Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Packers are Down, but are they Out?

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Poof!  That sound you hear just  might be the sound of a promising season blowing up.  When Aaron Rodgers hit the deck hard, with the weight of the tackler on top of him, just like that, the chances that the Packers would make it to the Super Bowl this year were reduced to next to nothing. The 23-10 loss to the rival Vikings seems insignificant when compared to the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be out for most or all of the season.

My own opinion is that it was not in the category of dirty plays or cheap shots.  But you could fairly call it unnecessary roughness, not that a 15 yard penalty would make things any better under the circumstances.

The problems on the offensive line were not directly responsible for the hit, as Rodgers was scrambling as he frequently does to extend plays.  But by the end of the game, three of the offensive linemen who had started the game were on the sideline with injuries, and that fact significantly reduced any chance that backup QB Brett Hundley would pull a "Brett Favre" and be successful in his emergency duty.

Coach McCarthy and the staff have always seemed high on Brett Hundley, and they have had more than two years to get him ready to step in as he must do now.  McCarthy says he is happy with the QBs he has, Brett Hundley as the new starter and Joe Callahan, who has been brought up from the practice squad.  But in fairness, he said the same things 4 years ago about Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien, when Rodgers broke his other collarbone, before eventually signing Matt Flynn, who had become available.

But McCarthy needs to give Hundley a chance to succeed.  Watching the game live on Sunday, it appeared to me, and to family members Sam and Judy, that McCarthy had Hundley under too tight a leash.  In re-watching the game, I don't remember a single play where McCarthy had Hundley do anything other than hand off or drop straight back in the pocket.  Not a single rollout, let alone flea-flickers or other imaginative plays!  And yet one of Hundley's strengths is  his athleticism.  Take off the handcuffs and let him play!

And now the inevitable arguments have started about whether the Packers should or should not go out and try to sign Colin KaepernickTony Romo's name comes up, too, but I think signing Romo is highly unlikely.  Given his injury history in recent years, the state of the Packers' offensive line, and the fact that he is getting rave reviews as a member of the CBS broadcast booth, I just can't see him being anxious to put the pads back on.

As to Kaepernick, I don't see it for at least three reasons.  First, as mentioned, the Packers have always been high on Brett Hundley.  My friend Peter tells me that Hundley is the classic over-hyped, over-rated Pac 12 quarterback, who piled up stats against bad defenses, and is a turnover machine.  I don't follow college football, but let's assume Peter is right.  Could McCarthy and his staff have helped to mold and improve Hundley's game in his two-plus years as a member of the Packers?  I certainly hold out hope that he has, and we will begin to find out soon enough, as McCarthy certainly is going to go with Hundley for right  now.  Can we at least give Hundley a week of prep as the starter before hitting the panic button and pulling the plug on him?  The Packers went 2-4-1 in 2013 in the seven games Rodgers missed when he broke his other collarbone.  That was not a good record (barely enough to get them to the playoffs), but in that seven week span they went through Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien as starters before re-signing and settling on Matt Flynn.  Flynn went 2-2 in the games he started.  I think Hundley can do better than 2-4-1, but we will see.*
*As an aside, if the Packers are interested in signing some quarterback who has not played in some time, I would rather see them sign Matt Flynn - he is available as a 32-year-old free agent.  The downside is that he has effectively not played in two years.  But on the upside, he at least knows the offense, the coaching staff, and many of the players.
Second, Kaepernick has succeeded in exactly one offense in the NFL, specifically designed around his talents by Jim Harbaugh, and before NFL defenses adjusted to the read option offense.  He has not succeeded in any other offense.  Are the Packers going to re-design their entire offense to suit the skills of one player who, at most, is going to play the next 10 games for the Packers?  Obviously not.  Well then, can Kaepernick quickly learn and adapt to the Packers' existing offense?  There are no data to suggest that he can, based on his past performance.  So it is not enough to say, "well, Kaepernick has won games in the NFL as a starting quarterback, gone to the Super Bowl and to another NFC Championship game, so therefore he can win games for the Packers."  Not all former starting quarterbacks are interchangeable.  With Kaepernick, you end up with a round hole and a square peg. 

In short, I think there are serious questions about his skill set and whether the Packers (or any other team, really, since nobody is running the Harbaugh-Kaepernick read option offense right now) are a natural fit for those skills.  Mike Sando of ESPN has written an interesting article, setting forth his notes over the past 4 years from his discussions with league insiders about Kaepernick.  The takeaway is an increasing level of doubts about how good a quarterback he really is as those years go by, starting well before he became famous for his National Anthem protest.  So my basic argument is that he does not have the right skills and is not a good fit from a football standpoint.

But finally, and I know this will piss some people off, I am arguing that Kaepernick's political activism is not only not a plus, but is a negative, and he would become a distraction if he joined the Packers roster.  I don't care if he is from Wisconsin, and if there is that cute picture of him as a kid in a Favre jersey.  The Packers are the team of the smallest town in the NFL.  They are owned by members of the community, your humble blogger included.  People from Wisconsin have somewhat traditional values and, for the most part, do not appreciate National Anthem protests.  The fans in the stands at the Bears game, for instance, did not seem to have any interest in adopting Aaron Rodgers' compromise suggestion to lock arms during the anthem.

While the National Anthem protests have expanded to have a wider focus than the one originally espoused by Kaepernick, he is the one who started the whole thing in the NFL.  And he was very clear about his motivation: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." So others joining in the National Anthem protests, like Martellus Bennett, may not be protesting the flag or the country, but Kaepernick, in his own words, clearly was.  And now he has apparently filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion.  And then there are the socks he wore on the sidelines depicting police as pigs.  And the praise for the Castro regime.  I agree with Boomer Esiason, who said, "This guy's like a tooth ache that just won't go away. . .

If you think all of that is consistent with him being a "Packers person," and a welcome addition to the Packers' locker room, then your definition of the term is very different from mine.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Davante Does Dallas

Packers' Bobsled Formation, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
The Packers put together a thrilling, come-from-behind, last minute victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, 35-31.  Now, if only they had not fallen behind by the score of 21-6 in the second quarter, maybe the thrilling comeback would not have been necessary.  In other words, Sunday's game marked the return of the Packers' patented slow start to games. The sooner they can rid themselves of this nasty habit, the better.

The pattern Sunday was all too familiar.  The Cowboys scored on their first possession (although in this case it wasn't easy - their drive was extended by a fourth down conversion and a phantom penalty on Blake Martinez).  The Packers answered with a very sharp drive down the field ending with a TD to Davante Adams, returning from his cheap shot concussion against the Bears.  And then the entire team went into a funk, where the defense allowed two more quick touchdowns, while the offense did nothing.  What causes this?

Mike Holmgren eventually figured out a way to settle down Brett Favre at the beginning of games, so he wouldn't throw as many "rocket balls" at the beginning of games as he had earlier in his career.  If the modern-day Packers have the skills and intensity to engineer these second half comebacks to win, then why can't they find a way to bring those skills to the fore in the first half?

This game was a bit of a coming-out party for rookie RB Aaron Jones, who rushed for 125 yards, and a 6.6 yard per carry average.  He has the speed to beat defenders around the corner, and as such he brings a new dimension to the Packers' running game.  I am sure (or should I say, pretty sure?)  that when Ty Montgomery is healthy, he will return as the starter.  He is a better receiver, from what we have seen, and that is a big deal in the Packers' offense.  But Aaron Jones has certainly shown that he deserves a bigger role in the offense.

There were a couple of very interesting play calls in the final minutes of the game.  I think they illustrate that all that matters in the end is whether the play is successful; it is the difference between "the coach is a genius!" and "the coach is an idiot!"  On 2d and 2 from the Green Bay 11, with 1:24 left in the game, the Cowboys threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock.  The Cowboys then scored on the next play, leaving the Packers with 1:13 on the clock, which turned out to be plenty of time to win.  Jason Garrett gets grief for poor clock management in the situation.  But bear in mind that the Cowboys were behind by 4 points, and needed a TD to go ahead.  Most people would expect a run, a run, and a pass if necessary on third down for the score or first down.  Why not catch the opponent by surprise, throw on second down instead, to try to catch the Packers focusing on the run?  So I can't really criticize this call. 

Still, they had been running the ball well, and on 2d and 2, there is no reason to think that they could not have gotten the first down on the ground, running down the clock and thus prompting the time-management criticism.  One can't help but think that along with the excitement about Prescott scoring the go-ahead touchdown, there must have been some undertone in the crowd of outright dread about the amount of time left on the clock for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  After all, they have seen this routine before, in last year's playoff game.

Seconds later, on 2d and 10 from the Dallas 47, McCarthy called a running play to Aaron Jones, which went for 15 yards, and the rookie got the ball out of bounds, to boot.  Great call!  Who expects a running play in this situation from midfield, when you have 47 more yards to cover and not many seconds left to get it done!  But imagine if he was stuffed in the backfield, or tripped up inbounds after a short gain.  What an idiot!  How can you call a running play there!  There is obviously such a thing as poor clock management, and Coach McCarthy has sometimes been guilty of this sin.  But in most cases, there is another side to the story, the strategic angle, where an attempt to go against the conventional wisdom can be exactly what is called for, in order to outsmart the opposing team.

Everybody now knows how this ended.  After a first down incompletion on a back-shoulder pass to Davante Adams, Adams urged Rodgers to call the same play, and according to Rodgers, Adams' eyes included the extra message, "throw a better ball."  He did exactly that with 11 seconds left in the game, and Adams scored the winning touchdown.  The game was a great win for the Packers, and an instant classic of a ball game overall.  It brings the Packers to a 4-1 record, which is certainly at the high end of what anyone could predict for the Packers thus far in 2017, especially when you consider all the injuries, particularly on the offensive line.

This week they head back to the Vikings' new stadium, to renew another long-time rivalry.  In recent years, the Packers have won most of their games against the Vikings, regardless of which stadium they play in.  Last year's game in Minnesota was the inaugural home game for the Vikings in their new stadium, and those games don't go well for the Packers, as we learned again this year in Atlanta.  But the Vikings are unsettled in a number of areas, including the fact that starting QB Sam Bradford has been ruled out for this game, as has starting WR Stefon Diggs.  The Vikings lost their rookie RB Dalvin Cook a week ago, so they are using backups there as well.  I expect a win for the Packers; and hopefully a win not requiring another furious comeback.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tougher Tests Lie Ahead

I argued last week that the Packers have been starting games off too sluggishly, and that they need to come ready to play and get off to better starts, as the furious comeback model is not a good look for the Packers, or a good road to getting a lot of wins.  Sometimes that last-second pass gets dropped, or tipped and intercepted, and the comeback falls short.  Well, the Bears last Thursday night seem to be just what the doctor ordered.  By the time the first 6 minutes of the game had been played, the Packers led 14-0, and they never led by less than 14 points for the rest of the game.

While I had assumed, based on the Bears-Steelers game, that the Bears must have been better than my initial impression, that game must have been something of a fluke.  They certainly were not an impressive squad on Thursday night, and indeed the Bears have now pulled the plug on Mike Glennon and will now start Mitch Trubisky this coming week.  The point is, the Packers' fast start might have more to do with the ineptness of the Bears than it does with a greatly improved Packers' approach to the game.

Speaking of fast starts and furious comebacks, the playoff game at Dallas last year was almost the mirror image of some of the Packers' games this year.  The Packers led the game by 18 points early on, and then by 15 points a little later, before allowing the Cowboys to stage the furious comeback, which led to the last minute heroics by Rodgers, Jared Cook and ultimately Mason Crosby.  Two of the big and somewhat unexpected stars of that game were Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  Cook led all Packers receivers with 104 yards, and while Montgomery only had 47 yards rushing, he also scored two touchdowns.  Obviously, Cook is gone, and Montgomery is unlikely to play on Sunday.  There is no indication so far this season that Martellus Bennett is an upgrade at tight end, which the Packers must have expected when they let Cook go and signed Bennett.  This would be a great game for him to step up and finally have a big day.  Whoever does play running back, whether Williams or Jones, will  also need to step up to keep the Cowboys defense honest.  If, as appears possible, both Bulaga and Bakhtiari will be ready to play their first snaps together on Sunday, this would be a huge plus for the Packers.

I expect a close game.  Neither team is playing now at the level they were playing in the playoffs last year.  The Packers' offense may leave something to be desired, but at times they have looked improved on defense.  If they can bottle up Ezekiel Elliott and force Dak Prescott to try to beat them in the air, I think the Packers have a good shot to win the game.  Go Pack!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Packers Need to Get Off to a Faster Start

The Snap on the Game-Tying TD, photo by Tom Freeman
I think we are starting to see a disturbing pattern here with the Packers.  In the last few years, many of us have complained that the Packers sometimes have a tendency to start out the season slowly.  While none of the recent seasons fit the critique exactly, last year's team can illustrate the point.  By the time 10 games had been played, the Packers were sitting at 4-6.  It took a somewhat remarkable "running of the table" for them to get to the playoffs and ultimately to the NFC Championship Game.  

This year, we are seeing the same issue in microcosm, with the Packers starting out each game slowly, before turning it on in the second half and winning 2 out of the first 3 games.  They trailed Seattle 0-3 at halftime, before winning 17-9.  They trailed the Falcons 7-24 at halftime, before at least making it close and losing, 23-34.  They trailed the Bengals on Sunday 7-21 at halftime, before winning the game in overtime, 27-24.  My friend Harv, from whose palatial estate this blog post is being written, thinks that the Packers frequently have started games slowly, even in prior years.  I took a look at a few of the box scores from last year, and I don't think that was the case, but it certainly seems to be their routine this year.  Harv goes a step further and argues that the team, and in particular Rodgers, start out the games with a lack of urgency, almost a lackadaisical approach to the games, and  only turn on the jets later in the game.  I think my wife, Judy, agrees with at least part of Harv's argument on this.  I don't know that I agree, as I was not really watching for that when watching the games live.  I will be watching the Thursday night game, and any game I get a chance to go back and re-watch next week, with a special eye for the energy level and urgency level of the Packers, on both sides of the ball, during the early part of the games.

All in all, the Packers are lucky to be 2-1 after three games, and I suspect that all of us realize that this business of playing sluggishly in the first half, and then getting it together in the second half, just is not sustainable as a means to get to the playoffs. They could easily have lost the Bengals game on Sunday.  For example, if the Bengals had not missed a field goal earlier in the game, or if the Packers had not put together their most impressive stop of the day on the opening drive of overtime, or if Geronimo Allison did not haul in the bomb on the free play; in any of these circumstances the Packers would likely have lost the game.  Almost by definition, last-minute heroics will not save the day every time.  And when they get behind to a high quality opponent, like the Falcons, they are unlikely to be able to make up the deficit.  They are going to have to learn to start games faster, and there is no time like the present, with the Chicago Bears, carrying some renewed optimism, riding into town.  If they can just keep it together, despite their many injuries, and bring home another win on Thursday night, then they will be 3-1, with a mini-bye to get healthy, before a stretch of difficult games in October.  

*   *   *   *

This is a football blog, not a political one.  But one can't really write a football-related blog post this particular week without acknowledging the whole national anthem protest issue.  My attitude on this is as follows.  Nobody who has thought about this and knows something about our civil rights doubts that athletes have a right to kneel, lock arms, sit down, or do anything else they want to do during the national anthem.  I certainly believe that.  But just because something is legal does not mean that it is right or even a good idea.  It is also legal for football players to skydive, bungee jump, and race motorcycles.  But all three are probably contrary to the player contracts, and all three are definitely a bad idea for football players to do during their playing careers.  In my mind, if you do anything other than listen, sing along, and put your hand over your heart during the anthem, you are showing some degree of disrespect for the country and the flag.  If you do this intentionally, for the purpose of scoring a political point, then you are certainly showing disrespect.  Politicizing the national anthem by protesting it may be legal, but it isn't right.  So I am not in favor of locking arms, or sitting, or kneeling during the national anthem.  I think the Packers' players and management are wrong to suggest that the anthem should be politicized in this fashion.  

Nor do I agree with those who vow to never watch the NFL or the Packers again.  I was a Packers fan before the current crop of players were even born.  God willing,  I will be alive and rooting for the Packers when the last of the current players is retired.  My fan interest in the Packers does not depend on the conduct or attitude of the current players or the current management of the team.  As a shareholder, my involvement with the team is permanent; as players and management, their involvement is more temporary.

Not everything needs to be, or should be, political, all of the time, although right now one side or the other seeks to politicize almost everything.  I regret that the players chose to politicize football and the national anthem.  I regret that the President decided to inflame the situation with his ill-thought-out comments.  I hope we can all get back to plain old football, and soon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Rodgers running for his life, photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
Sunday night's game led to a result I expected, a Packers loss.  But I did not expect such a demoralizing loss, at the hands of the Falcons (yet again!).  Anybody who watched the game knows that the game was not nearly as close as the final score of 34-23 might suggest.  With a score of 34-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, it would have taken much more than a couple of garbage time touchdowns to even the score.

As soon as I heard that both Bulaga and Bakhtiari were inactive, I should have suspected that problems were ahead.  Missing 40% of your starting offensive line is not a good thing against a team with a strong pass rush.  And by the end of the first quarter, Jordy Nelson and Mike Daniels were also sitting on the sidelines.  By the end of the game, so were Randall Cobb, Davon House, Kentrell Brice and Jahri Evans.

On defense, the problems were evident from the first drive, which was way too easy for the Falcons, even before Mike Daniels went out of the game.  The conclusion I reached was that last week's defensive performance was something of a mirage, or at a minimum greatly exaggerated because of the ineptitude of the Seahawks offense in general, and their offensive line in particular.  Against a powerful offense like that of the Falcons, the Packers can't keep up, at least on artificial turf. One lesson I hope the Packers learned from this loss is that it is time to get rookie cornerback Kevin King and rookie safety Josh Jones more playing time.  They outplayed their more experienced teammates.

On offense, the makeshift offensive line held up for a while, and of course the touchdown on the first drive helped foster the illusion that maybe everything would be OK.  But after a few drives, it all started to fall apart. One guy who had a particularly bad night was Martellus Bennett.  He needs to clean up his act, starting catching the balls that are catchable, and put this game behind him.

The worst thing about this loss is the potential damage to the Packers' quest for home field advantage in the playoffs.  There is a lot of season left, but trailing the Falcons by a game plus a tiebreaker is not where the Packers want to be.  The Packers have a good chance to beat the Falcons in Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  But they have demonstrated no ability to beat them in Atlanta.

After two weeks, the Packers have in their record an ugly win against the Seahawks, who don't look much like a championship caliber team, and an even uglier loss to the Falcons, who undoubtedly will be contending for the title.  The schedule now calls for what should be two much easier games, both at home, first the 0-2 Bengals, who have only scored 9 points in two games, and the 0-2 Bears, who looked pretty good in losing to the Falcons at home, and not so good in losing to the Buccaneers on the road.  If the Packers take care of business and win both these games, they will have a 3-1 record, and a "mini-bye" of 10 days to get healthy before starting a tougher series of games starting with the Cowboys.  I expect two wins in the next two games, but I admit to being nervous about what the injury report will say as the games get closer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Packers Off to a Good Start!

GB Press-Gazette, 9-11-17
Our long offseason is finally over.  For someone like me, who doesn't much follow other sports, including college football, and for whom the NFL preseason has become more boring and less insight-provoking every year, it is a seven-month wait from the Super Bowl to another football game that actually matters.

How do the 2017 Packers look to me so far, after their 17-9 victory over the Seahawks on opening day?  The answer is, pretty good, and I am encouraged that they will only get better as the season goes on.

We all know that the Packers' main problem last year was on defense, never more evident than in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta.  While the Packers' defense started off the year last year with some promise, by the end of the year, due in large part to injuries, the defense was a mess.

So the Packers went out and drafted with an emphasis on defense, and made some pickups in free agency on defense.  The first four picks on defense were defensive players, with the ones looking most promising to me being defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones.  Re-signing former Packers defensive back Davon House added depth, while signing former 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks added some pass-rushing pop.

So going into Sunday's game, I figured the offense would  be just fine, especially with the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett.  Of course it wasn't at all, at first. More on that in  a minute.

But it was the defense I really wanted to see, to judge whether any progress has been made.  

On Sunday, from the very first series, when Nick Perry disrupted Russell Wilson's pass, and then got a third and long sack, this looked like a new and invigorated defense.  Probably the best part was that they got lots of pressure against the Seahawks, while hardly ever blitzing.  Nick Perry, right now, looks like the Packers' best linebacker, and Mike Daniels had maybe the best game of his career on Sunday afternoon, before going home and starting to prepare for the Falcons Sunday night!  The return of Davon House adds some veteran savvy in the defensive backfield, and Dom Capers' heavy reliance on the "nitro" defense, where a safety lines up as an inside linebacker, adds speed in the middle of the field.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Seahawks have problems of their own on the offensive line, and it will be interesting to see if the defense can play as well against better O-lines in the upcoming games.  Still, when the last game that meant anything was the awful NFC Championship game, seeing the defense play as well as it did on Sunday against a quality opponent was very welcome.

On offense, the Packers' start of the season was painfully slow, with no points and an interception (that easily could have been a pick six) in the first half.  Even if the Packers' offense looked better than the offense of the Seahawks in the first half, some bad throws, bad penalties and other mistakes meant no success in the first half.  Bryan Bulaga missed the game with an injury, and while the O-line did a credible job without him, getting him back will clearly help to give Rodgers more time and take fewer hits and sacks.

The running game was not too successful, but as the game moved into the second half, the passing game picked up the pace.  The Seahawks paid too much attention to Nelson and Adams, with the result that Cobb had a great game underneath.  Rodgers personally picked up the pace on a snap late in the third quarter, catching the Seahawks in a 12 men on the field penalty and firing a TD pass to Jordy Nelson.  Martellus Bennett did not make a huge splash in his first game, but he made some important catches to keep drives going.  While I hate unnecessary penalties, it is hard to fault Bennett too much for going after the guy who took an arguable cheap shot at Rodgers.  Even Rodgers appreciated the support.  Ty Montgomery also contributed in the passing game; he looked good on his three receptions, and his play served to remind that even if he is a running back now, he still remembers how to play wide receiver.

The Packers move on to open the new dome in Atlanta against the Falcons on Sunday night.  I watched the first Falcons game, in which they beat the Bears 23-17 in Chicago, and really should have lost if the Bears could gain 4 yards in 4 plays at the end of the game.  I came away feeling that the Falcons do not look like the Falcons of last year's Super Bowl (or, at any rate, not like the Falcons of the first half of the Super Bowl).  I think a good team can beat them, even though they will play a lot faster on their artificial turf.

Still, the Packers learned about the emotional boost a team gets when it is opening a new stadium last year in Minnesota.  I think the Falcons will be tough to beat in this particular game, and I expect a Packers' loss.  But how great would it be if they could pull off another win and start off the season 2-0?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Four More Quarters for a Shot at the Super Bowl

Mason Crosby, photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
I have been so far under the weather this week that I didn't know if I would come up for air before the weekend, and I guess I barely did.  But here are a few brief comments on the Cowboys game (which the Packers won 34-31 on the final play of the game), and then the upcoming Falcons game in the NFC Championship Game.

Well, I predicted (with trepidation) that the Packers would beat the Cowboys, and when they were ahead 21-3 and then 28-13, I was feeling pretty good about my pick, and more importantly, about the game.  There were so many "wow" moments in the game, and so much has already been written about them.  The TD to Rodgers on a free play.  Dallas area native Ty Montgomery living a dream and scoring two TDs in the Cowboys' stadium.  The Cobb toe tap sideline catch (announced by the crew as Rodgers "throws it away").  The even more spectacular Cook sideline catch.  The decision to go for a 56 yard Mason Crosby field goal, when a miss would have given the Cowboys great field position to win the game.  The 51 yard Mason Crosby field goal to win the game, as time expired, with the obligatory time out to ice the kicker.  Remember when Mason Crosby was a problem a few years ago?  Not any more.

The one I want to highlight, though, is a couple of plays before the Cook miraculous sideline catch.  Rodgers sustained a blindside sack at the Packers' 31 yard line.  If he had fumbled, as you would expect he would on a sack like that, the Cowboys would probably have recovered the ball right there, in perfect position to kick the game winning field goal themselves.  I really don't know how Rodgers avoided the fumble, but by doing so he saved the game.

Now obviously it was a little disheartening to let the Cowboys close the score to an 8 point margin before halftime, and it was a lot disheartening, if not heartbreaking, to let the Cowboys tie the game at 28 and then again at 31 in the fourth quarter.  We Packers fans have some history with blown leads in the playoffs, and it seems (without adding up each instance over the years) that it doesn't usually end well.  Just two comments: at least the blown leads this time did not result from a "prevent defense" or "kill the clock offense."  That would drive me crazy.  Instead, if you rewatch the game, the blown leads really happened "organically" in the course of the game, meaning the Cowboys adjusted their offense to rely more on the passing game, and the Packers made some errors here and there (like the Christine Michael error on the kickoff he bobbled, or Rodgers' interception) that contributed to the blown lead by changing around the field position game.  But here, for a change, the Packers were the ones to pull off the last second victory after blowing the lead, rather than the other way around.

There are two obvious Packers-Falcons games to think about in evaluating the Packers' chances on Sunday.  In the 2010 playoffs, when the Falcons were the number one seed, the Packers blew the doors off the dome, winning 48-21.  I can't put much stock in that game.  It was 6 years ago, and there has been much turnover on both teams since then.  Besides, that was at a time when the Packers not only had a healthy offense, but also a healthy defense, sporting such defensive backs as Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, and Charlie Peprah.  If Aaron Rodgers was the no. 1 star of that game, then Tramon Williams was no. 2, with his two interceptions, including the 70 yard interception for a touchdown on the final play of the half.

So what, then, about the game against the Falcons, at the dome, earlier this year, which the Falcons won, 33-32?  This was the first of four losses in a row for the Packers, ending up with the "run the table" moment when the Packers had fallen to 4-6.  There were 7 lead changes in the game, and the Packers had the lead at some point during each of the 4 quarters.  At the end, the Falcons scored the final points on a touchdown pass to Sanu, and in this case 31 seconds left was not enough time for Rodgers to get the offense downfield for a possible winning field goal.  So the Packers of 2016 can certainly play with the Falcons, and don't have any reason to fear going into the Georgia Dome.

But in re-watching that October 30 game, the most amazing thing to me is the Packers' inactive list: Randall Cobb, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, James Starks, Clay Matthews, Ty Montgomery, and Jared Cook.  Could the presence of some of those players on the active roster make a difference on Sunday?  You bet it could.  I assume Jordy Nelson will be out, but I assume Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison will be able to play, as will Randall Cobb and Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  That should take care of the offensive side of the ball.  On defense, the defensive backfield is a bit of a mess, but Damarious Randall will play, and Morgan Burnett may be able to play.  I assume Quinten Rollins won't be able to play, because as far as I know, he is still in concussion protocol.

I think the Packers will win this game, by a fairly close score, and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"We're Better with 18 on the Field, and he Showed it Tonight"

Hail Mary Photo by Evan Siegle, www.Packers.com
Just after the Packers finished their 38-13 victory over the Giants, in the post-game sideline interview with Erin Andrews, Aaron Rodgers finished with this comment: "And Randall Cobb, who this offense has been missing for a long time.  We're better with 18 on the field, and he showed it tonight."  That was never more clear than Sunday against the Giants.  He has had a 3 touchdown game once before (in a September game against the Chiefs in 2015, with nothing much on the line) but nothing with the significance of this playoff game.  He also tied an NFL record held by many players, including Sterling Sharpe, for catching 3 touchdowns in a playoff game.  I think this was probably Cobb's finest game as a Packer.

Armchair GMs have been wondering if the Packers should part ways with Randall Cobb, what with the emergence of younger receivers like Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison (although Geronimo's breaking marijuana charge this week does not assist his cause, certainly, as he probably is facing a suspension, most likely next season).  At any rate, I hope this game does away with such talk.  I would hate to see Cobb leave.

If  Cobb and Rodgers were the players of the game on offense, is there any doubt that Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan were the players of the game on defense?  Clay Matthews had only one tackle, but it was one for the ages.  He knocked the ball out of Eli Manning's hand, in a classic "empty hand" play (meaning that Manning's arm moved forward, but the ball was already loose as a fumble).  Matthews knew it, the referee knew it, but nobody else on the field seemed to have any idea, despite the fact that there was no whistle.  So Matthews was yelling at closer teammates to grab the ball, but they must not have heard him, so just as Giants RB Paul Perkins was casually bending down to pick up the ball and hand it to the official, Matthews took matters into his own hands, clocked Perkins, and recovered the ball himself.  It is probably easier to realize what is going on while watching the game on TV.  But Matthews was smart to realize that there had been no whistle, go after the ball!  That's the way players are taught.  Why was Matthews the only one paying attention on either team?

Sam and Chelsea at the Game
I have to admit that I missed how important Jake Ryan's play was to the defense, until my daughter Sam Freeman, who usually goes to playoff games with me, pointed it out after the game.  Since I could not go to this game, I am thankful that her good friend Chelsea Bundy (and potential budding Packers fan despite her Yinzer upbringing!) was able to use the ticket on short notice and go with Sam!  Anyway, I then looked at the stats (12 total tackles and assists to lead the team) and re-watched the game to realize how right she was.  Even when he didn't make the tackle or assist, he was still frequently in the mix.  I have liked him all along, but this was quite a game in a spot where the linebackers had to play well to help relieve the pressure on the defensive backs.  Dom Capers' creative use of his depleted defensive backs made them much more effective against the Giants than I expected them to be.  But plays by the linebackers, especially Ryan, contributed significantly to the effective defensive results.

The Packers, once they started playing some offense toward the end of the second quarter, completely over-matched the Giants.  But it has to be noted that the Giants contributed rather mightily to their own demise.  If it had not been for missed passes by Manning, dropped passes by their vaunted receivers, and little production from their running game, the Packers might have been behind by 14-0, instead of 6-0, and who knows how that might have affected the momentum of the game?

Just as an aside, I was intrigued by Troy Aikman's reference to Paul Perkins' uncle playing in the Ice Bowl.  So I looked it up.  Perkins' uncle was Don Perkins, the leading rusher for the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl with 51 yards on 17 carries.  In an ironic coincidence, nephew Paul had exactly the same yards per carry on Sunday, and was the leading Giants's rusher with 30 yards on 10 carries.  When your leading rusher only averages 3 yards per carry, and doesn't have that many carries, this is not a recipe for success.  Obviously, both the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and the Giants on Sunday, came up losers against the Packers.

And speaking of losers, what a head case Odell Beckham, Jr. is, to have punched a hole in the wall outside the locker room, especially after all the on and off field controversies involving him this year.  To coin a phrase, the Packers should fix the wall, and make the Giants pay for it.  He is obviously very immature, or very hot-headed, or both.  And then I see that the Giants players trashed the plane on the way back to New York, so that the next flight was delayed for several hours because of the cleanup.  The Giants deny it.  I call BS on the Giants.  The Giants have a serious discipline problem on their hands, and they need to clean it up by next year.

Beckham Hole, Photos by Carl Deffenbaugh, Fox 6 News, Milwaukee
Well, on to the Cowboys this coming Sunday.  With their record of 13-3, having lost (ironically) only to the Giants all year before essentially conceding the final game to the Eagles by playing mostly backups, the Cowboys look like a much more formidable opponent.  Aaron Nagler puts very well the three things the Packers have to do if they are to beat the Cowboys: (1) they have to overcome the likely loss of Jordy Nelson for the game; (2) they have to find a way to slow down Ezekiel Elliott; and (3) the Packers have to get off to a fast start.  The way Cobb and Adams played on Sunday, they will go a long way toward dealing with the probable loss of Nelson.  Add in Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery, and I think even if Nelson does not play, the Packers are in good shape.  Stopping or slowing down Elliott will not be easy, but it will be essential, and has to be done without opening the floodgates to Prescott and his quality receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten.  I would not count on Prescott to throw as many bad passes, or on Bryant, Beasley and Witten to drop as many passes, as the Giants did on Sunday.

And once again, they need to get off a fast start.  Fooling around for the first 26 minutes of the game will just not cut it.  McCarthy needs to force Rodgers, or Rodgers needs to force himself, to start off with a quick, in-rhythm, short passing game, instead of dancing around in the pocket, taking sacks, and not being willing to pull the trigger, as he did for much of the first half against the Giants.  If the Giants had played better, Rodgers might never have been able to start the rout that started late in the second quarter.  The Packers will never be able to survive wasting the first 26 minutes of the game against the Cowboys.

The Packers that lost to the Cowboys 30-16 in October, dropping to a 3-2 record, were not playing at the level they are playing now.  They had not found their rhythm, as they have over the last 7 weeks, they were already without three defensive backs in the game (Shields, Rollins and Banjo) and Jared Cook was injured and inactive.  The Packers also, very uncharacteristically, gave the Cowboys 4 turnovers (an interception, and fumbles lost by Rodgers, Nelson and Montgomery).  Again, since the seven game winning streak started, the Packers just don't do that anymore.  Rodgers has thrown no interceptions in those games, and the Packers have far more takeaways than turnovers lost.

The Cowboys are the number one seed in the NFC for a good reason.  They played well, consistently, all year long, while the Packers and the rest of the NFC did not.  But right now, there is no hotter team in the NFC than the Packers.  The Cowboys are much worse against the run than were the Giants, so the Packers ought to be able to gain some yards on the ground, taking some pressure off the passing game.  Those things give the Packers an excellent shot, even against the number one seed, and even on the road.  With some trepidation, I am predicting a Packers victory, nothing like the blowout against the Giants, but maybe by a touchdown, with a late TD pass by Rodgers sealing it, or perhaps a late interception by the Packers' defense preventing the TD by the Cowboys to tie the game.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Running Another Table?

Geronimo Allison, Photo by Evan Siegle, www.packers.com
Oh boy.  They really did run the table.  Or did they?  Maybe "run the table" includes the playoffs and they are just 60% of the way there.  For now, by beating the Lions 31-24, the Packers have won the division again, and will host the Giants on Sunday afternoon for a playoff game, when nobody but Aaron Rodgers thought they could do that 6 weeks ago.

The Lions game did not go at all as I expected (other than the final result).  I thought one team would jump out to a quick start (as happened for the Packers in September, or as happened for the Lions last December).  Instead, both teams played somewhat sluggishly, and the first quarter was scoreless.  Add in half a dozen penalties for the Packers in the first half, and Clay Matthews' crushing, embarrassing dropped interception (likely resulting in a 14 point swing on the series), and it was disturbing but maybe not surprising that the Lions led 14-10 at halftime.

The Packers started the second half sharply, marching down the field to take the lead on a Davante Adams touchdown.  Going into the fourth quarter, the Packers led 17-14.  But with defensive backs Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Makinton Dorleant out of the game with injuries, this seemed like a tenuous position, especially given the Lions' status as the kings of comebacks, as I noted last week.  But the Packers put two touchdown drives together when it mattered, and the jerry-rigged Packers secondary did a remarkable job of holding the Lions in check.  They did give up 10 points, including the Hail Mary touchdown, but they got enough stops when they needed them to finish off the win.

A brief tribute to the New York Giants is in order before turning to the upcoming game.  I knew that the Giants were saying all the right things about playing to win against the Redskins last Sunday, but then don't teams always say that, even if they end up sitting all their starters?  And yet they really did play to win and won the game, when the results meant nothing to the Giants, and everything to either the Lions or the Packers about getting into the playoffs.  That kind of integrity means something to me.  I have to wonder if the back story is that the Giants' organization still stings from the time that the 49ers, in the immortal words of Phil Simms, "laid down like dogs" in a similar situation and cost the Giants a spot in the playoffs.  Whatever the motivation, good for the Giants.

Obviously, nobody can forget the last two times the Giants came to Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  There was the NFC Championship Game in January 2008, when the Giants beat the Packers in overtime, 23-20.  The second coldest game in Packers history, and the coldest game I have ever attended.  The winning field goal was set up, fittingly it seems, by the final ill-advised interception in Brett Favre's Packers career.  And then there was the time in January 2012, when the Giants abruptly ended the Packers' 15-1 season by beating them, 37-20.  The Packers never led in the game, and were never even tied with the Giants after the second quarter.  Four Packers turnovers in the game contributed to the Packers' inability to come back and make a game of it.

But those games were 5 and 9 years ago, a lifetime in "football years."  Each team has a few players still around from the 2008 game, and a few more from the 2012 game, but these are very different teams.  The Giants have a new head coach, Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant coach, and a new offensive scheme.  I would argue, with more than a little wishful thinking thrown in, that the match between the Giants and the Packers at Lambeau Field in October is a far more relevant measuring stick than the playoff games.  The Packers won the October game, 23-16, at a time when both the Giants and the Packers were not playing very well.

Looking back at that game, it is interesting that Shields and Randall were out, so the defensive back trouble had already begun, and so was Jared Cook.  Eddie Lacy had maybe his best game of the season, but injured his ankle, which led to him being put on IR a couple of weeks later.  Rodgers missed a few passes, and his receivers dropped a few more.  Rodgers completed only about 50% of his passes, and threw 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.  This game was a rare case where Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions and still won.  The best performers in the game were the offensive linemen.  They protected Rodgers so well that he was never sacked and rarely hit. The Packers were never really threatened in the game, but they definitely did not play up to the standard we have seen in the last 6 or so weeks.

Similarly, the Giants were off that day, and indeed they went into the game with a 2-2 record, and ended at 2-3.  Their running game was poor, and has improved a lot since then, and Manning missed some passes (including a sure TD on broken coverage) and his receivers dropped catchable balls.  The flip side of the Packers' offensive line protecting Rodgers is that the Giants could not apply any pressure without blitzing.  The bottom line is that both teams played a mediocre game that day, and the Packers came out on top.  We should not expect a mediocre game out of the Giants this time, as they have gone 9-2 since then, losing only to the Steelers and Eagles.  And the Packers cannot afford a mediocre effort this time, or they will be bounced out of the playoffs by the Giants again.

I agree with one of Aaron Nagler's comments on Facebook live on Wednesday.  Jared Cook is a huge key in this game.  The Giants have not covered tight ends well, and the Packers beat the Giants in October even without Jared Cook, and without much contribution by Richard Rodgers.  With a healthy Jared Cook?  This might be just what the Packers need to offset their problems in the defensive backfield.  You might even call him the Packers' secret weapon, since they are 8-2 with him in the lineup, and 2-4 without.

The defensive backs are of course a problem, but Dom Capers managed better than I thought he would against the Lions, once the defensive backs started dropping like flies.  The Packers need to apply some pressure on Manning, preferably without having to blitz.  Manning has no mobility and will either hit the deck or throw it away in the face of pressure.  A little pressure from the defensive line, in other words, will go a long way toward solving the defensive back problems.

But the overall secret to winning this game is to get off to a fast start, as they did in October by scoring on the opening drive.  No taking the first quarter off, as they did against the Lions.  Get ahead of the Giants, and the Packers will start to take away parts of the Giants' game plan.  The way the Packers' offense has been playing, they ought to be able to do this.  I am expecting the Packers to win, and end the Giants' playoff curse against the Packers.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

One More for the Title!

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson, photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
I feel like such a sucker, for believing in the Vikings' hype earlier this year.  When the Vikings cruised to a 5-0 start, despite having lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, it was hard for me to see how they would not win the division.  After all, the Packers, after 5 games, were 3-2, and the Lions were 2-3.  And that, of course, was before the Packers' 4 game losing streak.  And before the Lions went on a tear, winning 8 out of 9.

But then the Vikings started to self-destruct, losing 8 out of the next 10 games, including their 38-25 loss to the Packers on Saturday, and they now find themselves out of the playoffs.  There was a time, not too many weeks ago, when I didn't think the Packers could catch either the Vikings or the Lions, and yet they caught and passed the Vikings and now have tied the Lions with a chance to win the division outright.  It is all about the Packers and the Lions now, with the division title (and possibly a Wild Card for either Packers or Lions) on the line next Sunday night when the Packers travel to play the Lions.

The funniest thing about the Vikings' loss to the Packers, at least to me, is the mutiny that evidently happened among the Vikings' defensive backs.  The game plan was for Xavier Rhodes to shadow Jordy Nelson for the entire game, but the DBs themselves decided that they would just cover their normal sides of the field, in the normal fashion.  This lasted, depending on which version you believe, either for only one series (according to Coach Mike Zimmer), or until halftime (as the defensive backs originally said before clamming up), before Mike Zimmer could re-assert control over the mutineers.  In re-watching the game, it is 100% clear that the mutiny was in full effect until halftime.  The game tape may not lie, but evidently Mike Zimmer does.  If Rhodes was shadowing Nelson in the first half, then he is the worst shadow in the history of the game.  In the first half, the rogues gave up 145 yards and two touchdowns to Nelson.  In the second half, under the Mike Zimmer game plan, they gave up 2 catches and 9 yards to Nelson.

The return to form of Aaron Rodgers over the past 7 or 8 weeks, combined with the re-emergence of Jordy Nelson as the receiver he was before his injury last year, and the creation out of nothing of a semblance of a running game with Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael, are responsible for how well the offense is playing.  The defense is much spottier, and if the Packers make it to the playoffs, I question how far they can go unless the defense improves.  But the return of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to being playmakers, despite playing through significant injuries, is a big plus, and if the Packers could just keep a group of defensive backs healthy for an entire game, they might have fewer problems.

I guess you could fault the Packers for going into a bit of a shell in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, but I really don't have a problem with that.  Unlike the prior week against the Bears, where they started playing a lot of loose zone with 15 minutes left to go, and only leading by 17, in the Vikings game, the Packers were ahead by 25 points with 9 minutes to go when they decided to go into some version of the prevent defense.

So on we go to the very last regular season game, with the NFC North Division Championship on the line.  The league and NBC must be delighted to have an old-time rivalry like the Packers and Lions in this final slot.  The emotion in the stadium will be high, as well as in living rooms across the country and elsewhere.  If I were a Lions' fan, I would be a little leery of matching up Matthew Stafford and his two-game losing streak against Aaron Rodgers and his five-game winning streak.  Still, the Lions play well in their dome, Stafford has played very well over the last couple of years, and they certainly have the ability to win this game.

I think that the Packers are the better team, and should win this game.  My biggest concern is the Packers' defensive backs.  Not only do they have lots of injuries in the defensive backfield, but they have a penchant for turning relative no-name receivers into one-week wonders, like they did with Adam Thielen last week, and like they did with Marvin Jones in the first meeting with the Lions.  And let's not forget that the Lions have some quality receivers who could do the same thing to the Packers' defense, principally Golden Tate (cue bad memories) and Eric Ebron.  So even without Calvin Johnson, the Lions are a threat.  Until last week, I would also have been concerned about whether the Packers could put any pressure on Stafford, but the ability of Matthews and Perry to play through their injuries last week makes me feel much better on that score.

In the Lions' Monday night loss to the Cowboys, at first it seemed that the Lions and Cowboys would just match each other, score for score, until maybe the team with the ball last won the game.  But the Cowboys were able to adjust, start to put more pressure on Stafford, and mistakes ensued (an interception, a lost Stafford fumble, and a missed field goal).  After the Lions pulled ahead 21-14 in the second quarter, the Cowboys went on to score 28 unanswered points to put the game away.  In my viewing of the game, putting pressure on Stafford was the key to achieving this result.

For the Packers, the important thing is not to put themselves into a hole, as they did last year at Detroit.  Obviously, that game resulted in a Packers win, but relying on an untimed play and a Hail Mary pass is a low-probability way to win a game.  If they can just play the game they have discovered over the last five weeks, involving quick release and rhythm passes, just enough of a running game to keep the Lions honest, punctuated by shots down the field to Nelson, Adams, and now Cook, and maybe an occasional unusual play like a jet screen to Janis, they can maybe get off to a fast start and start to take some of the emotion out of the Lions and their fans.

Then, if the Packers have a lead in the second half, for heavens sake don't try to just sit on it!  The Lions have been the kings of comebacks.  They have apparently come from behind to win games in the fourth quarter or overtime 8 times this year!  This record apparently qualifies them as the best comeback team in the history of the NFL.  Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers are presumably well aware of all this.  So if they find themselves with a lead, they simply must keep their feet on the gas, on both sides of the ball, until any Lions comeback would definitely be too little, too late.  Doing this might well turn out to be the biggest key to the entire game.