Friday, January 15, 2016

All About Rhythm


Photo by Jim Biever, Packers.com
In the first 17 minutes of Sunday's game, the Redskins scored in almost every way possible - a safety, a field goal, and a touchdown with a missed extra point.  While they were building their 11-0 lead, the Packers had one completed pass in 8 attempts, one first down, and they ran the ball 4 times for a total of 5 yards.  (The wind was against the Packers in the first quarter, but still . . .)  Who would blame Packers fans for saying "here we go again."

But when things changed in the second quarter, they changed for good.  All of a sudden, there was more variety in the passing game, which suddenly seemed in sync and, most importantly, in rhythm, for most of the rest of the game.  And of course, as soon as that happened, the run game improved, too.  Funny how that works.  When the defense can't just sit back there and dare Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball, opportunities pop up all over the place, leading to the convincing 35-18 win.

Once again, Randall Cobb was one of the key players.  By lining him up in the backfield occasionally, starting in the second quarter, the Packers in effect forced the Redskins out of their base defense and into a nickel defense (because they were worried about where Cobb might go, and felt the need for an extra defensive back).  Another key was the fast tempo, either the no-huddle, or a sort of mushy, semi-huddle near the line of scrimmage.  Put the uncertainty about who is lining up where together with the fast tempo, and you have a recipe for problems for the defense.  The Redskins were caught with 12 men a couple of times as they tried to make substitutions, leading directly to one of the touchdowns, and generally putting the Redskins in a position where they sometimes felt that they just could not take the risk of substituting.  This combination left the Redskins at times with the wrong personnel on the field, which then opened up the running game, in which Eddie Lacy had his longest carry of the season.  It also seemed to make the game fun again for Aaron Rodgers, who seemed to relish the challenge of keeping the Redskins off balance and taking advantage.

A final key on offense was J.C. Tretter.  When Bakhtiari was again inactive at left tackle, everybody knew that the Packers would not put Josh Sitton over there again.  So backup center Tretter was the man, and although the game started inauspiciously for him (he gave up the sack for the safety to start the scoring), he quickly adjusted his footwork and was solid for the rest of the game.  I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that regardless which offensive lineman goes out with an injury, Tretter should be the first option to replace him.

You can argue, as does Rob Demovsky of ESPN, that there are three reasons the Packers can win in Arizona, Aaron Rodgers as the best player on the field, a resurgent if not outstanding defense this year, and much-improved special teams.  There is merit in all three of those reasons.  The Packers' prior game at Arizona, as bad as it was, was not really an accurate representation of the difference between these two teams.  The Packers' offensive line was a mess that day, they got behind early, Rodgers was getting mauled as a result of the Cardinals' strong defense and the Packers' porous offensive line, and then things just snowballed.  If you replay that game 100 times, the Packers might lose by 30 or more points only a couple of times.  The Cardinals' were a much better team that day, but the difference was not as great as it looked.

The question is, if the Packers are a better team than showed up three weeks ago, can things swing the other way so far that the Packers can actually win the game?  Well, let's count the factors.  The Packers' offensive line is in much better shape, even if Tretter has to play left tackle again, but if Bakhtiari plays, they may have their starting line intact for the first time in a long time.  The convincing win over the Redskins puts a little confidence back in the heads of the Packers, adding a little weight to McCarthy's "we're nobody's underdogs" bluster.  B.J. Raji looks like he will be back, whereas he missed most of the prior Cardinals game.  Jayrone Elliott and Sam Shields may be back, and Shields in particular has been sorely missed.  And the Cardinals put two players (including starting DT Alex Okafor) on injured reserve this week, despite not having played a game in the last two weeks.  On the negative side, it looks doubtful that Davante Adams will be able to play, which is a shame since he has finally started to look like the Davante Adams we expected all year long.  And of course, the Cardinals are a much better defensive team than the Redskins.

Let's just leave it at this: if the Packers plan to win the game, they can't just waste the entire first quarter, like they did last week.  The offensive line has to play better from the start, Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball quickly, and with some rhythm in the passing game, the running game has to be strong enough to keep the Cardinals pass rushers from pinning their ears back, and receivers have to catch the contested passes.  On defense, the Packers need to put some hits on Carson Palmer, early and often, and see how he performs when it is not just pitch and catch back there.

I still have to predict that the Packers lose this game, and go into off-season mode next week.  But funnier things have happened than an upset in this round of the playoffs, and they certainly have a chance.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Can the Packers Win on the Road in Washington?

Photo by Wm. Glasheen, Press-Gazette Media
The photo depicts one of the two best plays by the Packers in the Sunday night loss to the Vikings, 20-13.  It is Micah Hyde's astonishing, one-handed, back-handed interception of a Teddy Bridgewater left-handed mistake of a pass.  The other great play was Mason Crosby knocking the ball out of Cordarrelle Patterson's hand on his long kick return, where the ball was recovered by Hyde, keeping the Packers' hope for a comeback alive at the time.  Unfortunately, the Packers' comeback was too little and too late.

This is the first time since 1968 that the Packers have lost all their divisional games at home.  Now in fairness, it has to be noted that for quite a few of those years, there was a 5th team in the division (the Buccaneers).  And there were a couple of times that the Packers lost to the Bears, Vikings and Lions at home, but did beat the Buccaneers.  Still, think about this for a second.  Those of us old enough to have lived through the bad years in the 1970's and 1980's saw some pretty bad football teams runs out on the field in those days.  But none of them ever lost all of their divisional games at home.

If you had to pick one stat that explains Sunday night's result, try this one: the Packers converted only 2 of 15 third down plays, their lowest conversion rate of the season.

In the first six weeks of the season, when the Packers went 6-0, they got off to a fast start in every game, scoring between 7 and 14 points in the first quarter of each game.  Then, in many cases, whether because of the Packers easing up or the opponents making good adjustments, the opposing teams would climb back into the game and make it close in the 4th quarter.

But the last 10 weeks have been very different.  The much more typical model in those games has been that the Packers have not started fast (they have averaged only 4 points in the first quarter).  They generally fall behind, sometimes way behind in the third quarter (3-20 vs. Vikings, 0-20 vs. Detroit).  Then in most games (excluding the Broncos and Cardinals games) they mount a furious comeback, which was successful (miraculously so) in the second Lions game, but fell short in the Panthers, first Lions, second Bears, and second Vikings games.

There have been many contributing factors to the decline of the Packers, starting with the Broncos game.  Bad passes by Rodgers, dropped passes by receivers, a mess on the offensive line, injuries to the defensive backs, too many turnovers on offense and not enough on defense.  Looking ahead to the Redskins playoff game, I just want to focus on a couple of things.  I am not too worried about the Packers' defense, even though the Redskins have some good weapons in Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Alfred Morris.  My concern is more with the offense, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

In re-watching the Vikings game, two things stand out.  The first thing is how successful the Packers' running game was on the first possession, even though the drive stalled and only resulted in a field goal.  But given how well the run game was working, why in the world did the Packers all but abandon the running game for the next 5 possessions?  It is one thing to abandon the running game when it is not working, but to abandon it when it is working?  Insanity.  By the time they again tried to run the ball consistently (after the outstanding Micah Hyde interception), the run game was unfortunately aborted by the strip sack of Rodgers, that was then returned for a touchdown, and at that point it was 20-3, late in the third quarter, probably too late to try again to rely on the running game.  Maybe the Packers should assign one of the assistant coaches, or even somebody like Jordy Nelson, who really has nothing to do during the games, to stand next to McCarthy and remind him, on every offensive series, to run the ball.

The other thing that stands out is Rodgers' discomfort when he drops back to pass.  A caller to the WTMJ post-game show talked about the passing offense not having any rhythm to it.  Re-watching the game, the caller had a point.  Rodgers frequently looks very fidgety back there in the pocket, bouncing around in this direction and that, before finally scrambling to avoid pressure and then throwing the ball.  I don't think he used to look that uncomfortable.

I put the current discomfort down to at least three things, and possibly a fourth.  First and most obvious is the offensive line.  Sunday night it was a total disaster, but it has been hurting for much of the year, and as a result, Rodgers is under constant pressure.  Second is the play-calling.  For whatever reason, by my count, the Packers called at least twice as many deep dropback passes in the first three quarters as they did quick outs, quick slants, or any other pass where Rodgers gets rid of the ball fast.  That just compounds the pressure on Rodgers.  Third, as I have noted before, the receivers, absent Jordy Nelson, are not doing a good job of getting open, and as a result Rodgers spends time looking around and trying to buy enough time for someone to get open.  Finally, I have to wonder if Rodgers has lost some confidence in the receivers / the play calling / and/or himself, to the point where he is reluctant to pull the trigger and ends up getting sacked or at least hit instead.  My two pronged solution to this problem is (a) to stick with the running game, which ought to open up more opportunities in the passing game; and (b) to call more quick-release passes, which seem pretty successful when we do call them, and which ought to force the defensive backs to play closer to the line, which in turn might open up the occasional longer pass.

Despite how bad the Packers have looked in the second half of the season, for some inexplicable reason I actually expect them to win at the Redskins on Sunday.  The Packers have a much better defense than do the Redskins, while the Redskins have been playing better on offense (at least recently) than the Packers.  When the Packers have the ball, if they play even a bit better on offense than they did against the Vikings, they ought to be able to take advantage of the Redskins' defense, where the Redskins are bottom 8 or worse in run defense, pass defense, and overall.  On the other side of the ball, the Packers' defense is good enough to cause some problems for the Redskins, especially in the passing game, and likely cause some turnovers.  The Redskins are on a 4-game winning streak, but it is worth noting that they have not beaten a single playoff team, or a team that ended with a winning record, all season.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last Chance to Get Hot!

Press-Gazette Cover, Dec. 28, 2015
The question that has to be asked is: how bad are the Green Bay Packers right now? In losing to the Cardinals by 30 points on Sunday (38-8), they suffered their worst defeat since being blown out by the Lions by the same margin on Thanksgiving Day 2013.  And Matt Flynn was the QB that day, with Aaron Rodgers still recovering from his broken collarbone.  In fact, this is the worst points deficit the Packers have ever had with Rodgers at QB.  To find a bigger points deficit for a Packers team, you have to go all the way back to 2006, when the Patriots beat the Packers 35-0.  If you are a glutton for punishment, you can pile on other stats to show how bad the game was; for example, when the other team has more sacks than your team has points, or when the opposing defense scores more than your entire team, you have a real problem.

But what exactly is the problem, and, more importantly, what is the solution?  Indeed, is there any solution in the short run, or is this a situation where the team has to wait until next year's return of injured players, or worse yet, be torn down and reconstructed?
Before answering that question, let's consider Colin Kaepernick and Chip Kelly for a minute.  Kaepernick, two or three years ago, was almost on top of the world.  He had narrowly lost the "Harbaugh Bowl" Super Bowl to the Ravens, and the following year narrowly lost the NFC Championship game to the Seahawks, who went on to win the Super Bowl.  Less than two years after that, he was benched, then put on injured reserve (apparently at his own request), and has almost certainly played his last game for the 49ers.  Sure, there were injuries, retirements, the loss of a head coach, etc.  But what happened to Kaepernick himself?  He certainly knew how to destroy the Packers in particular, so how did he get so bad so quickly?

As to Chip Kelly, he was the head coach of the Eagles for one week short of 3 years before being fired this week, and while he never took them near the Super Bowl, the new tempo of the Eagles looked unstoppable for a short period of time, and the Eagles finished their first two seasons with him as coach at 10-6.  But this year, they were 6-9 with one game to go, when the Monday sports cover page of the Philadelphia Daily News asked, "Abandon Chip?" while helpfully noting that Andy Reid's Chiefs have made the playoffs.  A day later, he was gone.  Again, there are all kinds of reasons having to do with players coming and going, and with defensive coordinators learning how to adjust to the fast-paced offense, but still, it is remarkable how quickly things soured in Philly.

The reason I bring up Kaepernick and Kelly is to point out how fast things can change in the Not For Long league.  Could we be in a similar spot with Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy/Dom Capers?  Look, the offensive line is in triage mode, so is the defensive backfield, the receivers can't get open, and the running back position has been the subject of a lot of drama.  But the Packers have had most or all of these problems before, and for a long time this season, and why is it that, all of a sudden, the play-calling seems so bad and Rodgers' performance is so sub-par?  Has Aaron Rodgers suddenly lost his confidence, so that he will never be the same player again?

I'm not ready to reach that conclusion, and I think it is more likely that we will learn, in the off-season, that he has been suffering from some lingering injury most of the year.  If he is not hurt, then the injury to Jordy Nelson, and the musical chairs on the offensive line certainly are factors.  But the play-calling by Tom Clements (earlier) and now Mike McCarthy is not giving much help to the Packers' offense.  Where are the screen passes, the quick slants, the quick outs, or any quick release pass?  They generally work when we try them, but we are just not calling them nearly enough.  And since it is pretty well established that Eddie Lacy runs better out of a conventional pro set than from the shotgun, why is Rodgers in the shotgun almost all the time, and how much of an impact does that have on the running game?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Packers are not very good right now, and not destined to go far in the playoffs.  Could they still get hot now that it matters and do some damage in the playoffs?  Sure, but I can't point to any evidence that that is likely to happen.  They are 4-4 over their last 8 games, and really only looked good in 2 of those games (including the Vikings game).

Every game obviously has its own ebb and flow.  The Packers aren't really as bad as they looked against the Cardinals (right?).  But they got behind early, and when they had a chance to make it close, they gave up an interception in the end zone, and the Cardinals scored again, and suddenly it was 17-0 at halftime, when hypothetically it could have been 10-7.  At that point, the rout was on.

Contrast this with the last Vikings game.  While the Packers won the game, 30-13, they had their problems in that game.  They lost some players during the game, too (Linsley and Hyde) and they didn't put the game away until the early 4th quarter.  But the difference is that they were in a position to put the game away that time, and didn't need a miracle to do it.  The biggest factors in that game were a resurgent running game led by Eddie Lacy, more quick passes, controlling Adrian Peterson, and a fearsome pass rush featuring 6 sacks by the Packers.

There isn't any reason that the Packers can't do the same thing on Sunday night against the Vikings, this time at home.  I'm just fresh out of confidence that they will do it.  I have seen some suggestions that maybe the Packers would be better off losing against the Vikings, because they would then play the Redskins on the road in the first round of the playoffs.  I hope that the Packers are not looking at it that way.  Winning the division for the fifth straight season, and hosting a home playoff game, are big deals.

Go Pack Go!  And Happy New Year to everyone, especially to the Green Bay Packers.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Playoff-Bound Packers Looking for More

Photo by Jim Biever, Packers.com
To the left is a shot of James Jones racing down the field against the Raiders, presumably on his touchdown catch.  It might be just my imagination, but I think he plays better when he is wearing his hoody.  I hope he wears it Sunday against the Cardinals, as the Packers will need any edge they can get.

The Packers got off to a shockingly good start on Sunday, in the rain, at Oakland.  Two interceptions of Derek Carr led to a 14 point lead in the first quarter.  After that, while the Packers continued to lead for the entire first half, they effectively blew the entire lead, ending the half at 14-13.  Along the way, they were completely ineffective on offense, and trailed the Raiders in yards gained by 225 to 97 at the half.  The weird thing about that stat is that almost two-thirds of those yards were gained on the Packers' last full possession of the half, which ended when Charles Woodson knocked the ball out of Starks' hands, and the Raiders recovered.
From the Fox game broadcast

Fortunately for the Packers, they got their act together in the second half, and ended up winning the game by the score of 30-20, after trailing the Raiders only once, and very briefly (for about one minute of game clock time in the third quarter).  The best part of this game, from my perspective, was that I got to witness what seems like a rare occurrence: the Packers actually made halftime adjustments that worked!  It was obvious to everyone that the Packers' offense wasn't working in the first half.  The run game was almost non-existent, with the Raiders stuffing the box with defenders to prevent the run.  Normally, you would turn to the passing game, but that wasn't working either, with the recurring problem of the Packers' receivers not getting open, but this time compounded by a wet ball and a wet field.

From the Fox game broadcast
McCarthy changed things up by lining up Cobb in the backfield, which seemed to loosen everything up in the Raiders' defense.  The Packers' running backs are pretty good pass-catchers, but Cobb coming out of the backfield is an exponentially greater pass-receiving threat.  Putting Cobb back there seemed to open up both the running game and the passing game, and the defense performed well in the second half, giving up one touchdown drive, but shutting out the Raiders for the last 22 minutes of the game!

I made a last minute decision to go to the Raiders game.  I had an enjoyable, if wet, afternoon.  There were plenty of Packers fans I saw on the way to the stadium, in the stands, and after the game on the way to my hotel.  The funny thing about my time in the stands was that I found myself sitting next to some old time Raiders fans.  They started peppering me with questions as soon as I sat down.  "Who is your nose tackle?"  "What is the story with your rookie defensive backs?"  "Do you realize what happened the last time the Packers played here in Oakland?"  I apparently passed their little test, which I assume was designed to figure out if I was a real fan with some knowledge, or just some johnny-come-lately without much knowledge of football or the team.  We had some very pleasant conversations after that throughout the game.
My photo, after the game

If we had any doubt about whether Charles Woodson is coming back after this season, he made it clear early this week that he will not.  He has had a shoulder injury all year long, which was clearly evident on one play where he upended Randall Cobb but came up wincing and holding his shoulder awkwardly.  Because the Christmas eve Raiders game against the Chargers was the last Raiders home game of the year, Woodson announced that he will retire, in order to give the fans a chance to say goodbye (something that the fans did not have a chance to do in Green Bay after his last year there).  This turned a meaningless Christmas eve game into something of a Charles Woodson tribute.  He was one of my favorite Packers' players, and a significant contributor to the 2010 Super Bowl season.  He has been described as one of the most instinctive players in the history of the game.  I have interspersed some photos of Woodson, from the Packers game and from the Christmas eve game, into this post.

From the NFL Network game broadcast
While the Raiders are improving, and look like they are definitely on the upswing in the AFC West and in the league in general, the Packers' next opponents, the Cardinals, have already arrived, and are trying to secure a bye week in the playoffs by winning one more game out of their remaining two.  Win or lose, the Packers will still be playing for the division title next week against Minnesota, unless the Packers win on Sunday and the Vikings lose Sunday night to the Beckham-less Giants.  So at the moment, both Packers and Cardinals have something to play for, and it should be a good test.

It is stating the obvious to say that the Packers are going to have to play better than they did on Sunday, if they want to beat the Cardinals.  The Cardinals have a better overall offense, better overall defense, and have scored way more points than the Packers have this year.  The Cardinals did lose the "Honey Badger" for the year, and that gives the Packers' passing game a little break, but it is no accident that the Cardinals are sitting at 12-2 so far this year,  But if the Rams and Steelers can beat the Cardinals, as they did earlier this year, surely the Packers have some chance.

It might feel a little like Lambeau West in Arizona on Sunday, as prices for the game are the highest in five years for a Cardinals regular season home game.  I will give you one guess as to who is buying those tickets.  I have been waiting for weeks to see if the Packers end up being one of those "hot teams" going into the playoffs that "nobody wants to play."  Cliches aside, the Packers may have a three game winning streak going right now, but they just don't look like one of those teams.  If I have to predict, I would predict a Packers' loss, but if they are going to get hot, Sunday afternoon would be an excellent time to do it.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Building Some Momentum (Finally)

Great Pair of Signs from the Game Broadcast
It would be a mistake to make too much of the Packers' 28-7 win over the Cowboys last Sunday.  With Tony Romo now out for the year, the Cowboys are struggling mightily, and backup Matt Cassel has clearly not been the answer.  The Cowboys had their moments, breaking off some long runs, but the passing game was almost non-existent, and they had little chance to keep up with the Packers.  The Packers' win, coupled with the Vikings' loss, put the Packers back in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, and guaranteed that the Packers will be no worse off, going into the final week Minnesota at Green Bay game, than to be playing to win the division.

To what do we attribute the Packers' rejuvenated offense?  Well, Mike McCarthy took back the play-calling duties for the first time this year, and the Packers had one of their better offensive games of the season.  McCarthy let Eddie Lacy out of the "penalty box" from his missed-curfew incident, and Lacy responded by having his best game of the year.  With two of the Packers' remaining games being potential "weather games," the running game could not be more welcome.  Weather forecasts show that rain is likely for this week's game at Oakland, and the season finale against the Vikings could really be in harsh conditions.

So was McCarthy's play-calling the difference?  He said he felt it was something he had to do; that he thinks spending time concentrating on defense and special teams earlier made the team better and made him a better coach; and that he will take it a week at a time as to who will call the plays going forward.  Rodgers, diplomatically, said that it was not about play-calling, it was about execution.

I have been pretty critical of McCarthy's play-calling in the past.  I found it, at times, unimaginative, timid, and predictable.  So, when McCarthy gave up play-calling duties at the beginning of the year, I thought it was a good move.  But the results suggest otherwise.  Sure, the Packers started out the year 6-0, and they were 8-4 before McCarthy took back play-calling.  But they had won only 2 of their previous 6 games, and it took a miracle to accomplish one of those wins.  The defense was playing well enough to win almost every game, but the offense was not.  In short, based on the 12 games that Tom Clements called, the play-calling was not getting better; it was getting worse.  So, although I did not see it coming, I am glad McCarthy is back in the driver's seat.  If nothing else, Rodgers and McCarthy seem to be more in sync, and had fewer problems with running out of play clock in getting the ball snapped.

The next three weeks are all about making the playoffs and playoff seeding.  The good news, as mentioned above, is that the Packers have put themselves in a position where, regardless of what happens on the road against the Raiders and Cardinals, they can be in no worse shape than to be playing for the division title in the finale against the Vikings.  But the Packers are obviously in no position to just coast into that final game and hope for the best.  Much better to keep winning and build some momentum, maybe lock up the division before the final game, and keep alive the (admittedly slim) hope that they might end up as the second seed and get a bye week.

The first stop is at Oakland.  This will be the Packers' first visit there since the historical "Irvin Favre" game in December, 2003, which I wrote up here.  It would be a huge mistake to look past the Raiders.  They just pulled off a big deal of an upset last week, beating their arch-rivals, the Broncos, in Denver.  And, they are still ever-so-slightly in the hunt for a wild card spot, so they have everything to play for and very little to lose.  Which makes them a dangerous team.  When you consider Khalil Mack and the still impressive Charles Woodson on defense (there is a nice article on Woodson and his continuing connections to Green Bay here), and Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Michael Crabtree on offense, you realize that the Raiders are on the upswing.

Still, they have only won 2 of the last 6 games, beating both Denver and Tennessee by 3 points.  They are giving up way too many points to have a winning record, 25 points per game.  The Raiders could obviously beat the Packers.  The way they were playing a few weeks ago, anybody could beat the Packers.  But I don't see it happening.  The Packers are (finally) on a bit of a roll, and I am hoping and expecting that it will continue.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Great Win: Now Make it Matter!

Press-Gazette Cover, December 4, 2015
I was comparing notes with some friends about the Packers' miraculous come-from-behind victory over the Lions last Thursday.  After the Lions scored for the first time in the first quarter, they led the entire 60 minutes of the game, and with 0:00 on the clock, they led the Packers 23-21.  But thanks to a face-mask penalty against the Lions (more about that in a minute), the Packers got one final, untimed play, from their own 39 yard line.

As soon as Rodgers released the ball, I thought that it was the highest Hail Mary pass I had ever seen.  The trajectory was something like the shape of the St. Louis arch, and that was a very intentional part of the plan for the play, because it gave the receivers so much more time to get themselves properly situated under the ball, and makes the pass harder to bat down.  In a new and improved version of the Brandon Bostick play in the NFC Championship game last year, here Richard Rodgers' job was to box out defenders to give Davante Adams a better chance to catch the ball.  But as the ball started to descend from the heavens, Richard Rodgers must have realized that he had by far the best position to catch the ball, so he used his basketball skills, went up and got it, clutched it to his chest, and went to the ground where other receivers piled on him, in celebration and to prevent any Lions from trying to strip the ball away.  Final: Green Bay 27-23.  There is no more fitting Richard Rodgers reference than to call this game "Some Enchanted Evening."  But my friends at Packers Therapy have beaten me to the punch, so go there and listen to their always-entertaining podcast.

Anyway, my mind-set in discussing this game was that at last (!) the Packers were on the winning end of one of these last-second miracles.  I suppose I had in mind, most vividly, the Seattle "Fail Mary" game, the Seattle NFC Championship game, and even the Lions and Bears games in the last few weeks.  But as we discussed it, I realized that the Packers have been on the winning side a few times themselves.  There was the Antonio Freeman "he did WHAT?" Monday Night game, or the Al Harris playoff game, or the Brett Favre last game at Milwaukee County Stadium.  (Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.)  The Thursday Lions game was (in my opinion) more dramatic than any of those games, and certainly far less likely to result in a Packers win.  It was apparently the longest game-ending, game-winning Hail Mary in NFL history.

OK, great dramatic, unexpected, and sorely needed win.  But what happens next?  The Packers had this game lost, for all practical purposes.  They trailed 20-0 in the third quarter,  They had a miraculous comeback that fell one play short, until the face mask penalty.  And the face mask call was marginal, in more than one way.  It was marginal because it was utterly unnecessary.  The Packers (having already made one forward pass on the play) were not going to score from that position on the field, when Aaron Rodgers got the ball back after a couple of laterals.  And it was marginal because it arguably was not even an actual tugging of the face mask.  As to which, see this ESPN article.

But to repeat, now what happens?  Do the Packers take this miracle win, and use it as some kind of springboard or momentum-builder or turning point for the Packers, so that they get their season back on track, and surge forward into the playoffs?  After all, in light of Sunday's Vikings loss, the Packers are back in first place and in control of their own destiny.  All they need to do is keep pace with the Vikings (also at 8-4) or to fall no further behind than one game before the final game of the season, Minnesota at Green Bay.  If so, the Packers go to the playoffs, have a home playoff game, and maybe become one of the hot teams in the playoff that nobody wants to play.

Or, on the other hand, was this dramatic win just a "fart in the wind," to use Ron Wolf's immortal phrase?  The Packers, after their great start to the season, have only won 2 of their last 6 games, and it took a miracle finish to accomplish one of those wins.  If they continue to play at that level they will go 1-3, or at best 2-2, and if they make the playoffs, they won't go far.  It's up to the players and coaches to make sure that doesn't happen.

We will find out if it does, starting on Sunday against the Cowboys.  In light of the Cowboys' win on Monday night, they are tied for first in their pathetic division at 5-7, and have every motivation to try to win their division.  Plus the Cowboys may feel that they have a score to settle with the Packers after their (in their minds) controversial loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year.  Having said that, there is no good reason that the Packers should lose to the Cowboys, at home, without Tony Romo at quarterback.  Of course, there was no good reason for the Packers to lose at home to the Bears or the Lions, either.

Until proven false, I am going with the theory that the Packers will use the Thursday night gift as a springboard to get things back on track.  Let's hope they have proved their point with Eddie Lacy, let him be the lead rusher again, and that he continues the resurgence he showed in the last couple of games before being effectively benched against the Lions.  And maybe I am just a Cockeyed Optimist, but I am hoping that Richard Rodgers' new-found confidence will lead him to be a more consistent contributor to the Packers' offense.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time Running Out for the Packers

Image by NBC Sports
The historic game on Thanksgiving night was perfect in so many ways - Bart Starr was able to make the trip, so the three great Packers quarterbacks in modern history were in the stadium at the same time, undoubtedly for the last time, given Starr's health problems.  Brett Favre, greeted by his old teammates, some of whom I could not immediately place, had his name and number unveiled on the wall of Lambeau Field.  The nostalgia and warm feelings were palpable, right through the big screen TV.

There were only two slight problems.  One, the weather.  I have been to plenty of cold games at Lambeau Field, including, I believe, two of the three coldest games in the history of the stadium.  But I have always thought that the worst possible weather for a game is a steady rain, with temperatures in low to mid 30's.  Which is exactly what the weather was Thursday night.  Kudos to Sam Freeman, who attended the game instead of me.

The other problem was the game itself, replete with the same problems we have seen over the past few weeks: dropped passes, errant passes, and insufficient commitment to the running game.  I don't have a lot of issues with the defense - they played pretty well, giving up only 17 points, 7 of which were aided by a Packers turnover, Eddie Lacy's fumble.  So the Bears, on the Packers' big night, won the game, 17-13.

I just want to focus on the running game for a minute, and then move on to tonight's game.  Lacy was averaging over 6 yards per carry, while Starks was averaging just under 6 yards per carry.  Lacy's fumble was horrendous, but in that kind of weather, with the problems in the passing game, the running game was by far the best thing they had going for them on Thanksgiving night.  And yet, in the last 10.5 minutes of the game, at a time when the Packers trailed by 4 points, the Packers had the ball in three different possessions, and called exactly one running play, right before the 2 minute warning, while calling 21 passing plays.  Eight of those 21 plays resulted in completed passes, while the other 13 resulted in incompletions, a sack, an interception, and a couple of scrambles by Rodgers.  That just won't cut it.  It is bad game management and bad play calling.  Period.  Any hope that we had that in giving up the play-calling duties, McCarthy would have more time to pay attention to in-game management seems to have been dashed.

Now, for the second Thursday in a row, the Packers are on Thursday night football, at the Lions.  The way that the Packers are playing, having won only 1 of the last 5 games, and the way the Lions are playing, having won 3 in a row, there just isn't any good reason to assume that the Packers will win.  And yet, I am picking them.  It is probably just letting my fan interests show through, but I think that somehow, they will get it together and beat the Lions to stay a little closer to the top in the NFC North.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Favreapalooza!

Rejuvenated Eddie Lacy, Photo by Jim Matthews, Press-Gazette
The difference between a win and a loss on Sunday was dramatic.  With a loss, the Packers would have trailed the Vikings by 2 games plus the tiebreaker, making a 5th consecutive division crown unlikely, and pushing the Packers very far in the direction of a Wild Card playoff spot, if they even made the playoffs.  A win, on the other hand, put them back in first place in the division, while controlling their own destiny for the division and even a number two seed, which comes with a much-needed bye.  So the convincing 30-13 win over the Vikings was a huge win for the struggling Packers.

The Packers looked better to me in every aspect of the game.  The offense finally looked more in sync, with Rodgers getting off more passes quickly, with fewer passes that were poorly thrown, and with a resurgent Eddie Lacy (at last!).  The defense, which had not registered a sack during the three-game losing streak, got six of them on Sunday.  And on special teams, the Packers had a nice Jeff Janis kickoff return, and Mason Crosby was flawless (if only he could have gotten the decisive kick last week against the Lions).

The Packers now have a short week before hosting the Bears on Thanksgiving night.  This will truly be an historic game.  It will be the first time since 1923 that the Packers have hosted a Thanksgiving game, the game will have serious playoff implications for the Packers (as it is likely every game will for the rest of the season) and of course the Brett Favre Ring of Honor ceremony will take place at halftime, with Brett Favre and (hopefully) Bart Starr in attendance.  Since I can't go to the game, I really hope that they show the ceremony on the broadcast.  When you think of the turmoil that other teams have had over the years at QB (think of the Bears, or the Lions, for example), you realize how blessed the Packers have been to have three outstanding, long-term, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.

As for the upcoming game against the Bears, I find it so easy to get caught up in Packers-Bears nostalgia.  How many of these do you remember?  Halas and Lombardi, Ditka and Butkus and Gregg and Starr and Nitschke.  More recently, Gregg and Ditka as coaches, Payton, Favre, Singletary, Sharpe, Rodgers, Cutler, and so many others I have left out.  You have the 49-0 whipping of the Bears in 1962 (the first Packers game I ever attended), the Instant Replay game in 1989, the Favre Halloween monsoon game in 1994, the Favre 99 yard TD pass to Brooks in 1995,  the game in 1999 where Walter Payton's ghost helped the Bears to block what would have been the game-winning field goal, the 2010 season NFC Championship Game, and the 2013 game marking the return from injury of Rodgers and Cobb, with the Rodgers to Cobb TD in the closing minutes clinching the division for the Packers.  So many of those Packers-Bears memories involve Brett Favre, so it makes sense that the Favre ceremony will take place during a Bears prime time game.

Let's not forget that this game is the chance for the Packers to finally tie up the all-time record with the Bears.  For all my life, the Packers have always trailed the Bears in all-time wins (while leading them in all-time Championships for most of that period!).  But now the record is 92-91-6 in regular season games, or 93-92-6 including playoff games.  A win Thursday evens the ledger.  The last time the Packers actually led in the series was 1932.  Favre and then Rodgers have been so good against the Bears that sometimes it is possible to forget how big a rivalry this is.  When you stop to realize that the NFL has put a Bears-Packers game in Prime Time for 10 years in a row, it becomes apparent that this is still probably the best rivalry in the NFL.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.  Here's hoping we have another Packers win over the Bear for which to give thanks.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How Long Will the Losing Streak Last?

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-16-15
The 24 year streak is over, as the Lions beat the Packers last Sunday, at Lambeau Field, by the score of 18-16.  I subscribe to a bunch of Packers' podcasts, and sometimes I get behind in listening to them, as happened this week.  It is strange to listen to the pre-game podcasts after the game, because almost everyone thought the Lions' game was a mere technicality on the way to the tougher match-up at the Vikings this weekend.  There was generally some recognition that the streak can't last forever, and that, obviously, someday, the Lions would win again in Wisconsin, but most (including me) were pretty sure that last Sunday was not about to be the time.

The most prescient comment, in hindsight, was almost a throwaway line from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Bob McGinn, on his Packers Podcast.  He first quoted Ron Wolf on the streak, who said some years ago, "How can that happen?  The ball has to bounce your way so many times for that to happen."  McGinn then quoted a retired Detroit writer who had said, again a few years ago, "It probably will end some time when people least expect it to end," and McGinn added, "like this weekend."

It is hard to believe, even after re-watching the game, that the Packers let this one get away from them.  There was a time in the second quarter when my wife Judy and I discussed the fact that the Packers, as mediocre as they looked, were still outplaying the Lions by far.  But they were one missed tackle away from being behind, since the score was 3-0 Packers at the time.

That is close to what happened, too.  The Lions tied up the game at the end of the half, and then ran the second half kickoff back to the Packers' one yard line, and never looked back or trailed after scoring the touchdown on that one-yard drive.

Right before the start of the second half, Aikman and Buck were discussing whether Mike McCarthy might take back the play-calling duties, given that they were not able to get much going in the first half.  Aikman said: "There's part of me that thinks he won't, because he's not one who reacts quickly."  Isn't that the truth?  You could say the same about in-game adjustments.

My Lions' fan friend Al, who wasn't able to watch the game until the middle of this week, passed on a few comments:
"My team tried mightily to give the game away, as is their pedigree.  Two botched extra points and only 10 men on the field for the failed field goal attempt.  The Lions got away with some questionable non-calls on pass interference.  But I have to give the defense credit otherwise.  They were hitting hard and putting a lot of pressure on Aaron."
Indeed they did.  You would have thought that the 2015 Lions, missing Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and DeAndre Levy, might not put so much pressure on Rodgers, but they did.  Rodgers got hit way too many times.  It's not because of the Mike Ditka Packers sweater curse, either.  Part of it is due to indecision on Rodgers' part, part of it is due to receivers not getting open, and part of it (I know I have been harping on this for weeks) is due to Tom Clements not calling enough quick release and misdirection plays.  Plus the Lions played very well on defense.  But whatever the reason, Rodgers is getting beat up.

The suspicion that many of us had that there is something wrong with Rodgers seems now to have been confirmed, as Mike McCarthy admitted this week that he is "banged up."  He apparently has both a shoulder injury and a leg injury, but Rodgers won't say how long the shoulder has been bothering him.  Which of course just feeds my conspiracy theory that he has been hurt for some time.

The 2015 season is rapidly starting to look like a lost season.  A little hard to believe after a 6-0 start.  But I can't see a realistic scenario where the Packers end up with home field advantage in the playoffs, since the Panthers are still cruising along at 9-0.  If the Packers lose to the Vikings on Sunday, winning the division looks unlikely, too.  So then you are looking at a possible Wild Card slot, and (even though the Packers won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card 5 years ago), that is not a formula likely to take the Packers far into the playoffs.

I have no remaining confidence in the Packers' ability to win a game, much less a game on the road.  So let them prove me wrong on Sunday in Minnesota.  I hope they do.  But until they do, I am picking the Vikings.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time for the Packers to Stop the Slide

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-9-15
I had just about finished this post on Friday, when the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris started hitting the screen.  All of a sudden, a two-game Packers losing streak didn't seem like such a big deal after all, and I decided to wait a day before posting this.  Prayers for the victims and survivors, comfort to the families, and may France and the west be "impitoyable √† l’√©gard des barbares de Daesh" (ruthless against the ISIS barbarians).  Having gotten that off my chest, back to football.

*    *    *    *

Cam Newton rips down and destroys an expensive Packer fan banner in the stadium (and the fan reports him to the police, and the Panthers later agree to replace the banner).  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Julius Peppers yelling at each other on the sidelines, with B.J. Raji and Mike Pennel doing some pushing and shoving to try to break it up. Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers arguing with each other on the sidelines.  Rodgers, upon seeing that he had missed a wide open Cobb on the decisive play of the game, throwing his tablet to the ground (and apparently destroying it in the process).  Packer fans are in full panic mode after the Packers lose 2 games in a row for the first time since 2010, this one by the score of 37-29 to the still-undefeated Carolina Panthers.  Then later this week, Eddie Lacy gets demoted to RB number 2.  All is not well in Titletown, that is for sure.

Will a visit by the Lions make everything OK?  Well, it will take more than a win against the Lions to make everything OK with the Packers.  But the Lions have not won in the state of Wisconsin since 1991.  This sets up a sort of a football Rorschach test.  Glass-half-full types would say, the Packers are not about to lose to the Lions in Green Bay, particularly not this year's Lions team, which is in disarray at 1-7.  While glass-half-empty types would say that the Lions are due after all those years.  Or, here is another Rorschach test.  The Packers' 6 wins have come against 6 teams, none of which currently have a winning record (the best among them are the Seahawks and Rams at 4-4).  While the Packers' two losses have come against teams that were undefeated at the time of the games.  Does that make you feel better or worse about the 2015 Packers?

Put me in the glass-half-full group.  I expect the Packers to beat the Lions, but I have to be honest in saying that nothing would shock me after the last two games.  And it is good not to forget that the Lions were 11-5 last year and only lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs on a controversial play.  So it is not as if they are as bad a team as their 1-7 record would suggest.

As for the Packers, everybody knows that there is something wrong with Eddie Lacy and with the receivers.  Eddie Lacy is some combination of too fat/too out of shape/too injured.  I love Lacy, but it is probably a good thing for right now that Starks is going to be the starter.  Starks has looked much better than Lacy for several games in a row.

The problem with the receivers is a little different.  The receivers who are starting are not very fast, and the receivers who are fast are not playing much and don't seem to have the trust factor with Rodgers or the coaching staff.  I do think that this will improve over time as some of the players continue to get healthier after their injuries (Cobb, Adams, Montgomery) and as the faster players gain more trust (Janis, Abbrederis).

But what about Aaron Rodgers?  My wife Judy has been saying for weeks that there is something wrong with him.  I did not think so at first, but I am coming around to her point of view.  He frequently seems jumpy in the pocket.  He seems to hesitate in pulling the trigger on passes (I saw this several times in the Carolina game - instances where he had open receivers available to him).  Why?  Is that a conscious decision by Rodgers, because he is looking for a longer pass, or the play call by the coaches?  Even when he does pull the trigger, he is frequently just a little off target, more so than we are used to.  It would be a violation of league injury policies for Rodgers to be injured and for the Packers not to report it.  So let's not assume that that is the case.  But if it is not, then what is the answer?  Could it be that he is taking too many hits and sacks, and getting inadequate protection from the offensive line, and that this has affected his psyche?  Perhaps, but that would not be a good answer.

Beyond this, the coaching staff continues to under-perform.  Once again, I saw insufficient offensive plays designed to take the pressure off of Rodgers (screen passes, draw plays, roll-outs, slants and other quick release passes).  They were a little better on this against the Panthers than against the Broncos, but I want to see more protective and creative play calls against the Lions.

And the defense, which a few weeks ago looked like one of the best in the league, now looks like one of the worst.  They have not had a single sack in the last two games, and they have given up 1,475 yards over the last three games.  I have never been a member of the "fire Dom Capers" club, but I might be getting closer to it if things don't improve.  They need to be more aggressive.  They need to get after Matthew Stafford.  He is not likely to look like Cam Newton when under pressure.

The next four games, all against division opponents, will in effect decide how the 2015 season will go.  To borrow from Kevin Greene in Super Bowl XLV, "it is time."