Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Packers Fast Start - 4-0 For the First Time Since 2011

The Packers' Game Day Captains, Plus a Photo-Bomber
The Packers' first visit to the 49ers new stadium was a success, as they beat the 49ers 17-3 on Sunday, in the process beating Colin Kaepernick for the first time.

On the way into the stadium, we spent some time talking with an old-timer 49er fan.  He dated back to the days when the 49ers played in Kezar Stadium.  He was in a somber mood, apparently expecting the 49ers to lose to the Packers, but also lamenting the way that everything has changed since the move to the new stadium.  Ordinary fans were priced out of the market for season tickets, he said, this changed the demographics of the people who own season tickets, and to make matters worse, now that the team is on the down-slope, people will stop caring and jump off the bandwagon.  He told us that his $10,000 worth of PSLs are now only worth about $2,000 if he were to re-sell the rights to his season tickets (apparently you can sell the rights to 49ers season tickets, unlike the situation in Green Bay).

And sure enough, the atmosphere in the stadium was different.  You can't really compare the way the fans react to a team that is obviously losing its way, as the 49ers now are, to a team on the upswing, as the 49ers were the last couple of times the Packers played the 49ers at Candlestick Park.  But we certainly noticed the difference, from the empty seats scattered all over, to the exodus of the fans starting early in the 4th quarter, to the lack of enthusiasm shown for their adorable little stadium gimmicks, such as chanting "Aah-oo!, aah-oo!, aah-oo!" after a first down.  Want more proof?  The 49ers owner could not offer to give away some extra tickets to the Packers game without getting roasted by 49ers fans for having dismantled the team.  I mentioned last week that the 49ers seemed to be in serious disarray as a franchise, but I am not sure I realized how bad it really is.  Peter King tallied it up this past summer and came to the conclusion that of the 25 most important 49er players and coaches, 14 of them left this off-season.

The image to the left (taken at the stadium on Sunday) reflects a sort of inside joke in our family.  Starting with the great Joe Montana days, people started referring to the "49er Faithful."  We considered it a joke, because in 1980 you could walk in and buy season tickets; that is how "faithful" the fans were before the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.  Most of them seemed to think that NFL history started sometime around 1980.  Anyway, it looks like a new era for the "faithful" is now beginning, and for someone like me who lived with the insufferable 49ers fans and media for years, I welcome it.

Despite all of that, the 49ers played very well on defense, and kept the Packers' offense in check better than any other team this year so far.  Rodgers' accuracy may have been a bit off by comparison to other games, there were a couple of dropped passes, and Don Barclay continues to be less than ideal as a replacement for Bryan Bulaga, but I think most of the credit goes to the 49ers defense.

On the other side of the ball, though, the Packers' defense probably had its best game of the year.  They obviously set out to stop the run by playing safeties close to the line of scrimmage, in effect daring Colin Kaepernick to beat them with the passing game, or by scrambling.  They succeeded in stopping the conventional running game (Carlos Hyde gained only 20 yards), Kaepernick could not beat them with the passing game (he only had 160 passing yards and was sacked 6 times), and they did an admirable job of containing Kaepernick's scrambling, holding him to 57 rushing yards, with no rush longer than 12 yards.  I did not anticipate that the Packers' defense would play this well this soon, especially considering the injuries they have sustained.  But they are doing it and, I might add, playing with more creativity and aggression than they did at times last year.

The Packers now return home for a pair of home games, against the Rams and Chargers, both currently having a record of 2-2.  If the Packers can win both those games, a good likelihood given the Packers' record at home, they will be 6-0 heading into the bye week.  The Rams have a very strong front seven, and if Don Barclay continues to play in Bulaga's absence, they will get some pressure on Rodgers.  But, interestingly enough, despite the reputation of the Rams' front seven, at this point the Packers' defense is outperforming the Rams' defense in rushing defense, passing defense, and points allowed, while the Packers' offense is similarly outperforming the Rams' offense in all those categories.  I don't see any reason not to expect a Packers' victory this week.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Packers On the Road Again to California

Best Game-Day Attire Ever
Maybe I am crazy, but I had almost the opposite reaction from everybody else to the Monday Night Chiefs game, which the Packers won, 38-28.  I heard lots of people talking about Aaron Rodgers' game, using words like "surgical" and "masterful" and "at the very top of his game."  We went to the game, and I did not come away with that impression at all.  Sure, he had a good game, but I did not see it as one of his best of all time.  I probably am putting too much emphasis on his early missed passes (he missed his first three) and the pass that should have been intercepted in the early third quarter, which would have broken his streak of home games without an interception.  So I re-watched the game when I got back to California, and I have mellowed a little.  I still don't think it is one of his best games ever, but maybe watching the game with Jon Gruden's superlatives being drummed into my head has helped me to realize some of the finer points that I might have missed in the stands.

Turning to the defense, everybody (including me) was happy with the way the Packers' defense performed for the first 2.5 to 3 quarters.  But I have heard a lot of complaining about "taking the foot off the gas" and going into "prevent defense" mode way too early in the game.  I can see that point, but I think it is severely overstated.  This game was effectively over at halftime (when the score was 24-7), and then it was again over toward the end of the third (when it was 31-14), and then it was really over when it was 38-14 with 12 minutes left.  (And if they had not blown all their time-outs, it would have been over one last time when the 4th and 18 pass came up short but was treated as a first down anyway.)  But it just didn't feel as if it was really over.  And the only reason it didn't feel that way was because of the traumatic experience of last year's NFC Championship Game.

But this game never approached, in my view, the circumstances of that game.  It was never as close (the Chiefs trailed by at least 16 points until they reduced their deficit to 10 points with 1:25 left in the game).  While you can never say never, the chances of scoring another 10 points in 1:25, with 2 time-outs, is close to zero.  It would have required 2 successful onside kicks, and at least one very fast score (broken coverage, or a defensive back falls down, or whatever).  I just wasn't that worried.  Also, while you can say that in some sense the Packers were playing more of a prevent type defense late in the game, it wasn't the kind that drives me crazy, where they rush 3, put no pressure on the quarterback, and let him take short passes for granted.  Here, even after the two-minute warning, the Packers were still rushing 4 or 5 on every play and occasionally blitzing.

Having finally beaten the Chiefs in Lambeau Field for the first time in history, the Packers have now beaten every team there but one: the Houston Texans.  I don't know when they will next come to Lambeau Field, but I look forward to it.

When you live over 2,200 miles away from Green Bay, you don't often get to see back-to-back Packer games in person.  But that is what we get to do this week, when we venture up to Santa Clara to see the 49ers' new stadium, keep our streak alive of going to every Bay Area Packers game since 1980, and hopefully witness the exorcism of the Kaepernick evil spirit from the Packers once and for all.  While the 49ers played well against the Vikings in week one, they have looked like a mess the last two weeks.  I was never a fan of Jim Harbaugh, but he seemed like a much better coach than the new guy.  There must be some fairly serious disarray in that organization, given that they got rid of a good (but obnoxious) coach, turned Kaepernick from a Packers-killer into somebody who seems to have regressed substantially, and have seen at least 10 players retire or leave in free agency, apparently just to get the hell out of there.

I expect Clay Matthews to play most of the game at inside linebacker, probably assigned just to keep tabs on Kaepernick.  I expect the Packers to play well on offense (the 49ers defense has taken some severe hits in retirements and free agency) and I expect the Packers' defense to continue to play well, and aggressively, and hopefully put this game away early.  I am looking for a big win to take the Packers to 4-0.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Packers Are 2-0 Thanks to the "Next Men Up"

Photo from Seattle Times Sept. 21, 2015
For the last couple years, no team has been more of a thorn in the side of the Green Bay Packers than the Seattle Seahawks.  I still shudder when I think of the "Fail Mary" game and the monumental collapse in the NFC Championship game.  It was no surprise when the NFL put the Seahawks-Packers game in prime time.  In the rematch of the NFC Championship game, the Packers (finally hosting the Seahawks in Green Bay) won the game, 27-17. They concentrated on keeping Marshawn Lynch in check, did so successfully and led for most of the game.

But if any of us thought at halftime that the second half would be easy, we made a bad call on that.  Right after halftime, it seemed that the Seahawks had made better halftime adjustments, and scored on successive drives to take the lead, 17-13, primarily by getting Russell Wilson moving around, and having him take off with the ball when necessary.

At that point, it was the Packers' turn to adjust their game plan, which they did by making frequent use of the no-back backfield on offense.  James Starks, who had replaced Eddie Lacy early after Lacy injured his ankle, needed a rest anyway.  But more importantly, the no-back set allowed the Packers to line up with Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers and even Ty Montgomery in the backfield,  creating uncertainty if not confusion by the defense as to where they might go on pass routes.  This adjustment led to the Packers retaking the lead on a clutch fourth quarter drive, with a TD pass to Richard Rodgers, followed by a 2 point conversion to Rodgers.  The Packers then salted the victory away by wiping almost 5 of the last 7 minutes off the clock and scoring a a field goal at the two minute warning to reach the final score of 27-17.

To me, the largest story line of this game was "next man up." James Jones is only in Green Bay because of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson, and he was again a large factor in his second game back.  Tackle Bryan Bulaga hurt himself in practice and missed the game. Don Barclay, who many times has struggled when pressed into action, played pretty well.  He was the weakest player on the offensive line, but he played better than we might have expected.  Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, and James Starks looked really good in relief.  Davante Adams was knocked out temporarily, and came back gimpy late in the game, but rookie Ty Montgomery (who has appeared primarily as a kick returner up to now) played the no. 3 wide receiver for a while and looked good, made some plays, and broke some tackles.  Defensive tackle Josh Boyd was knocked out of the game (and lost for the season), but Mike Pennel and Datone Jones picked up the slack.

But most impressively, in part because of the loss of linebacker Sam Barrington in week 1, second year player Jayrone Elliott got extra snaps, and boy, did he make the most of them. All he did was generate two turnovers, first intercepting a Wilson pass with one hand, and then later stripping the ball on a passing play to clinch the game.  This is the same guy that Matthews and Peppers started calling "the Playmaker" last year, while the trainers started calling him "Shakespeare."  Why, you ask? "Because all he does is make plays."

 After two weeks the Packers lead the division at 2-0, the Vikings are 1-1, and the Bears and Lions are 0-2.  The fact that the Seahawks are 0-2 is a nice added bonus.  Obviously it is a long season, but the two game lead, plus a tiebreaker, over the Seahawks makes it much less likely that the Packers would have to go back to Seattle for a hypothetical Championship game.  A very nice start to the season, fully consistent with McCarthy's desire to get off to a faster start this year.

The Chiefs come to town next Monday night, as the Packers play their second consecutive home night game.  The Chiefs were poised to go 2-0 themselves, before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown to tie the game, and then fumbling the ball and the game away in the closing seconds.

The Chiefs will be a tough matchup for the Packers.  I am sure that we all remember the Chiefs spoiling the Packers' perfect season a couple of years back. They obviously have some talent.  Andy Reid is an excellent coach.  Alex Smith is not a bad quarterback, but he is no Aaron Rodgers.  Jamaal Charles is excellent, except when he fumbles away the ballgame.  But I don't think they have the same number of playmakers as the Packers have.  And I think that will be the difference in the game.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Off to a Good Start!

This Week's SI Cover Photo
The Packers' 2015 season is off to a good start with their 31-23 victory against the rival Chicago Bears.  As a result of this win, the all-time scoring in Packers-Bears games shifts to the Packers, maybe for the first time in my lifetime.  After 189 games, the Packers have scored 3,208 points, while the Bears have scored 3,207.  For as long as I can remember, the Packers have trailed the Bears in won-loss record.  But thanks to the Favre and Rodgers eras, they finally can tie it up this year.  The current record is Bears 92, Packers 91, with 6 ties.  So the Favreapalooza on Thanksgiving night will be the chance to pull even in the win-loss record.

One interesting development in the game was Aaron Rodgers pulling off a couple of unusual plays, for him.  The first was Favre-like, when he flipped the ball backhanded over the defender to Eddie Lacy.  And the second was almost like an option play, where he normally would just run, but at the last minute he pitched the ball to Richard Rodgers.  I wonder if, now that Rodgers seems fully healthy, he is realizing that he needs to be a little more careful about taking shots now that he is in his 30's.

The story of the day, of course, was James Jones.  After his one year stint with the Raiders, they cut him this spring.  The Giants signed him and he lasted there through the preseason, getting cut on the last cutdown day.  He signed with the Packers the next day, and was the player of the game 7 days later in beating the Bears.  I wonder if the Giants tried to trade him to the Packers?  Everybody knew that the Packers might be interested in him, after all.  Maybe they tried, and the Packers called their bluff by not offering a trade.  In the real world, a player who gets cut twice within four months has very little trade value.  But he was just what the doctor ordered for the Packers.  Jones caught two touchdowns that counted against the Bears, and another that was called back on a holding penalty.  For those who are still fixated on Jones' tendency in his early years to drop easy passes (and you know who you are), let's also remember that in his last year with the Packers he had reduced his drops to three in the entire season.

Clay Matthews made the game-preserving interception in the fourth quarter, cutting right in front of Martellus Bennett, catching the ball like a receiver, and returned it 40 yards (some of those yards were lost on a penalty).  Matthews continues to be the Packers' biggest playmaker on defense, and he played most of the game at inside linebacker, where he has obviously learned some of the finer points of the position in the offseason.  If, as the news suggests today, Sam Barrington is now lost for the season, expect to see even more of Matthews at the inside position.

All was not good in this game.  The Bears were in the game until the Matthews interception.  The Packers gave up way too many rushing yards, mainly to Forte, their tackling was suspect, and they didn't totally destroy Cutler as they sometimes do.  They will need to play a lot better against Seattle on Sunday night if they want to end up at 2-0.  But I refuse to see the glass as half-empty after one game.  Sure, the Packers blew the Bears out last year, to the tune of 93-31.  But that was an aberration.  The Bears generally play the Packers tough, as they did on Sunday.  To go on the road against your oldest rival, and come back with a win, is good enough for me, especially when many of your starters are rusty from lack of play in the preseason.

From what I saw of the Seahawks game on Sunday, they were not exactly on top of their game, either.  We all know that the Packers were the better team for 55 minutes of the NFC Championship game last year, on the road.  (Don't get me started again on the last 5 minutes.)  Both teams have lost some good players since then, to injury, free agency, and holdout.  But change the venue to Lambeau Field, and I like the Packers' chances.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Packers vs. Bears, Edition No. 189

Image by
As the Packers approach their season-opener at Chicago, expectations are running high.  A month ago, various web sites were picking the Packers to go to, and maybe win, the Super Bowl.  Since then, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson for the season, and at times looked "iffy" on defense, especially that old bugaboo, run defense.  On the other hand, they seem to have found a good backup QB in Scott Tolzien, and a very promising third string rookie QB in Brett Hundley.  And, as always, some undrafted rookie free agent gems made the roster, RB Alonzo Harris, and DB LaDarius Gunter.

So where are we today?  After a post-Jordy Nelson injury lull in Super Bowl projections, 6 out of 13 writers pick the Packers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and 5 of them pick the Packers to bring back another Lombardi trophy.  Not bad for a team that lost its best receiver in the first quarter of the first pre-season game.

Any time the Packers play the Bears, there is a lot of history to take in.  My wife and I moved to California in the summer of 1980.  One of the downsides of moving here was the knowledge that we would only occasionally get to see Packer games on TV.  1980 was right in the middle of the post-Super Bowl II drought for the Packers, so in general we could only expect to see a handful of Packer games each year.  This was long before DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, and if sports bars showing every game existed at the time, I did not know about them.

But 35 years ago today, as I write this post, was opening day, and surprisingly, we got to see Chicago at Green Bay on local TV.  I really only remember the end of the game, but from the score, it must have been an exceedingly boring game.  Two Chester Marcol field goals accounted for the Packers' 6 points, but the Bears also only had 6 points, so the game went into overtime.  Chester Marcol lined up to attempt a 35 yard field goal in overtime, but the ball was blocked, and miraculously ended up right in Marcol's hands, where the bespectacled kicker caught it, and raced around the left end to score the winning touchdown.

There is lots to read about the Packers in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback column (including his pick of the Packers over the Ravens in the Super Bowl) , and I commend it to you.  But just in case you don't get around to clicking the link, this is the most amazing piece of information in it:

Stat of the Week
Next Sunday, the Packers and Bears will play in Soldier Field. It will be the 189th meeting in the rivalry that began in 1921. No two pro football teams have played each other more.
The average score in the 188 meetings: Chicago 17.06, Green Bay 17.02.
The composite score in those 188 games: Chicago 3,207, Green Bay 3,200.
So just think, it will only take a 7 point victory margin for the Packers to even up the score for all time.  

I think the Bears will improve under new head coach John Fox.  I don't know how fast the improvement will become evident, but I don't expect it to start in Week 1.  Jay Cutler, despite his innate talent, will continue to be an albatross around the neck of the Bears.  I see his record against the Packers going to 1-12, as the Packers win by a score of something like 28-17.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reactions to First Preseason Game

Photo by Maddie Meyer, USA Today
Packers football is back, and the preseason could not arrive fast enough for me.

Let's face it, preseason games can be boring.  Who cares who wins or loses, when the point is more about evaluating talent than about winning the game?  Going into the Packers' first preseason game against the Patriots, I was primarily interested in seeing the answers to three questions: (1) how did the Packers look on offense, especially when the backups were in the game?; (2) are there any differences noted with someone other than Mike McCarthy calling the offensive plays?; and (3) how does the defense look, especially the defensive backs, the linebackers, and the run defense in general?

(1) Offense.  On offense, the Packers seemed to be able to move the ball pretty much at will, both with starters and backups, but the catch is that they were not very good about scoring touchdowns.  If the problem in the NFC Championship game was (among many other things) settling for field goals from the 1 or 2 yard line, the problem this time was that they were going for it on 4th and anything short, but not making the first down and touchdown when it counted.  Scott Tolzien played most of the game at quarterback, and he looked much more solid than I remember from his playing time in 2013.  Now that he has been part of the system for two years, he looks ready to go.  Even rookie Brett Hundley looked good in his relatively short time in the game.

(2) Play-Calling.  New play-caller Tom Clements seemed intent on making a statement with his fourth down strategy, and I found it refreshing.  I was critical of McCarthy's decisions on 4th and goal from the 1 and 2 yard lines early in the NFC Championship game.  Part of the reason I welcomed a new play-caller was that the one overriding critique I have of Mike McCarthy as a coach was his tendency to play it safe in situations like this, and to play it safe with a lead late in the game.  Both of those tendencies played out, to the catastrophic detriment of the team, in the NFC Championship game.  While I don't expect Clements to be as aggressive on 4th down in the regular season (and while I hope he is more successful when he does), I see it as a good sign that he is willing to show some aggressiveness now.  Who knows if Mike McCarthy will be OK, in the long run, letting Clements call the plays?  He did say something about being bored on the sidelines with nothing to do.  But the first exposure to Clements calling plays was a positive one.

(3) Defense.  Having lost both Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, cornerback is an obvious area of concern.  But both Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter looked good in their first game experience, including Gunter intercepting a Jimmy Garoppolo pass.  Gunter, an undrafted rookie, has been making quite a splash in training camp, and is the only defensive back with multiple interceptions off Rodgers.  Another Ted Thompson special find?

It was harder to find a standout performance, good or bad, from the linebacking corps, especially with Matthews not playing and Peppers making only a token appearance.  But the Packers did sack New England Quarterbacks 7 times, with most of those sacks being recorded by linebackers.  While the run defense was spotty. and never looked worse than on the 55 yard touchdown run in the second quarter, on the whole the defense looked pretty good and should only improve as time goes on.

All in all, a good start to the preseason.  Let's see what happens in week 2 against the Steelers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Favre Week!

Brett Favre, Super Bowl XXXI,
This should shape up to be a great weekend for Brett Favre and for the Green Bay Packers.  Favre will have his jersey retired, and be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday evening.

I could have done nothing all week but watch Favre videos, read Favre stories, and watch old Favre games, and believe me, I was tempted to do just that.  I have already watched the "One of a Kind" program at, which is definitely worth watching.  And I will try to watch as much as I can of the non-stop Favre coverage on Saturday on the NFL Network, starting at 6:00 am California time.

It is hard to add much to everything that is being said this week, except maybe for some personal thoughts.  I have always been a Packers fan, but I didn't really appreciate the glory days of the 1960's until they were already over.  And then, like all Packers fans of my vintage, we suffered through the 1970's and 1980's.  Maybe it was better for me, in a way, to live outside of Wisconsin for most of that time, before DirecTV and the NFL Sunday Ticket.  I would get to see maybe 2 or 3 Packers games in a typical season, and usually go to one game in person.  The games were frequently disappointing, but it was still a special occasion to be able to watch my team.

Then things started to fall into place.  The Packers hired Ron Wolf, who certainly had a great pedigree, and then Wolf hired that year's star head-coach prospect, Mike Holmgren.  Expectations started to rise, as they always did in the off-season, but this time with more intensity.  And then they traded a first round draft choice for the Falcons' second round pick from the previous year, some southern kid named Brett Favre.  We didn't even know how to pronounce his name at first, and as one who does not follow college football, I truly had no idea who he was.  He made some noise in the off-season by getting into a bar fight down south, and as luck would have it, we happened to attend the first home pre-season game in 1992.  Don Majkowski played most of the first half, until Favre came in with 2 minutes to go and 80 yards away from the end zone.  With 2 minutes left, there was plenty of time for a respectable drive.  But the first pass I ever saw Favre throw in a game was one where he reared back and heaved it as far as he could throw it.  It was intercepted, and as the crowd grew quiet, someone a few rows behind yelled out, "better stick to bar-fighting, dude!"  We have always wondered what that guy must have thought a few years later.

In September of that year, we happened to go to a now-defunct Packers bar/restaurant in Redwood City, CA, with our 2 and 5 year old kids, for the third game of the season, against Cincinnati.  Majkowski was knocked out of the game, and Favre came in, and the rest was history, just like Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig.  Our kids may have been born during the Don Majkowski era, but they are now in their mid to late 20's and the only regular Packers quarterbacks they have ever known are Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.  And they were there, in that Redwood City bar, when the legend began.

What a time the 1990's and 2000's were with Brett Favre at the helm.  Favre, along with Reggie White, Holmgren and Wolf, made the Packers perennial contenders again.  Expectations were high every single season, but for a change there was good reason for high expectations.  When I attended my first home and road Packers playoffs games, Favre was the quarterback (he won both games).  When I attended my first NFC Championship game, and my first Super Bowl, Favre was the quarterback (he won both those games, too).  In my dynasty fantasy football league, he was my quarterback for basically his entire Packers career.

We lived through the great times with Favre, and the not-so-great times.  There was the Vicodin addiction, there were the first three home playoff losses in the history of Lambeau Field (to the Falcons, the Vikings, and the Giants).  There was the first ever loss by the Packers in a Super Bowl.  There were the wasted opportunities, such as the loss at Dallas in the NFC Championship game, and the ill-timed interceptions.  Looking back on it, I still can't believe that the Packers only won one Super Bowl in the Favre era.  While I wouldn't go as far as to call the Favre-era Packers a mere "fart in the wind," in Ron Wolf's immortal phrase, I can't help but feel that they underachieved with the amount of talent they had.

But notwithstanding all that, the Brett Favre era changed everything for the Packers and for their fans.  So it devastated many of us when he retired, un-retired, demanded to be traded, and eventually ended up playing for both the Jets and the Vikings.  We knew that he would eventually retire or leave the team, but we weren't ready for it, even though many of us knew that he could no longer play well in the cold (the NFC Championship game against the Giants was still fresh in our minds).

The ugliness of the summer of 2008 is well captured in a couple of articles by Peter King and Kevin Seifert.  It had the effect of forcing Packers fans to choose sides between Favre and the Packers.  In my own family, most of us took the Packers' side.  We felt that Favre had jerked the Packers around, off-season after off-season, with his melodramatic musings about whether he would retire or not.  Nobody really knew that Rodgers would turn out to be as great as he is, but we could see that the carefully groomed replacement for Favre could end up leaving as a free agent if he didn't get a chance to become the starter.  All of that left us with the feeling that Favre had more responsibility for the nastiness of the divorce than the Packers.

The minority position in our family was that the Packers bore more of the responsibility.  My wife, Judy, is the leading family proponent of this view.  She argues that the Packers forced him to decide whether to retire too early, at a time (in March) when he was not ready to make that decision.  She noticed in the tearful retirement press conference right away, from both the words and the body language, that something was wrong with what was happening.  The premature retirement decision ultimately led to his decision to un-retire, because he really still wanted to play.  And then to compound matters, having decided to make the change and move on to Rodgers, the Packers were unwilling to just release him (the argument was that a veteran of his stature deserves a release when he asks for one after being replaced as starter), or to trade him to a team of his own choosing.  This latter theme is echoed in some of Favre's own recent comments, to the effect that he was ticked off that the Packers felt he was not good enough to be their starting quarterback, but that he was good enough that they were not willing to trade him to a rival team.

That argument has raged in our family for the past seven years.  I am hoping that we can finally put it behind us now that Favre and the Packers are back in each others' good graces.  Here is another argument I will try to put to rest.  My wife is also insistent that Favre was more fun to watch than Rodgers, and that some of Favre's craziest decisions were part of what made him so much fun to watch.  I maintain that it is more fun to watch Rodgers, because I can watch him without living in fear, on every play, that he will pull a catastrophically boneheaded move.  I prefer the reliability and precision of Rodgers over the sometimes-reckless play of Favre.

But what I will say is that the joy of watching Brett Favre was that no player I can remember ever displayed the pure, almost-childlike love of playing the game that Brett Favre did.  He expressed this himself in one of the clips in "One of a Kind."  He said that if the team was down by 21 points with a minute to go, he wanted the ball in his hands.  He realized that the chance of winning was about zero.  But he still wanted to play.  Another example was his 6 interception playoff game against the Rams.  At the time he said something to the effect that what was he supposed to do - play it safe and worry about his stats as they were in the process of losing a playoff game?  He might as well take some chances and leave it all on the field.  I will always love and respect that aspect of Brett Favre's play.  And I thank him for all of the memories.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No Excuse for What We Saw Sunday

Photo from
As weird as it seems, you can argue that the Packers lost the NFC Championship Game in the first 10 minutes of the first quarter, when they twice kicked field goals on 4th and goal at the 1 and 2 yard lines.  Oh, sure, the Packers played a great game in the first half, and despite those decisions, they led 16-0 at the half.  But by failing to get more points out of those opportunities, they put themselves in a position where the Seahawks stayed in striking range of the Packers, despite how poorly they played in the first half.  We had a group of 8 watching at our house, all Packers fans or at least Packers fans for the day.  There was disagreement among us about the 4th and short decisions, but my argument at the time was that the Packers should go for it.  You start with the fact that teams get a first down more than 50% of the time on fourth and one, two or three.  So mathematically, the Packers' expected return for going for it both times was more than 7 points.  Even if you score on one and turn the ball over on the other, you score 7 points (instead of the 6 for two field goals) and you leave the Seahawks with the ball on the one or two yard line.  That extra point would have come in handy given that the fourth quarter ended with a score of 22-22.  And with Eddie Lacy and a quality offensive line, not to mention the possibility of a play-action fake, you have a great chance to score twice and (in hindsight) put the game away.

But beyond this, if you go into the Championship game as heavy underdogs, on the road in one of the hardest places to win on the road, then you have to make the most of the chances that you make for yourself, or that fall your way.  To play it safe, taking the "sure" 6 points instead of a chance at 7 or 14 points, is not, in my mind, playing as aggressively as you need to in those circumstances.  Now I can almost hear Coach McCarthy, bellowing that "we are nobody's underdogs," to justify playing it safe rather than "panicking" by taking risks that he would not normally take.  But that, in my view, is really the problem.  His normal approach to these decisions is too timid.  We see too many "run, run, pass, punt" series, especially if Rodgers is injured, as now, or out of the game, as he was last year.  We see too many dive plays to John Kuhn inside the 5 yard line.   And we see too many field goals kicked on 4th and short yardage.

Pete Carroll takes chances to win games (such as the fake field goal Sunday).  Bill Belichick takes chances to win games (among other things, think of the weird, trick formation plays last week).  You could probably also think of spying on opposing teams and deflating footballs as risk-taking in order to win games, but I am talking here only about perfectly legal risks in play-calling and game strategy.  And Sean Payton takes chances (remember the surprise onside kick in the Super Bowl a few years ago).

This is by no means black and white.  Sometimes, Mike McCarthy takes those kind of chances.  But not often enough for my taste.  Even last week, against the Cowboys and with an injured Rodgers, the Packers were more aggressive in their four-minute offense, and they won the game.  Earlier in the year, in the Jets and Patriots games (but with a healthy Rodgers), the Packers were more aggressive in the four-minute offense, and won those games.  Why so tight and risk-averse this time?  I think the magnitude of the game got to him, and when taking into account Rodgers' injury, he basically came to the conclusion that the Packers were lucky to be ahead, and so he started playing not to lose, not playing to win.  I really like McCarthy, and I think he is an excellent coach.  I don't think he should be fired.  But this is my single biggest criticism of him - the unwillingness to play more aggressively when it is needed.  It is possible to like McCarthy, and respect him as a coach, and still assign a lot of responsibility to him for excessive timidity in his game calling.  If you want to have an example of the opposite approach, take the Patriots.  They were still throwing the ball and playing aggressively in the fourth quarter, when they were already ahead by 38-7.  You could perhaps accuse them of piling it on, but one thing is for sure: in the same circumstances, the Patriots would not have found the game slipping away in the face of a furious and miraculous comeback such as the one mounted by the Seahawks.

There were many manifestations of this lack of aggressiveness on Sunday.  The field goals on the 4th and short plays in the first quarter.  Kicking on the other two 4th and 1 situations in the game, one at the Seattle 22 and the other around midfield.  I can't really blame the coaching staff for it, but what in the world was Morgan Burnett thinking when he slid to the ground after making what should have been the game-clinching fourth interception in the 4th quarter?  He had some easy yards available in front of him, and it is not as if there were 2 minutes left - there was 5:13 left on the clock.  Unfortunately, he got the "go down" signal from Julius Peppers, which I think is sort of tragic - there was so much effort to get him another shot at the Super Bowl, and here his signal to Burnett contributed mightily to the Packers missing that chance.

So, after Burnett slid to the ground, the Packers take the ball at that point, needing 2 or three first downs to run out the clock, and instead they go run, run, run, punt.  Then, given the onside kick recovery, they never got another chance to try to run out the clock, but instead were skillful enough (and a little lucky) to get the field goal to tie the game and go into overtime.  That aggressiveness, born of necessity, was, alas, too little and too late.  With all the momentum on their side, and maybe the Packers' defense tiring a little, the Seahawks won the toss and marched downfield in 6 plays to score the game-winning touchdown, to win 28-22.

If you have not seen it, you should watch Aaron Rodgers' post-game press conference.  The body language, the clipped answers, the tone of voice, the unwillingness to elaborate on some questions.  "We gave it away."  "We weren't playing as aggressive as we usually are."  "That is how you lose games."  He, like all players, is hyper-competitive, and he is disappointed to the point of being despondent by what he saw.  If we, as fans, hurt after a loss like this, imagine how someone as competitive as Rodgers, and who actually plays the game and is trying to build his legacy, must feel.  I may be mis-reading him, but I hear in his comments and in his tone something beyond the disappointment.  I think he is disgusted by the lack of aggressiveness in the play-calling.  "You can't let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal, you can't give up an onside kick and you can't not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Rodgers said. "And that's on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together and that's how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp."

Don't get me wrong.  This loss was not all Coach McCarthy's fault.  There was John Kuhn failing to get the ball over the goal line, and Rodgers having a mediocre day, and receivers dropping passes, and Bostick not playing his assigned role on the onside kick, and Burnett following Peppers' instruction to drop to the ground.  Change one or two of those plays, and we are all looking forward to the Super Bowl.  But to say, in effect, "oh well, mistakes are made, and there is nothing anyone can do about it" is to miss the bigger picture - the fact that there is a problem with in-game management, and no apparent intent to try to do things differently in the future.

This game is in the books, and the Packers are into off-season mode.  The question is: what happens now?  Ideally, the Packers would learn something from the mistakes made, and have a better chance to avoid making those mistakes next year.  So far, I don't see anything that signals to me that the Packers have learned any lessons.  In the post-game press conference, Coach McCarthy said "I have no regrets.  I don't regret anything."  It is almost impossible to believe that that is really true, but if it is, I don't know if this will ever get fixed.  The Packers have had special teams problems, off and on, for a number of years, but Coach Slocum is still the special teams coach.  Coach McCarthy has, for some time, had a tendency to play too cautiously in big games when the game is still in question.  A friend called it a combination of the "prevent defense" and the "kill the clock offense."  We certainly saw both in the fourth quarter of the game on Sunday.  All I really want is to hear Coach McCarthy acknowledge that there are problems, and that he intends to work on solving those problems in the future.  Or, if he is constitutionally incapable of doing that, then let him put on his Pittsburgh tough guy bluster about having no regrets, as long as we have some reason to believe that, in his heart of hearts, he knows and will work on it.  So far, there is no indication that is true.  Maybe in his Wednesday press conference, the Coach will send us a signal.  I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: As most readers probably know by now, Coach McCarthy's younger brother Joe died on Wednesday, January 21, and as a result his press conference was postponed.  A really bad week for the Coach just got exponentially worse, on a personal level, reminding us all that football is, after all, just a game.  Prayers for the McCarthy family.  There will be time to get the Packers' problems resolved when he is back.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Slingin' in the Rain, Seattle Style

Photo by Tom Freeman
My daughter and I went to the Cowboys-Packers game on Sunday. Between traffic delays and a huge crowd waiting to get in the gates of the stadium, we barely made it in time for the game. In fact, we arrived as the National Anthem was being sung, and managed to peek up from the tunnel to see the fly-over before the game. We made it to our seats before kickoff, in time to witness lots of frustrating moments in the first half.  We had real doubts that the Packers would win, starting in the second quarter, but it turned out to be a great game after all, with the Packers prevailing, 26-21.

The first half was, at times, excruciating. While the crowd started out the game creating lots of noise, there were times in the first half when we all started to have enough doubts about the outcome that the crowd was, to some extent, taken out of the game. Rodgers was obviously immobile, but to make matters worse, he was missing passes that one normally assumes he will make. And Eddie Lacy missed lots of snaps after the first drive, causing us to wonder if he was hurt, too (we learned later that he was having an asthma attack).

The turn-around in the second half was pretty spectacular.  Rodgers started to look much better, even if he was still quite immobile.  Better passes led to fewer missed connections.  Eddie Lacy returned, and ended up being one of three Packer players having over 100 yards from scrimmage in the same playoff game, something that had never happened before (the others were Davante Adams, and, thanks to that last amazing catch to help run out the clock, Randall Cobb).

The picture above depicts the team lined up, about to snap the ball on the game-winning touchdown, as I saw it from section 114. Well, technically it depicts the team lined up right before Rodgers had to burn a time out as the play clock expired. The time out allowed me to post the picture on Facebook before the play was run, in time to look like I knew the game winning score was coming all along.

If I had to name MVPs of the game, I suppose that the obvious choice on offense has to be Aaron Rodgers, given his gutty performance under the circumstances. But you can't ignore the trio mentioned above, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. While it is fair to expect high level performances from Cobb and Lacy, Adams' performance was totally unexpected - this was the best performance of his rookie season. After an early drop, with the fans in our section grumbling about how McCarthy should take him out and play somebody else, he went on to have a great performance. The juke he made on his touchdown catch was one for the ages. And on the final, game-clinching drive, the third down catch he muscled away from the defender, who seemed to have the better chance to catch the ball, and then proceeded to gain 26 yards, was really a fabulous play. On defense, even though I did not really appreciate it while sitting in the stands (one misses too much sometimes without seeing all the angles on TV replays), the MVP had to be Julius Peppers. His strip of DeMarco Murray, in the third quarter, in all likelihood saved a touchdown. And since the Packers won by 5 points, the importance of this play can't be underestimated.

But my personal non-player MVP is the Diamond Vision operator in Lambeau Field, Kregg Shilbauer. Normally, the way replays work in Lambeau Field is that, after a couple of seconds, a logo appears on the boards, followed by the play shown from the beginning, and then sometimes from different angles. But on the Dez Bryant non-catch with 4:36 left in the game, the procedure was different. Almost immediately, with no logo, and without bothering with the beginning of the play, Shilbauer started shuttling the action backwards from the end of the play, showing Bryant rising off the field, getting the ball, leaping over Sam Shields to get it, then forward, then back and forth several times in slow motion. In other words, he wanted to make sure that Mike McCarthy had an opportunity to watch the important part of the replay, over and over again, in time to make his own decision on a challenge without having to rely on the judgment of others calling down to him from the coaches booth. Now look, given the magnitude and circumstances of the play, I think that McCarthy more or less had to throw the challenge flag, regardless of what he was being told, but Mr. Shilbauer made sure that he had a personal and detailed view of the play.

I have read that both Rodgers, and I think Tramon Williams, instantly knew, based on the "Calvin Johnson play" from 2010, that this should be ruled incomplete, based on the "process rule." Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete." I have to assume that at least some of the coaching staff knew the rule as well. So after looking at the replay, the decision to challenge was an easy one. The ball very clearly touched the ground, and it very clearly popped loose for a split second, with both of Bryant's hands off of the ball.  It is hard to see how the call could not be reversed.

Almost immediately, the whining and complaining about this call started. A Patriots fan friend, despite saying that he was rooting for the Packers, said that the win was tainted as a result of the call.  To me, that is dead wrong, and I pointed out to my friend that it is like saying that the Brady "tuck rule" play in the AFC Championship game years ago made the Patriots' trip to the Super Bowl tainted. In both cases, the calls after review were clearly correct under the letter of the rules. You want to say that it is a bad rule? Or that the rule should be changed?  Fine. But these were 100% correct applications of the rules as written. End of story.  (And if you are still not convinced, I can only point out that the Packers drove down into easy field goal range by the end of the game, with the Cowboys having at least as much incentive to stop them as they would have if they had retaken the lead.  In other words, the Packers would have won the game, in all likelihood, either way.)

Anyway, the Packers now head to Seattle for the NFC Championship game, the second NFC Championship game in Rodgers' tenure, and the third in McCarthy's. The forecast is for an 80% chance of rain on Sunday.  Could the weather be an equalizer?  You never know what will happen when players and footballs start sliding around.  It does remind me of the last NFC Championship Game the Packers played on the West Coast, in a downpour.  The Packers easily beat the 49ers, 23-10, and the game wasn't as close as the score.  Sunday, by the way, is also Julius Peppers' 35th birthday. I wish him the very best birthday ever.

Do the Packers have a chance in this game?  Heck, the Broncos were bigger underdogs to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. "On any given Sunday," and all that. But the Packers are and should be underdogs in this game. Even if Rodgers were 100% healthy, they would not be favored, given the home field advantage and how well the Seahawks are playing. The Seahawks put a lot more pressure on the quarterback, as compared to the Lions and the Cowboys, and that is not good with a hampered quarterback.  Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, especially when he is out of the pocket. Unfortunately, he can't get out of the pocket right now.

The Packers' big super-secret surprise defense, unveiled at Seattle in week 1, fizzled out rather spectacularly in that game, and they don't really even use that defense much anymore. Fortunately, the Packers' defense is much improved since that time, particularly after the bye week changes principally involving moving Clay Matthews around. But being honest, it is more likely that the Seahawks will win than that the Packers will win. Betting odds say that the Packers have around a 30% chance of winning. I think the true odds are a little higher than that.  I still expect to be disappointed on Sunday.  But yes, paraphrasing Jim Carrey, I am telling you that there is a chance.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ice Bowl Rematch?

Photo by Scott Crevier
What an interesting week this has been.  Almost by accident Tuesday evening I found a 90 minute show on the NFL Network on the subject of the Ice Bowl Game from the 1967 season.  I am old enough to remember the Ice Bowl game, but I never saw it live: in those days, all home games were blacked out in the local market, whether they were sold out or not, and living in Appleton, the only TV stations we got were from Green Bay.

It was interesting to watch the Ice Bowl excerpts and related interviews.  I don't think it was excerpts from the game broadcast itself, as I don't think they kept the tapes in those days, and it had the look of film, not tape, in any event.  Rather, I think it was NFL Films footage of excerpts of the game, with someone doing a cold, almost disembodied voice-over.  I know that the broadcasting style was different in those days.  The classic Ray Scott description of a touchdown pass was "Starr . . . Dowler . . . touchdown!"  Still, I find it hard to believe that an actual game broadcast would have been so bland, with not a trace of excitement displayed for touchdowns, turnovers, big plays, etc.  And then Wednesday morning, the NFL Network was showing the Green Bay at Dallas NFC Championship game after the 1995 season.  So, as is fitting for the second round of the playoffs, there has been a lot of coverage directed to Dallas and Green Bay.

In addition to all of the articles about the upcoming game itself, and about the horrendous call/non-call in the Lions-Cowboys game, there are lots of print and web articles out there about the Ice Bowl (for example, this one from the L.A. Times), and whether it will be Ice Bowl cold this Sunday (it won't).  And now I see that the Cowboys are hoping for it to be as cold as possible for the game.  I agree with the author that this is likely to be a little "whistling past the graveyard."  It is sad, but true, that the Packers are no longer invincible in playoff games at home.  In the past 13 years they have lost more than their share of home playoff games, after never having lost one before that time.  But I still don't buy that the Cowboys are hoping for cold weather.

All of this focus on the Ice Bowl makes  a lot of sense.  The Packers have not hosted the Cowboys in the playoffs in the 47 years since that epic game.  Lots of football fans may be a little fuzzy on the details of that game (who played, how cold was it, who won, was it the Super Bowl, etc.) but every football fan has heard of the Ice Bowl: it is one of the iconic games of NFL history.  

How is that possible, I thought, when I first heard that it has been 47 years since the last Dallas at Green Bay playoff game?  Well, for starters, for most of those years, the Packers were pretty bad.  They made the playoffs exactly twice between 1967 and 1994, and they didn't get close to the Super Bowl either time.  Starting in 1993, the Packers have made the playoffs most years, but the only Packers-Cowboys playoff games have been played in Texas.  This history serves, for me, as a stark reminder that the Packers, of the last 20 plus years, are an historical anomaly.  Most teams are not blessed with back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Most teams don't make the playoffs 18 times in 22 seasons.  Most teams have regular down periods lasting more than a couple of years.  I can see it in my own family.  My wife and I grew up in the Packers' golden age of the 1960's.  Our kids are in their 20's.  They literally cannot remember a time when the Packers weren't almost always in the playoffs.  So they have grown up in another Packers' golden age, starting when Favre came off the bench in 1992, and lasting to the present day.  But it was not always so, and it won't always be so in the future, either.  So, as fans, we should relish the Favre-Holmgren-Rodgers-McCarthy Packers while we still can.

As for the game, I find myself nervous, and I imagine that most Packers fans feel the same way.  There is the recent history of very discouraging home playoff losses.  There is the fact that the Cowboys are unbeaten on the road, while the Packers are unbeaten at home.  Irresistible force vs. immovable object?  Something obviously has to give, and one of those streaks will be broken by late Sunday afternoon.  Most ominous of all is the Rodgers calf injury.  I can imagine all kinds of scenarios, all the way from Rodgers looks great, and the Packers are sand-bagging the Cowboys a bit, to Rodgers will look like the second coming of Lynn Dickey - a great quarterback but completely immobile, and in much worse shape than the Packers have let on.  My own take is that McCarthy and Rodgers will do everything possible to keep Rodgers in the pocket, and the line will take it on itself to protect him, and as we saw in the Lions game two weeks ago, he can still be effective even without the added factor of mobility.  Even though the Cowboys are not known for blitzing, one has to assume that they will try testing Rodgers with a few blitzes early on.  It is vitally important that the Packers are ready for this, and have a quick outlet receiver available on every passing play.  If Rodgers can beat the blitz a few times, I assume that the Cowboys will revert to their normal approach.

The running game will be critical for both teams.  On paper, the Cowboys have a better rushing offense this season than the Packers.  But I don't think that DeMarco Murray has been as effective since breaking his hand.  Given the weather conditions and Murray's injury, I expect Eddie Lacy to gain more yards in the game than Murray.  On defense, again, on paper the Cowboys look like they have a better rushing defense than the Packers.  But, as I have said before, I think the statistic is somewhat outdated.  If you look at the Packers' rush defense since they started playing Matthews inside on the early downs, I think that the Packers have at least an equal, if not better, rushing defense than the Cowboys.

As for passing offense, under normal conditions it would be a no-brainer to pick the Packers as having the better passing offense.  But it may not be as clear on Sunday, since (a) Tony Romo seems to be more reliable than he has in past years, and (b) the Rodgers injury is a huge wild card.  But I still expect Rodgers not to make mistakes, especially at home, and I think Romo can still be counted on to throw an interception or two.  Dez Bryant is a tremendous talent at receiver for the Cowboys, as is Jason Witten.  But if, as appears likely now, Davon House is able to play, I like the Packers' chances to keep these receivers at least somewhat in check.

Anyway, I think the Packers will win, and my daydream is that it won't even be close.  More likely, the Packers will win by 10 points or less.