Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday Night Random Musings

Some random thoughts on the Packers from the cottage up Nort'.

* While I predicted a Packer loss this week on Cheesehead Radio, if it happens, I don't think it should send Packer fans into the emotional tailspin that we saw after the Bears, Redskins, and Dolphins. Like them or not (and I put myself in the "not" category), Rex Ryan and the Jets are among the elite of the AFC. The scary thing is that the Packers are probably still among the "elite" of the NFC.

The thing is, there's a huge difference between being one of the better teams right now in the AFC and one of the better teams in the NFC. No teams has really come out and taken the reins in the NFC, with even the Buccaneers making the claim they are the class of the conference (snark).

You may not like Rex Ryan and his approach, but he has this team believing that they can and should win it all this year. The Packers are beat up in the places that the Jets will hurt us most: along the defensive line, our offensive line, and their healthy secondary will force Aaron Rodgers to play a perfect game or suffer consequences.

Yes, the Packers may lose this game, but they have two important NFC games to follow (sandwiching a bye week), the desperate Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau, and a Viking team at home looking for revenge for their perceived stolen loss last week.

Losses in those games not only hurt the Packers more in the standings, but they are both teams they should beat. It is a major victory for the Packers to keep themselves in the game on Sunday and to be in a position to win it at the end. Playing well against one of the elite teams in the league and losing is nothing to be embarassed of, especially in the face of the number of injuries the Packers have endured (and again, facing an AFC coming off of a bye).

* Speaking of a weak NFC, the Packers have several players on the Pro Bowl ballot this year. Now, the Pro Bowl itself is a bit of a sham, what with fans stuffing ballot boxes and, for the most part, having players and coaches voting based on little more information that what fans have, or worse, only voting for players they have faced personally. Sad as it may seem, you have a little more respect for teams assembled by NFL writers who try and bring a bit of objectivity to their selections.

But, the Packers on the ballot have a shot, if nothing else, building off their reputations from last season in the face of the ups-and-downs they and nearly every other NFC team this year. The negative part will come from perhaps the most deserving of Packers who are bursting onto the scene this year but will got lost against the usual large-market favoritism and lack of name recognition.

Guys who fit into that first category would be Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, and Nick Collins. All three have been there before, and all three have had seasons best described as "below expectations". Rodgers has had difficulties with his decision making and is on pace for 20+ interceptions on the year. His 89.0 quarterback efficiency rating ranks 4th in the NFC right now, but he's sandwiched among the top five with large-market quarterbacks that will likely steal the vote, all things being equal (Brees, Romo, Manning, and Ryan).

Woodson isn't even the best cornerback on the team anymore, but his Defensive Player of the Year honors last year will still garner more votes than he might have gotten otherwise. His play has been marred with giving up some big plays and being frought with penalties. He hasn't been bad, but having only one interception and competing against D'Angelo Hall, Asaunte Samuel, and Earl Thomas will be a hard road to a Pro Bowl unless Woodson starts playing at his DPOY level again soon.

Nick Collins is another that has name recognition, but has only one interception on the year, and while he hasn't hurt the team, he hasn't been particularly spectacular, either...certainly, not the guy who was pick-sixing three times in 2008.

On the other hand, we have a couple of players who are playing at a Pro Bowl level, but aren't going to have earned the props a small-market team like Green Bay needs for national attention. BJ Raji is on the ballot, and he has developed into a dominant nose tackle in his second season after not playing much of last year. In particular, he's been the only constant on the defensive line as injuries have decimated everyone playing around him. But, nose tackles are hard to get that "money stat", like interceptions with defensive backs or sacks with DE's and LB's. And, the more that teams copy what Minnesota and Miami have done, running the ball effectively against the beat-up front seven of the Packers, the less consideration Raji will get.

Cullen Jenkins has also put together a nice start to his season before injury hit, complimenting Clay Matthews with four sacks and applying pressure on the quarterback. Like Raji, however, the longer he is out of action, the more he doesn't pile up the sack "money sack", and the more teams rush the ball effectively, the less likely he is to get attention.

Tramon Williams also has to fall into this category. Among Packer fans, there's no doubt that he should be a shoo-in for a Pro Bowl ballot, and after other than Matthews, he's probably the second name clicked. But in the national spotlight, he's been a quiet story despite being the closest thing to a shutdown corner the Packers have. And, when Charles Woodson is on the ballot with you, it's going to be that much harder to have national fans and players from other teams vote for Tramon when they've already clicked on last year's DPOY. Not fair, to be sure, and I don't know if anyone on the team is more deserving of a spot this year.

Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments will be offensive guard Josh Sitton. You might remember the beginning of the 2009 season, when Daryn Colledge was being touted as having graded out as the best D-lineman of 2008. The tables turned very quickly, and Sitton went from being just another "competition body" to the most solid and consistent lineman the Packers have. If, like me, you've rewound the DVR and kept an eye on ol' #71, you've seen that he's been opening holes up the middle for Brandon Jackson, as well as not being the one letting defensive players in the backfield to meet Rodgers up-close-and-personal. Sitton's fortunes, however, ride of the success of the offense as a whole. Rodgers has to get the passing game going and keep avoiding sacks, and it will help if the Packers work on making the ground game a more consistent part of their attack. The better the offense does, the better the chance a national unknown like Sitton may get some consideration.

Desmond Bishop being on the ballot is a wash. Wile many of us have a ton of hope for him in the future, he shouldn't be garnering attention as a Pro Bowler even from Packer fans. Someday, absolutely. But, voting for Bishop is like the Cowboy fans voting for Jon Kitna. If Nick Barnett has struggled to make a Pro Bowl all these years due to the competition, it should be near impossible for Bishop, unless he strings some incredible games together between now and the end of the voting.

Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, unfortunately, will not garner a ton of attention. Driver has gone nearly invisible two out of the last three games, and neither receiver is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Now, that may change a bit with Jermichael Finley out of the lineup, but there is a ton of receivers in the NFL that have nearly doubled up statistics on both.

Naturally, the most likely candidate for making the Pro Bowl (at least, on the first ballot) will be outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has garnered some national attention by leading the league in sacks, but also simply being a disruptive force in the backfield and forcing a ton of pressures on the quarterback. Now, being held without a sack for two games (missing one due to injury), Matthews need to keep up his own pace to make sure he gets the vote at perhaps the most competitive position in Pro Bowl voting...OLB.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Packer Grades, Week 7

The Packers needed to put together four quarters of football in order to win a game that was pivotal for both teams' chances in the NFC North this year.  To their credit, the Packers did just what they needed to do to win this game, including a defensive stand at the end that sealed a critical victory.  Coach Mike McCarthy can rest easier tonight as his team reduced the gaffes and penalties that have plagued them the past few weeks.  McCarthy was also two-for-two on his challenge flags, and both overturned critical plays that were in the Vikings' favor.  It wasn't perfect, but did just enough to go into the fourth quarter with a lead and protected it.
Still underused with only 13 carries, Brandon Jackson was able to generate consistent positive yardage when he touched the ball, gaining 58 yards and scoring the Packers' first touchdown.  John Kuhn, however, was surprisingly disappointing in his usual short-yardage role, gaining only 12 yards on seven carries.  McCarthy's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the fourth quarter instead of kicking a field goal went awry and could have cost the Packers the game.  Kuhn was stopped for no gain in Viking territory on the exact plays McCarthy had used on a fourth-and-1 five plays earlier.  Luckily, the Vikings did not capitalize on the good field position.
Given the clear intent of the Vikings to pound the ball against a depleted Packers front seven, the Packers allowed Adrian Peterson to  rush for 131 yards on 28 carries, adding a one-yard touchdown.  While that certainly kept the Vikings in the game, the Packers held Peterson just enough in the fourth quarter to force the Vikings to start passing with time ticking away.  Percy Harvin scored on a 17-yard scamper in the first quarter, nearly untouched.  
Aaron Rodgers did enough to win the game, and certainly won the duel between he and Brett Favre.  His 84.8 passing efficiency rating doesn't show the highs and lows of his game, however.  One moment, he's throwing a perfect 45-yard rainbow into James Jones' hands, and the next he was throwing the ball nowhere near his receivers.  In fact, on at least four occasions, Rodgers and his receivers appeared to be on completely different pages.  While his touchdown passes to Andrew Quarrless and and Greg Jennings were vintage Rodgers, two first-half interceptions inside the Vikings' 30-yard line put the Pack behind at halftime.
Last year, the Packers didn't manage a single sack or interception against Brett Favre in two games, but they made up for it today.  Jarius Wynn got credit for the Packers' sole sack, but the Packers were able to apply more pressure on Favre, racking up six hits and picking him off three times.  Desmond Bishop, filling in for the injured Nick Barnett, recorded a pivotal interception for a touchdown in the third quarter that may have been the play of the game.  A collision between Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams allowed an easy touchdown to Randy Moss in the third quarter, but when it mattered most on the Vikings' final drive, the secondary didn't let Favre back in the end zone.
After allowing Percy Harvin to return a kick for 48 yards in the first quarter (leading to a touchdown for the Vikings), Mason Crosby kicked away from him the rest of the game, kicking some knuckleball squib kicks that had to be picked up by the blockers for minimal gain.  Otherwise, the punt and kickoff coverage teams bcontained the Viking s' returners for the most part.  More importantly, the special teams didn't commit any penalties today.  Tim Masthay averaged 45.0 yards on his two punts and pinned the Vikings inside their own 20-yard line once.  A surprise fake field goal in the second quarter was botched when a 20-yard pass by holder Matt Flynn floated toward the sideline and receiver Andrew Quarless seemed to trip just before he would have had a chance to catch it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Packers Must Overcome Their Own Weaknesses to Overcome the Vikings

With criticism of head coach Mike McCarthy at an all-time high, it's suddenly really easy to point out the "faults" (or at least, "trends") that are hallmarks of the Packer teams he's coached; faults we easily ignore when the team is on a winning streak:

*  In general, an imbalance in the offensive playcalling, emphasizing the passing game over the running game, running out of the shotgun and passing even while trying to protect a lead late in the game.

*  General focus errors that can be attributed to a lack of discipline in execution or concentration:  special teams errors, penalties, critical decision-making at crucial points in the game

*  Reliance on the big-play to keep the team in the close games.

*  Inability to play four quarters of football until your back is up against the wall.

*  And, especially in recent years, an impatience on offense that results in drives, on average, of about three minutes, whether the Packers score or not.

Now, my goal is not to enumerate all of McCarthy's flaws, as that has been done numerous times already this week by many Packer writers and bloggers.  My goal is to take these flaws and apply them to this upcoming game, and how the Packers will need to overcome them to get a win.

Inability to play four quarters of football until your back is up against the wall.  The Packers are up against it, for sure.  While Mike Vandermause and other optimists reassure us that the season is not lost and the playoffs are still a distinct possibility, those hopes will be dealt a severe blow with a loss this week.  The Packers are 1-3 in their last four games and face a familiar opponent with some familiar faces that have tasted Packer tears before.

The Vikings are also, quite realistically playing for their playoff hopes Sunday night, as they have played even more uninspired ball than the Packers this year.  But, the Vikings are coming off an ugly win over the Cowboys and, with all of the controversy surrounding Brett Favre, may make this game their "Super Bowl or Die".  The Vikings have all the motivation in the world to beat the Packers, and you can guess they will be playing at a higher level than they have been.  The Packers need to match that, because even with all of the injuries, they still are the superior team talent-wise.

In other words, if the Vikings choose to rally around Brett, the Packers must choose to rally around Aaron and give him all the support he needs to come away with his first W against Favre.  In order to do that, they have to

Balance out the playcalling and take the pressure off of Rodgers.  This is easier said than done, both with McCarthy calling the plays and Rodgers having the option to turn runs into passes.  One of the first steps is to get Rodgers out of the shotgun so much, as they have been lining up in that formation over 50% of offensive plays the past few weeks.  It advertises either a pass or a shotgun draw play, and the Packers can not overcome giving up such an advantage to this defense.

When the Packers turned it around last year against the Cowboys, they got Rodgers back under center and had him go into three-step drops with quick hitters that minimized the pressure he could get on him in the backfield.  If you couple that with at least a half-hearted effort to make the Vikings honor the run by running it  at least 40% of the time, you put Jared Allen and Ray Edwards back on their heels instead of veering all-out into the backfield.  Just ask Greg Bedard.

The pressure on Rodgers will also be relieved if the Packers

Show patience on offense.  The Packers have to be satisfied with the nickel-and-dime plays of the West Coast Offense they are supposed to be running, instead of constantly passing and going through four or five reads to find downfield receivers.  The obsession with forcing the ball to James Jones and Jordy Nelson simply because we are trying to get them the ball has to stop, and Jennings and Driver need to start taking the quick-hitter routes, instead of always running long post patterns.  Driver made a living off the quick slant...why abandon it now?

The defense is beat up, and the cavalry coming in offers little in the way of a guarantee of solidifying a stout defensive performance that will contain Adrian Peterson.  Atarri Bigby and Al Harris aren't locks to play, nor locks to return to 2007 form.  Anthony Smith just joined the team and Clay Matthews will be fighting his hamstring the rest of the year, as most hamstring injuries go.  The Packers have to start taking time off the clock by stretching out even unsuccessful drives to six or seven minutes, allowing the defense to rest up and the Viking offense to get out of rhythm.

In order to do that, the Packers must

Play disciplined ball, avoid costly penalties, and execute consistently, particularly on special teams.  When you have gone 1-3 over your last four games, with each game decided by three points or less (and two games in overtime), there's plenty of places to look place blame.  One of those places cannot be special teams.  Special teams are the paragon of simple execution:  no schemes or exotic formations, just repetitious snapping, kicking, blocking, covering, tackling, and staying in your lane-ing.  Simply put, Shawn Slocum can not longer afford to make mistakes and think the offense and defense will cover for him.

For the offense and defense, I am reminded of (another) quote from Albert Einstein:  "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage -  to move in the opposite direction."  There's a point where McCarthy and Dom Capers may need to take a step back and simplify things for this team.  It's a sad thought when you consider that Capers' exotic defensive schemes and McCarthy's pass-happy weapons were the key to "Super Bowl or Die", but the time may have come to stop giving players so much to think about, and focus simply on winning the battles in front of them.

In essence, the Packers have to play smarter than the Vikings on Sunday night...and keeping it simple may be the smart thing to do.  When the players are assignment-sure, there is a far less chance of a pre-snap penalty.  Stop trying to do everything big-play style, and just execute what you need to do effectively...and the big plays will come of their own accord.  When you play smart and error-free ball, you frustrate the other team into making mistakes.  And, there lies my key to the game:

The Packers will need big plays to win.  I don't like it.  Never have.  Yes, big plays are awesome: the Charles Woodson pick-six or the 70-yard bomb to Greg Jennings.   They're fantastic plays made by fantastic players.  But as we saw so many times over the 2009 season, those plays had to spell the difference between a win or a loss...or at least, the difference in keeping or losing momentum in a game.

What I'm trying to say is that I would be very happy if the Packers were able to grind out wins without having to rely on the big play to keep them (or their heads) in the game, but I don't know if this team is there yet, especially with the rash of injuries.

As I stated earlier, going for the big play leaves the chance for big mistakes, and the Packers can't afford that unless they are behind in the fourth quarter.  A motivated Viking team is going to do exactly what they did to the Packers last year (twice) if the Packers play undisciplined football.  But, if you frustrate Brett Favre or you get the defense to start honoring the run or the short pass, the big plays will come of their own accord.  The good news is that the Packers have players that can make those plays:  Matthews, Woodson, Rodgers, Jennings, Collins, Williams, Driver.  Despite the injuries, this team is still stacked with playmakers, but they just haven't made them lately.

As I said on Cheesehead Radio this week, the opposite of "If it ain't broke,don't fix it," means that if it IS broke, you are crazy NOT to fix it.  With their backs against the wall in what may as well be the crossroads game of the season, the Packers will have to change their habits in order to win this game and turn their fortunes around. 

It isn't about Brett Favre coming back to town.  The Packers must overcome their own weaknesses in order to overcome the Vikings.

Monday, October 18, 2010

It's Time to Scrap the Zone Blocking Scheme

Everyone is looking for solutions to pull the Green Bay Packers out of the rut they are in.  We know the defense is going to be a liability with all of the injuries, but is actually playing well enough for a high-powered offense to win handily.  It is the offense that is disappointing week after week, and Mike McCarthy seems helpless to make a change that will make a difference.

So, I am offering my Solution #1:  It's time to scrap the Zone Blocking Scheme.

Now, anyone who has read my blog over the last five years or so know that I've never been a fan of the ZBS...or the entire "the scheme will fix everything" mentality that came with it in 2006.  But the time has come to go back to the kind of running game we had with Ahman Green...a straight-ahead power game that allows offensive linemen to worry more about pushing guys backwards instead of where they're going to lay their chop block.

Let's be honest.  The Packers haven't run a true ZBS scheme since the first half of 2006 anyway, when first-year coach went against the scheme and started mixing in some sweeps and other plays not native to the scheme.  Why?  Easy...because the ZBS wasn't working.

Look, the whole point of switching to the Zone Blocking Scheme was for one reason, and one reason only:  it worked amazingly well for the Denver Broncos, so it must be able to do exactly the same for us.  Terrell Davis ran for at least 1,100 yards in four consecutive seasons (including one with 2,008), and then it seemed that no matter which street free agent they brought in, they also ran for 1,000 yards (Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis).  Heck, it must be the scheme.  Right?

One problem.  The Packers are not having the same dominating results that the Broncos once had.  Oh, sure, Ryan Grant has had a couple of 1,000-yard seasons, but that's a far cry from leading the league in rushing yards, season after season.  The Zone Blocking Scheme, now in its fifth season, is not doing what it claimed it would do for us.

And you only need to look at the past few games to see how much McCarthy even trusts the running game.  Take away Aaron Rodgers' 34 rushes, and the Packers have only attempted 100 rushes in six games, second-lowest of all the teams without a bye so far.  Does this sound like the Denver Broncos vaunted running games of the late 1990's?

If it's broke, fix it.

My biggest gripe that I have repeatedly (and passionately) harped on over the years is that you can't just adopt a scheme and have it "work".  The Broncos didn't develop the ZBS because they bought it off the shelf.  They developed it because of the talent that they had to work with, and that talent wasn't conventional power run-game talent.  So, they worked the scheme around the talent and had success with it.

But, that isn't how the Packers approached it.  After the Packers had lost Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan, and Mike Wahle, they adopted a scheme that they thought they would be able to plop guys into and it would work like a machine with interchangeable parts.  Then, they set about trying to find the talent to fit into the scheme.

That's the big error in judgement...assuming a scheme supersedes talent.  It doesn't.  Veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton were far more effective in the power run game in the early 2000's, and the middling talent brought in through the draft never quite developed into the Denver Broncos.

That's the other shoe that dropped:  Ted Thompson never had to invest high draft picks or take any dives in free agency along the offensive line because the scheme would allow mid-round draft picks to develop into Pro Bowlers.  And, we know how well that worked out.

So, where does that bring us now?  We're running an scheme that is so ineffective that we don't even run it 100% of the time, and we don't trust the overall running game enough to give our primary running back more the 10 carries a game.  Meanwhile, the offense has tried to turn into the Aaron Rodgers Show (publicly petitioned for by Aaron Rodgers himself), and the results speak for themselves.  In the last two weeks, against mediocre competition, the Packers are 5-26 in third down conversions and have generated a mind-numbing -12 cumulative yards on three overtime possessions. 

Sure, the injuries to Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley hurt.  But the defense has suffered far more injuries (and perhaps, more critical injuries) and are still holding up.  The offense has hurt the D even more by being unable to control the clock.  The Packers have only three possessions all season of six minutes or more, and none in the last two weeks.

But injuries can't be an excuse. You still have a Pro Bowl quarterback who passing out of the shotgun over 20 times a game, and it isn't working.  It's time to change the scheme.

And what scheme do we switch to?  The one we should have switched to from the start:  a scheme you design around the strengths of the talent you have available to you.  So, what do we have?

* A super-accurate quarterback who needs time in the pocket to go through his reads.

*  Two backup running backs who have demonstrated the ability to break open some runs when they can get past the first level.

*  Three guys, Tom Crabtree, Quinn Johnson, and Korey Hall, who can lay some wood on defenders.

You saw what the Dolphins did to the Packers yesterday:  they took Rickey Williams and Ronnie Brown and just ran them right up the middle and dared the Packers to stop them.  In the end, they controlled the clock and the ballgame, because the Packer defense was exhausted from having to be on the field so much.

So, yes, Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood will be much closer to the center.  Instead of trying to make every play himself, one way or the other, he can feel the security of three backs behind him, making defenses have to respect it.   And, even on pass plays, Rodgers can go back to his bread-and-butter that changed things around last season:  the three-step drop, instead of sitting back in the shotgun.   It's one thing to advertise the pass, but its another thing completely when you aren't passing well, are taking sacks, and your receivers can't get open.

But, you say, won't going back in a power-I or Jumbo package advertise that we're running?  Of course it will.  And then you do what football is all about:  you beat them anyway.  Remember when Mike Flanagan used to walk up to the line and tell the opposing defense exactly what play they were running and which way Ahman Green was going to go?  And then they did it, and it worked.  THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is football.

Look, I love the West Coast Offense as much as anyone, but the screen pass to Brandon Jackson yesterday was the first well-executed screen the Packers have done in over ten years.  Misdirection and draws and traps are great, but in the end, you need to be able to punish the defense, mano-y-mano.  And if you don't believe me, ask the Dolphins, who did it very well yesterday.

Go back to the Redskins game, and you'll see two plays where the Packers did exactly that:  Crabtree and Hall lined up in the backfield and allowed Jackson, then Kuhn to rush for 6-8 yards.  Six to eight yards per play will keep the chains moving, and as the defenses move more men up in the box, Rodgers can then have time to do what he does best:  a three-step drop and deliver a ball on the money, without feeling defenders coming at his jaw.

The biggest hurdle in all of this is that the Packers don't appear to have patience for picking up nickel-and-dime yardage at a time.  They want to get down the field fast, as evidenced by their average time of possession landing in the low three-minute mark.  But, after two overtime losses to teams that simply shouldn't be beating us at all (injuries notwithstanding), the time has come to start rethinking how this offense approaches the line of scrimmage.

And the first step is to get rid of what isn't working, starting with the Zone Blocking Scheme.

Week 6 Packer Grades

It’s possible to put a positive spin on this loss, such as, “A healthy, rested team only beat our injury-riddled team by three points”.  But, at a time when players needed to step up their game, the Packers looked uninspired.  While they got a couple of big plays from their best players, they were unable to sustain momentum from those plays and made mistakes that, in the end, cost them the game.   Coach Mike McCarthy is coming under fire after his second overtime loss to a mediocre team in two weeks, and Super Bowl talk is definitely on hold.  The Dolphins stayed in the game, then controlled it by running the ball and owning the time of possession.  In the end, the Packers failed with an inconsistent offense and a depleted and exhausted defense.

For the second week in a row, the Packers didn’t seem to know how to utilize their run game.  Brandon Jackson had 53 yards on 12 carries, but never seemed to get any rhythm going.  With second-and-one at the end of regulation, John Kuhn was twice stopped cold on the one-yard line, leaving quarterback Aaron Rodgers to sneak it in for the tying score himself on fourth down.  With battering rams the Packers have on the roster, it is puzzling why they don’t run the ball out of a jumbo package more.  Instead, they used their obvious running sets as decoys to pass.

With starters out all along the front seven, the Packers succumbed to the punishing combination of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, who combined for 137 yards on 32 carries (4.3 ypc).  When the Dolphins tried outside runs or reverses, the Packers often sniffed it out and covered it.  But when the game was on the line, the Dolphins ran the ball straight up the gut and controlled the clock, as well as field position as a result.  The Dolphins game-winning drive in overtime was ground out almost completely with the run.

Aaron Rodgers’ stat line looked fine (18/33, 313 yards, 1 TD/1 INT), but it belies the pressure he was under all day from Cameron Wake, who finished with three sacks and six QB hits.  RT Bryan Bulaga, despite looking strong early, had trouble containing Wake and probably should have gotten some help with pass blocking.  An 86-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings set career marks for both Rodgers and Jennings, and demonstrated how important #85 should be in the passing game.  However, Rodgers continued to make poor decisions while under pressure, including repeatedly forcing the ball into James Jones, who simply isn’t making the catches.

Coming into the game, the Packers had the second-highest sack total in the league.  But without injured Clay Matthews in the pass rush, Chad Henne had all day in the pocket, and could have done a lot more damage if he was a more accurate passer.  Henne targeted Brandon Marshall seventeen times in the game, doing most of his damage in the first quarter.  Tramon Williams had an excellent interception in the first quarter that led directly to seven points for the Packers.  But Henne fired one touchdown to a double-covered Devone Bess in the endzone, then fooled the pass rush to set up a perfect screen to Anthony Fasano in the fourth that put the Dolphins ahead.  Charles Woodson had a rough game with several critical penalties that kept Dolphin drives going.

While we can rest assured that Mason Crosby has recovered from his misses last week to kick a perfect two-for-two on field goals, he is still struggling to get his kickoffs into the endzone, with only one touchback on the season.  In overtime, when both Miami and Green Bay exchanged punts, the net yardage was plus-23 for the Dolphins. Tim Masthay net average of only 33.4 yards per punt contributed to the Packers’ field position woes.  Both Pat Lee and Jordy Nelson resembled rag dolls on kick returns, getting knocked backwards on first contact.  A critical (and questionable) illegal formation penalty on recently-signed Robert Francois on a punt return gave the ball back to the Dolphins, who promptly scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Am I Still a "Fan"?

There are times I have to wonder if I am still a Packer "fan".  Now, don't get me wrong.  I love the Packers as my one-and-only and it will be that way until my dying day.  I am loyal, passionate, and love this team.

But the term "fan" come from the word "fanatic", which Miriam-Webster defines as "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion".  But I don't think that covers the breadth of how the term is used nowadays with how fans follow their sports teams.  

I'm enthusiastic, no doubt.  However, I am also critical when the time comes.  I feel like I put a lot of thought into my following of this team, especially as it deals with my blogging.  And sometimes, you can out-think yourself so much that you start losing some of the passion that got you interested in the team to begin with.  As a blogger who is finally getting an opportunity to get some freelance material published, there's the fear of transmogrifying into a neutrally-minded journalist, who puts their personal feelings on the back burner in order to properly report on what happens, good or bad.

That's something I don't think I've done, nor do I plan on ever doing if I can help it.  But one thing that I have done is remain grounded and consistent. That comes from a period of time in my life as a forum rat, when it seemed everything I wrote came under attack from fellow Packer fans who disagreed (passionately) with my opinions.

So, what's my point?  This whole Thompson/McCarthy roller coaster is just getting to me.  Normally, I just kind of laugh at the emotions that seem to rise and fall with our win total, the results of our last game, or even from possession to possession.  But this latest angst has me wondering if I'm missing out on that passion.

Following the 2007 season, McCarthy and Thompson were both given awards as the best in their fields by the NFL and the media.  And the rallying of Packer fans behind the brass of the organization was forged deeper following FavreGate that summer.

But in 2008, a late-season collapse had fans questioning the coaching of Mike McCarthy, and that very mediocre draft in April suddenly came back to haunt Thompson.  

In 2009, not even two years after being feted and glorified by Packer fans, the turnabout was complete.  A photoshopped picture of Ted and Mike as the "Dumb and Dumber" pair made the rounds.  Their detractors vocally called for a change, and defenders carefully chose their words, if they responded at all.  Yes, after the Tampa Bay Debacle last year, many were starting to expect McCarthy to lose his job at the end of the season.

But, that suddenly dissipated, as the Packers upset the Cowboys and went on a late-season tear.  Suddenly, again, the pair were not only off the hook, but back in the "stuff of legend" talk.  A post-season appearance had expectations rising, and again, Thompson and McCarthy looked to be the geniuses leading the team to a certain Super Bowl appearance in 2010.

Now, the anguish is back.  Again.  Thompson won't make the moves this team need to win.  McCarthy can't manage a gameplan or get his team to master basic fundamentals.  Calls for firing, as well as tarring and feathering, can be heard from many corners of the Packer Blogosphere.

This is the roller coaster I am watching, seemingly from afar, even though I am well caught up in its wake.  How the abilities of these two men can change, so abruptly, over the course of a few weeks never ceases to amaze me.  And, I understand it.  It's that fanaticism, the "fandom" that most Packer fans have...everyone should be making the Pro Bowl when we do well, and everyone should be fired when we're not.

And I wonder if I'm missing out on that, if I am still a "fan" in the most passionate and irrational sense of the word.  Does that irrationality make being a fan more rewarding in the long run?  Don't get me wrong...I'm in front of the TV or in the stands every week, seemingly living and dying on every snap of the ball, just like everyone else.  

Even when the Packers were on that tremendous ride in 2007, I offered many critical pieces, including how the Packers had seemingly abandoned the running game in the first half of the season and kept running out of the shotgun (sound familiar?).  Even when Ryan Grant came on later, I questioned whether or not he was being used consistently enough to be an impact when it mattered most.  Trust me, the flack I took at the time for that article were pretty pointed, as questioning the regime was not smiled upon.  But, when the Packers lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship game, what I wrote seemed almost prophetic.

And little has changed since those days of success, at least in my opinions and beliefs about Thompson and McCarthy.  Ted Thompson is an adept drafter, an excellent judge of college talent, and shrewd in negotiations.  But he is so entrenched in his draft-first-and-only approach that he hesitates in exploring other avenues that improve the team, and his cold approach to working with other GMs and free agents have turned off potential signings.  He also seems to encourage a a clandestine operation that starts at the top.

And McCarthy has that tough-as-nails approach that combines with a level of fluidity.  Like Dom Capers, he's not afraid to tinker with personnel and gameplanning when things aren't working.  He never complains about a lack of talent and works with what he has. He's committed to his job and has the ability to get a team motivated late in the season, even if the talent isn't all there.  Conversely, focus issues have beleaguered his squads, from special teams and penalties to when to throw the challenge flag.  He has consistently avoided committing to the run and buys too easily into a "the scheme will fix us" mentality.

Whether the Packers are on a six-game winning streak or have lost four in a row, my opinions haven't changed...both Thompson and McCarthy have strengths that can get us up the mountain, but it still has yet to be seen if we can move beyond the plateau we always seem to reach, often a result of tripping over our own feet instead of getting beat by better teams.

The only difference between, say, 2008 and now is that McCarthy is now coaching his fifth season, while Thompson is in his sixth.  I've always been consistent in saying that while I don't agree with everything they've done, they deserved a chance to see their plan come to fruition and be judged based on the results.

But it's the up-and-downs that are getting the Packers fans restless.  In an article I penned this summer, I noted that the Packers are second in the NFL in team record deviation from season-to-season during the McCarthy era, averaging 5-and-two-thirds wins more or less than the previous season.  Many Packer fans expect the slow rise seen under the Holmgren teams of the early 1990's. or even the slow and steady upturn of the Mike Sherman years in the early 2000's.  

Perhaps it is the inconsistency, the high hopes dashed, then the rising from the ashes that are getting Packer fans impatient and frustrated, as we saw at roughly this point last season following a Tampa Bay loss.  The interesting part is that, if you go back in time about six years, the biggest knock on Mike Sherman is that all he did was win division championships every year, then go one-and-done in the playoffs.

And there I go again, thinking through things instead of grabbing my pitchfork and torch and joining the rest of the mob bemoaning all things McCarthy and Thompson.  Look, I am the furthest thing from an apologist for the two leaders of this team.  In fact, I've been accused of being a Hater on more than one occasion.  

But, Ted Thompson and McCarthy are who we thought they were.  They both have shown the ability to create winning football teams that still set up their own hurdles trying to get to the top.  It was that way even in the 13-3 season of 2007, and will be the same until they prove otherwise.  And maybe, that's what they see as best for the business side of the team.

The question is:  how much more time will they be given?  If the mob has their way right now, it isn't going to be much longer.

Friday, October 15, 2010

W2W4 – What To Watch For – Dolphins Week

* Whether concussed starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers is ready to go, or backup Matt Flynn makes his first career start, all eyes will be on coach Mike McCarthy’s gameplan.  With leading receiver and third-down security blanket Jermichael Finley out for the foreseeable future, the Packers are under fire to start running the ball more.  But McCarthy seems to love the passing game, and it will be interesting if he chooses to run more two-blocker power sets as he did sparingly against the Redskins, or if he tries to go spread out of the shotgun with four wide receivers…a strategy that did not work down the stretch.

* Bryan Bulaga did a nice job in his first start in place of the injured Mark Tauscher, but if you are only as good as your last play, Bulaga will need to have a short memory.  The Redskins did a nice stunt on the Packers’ final play that resulted in Bulaga tripping up with guard Josh Sitton, giving Jeremy Jarmon a clear path to Rodgers’ chin and giving the Redskins the game-defining interception.  While Bulaga is promising and had as good of a game as any of the offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if the Dolphins have studied tape of that play and mix it up with the rookie tackle.

* Rising star Vontae Davis decided to give the Packers some bulletin board material this week by publicly declaring that Green Bay favorite Donald Driver could be his father.  Perhaps at any other time, we could expect the Packers to return the message on the field in spades, but Driver is coming off one of his worst games in his career, with four dropped passes.  Add to that the possibility that Flynn could be the one throwing him the ball, and Davis may not have to eat his words at all.  However, while the Packers may be down, they’re not out…and this might be just the kind of motivation the offense needs to wake up.

* If Clay Matthews is healthy enough to come back and play this week (hamstring), he’ll be in for a little creepiness.  Coming off a bye week, every offensive lineman for the Dolphins had a full-color picture of Matthews hanging up in their locker in preparation for the NFL sack leader.  If Matthews comes back and plays, keep an eye on the Dolphin line to see if they overplay wherever Matthews lines up on the field.

* Special teams should be a Pandora ’s Box for both teams this week. The Packers again struggled in nearly every phase of special teams against the Redskins, but the Dolphins had an all-out meltdown in their last game against the Patriots.  A blocked field goal, blocked punt, and allowing a return for a touchdown directly led to the firing of Dolphin special teams coach John Bonamego.   There have certainly been whispers advocating the same fate for Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum.

* Dolphins weak OLB John Wake has quietly been posting numbers comparable to Matthews this year (4 sacks and 6 QB hits), while speedy rookie Koa Misi will be rushing from the 3-4 that the Dolphins operate from.  The pressure will be on Bulaga (Wake) and Chad Clifton (Misi) this week to keep whomever is under center safely in the pocket.  If Clifton struggles early, watch for the Packers to make a quick switch to TJ Lang on the left side of the line.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Green Bay Packers Week 5 Grades

The Packers may be able to write this disappointing loss off due to injuries, but this was a game they should have put away early, long before Clay Matthews’ early injury.  The Packers appeared to lose focus early on, with some questionable first-half goal-line playcalling, including bypassing a chip-shot field goal that would have put the Packers up 10-0 early and been the difference at the end of regulation.  Despite rolling up yards in the first half, the Packers didn’t covert those yards into points, and allowed an inferior team that was on the ropes early to hang around and gain confidence in the second half.  Critical penalties and errors in execution, as well as the abandonment of the run game, all added up to a loss that never should have been.  The greater loss, of course, is the precarious status of perhaps the three most important cogs of the Packer machine: Aaron Rodgers (concussion), Jermichael Finley (knee), and Clay Matthews III (hamstring).

A scintillating 71-yard run by Brandon Jackson early in the first half is the only thing preventing a failing grade.  Jackson showed burst, acceleration, and even a little change-of-direction on the play, which makes it all the more confusing as to why the Packers only ran the ball four more times in the first half.  Jackson and John Kuhn never got into a groove, and the Packers had only one drive that took more than five minutes off the clock in the entire game.  While protecting a lead at 13-3, the Packers ran the ball only three times compared to fourteen passes, most out of the shotgun.  By the end of the game, Washington no longer respected the run and was able to go all out against the pass.

The Packers stout front three held the Redskins’ new-found gem Ryan Torrain to just 40 yards on 16 carries, but he did a nice job early on carrying linebacker A.J. Hawk for extra yards on a couple of runs.  The injury to Ryan Pickett might have been a ticket for Torrain to pile on some yards later in the game, but as Washington was playing from behind, he only got six touches in the second half. 

Aaron Rodgers started out just fine, going 5/5 with a TD to Donald Lee on the second drive of the game.  But, throughout the rest of the first half, he seemed to be experimenting with the goals he stated early last week:  to pass out of the shotgun more often and try to target his fourth and fifth reads.  Unfortunately, receiver drops (including a very uncharacteristic four by Donald Driver) brought drives to a halt.  When the Redskin defense began to pick up momentum, the Packers were again unable to make it into the end zone in the second half for the second game in a row.  Rodgers’ overtime interception was a dagger, but wasn’t his only errant throw of the day.  Jermichael Finley, who left the game early, was sorely missed on third downs (2/13 on the day).

Throughout the first half, the pass defense looked pretty good, mostly because Donovan McNabb looked so bad.  In particular, Clay Matthews once again was a disruptive force in the backfield, and the Packers injury situation looked okay:  Desmond Bishop was making tackles and plays, and safety Charlie Peprah looked to be channeling Chuck Cecil as he made very solid tackles.  The turning point, when Matthews left the game due to injury, opened up the vertical game for the Redskins, who burned Peprah for a 48-yard touchdown.  While McNabb never looked like his younger self, once the pass rush virtually disappeared without Matthews, the Redskins were able to do just enough through the air to move the chains and keep drives alive.  Defensive penalties against Brady Poppinga and Charles Woodson in overtime set the Redskins up for a chip-shot field goal, instead of a 47-yarder.

The special teams didn’t do anything critically wrong (penalties, turnovers), but didn’t do anything that helped the Packers win the game, either.  On kickoff returns, both Pat Lee and Jordy Nelson looked alarmingly timid, and Tramon Williams was decked hard on a couple of punt returns.  The Packers average starting field position was their own 25-yard line, giving them plenty of long fields to have to drive.  The Packer coverage teams didn’t do too badly, but did allow a 62 yard punt return to Brian Banks that was wiped out by a penalty, then a 30-yard punt return set up the Eagles long touchdown on the next play.   Tim Masthay averaged 47 yards per kick, but was unable to pin the Eagles inside their own 20.  And, of course, we saw the return of Unpredictable Mason Crosby, who went 2/4 on the day, doinking the potential game-winning 53-yarder off the left upright at the end of the fourth quarter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

TundraVision QuickHits: The Redskins Aftermath

Opportunities always look bigger going than coming.

In what was a heart-wrenching experience for the second week in a row, the Packers squandered an early lead against inferior competition.  Only this time, the inferior competition came out on top in overtime, as the Washington Redskins kicked a chip-shot field goal set up as much by Packer mistakes as Washington playmaking.

As we look back as an opportunity lost, the Packers must look in the mirror and see a 3-2 team that is not only looking up at the 4-1 Chicago Bears, but wondering how they are going to fare when the playoff-caliber competition is on the other sideline.  The Packers have proven they can play down to the level of their competition, and there has to be some serious doubt if they can raise their game when they need it, especially in the face of mounting injuries.

With that, here are this week's QuickHits:

*  I disagreed with Aaron Rodgers on many fronts last week when he decided to announce his desire to have the ball more often in a shotgun formation, because it put the ball in the hands of the playmakers.  First of all, I disagreed when Brett Favre made such public questioning of the coaching strategies, so I don't plan on changing my beliefs simply because it is Rodgers now.  But moreso, I disagree wholeheartedly that turning the Packers effectively into a run-and-shoot team is the best strategy for Rodgers, much less the team.

When a terrible pass-defending team like Washington starts launching itself into your backfield, as it began doing in the fourth quarter and in overtime, it is because they know they have little to fear from your run game.  The Packers took their 71-yard run by Brandon Jackson early in the game and squandered both the respect it should have garnered from Washington, as well as any rhythm Jackson may have gotten from regular carries.

*  Rodgers seemed determined in the first half to back up his claims that he not only wanted to throw out of the shotgun, but wanted to throw the ball to his fourth and fifth reads.  And so, we spent much of that second quarter throwing the ball to James Jones, who had four drops.  It didn't help that the usually-reliable Donald Driver had four drops himself.  However, as the Packers kept on passing, even piling up a blistering pace of yardage in the first quarter, the points didn't end up on the scoreboard.

Look, I know that there are a lot of targets and a lot of egos to feed in the passing game.  But trying to "prove your point" in the regular season is a poor decision.  Rodgers needs to get back in the habit of going back and throwing the ball to the first person open in his progressions, not James Jones just...because.

And, sadly, given the injuries to Finley and Lee, there's a lot less egos to feed next week.

*  I will harp on this forever, so forgive me if it sounds repetitive.  Once the Packers went up 13-3, they had a ten point lead.  What is the wise thing to do in this situation?  Go in a run-and-shoot and keep going for touchdowns, or establish a balance of run/pass that eats up clock and ends up with some sort of score at the end?  Personally, I'm old-school, and would like to see the balanced attack.  But the Packers, from the time they went up by ten points until the Redskins tied it, ran three run plays (four, if you include a Rodgers scramble) to fourteen passing plays, twelve of them out of the shotgun.

And they scored zero points in that time. They had two three-and-outs.  And, they lost the game.  This is a pattern that McCarthy had even back when #4 was under center, and it isn't working when it counts.

*  I stopped to think what this offense was reminding me of, since so many people said Rodgers' overtime interception reminded them of a former Packer quarterback.  The thing that came to my mind was the 1999 Packers, when Ray Rhodes was coach, Sherm Lewis was the OC, McCarthy was the QB coach, and they all announced that they were going to break from the WCO and turn the Favre-led offense into a more vertical game.  As we know, the offense got every single one of those coaches fired, as Favre piled up 4,000 yards passing but added 23 interceptions.

With six interceptions in five games, Rodgers is now on pace for 19 picks this year, which would almost equal as many as he has thrown over his entire career prior to 2010.  A vertical game is important, and Rodgers is more than capable of doing it.  But letting the quarterback design the offense isn't the smartest thing in the world for McCarthy to do, and you'd think he have learned that eleven years ago.

*  Brandon Jackson's 71-yard one was scintillating.  He showed vision, and turned on the burners to run away from tacklers.  Yes, he had good blocking, but that just got him through the first level...he made everything else on his own.

*  Donald Driver seems to have one game like this a year.  I don't know where his head was today, but it sure wasn't in the game.  He dropped at least four passes that I saw, while James Jones dropped nearly as many.  This is one of those games that you certainly can't blame Rodgers' 75.7 efficiency rating completely on Rodgers.  Meanwhile, Greg Jennings continues to be underused and a non-factor in the game.  Someone tweeted during the game that Jennings needed to step it up.  I responded by saying, "How can he step it up when Rodgers keeps throwing it at Jones?"

*  Clay Matthews may be the MVP of this team, because it seemed like all other injuries were fairly well compensated for.  Not CM3's.  As many of us have suspected, Matthews IS our pass rush, and when he's not in the game, we don't have players that can get any level of consistent pressure on the quarterback.

In the first half, McNabb looked old and beaten, as Matthews and Co. found themselves racking up pressures, hits, and sacks.  But when Clay went out, McNabb seemed to be the only one who could stop himself.  So, A)  We need Clay back soon.  And, B) Why the heck does our pass rush depend on only one guy?

*  I thought Charlie Peprah did well, particularly in the first half.  I'm always sensitive to safety play, and Peprah made a habit of making hard sticks, wrapping up, and making the tackle...not something that has always been a trait of McCarthy teams.  While he got beat badly on the touchdown to Armstrong, he closed quickly on the play and almost broke it up.  If you see how far he was from Armstrong when he went too far outside, you see how much ground he made up while both were running full-board.

* McCarthy's playcalling has to be questioned when Jordy Nelson went out of bounds on the one-yard line in the first half.  First of all, I don't know why he didn't challenge the call on the field that he was out of bounds, because it looked like he was in for a touchdown.  For all the challenges that McCarthy has been criticized for throwing the flag on, he dropped the ball there.

But the next three plays were appalling.  John Kuhn couldn't get in on a dive.  Then Rodgers tried to get in on a dive.  The Redskins, with their terrible run defense, stopped them.  Then, up 7-0 on the road, McCarthy decided he'd give it one more shot on fourth down, and had immediate pressure up the middle that rushed a throw to Andrew Quarless, who was well guarded.

That decision spelled the difference in the ballgame.  A challenge and reversal put the Packers up 14-0 and the Packers win 20-13 at the end of regulation.  A chip shot field goal means the final score is 16-13, Packers.

It seemed to be the spirit of the whole first half, a sense of overconfidence that the team could make mistakes, could experiment, take silly chances, but still recover because the opposition was so weak.  In the end, the Packers got taken to school by that weak opposition, and the opportunity looms very large in the rear-view mirror.

*  Overtime sucked.   A foolish pass by Rodgers to set up the Redskins on the wrong side of the field, couple with a foolish Poppinga penalty on third down kept the drive alive.  Without the Poppinga penalty, the Redskins would have attempted a 28-yard field goal, not the chip-shot they eventually got.  And without the interception, the Packers could have still won.

In a nutshell, when focus mattered most, it showed itself the least.

*   Packnic tweeted during the game that all Crosby Haters should apologize (or something to that effect), as Crosby has been having a great year.  I have never been a Crosby Hater, but I have been pretty critical of how Slocum has handled a great talent like Crosby.

Now that Crosby has choked on two field goals that would have spelled the difference in the game, including missing a 52-yard potential game winner, the microscope goes back on Mason, and in the mind of a kicker, that's a really tough thing.  I've been very happy with Mason this year, but I've had the feeling that he was going to keep kicking well until something bad happened.  Now this is in his head, and both he and Slocum are going to try and "correct" it.  Keep a very close eye on Crosby next week, and see if he isn't battling mental rushers as well as the ones on the field.

*  Our offensive line came apart in the second half, and Bryan Bulaga showed that he is still a work in progress, taking on two key penalties and whiffing on a couple of rushes that looked like jailbreaks for Rodgers.

*  The injury situation is becoming pretty critical.  You've already lost Grant, Barnett, and Burnett, can't count on Harris or Bigby, and the outlook is unclear for Shields, Pickett, Matthews, Tauscher, and Finley.  That's a lot of starters that are looking to be sitting in street clothes.

Alex Tallitsch used to tell me that you "don't plan for injuries", especially when determining your final 53.  I don't know if TT and MM have done that or not, but I sure hope they did.

*  As many have already said, it is time to end "Super Bowl or Die" (because the player that coined it is out for the season), and "YOTTO" (because the player that coined it looks like he may be out for the season).  I never bought in to the hype of this being a Super Bowl team, simply because it seemed very Minnesota Vikings of us.  You don't win championships in the offseason, and you don't win them on paper or because prognosticators insist you're the best one out there.

It's a long season where anything can happen (and you only need to look at the surges of 2006 and 2009, along with the collapse of 2008 to realize it).  Championships are won one game at a time, and as fans, we should be hanging on the outcome of each game, not penciling in expectations before they even take the field.  Now, you hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of fans who feel like they've been cheated out of their Super Bowl bets they've made with their buddies.

It's okay to go in with excitement and hopes and dreams of a great season.  But those who expected it are the ones screaming the loudest.


I'm concerned, and will be watching the news over the next few days to see the outcomes of players like Rodgers, Finley, and Pickett, praying they will be back and healthy for the Miami game.  But, there's no reason to jump off the bandwagon.

In fact, I'm driving the bandwagon yet.  But, I'm a crabby driver right now.  If you don't like it, get out and walk.  I'll drive slow for you.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thompson, Division Rivals' Constrasting Management

A word of warning:  there's been a lot of consternation this week as to whether or not Packers GM has done enough to fulfill his part of the bargain of Super Bowl or Die.  I don't think I have too many answers, but I can always provide more questions.

Since Ted Thompson took over in 2005 for a struggling Mike Sherman, his strategy for building a team has been crystal clear:  build through the draft and develop from within.  After being frustrated for years with Sherman's penchant for trading up in the draft and signing strike-out free agents, many quickly celebrated Thompson's trade-down, xenophobic attitude as the incredibly obvious way to do things.

Oh, sure, he's had a couple of exceptions: one offseason of second-tier FA signings (Pickett, Woodson), one draft pick traded away for a player (Grant), and one massive trade-up in the draft (Matthews), and it is hard to argue with the success of those exceptions.

So, if it is so blatantly obvious that it is the right way to go, why aren't the Vikings and Bears doing it?

As Packer fans, we know the obvious answer:  because they're idiots.

But, from a business standpoint, from a management standpoint, from a strategy goes deeper than that.  Both the Bears and Vikings spent a number of years looking up at the Packers in the division standings, as well as getting trounced year after year by the Holmgren and Sherman-led teams.  Wouldn't you think that they would come around and at least try and emulate what Thompson is doing?

The fact of the matter is the Bears and Vikings have not been trounced around by Ted Thompson's Packers.  Since 2005, the Bears actually hold the series 7-4 over the Packers, and the Vikings have split 5-5.  Sure, you can discount the two losses each in 2005 in what was now obviously a rebuilding year if you like, but the Bears and Vikings won't.  Why make excuses?

I predicted after the 2005 season (in print, mind you) that Thompson's stratagem of building purely through the draft would produce (as long as he drafted well) a long line of teams that would never be too bad, but would have trouble getting over that hump.  If you look at 2007 as being a veteran-led team reaching its apex, and the 2008 team as being the hangover of FavreGate, that's pretty much what we've had.

In a nutshell, the Packers have been competitive, strong finishers, but haven't been able to get to the Big Game in six years of trying.  In 2005, after listening to people complain endlessly about how Mike Sherman was only able to produce division winners that went one-and-done in the playoffs, I figured Thompson's approach would also not be good enough for Packer fans.

Yet, the conservative approach has paid off in the long run, and may pay off for many years.  The Packers cannot afford, in their small-market and tough economic times, to be having a couple of losing seasons back to back...the usual result of the "sacrifice tomorrow to win today" approach we've seen recently from the Vikings and Bears.

Will that be good enough for Packers fans after, say, ten years without a Super Bowl trophy?  From a purely fan/competition standpoint, it isn't and probably shouldn't be.  But from a business standpoint, consistently putting out a winning product that fans will rally around is paramount for a small market team like Green Bay's.

The problem comes with the fact that the Vikings and Bears have used a completely different approach, investing heavily in free agents and trading away draft picks.  And they haven't completely collapsed yet.  In fact, the Vikings, after building almost 50/50 between the draft and free agency, lured Brett Favre out of retirement and went all the way to the NFC Championship game, knocking off the Packer twice along the way.

And last year, I scoffed and predicted years of the NFC North basement for the Bears after they traded away everything but the kitchen sink for Jay Cutler.  Yet, it was the Bears who came up victorious over the Packers on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago, and it is the Bears who still hold the division lead despite being dismantled and bruised by the Giants last week.

The passivity of Thompson in the face of injuries is a known trait, but when you see the Vikings suffer dramatic losses at wide receiver, they go out and bring in the last guy you'd expect:  Randy Moss.  I have no idea how it will turn out for this team, but I have a strong feeling they will be a much tougher team than the tired and unfocused one we saw before their bye week.  And the Bears still have pricey free agent Julius Peppers to hold down the fort while Cutler recovers from injury against the easiest part of their schedule.

All this rides in the face of the decimation of the Packers' starters, with a total of six preseason projected starters looking like their season is in real jeopardy, or already wiped clean (Nick Barnett, Al Harris, Atari Bigby and Morgan Burnett, Ryan Grant, and Mark Tauscher) with several others teetering on the brink (Brad Jones, Sam Shields, and Nick Collins).  Building through the draft was supposed to make the Packers incredibly deep, as competition would bring out the best in players.  However, the faith the Packer fans have in Brandon Jackson, Desmond Bishop, TJ Lang, Frank Zombo, and Charlie Peprah is far from solid at this point, much less Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood.

In the end, the Viking game is looking more and more like a serious test for the injury-riddled Packers, with the remote possibility that Sidney Rice may be back off the PUP list just in time to give Favre a pair of solid hands to throw to.  If the Vikings return to 2009 form, that will be a tough row of five games for the Packers with two Minnesota games combined with the Cowboys, Jets, and Falcons. 

So, the question becomes:  will Thompson make that move to insure Super Bowl or Die doesn't die?  The real question is whether or not he really believes it:  after all, that was Nick Barnett's creation that the fans lit up like dynamite, not Thompson's.  Is Thompson ever going to make such a move, or will be go from year to year, hoping our conservative approach yields enough talent to go all the way?

Troubling fact:  in Thompson/McCarthy tenure, the Vikings, Bears, and Packers have all made it to an NFC Championship game, with only the Bears able to win it.  For all the fans who bought in completely to the conservative approach being the only winning approach, the results have yet to back that up.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Packers Cannot Lower Themselves To the Level of their Competition

In lieu of a QuickHits, I figured I'd just get to the heart of the matter following the 28-26 Packer victory over the Detroit Lions today.  Yes, I am happy the Packers got a win, by hook or by crook.  Yes, I am thrilled the Packers are 3-1 and have a chance to tie for the division lead if the Giants come through and paddle the overconfident Bears tonight.

But, I called it just as the game started on Twitter:  this isn't the kind of game that much good can come from.  If you win, even convincingly, you were supposed to win.  If you lose, panic rightfully should ensue.  For all those trying to puff up the Lions as "not your father's Lions" as the Packers lead became more and more tenuous in the second half, the fact of the matter is that the Packers are supposed to be a Super Bowl favorite, playing a terrible team that hasn't won on the road in 22 games, and haven't beaten the Packers in the Aaron Rodgers era, much less in Wisconsin since 1992.

This was, and should have been, a slam-dunk game.  This should have been the Buffalo game redux, with the offensive players taunting the defense.  It was not.  Even including the Packers' final game-sealing 73-yard drive, the Lion...the LIONS...dominated the Packers in nearly every statistical category:  First downs (24-16), Third down efficiency (59% - 43%), total yards (431-261), time of possession (37:37 - 22:23), and even turnovers (3-4).

Where they Lions put their own nails in their coffin was with penalties, piling up 13 for 102 yards and snuffing out several drives, not unlike the Packers last Monday night against the Bears, when they lost by three points.

In fact, there's quite a bit in common with that game.  The Packers, a team we believed to be far superior to the Bears, narrowly lost the game after imploding with penalties and special teams' gaffes.  This week, the Lions were the ones who seemed to implode with self-destructive penalties, but only lost by two points to a Packers team that shouldn't even be spoken in the same breath as them.

This is because the Packers, once again, intermixed several brilliant plays and drives (great picks by Hawk and Woodson, fantastic precision touchdowns by Rodgers) with bone-headed gaffes (two rare interceptions, a shanked punt, and fumble after fumble on special teams).  It took those brilliant plays and some stiff red-zone defense in the second half to hold the Lions to field goals that spelled the difference in a game that should have been won by double-digits going away.

The Bears and Lions are not the class of the NFC North, much less the NFC.  But, it is looking more and more nerve-wracking each week as the Packers lower themselves to the level of their competition and allow division rivals to remain in games they have no business being in.

I know I will get some backlash:  "Sheesh, C.D., you would think we just lost the game instead of putting up the W!"  It's not my goal to be negative.  However, I think you do the team a disservice to ignore issues that we've seen two games in a row simply because we edged one out against inferior competition.

I boil down the critical factors to two areas:  discipline and commitment to the running game.

Discipline:  Last Monday night, the Packers piled up 18 penalties for 152 yards, but as the game went on, the penalties became more and more foolish and emotional.  While Mike McCarthy may try to sell you on the idea of gray-area penalties, and dividing them into "good-ol' combat penalties" and "bad mental errors", the fact that such a team can go from 18 to 3 in six days is a good indication that, when a team concentrates on its self-discipline, it is able to control either kind of penalty.

In other words, if the Packers were averaging 10 penalties a week, you'd start questioning a lot of things.  But the Packers aren't staying consistent in their focus, and when things start derailing, so does their discipline.

Another good example of this is the performance of special teams the past two weeks.  After making good showings the first two games of the season, the special teams have hurt the Packers greatly the past two weeks.  Last Monday, a blocked field goal, a kick out of bounds, and a punt return for a touchdown.  The critical fumble by James Jones in the fourth quarter, setting up the winning field goal, didn't help, either.

This week, while the penalties didn't hurt the Packers, the mental mistakes did.  A shanked punt by Tim Masthay and not one, but two fumbles by Jordy Nelson on kickoff returns led directly to ten points for the Lions, and could have been the critical 13 points had Jason Hanson converted a 55 yard field goal at halftime.

Again, I can hear many of you out there decrying me for not emphasizing Charles Woodson's pick-six, or Tramon Williams' perfect end-zone coverage, or John Kuhn putting the game away on the ground.  I appreciate each and every one of those things, but those are examples of excellent execution, which depends on good, disciplined play.  We should celebrate those plays when we are up against equal or superior competition, not the clearly inferior talent that we were up against today.

A team that has aspirations of Super Bowl or Die can't continually be allowing inferior teams to stay in games and have chances to win it in the fourth quarter...especially division rivals.

Lack of commitment to the running game: I can fully expect to take Aaron Nagler's wrath for this one, but you have to call a spade a spade.  The Packers made a beautiful drive to end the game, mostly on the back of fullback John Kuhn, who ran seven times for 34 yards amidst three nice passes by Aaron Rodgers for first downs. [We won't mention that Brandon Jackson also got a carry on that drive for -3 yards]

And as we slap hands and celebrate that game-winning drive where the run and the pass seemed to live in perfect harmony, we should note that the 6:32-minute drive almost doubled the longest drive we had at any point in the rest of the game.  

When the Packers have a running game, the whole team seems to respond, and I don't mean just the offense.  You can go all the way back to the 2007 playoff game against the Giants, when Ryan Grant rushed for 29 yards and the entire team, offense and defense, seemed completely out of their element.  You saw it last January, when the Packers couldn't manage a single drive to last more than four minutes as they played a game of Madden with Kurt Warner.  And you saw it last week when the Packers imploded with penalties.

I can't explain why, but these McCarthy-coached teams will never...I repeat, able to win a Super Bowl without a running game.  There may be teams that can do it, but the Packers depend on their running game to somehow maintain some sort of balance that the whole team feeds off.  It takes nothing away from Aaron Rodgers and his ability to pass, but we know that when you are protecting a lead against a team that is gaining momentum and catching up, a nine-minute drive ground out with a running back is far more effective than going empty-backfield shotgun and launching long passes downfield, as we saw today.

Without Kuhn's final march, the Packer running backs finished with 38 yards on 11 carries, and only three attempts in the second half before the last drive.  Think about that:  three designed rushes while up by seven points, then fourteen points after Woodson's early pick-six.  While protecting a lead that slowly diminished over the course of the half, the Packers attempted nine passes, with six of those out of the shotgun.

That's a  25/75 run/pass ratio, and as we know, it didn't work against a team ranked #30 in total defense coming into the game.  That's unacceptable, and inexplicable.  When the Packers went to the run game in the final drive, you saw the whole team seemingly come back together.

As much as we ballyhoo the "screen is really a rush" mantra and give this team excuses to not rush the ball, the evidence is pointing more and more to the conclusion that the Packers are not a team that can effectively win games without a consistent commitment to the running game...and for some reason, it affects the psyche of the entire team, not just the offense.


Next week, the Packers will be taking on a Redskin team that defensively ranks even lower than the Lions, at least before their game today with the Eagles.  It's another trap game for the Packers, a game against a team that they should clearly outclass. It will beg the question whether or not the Packers will enter FedEx Field as the 3-1 Super Bowl favorites we all want to believe them to be, or if they will allow an inferior team to linger around again in the fourth quarter, requiring heroic plays to spell the difference.

As we saw last season, when you lower yourself to the level of your opposition, it makes it that much harder to rise to the level of quality opponents.