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.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely correct. This "leave-the-old-guys" mentality can be dangerous in a short term perspective. The next games will be decisive and the playoffs will reveal the truth about our roster.

Greetings from a true fan from Brazil.

MakinDay said...

Excellent post. Your point on the Packers prior attempts to move on at tackle is poignant. In this case, specifically with Al Harris, I do not think we can operate under the assumption he is the same player. He is 35 YO; Ty Law is still looking for a team at 36. I think the age related decline in Harris began in January 2008 when Plaxico Burris utterly schooled him in the NFC championship game. His closing speed was always marginal, now he has a reconstructed knee, which we know can be a career ender. In regards to your earlier post, Al Harris is one of my favorites as well, but I think the sun has set on his career. Your wife can wear his jersey with pride, he will always be a Packer to me too, but I do not think his short stay with the Dolphins will prove Ted Thompson wrong. We shall see. Good luck to him.

PackersRS said...

Anonymous, another fan from Brazil? Daonde tu és?

About the article, excellent as always C.D.
And the cautionary approach you employ is a good one.

But, like you said, 6-3 makes all the difference. And it's not just the record. It's HOW we're winning.

We're dominating. And not only that, we're dominating with an injury-riddled roster.

That fact, IMHO, is the most determining factor when evaluating those moves. Simply put, TT has done such a terrific job, that you just can't doubt him...

Liou said...