Sunday, November 28, 2010

Packers' Grades vs. the Falcons

The Packers may have lost another close game, but it shouldn’t be devastating.  They went on the road against the class of the NFC and lost by only three points as time expired.  Overall, they played well, but the final score came down to glaring mental mistakes.  The fumble by Aaron Rodgers at the goal line turned the tide of the game, and failing to challenge a fourth-down reception on the ensuing Falcon drive resulted in a fourteen-point swing.   The Packers needed to play error-free to win this game, but  between those mental mistakes and costly penalties, they couldn’t compete with the Falcons.

Brandon Jackson only got ten rushing attempts, and most of them were run out of single-back sets that had him switching directions and avoiding tacklers long before he got back to the line of scrimmage.  Dimitri Nance failed in his only goal line rush, but the offensive line must take their share of blame for not opening holes for both rushers.  Rodgers rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown, but his fumble was game-changing.

The Packers’ defensive front made a valiant effort, stuffing uber-back Michael Turner on numerous occasions.  But, in the end Turner was able to bounce big runs to the outside, gaining 110 yards on 23 carries, helping the Falcons to control the clock and keeping the Packer defense in the box.  On Turner’s touchdown, he walked into the end zone as both AJ Hawk and Nick Collins were cut out of the back side of the play by one blocker.

Rodgers and his receivers were on target much of the day.  Finding comfort from the Falcons’ rush with quick throws (and a previously unseen no-huddle offense), Rodgers took only one sack while using the short-passing game as a running game.  Brett Swain made a couple of key runs after the catch, and Jordy Nelson had a beautiful sideline catch near the endzone, then the touchdown reception that tied the game up with less than a minute to play.  The Packers were only 3-for-11 on third downs, though.

Matt Ryan didn’t have to do much today but make safe, conservative throws, and combined with Michael Turner’s effective ground game, it was more than enough to keep the Packers off-balance.  Ryan was able to avoid the rush by moving outside the pocket and waited for shorter passes to Jason Snelling and Tony Gonzalez to develop.  While the Packers did get two sacks on the day, linebacker Clay Matthews was noticeably quiet.

The Packers’ lackluster special teams play returned after playing quite well for several weeks.  Most glaring were five special-teams penalties that resulted in 61 yards difference in field position.  As a result, the Packers’ average drive started on their own 17-yard line, while the Falcons started on their own 30.  Most critical was Matt Wilhelm’s face mask on the Falcon’s final kick return, with the game tied and under a minute to play.  While the face mask may have prevented a touchdown, it was a major fail for a kick coverage team that shouldn’t be giving up such a play at a critical juncture in the game.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Want To Believe in the 2010 Green Bay Packers

I'm ready.  Seriously.

Folks all through Packer Country and beyond have been declaring this past weekend's victory over the Vikings [aka Brett Favre] as the most satisfying victory in decades.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the win, but I didn't have the euphoria that many of my fellow Packer fans had.

For one, I cut off the emotion connected with Brett Favre a long time ago.  The last of it dissipated when the Packers [aka Aaron Rodgers] beat the Vikings [aka Brett Favre] at Lambeau Field last month.  Yep, Rodgers got his revenge, Brett looked all sad and droopy-eyed, and I got to see it first hand (in a game, mind you, that almost went the other way at the end if it weren't for a disconnected pass). 

It was at that point I made the choice to disconnect Brett Favre from the Packers.  Frankly, I obsessed over him as much as anyone over the course of his career, as perhaps one of his biggest fans and defenders.  But his detractors, even before 2007, obsessed just as much as the Favre Lovers did.  When FavreGate happened, it didn't matter your feelings, whether you sided with Favre or sided with the Packers [aka Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson, and Aaron Rodgers].  You still obsessed over All Things Favre, which is why FSPN roared to give you what you wanted.

But, you see, I'm done with that.  And when I turned on the television on Sunday, I didn't view it as the final battle between the Vikings [aka Brett Favre] and the Packers [aka Aaron Rodgers].  I viewed it as a division battle against a decimated opponent that the Packers had to put away and keep down.  But, face it, they were a beaten dog out there.  When you're on the brink of firing your coach, your talent on the field isn't playing anywhere near its potential.  The Vikings are a sinking ship, and will be sunk for many years to come.

The Favre stuff?  It's fun to work with.  Today's Twitter trending topic of #favrebueller (and seriously, search it.  It's hysterical) was a great diversion.  But the time has come to stop talking about the Packers [aka Aaron Rodgers who is not Brett Favre] and start talking about the Packers.  Just the Packers.  The 2010 Green Bay Packers.  You know, the ones we keep hoping to see make it into the playoffs, and presently hold just the sixth seed if the season ended today?

Packer fans are riding a high right now.  Aaron Rodgers should be the NFL MVP, Mike McCarthy the NFL Coach of the Year, Clay Matthews the Defensive Player of the Year, Dom Capers the Comeback Coach of the Year, Tim Masthay the Punter of the Year, and the Tundra Line the Grammy winners for in the Instrumental Percussion Category.

And I want that high.  I really do.  But we have to move beyond the victories over the Teams The Packers Love To Beat (even though they are little more than NFL-E talent and stumblebums) and start viewing ourselves truly as NFL elite.  And that starts on Sunday.

The Packers could very well be on the same path they were in 2009.  They pulled themselves out of a deep funk with a surprise victory over a tough team (2009 Cowboys, 2010 Jets), then played well against a slough of mediocre teams over the latter half of the season.  When it came time to take on playoff-talented teams who were prepared for what the Packers could do, they fell short.  They battled, but couldn't do it against the better teams with solid quarterback play.

This year, the Packers are actually lucky...and I mean that, have a tough schedule over the latter half of the season.  Teams like the Patriots, the Giants, and the Falcons are the teams the Packers would be meeting in the playoffs, not the Lions, Cowboys, or Vikings.  It is those teams, if we are to truly evaluate ourselves as a championship-caliber team, that we must show up and play well against.

My analogy:  in the mid-1990's, the Packers paid little attention to the Bears or the Vikings.  Why should they?  They were important division battles, certainly, but in those Mike Holmgren-led days, the Packers weren't measuring themselves against the Vikings [aka Brad Johnson] or the Bears [aka Erik Kramer].  The measuring sticks were the 49ers [aka Steve Young], the Cowboys [aka Troy Aikman], and the Broncos [aka John Elway].  In order to consider yourself the best, you had to measure yourself against the best.

The Packers cannot continue to measure their successes against the likes of Wade Phillips and Brad Childress.  And most of all, we cannot continue to measure our success against the misfortunes of Brett Favre.  Easy wins and moral victories are for losers and also-rans, and the 2010 Packers have the markings of a team that could be, and should be, more than that.

So, I want to believe.  I want to buy into the hype that was so cruelly stolen from us early in the regular season, when "Super Bowl or Die" quickly faded into the stark reality that the Packers couldn't beat mediocre teams in overtime.

But it starts this Sunday.  The Jets may have been a fluke, a rusty team coming off a bye that looked past a Packer team that had hit rock bottom and surprised them.  The Packers managed to win that game in spite of their offense not bothering to show up most of the game.  Lately, our offensive revival on resuscitated itself against who?...the Cowboys and the Vikings.

The 8-2 Falcons bring a team that is hungry and, to be honest, running scared to hang on to a lead in a division that has teams breathing down their neck.  This is a team that is going to methodically try and win the game with a ball-control running attack, perhaps the antithesis of the Packers' offense.  Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, is starting to truly come into his own and has an 18-1 record in the Georgia Dome.

These are the kind of games that define you as a team, not running up the score on a sorry team that quits fighting after one interception.  And, trust me, I want that feeling of truly believing that this team has as much chance as any when the second season starts; that the name "Packers" belong with names like Falcons, Jets, and Patriots....not with the Lions, Vikings, and Bears.

Sunday afternoon, the Packers are going to go into Georgia and play in a hostile environment against a team with everything to lose and the muscle to back it up.  It is up to the Packers, not the Packers [aka Aaron Rodgers] or the Packers [aka Ted Thompson], to win this game.

Because it is the Packers that will be the ones to win a Super Bowl as a team, not individuals or symbols.  And that mission begins on Sunday, and this fan is ready to believe that everything is possible.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Packers' Grades in 31-3 Victory over the Vikes

You can’t underestimate the danger of playing a team that is desperate, and for one quarter it really looked as if the Vikings would make a game of it.  But Coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers kept the pressure on Minnesota until they imploded.  Most importantly, the Packers only had one penalty and did not turn the ball over in the game.  A Charles Woodson-forced fumble stopped one early Viking drive, while Tramon Williams’ interception of Brett Favre’s pass deep in Green Bay territory just before the end of the first half virtually sucked the life out of the Vikings.  The Packers kept a boot to their throat the rest of the game and didn’t allow any momentum to swing the Vikings’ way.

McCarthy announced before the game that they were going to try and control the game on the ground.  As we’ve grown to expect, when Aaron Rodgers came alive in the second quarter, the running game was virtually ignored until the end of the game, when Matt Flynn came in at quarterback and the Packers tried to run out the clock.  Brandon Jackson averaged only two yards per carry on the day, but had some success running in the middle of the line instead of running outside.  Dimitri Nance picked up 37 rushing yards in garbage time.

Adrian Peterson did have a couple of nifty runs, including a backbreaking 25-yard jaunt that led to the Vikings’ only score in the first quarter.  But, 61 of his 72 yards were spread out on four carries, leaving him with 11 yards on 10 carries the rest of the day.  Peterson was kept bottled up and was not allowed to dictate the offense, which put the ball in the hands of Brett Favre…which is exactly what the Packers wanted. 

If anyone embodied the first-quarter rustiness of the Packers, it was Aaron Rodgers, who was off on his throws and took two sacks while taking too long looking downfield.  But, he quickly settled down into a rhythm of short, West Coast Offense-style passes that slowly chipped away at the pass rush and demoralized the Vikings’ defense. In the end, he passed for 301 yards and a regular-season-first four touchdowns.  Greg Jennings has a career day with 152 receiving yards and three touchdowns, showing elite concentration on many difficult receptions.

While the Packers managed only one “awarded” sack on the day, Cullen Jenkins and Clay Matthews kept Brett Favre jumpy all day by rushing his throws, and knocking him down repeatedly.  After Tramon Williams’ interception, it was easy to see that both quarterback and receivers were frustrated and completely out of sync with each other.  The secondary played the receivers very tight all day, even when the game was out of reach, yet did not garner a single interference call all game.

The special teams didn’t do much today to win the game, but more importantly, they didn’t do anything to lose it, either.  For the most part, both the Vikings and the Packers contained the other team’s returners, leaving long fields for the offenses.  Mason Crosby booted his only field goal attempt through, and punter Tim Masthay had another decent game, pinning the Vikes inside their 20 twice and only allowing one return.  Williams did return a dangerous punt from his own three-yard line while surrounded by defenders, giving the Packers breathing room.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vikings May Be Big Test For the Packers

I've pored over every set of matchups I could  for tomorrow's Packer/Vikings games, and invariably, the Packers grade out as the better team.  Naturally, you'd expect that.  Clay Matthews will take care of Brett Favre.  The DLine formation I like to call "The Firewall" (Pickett, Raji, and Green) will stuff Adrian Peterson.  And Aaron Rodgers will carve up the defense.  The only thing that might come back to bite the Pack is our special teams, and heck, Sam Shields has just been anointed Keanu Reeves by the coaching staff, so we win that one, too.

Yes, by every imaginable measure, the 6-3 Packers are on a roll, well-rested coming off a bye, and seem to finally have all their cylinders firing at the same time.  On the other side of the ball, the Vikings are beat up, beat down, and on the verge of complete implosion.  Their coach is on his way out the door, likely sooner than later, and the players don't appear to want to help save his job.  These two teams are about as far apart in fortunes as can be imagined.

Which is exactly what makes the Vikings so dangerous.  This team is barely on pace for a 6-10 finish, the quarterback they wet-dreamt about looks even older than he really is, and Sydney Rice looked around at the turmoil and tried to stay on the sideline as long as possible before being forced to join in the fun.  This is a team that is going nowhere, and they all know it.  Big changes are on the horizon, and collecting a paycheck is now the primary motivation to show up for work.

This is a desperate team, and a team that is desperate knows that moral victories are sometimes the best they can hope for.  And for a team that is coming apart at the seams, there's nothing that will temporarily ease all the pain than a home victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Mind you, not just the Green Bay Packers, division rivals.  It's the Green Bay Packers, the team the Vikings built themselves to beat.  It's the Green Bay Packers, the team Brett Favre was supposed to be able to unravel.  It's the Green Bay Packers, who delivered a loss last month that sent the Vikings into complete free-fall.

It's the Green Bay Packers...and a victory over them would be a tremendous emotional victory.  After all, didn't the win against the Vikings do the same for the Packers a month ago?  If games were won on paper, why would Chris Berman keep tell us. "That's why they play the game".  For the last thirty years.  Over and over again.

Come on.  We've seen this for years, especially since the fall from the Holmgren era.  Think about a pathetic Detroit Lions team somehow gathering itself and playing the Packers tough on a Thanksgiving Day game.  Amidst season after season of dismal play, on that one November day, they played their "Super Bowl", and beating the Packers was icing on the cake.  Or. imagine Lovie Smith's Bears, who announced upon his arrival that their first mission was going to beat the Packers, and has managed an 8-5 record against the Packers during his regime (getting wins even in the Bears' poorer seasons).

Yes, the Packers should win.  And yes, the Vikings should lose.  The momentum, however, is likely to lie with Minnesota and the screaming fans in the Humpty Dome to start out.  The Vikings have nothing else to lose this year.

One thing that sort of bothered me coming out of the Packer victory over the Vikings last month was the comments from the locker room, how players mentioned how important this game was the Aaron Rodgers, and how much they wanted to get the win for him.  I'm not doubting that importance or its significance, but you do have to wonder, especially with how inconsistent Rodgers has been this year, if having to get psyched up for one game based on who you're playing is a sign of a playoff quarterback.

You don't hear about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning having to get a "special game".  While there is certainly plenty of backstory to Rodgers' finally "beating" Brett Favre, you also want to have a quarterback...and a team...that approaches every regular season game with the same level of focus and determination.  Personally (and I did say this before the game), Rodgers should be to the point now where he no longer NEEDS to have to "beat Brett Favre" to prove his worth to himself or anyone else.  Period.

That kind of mentality should be reserved for teams like the Lions on Thanksgiving, or a Lovie Smith Bears team that is on its way to a losing season, knowing they can placate their fans with wins over their arch-rivals.  And, naturally, its a kind of mentality that we're likely to see from the Minnesota Vikings tomorrow.

Hey...if Aaron Rodgers' teammates can vie to get an emotional win for their beloved quarterback (even on a day when he is struggling), you don't think the Vikings aren't going to be trying to get one back for Favre?  You know they're not playing for Childress, and quite frankly, they're likely looking for a reason...any play like the division champs they were last year.  Tit for tat, as they say.

This game has the potential, quite frankly, to be the toughest competition the Packers will have played so far this year.  Seriously.  The Packers haven't played too many tough teams this year:  the Eagles were still starting Kolb at quarterback, and the Jets looked rather off, too.  Yes, the Packers did their job against those two teams, but they may have to do more against the Vikings if they do keep that momentum going.

The Packers are positioning themselves as a legitimate playoff team, and yet we saw how they fared in the playoffs last year:  a defense that fell apart, reducing the game to "Madden" on easy mode.  If the Packers are going to fare any better, they have to learn how to defuse a motivated team early.  The Vikings will be looking for any positive plays to energize them, whether it be a turnover, a sack, a three-and-out, a big touchdown...whatever.  This is a desperate team that will play desperately, but will also respond well to any success.

The Packers are going to have to control the ball and make sure that they don't make the big mistake.  Obviously, establishing a running game would be aid the Packers in that quest.  But even if the Packers do jump out to an early lead and demoralize the Vikings, we've already seen the Vikings come from behind late in a game against the Cardinals to win at the end.  And, we have seem the Packers fall apart later in games this year, too.

In the end, I believe the Packers will win, but to do so, they need to do the things that a playoff team needs to do.  They need to not beat themselves with foolish penalties and special teams gaffes.  They need to control the ball, take it away when they can, and not put it on the carpet or in the hands of their defensive backs.  But most of all, they need to get that lead, and put the boot to the throat of the competition and keep them down.

The first win this season against the Vikings transformed the Packers into a confident team that was able to rattle off two more wins, including one against the Jets. It gave them the momentum to handily beat bad teams and stand up to the better ones.

A win tomorrow may be just what the Packers need to take themselves to the next level, ready to face the Falcons, the Patriots, and the Giants....and whomever they may meet in Week 18.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Packers' Confidence in Young Players Brings Risks

I'll take some heck for saying this, but I'm going to do it.  Hey, it's not like it hasn't run through some people's minds, even those who have justified the Packers' moves this week.  So here it is...some of the moves this week, including cutting Al Harris, may be a bit cocky on the Packers' part.

Call it what you want...pride, confidence, ego.  Hubris is something that affects us all.  When things are going well, we have a little more spring in our step, take a few more risks, and simply feel like the good times will never end.  It's when things start falling around us that we start doing the real "self-scouting" and take the conservative and safe routes (not to be confused with "panic mode", which comes when the common sense approach doesn't pay off).

The Packers bid farewell to two stalwart veterans this week, one for good, and the other likely for good.  In the long-term, it was probably a good time to say goodbye.  In the short-term, however, there are more than a couple of Packer fans out there who may second-guess the impact on the 2010 season.

The ascension of Sam Shields led directly to the expandability of Al Harris, a 34-year old vet who was recovering from serious knee injury.  The Packers did him a favor by keeping him on the roster and paying him to recover, but when the time came to make that final decision three weeks after his PUP time was over, Harris was unceremoniously released...and apparently, somewhat to his surprise.

The Packers have two starting-caliber corners right now in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and the Packers are likely looking at Harris's multimillion dollar contract and realize they are going to have to reallocate much of it to keep Williams.  But, Harris's savvy experience would have made him valuable, if nothing else as a coach-on-the-field for young backups Shields, Pat Lee, and Brandon Underwood. 

But the hardest question has to be: would Harris be an improvement...right now....over Shields in the nickel role?  Would moving Shields to the dime and still allowing him to return kicks have made the Packers a worse team or a better team right now?

Now, before you answer that question, let's think about another: what if the Packers had continued the losing streak from the Miami game, when the team was doing some real soul-searching, through the last three games?  What if they were on a five game-skid going into the bye week?  Would the Packers have felt as comfortable letting go a veteran player? 

But, you're right...they aren't 3-6, they are 6-3.  And with the return of the national praise and attention that slowly waned over the first six weeks, the Packers are in a position to make more risky moves.  After all, who's calling for McCarthy's head anymore?  Who is criticizing Ted Thompson's failure to make runs at free agents?

It's all better when you're winning.  But, a lot of prudent Packer fans have learned that hype and momentum can hit a brick wall in the face of some decent competition (and in the Packers' case earlier this year, in the face of some not-that-decent competition). 

Is Shields really that good already?  Hey, I love the kid and I was the one pushing hard for him in the preseason.  But it's a funny coincidence that the same week Thompson lets a beloved veteran go, McCarthy and special teams Shawn Slocum are suddenly marketing Shields as a secret weapon.  Slocum quipped, "If I was getting ready to play us, I'd be scared to death of him." 

It's pretty clear that Tramon Williams is a part of the future.  Assuming Woodson's days are equally numbered as his age continues to advance, we can only assume that when McCarthy made his cryptic "big picture" comment in explaining Harris's release, he could have only meant Shields is that big picture.  And that's a mighty big leap for a guy who couldn't hang on to a kick or punt and was a mild surprise to make the final 53.

So, is Shields really better than Harris right now?  Assuming the Packers win the North and advance to the playoffs, will the Packers be better off with Shields than Harris?  If Tramon or Charles take a hit to the knee and miss some time, are we better off with Shields filling in as a starter than Harris?

Long-term, absolutely.  But for this season, I question it.  It's a somewhat cocky decision made on a young player's potential, and could backfire.  But the Packers are 6-3, and the defense is playing perhaps the best in the NFL right now.  It makes iffy decisions like this a lot easier to make, and a lot easier to accept.  For now.

It's not the first time McCarthy and Company may have bought into the hype.  Following the 2007 season, Thompson was named GM of the Year, and McCarthy won the AP Coach of the Year, and praises were heaped upon both.  For the first time, it appears that both played a different game with Brett Favre than they had in their previous offseasons.  Now, I'm not talking retirement, I'm not talking un-retirement, and I'm not talking Favregate.  I'm talking in those months between the Giants loss and March, when Favre interpreted signals from the front office that they were ready to move on and didn't give him the wide berth he had been given for so long.

Now, I'm not saying the decision itself was wrong.  But it showed how a taste of success emboldened the Packers to stand up to Favre, despite having him come off his best season since his MVP years (in fact, if it weren't for Tom Brady's historically dominant season, he might have won another).  Now, many of us had been telling the Packers brass to grow a pair and treat Favre like a player, not a mini-GM.

But it took some unprecedented success for Thompson and McCarthy to have the courage to do so.  Now, I agreed with the decision to remove Favre from the team, so don't take this as some sort of Favre-defending.  Favre was arrogant and self-absorbed, but there were many at the time who noticed the same thing about Thompson and McCarthy, too.  It gets lost in history, especially with Favre doing such a great job with his own negative public relations, but it was there.

In the end, McCarthy's bold statement insisting the Aaron Rodgers would be fine because "this team is predicated on the defense" ended up coming back to haunt him, as the defense fell apart and McCarthy was forced to fire nearly his entire defensive coaching staff and reboot the entire scheme, after finishing 2-7 and missing the playoffs entirely.  The GM and Coach of the Year ate some crow together that night.

It was the next offseason when the Packers' made another bold assumption, that the Packers didn't need injured Mark Tauscher anymore and aging Chad Clifton was likely to also be replaced in the starting lineup.  The Packers were convinced that Allen Barbre and TJ Lang were ready to take the reins, and in fact, gave Lang every opportunity to take the job from Clifton while penning in Barbre before the season even began.

In the end, we know how the 2009 season went at offensive tackle.  Chad Clifton won back his starting job, while Barbre struggled mightily and was eventually replaced by a re-signed Mark Tauscher mid-season.  After a record-setting pace for sacks allowed over the first half of the season, McCarthy was again sending out the same two starting tackles that used to start for Mike Sherman.  Barbre was cut after the season, and Lang still sits on the bench behind Clifton and first-round pick Bryan Bulaga.

So, it is not without reason to think there is a bit of hubris involved in the Harris decision, a belief that your defense is doing so well, and you're 6-3, that a savvy veteran is expendable in the face of a promising but extremely raw newcomer.

You might even apply this to a couple of other moves, such as the activation of another PUP player, James Starks, to the active roster.  This surprised a lot of folks, including myself, because Starks simply hasn't played in almost two years.  We talk so much about how important that first training camp is for rookies, because the game speed is so much faster, the terminology so much more complicated, that it is almost impossible for a rookie to hold out and make a significant impact.  

Yet, Starks missed his entire senior year, participated in only two weeks of OTA's, and failed his pre-training camp physical.  Why activate the kid who's been nursing a hamstring already, and send him unconditioned into a game situation?  Yes, it allows him to practice, and the Packers are short at running back, but it's unfathomable that Starks is going to pay any dividends this year.  

Yes, there's some logic in it all, but you also have to wonder if the Packers didn't see enough immediate need at running back to have invested in a better, veteran talent to come via trade, whether that have been Marshawn Lynch, Marion Barber, or another player.  Instead, the cavalry is a guy who hasn't played in a game since January of 2009.  But, when you're 6-3, you can take those risks.  Right?

The point is simply that the Packers have been caught with egg on their face before when they've thought they knew what they had in young talent and ended up being proven wrong in the end.  Yes, veterans cost money and are no more a guarantee than an undrafted rookie, though I think you'd find the success rate is a little higher with the veterans.  

The Packers looked to have turned what was a disappointing season around, going on a three-game tear that has restored tangible momentum to the team.  The fact that two of the wins were against mediocre (Minnesota) and miserable (Dallas) competition is overshadowed because they were against Teams The Packers Love To Beat.  But on the horizon are truer tests of the Packers' mettle:  the Giants, the Falcons, and the Patriots.  That will be the caliber of team the Packers will be facing in the playoffs, not the Cowboys or Vikings.

And, if the Packers have learned anything from 2009, it is that you have to show up with all your pistons firing in the playoffs to have a chance to win.  Let's hope the Packers pride in their young, unproven players over expensive, aging veterans doesn't come back to haunt them in Week 18.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Wife's Al Harris Jersey Is Going Nowhere

Please note: this was written before Al Harris potentially chose to sign with the Vikings, Bears, or Lions, so don't hate on me for being nice towards him. Plus, I'll sic my wife on you, and you do NOT want any part of that right now.
I got the text message at work yesterday, one of those ALL CAPS texts that make you realize the sender is more than a little perturbed. When I saw it was also from my wife, the capital letters were a danger beacon. I quickly reviewed if I had done something stupid, like left the cat outside, forgotten her birthday, or eaten the last of her Chunky Monkey ice cream.

It was a relief to find that the source of her text abuse wasn't me, but hearing the news that the Green Bay Packers had released cornerback Al Harris. I wasn't too surprised, though I never got so much as a tweet from her all through the Favre debacle. "How the heck could they do THAT?" she asked when I got home.

When faced with a wife who is particularly angry, all those rational explanations we thought were plausible on Twitter or on our blogs suddenly fell flat. "Well, he was injured last year," I said.
"SO? Why don't they put him on injured reserve then??"

"Well, I don't think he's that injured anymore. He thinks he can play now."

"So why don't they let him play?" This was not an inquisitive question. It was one of those dangerous questions that make you think through your answer before giving a censored version that allows you to sleep in your usual bed that night.

"I guess they didn't want him as a fourth cornerback. They have three guys in front of him that they like, including an undrafted free agent." Seeing the raised eyebrow, I quickly added, "And you know, he doesn't play special teams."

"But isn't he still good? Didn't he just make the Pro Bowl a few years ago?"

"Well, yeah, but that's a pretty serious injury. He may have lost a step. But I guess he was practicing with the first-stringers last week." Not much I was saying was having an impact. I was grasping at straws.

"So, now I have a useless jersey," was her final dagger.

"No. I'd keep it. I mean, he'll be a Packer Hall of Famer one day," I called after her, as she retired to the kitchen and began clanking pots and pans together.

It's not often that my wife makes me have to think harder than I already do about something to do with the team. She doesn't follow the team intensely, but she is a born-and-bred Packer fan that doesn't tolerate the minutia when it comes to what being a loyal fan really is.

And, like many others out there, I wonder if this is a far-less-explosive sequel to the infamous "train has left the station" move that happened a couple of years ago. Harris publicly thanked the Packers for hanging on to him a few weeks ago, saying it was more than they needed to do for an aging player who had a serious knee injury. But, when it came time to make a decision to activate him the roster, having young players like Tramon Williams and Sam Shields made the decision a bit harder.

Do you move on with a younger, developing player that shows a lot of promise? Obviously, Williams has sealed his spot at corner opposite Charles Woodson, but Shields has had a couple of outstanding games and is now being pimped by the coaching staff as the kick returner we hoped we would have been in the preseason (when it appeared his hands were made of wet sponges).

However it all went down, it looks like the Packers presented Harris with a choice: go on IR for the season, collect your paycheck, and finish your career here in Green Bay; or we'll release you to play elsewhere. Apparently, taking a roster spot from a younger player was taken off the table by the Packer brass. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Harris feels he can still play. You can also deduce that the Packers felt it was no longer going to be in Green Bay.

Crossing the Rubicon for Al Harris is going to be a whole lot easier than it was for Brett Favre, even if he signs with a division opponent. But, that doesn't mean that the intensely competitive Harris isn't going to relish in proving himself when he gets to play the Packers again. Harris has never been the boisterous vocal locker room leader, or even the community pillar that Woodson has become. But, he's always played solidly and led by example. For a team that may be desperately thin at cornerback, he's not a bad signing. Just like Thompson's signings of a lot of 30+ veteran players under the threat of a lockout, it's a far better idea to throw big short-term money at older players that will be gone in a few years, than to lock up a great young player to a contract that may cost you under new rules later on.

But, Al Harris is and should always be remembered as a Green Bay Packer. I got lucky and scored tickets to the January 4, 2004 playoff game at Lambeau Field against Seattle. Naturally, I brought my wife along.
Now, my wife is not one to sit and watch a game with me on television. She often claims to have this superstition that when she watches the Packers play, they lose. Now, I don't think she really believes that as much as I believe she uses it as an excuse to go do silly, less important things, like Facebook, changing the kitty litter, or putting out grease fires in the kitchen.

But, on that night, she began to believe it. While there would appear to be a direct relationship between the aount of Miller Lites she imbibed and the degree to which she believed the fates of a professional football team was affected by her presence, it didn't change how the woman next to me began getting anxious as the Packers fell behind in the third period.

As the Packers rallied, she was relieved (and ordered another beverage), but at the end of regulation, when Ryan Longwell missed a field goal and the game went into overtime, tears began to stream down her face. It was a cold night, and she began apologizing, wishing I had brought one of my usual Packer buddies from my pre-married days instead of her.

Her hands dug into my arm as we both stood in row 35 during the overtime coin flip, and Matt Hasselback smugly announced that he planned to take the ball and score. I laughed nervously at his pompousness, but my wife looked like she believed him. She kept apologizing, and it began to get to the point I was starting to believe her, that perhaps she was the bad-luck charm that was going to derail this team of destiny. There was little I could do as both teams exchanged punts...I couldn't assure her that the Packers were going to pull this one out.  Would I ever be able to go to a game again with my wife?

I have been pretty lucky to have been in attendance of some pretty memorable games in Lambeau Field over the years, especially when you consider I don't have season ticket: Favre's first game, Barry Sanders' -1 rushing day, the first Lambeau Leap, Edgar Bennett scoring a touchdown on a “hole big enough to drive a hole to the Super Bowl through”, Randy Moss's butt-wiping, and Aaron Rodgers' vindication game against Favre this year.

But I don't know if any of those will ever equal the image burnt in my memory of Al Harris's raised finger as he intercepted Hasselback's pass and ran it back into the endzone. The home town crowd erupted, Harris was piled upon by his teammates, and the magic of the season of Fate and Destiny continued for one more glorious week. If they ever mount a statue of Harris in the Lambeau District, there's no other pose they could put him in besides that image of him running that pick-six back on that cold winter night in 2004.

And I will never forget it, because as Lambeau celebrated, my wife cried in my jacket, and publicly declared her gratitude for Al Harris for all time. After all, it was he who broke her curse, once and for all. Two things happened as a result of that day: my wife has never again claimed the Packers always lose when she watches, and she bought a white #31 jersey that she has worn on every Packer day since.

I could be reading a story from the paper about any Packer...Charles Woodson, Mark Tauscher, Aaron Rodgers...but none made her ears perk up like any news about Al Harris. She was dead set on buying me a dreadlocks wig and making me wear it.

In our house, Al Harris will always be a Packer, and well he should be. How many of us would give our right arm to be immortalized forever because of that one play, and yet he should be honored for all he's done besides that play. For all the criticism Mike Sherman ever got as a GM, and much of it was well-deserved, trading for Al Harris is easily his one that was an unqualified genius move.

And he will always have one fan that will never let go of her jersey, reminding many of us cynical bloggers that not every move the Packers make has to be rationally explained away as being best for the team, or a good business decision, or thinking “big picture”. Because, out there, there are still fans who love players in the most irrational, and loyal ways possible. For those fans who don't still need to psychoanalyze and justify every move the Packer make, there may be no acceptable reason for the departure of a beloved player.

So, on behalf of my wife and myself I say: Farewell, Al Harris. Godspeed.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Packer/Cowboy Team Grades

Yes, it may have been against the lowly Cowboys, but this is the first game this season that all three units (offense, defense, special teams) all played four quarters in the same game.  The Packers dominated every statistical category as they rolled to a 45-7 victory, appearing confident, focused, and ready to take advantage of every Cowboy miscue.  The Packers had only two penalties, no turnovers, and held a fifteen-minute advantage in time of possession. 

The two-headed monster of John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson each had 13 carries and churned out 96 yards between them.   It wasn’t dominating, but it was effective in keeping the defense honest. The Packers tried different power formations against the Cowboys, including utilizing their fullbacks more in the blocking.  Rodgers added 41 yards on five scrambles.

The Packers may have allowed 39 rushing yards, but 33 of those were in the final quarter on two meaningless drives.  Limiting Marion Barber and Felix Jones to five yards through three quarters was an incredible feat.  Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews played just as important a role bottling up the run game as they normally do in the pass game.  The Cowboys did not have one possession over three minutes until the clock-killing final drive of the game.

After so many struggles this season, Aaron Rodgers returned to 2009 form against the Cowboys, picking them apart with a barrage of swing passes, comeback routes, and quick hitters.  Then, he lofted long passes down the sideline and hit receivers in stride with the accuracy we haven’t seen since preseason.  Rodgers passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns, and appeared far more confident and aware in the pocket.  James Jones had a career game with 123 yards on eight catches, and may soon be known as “Mr. Sunday Night” after his big game against the Vikings two weeks ago.

Other than the one fluke touchdown drive at the end of the first half, the Packers’ defense flustered Jon Kitna all game long.  If he wasn’t suffering one of four sacks on the day, he was getting hit soon after releasing the ball.  An early interception by nickel back Sam Shields set up one touchdown, while a spectacular pick-six by Clay Matthews put the icing on the cake in the fourth quarter.  Dez Bryant did catch nine balls for 86 yards and a score, but that was all the Cowboys could manage.

The Packers had trouble containing Bryan McCann on kick returns (27.8 ypr), and a Mason Crosby kickoff out-of-bounds set up the Cowboys’ only scoring drive.  Crosby also had a 54-yard field goal blocked on the Packers’ first drive of the game.  The Packers’ punt team had a good day, with Tim Masthay downing both his punts inside the 20-yard line and keeping Bryant’s punt returns in check.  Jarrett Bush forced two coverage fumbles in the game.  Nick Collins scored a touchdown on the recovery in the second quarter, while Bush recovered his own forced fumble near the end of the game.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tonight! Cheesehead Radio with Packer Geeks!

Join the Cheesehead Radio Crew tonight as we discuss the Packers' fantabulous victory over the Jets, prep you for the Sunday Night matchup against the floundering Cowboys (trap game?), and spend some time catching up with Andy Hayes of Packergeeks.

Join C.D., Jayme, John, and Holly as we bring you the best in Packers radio!  Check in tonight at 8:00 CST right here!!

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's All A Part of the Great Circle of Life, Simba...

Rewind back to 2008.

The Packers were concluding Favregate.  A ton of pressure was on Aaron Rodgers, and there were mounting doubters that the offense could repeat the success it had with Favre under center in 2007.  Coach Mike McCarthy, trying to deflect some of the glare on his new quarterback, made the somewhat infamous declaration, "I'm not worried about the offense.  This team is predicated on the defense".

Well, we know now how that all worked out.  Aaron Rodgers began his throw-first approach that led to the Packers having the 5th-overall ranked scoring offense.  Meanwhile, that defense McCarthy boasted about fell to 22nd overall in the league and led to the axing of nearly every defensive coach following the season.

That trend continued even under Dom Capers in 2009, with the Packers offense ranking among the best in the league, overshadowing an improved defense trying to adjust to a 3-4.

Funny how expectations tend to turn on their ear sometimes, isn't it?

Kind of like 2010.  You know, the score-at-will offense and Aaron Rodgers as potential MVP...remember all that preseason talk?  There were even whispers of team and league records being broken.  There was no discussion of this team being predicated on this defense.  It was predicated on #12, #85, #80, and #88.

Meanwhile, the defense began a quick subtraction of starters, from Al Harris and Atari Bigby, to Morgan Burnett and Nick Barnett, to Mike Neal and Brad Jones.  It was clear that it was the offense that was going to be carrying this team...after all, remember last year's playoff game against the Cardinals?

Again, fate as a funny way of turning your convictions against you.  Week in and week out, with guys being signed off the street and thrust into rotational positions, the defense has held its own.  Last week, it won the game outright, along with special SPITE of the offense.

But, expectations have a way of dictating how you play.  Because the offense was viewed as being the best the Packers would be bringing to the field, opposing teams have worked harder to study tape and figure out how to defend it, and they've done a good job.  They've bottled up the running game enough to the point where the Packers essentially give up on it, and then keep Rodgers unsettled just enough with a pass rush to upset his usually-deadly accurate passes.

On the other hand, most teams come in planning on playing against the standard 3-4 defensive scheme, but Dom Capers has managed to stay one step ahead all season long.  No, the defense may not be a Super Bowl winner on its own, but its done enough to keep the Packers in every game.  When the Jets thought they'd be able to run through the weakness of the Packer D, its injury-riddled front seven, they were surprised when that defense didn't show up.  Instead, Capers brought a run-stopping defense that dared the Jets to pass, then generated enough of a pass rush to keep Mark Sanchez twitchy and allowed the secondary to play to its strengths:  physical coverage.

Let it be noted:  opposing teams are going to stop overlooking the defense and overplanning for the offense pretty soon.  The win over the Jets is going to make teams take notice.

And then it will be up to the Packers to defy expectations again.

Week 8 Grades - Packers 9, Jets 0

The Packers said they had a plan, but few expected them to be able to follow through on it against one of the strongest teams in the league, well-rested coming off a bye.  But the Packers played a near-flawless game, committing only three penalties and posting zero turnovers.  In particular, Dom Capers chose to put his patchwork defensive front seven close to the line to stop the run, and dared Mark Sanchez to beat them through the air.  In the end, the defense humbled the Jets by pitching a shutout in front of their own fans.  While the struggles of the offense should bring this grade down more, there’s no way you deny the magnitude of the beat-up Packers re-establishing themselves among the NFL elite by knocking off the 5-1 Jets.

While giving Brandon Jackson a few more carries this week (15), he did less with it on most of his carries. 
Jackson got the bulk of his 55 yards rushing on the day on one 27-yard rush, a meaningless run at the end of the first half.   The Packers seemed hesitant to run up the gut, stretching out zone runs and pitches to the outside without much success.  The Packers aren’t going to get a running game established with a 70/30 pass/run ratio as they had today, and only twice did they have a drive with a time of possession over three minutes.

You may have needed an updated roster to match names with numbers along the defensive front, but the Packers came into this game with the intent of stopping LaDanlian Tomlinson and Shonn Green and making the Jets pass, and they did it.  The duo combined for only 76 yards and 3.5 yards per carry, and while they may have had a couple of good runs here and there, the Packers contained them and never allowed them a rush of over eight yards.  Desmond Bishop led the team with ten tackles, and Frank Zombo forced an early fumble by Brad Smith in Packer territory.

Aaron Rodgers had another pedestrian day behind center, finishing 15/34 with only 170 yards and no touchdowns.  The Packers only made it into the red zone once all day, and that was by virtue of the failed fake punt in the first quarter.  Rodgers again seemed out of sync with both his receivers and, at times, with his offensive line when he changed the play at the line of scrimmage.  The Packers finished 2/13 on third-down conversions, an abysmal number for Rodgers, who excelled on third downs last season.

The Packers kept pressure on Matt Sanchez all day, sometimes even with just a three-man rush, so Sanchez looked jumpy even when he had time in the pocket.  The Packers often played near-perfect coverage, and when they didn’t, the Jets helped out with five dropped passes.  Sanchez looked off on his passes, completing less than half and making some questionable decisions.  Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams each had a stripped-ball interception, but the Jets will be quick to argue those were poor calls by the officials.  In the end, on their fourth-quarter drive to win the game, Clay Matthews got his first sack in three weeks to force the Jets into a 4th-and-long that was the final nail in the coffin.  Sanchez simply couldn’t get any rhythm going all day against the Packers defense.

After all the criticism he’s received this season, punter Tim Masthay should have earned a game ball this week for his efforts this week.  He punted eight times for a booming 44.0 yard average, and placed five of those inside the 20-yard line, allowing only one return by the Jets (which resulted in a crushing stop by Pat Lee).  The Jets foolishly attempted a fake punt on 4th-and-18 from their own 20 yard line, and while it almost worked, Anthony Smith made a shoestring tackle that saved the first down that gave the Packers their three-point lead.  The only thing preventing this grade from being an A was Mason Crosby’s missed 45-yard field goal, which kept the Jets within striking distance until late in the fourth quarter.