streakiness in itself.  But, if you take out preseason and playoff games, and don't mark the beginning and endpoints of each season, some other streaks show up when you look at every game McCarthy has coached in order.


Now, you can always point to factors that play into why those records trend high or low, but that's my entire point.  Like any NFL football team, scheme changes, outside distractions, and injuries are going to have an effect on the overall record, but the Packers seem a bit more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of circumstance than the average team. 

To pursue that point, I went through the last four regular-season records of all 32 NFL teams, and added up the difference in wins from one season to the next.  For example, the Packers went from 8 to 13 (5), from 13 to 6 (7), and from 6 to 11 (5) for a total of 17.  This means that the Packers' record has changed, on average, by a total of 5-and-two-thirds of a win each year.

How does this compare with the rest of the league?  Only one team exceeded that differential total--Miami, with 19.  Baltimore tied with Green Bay with 17, but after that point it is clear to see these three teams are by far the high end.  The average differential of wins over those four season for all the teams in the league was only 8.9, meaning that, on average, a team's record changed less than three win per year.

The standard deviation of all of those differential totals was +/- 4.1, meaning the Packers' total of 17 was nearly at the upper edge of the second deviation. 

Now, this is not to say that having a high deviation per year is a bad thing or somehow dooms the Packers to a poor season this upcoming year, simply to follow a pattern.  Teams with low deviations could be a team like the Colts, who average only one win differential per year, but all of those win totals are 12-4 or higher.  Another team with the same deviation is Oakland, who haven't had a record above 5-11.  Teams like Buffalo, Houston, and Denver have been very consistently mediocre.

The point of compiling all that data was to show that the Packers are a volatile team, a team that hasn't shown a lot of consistency over the past several seasons.  In other words, we've had tremendous highs and tremendous lows, great disappointments followed by exuberant surprises.  However, the other teams with high differential totals--Miami (19), Baltimore (17), Detroit (13), and Cleveland (13) may not be the caliber of teams we wish to model.

Switching gears, let's look at the reasons why I think the Packers could indeed finish 14-2.  As shown last year and in last Saturday's game--I'll say it--I think this Aaron Rodgers-led offense is going to be unstoppable.  There are too many explosive weapons and Rodgers has matured into perhaps one of the best quarterbacks in the league.  If the offensive line can hold it together long enough for him to get through his reads once, and the running game can keep defenses somewhat honest, 2010 may be a repeat of the 1983 "score-at-will" offense.

Now, last year the Green Bay defense finished statistically with the #3 overall defense, and according to Cold Hard Football Facts, the Packers had the #1 overall Defensive Hog ranking and the #4 overall Defensive Passer Rating.  Now, so much with the defense is still uncertain after last years' debacle in Arizona and last week's uninspired performance against the lowly Browns.  But, assuming that the defense can hold their own and keep opposing teams from matching our offense score-for-score, there's little reason to doubt why this team isn't capable of a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Frankly, I still have faith in Dom Capers to maximize the talent he has.  The only question is whether the talent is there and can execute.

In the Packers' 16-game schedule this season, nine games are against teams that did not make the playoffs last year.  If you go in assuming this team should beat the teams it is supposed to, and at least split the other six, that would make 12 wins right there.  If you (like me) believe that the Minnesota Vikings are a team on the verge of implosion with or without Brett Favre, you could easily bump that number up another win or two.

The Packers do have many of the pieces in place, and this is still a league of parity.   If the Packers can avoid injury have a couple of young players step up, this might be the best team they've fielded in a long time.

On the other hand, it may not.  As I said, I think an Aaron Rodgers-led offense is nearly unstoppable, but if for some reason #12 was taken out of the picture, the outlook for the season changes dramatically.  Matt Flynn may have shown he can make some safe passes, but let's be honest:  this is not going to be the same offense with him running it.  He doesn't have the accuracy, the arm strength, or the poise to be the same kind of field general.  And in this pass-first offense, it would change the entire complexion, and likely, not for the better.

If A-Rodge is out for any extended portion of the season, especially against the tougher teams on the schedule, it will result in more losses in the standings and even more in momentum and confidence.  Not having a veteran backup may be one of the worst gambles that Ted Thompson makes in this season of high expectations.  Even Brett Favre had Jim McMahon in the Super Bowl year.

But even with Rodgers healthy and upright, there are enough questions marks to cast some doubt.  What if the running game doesn't establish itself, or can't keep the ball off the carpet?  What if our defense simply doesn't have the pass rush to effectively shut down opposing quarterbacks?  What if our special teams continue to put the team in poor field position, both of offense and on defense?  What if we can't count on our kicker to put away a game in the final minutes?

And of course, injuries are always a factor.  In 2005 and 2008, injuries played a significant role in the final record of those Packer teams, with seemingly player after player finding themselves on the injury report.  You can't go into a season trying to avoid injuries, but you better be in a position to be ready for them.

So, worst case scenario, Rodgers is hurt for an extended period of time and the defense doesn't come together in big games against tough opposing quarterbacks, and I think it is completely reasonable to believe that an 8-8 record is a strong possibility.  

Do I think we'll go 8-8?  I doubt it.  Do I think we'll go 14-2?  Probably not.  But, it is still preseason, we're still 0-0, and the reason they play the game (and why we watch) is still in front of us.  Anything is possible this year, and as true Packer fans, we look forward to whatever this team will give us.

If the past is any indication, it's going to be a wild and bumpy ride.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

TundraVision QuickHits: The Cleveland Aftermath

The Browns beat the Packers 27-24 on two late, long field goals by Phil Dawson in the first preseason game of 2010.  Here are my QuickHits for the game:

*  First of all, anyone hitting the panic button after the first preseason game is an alarmist, at best.  Conversely, anyone not just a little bit concerned about special teams and our pass rush is drinking Kool Aid.  There's a reason that ball security, fundamentals, and special teams have each been a  "point of emphasis" this training camp, and yesterday's game showed the emphasis shouldn't be ending anytime soon.

We're a long way from the regular season, and even if we lose the first couple of regular season games, there's always a couple of Jiminy Crickets out there telling us it is a long season and there's plenty of time to turn it around (and last year proved that), so thinking that yesterday's performance is now an indicator of the entire season is highly premature.

But, we also know the lack of a pass rush is what doomed us in the playoffs last year, and we need to hope and pray that our reshuffling of the defensive line is able to eventually put some moderate pressure on the QB, because the Browns quarterbacks had all day to sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open, just as Big Ben and Kurt Warner did last year.

*  As sure as Ted Thompson isn't going to sign any high-priced free agents, there are some other traits unlikely to change with a Mike McCarthy-coached team, and that is communication and fundamentals will seemingly be in a perpetual state of needing to be "cleaned up".

In the short term, that's why I'm not too concerned about our defense's issues against the Browns, as this just seems to happen every year.  It seems like the Packers have to get knocked down before they can truly get up again, and last year's Tampa Bay debacle is a glaring example of hitting rock bottom and seeing a McCarthy team rise from the ashes.  The Packers have plenty to work on, and that should get their focus off of "Super Bowl or Die" and back onto communication and wrapping up tackles.

But, in the long term, fundamentals and communication are the building blocks of everything you want to do as a football team.  This is now a veteran football team that has had its core group together for many seasons.  Cleaning up fundamentals is what you do with a young football team, like the ones we fielded back in 2006 or 2007.  Communication is another basic concept, critical to the success of your team, that should have been mastered by many of the defensive play-callers (AJ Hawk, Nick Collins) and those they are trying to communicate with.

Simply put, the more communication and fundamentals are points of emphasis this season, the less chance we have of a deep playoff run.  A team being picked to win it all should be building off of those traits, not still trying to learn them.

*  Aaron Rodgers looked insane out there.  I couldn't have asked for a better performance from our starting quarterback, and what impressed me most with him is his ability to make those quick drops and get the ball out accurately without having to move the pocket...especially given that he often had pressure coming up the middle.  Rodgers has really grown as a passer, and if this is an indication of how his season is going to go, you can definitely pencil him in as a top QB in the NFL.  His Achilles heel had always been those happy feet and losing accuracy under pressure.  If he's overcome that, he is a complete quarterback.

I was reassured by Matt Flynn's performance.  Some folks were appalled at his lame duck Hail Mary, but that's not what he gets paid to do...we knew he had a soft arm and that's not what we're looking for from him.  What impressed me what his accuracy making the short passes and screen, and for the most part, had some very nice touches on his mid-range passes down field.  If Rodgers is hurt for any length of time, we're not going to have Flynn trying to do everything that Rodgers can now do.  Flynn just has to master what he can do, and the offense can adjust around him.

Flynn did have a couple of misfires in there...like, really bad misfires that luckily did not add to his interception total.  His 43.5 passing efficiency rating looks alarming, but if you remove that Hail Mary interception, he had a somewhat respectable 76.19.  More concerning to me are his happy feet, moving the pocket around for no apparent reason.  His Hail Mary would have likely landed in the end zone if he hadn't inexplicably run backwards ten more yards.

Graham Harrell did nothing to make Flynn uncomfortable.  With the preseason game tied up and a buck-twenty-four on a clock, Harrell completely wilted.  Yes, he was playing with third-stringers, but so were the Browns.  Opportunity knocks, and you have to take advantage.

*  Grant's fumble was hopefully the one he's going to get out of the way for the season, but the number of times the ball hit the ground in this game was concerning.  Ball security, another one of the "points of emphasis" this training camp, wasn't much of an issue last regular season, but put the Packers in a hole against the Cardinals in the playoffs.

I would venture to say that McCarthy will be running plenty of strip drills with the running backs this week.

*   The Quinns were an interesting bunch to watch yesterday.  Quinn Porter did very little to disprove that he might be challenging Brandon Jackson for the #2 running back spot, rushing for 38 yards on 9 carries.  I was somewhat surprised that Kregg Lumpkin got so many carries yesterday (11 in all for 42 yards).  Lumpkin, to me, is a known quantity, one that hasn't been able to rise the depth chart for two seasons now.  I wonder if they gave him the lion's share of carries to increase his trade value, or simply because he might be the first cut made in the backfield and they wanted to give him his best chance to latch on to another team.

Porter, however, did a nice job with his opportunities, manufacturing a couple nice runs, including a game-high 15-yarder.  Unfortunately, the Packers didn't seem to emphasize the run until the second half, but I think Porter has firmly entrenched himself as the #3 RB.  If he can block and catch (he added one reception for six yards), Brandon Jackson may find himself being challenged for his job.  Personally, I think Jackson should be challenged...there's no reason anyone should be handed a job based on mediocre production, and while Jackson may still win out, Porter has thrown his hat into the ring and deserves a chance to see if he is an upgrade (or simply can bring something different to the table).

Quinn Johnson's opportunities were limited, but did have a monstrous hit on punt coverage that was unfortunately called back.  I am really rooting for Johnson (which is usually a death knell for any player), as I really believe he can add a new dimension to the running game.  But, watching most of the first half, two-back sets were very rare.  Rodgers was throwing out of a single-back set or back in shotgun most of the time, indicating to me that the Packers are more comfortable in passing sets than traditional I-formations.  The appear comfortable with their running plays coming out of two-tight end sets.  It's too bad, because if Johnson could establish himself as a major blocking threat, it could force defenses to bring eight in the box when they see him in there, and that would leave a ton of field open for Finley, Jennings, and Driver after a play-fake.

*  The offensive line was up and down, as usual.  While I didn't get a chance to really study them too closely, the stats give us a good idea of how they did:  only 34 yards rushing in the first half, and quick drops and shotguns for Rodgers to avoid pressure.

*  Say what you will about Jermichael Finley, he's going to be a matchup nightmare, and really expands the passing game as defenses are being forced to double-cover him.  As Pete Dougherty mentions this morning, it is only going to open up more opportunities for Driver and Jennings.

Also notable was the number of double-tight end sets, with Andrew Quarless and Donald Lee even bringing in three passes.  The passing game is reaching a point, between having a pinpoint -accurate quarterback and so many athletic options in the receiving game, that this could become one of the best offenses the Packers have had, perhaps since 1996 and even the early 1980's with Dickey/Coffmann/Lofton/Jefferson.

*  Brandon Underwood continues to try to keep his name in the paper for positive reasons, with interception a pretty easy ball in the endzone and bringing it out 35 yards, along with a couple of nice tackles and two passes defensed.   Underwood likely established himself as the nickel/dime back ahead of Pat Lee (depending on the health of Al Harris) and appears to be taking that chip on his shoulder and doing something with it.

*  Mason Crosby was booming it on kickoffs.  Nearly every kickoff I saw was landing 5-7 yards deep in the endzone.  His 33-yard field goal (from the right hashmark, mind you) seemed almost a little set up for him, but it was a good confidence booster.  It's too bad that Harrell couldn't get the offense in position to give Crosby a chance at a long game-winner, but perhaps, in the end, it might be for the best.

Unfortunately, Crosby's deep kickoffs resulted in unreasonably long returns, with the Browns averaging 26.5 yards per return.  That is simply unacceptable...Crosby made 25% of the kick return tackles yesterday.

Almost an echo of the kicking game, the punters did much to alleviate fears about our punting game, with both punters posting identical marks (3 punts, 143 yards, 47.3 ypk) and generating some reasonably decent hangtime.  Tim Mathsthey had one touchback and another downed nicely inside the 5.  The problem comes in whether or not they are out-kicking their coverage, because on the two punt returns, the Browns' Syndric Steptoe averaged 16.5 yards per return...an astronomical average for punt returns.

I gave a heckuva rant on Cheesehead Radio a few weeks back about special teams coach Shawn Slocum, and I don't think it had much effect.  Our special teams ranked 31st in the NFL last season, and I am always of the belief that special teams rarely win games for you, but they will lose them for you.  Special teams isn't just about your field goal kicker (although Slocum has played a huge role in that, too), it's about field position and keeping the game under control without putting too much pressure on your offense or defense.  Forcing our offense into 80+ yard drives, or giving our defense considerably short fields to defend is the hidden Kryptonite for any team.

What bothers me is, once again, "special teams are a point of emphasis" as told to us by Kareem Copeland.  Last year, the Packers cut players who may have been valuable as positional players, simply because they wanted to keep three fullbacks, three tight ends, and a plethora of linebackers.  Why?  Because Tyrell Sutton and Anthony Smith couldn't play special teams.

Judging from our performance last year and against the Browns, neither can the players we kept.

*  Side note:  anyone following Kareem Copeland on Twitter had to just smile at his exuberance at being at his first Packers game.  Having met him in person and witnessed his wide-eyed excitement, I could just see him bouncing around like a kid in a candy store as he Tweeted about the animated beer race on the scoreboard and his first "Roll Out The Barrel".  Keep it up, Kareem!  Sometimes, the local beat guys can come off as a little jaded, and it is nice to have a media guy who just seems excited about the smallest things.

*  Sam Shields.  Return man.  Experiment over.  Focus on playing corner and making the squad.  Return man, not happening.

Overall, a disappointing game if you're the kind of person who expects a win in the preseason as a sign of things to come.  I think that Mike McCarthy now has plenty of material to work with in practice, and the Packers have their work cut out for them.  The time for Super Bowl talk is officially placed on hold until you can master the basics.

Unfortunately, that appears to be job #1 again for the Green Bay Packers.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Favre Rules

As many Packer bloggers have realized, if you want to get a little traffic to your blog, you may as well post an obligatory Favre post. So, here's mine.

The yearly sabbatical of an NFL head coach to Hattieburg, MS, has already begun, as Vikings coach Brad Childress has suddenly realized how difficult handling Brett Favre really is.  But this article isn't about what we already know and have scoffed at:  it's not about the desperation of the Vikings throwing more money at Favre, or determining whether or not he is really injured, or the he-said/she-said of who is texting or sexting.

This is about The Favre Rules, a code that Favre has established for his coaches and general managers to follow over the years, and one that the Vikings are following to a T.

You see, Favre's hesitation isn't about money, so the extra coin that the Vikes are throwing at him is irrelevant (although, if Favre accepts it, I will have lost any residual respect I have for him).

It isn't about injury, because Favre has already demonstrated how much he will play through pain.

As much as folks will disagree, I don't think it has that much to do with Favre needing to keep his name in the press.  I don't think it is that important to him, at least not from a media or fan perspective.

What it does revolve around is Favre's "Keith Jackson-itis", his intent desire to miss as much of training camp as possible, yet still be welcomed back with open arms.  And, from Jackson's mid-season glorious return in the Super Bowl year of 1996, The Favre Rules have evolved.

The critical piece of the puzzle:  the Vikings have kept a roster spot open for Favre.  This little detail amidst all the retirement denials and text messages is actually the key to the whole enchilada.

Favre has an incessant (if not irrational) need to be wanted and respected, regardless of his actions.  This is a seed that was planted when Mike Sherman started the annual tradition of catering to Favre each offseason, and Favre tested to see how far he could push it.  Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy continued the tradition for three offseasons themselves, each time holding that roster spot open and publicly professing their desire to have Favre back in the fold.

When Thompson and McCarthy "broke" the Favre Rules in the offseason of 2008, the former Packer quarterback showed his displeasure, if not disbelief.  The Packers were supposed to beg him to come back.  There was more truth in the tears Favre showed at his now-infamous retirement announcement:  he wasn't sad about leaving the game, but making a public plea for the Packers to realize how much they had hurt his feelings, to pressure the fans to make them change their minds.

The Vikings could have hung unto their money.  Favre would be due eight figures this year, and that's more than enough to ensure his continued endorsements for Sears and Wrangler.   Whether he's making $11 million or $20 million this season isn't why he's laying low in Mississippi while the rest of the team is sweating it out during two-a-days.

It's a clever dance that Favre proposes each offseason, one that is carefully laid to allow him the longest stretch of time to repeat the pattern of Keith Jackson, who took off all of training camp and half the season before joining the Packers as a celebrated hero.  It's an attitude that we can certainly cast stones at Favre for having.  But, Frankenstein's Monster was created by Frankenstein, and Favre has been conditioned to have his own set of rules, to see exactly how far he can push the boundaries.  Who was the greater evil, Frankenstein or the monster? 

He has failed only once, when McCarthy and Thompson finally drew the line after 2008.  Before you congratulate them on their hard stance, don't forget they played the same enabling game as Mike Sherman for two years before that. 

Peter King has intoned that he believes that Favre will not show up for all of training camp, and that the Week 4 bye week should be circled by those watching intently.  I don't doubt him.  I could easily see Favre waiting it out, allowing Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson to make Viking fans pine for Favre even more, and showing up after the Week 3 Lions game as the late-arriving hero.

Most Packer fans have already given up their allegiance to Favre, and are enjoying mocking the Vikings for dealing with this drama.  But, even Packer fans must admit:  the Vikings are still a better team with Favre than without, and until that changes (as it did for the Packers in 2008), Favre will still be allowed to play by his Rules.

And the Rules are very simple:   continue to show Favre his "respect" by essentially burning a candle for his safe return, leaving the roster spot and starting position open, and publicly and privately reassure him that whenever he's ready to return, he's wanted.

Someday, former teammates will publish books about how the Favre Rules played out amongst teammates and in the locker room.  But, right now, Rule #1 is pretty clear.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cheesehead Radio: One Packer Nation, Under Vince --This Thursday Night at 8:00 CST

Join C.D. Angeli, Holly Phelps, Jersey Al Bracco, and Alex Tallitsch as we bring you our first training camp episode of Cheesehead Radio!  We'll be talking about everything at training camp and in the Packer Blogosphere this Thursday Night at 8:00 CST.  The phone number to call in is 917-932-8401, or if you're on the road, just dial that number and plug it into your headphones or your car jack and listen LIVE (just don't press "1" if you don't want to be connected to the hosts!)

This week's guest bloggers are the ever-Tweeting John Rehor and statmaster J.R. Augustine, both from greenbaypackernation.com.  They will be available for your comments and questions afterwards.  Every caller gets a free swag rating from the hosts, by the way!

Listen to internet radio with Cheesehead Radio on Blog Talk Radio

Monday, August 2, 2010

Crosby Needs Coaching, Not Excuses

We all remember Ryan Longwell, who left the Green Bay Packers following the forgettable 2005 season as the Packers all-time leader in field goal percentage (81.59%). What we also tend to remember about Longwell is that when he did miss a critical field goal (as all kickers will eventually do), he had a penchant for publicly throwing his snapper/holder under the bus. It was a rare day when Longwell took accountability for his own misses.

Thankfully, Mason Crosby has not had to follow in the Brent Jones-esque "I did my job" finger-pointing of his predecessor.

Unfortunately, that's because his coaches have done it for him.

Once again, coach Mike McCarthy absolved Crosby of the same kinds of misses that plagued him last year.

Rob Demovsky, always the obsessive stat man, made note of Crosby's issues yesterday.

He missed three times — from 40, 45 and 45 yards — during a nine-kick session. Though he converted from 28, 33, 36, 43, 50 and 53 yards, the two 45-yard misses were during a “thunder” situation, in which the field goal unit has 13 seconds to get on the field, get lined up and get the snap off, a drill that simulates a last-second kick.

All three of his misses were wide left. The 40-yard miss was from the right hashmark, which was Crosby’s trouble spot last season. The other two misses came from the middle of the field.

All nine kicks came with first-year punting candidate Chris Bryan holding. Bryan never had held before coming to the United States this offseason after making the switch from Australian Rules Football.

After practice, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he didn’t think the problem was with Crosby’s ball striking. “I thought the operation wasn’t as clean as it needed to be,” McCarthy said. “I thought he struck the ball clean.” (emphasis mine)

Jason Wilde expanded on the interventions the Packers made following Crosby's debacle yesterday, with more comments from Mike.

Crosby, Bryan, Masthay, long-snapper Brett Goode, Slocum and former long-snapper Rob Davis worked on the side during 11-on-11 after the kicking period on how Crosby would like to have the ball placed.

Still, McCarthy said he saw no reason to go back to backup quarterback Matt Flynn as the holder, even though Flynn handled the job in 2008 and was taken off of it last year basically as a psychological boost for Crosby during his slump. “We're very comfortable with the two candidates so far. We do also have Matt as a potential candidate, but really the regularity of having the punter hold for the kicker is the best option, in my opinion,” McCarthy said. “And once (the punting) position is solved, I don't look for any issues in (holding). The negative is (Crosby) has had so many holders in such a two-and-a-half year period. That's something we'd like to get away from.”

Now, you can take this any way that you want. However, my thinking would be that if switching up holders is a problem, and the guy who's been the holder is still on the team (and will very likely still be on the team) is being "benched" for holding neophytes, it's a pretty strong statement against the job that Flynn did last year, when Crosby struggled late in the season.

Which means we are continuing the dysfunctional "protect Crosby" mentality that has pervaded much of his career after his promising rookie season. Flynn out, someone new in (despite the excuse we just made about giving Crosby consistency).

I totally understand the fragile psyche of kickers, and have commented on it many times before. A coaching staff can really mess with the mind of a kicker by trying to do too much or change too much of his approach early in his career. Let's not forget that Longwell's career began in Green Bay thanks to the meltdown of Brett Conway, a high draft pick that lost his mental edge in the preseason.

But, I never accepted Longwell's excuses of holders messing him up. Yes, I understand it is a part of the whole battery of events that must take place leading up to a field goal, but at some point, Longwell needed to suck it up and kick like a man, instead of throwing his holders under the bus. A permanent holder for a kicker is a pretty rare thing, and Longwell and Crosby are no exceptions to the ebbs and flows of the depth chart. It's not like they are an all-star pitcher who demands his own personal catcher be on the roster.

The patterns of misses by Crosby, though, are pretty clear. When a kicker, regardless of the holder, is missing consistently from a certain side of the hashmarks, it's not a battery issue. It is a mechanics issue on the part of the kicker.

Now, I am not a Crosby Hater, so please spare me those catcalls. I like Crosby, thought he was a great pick, and he should be a great kicker. The fact that he currently ranks third all-time on the Packers' career FG% list is not lost on me. We could have a lot worse than Mason, and I am very cognizant of that.

But, it is imperative that our coaching staff puts Crosby in the position to improve, and the more they work to over-protect his psyche and self-esteem balloon, the less it seems like he is able to break out of his "Right Hashmark Kryptonite". Special Teams coach Shawn Slocum decreed that Crosby should not hire a kicking coach this offseason to try and work on his problems, but instead suggested he call successful kickers in the league and get their advice.

It doesn't make sense. On top of it, no competition has been brought in again for Crosby. There's no one to push him to do better, a contradiction to the stated policy of Thompson and McCarthy, who believe that competition will push the cream to the top.

With time running out in a game, the Packers aren't always going to be able to afford a dive left running play to put the ball on the left hashmark for Crosby to attempt his field goal.

The time has come to do what must be done for Crosby, and pointing fingers in every other direction is no longer a viable solution. If Slocum is not the man to do it, maybe we should try replacing him instead of Matt Flynn.