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.

1 comment:

PackersRS said...

Fine article. Agreed with keeping Johnson, for most of the reasons.

Except for the time of possession part. That was absolutely, 100% wrong.

First, because the Packers TRAILED 17-0. They HAD to score early and often.

And second, because the difference in possession time was 1 minute and 36 seconds (we had 29:51, they had 31:27). Hardly enough to make an excuse for 51 points given, or even to interfere in a game.

The "score too fast" theory falls to the ground when confronted with the reality that there's an opposing team on the other side, and that you move the ball the way you can. Oh, and that of the last SB champs were all fast paced offenses (yeah, the NYG, but that's the exception to the rule).